I just watched Tough Guys Don't Dance from a VHS cassette I found free in a thrift store. I'd seen it when it was new and I remember even writing a review of sorts about it, but I really don't recall anything I said. I have a vague feeling I liked the film, but other than some reflections on scenes here and there I didn't remember anything about it. I'm not even sure if I've read Mailer's novel, but again I have a nagging feeling in the back of my head saying I read it at the time.
If I liked the film the first time, I certainly liked it less this time. The film drags heavily at points and is too dialogue-ridden and some of the actors are pretty bad. The film is not very focused and gets confusing at times. There are some very bad moments (the famous "Oh man! Oh God!" scene, for example). This all said, there's something in Tough Guys Don't Dance that makes me want to proclaim it one of the precursors of the modern neo-noir films. The same delirious feeling permeating Mailer's film is also found in films like Romeo Is Bleeding (the Peter Medak one, not the later one) or Coens' The Big Lebowski. Scenes are disjointed, the characters are campily overacting, everyone is using cocaine and talking nonsense, womens' heads are cut off mercilessly, everyone's overusing sex to get to their goals. Maybe Mailer was truly ahead of his time?
One thing I remember thinking about Mailer's film is that it reminded me of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (very important early neo-noir film, that). There's a secret in the woods and there's also Isabella Rossellini (Lynch uses her much better, there's not much to do for her in Mailer's film). There's also Angelo Badalamenti's score, but that's about it. I sure didn't get the same feeling watching the movie now.
Mailer's film has one asset not enough films have: Lawrence Tierney. He's simply great in this and he has great lines ("I just deep-sixed two heads"), though he's pretty thin thematically - but that's Norman Mailer's fault.
More Overlooked Movies at Todd Mason's blog.