McGuane, who had written the screenplay for Arthur Penn's The Missouri Breaks, here adapted one of his own novels. 92 in the Shade chronicles the feud between fishing guides Tom Skelton (Fonda) and Nicholas Dance (Oates). Dance is sometimes suicidal and reputedly homicidal. When he goes to jail for attacking a man, Skelton exploits the vacuum to get a job from wharf boss Carter (Stanton) guiding a vacuous old couple. Dance's stay in stir is short, however, and while Skelton is following a line into marshy waters to fetch a trophy for his client, Dance and Carter reclaim the clients and leave Skelton in the water. To them it's all a big joke, but Skelton tops them by burning Dance's boat.
"If it costs a cent to rent a tuxedo for an elephant, I couldn't rent a t-shirt for a flea." Warren Oates in Thomas McGuane's 92 in the Shade.
Dance doesn't exactly go berserk, but he does warn Skelton not to guide anymore in his territory, on pain of death. Undeterred, Skelton gets money from his cranky attorney of a grandfather (Burgess Meredith) to get a boat of his own built. Despite Dance's matter-of-fact reminders of his ban, Skelton intends to make the awkward, eccentric Ollie Slatt (Joe Spinell) his first client, forcing Dance to back up his threat if he can....
To spoil things, it seems that McGuane bowdlerized his own source material. In the novel, Wikipedia says, Dance follows through and kills Skelton. In the film, the men struggle on board Skelton's boat while Slatt jumps ship, but Skelton disarms Dance and chucks his gun into the water. The rivals then settle down to finish the film with Peckinpavian laughter. Between novel and film came a life-threatening, life-changing car crash. It may have altered not only McGuane's attitude toward his art (he began screenwriting after recovering) but his attitude toward the story -- though a reported alternative ending may betray some indecision. The anticlimax, following an ineptly filmed scuffle, fits the laid-back if not passed-out spirit of the picture. The film is all novelistic observation of eccentric personalities and their relationships, with little sense of dramatic urgency despite the inherent credibility (or as he says here, "credence") of Warren Oates's threats. He can make laid-back threats and have them taken seriously, except if the director himself ultimately refuses to do so. That may be a deliberate authorial strategy, but it leaves the film begging the question, "So what?"As a beginner, Joe Spinell must learn that fishing is something you do to the fish, not with it.
As a novelist, director McGuane is predictably fond of long-take dialogue scenes. Here's one with typically eccentric details between Margot Kidder and Peter Fonda.