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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Straight Time (1978)

What on earth took me so very long to finally watch this film is beyond me. Thankfully I have a friend who is a HUGE Dustin Hoffman fan and he jumped at the chance to give me my first viewing and I have absolutely no regrets. So no regrets in fact that I obviously bought myself a copy to enjoy again and again. Dustin Hoffman kicked some serious ass back in the day, and I am flabbergasted that more people do not seem to be familiar with this movie, as it's possibly Hoffman's best role.


See what I mean? Plot synopsis: Max Dembo (Hoffman) has just been released from prison. He's facing a situation that none of us can really imagine without having been on parole ourselves. He's stuck with a hardass parole officer (played to assholish perfection by M. Emmett Walsh) who just won't give him a break. Landing himself a job thanks to the efforts of a young woman named Jenny (I just love Theresa Russell!) Max finally gets on his feet. Unfortunately he decides to meet up with his old buddy Willy (a drug addict not surprisingly played by Gary Busey) who shoots up in Max's new apartment landing him back in jail. Needless to say this pisses him off, and his parole officer won't let him live it down either. Max is a man caught between two extremes, and he can't play the man's game much longer...

We've all seen lots of movies featuring safe crackers or home invaders or some such thing going after that mythical "one last score" that will end it for good, and this is definitely not one of those movies. There's nothing glitzy or very Hollywood about it. Straight Time is the real deal, and the glimpse we receive into Max Dembo's world is far from pastoral. It's a scummy, desperate, and frantic world where one wrong move will either land you back in the slammer or pushing up daisies. Crime isn't pretty and in the real world you don't always get away with it.

You really feel sorry for Max, he cannot help what he is or the ways he chooses to do them. He is a man out of step with society in more ways than one, and the frustration on his face in every scene is actually quite touching. In fact both of his ex con buddies suffer in the same way. Max's buddy Jerry (played by all time great Harry Dean Stanton) is perhaps the pinnacle of this. He has a wife, a business, and a pretty nice house. The only problem is he's suffocating, and is obviously dissatisfied going legit. You can't really blame the guy either.

Yet another film reviewed here featuring a stellar cast. Hoffman is 110% on point as is the rest of the cast. Once again Theresa Russell is spellbinding (this is only her second film appearance, and was made two years before she appeared in Nicholas Roeg's film Bad Timing which you can read about here), and her sweet girl next door charms balanced with the dead seriousness of getting romantically involved with Hoffman's character after his crime spree begins is an important lynchpin to the film as a whole. She represents the normalcy he could have but at the same time cannot. It's as if she is suspended in the ether before Max like a great spinning magnet, both attracting him and pushing him away at the same time. The chemistry between the two of them while in their respective characters is painful because you know there's only one way it can end for them.

The film doesn't have any fancy camera work and I really think this does it credit. Ulu Grosbard (who has not directed many films it seems) and Dustin Hoffman himself (though uncredited) capture the world around Max as it must seem to someone in Max's position- that is to say wide open, but also completely shut off. Any sort of artsy fartsy camera moves would do this film a serious disservice, and I'm glad the directors had the skill to realize this. The script is also not to be overlooked either, which was written partially by Edward Bunker who authored the novel No Beast So Fierce which the film is based on. Michael Mann (a generally kick ass director, if you don't know who he is then go find out) was is said to have had an uncredited role in writing the screenplay also (he later used the same novel as a reference for the character Neil McCauley in his still amazing film Heat some years later), just to throw that little factoid out at you.

Do I recommend you watch this? YES. If you like crime movies, ex con movies, Dustin Hoffman, or in other words films that generally kick ass because of one or more of these elements I have described throughout this review then I strongly suggest viewing it immediately.

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