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The underappreciated director Ulu Grosbard (The Subject Was Roses, True Confessions) presents an insightful study of petty criminality in Straight Time, derived from a novel by Edward Bunker, a real bank robber. Dustin Hoffman gives one of his best performances as the burglar Max Dembo, a wholly untrustworthy but by no means villainous man. Presented in a low-key manner on real Los Angeles locations, the show dramatizes the forces that steer Dembo back to the criminal life.
Dustin Hoffman is known for performances using tricks and gimmicks, like his limping, heavily-accented Ratzo Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. But he's even better when he relaxes into straight character roles, as in Kramer vs. Kramer. Hoffman underplays Max Dembo beautifully. Max is an intelligent guy crushed by his time in jail but too proud to take the abuse of his parole officer Earl Frank. Frank acts like it's no big deal to stick Max in jail for a week, even after a negative drug test. Frank then pressures Max to rat on the real drug user with the threat of sending him to strict supervision in a halfway house. That's too much to bear for Dembo, who has already formed a relationship with the understanding Jenny Mercer. He runs Frank's car off the road, handcuffs him to a chain-link fence with his pants pulled down, and leaps headlong back into serious crime.
Max is grateful for Jenny's affection but not above using her apartment as a headquarters for his criminal activities. He takes her to a fancy restaurant and then suggests that they should just walk out on the check. He visits the obviously unstable Willy Darin and is crushed when Darin's wife Selma (a very young Kathy Bates) asks him to stay away; Willy has no defense against bad influences. Max robs a convenience store and burglarizes a pawnshop on his own because he has difficulty finding reliable associates. A connection in a bar (played by author Bunker) finds him a good partner, but the man is never available. We then see Max at a backyard barbecue with ex-crook Jerry Schue. Schue's cute wife Carol (Rita Taggart) serves burgers and makes small talk about her husband's reformation, but as soon as she's gone Jerry looks to Max and says, "Get me out of here!" He's going nuts in suburbia and wants to return to the robbery racket.
Straight Time plays its theme out to a logical conclusion. Max is an efficient and smart thief but he cannot discipline himself during his robberies. While Jerry wails that their time is up and the cops will catch them, the stubborn Dembo keeps emptying teller's drawers. After his getaway driver chickens out, the robbery of a Beverly Hills jewelry store ends in chaos and bloodshed. Max is able to blow town with Jenny, but realizes that the incident is so big that his capture is almost assured. His bundle of stolen jewels is now too hot and therefore worthless; he can't even give Jenny a fancy watch without dragging her in as an accomplice. An ordinary crime film would use Dembo's plight to motivate a violent action set piece, but Straight Time instead shows Max withdrawing into his no-escape prison mentality. We can see the glaze forming on Hoffman's eyes as he realizes that he's run out of options.
Straight Time is a fine showcase for some very special actors. Harry Dean Stanton is as his best, along with the always-mysterious Theresa Russell and the almost unrecognizable Kathy Bates. It's also an early opportunity to appreciate M. Emmett Walsh before he became so memorable in Joel and Ethan Coen's films.
Warners' DVD of Straight Time presents Ulu Grosbard's superior crime story in a stunning enhanced transfer with clear audio that flatters David Shire's smooth music score. A featurette on the making of the film shows author Edward Bunker and other ex- bank robbers serving as consultants to nail down the film's technical details.
Director Grosbard and Dustin Hoffman provide an entertaining audio commentary, talking separately about the production. Hoffman cast the film before Grosbard came on board and would have directed it too if video playback was available. Hoffman's account of his preparation for the role is quite fascinating, as is his probing of Edward Bunker's skewed ideas about personal responsibility. Asked if he would feel responsible if a stray bullet from one of his bank holdups killed an innocent child, Bunker said no. He reasoned that, because people know that banks can be robbed, the mother of the child should have kept her child safely away.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Straight Time rates:
Supplements: Trailer, featurette, commentary with Ulu Grosbard and Dustin Hoffman
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 1, 2007
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