By John H. Foote

Dustin Hoffman has always been at his finest when the character he is portraying has an edge to him, a meanness that sets him apart from the rest of humanity. He twice has won Academy Awards for Best Actor, but never has he won for his finest work, which was Tootsie (1982) simply one of the most astonishing performances ever given, and this little film, Straight Time, where he portrays Max Dembo, a small tine criminal. Straight Time was based on the novel “No Beast So Fierce”, and initially Hoffman was to direct the film, but found out a week into the shoot, he could not do both. So he replaced himself with Ulu Grosbard, a well-known stage director with a solid reputation with actors to helm the film.

Though it opened in the summer of 1978 to excellent reviews, it failed to find much of an audience and slipped between the cracks of seventies movies. Sadly, one of Hoffman’s finest performances went under seen until it came out on video and then Blu Ray.

Max is the kind of guy who will lie when he does not have too, just to stay in practice lying. When he meets you, he is sizing you up, figuring you out, getting a handle on what he can get from you or how you can be of use to him. He does not see human beings the same way we do, and this is what makes him dangerously anti-social.

Released from prison he knows at once his parole officer is a mean little man who enjoys the power he has over the convicts and Max understands the man will exploit that power whenever he can. Max re-connects with a fellow criminal, beautifully portrayed by Harry Dean Stanton and very quickly they begin hatching a robbery that will bring them money. They involve another man, portrayed by Gary Busey, who will be their downfall.

Hoffman lives in this character, he inhabits Max in every way, ever watchful, in tune to everything around him, and finding a use for everyone in his life. Even his girlfriend is someone he can walk away from at a moment’s notice, and he is at peace with this life.

There is a nastiness to Max that is inherent from the first time we see him, he is not someone we would would want as a friend because he would never truly be your friend. When their robbery goes wrong because of Busey, Max has no trouble killing his friend because he has failed him. Stanton is dead because of Busey, and Max evens that score. He knows he must flee Los Angeles, because he has humiliated his parole officer after being thrown in jail for no reason (other than the parole officer could) and now committed both a robbery and murder, meaning they will find him and put him back in jail longer this time. He must run.

Hoffman creates a character who we know will never be free of crime because he does wish to be. He likes the life; he enjoys being a criminal partly because it is all he knows. We see no compassion in his eyes, no empathy for others, he is a mean, nasty little man who holds the human race in contempt.

It was a triumphant performance, one of Hoffman’s finest, though sadly was discovered and celebrated AFTER the Academy Awards for 1978. He should have been among the nominees, no question.

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