Magazine article American Cinematographer

Straight Time

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Straight Time

Article excerpt

Straight Time (1978)

1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)

Dolby Digital Monaural

Warner Home Video, $19.95

Throughout its history, Hollywood has had a lot to answer for when it comes to romanticizing criminals, but the accusation could never be leveled at the uncompromising, considerably underrated gem Straight Time. Featuring Dustin Hoffman in a possibly career-best performance as Max Dembo, a jittery Los Angeles ex-con attempting to go straight, the film never once strikes a false note in its depiction of the sporadically exciting but ultimately desperate and sad life of an average criminal. Straight Time is resolutely a film of the provocative 1 970s era, in that it explores the full spectrum of Dembo's criminal psychology - the greed and stupidity that doom him, as well as the professionalism and exhilaration of a perfect "score" - while refusing to make easy moral judgments.

At the start of the film, Dembo is released from prison and makes a sincere attempt to re-enter law-abiding society. But the crushing boredom of a minimum-wage job, combined with humiliating visits from a repugnant parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh), soon lures Dembo back to his old ways. When a jewelry-store heist with a loyal partner (Harry Dean Stanton) goes horribly awry, Dembo goes on the run, but the resignation on his face seems to augur that a return to prison is all but inevitable. Indeed, the film's fatalistic last line and concluding frames imply that "institutional men" like Dembo are bom rather than made.

Hoffman initially intended to direct and star in Straight Time, which is based on Eddie Bunker's memoir No Beast So Fierce. But the actor soon found the combined demands overwhelming and turned over the directing reins to UIu Grosbard, whose emphasis on low-key realism made him a perfect foil for Hoffman's intense performance. Primarily a theater director, Grosbard favored letting many scenes play out in wide shots with few edits, a strategy that highlights both the bracing spontaneity of the performances and the tension of the narrative.

In a commentary on this DVD, Grosbard notes that his visual approach was aided immeasurably by cinematographer Owen Roizman, ASC, who innately had a "great sense of what is real and what isn't." The filmmakers were determined to present the gritty underbelly of Los Angeles - disheveled Burbank backyards and dilapidated downtown rooming houses - and Roizman's naturalistic style, honed on raw classics such as 77?e French Connection and 77? …

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