A solid embarrassment all around, Tough Guys Don't Dance is a hardboiled mystery (aka: Annihilating Melodrama) so bad it needs to be apologized for. When new, it was only good as a joke. Now, sixteen years later, it takes some thought to even understand how it came about. MGM's great-looking DVD makes Norman Mailer's self-indulgence more beautiful than ever before, and adds an interview documentary with the author and bad filmmaker that only adds to the stew.
Cannon in 1987 was a bizarre place. It's well known what a yo-ho-ho pirate ship the building was, but Menahem Yoram and Yolan Globus could also be taken for a ride. Their curve of success in the early 1980s was from cheap pictures that cleaned up, like Breakin' and Missing in Action. When I joined the company for my two years of fun, they were deep into piles of expensive movies, few of which had any hope of being commercial. Forgotten Sylvester Stallone pictures and the like were so, so bad, or so badly ruined (Salsa) that the company sank into a pile of debt.
While the ride lasted prestigious names could get a movie done there, as Mo and Yo liked the idea of pretending that they wielded big star power. Mikael Baryshnikov, Julie Andrews, and Andrei Konchalovsky passed through. 1 In the wake of the notoriety of Blue Velvet, a Zootrope producer was able to float this disaster on the big name value of Norman Mailer.
The rest of Hollywood had long before written off Mailer as an uncontrollable nut with three weird independent films he made in the 60s, maverick affairs more read about than seen: Moonstone, Wild 90s and Beyond the Law. Owing a publisher a book, he dashed off a murder mystery and thought to himself, 'this would make a great movie!' Since he was Norman Mailer, he got the opportunity to make it.
With a title that already sounds like a parody of a bad parody (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid), Tough Guys Don't Dance flops around trying to be shocking with familiar film noir conventions. Sad sack hero Ryan O'Neal is a functioning amnesiac, conveniently forgetting the key to a mystery which is not a mystery. He slowly gives both us and dad Lawrence Tierney the facts, in a series of flashbacks that somehow need to be told just-so, even though all Tierney needs to know about are two or three pertinent items, like the two human heads stashed in the basement. Hardboiled veteran Tierney is the best thing in the movie. If it was the same story of an idiot up to his clavicle in intrigue and corpses, but instead focused on the tough-guy dad, it might have been a classic. 2
Characters that had to be extreme cartoons on paper come off as unpleasant grotesques. Debra Sandlund struts around like a cat in heat talking about her 'pussy hair', only one of many Mailerisms spicing up the story with unlikely dialogue he must have thought outrageous. The supporting cast tries to outdo each other with extremes, as if they signed on for a breakthrough edgy picture, and all wanted to go down on record as having played the Dennis Hopper role. Somnambulent John Bedford Lloyd (The Abyss) thinks he's in a bad one-act play. Penn Jillette comes on as an unspeakably arch preacher, doing a bad Dan Ackroyd impersonation. John Snyder and Stephan Morrow act through layers of slime. Their highlight, and Lloyd's one good line come in the awful scene where the crooked pair hoist a headless female corpse out of a barrel of lime. Yummy.
Wings Hauser's performance is the kind of unrestrained insanity (clearly encouraged by Mailer) that quickly relegated him to direct-to-video work. He's so overboard he's borderline unwatchable. Next to Lawrence Tierney and his gravelly voice, the most fun in the picture is provided by Frances Fisher, playing a bawdy ex-porn star with a laugh that could chip paint.
Isabella Rossellini has almost nothing to do but act the hurt dove; we can't begin to picture her as marrying wild man Wings Hauser. Ryan O'Neal is the all-purpose fall-guy for everything; Mailer gives him a couple of okay lines, one strictly awful scene yelling on a beach ("Oh Man Oh God Oh Man") and the job of being a melancholy loser for 100 minutes.
So why isn't it pleasant? Despite the nicely photographed locale, nothing in Tough Guys Don't Dance even begins to snare our concern or attention. Ryan is too much of a flake to invest in, and the rest of the gargoyles on view make us want to go find another movie. Add to that the flashback structure that tells us that Ryan knew 99% of the 'mystery' from the beginning. For a big finale, the story unravels by itself, through no agency of the hero. Just as we're beginning to put it all together (mainly because vital info has been withheld), it transpires that understanding it wasn't worth all the effort.
The details are some of the biggest blunders. Mailer apparently thought it hilarious that dad and son should hold a dumping-bodies-in-the-ocean party for a final scene. We just sit there counting them, trying to remember if anybody from the supporting cast survived. The great novelist's idea of character exposition is to show crazy Captain Regency's home display of war memorabilia, including pictures of himself holding a machete and looking as kill crazy as someone from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
MGM's DVD of Tough Guys Don't Dance looks very good, with John Bailey's cinematography giving the New Providence locations a soft and moist look. Cannon's stereo mix is nicely reproduced ("Oh Man Oh God Oh Man"). The trailer included is one of the Cannon trailer department's most outrageous efforts. The cutter literally threw it together overnight after giving up on a straight thriller approach - every attempt at normality ended up like a bad promo for TV thriller, with terrible dialogue lines. Norman Mailer went for the idea of appearing himself and touting the 'controversy' that this was the best / worst film ever made. Audiences weren't fooled, but the trailer department had a sure laugh-getter for its reel.
MGM's interview docu with Mailer compounds the problems with the film. Mailer was clearly allowed to make this bomb on the basis of his literary reputation, and whereas other thrillers with a similar lack of success (Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot, for one) would never get such attention, the ability to snag Mailer for an exclusive was too tempting. Oddly, unless it appears on an extra sticker thrown away with MGM's 'tough packages are hard to open' cellophane wrapping, the box text doesn't mention the docu extra.
Mailer has absolutely no perspective on his show and talks to us as if it were still eligible for awards. He apologizes to Ryan O'Neal for leaving in the 'Oh Man Oh God' speech against everyone's counsel but is still under the illusion that this shapeless mess of noir clichés plays like a real picture and has great acting. MGM's in-house department is so good about giving us new interviews, often with obscure filmmakers, that indulging Mailer here is no great sin.
The soft, overexposed cover art for the DVD makes this look like a tender romance. Tough Guys Don't Dance is one of those gawdawful pictures like Showgirls that attract a following of perverse fans. Only in this case, there's not even enough to keep the perverse fans happy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tough Guys Don't Dance rates:
1. Konchalovsky had a big
hit, Runaway Train, but his masterpiece Shy People is buried somewhere over at Warners.
2. Tierney visited Cannon a few months after Tough Guys came out.
He got off on the wrong floor and we could hear him yelling (a VERY scary voice). Like many who
worked for Cannon, he was probably there to get owed pay and using threats to do it. I met him again
on his way out and the bald, hefty guy looked friendly, so I ventured an introduction. I was
on my second decade of Val Lewton worship, and one of his first speaking roles was in a movie called
The Ghost Ship, which at that time could not be seen.