Pretty much any cinephile will agree that the 1970s represented some of the best that film had to offer. From dynamic scripts to cutting edge camera techniques to new styles of acting, an overall liberating sense of freedom attached to the medium gloriously flowed throughout the decade. The result was the birth of many films which are now considered bonafide American classics.
There’s no question that one of the key players who helped to shape the decade in more ways than one was the great Dustin Hoffman, whose legendary perfectionism and attention to detail made him one of the most vibrant and exciting actors working throughout the 1970s. With films such as All the President’s Men and Marathon Man, Hoffman both set and raised the bar in terms of acting with every single performance he gave. Marathon Man co-star Marthe Keller recalls an instance during the filming of an emotional scene where the actor started crying even though the camera wasn’t on him, showing that his primary concern was the overall project, not himself.
In this week’s Archivist, we’ll take a look at two of Hoffman’s more underrated titles from the decade: the gritty drama Straight Time and the romantic mystery Agatha, both of which wonderfully showcase the actor’s chameleonic talents and his penchant for bringing to the screen the kind of unique and engaging stories which made the 1970s in film the decade that it was.
Straight Time (1978)
Based on the novel No Beast So Fierce, Straight Time sees Hoffman playing Max Kembo, a recently-released former convict who sets out to make a clean start for himself away from the crime-ridden life he once led. Things seem promising at first. He lands himself a menial, yet respectable job, finds his own place to live, and becomes involved with the lovely Jenny (Theresa Russell). It seems, however, that the system refuses to leave Max alone by questioning every move he makes and continuing to treat him like the criminal he once was…and perhaps still is.
Hoffman had originally intended to direct as well as star in Straight Time, but eventually opted out of the former, handing over the reigns to Ulu Grosbard so that he could concentrate on bringing Max to life. The move proved wise as evidenced by Hoffman’s work, which is full of a true cavalcade of emotions. His mix of despair and resentment at a system that won’t see him as anything else but an ex-con is deeply felt, as are his feelings towards Jenny, whom he sees as a bright light of hope in an otherwise grim world. Meanwhile his adrenaline-fueled intensity as he re-enters the crime world is as exciting as it is devastating. Hoffman is in fine company thanks to solid work from Russell, Harry Dean Stanton, Kathy Bates, and Gary Busey, all of whom play a part, in one way or another, in Max’s undoing. Straight Time is not a happy film, but it is a true one with themes and style very much in keeping with the anti-establishment tone of the decade. More than that, the film is a tragic acknowledgement to those who tried for a clean start, but found they were shot down at every turn.
In this blending of fiction and true-life, Agatha stars Vanessa Redgrave as the legendary British mystery novelist Agatha Christie, who famously vanished for nearly two weeks at the peak of her career, with many offering up wild theories as to what might have happened to her. Hoffman stars as an esteemed American reporter named Wally Stanton, who successfully traces the author to a posh hotel in the English countryside and finds himself torn between being the only journalist with the answer to the hottest news item of the year and the fact that he’s falling in love with the very subject he set out to investigate.
Agatha makes it a point to state from the beginning that the film is a fictionalized account of what happened to the real Agatha Christie during her disappearance, which incidentally she remained immensely secretive about to her dying days. Even if it doesn’t give an answer to a truly baffling real-life mystery, Agatha is still a gripping experience through and through. Watching Wally discover the elusive Christie and seeing him shed his reporter skin as he falls more and more in love with this mysterious creature the whole world thought they knew is never anything short of mesmerizing. Redgrave brings her natural talent and devotion to the title role, but it’s Hoffman who once again impresses. Even in a film where he is not the main focus, the actor still manages to electrify the screen in a multi-layered performance. Watching him take Wally from a slick and somewhat presumptuous character to a gentle and loving individual is a testament to the actor’s level of versatility. Agatha may be pure fantasy as far as the facts are concerned, but the romance between the two lead characters and the magic Hoffman and Redgrave summon up to create it makes us desperately wish it were all true.