Tin Men (1987)

“I’m going to find out everything about this son of a bitch, and then I’m going to find the one thing that cuts him right to the quick.”

When two rival aluminum siding salesmen (Danny De Vito and Richard Dreyfuss) in 1963 Baltimore accidentally hit each other’s cars, they seek continued revenge.


Barry Levinson’s fourth feature film — taking place, once again, in his hometown of Baltimore — suffers from an incurable dilemma: its two lead characters (as well as their “tin men” colleagues) are utterly unsympathetic. In fact, it’s downright uncomfortable watching these hucksters con gullible homeowners into paying for aluminum siding when they haven’t been given anything close to a fair sell. Of course, this is part of Levinson’s point, given that a major subplot of the film revolves around the Home Improvement Commission’s investigation of the tin men’s practices; yet the commissioners are clearly posited as the “bad guys”, and thus, we’re left without a clear side to root for.

Similarly, when Dreyfuss shamelessly cuckolds De Vito by seducing his unhappy wife (Barbara Hershey), we’re not sure how to react — especially when the two fall genuinely in love. Are we supposed to root for the happiness of a man as devious and conniving as Dreyfuss? Since he undergoes a sort of character transformation (shifting from self-avowed bachelor to pseudo-family man), he’s supposedly more sympathetic than De Vito, who remains selfish and clueless about his dire straits until the very end — yet De Vito is, ironically, the more compelling of the two con-men. It’s his performance — as well as Levinson’s impressive set designs, and some occasional moments of genuine humor — which keep us watching, even as we cringe at the story itself.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Danny De Vito as the eternally optimistic “tin man” whose life goes slowly downhill
    De Vito2
  • Jackie Gayle as Tilley’s Bonanza-bashing partner, Sam
  • A detail-perfect evocation of 1960s Baltimore

Must See?
No, but it’s probably worth watching simply for De Vito’s performance (which Peary nominates for an “Alternate Oscar” as one of the best of the year).


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