[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
The title sequence of John Frankenheimer’s new film utilizes Lichtenstein-like pop art images which ultimately prove to have been inappropriate and misleading indicators of what might follow. Whereas Lichtenstein and other pop artists use conventional symbols and forms (e.g., the comic strip) as a means of commenting upon those forms and upon the social and intellectual atmosphere from which they arise, Frankenheimer appears to be bound by the very conventions he wants to parody. Thus, the ingredients of 99 and 44/100% Dead include basic gangster genre stuff, ”romantic interest,” western overtones, a lot of violence, and a hush-hush attitude toward sex coupled strangely with 1960-type Hollywood male dominance themes. And the problem comes from Frankenheimer’s failure to demonstrate decisively that all, or at least some, of these elements are not to be taken at face value. By the time the predictable climax comes along and everyone bad is dead and the girls are saved, we have a strong suspicion that this is no parody at all, but rather, that Frankenheimer is actually out to elicit genuine emotions from his audience. And this simply will not do. It is like a comedian going through his act and then, at the end, telling a sad story and expecting us to take him seriously.
The painful descent into melodramatic bathos is not at all what we expected from a movie which initially announced itself as a kind of pop-arty travesty of shoot-’em-up gangster films. There are at least a couple of sequences toward the beginning of the movie which try to establish this sort of violence-is-absurd tone. In one, Harry is under fire from one of Claw Zuckerman’s men who is perched on a rooftop across the street. Uncle Frank, the leader of the gang opposing Zuckerman and his own counterpart, Big Eddie, pulls up in a bulletproof limousine. The barrage continues as Frank and Harry commence a casual conversation through the open window on the downwind side of the sniper. The counterpoint between violence and nonchalance here is definitely stylized, and it gives rise to the feeling, contradicted later on (when the main characters start to get bloodied), that violent acts are not to be taken too seriously in this film. A few moments later, as the limousine containing Harry and Uncle Frank is headed down a waterfront street, a man (presumably another one of Zuckerman’s) steps out in front of the car brandishing a fizzling bundle of dynamite which he is preparing to throw. But the limousine just keeps going, the would-be thrower turns tail and runs, and after the smoke clears from the ensuing crash and explosion we find Harry clutching Uncle Frank’s girlfriend, who has been tossed conveniently into his arms. The sequence is meant as a smooth bit of slapstick and serves again to emphasize the ostensible unseriousness of the story. Which is a miscue, because Frankenheimer ultimately gets caught up in his own melodrama, and the story—especially the “romantic interest” part—becomes, perhaps not so much serious, as thick with sentimentality.
Exactly what went wrong would probably be contested between director and screenwriter, but apparently what Frankenheimer had in mind—and what didn’t work out—was something along the lines of a Gunn-type atmosphere: slick, urbane wit joined with fast, flawless action and a perennially unruffled protagonist. He doesn’t come near to pulling it off—Peter Gunn’s distant but likable urbanity and cool is reduced to stylized bits of egoism as Harry forever goes about clicking his pistols and snapping his mod glasses on and off—but he winds up owing a good deal to Blake Edwards in the process of trying. For instance, Frankenheimer almost ends his film by stealing the beginning sequence of Gunn (a gangster disguises himself as a Coast Guard officer in order to gain entrance to the boat of an opposing gang leader). Almost, but not quite. Frankenheimer changes his mind in mid-quote, as though perhaps this would be going too far. He has already borrowed the idea for the sequence in which Harry’s girlfriend discovers the strange, scantily clad woman in Harry’s apartment—a woman to whom Harry, of course, refused to make love. (That Harry will kill anyone for a price but wouldn’t consider cheating on his girl or his boss is indicative of the confused and confusing morality inherent in the film.) The parallel sequence in Gunn finds Craig Stevens fighting off a seductress who later turns out to be the daughter of the man whose murder Gunn is trying to fathom. The distinguishing factor, I suppose, is that the girl in 99 and 44/100% Dead only claims to be Uncle Frank’s daughter.
But Richard Harris’s prissy, transparent Harry is Peter Gunn only by a generous stretch of the imagination (not to say that he doesn’t try to be Peter Gunn), and Frankenheimer’s allusions to and quotes from Blake Edwards’s movie are for the most part unearned and superficial. Whereas Edwards moves purposefully toward his effects—the climactic scene in Gunn is one of the most chilling in any recent movie I have seen—Frankenheimer wallows endlessly in an aura of cheap suspense which only gives the illusion that something is at stake. His attempts at visual stylization more often than not dissolve into meandering indulgences which are not functional but merely provide ornamentation. Harry is constantly maneuvered into visually “interesting” situations where there is plenty of potential for tricky camera angles and movements which Frankenheimer exploits mercilessly. Both the drawbridge and laundry-room sequences come to mind as moments which seem to be prolonged forever, simply so that we can explore every nook and cranny, every conveyor belt and steel beam which might provide the point of view for a “neat shot.” Only occasionally does Frankenheimer’s directorial eye wax poetic, as in the scene beneath the city where we see Harry and his sidekick Tony wandering among the glimmering fires of the hoboes who, like survivors of some holocaust, inhabit this world resembling a half-dead (99 and 44/100% dead?) last outpost of humanity.
In the end, however, Frankenheimer’s attempts to be by turns (or simultaneously) poetic, witty, darkly humorous, and melodramatic serve mainly to confuse what the point of his movie might be. And focus is badly needed here. Neither the narrative line nor the menagerie of cinematic references and allusions jell. And, perhaps the worst of all, 99 and 44/100% Dead begins with a chase scene. If this is any index to his present state of directorial originality, then Frankenheimer is in trouble.
Copyright © 1974 Rick Hermann
99 AND 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, Edmond O’Brien, Bradford Dillman, Ann Turkel, Chuck Connors, Janice Heiden, Katherine Baumann, David Hall, Constance Ford.