Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987)

Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987)

Writer, ex-con and 40-something bottle-baby Tim Madden, who is prone to black-outs, awakens from a two-week bender to discover a pool of blood in his car, a blond woman’s severed head in his marijuana stash, and the new Provincetown police chief, Captain Luther Regency, shacked up with his former girlfriend Madeleine. As his father Dougy helps him try to unravel the mystery, he is dogged by the psychotic Capt. Regency, who has it in for Tim as a car-crash that he was involved in with Madeline has left her unable to have children.

Flashing-back to the past, Tim remembers the time when he encouraged Madeline to swing with a Li’l Abnerish couple from down South, the fundamentalist preacher Big Stoop and his Daisy Mae-ish wife, Patty Lareine, whose ad Tim had come across in ‘Screw’ magazine. It’s on the trip back that the car crash occurs, since Madeline is incensed that Tim has so enjoyed Patty Lareine’s charms.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance is a 1987 crime mystery comedy-drama film written and directed by Norman Mailer based on his novel of the same name. It is a murder mystery/film noir piece that was scorned by audiences and critics alike. It was screened out of competition at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.

Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987)

Film Review for Tough Guys Don’t Dance

Norman Mailer’s “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” has the form of a thriller and an impressive content of sex and violence, but beneath that is a strange nostalgia that seems to have nothing to do with anything else. The nostalgia is for Provincetown, seen in a cold winter season with the weathered gray houses against a pink and purple sky, the gulls’ cries lonely in the twilight. This place is so deeply seen that the people in the movie sometimes seem like ghosts, occupying it for a time.

That is the deepest level. Above it is the practical plot level of severed heads, missing persons, alcoholic blackouts and dirty business to be done. The film’s hero is Tim Madden (Ryan O’Neal), a writer in a slow season, whose past begins to catch up with him. He has spent a good many years drinking too much, smoking too much pot, sleeping with the wrong women and not sleeping with the right ones. Now he has made some people mad at him, and one day he discovers a severed head in the place where he hides his stash.

I will not reveal the owner of the head for two reasons: first, because it would be unfair to reveal the plot, and second, because although I have read the novel and seen the movie and even visited the location while the filming was under way, I cannot remember whose head it was. There is a press release I easily could consult for the name, but that would be cheating. It says something about this film that the women characters, played by such memorable actresses as Isabella Rossellini, blond newcomer Debra Sandlund and intriguing Frances Fisher, play people not nearly as memorable as themselves.

Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987)

Something comes back to me now. The Sandlund character, Patty Lareine, is a hillbilly once married to a preacher. The O’Neal character and his girlfriend met them through a singles ad and engaged in a weekend of sexual abandon. That led in a complicated way to the more recent events after Patty Lareine left the preacher to marry the hero’s rich friend from prep school, Wardley Meeks III, who now appears on the scene after a crisis of identify.

This is as confusing as “The Big Sleep” (1946). The characters come and go, in the past and the present, and their severed heads appear and disappear. It is almost as if Mailer does not much care to take inventory. The film’s center of gravity is in Madden’s befuddled and paranoid head and much depends on a night he cannot remember, a night when he gained a tattoo and perhaps committed a murder.

He drinks and makes cautious inquiries and tries to determine from people’s actions what they think he did. The local police chief calls him in, for reasons not entirely clear. The inventory of heads in his stash changes from one, to two, to none. He can hardly bear to look to see whose heads they are. He cannot understand who knows the location of his stash and the identities of women from his past and, even more so, who would want to kill them. Then there is the question of the strange couple from California, who turned up in the local inn shopping for real estate, drank with him and turned up missing, their car abandoned, after the night he cannot remember.

In the middle of this morass, the film’s best character appears: Dougy Madden (Lawrence Tierney), father of the O’Neal character, a tough old bartender and fighter who always seemed to the son more authentic and courageous than he could ever possibly be. Now Dougy is dying of cancer, but he still is man enough to put the bodies – there are more of them by this point – into a boat and row them out to sea and sink them beyond the reach of gulls and police. The relationship between the father and son is the best thing in the movie.

I wonder if Mailer even cared about the details of his thriller. Few people who see the film only once will be able to accurately describe just what happens in it at a plot level. I suspect he used his thriller, with its lurid sex and blood-soaked bodies, as a lure to convince his backers to let him direct the movie and that his attention was really on the father-son relationship and on Provincetown itself, which becomes as important as what happens in it. The photography, under the “supervision” of John Bailey, is stunning and evocative of a time and place, and O’Neal occupies it like a man on a last, sad visit.

What is strange is that “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” leaves me with such vivid memories of its times and places, its feelings and weathers, and yet leaves me so completely indifferent to its plot. Watching the film, I laughed a good deal; many of the situations play like comedy. Remembering it, it seems elegiac, but in a way that has nothing to do with the deaths in the plot. Something else seems to die and be mourned, something to do with Dougy and the cold flats of the sand at twilight.

Tough Guys Don't Dance Movie Poster (1987)

Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987)

Directed by: Norman Mailer
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Isabella Rossellini, Debra Stipe, Wings Hauser, John Bedford Lloyd, Lawrence Tierney, Frances Fisher, Kathryn Sanders, R. Patrick Sullivan
Screenplay by: Norman Mailer
Production Design by: Armin Ganz
Cinematography by: Mike Moyer, John Bailey
Film Editing by: Debra McDermott
Costume Design by: Michael Kaplan
Set Decoration by: Gretchen Rau
Music by: Angelo Badalamenti
Distributed by: Cannon Films
Release Date: September 18, 1987