The 1970’s were a strange time for director John Frankenheimer. He racked up one hit with French Connection II. However, outside the critically well-liked if not hugely profitable Black Sunday, he devoted his time to an odd array of projects. The remainder of his 1970’s output seemed to fall into two camps: unusual experiments – like a 4-hour version of The Iceman Cometh and the Afghanistan-set The Horsemen – or commercial duds like I Walk The Line and Prophecy.
However, one of those 1970’s experiments manages to straddle both camps: the surrealistic camp-crime film, 99 And 44/100% Dead. Despite boasting plenty of shoot-outs and car chases, it was an oddball genre deconstruction full of bizarre, deadpan humor and eccentric visual devices. It was widely scorned by audiences and critics alike, making it both an unusual experiment and a commercial dud all at once.
99 And 44/100% Dead starts by establishing a gang war between two factions of an unnamed city’s criminal underworld. This is established with a witty, stylish sequence that incorporates a car chase and a shootout as it shows how both sides of the conflict have their own underwater dumping ground for enemies and finks. On one side is Uncle Frank (Edmond O’Brien), the town’s veteran crime boss. On the other side is Big Eddie (Bradford Dillman), a rival with a speech impediment and a nasty henchman named Marvin “Claw” Zuckerman (Chuck Connors). As you might surmise, Claw is missing one hand – and said hand is replaced with a mechanical stump that can hold a variety of weapons.
Uncle Frank decides to rally his side to victory and does so by calling in hired gun Harry Crown (Richard Harris). Harry joins in because the pay is good, Frank is an old friend and he’s up for another round with Claw (you see, Harry was responsible for taking away his hand). As Harry tries to end the war and avoid getting killed, he also has to deal with school-teacher/sometimes squeeze Buffy (Ann Turkel) and serve as mentor to rising young hood Tony (David Hall, a.k.a. “Zooey” Hall from I Dismember Mama). Before the bullets stop flying, a traitor will be revealed, a boss will die and Harry and Claw will face off once more.
It’s easy to understand why this odd duck of a movie confounded mainstream audiences but 99 And 44/100% Dead seems to have a lot going for it from a cult movie perspective. Frankenheimer’s direction is stylish, the script by Robert Dillon (writer of Prime Cut) is full of memorably baroque setpieces and the cast offers a nice mix of cult movie favorites.
Despite these attributes, 99 And 44/100% Dead doesn’t live up to its promise for a few reasons. The first is that despite its imagnative approach, Dillon’s script lacks a strong plot: the mid-section meanders because there isn’t enough plot complication to keep it afloat and the reveal of the informant is none too surprising. Both the script and Frankenheimer’s direction are so stylized that it distances the viewer from all other elements of the film so when the plotting goes slack, the audience isn’t left with anything to hold on to beyond the film’s outrageous surface elements.
That said, if you can put aside plot concerns and just experience 99 And 44/100% Dead as an exercise in style, it’s a memorably eccentric experience. Dillon comes up with a number of clever suspense and action sequences – Harry having to defuse a bomb rigged up to a woman in a school building, a shootout in a busy laundry where the workers ignore the shooters, etc. – and Frankenheimer brings them to life with a thorough grasp of how to stage and edit action. There are also plenty of bits of surreal humor along the way, a highlight being Claw unveiling a series of arm attachments for a prostitute. Fans of 1970’s crime-jazz soundtrack music will also love the Henry Mancini score, which boasts a memorably brassy and propulsive main theme.
Best of all, the cast offers a series of memorably and stylized turns that blend well with the film’s strange tone. Harris plays against his usual hammy, theatrical style by portraying Harry as a tight-lipped, effortlessly cool character. O’Brien has fun sending up all the tough guys he has played in years past and Connors brings a sense of malicious glee to his henchman archetype. That said, the big scene-stealer might be Dillman, who gives a wickedly funny performance that incorporates an Elmer Fudd-esque speech impediment and a number of childlike mannerisms (in his autobiography, he revealed that he modeled his performance on his son, who a was a toddler at the time).
In short, 99 And 44/100% Dead is a curate’s egg – but if oddball 1970’s Hollywood experiments are your thing, you might find it to be hypnotic its own flashy, hermetically-sealed way. It’s one of the rare films where you can honestly say there is nothing else quite like it.