Review by-Jarrett Leahy
One of the true joys of the cinema hobby is finding long lost or forgotten hidden gems. With hundreds of new films released year in and year out, there are bound to be handful of great movies that for one reason or another fall through the cracks or are all but ignored upon initial release. From time to time as I come across a film I feel deserves more love, I will post a quick Hidden Gem review, and hopefully convince at least a few of you to keep an eye out for it. This week’s Hidden Gem is the 1978 crime drama, Straight Time.
Straight Time stars Dustin Hoffman as Max Dembo, an ex-con fresh out on parole after doing a 6 year prison sentence for burglary. Dembo tries hard to stay clean, finding himself a real job and his own place. But constant harassment by an overzealous parole officer leads to Dembo’s eventual return to his past life of crime. Straight Time is directed by Ulu Grosbard, a director better known for his work on Broadway than in movies. Under Ulu’s skillful direction, the film has a tension filled atmosphere, allowing the viewer to feel all of Max’s frustrations and hostility to life on the outside.
Admittedly my one trepidation going into this film was whether or not Hoffman could give a convincing performance as a hard edge felon. But let it be said if there were any questions to the pure acting talents and range of Dustin Hoffman, his performance in Straight Time most definitely puts that to rest. Rarely has an actor so adeptly captured the emotional highs and lows experienced by a convict on the lam. And Hoffman is not alone when it comes to Straight Time’s impressive performances. Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, Cathy Bates, and Theresa Russell all give first-rate supporting portrayals. Combined, they help create a film that keeps you glued from start to finish.
The 1970’s was a decade filled with excellent crime dramas. Unfortunately it is this high number of critically loved crime films that lead to Straight Time being forgotten over these last 36 years. The DVD of the film is currently Out Of Print, so the best chance to find it is through Netflix. I truly believe that Straight Time should be a film that is held in the same esteem as the likes of Dog Day Afternoon, Get Carter and The French Connection. Perhaps a company like Criterion Collection will see its greatness and help bring it back from obscurity.
On a side note, there is a fascinating underlying story surrounding the script for this film. The screenplay was based on the novel No Beast So Fierce written by Edward Bunker. Bunker wrote No Beast while serving a prison sentence for armed robbery and based it about his time as a lifelong criminal. It is reported that Dustin Hoffman visited Bunker in prison to express his interest in turning his novel into this film. After being released early from prison, Edward was hired as a consultant and was even given a small bit part in the movie. This led to a few more small acting roles, helping Bunker finally turn his life around. Edward Bunker is now best known for playing Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s debut crime drama, Reservoir Dogs. How ironic that a former real life convict became famous for portraying an armed robber on the big screen. His assistance on Straight Time certainly helped make it the impressive film that it is.