Thursday, February 23, 2012

Straight Time (1978)

          After the flurry of activity that followed his star-making performance in The Graduate (1967), Dustin Hoffman became incredibly selective in the ’70s and ’80s, sometimes letting years pass between projects. Not coincidentally, his commitment to the parts he actually took was incredible, manifesting as deep involvement with story development and meticulous research into the lifestyles of his characters. The excellent drama Straight Time is rooted in this uncompromising craftsmanship: Hoffman’s character appears in virtually every scene, so his performance shapes the film.
          Hoffman stars as Max Dembo, a small-time crook recently released from six years in prison. After a few halting attempts at living within the law, Max drifts back to criminality in part because his hard-driving parole officer, Earl Frank (M. Emmett Walsh), finds drug residue left in Max’s dingy apartment by Max’s useless friend, fellow ex-con Willy Darin (Gary Busey). Feeling like he’s damned to incarceration whether he commits crimes or not, Max starts executing risky robberies despite the promise of his new romance with Jenny Mercer (Theresa Russell), a sweet young woman he met at an employment agency.
          The intense drama of Straight Time stems from an exploration of whether Max ever really has the opportunity to go straight. In a way, the picture is an indictment of the social structures that ensure a lifetime of punishment for any significant infraction. Based on a novel by real-life criminal Edward Bunker and directed by Ulu Grosbard, all of whose films are distinguished by extraordinary acting, Straight Time has authenticity to burn. It’s uncomfortable watching Max gauge the reactions of people who discover the truth about his past, and excruciating to see him tossed back in the slammer on the mere suspicion of a parole violation.
          The genius of Hoffman’s performance is that he plays Max as an addict: Whenever Max gets his teeth into a promising score, he loses the ability to perceive anything except the loot in front of him, so he frequently overstays his welcome at crime sites, endangering himself and his accomplices. Therefore, the movie provides a resonant portrait of a career criminal, someone who, accurately or not, believes no other options exist.
          The performers supporting Hoffman are terrific, with Busey and a young Kathy Bates playing an impoverished couple trying to steer clear of trouble despite the Busey character’s many weaknesses. Harry Dean Stanton essays a frightening professional crook whose ruthless discipline makes him a public menace. Russell is credible and sensitive in one of her first roles, and Walsh does wonders with the movie’s thinnest characterization. Although a slew of writers worked on the script (including A-listers Michael Mann and Alvin Sargent), it’s to Grosbard’s and Hoffman’s credit that the film comes together as smoothly as it does: Straight Time is essentially a character study, but the movie also works, at least in moments, as a gripping thriller. More importantly, it resonates.

Straight Time: RIGHT ON


Tommy Ross said...

If you've never seen this gem, you don't know what you're missing. Hoffman dazzles in this and the movie grips you from start to finish. The robbery scenes are intense. And I might add Theresa Russell is down right hot. Can't say enough about this, RIGHT ONx10!

Frank said...

Couldn't agree more on the values of this under appreciated film. Hoffman and Russell both give tremendous performances. I was particularly impressed by the pacing of the film which starts very quietly and slowly as Dembo gets released from his long prison term and then in a long crescendo builds over the next two hours into an intense paced near thriller as Max spirals downward.

Jacob said...

I’ve read somewhere that Hoffman considers Straight Time his best work.

Canalboy said...

This downbeat view of a possibly incurable recidivist (the French title) leaves you to decide if the eponymous character is a victim of an intractable judicial system that is badly in need of an overhaul as a conduit back to crime or a necessary evil.

Sadly the plot doesn't so much strain credibility as leave it with a triple hernia and in a truss. Hoffman strolls from inner city bank job to jewellery heist with insousiance; a total lack of planning and any police or security systems is apparent. And how would the police not have traced him to his girlfriend's appartment via the company he worked at and the employment agency that employed her?

Nick Nolte and Kathy Bates are excellent if underused and The Hoff wears some nice shirts however.