Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987) Beach Town - Hopperesque Neo Noir

Here is a guest review from an All Films Noir contributor

Phillip Jeffries

Tough Guys Don't Dance - 

from 1987, directed by Pulitzer prize winning author Norman Mailer and starring Ryan O'Neil (Love Story, Barry Lyndon), Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Death Becomes Her) Lawrence Tierney (Born to Kill, Reservoir Dogs) and Wings Hauser (The Wind, Pale Blood and Champagne and Bullets), is a wacked out neo-noir that has become infamous for the bad line reading meme of Ryan O' Neil shouting: "Oh man, oh God!" It has been parodied on Family Guy and O' Neil has never lived it down. With this brand spanking new 2K restoration from Vinegar Syndrome, we can now finally see the scene in its context. Adapted from Mailer's own 1984 novel and made in the aftermath of David Lynch's cultural phenomenon Blue Velvet, one could deduce that Mailer was huffing Lynch/Frank Booth gas when he set about making this picture. Tough Guys Don't Dance is a post Lynch film, no question, but does it hit the bullseye the way Lynch almost always does? Yes and no, but more no than yes, however this makes for a fascinating and hilarious watch.

Ryan O'Neil

Wings Hauser

Debra Stipe

Frances Fisher

Isabella Rossellini

Lawrence Tierney

Penn Jillette

It's the same old Hollywood story told time and time again. Tim Madden (O'Neil) awakes from a 2 week long bender of booze, marijuana and cocaine to discover a severed head in his weed stash (I really hate when that happens). Much of the story is told in flashback to his father (Tierney) and the both of them attempt to clear up the mystery of what happened and who may be trying to frame Madden for murder. Mailer's film hits all of the familiar but welcome beats of a murder mystery so I shall not belabour the details surrounding the plot. In the wake of the controversy surrounding Blue Velvet and Roger Ebert's idiotic review of the Lynch masterpiece, Isabella Rossellini was dropped by her agent. Not only was Rossellini ported over from Lynchland but so too was his frequent collaborator, composer Angelo Badalamenti. If David Foster Wallace had a boner for Lynch, I think Mailer was ready to make love to David. 

The film's tone can be described as high camp. Mailer attempts to juggle multiple tonalities throughout the movie and unlike Lynch, he can't quite pull it off. In one scene, David Lynch can scare you to death, make you unload in your depends from laughter and then tear your heart out with deeply raw emotion. As far as I'm concerned, only Lynch can be Lynch and trying to ape his style will generally end in disaster. However, this does not mean that Tough Guys Don't Dance is devoid of attributes. One of the positives comes in the form of the Provincetown Police Chief Luther Regency played impeccably by Wings Hauser. Hauser is the true MVP of the film and he seems to fully understand the tone better than Mailer does. It is surprising to me that Wings Hauser was never hired by Lynch for a project because Mr. Hauser was built for Lynchland. Hauser's Luther is frightening, hilarious and sad all at once. Kudos to Mr. Hauser for his jaw dropping turn. 


Ryan O' Neil also acquits himself quite well, and like Wings, he should have participated in the release of this blu-ray as the film is finally undergoing critical re-appraisal. His famous "oh man, oh God" scene makes so much more sense when it is not excised from its source material. O' Neil is now unshackled from the chains of the meme and he should be thankful to Vinegar Syndrome for giving a new generation of audiences a chance to form their own thoughts regarding the film that has been so thoroughly lambasted.


Here are some contemporaneous pull quotes from reviews for Tough Guys Don't Dance: "Stinks." Another one: "One of the worst ever. My Grandmother could do better." And one more: "Whoever wrote this has never read a good book." You get the idea. Filmed on a budget of between 5-10 million dollars, Mailer's misfire grossed under 350,000 dollars at the box office. Some people have said that the film was ahead of its time and that if it had been released post Pulp Fiction that it would have done better. I am dubious of this claim. The film is just too odd, even now in a post Twin Peaks: The Return world, I think the film would still flop. This is not to say that it is not worth a watch. On the contrary, I highly recommend watching this film and making up your own mind. A while back, Criterion released Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate so it could be critically re-appraised. That film was bad and uninteresting in 1980 and it remains so in 2021. Tough Guys Don't Dance is very much worthy of critical re-appraisal. I cannot guarantee that you will think this film is good, but I can guarantee that there is good fun to be had with it. Tough Guys Don't Dance gets my patented strong recommend.

Noirsville watched Tough Guys Don't Dance on the strength of Phillip's review, it's definitely worth a watch, and if you are familiar at all with beach towns you can approach it from that angle, and it's believable. What if a 1980s Provincetown, or Martha's Vineyard, Hampton Bays or Cape Hatteras and it's combo of rich, snooty, artistic, literary, and hip denizens went Noirsville and go into it with that zeitgeist in mind. You just wish the film was a bit tighter and better put together by a real director. I hope the screencaps spark some interest and give you an idea of the aesthetics employed in the film. 6/10