|Rating: Liked it
Director: John Frankenheimer
Release Year: 1974
Starring: Richard Harris, Chuck Connors, Edmond O'Brien, Bradford Dillman
Uncle Frank: you're the best Harry... I've always known that. There's nobody better.
A few weeks ago I dropped by a used bookstore near my house for the first time, and asked the lady behind the counter if she had any "books about movies." I was hoping to be shown a shelf filled with stuff like Sleazoid Express or Paul Fonoroff's At the Hong Kong Movies. Instead, I was pointed to a back corner of the shop, filled with novel adaptations of movies. When I was a kid, I used to love reading the books for movies like Back to the Future or Gremlins Two, but even so, I didn't think there'd be anything in this section that'd be of interest to me now.
I soon discovered that I couldn't have been more wrong, as I started finding mid-70's Pocket Book adaptations of movies like WW and the Dixie Dancekings and White Line Fever. I also found the book for 99 44/100% Dead, a movie I'd never heard of, but whose tag line - Harry Crown does two things better than anyone... One of the is Killing - sounded promising. By the time I'd thumbed through the first few pages of the book, containing a great description of a mob killing and an underwater graveyard, I knew I'd be ordering and reviewing this movie. And when I saw that it starred Chuck Connors as Claw Zuckerman, a hitman with a prosthetic hand filled with weapons, the book jumped to the top of my must-see list.
99 44/100% Dead starts off with a 4-color comic book/pop art title sequence, overlayed with a jazzy Henry Mancini score, then a quick cut to two black-suited thugs tossing a man with cement boots off the end of a pier. The dead man sinks into the water, and the camera pans over the above-mentioned underwater graveyard, filled with all types of mob accoutrements - rusted out slot machines, liquor signs, and dozens of dead bodies in various stages of decomposition (including a skeleton tied to a wheelchair with a cast on one leg reading "Get Well Soon.") Suddenly, a 'down-home narrator' (think Roger Miller's narration from Disney's Robin Hood) starts talking about life on the East Side while a lazy swingtime song with a whistling chorus plays in the background. It'd be downright cheery if the narrator weren't saying things like "The fish here like to nibble on the fleshy parts of the corpses."
This is our first glimpse into the bloody mob war between Uncle Frank (Edmond O'Brien) and Big Eddie (Bradford Dillman). Frank's getting outgunned, so he calls in Harry Crown (Richard Harris), the best hired killer in the business. Harris's Crown is a stone-faced cross between Woody Allen and Michael Caine, and your enjoyment of this movie is largely going to be tied to how well you're able to buy Harris as a hitman. I think he actually does a pretty damn good job of pulling off the aloof badass role, but falters a bit when he's asked to come across as a womanizing superman. In particular, he's got these giant black-rimmed glasses that he fiddles with just before he kills someone, and I got a kick out of watching him flick them around and watching everyone else freak out, knowing that the shit was about to hit the fan.
But by far, the best reason to watch this movie is for Chuck Connors's performance as Claw Zuckerman. While not the tour de force that he was in The Mad Bomber or Tourist Trap, all of his scenes as the rival hitman are gold. As I mentioned, he's got a prosthetic hand that can be fitted with a seemingly endless number of gadgets - cleavers, machine guns, knifes... even flowers and a corkscrew. There's a great sequence where Connors terrorizes a hooker named Baby by riffling through his box of attachments and trying on one weapon after the other, having already sending one hooker out of the room crying. "I think she was afraid of my claw. You won't be scared... will you?" He finally pulls out a miniature whip from his box of goodies, clicks it into place, and flashes that maniac Connors grin at the poor girl across from him. Great stuff.
There are some parts of this film that didn't really click with me. In particular, there's a love story between Baby and Crown's pseudo-protégé Tony (David Hall) that really feels shoe-horned in. And Bradford Dillman's performance as Big Eddie - complete with a random speech impediment and fey laugh - seems oddly out of place. But those are minor gripes, because director Frankenheimer and writer Robert Dillon (Prime Cut) toss in enough cool gimmicks - like a lengthy and destructive car chase between a limo and a yellow school bus - that the movie never drags for more than a few minutes at a time. Available at Five Minutes to Live or Shocking Videos.