Straight Time Ulu Grosbard

One of the underrated gems of ’70s American cinema, Straight Time (1978) features Dustin Hoffman at his best as Max Dembo, an ex-convict who tries, and fails, to go straight. Beginning with his release from jail, the film follows Max’s progress as he looks for work, reconnects with old friends and slowly, ineluctably succumbs to the lure of the big score. Based on the novel No Beast So Fierce by former convict Edward Bunker (later immortalised as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, and who has a haunting cameo here), the film exemplifies the gritty, downbeat vein of mainstream movies of the era. Broadway director Ulu Grosbard (best known as a filmmaker for True Confessions with Roberts DeNiro and Duvall) does an excellent job building character and atmosphere, giving his first-rate crew of supporting actors, including Theresa Russell, Gary Busey and a very young Kathy Bates, plenty of room to breathe. At the same time, the slow burning narrative maintains its forward impetus, with every scene like another twist of the knife in Max’s side, pushing him closer to his tragic fall. Opposite M. Emmet Walsh as a parole officer with a smiling, sadistic streak and Harry Dean Stanton as his taciturn partner in crime, Hoffman never again gave a performance so soulful or intense. Straight Time deserves comparisons with such crime classics of the ’70s as Mean Streets and Dog Day Afternoon. The terrific extras include a vintage ’70s promo featurette, with Bunker interviewed in his cell, and a commentary by Grosbard and Hoffman, with the latter characteristically frank about his problems with the studio, his thwarted directorial aspirations with this film and his own brush with juvenile delinquency. (Warner)