The 1970s were a pretty successful time for Dustin Hoffman. After the critical and box office successes of “The Graduate” and “Midnight Cowboy” in the late 1960s, Hoffman’s career was in full flight, so by the late 1970s, he was on a torrid pace, starring in a string of films that are now viewed as modern classics such as “All The Presidents Men,” “Straw Dogs,” and “Lenny.”
So in 1978 after all of these hits, Hoffman could use his status to bring to the screen a personal project and try his hand at directing, so he subsequently purchased the film rights to the novel, “No Beast So Fierce,” about an ex-con trying to go “straight,” which was actually written by an ex-con, Edward Bunker. Bunker had initially written the manuscript while still serving time in San Quentin for theft and eventual the murder of another convict (he says he didn’t do it). After his release, Bunker would help write the screenplay for “Straight Time” with Alvin Sargent, Jeffrey Boam, and Nancy Dowd (uncredited), and to add even more authenticity, Hoffman would even give Edward Bunker a small acting part in the film.
The rumor then, which is now Hollywood legend, was that Hoffman was incredibly difficult to work with and that he had been known as an insufferable perfectionist, a fact that Hoffman later exploited for comedic sake in 1983’s “Tootsie.” Yes, Hoffman was known to drive so many directors insane that it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he even fired himself as the director of “Straight Time,” because he felt that combining acting and directing was compromising his performance. Hoffman hated failure, so in a decade where he didn’t make too many missteps, he oddly decided to replace himself as the director of his own film with Ulu Grosbard, the celebrated Broadway director and the man behind Hoffman’s only universally accepted flop of his 70s career, 1971’s whiny, “A Star Is Born” styled mess that was painfully entitled, “Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?”
Though he repudiated his performance, Hoffman is excellent as Max Dembo, a career thief was has just been released after a six year prison sentence. His parole officer Earl (M. Emmet Walsh) hounds Max in a way that makes you believe that he has absolutely nothing else to do. No personal vendetta in place here, Earl is just exceedingly confident that Max is going to trip up soon and violate his own parole. This almost surrealistic, obsessive persecution seems to be a clear manifestation of Bunker’s own fear of going back inside prison.
As part of his parole, Max must find work and does so at an employment agency where he meets a young woman named Jenny (Theresa Russell) who he asks out, and they immediately become a thing. Max punches the clock at his canning factory job and tries to keep it clean, but after Earl discovers some proof of the heroin that Max’s friend Willy (a pre-Buddy Holly Gary Busey) left in his room, Max is dragged back to jail for a parole violation. Inside, Max’s blood is tested clean of dope, and he is released but soon realizes that he will never again be left alone and ditches Earl to go back to a life of thieving with his pal, Jerry (Harry Dean Stanton).
If you were reading the last two paragraphs correctly, you would have noticed that there is a ton of talent in the supporting cast in “Straight Time.” I even neglected to mention Academy Award winning actress “Kathy Bates” who has a small role here as well. Here in lies the major strength’s of this film, it’s casting. Hoffman may have been critical of his own talent, but his performance is desperate and strong, and it is his critical nature that may have truly saved this production as he really knew how to pick them. Though the dialog rings true in “Straight Time,” the story and direction are pretty standard, but it does provide a solid frame to showcase this collection of acting talent.
The official 1978 trailer to “Straight Time”
“Straight Time” opened in 1978 to mixed reviews and a weak box office, which makes me think that maybe Hoffman wasn’t the only one with standards that might have been a bit too high during that decade. “Straight Time” is not a masterpiece by any means but should be noted for its performances, which as I wrote earlier in this review are very fine. Sadly, Dustin Hoffman would not try his hand at directing for another thirty years until he made the elderly snorefest, “Quartet,” another trite old white folks film made for the Judy Dench crowd. Hoffman doesn’t act in “Quartet,” which I guess corrects his earlier mistake of acting and directing at the same time, but I wished that he had at least tried to direct one more film during that charmed period when he held acting to such a high standard.