Dustin Hoffman did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Max Dembo in Straight Time.
Dustin Hoffman is not the first actor that comes to mind when thinking of a hardened criminal, but Hoffman commits himself admirably to the role of Max Dembo even though his accent he uses is very inconsistent. What is more important though his his physical portrayal of Max Dembo in which Hoffman carries himself as man who is at least slightly on edge due to his past in crime and the time that he spent in jail. Hoffman carries the right sot of intensity with him to suggest the criminal past, and really early on in his performance is able to rather believable in the role of the career criminal.
Hoffman excels best though in the early scenes of the film where Max is trying to make in the real world while dealing with a particularly vindictive parole officer (Walsh). Hoffman regulates his charm properly to create a fairly sympathetic portrayal of Max as a man who is just trying to do the right thing while he is facing a constant discrimination. Hoffman downplays his usual screen presence in the right way here to establish the state of Max who really is trying his very best to do straight time. Hoffman brings just the right uncomfortable quality in Max to suggest the barrier in Max created by his life.
Due to a misstep and the behavior of the parole officer it is not long before Max falls back to crime. The moment where Max falls back is a rather sudden outburst opposed to a slow descent. Hoffman handles the scene very well by playing it as a hair trigger outrage over the constant unrelenting pressure put upon him by the parole officer. The outburst easily could have seemed like far too much given the jump he takes which is quite an extreme one to say the least, but Hoffman makes the scene convincing through both the why he sets up Max's personality but as well delivery in terms of the emotions of the moment.
Once Max starts though he does not stop and fully returns to crime even going so far as to do armed robberies in daylight. Max joins up with his friend Jerry (Harry Dean Stanton) to do the jobs and this is where a slight problem comes for Hoffman. The problem being that I feel that Harry Dean Stanton steals every single scene he shares with Hoffman even though Jerry is not even all that much of a character as written. Hoffman though is still completely solid in the scene but I do feel he probably could have brought just a little more to the idea of obsession which drives Max to take bigger and bigger risks.
After the obsession brings him to down a very dark path Hoffman is good in portraying Max's reactions to his situation where any hope is gone. What Hoffman reveals in his performance is that Max's choices are something he is unfortunately much more comfortable then he should be. At the beginning of the film Max is trying to find a new lease on life, but at the end that lease is well spent but he is not a different man then he was at the start. Hoffman's fairly calm portrayal of Max at the end instead rightly shows that where Max ends up is where he has been working to his whole life which has been a series of crimes and imprisonments.
Hoffman's work comes to a bit of a impasse where he seems deadlocked in his approach which never quite finds the greatness, I think this role was capable of, but still gives an effective performance which leads Max down the bitter path that his character finds himself in. Hoffman in every scene does deliver exactly as he should in conveying his character's journey even though he never quite makes the leap to turn his very good performance here into a great performance on the same level of his work in Midnight Cowboy for example. This is still a strong performance by Dustin Hoffman even though he never completely reaches the full potential of the role.