At lunch today we discussed the study of criminology with my niece, Meg Talley.
The discussion –which eventually led to the topic of the criminal mind –reminded me of one of the great sleeper movies I have ever seen: Straight Time starring Dustin Hoffman.
The movie was released in the late 1970s and, in my view, is a classic study of the criminal mind.
Too often film and television celebrate and glorify the cleverness or boldness of criminal characters. But that depiction rarely seems to ring true to me.
The reason I believe Straight Time is such a powerful and insightful film is that it captures the mind of a criminal in a more credible and convincing manner–in its pettiness and mundaneness. Hoffman plays a common criminal who is endearing but uncomfortable outside of his criminal survival inclinations which, for him, have become instinctive. There is little to nothing about him to glamorize — or demonize, for that matter.
He is a common hustler and con man. Like most hustlers and con men, he is on the surface likable and even endearing. But underneath there is only a calculated instinct to take from others who seem only to exist as props in a never-ending slow motion heist. He tries to connect with others but can’t. Every interaction is just a step toward the next “job.” It’s business, not personal. And criminal not legit.
Hoffman’s character is pitiable at times and despicable at times. But mostly he is just an ordinary little man who approaches life day-by-day in a small and unimaginative manner to get by in a world that isn’t as complicated as he thinks it is yet is convinced he is destined to outsmart it.
But the criminal character in this film seems more real than usual and isn’t defined by bold or clever gestures that somehow seem heroic— but rather is defined by gestures that are crude and futile and essentially remorseless. He lives a criminal life that is noteworthy not for its tortured depth or unpredictable drama but rather is noteworthy merely for it’s shallowness, vapidness and painful predictability.