Straight Time, and six more movies

Straight Time

Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) gets out of prison, and decides to go straight. All he wants is a cheap room, a decent job, a shot at freedom.

What he gets is a hard-ass parole officer (M Emmet Walsh) who wants to manage every detail of his life, spot-check his room at any time, run him into jail on the slightest suspicion.

On parole, a person has no rights; you're owned by your parole officer. Straight Time simmers with the question: How many indignities can this ex-con take before he breaks?



Jan. 24, 2023

There've been lots of movies about people getting out of prison and getting sucked back into a life of crime, but I've never seen a movie about the conflict between a parolee and his parole officer.

This builds toward being that movie, and it could've, and would've been very good at that, but instead the story takes a turn and it becomes something different.

But it's a dang good something different. Sorry, gotta decline to say more than that about the plot. All I'll say is what I've already said: It's dang good.

Theresa Russell is terrific, playing the girlfriend. Like most movie starlets, she always got stuck playing someone's girlfriend or wife, but I would eagerly see another movie about the character she plays here, with or without Hoffman.

Preferably without him. He's always Hoffman, always the star. Give someone else a turn.

There's also Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, and Kathy Bates being young and not yet fat.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Brave New World (1980)

This is a TV miniseries based on the rather well-known book, and fairly faithful to it, but giving some of the characters a deeper backstory.

It's a future without war or much interpersonal drama, because everyone's always blissed out on the wonder drug, Soma, which is basically Prozac on steroids. Everyone's bland and calm and uncaring, and to eliminate hate there's also no such thing as love. Casual hookups are the norm, but you're not supposed to boink the same partner too often.

All babies are test-tube babies, their futures pre-plotted by genetics, and conditioned through sleep teaching and electro shock therapy to stick to their caste — Alphas are in charge, while Epsilons do all the manual labor. 

So it's your basic Dystopia, but all this was a new idea when Aldous Huxley came up with it.

I found the miniseries watchable, but never riveting. Almost every character is as bland as cold rice without soy sauce, but that's inherent in a story about people on Soma.

Much of the dialogue consists of invitations to "engage me tonight," establishing that it's a hook-up society, but jeez, this could've been conveyed adequately with about 1/5 the on-screen invitations to "engage."

Bud Cort makes his character intriguing. Also featured, but boring: Kier Dullea, Ron O'Neal, and Valerie Curtin. The actor playing Mr 'Savage' — a man raised outside the caste system — is quite good. He's Kristoffer Tabori, and I googled him and found to my surprise that he's the son of Don Siegel, moviemaker extraordinaire.

Mr Siegel could never have made a movie this dull.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Cocoanuts (1929)

Not counting the long-lost silent Humor Risk (1921), this is the first film featuring the legendary Marx Brothers. Are they as funny as legend says they are? Yeah, they're pretty damned funny.

Groucho runs a Florida hotel, where he's trying not to pay his employees and also working land swindles, and he's a laugh just about every time he speaks. Harpo is a laugh every time he doesn't speak, and he never speaks so that's a lot of laughs. Chico is always up to something a little shady, talks in a funny fake Italian accent, and plays a piano number with intermittent (and very funny) mugging to the camera. Margaret Dumont gets her necklace stolen, and there's also Zeppo Marx, who's handsome but never funny.

"Three years ago I came to Florida without a nickel in my pocket. Now I've got a nickel in my pocket."

My main surprise, re-watching the Marx Brothers for the first time in many years, is that they were apparently only actors here — The Cocoanuts is based on a play by George S Kaufman, with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. So Groucho and Harpo and Chico only worked there, but jeez, they're the employees of the month. Can't imagine what a dog this movie would be without them.

A secondary surprise is that there's great dancing in the too-many musical numbers. 

When any of the three primary Marx Brothers are on screen, this is a dang funny film, but they're often not on screen and the movie feels padded, about half an hour longer that it ought to be.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Goliath Awaits (1981)

Long before the internet, before even Fox TV, there were only three commercial TV networks in America. Most cities had more than three TV stations, so the unaffiliated channels showed reruns or old movies in prime time, and always got slaughtered in the ratings.

To solve this problem, a consortium of stations banded together to create original programming, calling their effort Operation Prime Time. Shows on OPT included Entertainment Tonight, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and Star Search, but most memorable for me were OPT's usually bloated and disappointing "big event" shows.

Here's one of them: Goliath Awaits. I saw part one on TV all those years ago, but missed part two cuz I had to work. The very best thing I can say about Goliath Awaits is that I regretted not seeing how it ended. Now I've seen it, and regret everything.

It's the beginning of World War II, and the British passenger ship RMS Goliath is on its way across the Atlantic. She gets blasted and sunk, and then it's 1981 as our actual story gets underway.

The sinking of the (fictional) Goliath is now almost legendary, like she's a combination of the Lusitania and the Titanic, so it's big news when seafaring scavengers find the wreck of Goliath. They start diving down to her, and whatever will they find?

Cheesy stuff, that's what. There's the sound of music from inside the vessel, and possibly a mermaid behind a porthole, and then there's Morse Code tapping from inside the ship, even though it's been at the bottom of the ocean for more than forty years.

How everyone on board survived is a litany of impossibilities, but the survivors have little interest in being rescued.

Add in some top-secret documents which "could wreck NATO, or at the very least damage our image," and it's all an improbable mess of miniseries proportions. The only worthwhile element is Christopher Lee, playing the captain of the sunken ship. Other than that, it's more than three hours of bad accents, scuba diving, cheap sets, and low-budget corn.

Three writers are credited, all with long IMDB pages, and for each of them it's their last writing credit.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Hell on Frisco Bay (1956)

San Francisco cop Steve Rollins (Alan Ladd) was framed for murder, spent five years in the hoosegow, and now he's out, looking for trouble and vengeance and the guy what really done the deed. 

This is based on a novel by William P. McGivern (The Big Heat, Odds Against Tomorrow, Shield for Murder). Some of the exteriors were filmed in Frisco. It's in lovely full-color Cinemascope. But jeez, it's lousy.

I haven't seen enough of Alan Ladd to say he was a bad actor, but he's a bad actor in this, and playing an unlikable character. Also, his hair is ridonkulous.

The movie was made by Ladd's production company, and it's objectively half-assed. There are scenes where you can watch the shadow of the boom mike moving from actor to actor, and other scenes where the actors' lines are clearly dubbed, badly. Every scene with a greenscreen is laughably fake. The movie's music is OK, but used inappropriately — the most dramatic and climactic music is pasted into the second scene, as a guy looks at some boats that have nothing to do with the story. 

What's good here? Edward G Robinson as the bad guy, and someone named Stanley Adams as "Hammy," the assistant bad guy.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Raffles (1939)

A masterpiece painting is brazenly swiped in broad daylight from the National Art Museum, and the thief leaves a brazen note behind, signed "The Amateur Cracksman." In his day job, he's suave pro cricket player A.J. Raffles, known to you and me as David Niven.

He's charming because Mr Niven was always charming, and Olivia de Havilland is the same only prettier, but there's not much to the movie.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Rain People (1969)

"The rain people are people made of rain, and when they cry they disappear altogether because they cry themselves away."

Yeah, but that's only a line. This isn't science fiction or fantasy or anything, and there are no 'rain people' in The Rain People.

This is a serious drama about a woman (Shirley Knight) who says she's not leaving her husband, but she's definitely going away for a while. She's discovered she's pregnant, and she's questioning everything. To her husband she says, "I used to wake up in the morning and it was my day, and now, it belongs to you."

So she hits the road, Jack, and decides on an impulse that she might like to have a brief affair. The handsome drifter she picks up (James Caan) turns out to be an ex-football player who took a few too many helmet-less tackles, and he's definitely hollow upstairs.

They become friends, but he needs a caretaker and she can't be that. Later comes Robert Duvall as a believably piggish motorcycle cop who gives her a ticket, asks nosy questions, and pressures her into a date.

The Rain People is written and performed delicately, and the actors and direction are all quite good, especially Knight as a woman adrift between three men and her own independence.

It's a film with a heart, and characters you'll care about, so the mean and meaningless ending made me feel like I'd wasted an hour and a half and been swindled by writer-director Francis Ford Coppola. 

It's pretty good until the ending, though, and if you're gonna get swindled, get swindled by the best.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Coming attractions: 

• The Bad News Bears (1976)
• Futuresport (1998)
• Gow the Head Hunter (1928)
• Henry Fool (1997)
• Johnny Reno (1965)
• The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
• Sid and Nancy (1986)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

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If you can't find a movie I've reviewed,
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Illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. Reviews are spoiler-free. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   

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  1. IDK if it's easily viewable - my guess is "Yes it is," - but the documentary "The Unknown Marx Brothers" is really, really interesting and informative.

  2. The first five Marx Brothers movies, which were made for Paramount starting with The Cocoanuts (1929) , were the best for several reasons, not least among them that the "boys" were getting older and were in mid-career by the time talkies came along. At the time of the release of The Cocoanuts Groucho was 39 and Harpo and Chico were in their 40s. The next four Marx movies, Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933), completed their Paramount years and their first group of outstanding musical comedies.

    After they signed with MGM, they made two more fine movies, A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937), and then pretty much lost interest, especially with the death of Irving Thalberg, the MGM producer who had guided them through their first two MGM movies and with whom they had become very close. They never made a great movie again.

    But those first seven movies remain some of the best and funniest movies Hollywood has created, given that they were produced at the dawn of audio movie making.

    The movies could have been lost or perhaps forgotten, had Groucho not decided to get into the game show business in the show You Bet Your Life (on radio in 1947 and on television in 1950). At the end of the television run in 1961, the show was off the air for several years, then was rebroadcast in syndication. It was this syndication rebroadcast series that started a next-generation cultural interest in Groucho that led to Groucho participating in a series of interviews with Dick Cavett, which rekindled interest in the original movies and brought them back to theaters and, eventually to television. Groucho died a very popular man in 1977 at age 86. The Marx Brothers movies live on.


    1. So by the early 1960s the Marx Brothers movies were generally forgotten? What idiots humans are.

      It's my plan to watch or re-watch all of the Marx Brothers movies, even the later, less funny ones.

      All my favorite funny people got less funny as they got older, everyone from Steve Martin to George Carlin. If there's an exception it's not occurring to me. Even the Smothers Brothers seem to mostly be re-doing their old routines. Richard Pryor hasn't done anything new in years.

      If Groucho was 39 for THE COCOANUTS, then Chico (the oldest) was 42, and would've been 50 by the end of their big seven movies. That's pretty old for comedy.

      Captain — There aren't many movies I can't seem to find, and THE UNKNOWN MARX BROTHERS is now on a thumb drive, thanks.

    2. Everybody knows why athletes become less successful as they get older, peaking at between 19 and 33 generally, but nobody knows with any certainty why people become less able in intellectual ways after certain ages.

      As we speak, the world chess champion is about to retire from world championship chess competition at 32, after holding the title for ten years. The acknowledged world chess champions from previous decades remained at the top into their 40s and even into their 50s (it's a long story, but I summarize). Scientific researchers have historically peaked in their 50s. Why do people get less funny after their 40s? 30s?

      Part of my theory is Mr Death. In the second half of the 20th and the first half of the 21st centuries, the first world has been able to live to middle age before we actualized our personal deaths. Things get a little less funny after that.

      I would also note that you mentioned only successful people (how would you know the unsuccessful ones?). There is nothing like bigass income to cause someone to become less creative. They were, at least in part, trying to make a living when they were working like crazy in their 20s. Then they made a living. Then they made more than a living and had to manage their assets. There's not much hilarity in wealth management. And there's not much hilarity in death.

      Just theories on a rainy afternoon. I miss Groucho.


    3. When I was young, I used to think people got less and less interesting the older they got. Now that I'm old, it's the young people who bore the bejeebers out of me.

      Of the possibilities you mentioned, money seems like the biggest issue. Like George Lucas — he made three terrific STAR WARS movies about rebellion against tyranny. The movies made him richer than Richie Rich, so when he made another STAR WARS movie it was THE PHANTOM MENACE, where the story is triggered by complaints of high taxes.

      Not much hilarity in death, you're right. When I go I hope it's in a funny way.

  3. To answer your question: Yes. I became a teenager in 1963, the year the Beatles released Love Me Do in the New World. I was a reasonably informed teenager. I read the paper every day (I also delivered it every day). I read books. I had parents who presented quizzes to my sis and me at dinner.

    I thought of Groucho as a late-middle-aged man who occasionally asked funny questions, but whose humor was aimed at people much older than me. I might have been vaguely aware that Groucho had made movies before the war, but movies were rarely shown on television, and I don't think there were good prints of most of the Marx movies available. I had never seen a Marx movie, and I enjoyed comedy. The family regularly listened to Smothers Brothers albums on our new living room console stereo.

    My guess is that the vast majority of people under 35 were essentially unaware that the Marx Brothers had made seven damn funny movies back at the dawn of talkies, nor that they'd had several hit reviews on Broadway when the idea of talkies was futuristic. I read a book about the Marx Brothers when I was about 17, and was astonished to find that they'd been -- in the United States -- almost as popular as the Beatles were in the United States. It didn't seem possible. Jesus, the Broadway stuff was before radio, before Lindbergh.

    We're probably idiots, but even more than that, we're human. We live in our time and that's a full time job. OK, we're idiots for not understanding what came before us. We're certainly idiots for not understanding what's going to come after us.


    1. A time when the Marx Brothers were mostly unknown. Seems mighty sad, but yeah, movies are so easily accessible now, I kinda forgot there was a time when they absolutely weren't.

      First run, then second run, and then they were gone, except *maybe* for occasional airings on TV.

      Even that was rare, for ages. True or false I'm not sure, but I recall reading that Walt Disney pretty much invented showing movies on TV, when he started his TV show in 1954, to cheaply recycle old Disney movies into new Disney profits.

      Which reminds me, Mickey Mouse is 95 years old but doesn't have to worry about becoming less funny, because none of Disney's cartoons were ever very funny to begin with. Modestly amusing, at best. And I hate the squeaky mouse voice.

    2. Maybe. I think of Disney as the inventor of made-for-TV "movies': multi-episode stories of Disney-invented characters.

      Zorro, Davey Crocket, Daniel Boone and other frontier characters for example. I know Disney didn't invent any of these characters, but he certainly exploited them. And garbled history while doing it.


    3. He was a purveyor of pap, but I do remember liking TRON and 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.

      Also, Disneyland could be fun if it wasn't so damned expensive and without all the lines.


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