Ulu Grosbard’s 1978 dramatic thriller immediately moves right up there with Alien, Paris, Texas, and Wise Blood as among my favorite Harry Dean Stanton performances. The supporting cast – including another great ’70s role for Dustin Hoffman – ain’t too bad either, with Gary Busey, M. Emmet Walsh, Theresa Russell, and Kathy Bates all doing good things.
One thing I quite liked about Straight Time, which I can’t really represent here, is the editing by Sam O’Steen and Randy Roberts (O’Steen did a lot of cutting for Nichols and Polanski). It’s nice and rhythmic. Some of that is the coverage that Grosbard gets, but a scene like this one, where Max Dembo (Hoffman) faces off against his parole officer Earl Frank (Walsh), starts mostly on non-complementary shots, framing Frank in this medium at about 45 degrees, and Dembo in this close-up-
-is also emphasized by the editor’s hand. As the power shifts and it becomes clear that Frank will be a bit of an asshole, we get his complementary CU-
-and then a button at the end of the scene. The first time we see this shot, which is a wider frame, keeping Frank large in the composition, but still releasing a bit of the tension that the prior shot-reverse held:
Here’s another of their interactions (and there are some really great scenes between these two in this film). This one’s even simpler in terms of shot selection. The over-the-shoulders basically match, but, in order to keep both relatively eye-level, Frank’s shoulder intrudes more on Dembo’s MCU. That said, I liked this shot sequence because both men feel jailed and if you watch this out of context it’s tough to say who the prisoner might be (costuming aside). That becomes relevant very soon in the movie:
There’s great production design in here (by Stephen B. Grimes) that contrasts the lower income with the the higher. Here’s the former. Look at all that yellow. And the shots are so flat and confined. I also like how Dembo wears a yellow jacket to match the overall tones:
Then there’s this, which is with Dembo’s former, and soon-to-be-current, partner in (literal) crime, Jerry Schue (Stanton). Dembo’s shirt color is richer. The yellows are still there, but this whole thing is much more saturated and blue-green:
This scene ends in a spectacular crane shot. The camera moves up and away from the trio, showing suburbia as this odd bubble. They appear almost like characters in a diorama:
I envy the simple coverage that Grosbard gets away with, even in action oriented scenes. While things get more complicated shot-wise later, here’s a look at a mid-film heist. Dembo and Schue enter in a wide-shot-
-and the camera continues to pan with Dembo as we marches behind teller’s desks, opening drawers:
There’s a wide cut back to Schue-
-and then some tighter coverage:
Otherwise, the only other shot is this wide with Dembo in the foreground and Schue in the background:
But despite utilizing only four shots there’s still some amazing tension here. The performances carry it, but it’s also a good lesson in the reaction shots being more important than those that cover the primary action. Three of the four shots feature Schue. He’s not grabbing money, just covering people with a gun. That it’s Schue that’s so prominently shown here is also a nice telegraph to a later, critical scene.
I already mentioned Stanton’s performance. He’s so great in the two scenes depicted above. Falsely happy and desperate in the ‘burbs; maniacal and frightening in the heist. But it was this medium close-up that sold it for me. Dembo offers another job. Schue doesn’t take it seriously at first, but then his face becomes all greed and addiction. You can feel him tensing his muscles as he thinks things through:
Straight Time is a drama and thriller first, but there are also moments of comedy. Sometimes it’s deadpan, sometimes just sad. Here’s one of my favorites. Dembo and Schue go into a jewelry store. That’s Schue way in the background. Dembo is all the way in the foreground. Without a word he opens his case, puts on goggles and huge blue gloves. It’s so confident, and such a ridiculous – but appropriate – disguise that it becomes funny…just for a moment. I also like the work that you have to do to keep an eye on both. Placing Schue in the background does more than just filling that space. It also adds to the suspense: the workers and customers are surrounded and don’t even know it.