"Straight Time," a crime melodrama starring Dustin Hoffman as a parolee whose ostensible desire to go straight is undermined - by fate, choice and an exceptionally sadistic parole officer - soon after he hits the streets, has arrived under a cloud of litigation.
Hoffman, who spurred the project on and originally planned to direct the film as well as star in it, claims he was denied a final cut by First Artists, a production company set up a few years ago to secure the privilege for a number of participating stars - Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Barbra Streisand and Hoffman himself.
Hoffman may have a legal case. He does not appear to have a convincing artistic one. "Straight Time" isn't marred by an editorial hatchet job. It looks cleanly, coherently edited. Owen Roizman's remarkably alive, evocative location photography in Los Angeles give virtually every scene insisive visual clarity and emphasis, and the point of the story isn't obscured.
The fundamental problem seems to be Hoffman's suitability in the starring role. Derived from a 1973 novel by Edward Bunker, a former convict who also worked on the screenplay and appears briefly as Mickey, the screenplay is meant to depicit the concluding, irreversible stages in the evolution of a hardened criminal. The basic requirement in an actor who can make you believe implicitly in the scary, merciless resolution of his character, called Max Dembo. We need to watch a man surrendering to his killer instinct, the devil in his psyche conditioned and reinforced by a life of crime that began in childhood.
Hoffman cannot turn that crucial acting trick. He gives it a respectable try, but this role always seems a violation of his personality and temperament. He can pretend to be threatening and ruthless, but in some unavoidable way he just doesn't look threatening and ruthless. You're tempted to console him rather than run from him. The cunning and aggression that one might accept immediately if actors like Robert De Niro or Harvey Keitel were cast as Max are only theoretically apparent in Hoffman.
I suppose there was never a chance of Hoffman making his directing debut on this project with an actor as appropriate as De Niro in the lead, but the results might have been more rewarding. "Straight Time" is not a negligible failed movie. Unlike many misbegotten pictures, it has a subject and it sustains a feeling of the present tense in specific, uniquely urban setting. There are authentic, gripping elements in the firm. An overwhelming starring performance could have unified those elements emotionally.
The supporting cast boasts a number of strong performances, and Hoffman surely deserves some of the credit. J. Emmet Walsh as the swinish parole officer and Henry Dean Stanion and Gary Busey as respectively reliable and unreliable accomplices are especially impressive. Once scene of domestic tension between Busey, Kathy Bates as his apprehensive wife and a little boy cast as their son is positively electric with edgy authenticity. Ulu Grosbard seems to have acquired a directing edge he certainly never demonstrated in "The Subject Was Roses" and "Who Is Harry Kellerman . . .?" This story has explosive screen possibilities. What it seems to lack is an incendiary star.