[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
The hyperchromatic comic-strip explosion terminating the credits sequence gives way to an American flag flapping over Puget Sound, and the camera half-crawls, half-pans toward the dock to pick up a black limousine sleeking toward us. The cut recalls the zany political surrealism of The Manchurian Candidate—generals snapping to attention to salute a brainwashed assassin, a fat Senator pinked through the milk carton by a silenced bullet—and what immediately follows also suggests the offbeat cinematic imagination that, eight or twelve years ago, enabled John Frankenheimer pictures to crackle. Two black-suited gangsters spill a corpse out of the backseat, his feet cased in concrete, and heave him into the drink; down the body sinks to land kachunk on the bottom among a submarine orchard of similarly weighted cadavers in various stages of corruption; and with them rests and rusts a nostalgia-ridden criminal landscape, a grand Guignol hall of memories: slot machines, chemin-de-fer tables, safes, skeleton-stuffed phonebooths and automobiles. It’s a giddily hilarious moment in spite of, more than because of, the rinkytink Mancini music on the soundtrack. And the grim comedy continues as the dumpers of the latest human detritus are themselves spilled into another part of the water mere moments later—in a less reputable corner of the graveyard.
In fairness, the idea is at least as characteristic of the screenwriter as it is of the director: Robert Dillon previously wrote Prime Cut, another tit-for-tat saga of gang warfare in another fresh locale (Kansas corn country) with such grisly/funny coups de théâtre as a threshing machine consuming, baling, and belching forth a Lincoln Continental, and an unsuccessful recon man getting processed into wieners (the opposition ran a legit meatpacking business). But, in whosever hands, this sort of humor is extremely difficult to sustain without turning pornographic, and 99 44/100% Dead quickly runs afoul, or just plain foul. Dillon writes his heroines into some pretty gross situations (a minor screenwriter-as-auteur note: whores with an orphanage background figure bovinely in both films) and, even in his best movies, director Frankenheimer has manifested an inability to portray even remotely credible relationships between men and women that would be offensive if his incompetence were less pathetically evident. His heroes are sometimes stick-figures (the drivers in Grand Prix), sometimes massively impressive macho prototypes (Lancaster in Seven Days in May), sometimes psychically—or psychosexually—tortured souls (Harvey and Sinatra in Manchurian Candidate, Randolph/Hudson in Seconds, Peck in I Walk the Line), and at least once (Omar Sharif in The Horsemen) something like the distillation of such assertive, idealized masculinity that they verge on the sublime. Richard Harris, here, is just silly, murmuring almost inaudibly in a kind of Ivy League brogue, folding his glasses with bolt-action sound effects before reaching for a gun or a breast, and generally looking as if, since he can’t be anywhere else just now, he’ll pretend the whole shambling mess he’s got into is one very cool scene and he himself is an ice-blue Popsicle.
Seattle is never named as the city the gangs are fighting for control of, and indeed the opening chase is cut in such a manner that the Alaska Skyway seems to run off a Tacoma pier. That’s OK, but elsewhere the editing is choppy (putatively surrealistic, perhaps, but in the last analysis just choppy), and there’s really no accounting for why so-and-so turns up at such-and-such place when they do. Harris does some of his murmuring in unaccounted-for voiceover that purports to take us on a browsy tour of the underside of American life, down to and including those legendary baby alligators flushed down the commode to thrive fully grown in the sewer system; but in fact its true function is to lend some coherence to a formless narrative.
99 44/100% DEAD
Direction: John Frankenheimer. Screenplay: Robert Dillon. Cinematography: Ralph Woolsey. Editing: Harold F. Kress. Music: Henry Mancini. Production: Joe Wizan.
The Players: Richard Harris, David Hall, Edmond O’Brien, Ann Turkel, Chuck Connors, Kathrine Baumann, Janice Heiden, Bradford Dillman.
Copyright © 1974 Richard T. Jameson