TIN MEN

Richard Dreyfuss, Danny DeVito, Barbara Hershey. Directed by Barry Levinson. 1987. Rated R. (Touchstone cassette, stereo, 112 min., $89.95.)

With most directors, it's the eye you think of first -- or maybe, the dexterity with which they propel a plot. With Barry Levinson, who made his directorial debut with "Diner," it's the ear.

"Tin Men" doesn't have much of a plot, really. (The title is an allusion not only to "The Wizard of Oz's" heartless walking can but also to aluminum siding salesmen.) One siding salesman (DeVito) crashes his Cadillac into the brand new Caddy of another salesman (Dreyfuss). That launches a long, bitter bout of one-upmanship, beginning with smashed windows and moving on to Dreyfuss stealing DeVito's unhappy wife (Hershey).

Though the consequences of the fender-bender reverberate throughout the movie, "Tin Men" is less a chain of events than scattered links. What Levinson is after, and what he captures brilliantly, is the ambiance of small-time hustlers rustling up the American Dream -- the easy cameraderie, the tides and eddies of conversation, the verbal minuets, the careering digressions. No one working in American movies better understands the patterns or the functions of our language.

Because Levinson paints on a small canvas and because he is as much concerned with what his salesmen say as with what they do, "Tin Men" is arguably more effective on video than it was on theatrical screens. It's "Death of a Salesman" without the majesty or high tragedy, but with the tempos of talk and the sad blarney of hustle.

In "Diner," talk was a means of bonding for young men reluctant to yield their adolescence. In "Tin Men," also set in Baltimore in 1963, talk is a means of survival as well. Adulthood here is a desperate scramble for money and power, and Levison's tin men seem to symbolize an America where everyone is running on a treadmill, squeezing, bullying and cheating in a grand pageant of social Darwinism.

Lives are empty, dreams misguided, people are all marks and, worse, the smartest of the tin men realize it. They live not just a hustle but a pall, and an ache informs Dreyfuss's masterful performance.

VIDEO REVIEW MAGAZINE/ THE WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP