Straight Time (1978) isn't a "message" film, it's too busy telling a good story. Based on Edward Bunker's debut novel No Beast So Fierce, written while Bunker was incarcerated, the story is an amalgam of experiences lived by Bunker and his colleagues personified in the character of Max Dembo and portrayed in the film by Dustin Hoffman.
Dembo gets out of San Quentin after a ten-year sentence for armed robbery and is assigned a righteous and disagreeable parole officer Earl Frank (M Emmett Walsh). During the first 40 minutes of screen time, the movie portrays the daily indignities Max must endure in order to "reenter" society while on parole--a tedious job in a can factory, random visits from Frank, etc. But from there the movie veers into cloudier territory, and although the sting of the parole process is still felt by the end credits the film is quick to point out that the underlying reasons for Max's trouble with the law are much deeper than a simple "adjustment problem," and began well before he met Earl Frank.
Any authenticity that might seem lacking in Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of a hardbitten ex-con is made up in spades by supporting characters Gary Busey and Harry Dean Stanton. Both actors are completely at home as characters walking the line between "going straight" and letting loose on a good heist. Just like any other profession, there are workers like Hoffman and Stanton who take their job seriously and less reliable types like Busey who show up late and unprepared to meetings. A telling line during a botched robbery attempt is Dembo yelling "This is unprofessional!" when a partner shows up late to the rendezvous without his promised guns. In Straight Time crime is a calling like any other, and Max and his friends are powerless to resist doing what they're good at regardless of the threat of prison or death.
A bright spot in Max's life is his relationship with Jenny (Teresa Russell), whom he meets at an employment office. Jenny isn't exactly streetwise but she's refreshingly un-phased by Max's past and his uncertain future. The scenes between the two of them are calm and honest, a nice change to the cliched role of women in crime films as nagging shrews pestering their men to quit the life or loose women unconcerned with anything but the payoff. Jenny pays her own way and spends time with Max because of what they have together, not what he can provide to her in jewels or thrills. She's genuinely concerned for Max and doesn't try to change his nature, because she knows that doing so will remove an inherent part of his spirit that makes him who he is.
The film was a personal project of Hoffman's, he approached Bunker with the script idea and was originally slated to both star and direct (the studios forced Hoffman to choose another director and he selected friend Ulu Grosbard). Michael Mann also worked uncredited on the film's script and cites it as an influence on his later films like Heat (1996). Straight Time doesn't patronize the audience with a happy ending. It's a poignant portrait of one man's tragedy when he follows his true calling in life, when that calling happens to be crime.
Straight Time is available on DVD from Warner Archive