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Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987)

Writer, ex-con and 40-something bottle-baby Tim Madden, who is prone to black-outs, awakens from a two-week bender to discover a pool of blood in his car, a blond woman's severed head in ... See full summary »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Tim Madden
Madeleine Regency
Patty Lareine (as Debra Sandlund)
Capt. Alvin Luther Regency
Wardley Meeks III
Dougy Madden
Big Stoop
Jessica Pond
R. Patrick Sullivan ...
Lonnie Pangborn
Kathryn Sanders ...
Ira Lewis ...
Merwyn Finney


Writer, ex-con and 40-something bottle-baby Tim Madden, who is prone to black-outs, awakens from a two-week bender to discover a pool of blood in his car, a blond woman's severed head in his marijuana stash, and the new Provincetown police chief, Captain Luther Regency, shacked up with his former girlfriend Madeleine. As his father Dougy helps him try to unravel the mystery, he is dogged by the psychotic Capt. Regency, who has it in for Tim as a car-crash that he was involved in with Madeline has left her unable to have children. Flashing-back to the past, Tim remembers the time when he encouraged Madeline to swing with a Li'l Abnerish couple from down South, the fundamentalist preacher Big Stoop and his Daisy Mae-ish wife, Patty Lareine, whose ad Tim had come across in 'Screw' magazine. It's on the trip back that the car crash occurs, since Madeline is incensed that Tim has so enjoyed Patty Lareine's charms. Except for his father Dougy, who is dying of cancer, Tim suspects everyone, ... Written by Jon C. Hopwood

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis

Plot Keywords:

head | gay | writer | police chief | cancer | See All (44) »


A love story shadowed by murder. A comedy laced with horror. See more »


R | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:





Release Date:

18 September 1987 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

A Marca do Passado  »

Box Office


$5,000,000 (estimated)


$858,250 (USA)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:



Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
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Did You Know?


The film was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. See more »


Wardley Meeks III: Madden, take it in the mouth or you'll die. Will you take my pride and joy into your mouth?
See more »


You'll Come Back (You Always Do)
Music by Angelo Badalamenti
Lyrics by Norman Mailer and Angelo Badalamenti
Sung by Mel Tillis
See more »

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User Reviews

Norman Mailer's wildly uneven but often provocative rhapsody on noir themes
21 October 2002 | by (Western New York) – See all my reviews

When Lawrence Tierney utters the line that gives Tough Guys Don't Dance its title, he evokes the stoic, hard-boiled codes of post-war noir, felt in films he made like Born to Kill, The Bodyguard and The Devil Thumbs A Ride. And when Isabella Rossellini shows up, she suggests David Lynch's kooky and subversive Reagan-era suspense movies like Blue Velvet. These homages mark two of the many streams that flow into Norman Mailer's rhapsody on themes of sexual intrigue, multi-tiered duplicity and garish murders. (Mailer directed his movie from his 1984 novel.) It's a baroque contraption that comes close to self-parody - and may even cross the threshold - but neither is it just a fling at film making by a celebrity author intoxicated by his own publicity.

The forlorn setting is Cape Cod under the sign of Sagittarius: the dunes and the bars empty, and the Atlantic is choppy and gunmetal grey. Ex-con Ryan O'Neal (his boyish superstardom well behind him) has been drinking heavily since his wealthy if white-trash wife (Debra Sandlund) left him; one morning he wakes to find a tattoo on his arm and his jeep's upholstery soaked in blood. Circumstances lead him to a burrow where he stashes his marijuana harvest; in it he finds the severed heads of his wife and a woman he had picked up (along with her boyfriend) a few nights before.

The clues he starts piecing together lead him back down paths that wend through his own none-too-savory past. There's the out-of-town `couple' with whom he had spent a hard-drinking night (Frances Fisher and R. Patrick Sullivan); a woman he had once loved (Rossellini) now married to Provincetown's sadistic Chief of Police (Wings Hauser); another woman he had met when she was married to a wife-swapping Christian preacher (Penn Jillette) and who later wed a rich, spoiled Southern boy (John Bedford Lloyd) then, ultimately, O'Neal, whom she recently left. Helping him find his way is his gruff, cancer-ridden father (Tierney).

What plot line there is hangs on cocaine (maybe) and several millions, but that's but a pretext for Mailer to worry the preoccupations, even obsessions, which crop up again and again in his work, most notably the yin/yang of eroticism and violence. The women come across as predatory sirens but end up being almost beside the point - they're prizes for sexual competition between males, conflict that shades into edgy attraction, right up to taunting flirtation. (The movie is loaded with homosexual references, generally pejorative - the bisexual boyfriend is even given the name `Pangborn' - and the continuum of couplings, both on screen and in the back story, results in a very kinky daisy chain in which everybody save Tierney might just as well have slept with everybody else. Mailer comes close to suggesting that two men who have slept with the same woman share an implicit homosexual relationship themselves.)

Coming to Tough Guys Don't Dance expecting anything like a conventional suspense film (even something `post-' or `neo-') is to court disappointment. One comes for Mailer, who's like the little girl with the curl right in the middle of her forehead: When he's good, he's very, very good, but when he's bad, he's horrid. How the proportions weight out in this movie can be argued, but adventurous and provocative nuggets nestle among some very bad choices (the acting runs the gamut from rather good to execrable, often within the same performance). Caveat spectator: wildly uneven and sometimes grotesquely macho, Tough Guys Don't Dance is far from negligible.

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