Review: “Tin Men” Rusty On Gender

There are times when even Oscar-nominated scriptwriters pen fatally flawed moments. Mark Fraser finds himself flabbergasted by a major plot hole concocted by a triple Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nominee in what is an otherwise respectable film.

Tin Men - Barry Levinson, Richard Dreyfuss, Danny DevitoWhile his star seems to have faded in recent times, over the course of an almost four decade-long career Barry Levinson has made some pretty interesting movies – many of which have enjoyed both box office and critical success.

Yet this US-born writer/director – whose Dustin HoffmanTom Cruise vehicle Rain Man was the Academy Awards’ favourite in 1988* (and who, more than any other film maker outside of John Waters, has helped make Maryland’s largest city of Baltimore part of America’s cinematic landscape) – sometimes leaves a few gaping holes in his plots.

Over the years Levinson has been involved with the penning of some 15 screenplays. Of these, three original ones – the Norman Jewison-helmed … And Justice for All (1979), his directorial debut Diner (1982) and 1990’s Avalon (which he also directed) – were nominated for an Oscar.

Others, however, have not received as much kudos, with 1987’s melodramatic comedy Tin Men being one of them.

A modest – and obviously heartfelt – period piece, the film concerns itself with a healthy feud between two door-to-door aluminium siding salesmen operating in Baltimore circa 1960.

At the heart of this conflict is Bill “BB” Babowsky (Richard Dreyfuss), a man who is at the top of the selling game; his nemesis is the not-so-hotshot Ernest Tilley (Danny DeVito), whose professional and personal lives are becoming a train wreck.

Tin Men - Barry Levinson, Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Devito

Their battle begins with a minor traffic altercation, and it has well and truly accelerated by the time Babowsky decides, in a retaliatory move, to seduce Tilley’s wife Nora (Barbara Hershey), who is already showing signs of discontentment with her marriage when the movie starts.

Up until this point Tin Men contains quite a bit of promise. Aside from the prospect of seeing two actors of Dreyfuss’ and DeVito’s calibre having it out in a ruthless game of one upmanship, Levinson as the writer/director successfully infuses into the narrative a McCarthy-esque subplot involving a witch hunt of the area’s salesmen by the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. When put together, these elements give the script some healthy dramatic gravitas.

A good portion of this, though, is subverted when the story gets to Babowsky’s seduction of the vulnerable Mrs Tilley and, in particular, how he conducts the task.

Put bluntly, this plot contrivance results in circumstances which strongly suggest Nora is either gullible, a complete dolt or simply doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on around her.

Whether this was Levinson’s intent is doubtful given he has her working as a public servant and exercising a degree of independent thought. Taking this on board, one can only suspect the film maker was looking to create a strong leading lady. Unfortunately the outcome predominantly sways in the opposite direction.

Wrong line

Tin Men - Barry Levinson, Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Devito

It all starts when Babowsky surreptitiously accosts the unsuspecting Nora in a supermarket.

To start a conversation, he asks her if the TV dinners are any good, prompting Nora to enquire why he wants to know. It’s at this point he replies with a line that will eventually damage the integrity of a good portion of the remaining screenplay.

“My wife just died,” Babowsky says mournfully.

When Nora expresses her condolences, the salesman continues with the ruse: “Oh, I’m over it now. (It’s) a very trying time and I’m learning how to eat again.”

Naturally this pulls the woman in hook, line and sinker and they end up going to bed. Shortly post coitus, a smugly victorious Babowsky tells Tilley (via a phone call) what he’s done. To his surprise, though, he just gets laughed at; Nora, it seems, is an albatross around her obnoxious husband’s neck.

Regardless of this background information, good old BB immediately lets her move in with him and a romance blossoms.

At this point one must assume Nora is still under the impression that her new beau is a widower. She fails to pick up on the inconsistency in his story, though, when – later in the film – he phones her from a hospital after one of his work mates, Moe Adams (John Mahoney), suffers a heart attack.

“This is all kind of new to me, you know,” Babowsky begins.

“I thought I’d better call, you know, to tell you I’m going to be late.

“I’ve never had anyone to call before, but I thought I’d better, you know, call – that’s all.”

What? Babowsky has never had to report home late before? What about when he was married? Didn’t this salesman have to ring his deceased wife when he was working back or having an evening out with the boys?

Obvious questions perhaps, but for some reason they don’t occur to Nora, the penny not dropping until later when Tilley tells her who Babowsky really is.

Thus, within a bad idea and a few wayward lines of dialogue, a good portion of Tin Men’s dramatic credibility is flushed down the drain.

Further shrinkage

Tin Men - Barry Levinson, Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Devito

While it’s hard to imagine, matters are then made a little worse when Babowsky later apologises to Nora and proposes to her.

“I got this far in my life without ever having this kind of stuff happen to me, you know,” he explains.

“I was doing okay in my life – I was sailing along pretty good.”

But instead of chiding him for his lie, which under normal circumstances would be a pretty big one, Nora immediately capitulates to his lack of charm and accepts the proposal.

“I was hoping for something a little more romantic, but okay,” she replies smiling sweetly.

But it all doesn’t end there. Just when it seems that everything will be okay, further insult is added to the wound when, unbeknown to Nora, Babowsky and Tilley play a game of pool to determine whether the latter will agree to a divorce from his cuckolding wife.

Naturally, on hearing about this, she flips.

“That is the most despicable thing I have ever heard in my whole life,” Nora yells at Babowsky over breakfast. “I mean that’s disgusting – shooting pool to determine my future.”

Yet despite such indignation, she still manages to quickly take it all on the chin. Thus her unquestioning compliance to a male – something she has had to endure while living under the same roof as her estranged husband – sadly continues.

Gender acquiescence

Tin Men - Barry Levinson, Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Devito

As suggested above, one has to ask oneself: Did Levinson really intend his leading lady to turn out this way?

If not, then why does he allow Nora to continue falling for BB’s widower ruse when there’s obviously enough evidence to suggest the contrary? Surely she is smart enough to read between his phone call lines, let alone the lines themselves? The fact Babowsky doesn’t have a photo of his late wife, or any legacy trace of her in his apartment, should also have been something of a giveaway. (Of course, one could argue here that perhaps BB told his new partner that he couldn’t bear the loss and thus completely purged his life of her presence. If so, a brief dialogue scene explaining this would no doubt have helped.)

Unintentional or not, the fact this Oscar nominated writer made Nora look completely gullible as a means of keeping the melodrama ticking along should be called out for what it is – ingrained sexism dressed up as bad writing.

Tin Men - Barry Levinson, Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Devito

Interestingly, at the end of Tin Men just after Babowsky and Tilley have appeared before the commission and been stripped of their sales licences, the latter rhetorically asks: “Tell me where it is written in the constitution that a man can’t hustle for money, huh? Where is it written?”

Levinson probably agrees with this sentiment – peddling politically suspect female subservience in the name of respectable entertainment, it seems, is totally acceptable, even when placed within a silly plot contrivance that no doubt annoys members of both genders.


*Levinson did not write this movie. The screenplay, which also won an Oscar, was by Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass.

Words by Mark Fraser

Discover more writing on film by Mark Fraser
“Man With A Movie Camera” Transcends Propaganda | “The Deer Hunter” Remains An Adult Fairy Tale | “The Train” Still One Hell Of A Ride | “Barry McKenzie Holds His Own” Maintains Its Irreverent Grip | Umberto Lenzi’s “Eaten Alive” Is A Hard Act To Swallow | William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” Is A Curiously Mistreated Masterpiece | “To Catch A Thief” Shows Hitchcock Dabbling In Blandness

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Dan
    Dan Reply

    A very interesting look at a film I admire. I think I’ve always had a niggling issue with this plot tangent and certainly think the film works better when Dreyfuss and Devito are either on-screen together or mixing with their sales buddies. Given that this means the film is at its best when the men are front and centre could further suggest there are distracting gender issues at its core.

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