Tough Guys Don’t Dance
The novel is an equivoque or agon of sorts (Hammett and Ginsberg, settling into Poe), the film is an analysis of Malle’s Atlantic City, to all intents and purposes. The Great Gatsby (dir. Elliott Nugent or Jack Clayton) is made something of a preparatory study by the director and offers a comparison, it will be observed, here and there in the filming. A Robbe-Grillet motif or two can be seen, cp. Trans Europ Express, Glissements progressifs du plaisir, Un Bruit qui rend fou...
There is Cornell Woolrich and “The Black Curtain” (dir. Sydney Pollack for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), a case with some similarities, cf. Jack Hively’s Street of Chance. Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head (dir. Dick Clement) is the key to the nightmare’s inner structure, cf. Ken Russell’s Dance of the Seven Veils for the repetition of Madeleine-Patty Lareine-Jessica under Regency, Godard on Terminator 4 (For Ever Mozart).
At the center of this is the celebrated précis of The Music Lovers, “it’s the love affair of a nymphomaniac and a homosexual!” (for the “two whores killed in Helltown one hundred years ago”, cp. The Debussy Film, the “two unspeakable sleazos” The Devils).
Critics (not Variety) were mainly thrown by the vacuum of taste in Patty Lareine’s Provincetown home (cf. Capt. Regency’s house out Barnstable way), a terrific effect to prepare the flashback of the first half. Thus Lawrence Tierney giving the title vis-à-vis caviar and cocaine in the living room (cf. Russell’s Crimes of Passion). “Coke is a bad bust in Florida.”
“I never shoulda left New York” (cf. Albert Brooks’ Lost in America). A great film noir en couleur, a swindle that turns into a frame with elements of vengeance and blackmail but ends quite happily after all.
“Is it true the Pilgrims landed here before they went on to Plymouth?”
“And now they’ve built that wonderful motel right on the spot. Only a country as mad as ours could be such a roarin’ success.” The tale of Patty Lareine and Acting Police Chief Regency and money and cocaine and Madeleine from “The Fall of the House of Usher”, no less, “that is just as sure as hogs can shit! Do pahdon mah French. Muthafucka!”
The long walk on the jetty with “the Duke o’ Dixie” holding a gun recalls Archie Mayo’s Moontide. “Someday, I’m gonna run for President!” A question of “the enforcer—and the maniac.”
“People just don’t know how tough it is out there.” The trailer, in which Mailer reads preview cards, is a work of art in itself, like the opening sequence of Provincetown views, cf. Gist’s An American Dream, a film derided by Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema as “the worst picture of its year” despite the director’s “stylistic conviction” but because of his “intransigent material.”
John Bailey is credited as Visual Consultant, the score by Angelo Badalamenti hints at Puccini’s Turandot, his theme is sung by Mel Tillis at the bar where Mailer’s hero pushes a broom after a term in prison, “You’ll Come Back (You Always Do)”, Pam Tillis sings the dance number, “Real Man”.
Vincent Canby of the New York Times, “a lot of rather portentous musing”. Variety, “part parody and part serious with a nasty streak running right down the middle.” Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), “this is as confusing as The Big Sleep (1946).” Hal Hinson (Washington Post), “if a gang of inmates from an insane asylum were to stage a low-rent episode of Dynasty, it might look something like Tough Guys Don’t Dance.” Time Out, “a disgrace.” Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader), “cinematic savvy and style.” Film4, “a fascinating, frenzied blend of pulp, polemic and profanity.” TV Guide, “curious murder mystery”. Nick Sambides, Jr. (All Movie Guide), “an overcooked soufflé that explodes in the oven.”