[box cover]

Straight Time

Dustin Hoffman — like many ingenious actors — wanted to direct, but he didn't have the temperament for it. However, when First Artists (a company offering a roof to Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Steve McQueen, and Sidney Poitier, among others a la the original United Artists) offered him the chance to develop his own material, Hoffman came aboard and planned to make Eddie Bunker's novel No Beast So Fierce his first step toward auteurship. He worked with a number of writers, including Alvin Sargent, and Jeffery Boam (and if IMDb.com is to be believed, Michael Mann) and begun the project in earnest. But the toll of directing and starring turned out to be too great, leading Hoffman to hand the reigns over to Ulu Grosbard, a close friend and previous collaborator. It's an interesting "what if" to consider the outcome had Hoffman continued Straight Time (1978), because his performance and the material is excellent. It's just that there's some slack and some Hollywood-izing of certain sequences that modestly taints the whole. Because the film has fallen under the radar, it's rediscovery on DVD is something of a revelation — it's one of Hoffman's greatest performances in a rather good movie that comes pretty close to being a masterwork. He stars as Max Dembo, an ex-con on the loose in Los Angeles. Upon release he goes to a temp agency and meets Jenny Mercer (Theresa Russell), a straight-arrow immediately attracted to the parolee. He also goes to hang out with old friend Willy Darin (Gary Busey), who's married and has a kid, and while Willy's wife (Kathy Bates) doesn't like Max's influence, Willy doesn't need much encouragement to start shooting up in Max's apartment. But the burnt book of matches left in his place is all Max's parole officer Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh) needs to take him in, and so Max loses his on-the-level job and decides that he could give a rat's ass about staying straight after a night in lock-up. He gets reacquainted with another ex-con, Jerry Schue (Harry Dean Stanton), who's got a rich wife and who's sick of being something of a kept man. The two go on a crime spree, which Max tells Jenny about, and she doesn't run away. But Max is arrogant while on the job, and he often ignores Jerry's stopwatch (cops are expected to be on the scene in three minutes). And when Max brings in Willy, things go from cagey to uncomfortable. Eddie Bunker was a real-life con who spent some time in San Quentin and, at the time of filming, was on methadone. And though his story may offer a bit of aggrandizing, he knew the real scene, and as such there's a verisimilitude to Straight Time that is usually lacking from heist pictures. The emotions and actions are deeply felt and realistic, and though some of the scenes may be flabby, the end result is stunning, and well worth the rediscovery the DVD offers. Warner Home Video presents Straight Time in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with the original monaural audio (DD 1.0). Extras include a revealing commentary by Grosbard and Hoffman, who mentions that he studied Jean Renior's The Rules of the Game, his favorite film, before setting out to direct. Also on hand is the vintage featurette "Straight Time: He Wrote it for the Criminals," with Bunker the main focus (23 min.), and the film's theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—DSH



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