Tin Men (1987) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • A minor car accident drives two rival aluminum-siding salesmen to the ridiculous extremes of man versus man in 1963 Baltimore.

  • One step short of larceny, the aluminum siding salesmen in this movie sell their wares, compete with each other, and engage in a lot of great dialog. Tin Men focuses on the rivalry between BB Babowsky and Ernest Tilley. At the same time, the end of small world of which they are kings looms near as a government probe investigates their industry.

  • Barry Levingson's semi-follow up to Diner, also set in 1960s Baltimore, takes us in the world of aluminum siding sales focusing on two very different men in that profession. BB Babowsky is a smooth-talking hustler and ladies man whom scams naive and comely women sales pitches. Ernest Tilley is a loser who can't make a sale no matter how hard he honestly (or dishonestly) tries. Tilley also has a serious gambling problem and squanders what little money he makes on horse races and card games which puts a rife between him and his long-suffering wife Nora. Because of Tilley's addition to gambling, he is heavily in debt to various creditors and the IRS. BB and Tilley's paths cross in the opening scene when they collide with each other in their cars. With both blaming each other for the accident, their feud soon escalates into a full-scale, two-man war between them with Nora getting drawn into it. However, both BB and Tilley's world begins to crumble when a government probe investigates their sales history and threatens to shut them down for good.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • In 1963 Baltimore, Maryland, Bill "B.B." Babowsky (Richard Dreyfuss) is a door-to-door aluminum siding salesman for the Gibraltar Aluminum Company. Ernest Tilley (Danny DeVito) works for rival company, Mason Dixon Aluminum Siding, although the two have never met. Both "tin men," as workers in the aluminum siding trade deem themselves, frequently resort to illegal scams to convince homeowners to purchase aluminum siding.

    B.B rewards his latest sales success by purchasing a new baby blue Cadillac Coup de Ville with his large commission payment. As he backs it out of the dealership's lot, Tilley crashes his own yellow Cadillac into the back of B.B.'s new car. Both of them blame each other for the accident even though Tilley was at fault, which results in him driving away... causing $600 worth of damage. B.B. vows revenge.

    That night, B.B. spots Tilley's Cadillac parked outside a bar and smashes the headlights. As B.B. drives away, Tilley promises retaliation. The next day, Tilley goes to the Gibraltar Aluminum Company's parking lot and smashes the windows of B.B.'s car with a crowbar.

    That evening, the two spot each other in a crowded bar and go outside to fight. However, when police drive by, they decide not to fight. B.B. learns about Tilley being married and plans to seduce Tilley's wife, Nora (Barbara Hershey), and flirts with her at a grocery store. Starved for romance, the neglected Nora is excited by his attention and agrees to go out on a date with him, telling Tilley that she is going out with a friend. Later, Nora tells a co-worker at her office job that she wants to know if her marriage to is as good as it gets, and wants to compare him to another man.

    B.B. takes Nora to his apartment where they dance together, kiss, and finally make love. Afterward, B.B. telephones Tilley at a bar and brags that he just slept with his wife. Furious, Tilley rushes home, and throws all Nora's belongings out the window. Nora arrives to find her clothes on the lawn, and returns to B.B.'s apartment, asking to stay with him for a few days. Eventually, Nora gets on B.B.'s nerves. He goes to the Social Security office where Nora works, intending to break up with her, but is moved when she confesses that she truly cares for him.

    At the Pimlico Race Track, B.B. and Tilley come face to face and insult each other once more. Being a compulsive gambler, Tilley places a few horse race bets and loses every one. However, Tilley is distressed that B.B. seems to genuinely be in love with Nora. Soon after, Nora asks Tilley for a divorce. When Tilley comments about the irony of Nora falling in love with the same man who sought revenge against him, Nora is stunned at the discovery. Feeling used, she smashes her car into B.B.'s Cadillac and breaks up with him.

    Despite B.B.'s high sales commissions, much of that is due to his partner, Moe Adams (John Mahoney), who is considered the best "tin man" in the business. After Moe has a heart attack and announces he is leaving the business to take a less stressful job, B.B. worries about his own future.

    Meanwhile, Tilley is also experiencing a slump and is now the least productive employee at the company, after being a top salesman in years past. Tilley's co-worker Mouse (Bruno Kirby) is now the top seller. Tilly's boss, Wing (J.T. Walsh), loans him $2,500 out of his own pocket to cover his expenses due to Tilley's gambling problem. But then, Tilley receives a letter from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) claiming he owes $4,000 in back taxes. Indifferent, Tilley fails to respond, and the IRS seizes his house and padlocks the front door.

    The Maryland Home Improvement Commission begins investigating some of the illegal scams the "tin men" have been employing. When they hold hearings and call Tilley in to testify, he denies any wrongdoing.

    Elsewhere, B.B. catches a co-worker named Stanley (Alan Blumenfeld) stealing company files and realizes he is a mole for the commission. Ready to get out of the business now that his partner, Moe, has moved on, B.B. gives Stanley some old files detailing their scams, and tells him to do whatever he wants with them. B.B. repeatedly telephones Nora at work, but she hangs up on him. Finally, he waits outside her office and tries to apologize. He admits it was a lousy thing to sleep with her for revenge, but says they never would have met otherwise. He professes his love for her and proposes marriage. Nora accepts.

    B.B. later meets Tilley in a pool hall and asks him to grant Nora a divorce. Tilley offers they play a game of pool for her: If B.B. wins, then Tilley will divorce her, but if Tilley wins, B.B. will have to end his relationship with Nora. When Tilley wins the game, B.B. refuses to give up Nora.

    Meanwhile, Tilley's boss, Wing, gives the Home Improvement Commission officials information on scams that Tilley and his partner, Sam (Jackie Gayle), have pulled, in order to keep them from closing down his company. Wing warns Tilley that the commission will be coming after him, and apologizes for giving him up. He forgives Tilley's debt and gives him an additional $1,200 to get through the next few months.

    After another day or two, Tilley and B.B. are both called before the Home Improvement Commission. While waiting to testify, they make peace with each other, and Tilley wishes B.B. a happy life with Nora. After the hearing, the commission revokes both men's licenses to sell aluminum siding. While Tilley gives up his license reluctantly, B.B. does so willingly as part of his new outlook on life.

    When Tilley leaves, he discovers that the IRS has seized his Cadillac. B.B. approaches, takes pity on Tilley, and gives him a ride home. In the final scene, during the drive, Tilley and B.B., they discuss their own futures and talk about going into business together.

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