Sunday, December 23, 2012

99 and 44/100% Dead (1974)

          On paper, this action thriller about a hit man drawn into a web of underworld intrigue is completely pedestrian—the story features standard tropes like an antihero rescuing his innocent girlfriend from a fellow hit man in the employ of a mobster whom the antihero has alienated. However, simply describing the plot of 99 and 44/100% Dead doesn’t account for the batshit-crazy storytelling style that director John Frankenheimer uses from start to finish, or the surreal nature of the picture’s awkward attempts at black comedy. On some level, this movie aspires to blend elements of comic books, film noir, and satire into a singular approach—but since the elements clash with each other, and since the movie compounds this problem with dissonant flavors like amateurish supporting players and goofy music, the end result is an odyssey into inexplicable weirdness.
          Richard Harris, adorned with a strange Prince Valiant haircut and gigantic eyeglasses, plays Harry Crown, a hit man hired by gangster Uncle Frank Kelly (Edmund O’Brien) to settle a turf war in some unnamed American city. Uncle Frank wants Harry to rub out goons in the employ of Uncle Frank’s rival, Big Eddie (Bradford Dillman). Meanwhile, Harry is trying to build a life with saintly schoolteacher Buffy (played by vapid model-turned-actress Ann Turkel, Harris’ real-life companion at the time). Also mixed into the storyline are Tony (David Hall), a junior-level crook whom Harry adopts as a sort of apprentice, and Baby (Kathy Baumann), Tony’s voluptuous young girlfriend.
          Frankenheimer treats the whole movie like a comic strip, so gangsters wear stylized outfits—think pinstriped suits and wide-brimmed hats—while Harry brandishes a pair of matching pistols with pearl handles. The setting is a city seemingly populated only by warring gangsters, so gunfights and murders take place in plain sight, and violent scenes are “ironically” scored with upbeat music and cheerful whistling. Everything in 99 and 44/100% Dead is overwrought in the clumsiest way, so the tone of the picture is captured by a scene in which Harry’s arch-enemy torments Baby.
          The villain of the piece is hit man Marvin “Claw” Zuckerman (Chuck Connors), who is missing a hand and therefore carries around a briefcase filled with bizarre prosthetic attachments. Arriving in town and demanding a sexual plaything, Marvin is furnished with Baby, who wears a barely-there yellow dress so sheer her nipples seem as if they’re trying to achieve liftoff. While Baby watches, Marvin affixes whips and other prosthetics to his stump, scowling and threatening Baby with cartoonish dialogue. And so it goes from there—take the standard elements of a crime film, jack them up on crank, and you’ve got this very strange moment in the career of one of action cinema’s greatest directors. 99 and 44/100% Dead isn’t Frankenheimer’s oddest film—that honor belongs to 1996’s insane The Island of Dr. Moreau—but it’s close.

99 and 44/100% Dead: FREAKY

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