"28", it says on the bathroom mirror in shaving foam, but for Tim Madden (Ryan O'Neal) this can only mean one thing: he is missing a day. Since he has awoken with a raging hangover he can attribute that to his drinking, but when he hears a kettle whistling on the stove downstairs his nerves are immediately set on edge because not only did he think he was the sole person in the house, but bits and pieces of his recent past are coming back to haunt him, and they are not good. On venturing down to the kitchen, he sees his father Dougy (Lawrence Tierney) sat at the table, and they begin to chat as he is the sole person Tim feels he can discuss things with, so relates the sorry tale of how he ended up framed for murder...
There is a question you have to ask about Tough Guys Don't Dance, and that is whether it was supposed to be funny or not. I mean, there were certainly big laughs to be gained from watching it, but were we laughing in the right places or was writer and director Norman Mailer really that misguided in bringing this eighties update of film noir (from his then-recent novel) to the screen? Certainly hs previous endeavours into movies had received nowhere near the acclaim that his writings had, with his most memorable result being beaten up by Rip Torn back in the seventies caught on camera, but then there was a little line here which wound up becoming, over twenty years later, an internet meme.
Yes, that accursed form of humour where a clip of a movie or TV show, shorn of context, becomes the go-to link for any net wiseacre who feels the need to drop it into an online conversation, which in the case of this movie was the scene where Ryan O'Neal (who is reputedly NOT happy about this state of affairs) receives a letter which he opens on a windswept beach and the bad news within prompts him to repeat "Oh man! Oh God! Oh man! Oh God!" and so on until the viewer collapses with the giggles. Unless that viewer is Mr O'Neal, in which case he cringes with embarrassment. Yet the thing was, with this movie you were guaranteed a zinger every couple of scenes or so, such was the overripe nature of Mailer's hardboiled dialogue, as if he had been channelling Mickey Spillane.
And that authorial voice had been horribly mangled in translation. You could set aside any suspicions that Tough Guys Don't Dance had actually been made by Gore Vidal to discredit Mailer, for the man himself showed up in the trailer, bravely reading out cards from a test screening which to put it mildly generated a mixed reaction, ending with "The Devil made this movie!" Even that wasn't enough to get punters into cinemas and the film flopped, but every so often someone would rent it on video and squirrel it away in their memory banks as something possibly worth returning to some day in the future. But there was more to this than rewatching the same twenty second clip over and over, there was a proper story and it did have proper actors (like weirdly superfluous love interest Isabella Rossellini) and all that, almost as if it was a real movie.
Though quite what shape that plot took was rather less easy to define, what with Mailer opting for a rather, um, eccentric format for it what with flashbacks containing flashforwards going back to flashbacks again. As a noir, there was a femme fatale named Patty Lareine (Debra Sandlund) and if you forgot her name the characters helpfully repeated it fifteen billion times; she, like a few other members of the cast sported a truly odd Deep South accent for reasons best known to themselves. Though if you genuinely wished for a mark of how this was going to play out, then take a look at two things: the production company was Cannon, always a mark of overreaching for quality when what you were dealing with was closer to trash, and the presence of Wings Hauser, here as a crooked cop who makes Tim's life a misery and claims being a law enforcement officer "turns me on!" Whether it was intentionally ludicrous or not, the effect was the same, this just looked very silly indeed, and whatever richer themes Mailer might have intended were buried in the absurdity. Music by Angelo Badalamenti.