I've been watching a lot of Seventies fare lately, and have discovered some real gems and the occasional dud ("The Seven-Ups," a limp attempt to carry on the "French Connection" franchise with a tragically wasted Roy Scheider, comes to mind).

I'll start off the "gems" discussion with "Straight Time," a 1978 film starring Dustin Hoffman as an ex-con named Max Dembo who has some muddled good intentions of going straight after being released from prison. But he's a lifelong criminal, and he knows no other way, and the movie perfectly captures the slow slide into his inevitable regression (aided in large part by a slightly sadistic parole officer played by the great M. Emmet Walsh). It's just a great moody but never stilted character study of a career criminal, with plenty of action and a first-rate supporting cast (a VERY young Theresa Russell as Dembo's girlfriend and Harry Dean Stanton as his holdup partner). And I love the film score by David Shire, who did really memorable work on the original "The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three.") All that, and great use of Los Angeles and surrounding environs as supporting characters themselves.

Why "Straight Time" failed at the box office, and faded from memory, is a real mystery to me. Hoffman was huger than huge at the time, coming off the hits "All The President's Men" and "Marathon Man," and heading into another smash in "Kramer Vs. Kramer.") All I can think is that a) the studio didn't have faith in it and thus didn't promote or distribute it with much enthusiasm; or b) audiences at the time had different expectations of Hoffman. What those would be, I can't imagine, given their willingness to accept his character in "Papillon." Go figure.

Any thoughts about "Straight Time"? And what would you add to the list?

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Yes, I would say Hoffman was terribly miscast in Straight Time. There's really no menace in him. That scene where he's supposed to be scaring Gary Busey just doesn't work at all. The movie turned into a bit of a vanity movie star project or Hoffman, and as good an actor as he is, he really couldn't pull off that character.

Compare this to the recently re-issued The Friends of Eddie Coyle with Robert Mitchum or even Hoffman's own performance in Midnight Cowboy, a role he really could play.

Wasn't there a TV show about a corrupt parole officer recently?
Interesting perspective, John. I won't say I disagree, as the idea of the diminuitive Hoffman manhandling the bear-like Busey seems laughable now that you've gotten me thinking about it. But, if you hadn't made a point of it, I wouldn't have picked up on it. Hoffman sold it to me somehow. As far as his size goes, I dunno ... he's no smaller than Pacino, and nobody disputes that Pacino can scare the green feces out of much bigger men on screen. Hoffman is intense, and intense is scary ... especially to a laconic stoner like the Busey character.

Up tonight: "The Laughing Policeman" (1973), with Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern.
The Laughing Policeman was a good one. If I remember correctly, it also had Val Avery, who played either a cop or a mobster in practically every movie made in the 70s.
Walter Matthau was in some great movies in the 70's. I just looked up Hopscotch and see it' officially 1980, but I think of it as a 70's crime film (espionage, I guess, he's a retiring CIA agent).

Another movie that came out around he same time as Straight Time was Short Eyes, another one based on material written by an ex-con that's very intense.

About Hoffman and Straight Time, I don't think it's so much his size as it is his hang-dog expressions and the way he carries himself. Pacino always seems tightly wound and like he can go off at any moment, and I don't get that from Hoffman - he has a hard time overcoming what seems like a decent man (only in the movies could that be a "problem" ;)
I read a Walter Matthau interview with Roger Ebert in which he said that he deliberately sought out darker roles in the early 1970s because he was dangerously close to getting typecast as lovable shaggy-dog characters in Neil Simon plays and other comedies. So he did three in a row: "Charley Varrick," "The Laughing Policeman" and "The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three."

Love "Charley Varrick," which is great largely for the support cast. Notable there is Joe Don Baker as Molly, the cheerfully sociopathic hit man. Love that scene where he's driving and singing "I painted her, I painted her ... up her belly and down her back, every crevice and every crack." And just as good is John Vernon, especially in the "pair of pliers and a blowtorch" scene later lifted by Quentin Tarantino. I love it when he points to a cow on a pasture and says, with evil amiability, "Look at the set of jugs on that one."

And "The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three" is just about a perfect movie. Every time I see it I think about all the great Robert Shaw performances we were deprived of because he died a few years later at just 50 years old. But it's Matthau's show all the way, and anybody who is tempted to see him as an unlikely star should check out how lamely Denzel Washington tried to fill his shoes in the pointless, flaccid remake.

Still haven't seen "The Laughing Policeman" yet; Netflix needs extra time to round up a copy. Instead I saw two crappy '70s films that were next up in my Neflix queue: "Telefon" (1977) with Charles Bronson and a tragically wasted Lee Remick; and "The Hunter" (1980)," which was Steve McQueen's last movie. What a bizarre, bungled flick that was. It couldn't decide if it wanted to be a comedy, a slasher flick, a domestic drama or the second coming of "The French Connection." McQueen looks horrible, especially in the action sequences, in which he runs like ... well, a man who only has months to live.
How could I have forgotten Pelham? It's the perfect 70s movie in the sense it conveys that civilization was on its last legs. It also has a wonderful little irony. The mayor of NYC is played by Lee Wallace, a character actor with a strong resemblance to Ed Koch, four years before Koch became mayor.
Also un-recommended: "The Boys From Brazil" (1978). Gregory Peck as Dr. Josef Mengele? It's the worst example of overacting since Gene Hackman in "The Poseidon Adventure."
Saw a bunch lately:

— "The Laughing Policeman" (1973). I wasn't impressed. Seemed to be a flat police procedural with a difficult-to-follow plot. Walter Matthau, playing a low-key, surly, humorless cop, wasn't having his strengths put to work. Bruce Dern stole the show somewhat in a flashier role as Matthau's partner.

— "White Lightning" (1973). So-so. This was the film Joseph Sargent directed before "Pelham One Two Three," and he handles the action sequences with equal aplomb. But the actors, and the characters they played, just weren't as strong. Burt Reynolds has star quality, but limited acting range, and that high-pitched giggle of his is just about the most annoying actor's tic on earth. The female lead, Jennifer Billingsley, was horrible. And Ned Beatty, a fine actor, was underwritten and underplayed too much as the villain in this big-screen "Dukes Of Hazzard."

— McQ" (1974). John Wayne as a 1974 Seattle cop? Weird, man. First of all, he was almost 70 and looked every bit of it. Second, it was weird as well to see so many fine actors show more emotional range than The Duke, who had several scenes in which he learned that a good friend had been murdered ... and he did nothing but let his face tighten so imperceptibly that I would go back and move frame-by-frame through my DVD to be sure I saw what I thought I saw. But the film made good use of its Seattle locations, and I liked the supporting cast, notably Clu Gulager, Eddie Albert, Colleen Dewhurst and Al Lettieri, the soft-spoken heavy who died shortly after.

How about Chinatown?  Wasn't that in the 70s? Crime doesn't get much better than Roman Polanski slitting Jack Nicolson's nose with a knife. :)

It's a great movie. Just not an underrated one.

The Mechanic with Charles Bronson was pretty good, too! As was Three Days of the Condor.

 

However, I have to put in a good word for The Seven-Ups. I actually liked it (and not just because the car chase was filmed in my old neighborhood in the Bronx).

Love "The Mechanic." If only because I am fascinated with the bizarre career of Jan-Michael Vincent, who should have been one of the biggest stars that ever was. Why did he crash and burn? I saw a recent interview with him on YouTube ... the man is a human eggplant today.

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