What can you say about a hybrid gangster picture that generates a good feeling about people? We really like this show — Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman and Bill Murray’s characterizations are fresh and surprising — and refreshingly non-PC, with David Caruso, Kathy Baker and Mike Starr providing solid backup. Everything’s in fine form under director John McNaughton, as filmed by Robby Müller. And there’s a fascinating story about how parts of the story were re-written and re-shot, after a preview screening.
Mad Dog and Glory
KL Studio Classics
1993 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date March 5, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, Bill Murray, David Caruso, Mike Starr, Tom Towles, Kathy Baker, Doug Hara, Guy Van Swearingen, Jack Wallace, Richard Belzer.
Cinematography: Robby Müller
Film Editor: Elena Maganini, Craig McKay
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Written by Richard Price
Produced by Barbara De Fina, Martin Scorsese
Directed by John McNaughton
Writer-director John McNaughton was a refreshing choice to direct Mad Dog and Glory. McNaughton had made a splash in 1990 with his gruesome, unrelentingly believable semi-horror film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and it’s possible that producer Martin Scorsese thought he was a modern-day Leonard Kastle, a talent deserving of a break. That’s how movie careers are supposed to be made: the overachieving film student or independent gets a boost to the big time. From shooting a low-budget sci-fi film, McNaughton took on a $20 million dollar show with the very top stars in the business. Everybody loved the original screenplay by Richard Price, the street-smart writer of Sea of Love and several episodes of The Wire. It reads like a rougher version of old Ben Hecht stories about naive young newsmen too young to realize that the city is a tough place, that they can be taken in by a hooker pretending to be in love. Although not badly damaged, the movie underwent some re-shoots that delayed its release by an entire year. It was filmed before Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, yet released one month later.
The casting immediately gets our attention. Tough guy Robert De Niro plays a gentle, unassuming policeman, while funnyman Bill Murray is the essentially cold-hearted mobster. The mobster does stand-up comedy, however… like many thugs with a big ego, he’s decided that he is funny.
In promoting the movie Scorsese referred to Price’s story as a gangland fable. Non-aggressive Chicago cop Wayne Dobie (Robert De Niro) takes photos at crime scenes, examines crime scene evidence, and is noted for his insightful analysis of corpses and blood splatters to determine what exactly happened. Wayne is so gentle that his best buddy Mike (David Caruso) has given him the affectionate nickname ‘Mad Dog.’ At 3 a.m. in a liquor store, Wayne saves Frank Milo (Bill Murray) from being killed by a stickup thug. Although initially contemptuous, Frank invites Wayne to the comedy club he runs, and performs in. Frank turns out to be a well-connected mobster, a loan shark with a vicious reputation. Wayne and his bodyguard Harold (Mike Starr) take the cop out for a night on the town, after which Frank announces their formal friendship… on Frank’s terms. The next day Glory (Uma Thurman) shows up at Frank’s apartment. Frank ‘owns’ Glory in payment for letting her deadbeat brother off the hook; she’s been given to Wayne as a gift, for a week. Wayne can’t send Glory back, as she’ll be punished. It’s only a day or so before the inexperienced Wayne discovers love, and sex. But he doesn’t know how to handle the obvious fact that Frank is trying to take over his life, to own him the way he owns Glory. Wayne has no intention of giving Glory up, which puts him squarely in the path of Frank’s vengeful wrath.
Director John McNaughton delivers a fine movie in Mad Dog and Glory, even with the caveat that Martin Scorsese gave him a sensational cast and a cameraman incapable of doing anything but exceptional work, Robby Müller. The interest level stays high throughout. De Niro is likable and convincing as an everyday nice guy who doubts his masculinity. Wayne rehashes crucial moments in his life, punishing himself for not doing ‘what he should have done.’ He loves Louis Prima records, is proud of being a cop but just never feels like a tough guy. He definitely feels uncomfortable when talking about his crime pix as artwork.
Bill Murray steps away from his ‘put on’ SNL persona in a different way than he does in Groundhog Day, going hard instead of soft. There’s no smile behind Frank Milo’s pretense of comradeship, when he promises to make Wayne’s dreams come true, and then threatens a ‘raging sea’ if he’s disrespected. The threat is always present in Frank’s notion of friendship, which is really more about power and control. Insert unwarranted political comment here.
Although she had been acting for five or six years and held down some big roles, Uma Thurman’s Glory still looks like a teenager. She’s the pivotal character, a woman who’s already sold herself for whatever criminal or sexual services Frank Milo might want; the adult angle in the story comes from the thought that there are plenty of people in bondage of this kind. Even after Henry and June, the sex scene in Mad Dog is fairly steamy. As the director says in the commentary, Richard Price describes Wayne and Glory getting it on as if ‘they were on railroad tracks with a train coming.’
Glory is that unknowable quantity in crime pictures written by men. Is she a victim or a predator — are her appeals for Wayne’s sympathy sincere, or is she perhaps looking for a place to lodge her own wedge of influence/coercion? Wayne is very aware that he’s being compromised. As he complains the first day, just by consorting with Frank a case could be made that he’s already on Frank’s payroll. Just the same, Wayne’s affair with Glory brings out his best qualities. His buddy Mike is delighted to see Wayne smile, and even dance at a crime scene, to music from a juke box. When Mike crudely congratulates him for getting laid, Wayne offers a correction: “I don’t f___ — I make love.”
Frank doesn’t have normal relationships. Everything with him is a transaction, and his perversion is thinking that friendship can enter into his power plays with people. The movie is full of ‘sixties pop music, and at one point Frank hums a tune that might clue us into the truth of his unstated attraction to Wayne: “She don’t love you… like I love you.” After all, we don’t hear Frank expressing any personal interest in women.
The perfect casting continues. Mike Starr is a marvelously polite goon, an outwardly intimidating guy who talks sweetly and takes abuse without complaint, but has no compunction about doing anything he’s told. The surprise actor is David Caruso, whose career was just getting into high gear. With his shock of red hair Caruso makes an excellent Irish cop, a tougher version of Russ Tamblyn. Caruso’s Mike can intimidate guys twice his size. He’s also the definition of a stand-up guy, obviously happy when Wayne is happy and immediately willing to go to bat for Wayne when help is needed.
Everything is in place for the desired gangland fable. The great Kathy Baker plays an alluring woman who lives across the hallway from Wayne. We know Wayne’s celibate because she’s unable to entice him over for a roll in the hay. There’s also the woman Wayne spies ‘Rear Window-ish’ in the building behind his own, who makes him wonder if he has what it takes to attract a woman. In addition to the expected Scorsese approved hand-picked mobsters, we get a soulful bartender in Jack Wallace and a creepy thug of a cop courtesy of Tom Towles. Towles is one of several actors John McNaughton brought with him from his no-budget Henry movie.
Everyone likes the dialogue by Richard Price, which is stylized but never forced. A pair of murdered drug sellers are referred to as ‘Two dead mutts in Muttland.’ Glory regrets that her brother ever got into debt with Frank Milo: “Going to Frank is like taking heroin to cure an alcohol problem, ya know?”
Written and made by men, Mad Dog and Glory’s is firmly rooted in male crime tales. Its candidly honest moral fable involves a male tug of war across the legal divide, with a desirable woman caught in the middle. Expressed in basic terms, Glory could be Fay Wray, suspended between Wayne’s Bruce Cabot and Frank’s King Kong. But Glory is an active participant as well. She squirms under Frank’s control, an involuntary sometime- prostitute waiting, as she says, for her ship to come in. I wonder how Mad Dog and Glory would far if it were produced in today’s ‘year of the woman’ climate? The story would likely be warped out of recognition to make Glory a more assertive, in-charge character. We can’t have a female character meekly submitting to a swine like Frank, unless she gets to riddle him with machine gun bullets. This is the rather depressing lesson put forward in last year’s Widows, if I recall accurately.
What we discover is that Mad Dog and Glory had a rough birth. It became stalled due to reactions from preview cards, and changes and re-shoots were proposed. (spoilers from here on out) In the original cut Frank thoroughly trounces Wayne. After Wayne finally connects with one punch, he stops the fight and relents. The preview audience reportedly didn’t accept that the ‘Raging Bull‘ De Niro could lose a fight to Murray.
I would argue that that’s the whole point of the story: even little boys know that there are guys that win fights and guys that just plain don’t. When Wayne turns out to be Frank’s equal at dirty fighting, the basic premise goes out the window. As it is, the show’s macho structure sets up a series of three duke-outs that escalate in intensity. First, Caruso makes Towles’ bad cop back down, an impressive show of Macho force used for good. Then Caruso and Harold beat each other to standstill, which shows the limited utility of fisticuffs: when there’s no obvious winner, the usual solution is to resort to deadly force, as with a gun. This leads to the final showdown between Wayne and Frank, with no intermediaries, the ultimate playground armageddon. I don’t know about your personal experience, but the only playground showdowns I witnessed in my school days were no-contest slaughters, with some poor schlub taunted into a no-win beating by a puffed-up bully.
In his commentary director McNaughton doesn’t express dismay at the reshoots. He was more than willing to cooperate with the people that gave him $20 million to make a movie. Apparently he and Scorsese were also unconvinced that the show played to an audience. I wouldn’t second-guess that, as I’ve seen too many bad pictures made by filmmakers unwilling to bend their ‘directorial vision.’ But I do question the rationalization for the fix. McNaughton says that Scorsese suggested ending the film like Howard Hawks’ Red River, where the love interest Joanne Dru intervenes to stop a spectacular fight between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. Dru’s sarcastic scolding makes the film’s two-act death feud evaporate in just a couple of seconds. That may have solved a similar problem for Hawks — audiences wouldn’t accept Wayne losing a fistfight, no matter who the opponent might be. Red River is of course a classic, but that final confrontation has to be accepted as a cheat, and a trivialization of the heavy-duty conflict that Hawks had been building up for two hours. A powerful vision of conflict in the West vanishes in a ‘don’t worry, be happy’ rush to the final curtain.
They got the wrong River.
I submit that a better filmic comparison, one more in tune with the kind of movie Price had in mind, is the Elia Kazan movie Wild River, again with Montgomery Clift. This time Clift is a hero more like De Niro’s Wayne Dobie, a nice guy who hasn’t the beef to back up his high-minded convictions. Southern racists and bullies step on him all through the picture. A virtual mob confronts Clift at the end, and he has to fight the biggest bully, and OF COURSE he loses. The leading lady sticks up for him, and she gets punched out too. Covered in mud, Clift sighs, “I wish once I could win just one fight.”
At the end of Mad Dog, the fact that Wayne Dobie stands up against Frank and says ‘no’ should be enough for us to proclaim him the winner. When Wayne takes at least ten really bad blows and goes on to fight back, the movie loses its bearings… it becomes just another White Knight story where the milquetoast suddenly gains the ability to trounce the professional. Mad Dog is so well directed, that it almost gets away with it. I’m sorry that the filmmakers thought they failed in having Robert De Niro play against type. I think he succeeds beautifully.
In terms of box-office performance, my argument is of course neutralized by the fact that the populist Red River connected with everyone who saw it, while the marvelous Wild River found no traction and sank like a stone. I think Mad Dog and Glory would work for me in either version.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Mad Dog and Glory is a beautiful transfer of this very attractive show — the mellow color contrasts in Robby Müller’s great cinematography is a pleasure to behold. The soundtrack is also sharp and clear. Elmer Bernstein’s score features a nice sentimental cue, while the Louis Prima tunes and ‘sixties pop songs sound great, adding depth to Bill Murray’s character.
An original featurette and interview snippets place the film’s stars and Scorsese in sales mode, where they don’t come off any better than lesser luminaries do. Very welcome is a full commentary by director McNaughton, accompanied by his producer Steven A. Jones, who also did Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer with him. The tale of how the movie came together is a filmmaker’s dream. It was meant to be produced in New York, but a strike sent the company to Chicago at the last minute. David Caruso was a last-minute addition as well, and we learn that this role got him his job on the NYPD Blue TV show.
McNaughton’s account of the changes is honest and candid. It’s clear enough that changes had to be make — the producers were willing to delay the show a full year, to await fixes. McNaughton points out exactly where the street fight jumps from 1991 to 1992 across a cut, and the match is imperceptible.
A little more disturbing is hearing that Glory’s character scenes were altered with re-shoots as well. Originally she was more manipulative of Wayne, for longer. As the movie is, once Wayne declares his love, the die is cast for a standard old-fashioned romantic relationship. McNaughton implies that we might originally have been worried all along that Glory is just using Wayne to escape Frank’s tyranny.
I very much like Mad Dog and Glory, and certainly don’t mind that isn’t as nihilistic as the crime pictures directed by Martin Scorsese. In those movies, characters like Wayne and Glory end up face down in a ditch somewhere. Who believes that the Frank Milos of this world will keep their promises? Only voters, I guess.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Mad Dog and Glory
Supplements: NEW Audio Commentary by Director John McNaughton and producer Steven A. Jones; featurettes from 1993, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 21, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson