By John H. Foote
For the next few months I will explore the greatest films of the decades, beginning with the seventies, and counting down the 30 greatest films. The eighties will follow, the nineties, the 2000’s and the 2010’s and if they prove to be popular I will go backwards through the sixties, fifties, forties, thirties and twenties, in all covering 100 years of the greatest films in American cinema.
The research for this piece, these pieces rather, has been quite remarkable, and if it had been a while since I had last seen the films, I screened them to be sure. I could have easily stretched to 50 films per decade but felt 30 allowed me to go further than a 10 best, or even 25 best. The pieces will be posted as part of the decade series, but also called Revisits as that is what they are in addition to being part of the finest of the decades.
A word before we dive into the seventies: you will not find The Deer Hunter (1978) among the films I consider to be the finest of the seventies. While I admire the craft that went into it, the lies and falsehoods told by director and “writer” Michael Cimino prevent me in good conscience from including this lying artist and his film onto a list that represents the finest of the decade. From stealing a script and making it his own (sort of) to lying about his military service in Vietnam to witnessing the Viet Cong torturing the Americans playing Russian Roulette, Cimino might have had a great eye, but his lies were unthinkable.
The seventies remain the greatest 10-year period in film history for the sheer quality of cinema. Boundaries were broken, new films directed by exciting new directors dominated theatres and taboo subjects were permitted to be explore with absolute honest as never before. It was as though the filmmakers held a mirror up to society and saw it reflected with stunning authenticity. Here in declining order are the finest films of the seventies, in my humble opinion.
30. STRAIGHT TIME (1978)
Ulu Grosbard, best known as a stage director but also a wizard with actors, took over this production when Dustin Hoffman withdrew as director, wanting to focus instead on his performance. Great decision, as Hoffman as Max Dembo is spectacular. A thief being released from prison, Dembo is the sort of criminal who lies when he does not have to lie just to stay in practice of being deceitful, because that is his life. He never allows himself to get too close to anyone, because he never knows when he might have to hit the road and hide. His first visit to his parole officer shows a huge chip on his shoulder, and an absolute disdain for authority, disliking the smug man at once. Dembo plays by his rules and no one else’s. making him instantly unpopular with the power-hungry officer. More than once they will clash.
Once out of prison, Dembo meets with his former crew, hoping to score a theft at a jewelry store like they used too. As he puts together the job, he begins seeing a pretty young woman, portrayed by Theresa Russell, who knows about his past, but cannot help herself – she likes him. When his petty parole officer pays a visit to his small apartment he finds what he believes is a roach clip with marijuana on it and arrests Max, throwing him in jail for the weekend, which pours fire on Dembo’s already simmering rage. When the officer picks him up from jail for something he clearly knew Dembo did not do, the convict lashes out, leaving the parole office handcuffed to on a pole the side of the road with no pants, humiliating the man. The well planned job does not go well when one of the men does not pay attention and do his job, failing Max, and bringing about the death of a longtime friend, portrayed with regret and sadness by the great Harry Dean Stanton. In the days before his mental decline, Gary Busey is superb as the fool who costs Stanton his life and turns the cops onto Max.
Hoffman is always at his best when portraying a character who is nasty or has cruelty in him. He looks shifty, rarely making eye contact, and is always antsy, always seeming to look over his shoulder. Paranoid? Yes, though we never really know if it is warranted. Is someone looking for him for past offenses? His long hair is greasy, unwashed and his skin seems oily, which matches his character. This is a fearless performance, unconcerned with vanity, slipping into the role as one puts on a well-fitting glove. His constant thirst for the truth truly paid off with this superb performance. His “Ratso” Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy (1969) had been his greatest creation until Max, in which he gave his finest performance until Tootsie (1982) which remains his greatest. The film opened and closed within two weeks and though Hoffman deserved to be nominated for an Academy Award, the film was not seen enough by anyone really, to draw that sort of attention to his work. There is little doubt Max will offend again, from the moment he is out he has no attention of going straight, he loves the criminal life too much to do so.
Grosbard gave the film a gritty look at the life Max leads, near documentary like, in run down apartments for the recently paroled, back alley houses, affordable to those scraping by, and the sun drenched streets of Los Angeles, but never the sunny L.A. of dreams, this film goes for realism straight down the line.
Easily the best film ever made about a convict freshly paroled.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.