Dustin Hoffman proves, in the unsung ’70s-cinema classic Straight Time, that a great actor doesn’t necessarily need to fit the part to give a great performance. As Max Dembo, an explosive con out on parole and drawn back to robbery, the diminutive star at first looks miscast; it doesn’t help that his love interest is played by the too-beautiful Theresa Russell. Yet Hoffman is so fierce, he wills you into belief. Turning his intent eyes into beads and lowering his voice to woo his girl, or calmly spar with his sleazy parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh), or soothe his itchy accomplice (Harry Dean Stanton), the actor persuasively creates his own kind of villain, rich in contradiction and detail. When Dembo gets excited, Hoffman gives him the slightest of Southern drawls, and it makes him sound, unfortunately, a little like a proto-Dorothy Michaels from Tootsie. But the choice is so fascinating and precise that you marvel at the acting anyway. (In a commentary, Hoffman says he spent some two years hanging around criminals doing research.) Dembo, however improbably, turns out to be one of the actor’s finest creations. A-
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