Excerpts from the film “Straight Time” commentary by Dustin Hoffman and Ulu Grosbard. (All commentary by Hoffman except where noted)

“Straight Time” was based on the book “No Beast So Fierce” by Edward Bunker.

 Dustin Hoffman:

…I met Eddie Bunker, and once I was convinced by him that I could play the part, then I started to research it for maybe 2 years – going to prisons, hanging out with ex-convicts, going to where they lived. …I just learned so much from him, in terms of what it’s like to be in that life and what recidivism is really all about, at least from his point of view…


…What he told me was extraordinary, ‘cause we had long conversations during the research days [of the movie.] It was the best research experience I’ve ever had, in any film. And he loved to talk, and he was very articulate and piercing in the way he answered my questions. And he understood where I was coming from, meaning the inadequacy I felt.

He says, “Let me tell you something I’ve done since I can remember, since I was in reform school – maybe it started there – it started very, very young. People don’t know I do it. I do it with everyone – I do it with you. I do it not just the first time I meet people; if we become friends – it’s just something I do. I’m not in control of it and the other person never knows I’m doing it.

“And as I’m talking to you, I’m kind of doing it right now and that may be what you mean about not making eye contact.”

He said, “I look to see what I could kill you with. ‘Cause let’s say I don’t have a knife or a gun, so I look for anything nearby – and I can see the mike stand, the – right here you have a kind of a – what do you call it? A stand where you have your questions. There’s no lamp, no phone…”

And he said, “That’s something I just do, and then I also look what I can steal from you, after I’ve hit you.”

I started doing that in life. And what I found was, is that it altered me. It didn’t make me think about killing; it was what in acting – in Strasberg’s class – he would call it ‘a task’. You give yourself ‘a task’, and it just alters you. It alters your behavior. It doesn’t make you want to kill, it just makes you observe. In fact, it’s so – it has such a pathology behind it, that it objectifies the person. So if anything, there’s no emotion. It’s probably part of the training in boot camp – you kill, so as not to be killed.


I wanted to make a film – and I don’t think studios would’ve particularly liked this mantra, but I don’t care – rather than caring about whether it was ‘successful’ or not – which we all – obviously, we would like our films to be successful – but more than that [I wanted] criminals, people who were in the life, to see this film and say, “That’s our reality.” That was my first priority.

You know, what comes to mind is that when I was in San Francisco [doing research], I met a guy who ran a half-way house. He was an ex-convict… I went in there and I talked to him, and he was quite known in the community of ex-convicts and prison personnel, he was well-respected, he had been a convict, and now his whole life was [trying] to help guys that came out of the joint and were going through the impossibility of [being on] parole, as we showed in the film. I was getting background with him.

I remember he looked at me at one point, and he was upset that I was going to make a film. “The Godfather” came up, ’cause that had come out already. I said, “Didn’t you think that was accurate?”

He was angry, ’cause he was a passionate man in terms of his work. He said, “No… The minute you put actors on the screen, 70 feet of screen, you guys are all – it’s romanticized, by definition. What comes to mind is Belmondo in “Breathless” – I mean, you just put that face on the screen and it’s a romantic image. So don’t tell me about a horse’s head in a guy’s bed, tell me about what they really do…

“I don’t care what you do, you’re a big movie star, you’re going to put your face in a close-up on the screen – and it’s going to be romanticized. There’s no way that you can make a film that does not soften the reality of what it’s like.”

And we tried our best, but I understood what he was saying.


          [Bunker] was very passionate about how criminality had changed, for the worse. He said in his day, there was a dignity to being a criminal. This was now the Seventies. He says, “Now the kids will just kill you, just for the hell of it. They’ll stick you up, they’ll mug you… In our day, we just wanted the money, we didn’t want to hurt anybody. In the joints – you could do some good time in the joints. In the old days you’d get your shit together, you’d get a lot of reading done. But now, you’ve got to watch your back every second.”

          I think Reagan had been governor of California, and one of the things he’d done while he was governor was he had closed down a lot of mental health facilities. Those people then went into the general prison population. Eddie said, “…Someone could drop a sand bag on your head and kill you and you’d never know why.” It [became] a very scary place in the joint because of the mix of people and also the breakdown in societal values, from Bunker’s point of view.


          I’m trying to understand something I don’t understand, ’cause somewhere there’s something that’s not connecting for me.

I said, “So let me ask you this, Eddie,” and I’ve never forgotten this. “Let’s say you’re robbing a bank and you start screaming just like we did in the scene, and they all get down. Except one guy, the guard. You think [he’s] reaching for his gun, you think he’s going to challenge you, and you fire.

“And let’s say – I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. You don’t even want to hit him, you just want to scare him. So you purposely miss, and the bullet goes past him” – I’m just making this up as I go along – “and it goes through the window.

“And then, that night, when you’re watching the news, they announce that the bullet that went through the window hit a baby that was in a baby carriage that a mother was walking past the bank at that moment, and killed the baby.” Just making this up; I wanted to know if there was a feeling of guilt. I said, “How would you feel about that?”

He said, “Oh, man, I wouldn’t feel good, man. I’d feel bad.” But he said it very dispassionately to me; his eyes were very cold.

I said, “But would you feel responsible?” He said, “No, man, not at all.”

I said, “Why?”

And here’s what he said: “That woman’s got a responsibility, she’s a mother. And if you’ve got a kid, you know better than to walk by a bank; because banks get held up. She should’ve been walking across the street.”

When he told me that, I literally got goose bumps and I understood everything that I had to understand. Because here was a very, very intelligent man who had rationalized this aspect of his life; in a way that he had to, in order to be able to do what he did.


          …Eddie was the first one to say that [incarceration] is not about – and I agree with him; probably not just the United States, but anywhere – that incarceration is really not about rehabilitation. A penitentiary is not a place to be ‘penitent’, as originally conceived. You come out much more dangerous to yourself and to society.

He once used an example – I remember so much of what he told me – one example was: “You know, man, if somebody steps on your foot, it really hurts sometimes. On the street, you’ll just give somebody a look, say ‘Hey!’… Whatever. But if you’ve been in the joint and somebody steps on your foot, you might really react physically, immediately, because you’re just a different person. It’s taken you to a much more primitive place.”


          Director Ulu Grosbard:

There were instances where the book was written with quite a bit of fiction, but the details of the life – the details of having to come out of jail on parole, the humiliation of the parole operation; trying to get a job when you have a record – it’s like everything is stacked against you. You have to be of an extraordinary character to overcome the obstacles that are put in your way; then try to find a way to go straight, making whatever – five dollars an hour? – against buddies you know outside who tell you, “Oh, I’ve got a new score, we can do something and we’ll make a couple of grand, you know,” so you’re constantly having to make that choice – and I think it’s a very hard choice to make. Over a long period of time, I think it eventually wears you down, the reality.

And that’s basically what the movie tells, and what I think Bunker captured very well; and it is what interested me in the story.

…A lot of them [the audience] are going to end up saying, “Well, we don’t like the guy.” …And that’s the point of the movie, to some degree – they end up not liking the guy. By the end, I think, the more sophisticated audience perhaps still understood what was going on, but it isn’t what they had expected.

They expected a hero, a hero-bandit, a hero-criminal. And it wasn’t a hero-criminal – it was just a criminal.




The following are excerpts from the memoir Education of a Felon by Edward Bunker,   © 2000, St. Martin’s Press


Pg 259   On his first published novel, No Beast So Fierce:

In my sixth novel I was trying to write of the underworld from the criminal’s viewpoint. Many books are written about criminals, but the writer is always observing them and the world from society’s perspective. I was trying to make the reader see the world through the criminal’s perspective; what he saw, what he thought, what he felt – and why. I was trying to write on three levels: first for the excitement of the story; second into the psychological makeup; and third so it promulgated a philosophical view. I was also trying to follow Hemingway’s dictum that a writer should be as devoted to truth as a prelate of the Church is to God. Unlike most pundits and all politicians, I have never shaved a fact to fit an assertion. I sometimes end up positioning things that contradict each other, but we all know that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, which I read in the essay, not in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.


pg 147 On remorse, forgiveness, moving on:

          “…I wasn’t a killer, although there had been times in prison when I would have killed in self-defense. I wasn’t going to run. I wasn’t vengeful, nor did I feel remorse for most things that I had done. I believed that yesterday could be learned from but never erased. If I had dwelled on the past, there is a good chance I would have gone insane. I had done too much already, and too much had been done to me.


Pg 28    On developing his survivor ethic:

          [Bunker was sent to a youth prison (18-25 year olds) when he was 15 (1948?) On his first day there, after witnessing a knife fight between two Chicanos fighting over “a petite white queen named Forever Amber” which resulted in the death of both, Bunker reflected on the events]:

          Bang! He was dead. With a snap of the fingers! [The other one] was history, too. That night after the lights were out, I lay on my upper bunk, listening to the night sounds, creaking bedsprings, wordless whispers, and choked laughter – and I thought about those two dead young Chicanos. They had died fighting over a sissy and pure machismo. To many in the world, my behavior was chaos for the sake of chaos. You probably could’ve gotten good odds that I would not live into my sixth decade, much less reach my seventh. Now I’d seen a double killing and it was a serious shock. Although I made no conscious decision and my behavior would continue to be wild and erratic, thereafter I always had something that stopped me on the brink of the precipice. I would never and have never gone mano a mano with knives. I wanted real victory, not a Pyrrhic version.


pg 34  On ‘queens’ at the LA jail, circa 1950, and his survivor ethic:

          The Tanks were racially segregated for the most part. One exception was the “queens” tank. With towels wrapped like turbans around their heads, jail shirt tails tied at the bottom like blouses, makeup ingeniously concocted from God knows what, jeans rolled up and skin-tight, they were all flamboyant parodies of women. Spotting me, as I walked with the guard along the length of their tank, they hurried along beside us: “Put him in here, Deputy! We won’t hurt him.”

          The deputy snorted and quipped, “All we’d find is his shoelaces.”

          “What’s your name, honey?”

          I didn’t reply.

          “Who’d you kill, kid?”

          “If you go to the joint, I’ll be your woman – and kill anybody that fucks with you.”

          I said nothing. It was a loser to exchange quips with queens; their tongues were too sharp, their wit too biting. Needless to say, I had no worries about anyone fucking with me. I was no white-bread white boy. If someone said something wrong or even looked wrong, my challenge would be quick, and if the response was less than swift apology, I would attack forthwith without further words.


pg 166    On how criminality has changed:

 Professional thieves recognize that playing the game means doing time. They measure success not by the certainty of eventual imprisonment, but rather by the length of imprisonment vis-à-vis the length of a run he has and how well he lives before being incarcerated. Although the subculture of the professional thief depicted in Dickens, Melville and Victor Hugo was first eroded by Prohibition’s organized crime and their turf wars, it was destroyed by drugs and the drug underworld. Until today, when a young criminal’s skills are limited to shooting somebody and dealing crack. Back in ’57 there were still enough adherents that I could find righteous thieves, safecrackers, boosters, players of short con, and burglars. My initial parole officer had said, quite correctly, that he never worried about picking up the morning newspaper to read where I shot my way out of a supermarket or a bank. He had over a hundred cases, and others needed his attention far more than I did. After about six months without trouble, I saw him no more. The only requirement was that I send in monthly reports. That put no strain on my resentment of authority. I could do that.


pg 264    On changes at San Quentin and racial stratification:

…From the early forties through the fifties, San Quentin went from being one of America’s most notoriously brutal prisons to being a leader in progressive penology and rehabilitation. Like other prisons, it was not ready for what happened when the revolution came to America. As drugs flooded the cities, likewise they flooded San Quentin. The racial turmoil of the streets was magnified in San Quentin’s sardine can world. The polarization within can be illustrated by two events. In 1963 when John Kennedy was assassinated, it was lunchtime in the Big Yard. Everyone fell into a stunned silence. Eyes that hadn’t cried since childhood filled with tears, including those of the toughest black convicts. Five years later, when Bobby Kennedy was shot in the head, the response was different. Black convicts called out, “Right on!” “The chickens come home to roost,” said the Black Panther newspaper….


[Amy sez: It must be noted that Robert Kennedy’s murder followed the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. by only two months. Need I say more?]


pg 266   On tough guys and con bosses

          In prison movies it is a convention bordering on cliché that some super-tough convict within runs the show. In the days of Bogart and Cagney that kingpin con was white; now he is usually black. That notion may have validity in a small, soft prison in someplace like Maine or Vermont. But if someone really hard-core turns up in one of those joints, he is transferred under the Interstate Prison Compact. No convict runs the show in Leavenworth, Marion, San Quentin, Folsom, Angola, Jeff City, Joliet, Huntsville or other hard-core penitentiaries. Nobody of any color is that tough. Indeed, convicts do have little homilies such as, “tough guys are in the grave,” or: “everybody bleeds, everybody dies, and anybody can kill you.” Over the years I saw bona fide tough guys come to San Quentin or Folsom (usually San Quentin, because they don’t last long enough to reach Folsom) and think they could take over on the muscle. One of them was a Bronx Puerto Rican who weighed about 120 pounds. He stabbed somebody within weeks of reaching the Guidance Center. He seriously believed that he was a killer and had everybody intimidated. He lasted eleven months. They found him in his cell with a piece of electrician’s wire wrapped around his neck and eleven puncture wounds just under his rib cage, most of them directly in the heart. Someone gave a very terse eulogy: “Another tough motherfucker bites the dust.”

          With those parameters and constraints in mind, I think I had as much power and influence as any among the four thousand walking San Quentin’s yard. Over the years I had assumed a code and attitude that mixed John Wayne and Machiavelli. I respected every man, including the weak and the despicable, for it is better to have anyone or anything as a friend, including a mangy dog, rather than as an enemy. My friends were the toughest white and Chicano convicts. I maintained their loyalty by being loyal and their respect by being smart in several areas. One friend, Denis Kanos, whom I left in Folsom when I was transferred, had been granted a hearing by the California Supreme Court on the petition I had filed. Not only had they granted the hearing; they reversed the conviction. Denis, who had been required to wait fifteen years before even being eligible for parole, went free.

          Within a couple months of his release he was, as always, a kingpin drug trafficker again in Southern California. Every month or so, he would send me an ounce of heroin. Other men who got narcotics had to sell enough to pay for it. I paid nothing and was generous with my friends. It is difficult to convey what heroin is really worth in prison. Cocaine had almost no value, for convicts wanted what soothed them, not what made them crazier. A gram of heroin, a tiny fraction of an ounce, would, for example, easily purchase murder from many takes. When someone wanted to know who had heroin, they asked, “Who’s God today?” Such was the power of the white serpent.

                    Although I played the game (it was the only game in town), I was really tired of it. I had prison under control, but I started to think about when I would be free again. Without a miracle I would return to crime. It was the only way I knew to make money. God, if I could only sell a book. That, however, would be like hitting Lotto.