Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Film #44: Straight Time

Since 1972, Dustin Hoffman had been obsessed with making Straight Time, an adaptation of ex-convict Ed Bunker's novel No Beast So Fierce. It was meant to be the actor's directorial debut but, concluding that directing and performing were chores too big for him to handle in tandem, he brought in British director Ulu Grosbard to helm things behind the camera. Good move, because in 1978's sadly forgotten Straight Time Hoffman was obviously able to concentrate heavily on his
character. He's at his best as Max Dembo, a small-time thief who, upon his prison release, tries mightily to straighten up while fighting a bureaucracy that's cruelly written him off as a lost cause. Gary Busey (who appears with his then-young son Jake) is the lovable "Big Bear" whose kindness and slow-witted speed get the best of him. And Harry Dean Stanton hits a career high with a knotted-up portrayal of a restless ex-con who joins forces with Max in what is surely one of the most tense jewel heist scenes ever filmed. M. Emmett Walsh is a VERY assholish probation officer who gets his comeuppance. Kathy Bates (thin!) is Busey's long-suffering wife. And the crown of ALL these great performances here goes to the beautiful, smart, transfixing Theresa Russell, whose showing as Dembo's understanding---maybe TOO understanding--girlfriend was a career-maker. I could watch Russell all day, because there's something there behind those beautiful eyes!

The writer, Ed Bunker, also cameos quite stunningly in Straight Time as Mickey, one of Dembo's shadowy associates. People should know that the autobiographical novel this was based on was written by Bunker while he was still in prison (he wanted to give the cons out there something to read about, so he says)! Bunker followed this movie with appearances in Miracle Mile, The Running Man, Walter Hill's The Long Riders and, most famously, as the ill-fated, under-used Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. With its accuracy, grittiness, intimacy and cruelty, his Straight Time is one of the greatest crime films ever made.

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