Elmore Leonard on Film and TV: R.I.P.
Elmore Leonard, who died on August 20 at the age of 87, was famously dismissive of most of the adaptations of his novels and short stories (he said all of them sucked until Get Shorty). And indeed, movies like The Moonshine War, Stick, Glitz, Cat Chaser, Be Cool (though I wasn’t a fan of the novel to begin with), Killshot, or either version of The Big Bounce are nothing to write home about (52 Pick-Up isn’t great, but it isn’t bad either). But along with the well-known and (mostly) acclaimed adaptations like Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight (which I will be covering) and the TV show Justified (which I haven’t watched), there are a few good movies (and TV shows) made from Leonard’s work that aren’t as well known but are worth seeking out.
3:10 to Yuma (1957): Of course, Leonard fans know before he moved into writing crime novels and stories, he started out writing Western stories, and the first movie adaptation of his work, Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T (from Leonard’s story “The Captives”) was a Western (I’ve not seen it yet, though I plan on rectifying that soon). That same year came another adaptation of one of Leonard’s Westerns stories, Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (Halsted Welles, who mostly wrote for TV, did the screenplay). Daves is a director who went all over the place, from the Biblical spectacle Demetrius and the Gladiators to the soap opera of A Summer Place, but, as fitting Leonard’s writing, his style here is lean and spare (unlike James Mangold’s over-the-top editing in the 2007 remake, as well as the psychological baggage that seems shoehorned in). It also helps Daves and cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. (who also shot The Tall T) keep much of the action inside a motel room, as outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) tries to tempt rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) into letting him go before Wade’s gang (led by Charlie Prince (Richard Jaeckel)) kills him instead. Instead of focusing on the landscapes – though he doesn’t ignore them – Daves focuses on the characters and the situation, which I think is keeping in tune with Leonard’s style (as per his famous remark about how writers should never describe the weather). There are two problems with the film, however, that limit the film for me. The first is the ending. Of course, since the Production Code was still in place at the time, Good always had to triumph over Evil, but it feels like a cop-out to what Leonard did in his short story (the remake, which tried to have it both ways, is even sillier). As for the second, Leonard has admitted he always had trouble writing “normal” characters, and I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, but Heflin seems to have trouble playing the role of Evans, a father just trying to make a living and reluctantly doing what’s right. Heflin seems like he’s straining for effect much of the time (unlike Christian Bale in the remake, who, despite having a character weighed down by psychological explanations, manages to give a subtle performance). Ford has an easier time of it, using his natural charm and talent for understatement, especially when he’s courting a barmaid (Felicia Farr) right before he’s captured; that said, he’s not quite menacing enough (not a problem for Russell Crowe in the remake) to be completely believable as the leader of outlaws. But the rest of the movie is acted well (particularly by Jaeckel and Henry Jones as the town drunk), and overall, 3:10 to Yuma stands as a fine example of the direction many Westerns in the 50’s were taking.
Hombre (1967): The next Leonard adaptation didn’t happen until 10 years later, with another Western adaptation. Again, it featured a character at a crossroads, but whereas Dan Evans was a man caught between temptation and the right thing, John Russell (Paul Newman) is caught between the white man’s world, where he’s from, and the Apache Indians who have raised him (they call him “Hombre”) and who he feels most comfortable with. Russell only goes back to civilization after his father dies and he inherits a house, which he intends to sell for some horses. He ends up on a stagecoach driven by Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam) along with several people who lived at the house, including Favor (Frederic March), a crooked government agent, and Cicero (Richard Boone), who, unbeknownst to anyone else, is planning on robbing the coach with his gang. Ritt and writers Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch perhaps overdo the “noble savage” aspect of Russell’s character, but they still manage to keep the story gripping without getting preachy, and James Wong Howe’s cinematography also keeps with the menacing tone of the movie. Newman was a good fit with anti-hero characters that he played in the 60’s because his natural charm could seduce people into liking them, but here, he plays someone who’s cut himself off completely from the need to charm whites, and while he may seem wooden at times, the performance does pay off if you stick with it.
Get Shorty (1995): In the 80’s, Leonard tried to get a movie made of his novel La Brava, about an ex-Secret Service agent, with Dustin Hoffman in the lead. Unfortunately, Hoffman refused to commit to the role, and out of that frustration came arguably Leonard’s finest novel (when Hoffman asked him about it later, Leonard reported said, “You think you’re the only short actor in Hollywood?”). Barry Sonnenfeld’s film version (with Scott Frank writing the screenplay) became the first film version of Leonard’s novels that Leonard actually liked, and although some critics (and filmmakers) thought Sonnenfeld had made the film too slick, it’s actually a very good adaptation. Not only does it keep much of Leonard’s dialogue (reportedly, the studio wanted to cut it, but John Travolta insisted on keeping it in), but it keeps the emphasis on the characters and the humor (as well as the menace underneath) rather than the story, which again fits in with Leonard’s writing. As good as Travolta was in his comeback role as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, he’s even better here as lead character Chili Palmer, a man who, unlike Vincent, is completely in control of almost every situation he walks into. And with one exception, Sonnenfeld and Frank do well by the host of supporting characters surrounding Chili. It’s hard to pick one favorite among them – Gene Hackman adds to his notable roster of run-down characters named Harry, the late Dennis Farina is a riot as Ray Bones, the late James Gandolfini gives an early indication of his talent as Bear, the ex-stuntman, and Delroy Lindo is all charming menace as gangster Bo Catlett – but for my money, Danny DeVito steals the movie as the title character, Michael Weir in the novel, though, for some reason, Martin Weir in the movie. It says something about DeVito’s performance that while the best scene in the novel is Chili and Bo’s late-night confrontation in Harry’s office, the best scene in the movie is Chili and Martin’s first scene together, where Chili is teaching Martin how to act like a loan shark (“I’m playing Shylock, instead of playing *a* Shylock”). The one exception is Karen Flores (Rene Russo). In the novel, Chili is obviously attracted to Karen because of her looks, but he also recognizes, other than Bo, she’s the smartest character aside from him, and he’s attracted to that as well. Sonnenfeld and Frank, unfortunately, don’t give Russo enough to do in that regard. Still, it’s a terrific film.
Touch (1997): The one oddball entry in Leonard’s canon (even he admitted as much in an introduction to one edition), this takes Leonard’s usual tales of crime and shady characters, and sets it in the world of faith-healing, with Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich), a so-called miracle worker, being exploited by former evangelist Bill Hill (Christopher Walken), to the consternation of Reverend August Murray (Tom Arnold), who wants to use Juvenal for his own ends. The one character who seems to like Juvenal for himself is Lynn Faulkner (Bridget Fonda), a former associate of Hill’s who starts out pretending to be a soul Juvenal needs to “save” and ends up falling in love with him. Schrader doesn’t quite go as deep into the characters as Leonard did, and telling what amounts to a Capra-like film is definitely a weird experience for him (as it was for Leonard), but he keeps the humor, and doesn’t condescend to Juvenal’s character. It helps everyone in the cast is good, particularly Ulrich and Fonda, and even Arnold is pretty good.
Jackie Brown (1997): Leonard has always had a number of admirers among his fellow novelists – among them Martin Amis (who once told Leonard that he put Raymond Chandler to shame), Margaret Atwood (who wrote an admiring essay on Leonard while reviewing Tishomingo Blues), Saul Bellow and Stephen King – and screenwriters such as Robert Towne and, of course, Quentin Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (along with True Romance) were clearly influenced by Leonard’s penchant for characters who love to talk about almost anything, but especially pop culture. Jackie Brown, adapted from Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, combined Tarantino’s love of blaxploitation films – which is why he cast Pam Grier in the main role – with Leonard’s novel. The story is essentially the same – after being caught with drugs in her purse, flight attendant Jackie Brown (Grier) tries to stay out of jail, appease and outwit the ATF agents (Michael Bowen and Michael Keaton) who arrested her, appease and outwit Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), an arms and drug dealer she was working for, and make off with Ordell’s money, all with the help of Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a bail bondsman who falls in love with her. Tarantino added his own pop culture obsessions (Ordell tells Louis (Robert De Niro) how John Woo movies have influenced his gun-buying clientele, and Max hears the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” when he first sees Jackie), moved the setting from Detroit to Los Angeles, played the scene where Jackie pulls of her scam from three different points of view, made Max and Jackie older (and Jackie African-American so he could cast Grier), and most crucially, downplayed the romance between Jackie and Max.
Other than this last part, however, all of these changes feel true to Leonard’s writing, as does the fact Tarantino at all times emphasizes Jackie’s ability to think one step ahead of everybody else, as well as thinking on her feet (even while under arrest or, in the case of Ordell, pointing a loaded gun at her. Grier rewarded Tarantino’s faith in her with a terrific performance, though it was Forster (who, like Grier, had fallen on hard times) who received the biggest career push from the movie; he got most of the good reviews and an Oscar nomination (both Forster and Grier have enjoyed solid if unspectacular success since). As per usual in a Tarantino film, they’re not the only acting standouts; Jackson continues to show how perfectly matched he is to Tarantino’s sensibilities, Bowen and Keaton are also very good, and Bridget Fonda is a hoot as Melanie, one of Ordell’s girlfriends (she spends most of her time getting high and watching TV). Surprisingly, De Niro comes off the weakest here; near the end, when he does something shocking, his performance comes alive, but most of the time, he seems like he’s bored stiff. Many critics since have called this the highlight of Tarantino’s career. I don’t agree – Pulp Fiction is still my favorite of his, and I also really liked the Kill Bill films and Inglourious Basterds – but I do agree this showed a maturity in Tarantino’s career, and I sometimes wonder about the road not taken.
Out of Sight (1998): Along with being one of only two movies I’ve liked Jennifer Lopez in – the other being The Cell – this is also my favorite movie adaptation of a Leonard work (it might also be my favorite Leonard novel period). Much of the credit, of course, goes to screenwriter Scott Frank (who also adapted Get Shorty), who makes some minor tweaks to the story – expanding a couple of characters, changing the order of some of the scenes, and adding a coda – but preserving Leonard’s story, and more importantly, his tone. Leonard often complained how Hollywood often focused exclusively on his stories at the expense of his characters, but that’s not the only thing they tended to miss. For one thing, Leonard’s stories may be set in the crime genre, but as Out of Sight demonstrates, they also may contain such elements as a romantic comedy/drama, carefully-hidden social commentary, a comedy of errors (as Anthony Lane pointed out in his review). For another, in Leonard’s world, with the exception of the real psychopaths, the cops and criminals are shown as working men (and women) going through the same things, talking about the same things, and just doing their jobs. Frank and director Steven Soderbergh demonstrate this in the opening sequence. After Jack Foley (George Clooney) storms out of a building and tears his tie off (we find out later he thought he had a job opportunity, only to find out he was being jerked around), he goes to a bank, robs it (Jack informs the teller the man sitting with the bank manager will kill said manager unless she gives the money all the money she has in the drawer. Naturally, his “partner” has no idea who Jack is), and gets into a car, only for it to stall, which leads the cop who appears seconds later (pointing a gun at Jack) to say, “I think you flooded it”.
Though this wasn’t a hit, this helped Soderbergh, whose career had been (unfairly) floundering at that point, gain status with both critics and the studios (also helped Clooney in that respect). And Soderbergh deserves credit not only for (along with Frank) keeping all the elements of Leonard’s story together, but also avoiding any slickness in the look (Elliot Davis – who also shot The Underneath and Gray’s Anatomy for Soderbergh – shot this film); also, as he did in Traffic, he uses color and lighting to distinguish settings (Florida looks bright and shiny, while Detroit looks dark and gloomy). And he assembles a great cast, from Ving Rhames as Buddy, Jack’s partner in crime to Steve Zahn as Glenn, a dim-witted car thief, to Catherine Keener as Adele, Jack’s ex-wife, to the late Dennis Farina, playing against type, as Marshall, father of Karen Sisco (Lopez), and to Albert Brooks as Ripley, a white collar criminal the others plan to rob (though Nicholas Winding Refn deserved credit for bringing out Brooks’ tough side in Drive, Soderbergh got there first). But none of that would matter if the relationship between Jack (the career criminal) and Karen (the U.S. Marshal who wants to bring him in but is also attracted to him) didn’t work so well, and that’s due to the chemistry between Clooney and Lopez. The best scene in the movie is where they flirt with each other in a bar (briefly, at first, pretending to be other people) while Soderbergh and editor Anne V. Coates intercut that with them having sex several minutes later. We know their relationship won’t last, just as they themselves know it, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to watch it; that’s also Leonard’s work. And as I indicate below, this wouldn’t be the last we’d see of either of them.
Maximum Bob (1998): The title of this Leonard novel refers to the main character, a judge who’s earned his nickname because he believes in throwing the book at whatever unlucky defendant happens to be in his courtroom. Given that, and given the fact this isn’t one of Leonard’s lighter novels, it might seem strange Barry Sonnenfeld, who exec-produced, takes a tone that has more in common with Northern Exposure than a crime or legal drama. However, it actually works for the most part. Beau Bridges plays the title character, and he brings out the blowhard in Judge Bob Gibbs, but also the humor. And he’s well-matched by Liz Vassey (CSI) as defense attorney Kathy Baker, who frequently squares off with Judge Gibbs, Sam Robards as Sheriff Gary Hammond, who’s attracted to Baker, Kiersten Warren as Leanne Lancaster, Judge Gibbs’ wife, a former beauty queen who’s occasionally possessed by the spirit of a 12-year-old slave girl from before the Civil War, and Beth Grant as the matriarch of a criminal family. This was aired on ABC during August as an experiment, but unfortunately lasted only seven episodes. If you can find it, it’s worth checking out.
Karen Sisco (2003-04): If you want to know why ABC is known in some quarters as “Always Be Cancelling”, look no further. Danny DeVito, whose company Jersey Films produced Out of Sight, exec-produced this spinoff, which cast Carla Gugino in the title role, Robert Forster as her father Marshall, and Bill Duke as Amos, her boss (Karen still works for the U.S. Marshal’s office). The show kept Leonard’s humorous tone (in the pilot, Marshall tells Karen about a bank robbery where the robber told his partner driving the getaway car to drive around the bank instead of waiting, and when the robber came out, he got hit by a car; Karen figures out it was the partner), attention to character (the show spends as much time on Karen and Marshall’s relationship as it does whatever fugitive Karen is chasing), and dialogue (Amos to one of the other marshal’s; “Have I ever told you how much I do not admire your work?”). In addition, Gugino (who should really have been a much bigger star than she is), even more than Lopez, brought the perfect combination of toughness and vulnerability to the role, and she was well-matched with Forster and Duke, and even when the show trod over well-worn territory (the pilot episode is basically a rehash of Karen’s backstory in Out of Sight, and as with many cop-type shows, a later episode featured a hold-up/hostage situation), it did so with humor, intelligence and panache. Unfortunately, it only lasted seven episodes on ABC before getting yanked (USA Network aired the last three), and was barely promoted. Justified (which I’ve never seen), which is based on a character from Leonard’s novels Pronto and Riding the Rap (as well as his short story “Fire in the Hole”), is currently on FX right now and doing well (for basic cable, anyway), and since Leonard gave it his blessing, I’m glad, but I really wish this had been another TV show based on his work that had done well, considering how cliche-ridden all the other cop shows on TV right now are.