Straight Time - 1978
Straight Time was directed by Ulu Grosbard and written by Alvin Sargent. It stars Dustin Hoffman, coming of his major success in All the President’s Men and Marathon Man, as a lifelong criminal trying to go straight. While this movie has an incredible cast in Gary Busey, Emmet Walsh, Kathy Bates and Harry Dean Stanton, this movie is 100% Hoffman.
The story is beautifully sad. We follow a lifelong criminal as he is released from prison after a six-year stint. At first, he gives his best shot at living a “normal” life and being a productive member of society. But, being stuck with a power-hungry parole officer, he falls back into his criminal ways and it’s only a matter of time before he ends up back in jail.
I enjoyed Grosbard directorial decisions throughout the movie. He has many Steadicam shots that allow the audience to be engaged with the action portrayed on screen. But the sequence that stood out the most in my eyes came during the jewelry store heist. The camera movement following the gloved hands of Hoffman as he digs through broken glass to grab any and every single piece of jewelry he can, was frantic and exciting. The editing during this sequence, jumping from a sweaty desperate but focused Hoffman to a nervous and tensed Stanton, gave it a sense of desperation that the audience can’t escape.
Side note: this was going to be Hoffman’s directorial debut, but after a couple of days trying to act and direct, he found it too stressful. He called on board Grosbard to direct so he could focus on his acting, but they were at constant odds with one another and they went over schedule and budget. This is one of the main reasons this movie, sadly, wasn’t as popular, since the studio wouldn’t give it the marketing it deserved due to it already being over budget.
Hoffman was incredible in this movie and carries it on his back with such ease. He runs the full spectrum in his performance, ranging from incredibly nuanced to screaming his emotions to the camera. I can honestly pick out any of his scenes and write how amazing he was, but for the sake of brevity let’s just talk quickly about two that fall on one of the spectrums.
During the opening montage, we see Hoffman’s character get released from prison. His body language and his facial expression are almost as if he is a tourist in the city. To a certain extent he is, both in that he is seeing everything for the first time and that he will be in the free world only for a short visit. My favorite shot comes when he asks for a hot dog and begins to walk away without paying for it. It’s not that he wanted to steal the food, he is just so accustomed to getting the food and walking away without payment.
The other scene I wanted to highlight is the jewelry heist… again. Hoffman’s desperation and obsession during this scene is infectious. You can’t help as an audience member but to feel the same way. He is sweating and screaming because he must find the watch his girl liked when he was casing the place. Stanton is screaming at him that the cops are on the way, there is no way he is walking away without that watch. It’s a little sad that this performance has been buried among his others, since it should get more praise.
While it’s fine that I can focus my review on the acting/directing and writing, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the insight this movie brings into the inner workings of a lifelong criminal. There are two sentences uttered by Hoffman to his girlfriend that are small window on how his character’s mind work. The first one comes during their first date when he describes to her what is like to be in prison versus what is like to be in the real world. Basically, he says that in prison, “what’s inside is what matters”, but when you are in the real world, “what you got in your pocket is what matters”. He almost romanticizes life in prison, saying you are valued more as a person than on the outside. This is bookmarked with the last thing he says to her towards the end of the movie. When she asks why can’t she go with him, he simple tells her; “because I want to get caught”. He is tired of the pressures and rules of the outside world and he simple wants to go back to his home.
Straight Time is a hidden gem in the long and illustrious career of Dustin Hoffman. I have never been to prison and have always questioned why you would risk going their multiple times. I was able to at least grasp a small understanding as to how some criminals thinks and that’s why I love movies.
Straight Time is available to rent on multiple streaming services. You should watch it.
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