Classic Film Review: Hoffman’s at his toughest doing “Straight Time” (1978)

Looking back, I think that two movies shaped and/or reinforced my views on “the criminal mind,” the folks who rob, cheat, vandalize and threaten as if they were born to it.

“Donnie Brasco” (1998) set in stone my hunch that what Deep Throat said about the Watergate Burglars and the GOP leadership holds true for criminals in general.

“The truth is, these are not very bright guys.”

In “Donnie Brasco,” even the “men with honor,” the “made men” of the New York mob, are busting into vending machines or parking meters, just to have a little change in their pocket. They’re willing to follow the awful “orders” they’re given because questioning dubious ideas and considering life’s other options never occur to them.

But the first movie that formed “THIS is what criminals really are” in my mind was one I screened as an undergraduate projectionist in the ’80s.

In “Straight Time” (1978), Dustin Hoffman‘s Max Dembo gets out of prison and would have us believe, in his self-martyred way, that his abusive parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh, in a role that would define the “heavies” he played) and society itself paints ex-cons into the corner that they find themselves in. Current social thinking backs at least some of that up.

But Max has impulse control issues. He lashes out at and pummels that parole officer. He hastily plots robberies because “it’s what I do.” “Real jobs,” the only ones he will be considered for, are beneath him.

And when he lands a more cautious partner for these bank and jewelry store heists (Harry Dean Stanton, never better), Max shows his twitchy impatience with “the real world,” his rush to get what he wants when he wants it and his rash, unreasoning willingness to risk re-capture or death when he pushes his “luck” every time he dives into a crime.

He finds an illegal poker game to rob.

“We just tip toe in, tip toe out and it’s all ours. There ain’t no cops because they can’t call.”

The hold-up is botched because the guy with the guns doesn’t show up, so Max u-turns and parks his girlfriend’s car in front of a closed pawn shop and, as if by instinct, figures out a risky way of burgling it to get the firearms he wants. Now.

He explodes in rage at the fellow who doesn’t deliver the guns and refuses to acknowledge that a getaway driver (a young and saner Gary Busey) gave him all the time in the world to exit a robbery, with alarms going off and cops on the way, that Max pushed beyond the limit.

People die because of Max’s impulse control.

Theresa Russell got an early big break playing the younger woman Max takes up with and imposes himself on upon getting out of prison, and she is impressively impassive in the role. Feigned “disinterested, but dangerous” became her calling card — blank-faced, seemingly passive, but sublimating a lot of emotions that she lets out just often enough to see there’s a will and a soul in there, even if it is an amoral one.

A very young Kathy Bates is sweetly impressive in her first major role, playing ex con Busey’s wife.

Director and sometimes actor Ulu Grossbard (“True Confessions,” “Georgia”) and “French Connection/Exorcist/Network” DP Owen Roizman capture LA at its late-70s seediest, the decade after “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.” “Straight Time” is state-institution florescent interiors, dirty neon or sun-burnt exteriors, ugly ’70s sideburns and earth tones, ugly ’70s cars.

There’s a sort of shared directing credit on this. If you want to know why “Tootsie” was the Oscar winner playing an uncompromising control-freak version of himself, “Straight Time” is one of the reasons for that legend. At this stage in his career, Hoffman might wear a Sydney Pollack (“All the President’s Men,””Tootsie”) out. He’d roll right over an Ulu Grossbard.

If we’re still talking about Hoffman, and he took a pretty good #MeToo punch (an absolute gift for throwing his weight around and being “inappropriate” with women), so even that’s a miracle, “Straight Time” stands out as one of his greatest performances.

He didn’t get to play the tough guy very often, but co-stars and others hint that he’s been an actor’s version of “tough” all along. He immerses himself in this guy’s world, his impulses, his martyrdom and his hypocrisy.

And if he said, a couple of years later upon finally winning an Academy Award for “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “well, the soap opera did it” for him, he had good reason. “Straight Time” is his great performance of the ’70s.

MPA Rating: R, violence, nudity

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Theresa Russell, Harry Dean Stanton, M. Emmet Walsh and Gary Busey

Credits: Directed by Ulu Grosbard and (possibly) Dustin Hoffman, script by Alvin Sergeant and Jeffrey Boam, based on the Edward Bunker novel. Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:52

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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