Barry Levinson’s “Tin Men”: An Appreciation

A well-regarded writer for both TV and movies in the 70s–his curriculum vitae includes The Carol Burnett Show and Mel Brooks’ 1977 Hitchcock parody High Anxiety (in which he cameoed as Dennis, the high-strung bellboy)–

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“Here’s your paper!”

Barry Levinson made the leap into the director’s chair with 1982’s Diner, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in late-50s Baltimore.

Sadly, his next two movies moved away from the Diner model–an intimate, funny character study–and saw him become something of a director for hire, helming The Natural (1984) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). And while both are passable (the former much more than the latter, although Young Sherlock Holmes did usher in the digital age in some respects, its menacing stained-glass knight the cinema’s very first fully computer-generated animated character), and there’s little doubt the experience improved his directing chops, the movies lack the charm and patter of his first effort.

It wasn’t until 1987 that Levinson finally returned to his Diner roots, writing and directing the underrated and generally ignored Tin Men, the comedic tale of two warring aluminum siding salesmen in 1960s Baltimore.

Tin Men takes place on the other side of the diner,” explains Levinson, in the movie’s production notes. “While my friends and I used to hang out in the right hand side of the restaurant, the tin men gathered in the left. We heard stories and scams these guys were up to. They were older, but they didn’t seem particularly responsible, so I was intrigued by that. Tin men are rebellious in a way, without rebelling against one specific thing. They’re flamboyant and have a Damon-Runyonesque quality about them. The movie is not autobiographical, but it does concern characters I knew back in 1963.”

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Levinson’s side of the diner…

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…and the tin men’s side

Post-war America, was, of course, an economic powerhouse. Fueled by pent-up demand, our gross national product jumped from $200MM in 1940 to $300MM in 1950 to more than $500MM in 1960. Industries such as automotive, aviation, electronics and housing boomed, the latter spurred by affordable mortgages offered to returning members of the military. More Americans joined the middle class, their preference for single-family homes leading them to migrate from cities to suburbs. Interstates were built. Everyone had a car. And everyone wanted to keep up with the Jones, as this scene, highlighting a tried and true tin men hustle, so effectively demonstrates:

Deep in the throes of consumerism, this was the America that spawned aluminum siding salesmen. Essentially grifters, tin men were on the prowl for unsuspecting, unsophisticated homeowners just begging to have the wool pulled over their eyes.

According to the aforementioned production notes, a typical tin man’s day started…

“…with a late breakfast (around 11:30 AM) usually in the Hilltop Diner in Baltimore. The next stop was the Pimlico Race Track where the salesmen swapped schemes and gambled away their commissions before infiltrating the suburbs in the prime evening hours. They worked no more than four hours a day, four days a week, and for the most part were adverse to full-time employment. They merely wanted to take the easy way out. Sales of aluminum siding were seen by them as a legal con game.

With their flashy clothes and new cars, tin men drove around town looking for prime candidates for aluminum siding sales, usually blue collar workers with medium incomes. The canny salesman romanced his clients in a dramatic crescendo of persuasion. The idea was to wear a person down, to the point where the homeowner would sign the contract just to get rid of the salesmen. Before homeowners could change their minds about a sale, the contractors would come along and ‘spike the job’ by plopping siding on the lawn, ripping shingles off the house, or writing ‘Start on this side first’ in bright red paint on the roof. There were also the pressures from the ‘psychology of spiking’ — if a couple halted the job, neighbors would whisper that they couldn’t afford it.

Tin men earned a lot of fast, big money and had to know how to ask for $3,000 rather than $300. The actual cost of the jobs, including labor, was around $1,000. The price to the homeowner was in the area of $2,400. Thus, the salesman was able to make a $800 or $900 commission which he and his partner (the canvasser) divided. They worked a 60-40 split after expenses, depending on who owned the car.

Aluminum siding sales offices were generally off the beaten track and did not display discernible aluminum siding or home improvement signs, which discouraged unwanted visitors. The office was a place for the salesmen to congregate and bring in their jobs and be paid. Other offices were in guys’ cars, street corners or eating establishments. There was actually one siding company owner who made his office in a diner booth and occasionally his other office was the hood of his car. He died a millionaire. Generally speaking, however, most tin men were incapable of saving money. They had too many bad habits, and gambling was their biggest downfall.

In 1963, Maryland’s newly-formed Home Improvement Commission’s code of ethics took much of the creative salesmanship out of the siding business, and [so tin men] moved on to new pastures.”

Plot Synopsis (Note: spoilers included)

Tin Men opens on a lovingly photographed car at an auto dealership, where Levinson introduces the nattily dressed William “BB” Babowsky (Richard Dreyfuss). BB is shopping for a new Cadillac, the calling card of all serious aluminum siding salesmen. Apparently something of a lady’s man, BB is incredibly wary of getting conned, no doubt the ultimate insult to someone who’s built a successful career on that very thing:

Intercut with BB’s Cadillac shopping is the movie’s other protagonist, Ernest Tilley (Danny DeVito), also a tin man, who is introduced mid-spat with his wife, Nora (Barbara Hershey):

Tilley, clueless as to what’s bugging his wife (a symptom of his failing marriage), laments his early morning stress level as he drives himself to breakfast with his co-workers. Meanwhile, BB, having sealed the deal for his Cadillac, backs the spanking-new car out of the dealership. And then, as my  friend Ted likes to say, worlds collide:

Thus the plot is set in motion.

The men retreat to their corners to lick wounds, BB to his office at Gibraltar Siding, Tilley to the diner he frequents for breakfast, both of them no doubt hoping for a sympathetic ear. None is forthcoming; instead they’re ribbed by fellow tin men, guys with nicknames like “Cheese” and “Mouse”:

Adding insult to injury, Tilly learns that, not only does his antagonist BB dance a good merengue, he’s also in the aluminum siding trade:

Things quickly escalate. Later that night, out driving with his partner, Moe (John Mahoney), after successfully closing a siding deal, BB spots Tilly’s car parked in front of a restaurant and asks Moe to pull over. He then kicks in Tilly’s headlights and hood as Tilley, just emerging from the restaurant, looks on incredulous:

The next morning Tilley takes a crowbar to BB’s new Cadillac, punching out every window, which leads to this priceless reaction from Cheese (John Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel), one of BB’s workmates:

BB, being a salesman (and ladies’ man) extraordinaire, decides to take the feud to the next level by seducing Tilley’s unhappy wife, Nora. However, when he reveals as much to Tilley, the cuckolded husband doesn’t seem to care. Not only was their marriage on the rocks, but Tilley’s got a ton of other things on his mind, things like his lingering slump at work; Maryland’s newly announced Home Improvement Commission, which will be looking closely at the sales practices of tin men; and, finally, the IRS, who apparently don’t much dig that he hasn’t paid his federal income taxes for quite some time.

Out on a sales call, BB’s partner Moe suffers a heart attack. Moe, in extremis, tells BB that if he dies his family will have nothing, that he’s got no insurance, no savings, just the money in his pocket–the plight of your typical freewheeling tin man. BB’s eyes are opened; he, like Moe, can’t go on living like this. He needs a new line of work and maybe the Commission can provide the push he needs to get out clean. Moe’s brush with death also puts into perspective BB’s relationship with Nora–despite his best efforts, he’s falling in love, a strange place indeed for the dedicated bachelor. His bliss is short-lived, though; she soon discovers the false pretenses that led to their relationship and goes ballistic–not only has she been played, but by another tin man–her anger culminating in yet another episode in the continuing site gag involving the destruction of BB’s new Cadillac. Leave it to Cheese to deliver the perfect deadpan line:

In an effort to get her back, BB goes to Tilley’s house hoping she’s there. She’s not. Tilley is, however, and knocks his rival unconscious when BB peeks his head inside the front door. Tilley proceeds to humiliate BB, pelting him with food from the fridge:

BB considers pressing assault charges but is dissuaded by his boss, Bagel (Michael Tucker, who played the same character in Diner), who insists on a meeting between warring parties to bury the hatchet. And while this breakfast begins well enough, it soon goes south, leaving the two combatants right where they started.

With all of his troubles coming to a head–he’s been called to testify at the Commission, the continuing BB and Nora situation, his IRS troubles–a distracted Tilley goes to lunch with his partner, Sam (stand-up comedian Jackie Gayle) and, recalling Sam’s recent discovery of God at the smorgasbord (“I go there, I see celery, I see lettuce, tomatoes, cauliflower and I think, all these things come out of the ground, they just grow out of the ground…and you say to yourself ‘how can all these things come out of the ground?’…and I’m not even getting into the fruits, I’m just dealing with vegetables right now, but, with all these things coming out of the earth, there must be a God.” ), prays over the buffet:

His prayers go unanswered; soon he’s told by his boss, Wing, (J.T. Walsh) that, because Tilley is low performer, he’s going to be sacrificed to the Commission in an effort to get the government off the back of the siding firm.

Anyway, to wrap up the longest synopsis in the history of synopses, the movie ends with Nora back with BB, Tilley and BB reconciling just before their appearances before the Commission (culminating with both of them getting their license to sell aluminum siding revoked, Tilley via being thrown under the bus by Wing, BB via incriminating documents that he, himself, provided because he wants out of the business), and, finally, BB giving Tilley a ride home because, while testifying, the IRS repossessed Tilly’s Cadillac.

Their futures are not without hope, however. Despite their livelihood being stripped away, BB and Tilley are born hustlers, post-war go-getters who can sell ice to eskimos. BB already has his eye on a VW Bug dealership, something his myopic co-workers think is folly. And then, as the two drive off into the figurative sunset, another opportunity appears on the horizon, one signaling that they’ll probably be just fine. See if you can spot it:

The Appreciation

Like in Diner, Levinson’s ear for dialogue is impeccable, which begs the question why he doesn’t write more of his movies. (His biggest hits, movies such as Good Morning, VietnamBugsy and Rain Man, the latter winning him an Oscar for Best Director, were all written by someone else). Other than David Mamet and maybe Quentin Tarantino, I can’t think of a screenwriter better at catching the nuance of men shooting the shit, the familiar way they talk over each other, interrupting, interjecting, going off on tangents to gain the spotlight, riffing on absurdities such as whether a car won’t run right after you dent its frame, or if TV’s Bonanza is an accurate depiction of the West, or how to split up the breakfast check:

Of course, a dialogue-heavy movie is only as good as its performers. Luckily, Levinson and his team cast the movie perfectly. His two leads–Dreyfuss and DeVito–were at the top of their game back in 1987, the former in the midst a career renaissance, the latter about to embark on a solid run of directing. And while Barbara Hershey’s character is a bit underwritten–it’s obvious Levinson is way more interested in (and familiar with) the male dynamic–she does a yeoman’s job with the little she had to work with. Better still, this was before she went and ruined herself with plastic surgery, the depressing and tragic fate of so many lovely middle-aged actresses:

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Beyond the clever writing and solid lead performances, beyond the effective evocation of 1960s Baltimore, beyond the site gags and hilarious fetishization of Cadillacs (“A Cadillac means you’re dealing with someone of importance” notes Tilly), what really makes Tin Men a classic is its supporting players, actors such as Jackie Gayle, John Mahoney, Michael Tucker, JT Walsh, Stanley Brock, Bruno Kirby, Richard Portnow and Seymour Cassel:

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None of them get all that much screen time, but each make a huge impression.

What else can I say about Tin Men? The performances are great, the writing sharp, almost every scene contains a big laugh and the Fine Young Cannibals wrote the music, to boot. Put simply (after 2,200 words), in this writer’s humble estimation, Tin Men is Barry Levinson’s finest hour as a writer-director.

Do yourself a favor and check it out; it’s available on DVD (no Blu ray as of this writing) and all of the major streaming services.

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