|When it comes to American films of the 1970s, it is often the excesses (stemming from the newfound freedom that directors obtained during the '67-'75 period) that makes them so interesting. Even films that don't begin to approach greatness are, in many cases, infinitely more interesting than 90% of contemporary Hollywood product. This was the period where even established directors took chances — subverting Hollywood genres much in the same way as their French peers in the Nouvelle Vague had, and the influences of Godard, Truffaut Rohmer et al. can be found in the films of Penn, Altman, DePalma, etc.|
One American director who tried his hand at something different was John Frankenheimer, who in 1974 gave us the wonderful oddity 99 and 44/100% Dead. Lambasted by critics and public alike, it had always been near the top of Filmbrain's "70s-need-to-see" list, and thanks (once again) to the Fox Movie Channel, he's finally been able to scratch it off the list. Though it's a far cry from the brilliance of Frankenheimer's 60s output (The Train, The Manchurian Candidate, or his masterpiece, Seconds), it happens to be a genuinely funny, dark, mélange of genres that was perhaps far too ahead of its time. Its postmodern refusal to root itself in a single genre, tone, or mood no doubt confounded and irritated critics back in '74.
From its nonsensical title (a parody of the Ivory Soap slogan) and Roy Lichtenstein-influenced pop-art credits, to its opening sequence of underwater corpses in cement galoshes, it's evident that Frankenheimer set out to create something other than a straightforward gangster film. (That an early shoot-out sequence between rival gangs is set to a playful whistling tune à la The Andy Griffith Show theme only serves to support this claim.)
Set in the midst of a gang war between Big Eddie (Bradford Dillman) and Uncle Frank (Edmond O'Brien), the film is centered around our hero, Harry Crown, brilliantly played by Richard Harris. Though not particularly menacing in stature or brawn, Harry is brought in by Uncle Frank to help him win the war. Harry can best be described as a cross between James Bond and Delon's Jef Costello, though one can only wonder how this towhead behind oversized glasses can be the object of every woman's lust, while at the same time generating fear in the hearts of every other gangster. (A scene with a nude Harris preening in front of a mirror is worth the price of admission alone.) He's neither suave nor witty, and he manages to perform his tasks with a minimum of effort — a true PoMo hero.
Unlike other gangster comedies, 99 and 44/100% Dead relies not on jokes or comedic situations, but rather an ever-increasing level of absurdity for its laughs. Besides the unlikely casting of Harris as both killer and lady-killer, there's Chuck Conners, who nearly steals the show as Claw Zuckerman, a killer with an artificial limb complete with its own set of attachments, including wine opener, scissors, and feather duster. Harris' women have names like Baby, Dolly, or Buffy (newcomer Ann Turkel), the latter of whom teaches a third-grade class from the inside of a giant inflatable woman. Add to this alligators in the sewers and a magnificent loungecore soundtrack by Henry Mancini, and the result is a fascinating and extremely entertaining ninety-five minutes.
What the film lacks in plot (the story couldn't be any simpler), it more than makes up for in style and bravura. Many have claimed that 99 and 44/100% Dead is Frankenheimer at his directorial low point, but that's an unfair assessment. (Reindeer Games, anyone?) Many of his trademark flourishes are present, and though it does have some of that unavoidable cheesy 70s look to it, there's enough signature Frankenheimer to keep it interesting throughout. Not on DVD, it does show up fairly often on the Fox Movie Channel. Pay no attention to its undeserved lousy reputation — this one is sure to appeal to fans of both 70s cinema, and Richard Harris' ass.