Writer/Actor/Director Buck Henry once saw Dustin Hoffman
in a play. Hoffman starred as a gay, paraplegic German. According to
Henry, at least two out of three had to be true. I guess Henry figured
that if a man from L..A.. could play a gay, paraplegic German, he could
probably do just about anything. Henry co-wrote the screenplay for The
Graduate; recommended Hoffman, and the rest is history.
Hoffman has always portrayed diverse characters. When I watch Rico Rizzo
in Midnight Cowboy, I don't see Dorothy Michaels (or Michael Dorsey)
from Tootsie. When I watch Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, I don't see Ted
from Kramer vs. Kramer.
Hoffman was once considered for the role of Michael Corleone. In
hindsight, Al Pacino proved beyond a doubt that he was perfectly cast as
the Don. However, in 1978's Straight Time, Hoffman demonstrates why he
was originally considered.
Straight Time tells the story of a career criminal. As the movie begins,
he is released from prison after serving six years for burglary. Max is
assigned a seedy parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh). Max tries to re-enter
society. He quickly gets a minimum wage job. He finds a cheap apartment.
He finds a girl who cares about him even though she knows his past.
So far, so good. But, Max still hangs out with the wrong crowd. One of
his friends is an ex-con (Gary Busey) who isn't very bright. Another
friend (Harry Dean Stanton) leads a middle-class suburban life (complete
with swimming pool), but longs for the adrenalin rush of the heist.
But, Max's greatest enemy is Max himself. Nobody has to twist his rubber
arm to leave the "straight life" for robbing banks and jewelry stores.
Yeah, he got screwed over by his parole officer. But, it's during the
robbery scenes where we finally find out what Max is all about. The
change that comes over Max in the film's final act is startling when we
consider the man who seamed so earnest in the beginning of the movie.
His character makes a complete arc.
Straight Time works splendidly because every scene either advances the
story or develops a major character. Nothing is wasted. My only
criticism is that the movie inadvertently glamorizes the life of the
criminal. To Straight Time's credit, I can't think of a single gangster
film that doesn't. Even if the criminal gets what they deserve, most of
us find these movies entertaining.