A decade before his role in Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman played a tough-talking ex-con in Straight Time (1978). With a thick head of hair and a walk that means business, Hoffman’s character flirts with women, jokes with men, and ruthlessly attacks anyone who dares to disappoint him. Fresh off a six-year prison stint at the start of the film, Max tries to pick up a woman working at a head hunter agency. Dialogue, editing and costuming chart the rise and fall of the characters’ relationship throughout the film.
Positioned in center of the frame as he takes a typing test at the head hunter agency, Max wears a beige jacket, crisp, white shirt, black tie and khakis. The protagonists’ attire and placement in the frame highlight the importance of his task. In order to go “straight,” Max must get a job. The woman proctoring his test, Jenny (Theresa Russell), grabs Max’s paper as he tries to keep typing after time has run out. Jenny’s assertive move reveals the woman is no push-over. Dialogue quickly signals a playful twist in their interaction. After Jenny’s boss reprimands her for a phone-related mishap, Max asks Jenny: “Does she really like you as much as she seems to?” Featured in a medium shot, Jenny laughs and says: “I guess so.”
Though initially placed in separate shots, Max and Jenny are increasingly positioned in two shots as they converse. This change in editing features Max and Jenny as a unit, foreshadowing their eventual romantic relationship. Dialogue reveals Jenny’s acceptance of Max’s troubled past. When the protagonist admits he just got out of prison, Jenny asks: “And how long did you hold that position?” Smiling in a medium shot, Max replies: “Approximately six years – no vacations.” Natural lighting suggests the sincerity of the characters’ interaction. Max seals the deal when he boldly asks Jenny: “If I get this job, can I celebrate by taking you to dinner?”
Costuming reveals the effort the characters’ put in to their first date. Max wears brown jeans and a brown dress shirt with a hip pattern; Jenny wears a crisp blouse with tight-fitting bell bottoms. Dialogue also emphasizes the growing connection between Max and Jenny. The protagonist admits he often imagined a “scene just like this” while in prison. “I never thought I’d be sitting here with knots in my stomach,” he confesses. The lengthy take of Max discussing his jail time in a medium close-up showcases the man’s vulnerability as he opens up to Jenny.
The ex-con proves he can make the most of any awkward situation. When Max doesn’t have enough to cover the tip for dinner, he tells Jenny: “I’ll make you a deal. If you’ll go out with me tomorrow night, I’ll let you help me.” A close-up shows the characters’ hands touching under the table as Jenny slips Max the money. Camerawork reveals that romance is in the air.
In a later scene, a following shot captures Max as he enters Jenny’s house and walks to her bedroom. The shot reveals a shift in the couple’s relationship. Casually entering Jenny’s home in the early morning after he has been out all night using her car, the ex-con proves he has all the power in the relationship. While the close-ups and two shots during the couple’s ensuing sex scene suggest a strong sense of intimacy between the characters, their bond is clearly beginning to deteriorate.
During their next interaction, the lovers are consistently featured in separate, medium long shots. The characters’ distance to the camera and to one another exposes their feelings of mistrust and detachment. That Max is drenched in sweat following his gun theft is a far cry from the fashionable way he was dressed during the couple’s first date. Max tells Jenny: “I’m doing what I do. If you can’t take it…then I’ll just walk out the door.”
The long shot of Jenny vomiting by the side of the road after she hears of Max’s bloody bank robbery signals the end of their relationship. Max’s efforts to go “straight” have failed; the ex-con must leave Jenny behind and face the consequences of his latest crime.
The protagonist (Alex) in Revanche (2008) may not have hair like Dustin Hoffman, but he does have two things in common with Max from Straight Time – he’s a tough-as-nails ex-con engaged in unhealthy relationships with women. At the start of the film, Alex (Johannes Krisch) is in love with a hooker, Tamara (Irina Potapenko). The characters are always framed by vertical lines – a doorway or the walls of a shower – during intimate scenes. These framing devices showcase the couple’s romantic acts as spectacles. This technique also makes viewers highly conscious that they are watching these spectacles.
Early on in the film, natural lighting streams through the window while the couple eats pizza naked on Alex’s bed. The lighting and the characters’ state of undress emphasize the profound trust Alex and Tamara have in one another. However, Alex’s criminal past does influence the way he treats Tamara. At one point in the film, Alex points a gun at her face. She asks: “What is this?!’ He says: “It’s not loaded.” They repeat the exchange; Alex bursts out laughing the second time he says: “It’s not loaded.” Tamara slaps him. Alex responds by lifting her up and tossing her on the bed, repeating: “You were scared” as he keeps laughing. Dialogue demonstrates the man’s sadistic side.
Alex’s assertive statements also reveal his arrogance at the start of the film. “Nothing can go wrong,” Alex assures Tamara of his plan to rob a bank. “I go in, they give me the money, and we split,” he says. Unfortunately, a cop accidentally kills Tamara as he fires at the couple’s car when they speed away from the bank. The second half of the film follows the disturbing relationship between Alex and the cop’s wife (Susanne).
The ex-con repeatedly uses aggressive language with Susanne (Ursula Strauss). However, multiple long shots showcase the woman watching Alex chop wood at his grandfather’s farm. The protagonists warns her to stop coming to the farm and visiting his grandfather. “Cake, music, dance, tra-la-la. I don’t want it,” he says dismissively. The camera slowly zooms in as the characters face each other. Dialogue signals a major shift in their relationship. “Then come to my house,” Susanne counters. “I’ll be alone tonight,” she says softly.
Their first sexual encounter highly contrasts those between Alex and Tamara. Neither character is completely naked; dim lighting and the dinner table they comingle on make their act devoid of any emotional significance. That their second sexual encounter occurs on the small bed in the woman’s unused nursery (she had a miscarriage) is quite unnerving. The characters’ naked bodies appear unnatural against the powder blue wall paper covered in yellow teddy bears.
The final interaction between Alex and Susanne is structured in a shot/reverse/shot pattern. That the characters are featured in separate shots as Susanne finally learns of Alex’s involvement in the bank robbery is an ironic touch. Their lives couldn’t possibly be more intertwined, yet editing exposes the complete emotional disconnect between the two. As Susanne breaks off their fling, she asks Alex: “What will you do now?” Alex replies: “Stay here if they don’t catch me.” Their final conversation sets one thing straight. Susanne will keep Alex’s crime a secret, and the ex-con won’t be telling anyone about his affair with the married woman.