Thriller writer Elmore Leonard died recently at the age of 87. He leaves a huge legacy, including perhaps the best crime show currently on television, Justified, and dozens of classic American suspense novels, a few of which were turned into classic movies— more of which were absolute disasters.
For his early career, Leonard wrote tough, gritty westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and Hombre, both turned into very good films.
But for years even Stephen King could not claim to have been as badly abused as Elmore Leonard when it came to his crime novels. His first, The Big Bounce, was also filmed starring Ryan O’Neal. He wryly said it was “at least the second worst movie ever made.” Then it was remade in 2004 with Owen Wilson and it was even worse.
Overall, I tend to enjoy Leonard’s tight first 25 books more than his talkier next 25. Book 25, Glitz, was his breakthrough bestseller, causing the author to joke he was an overnight success after 25 years.
Get Shorty was the first film to really capture Leonard’s style, and frankly I thought it was even better than the book. In the second half of his career, Leonard added about a hundred pages to the length of his books, mostly of dialogue. Admittedly, it could be great dialogue, but I like the early books that just had a bit less of it. Others disagree.
Out of Sight is a perfect example. The book is too long, and too talky, but still quite good. Cutting it down to film length helps a lot — so does the chemistry between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez which helps sell the outlandish premise of the U.S. marshal and the bank robber’s mutual attraction.
He once called Freaky Deaky his favorite book, but the limp film adaptation of this send-up of the radical ’70s counterculture deservedly went straight to video in 2012.
Leonard was known around Metro Detroit as an unassuming guy. He didn’t play the big celebrity, and was known for his love of the Detroit Tigers and of blues clubs. He was gracious to writers who asked advice, skeptical of whether they would follow through on his emphasis on hard work and routine; and finally published a short book compiling his rules for writing.
So here, submitted for your approval, are 10 good reasons to remember Elmore Leonard, even if you aren’t a fiction reader. Maybe I’ll get to his best 10 books in a future column.
10. Mr. Majestyk
Even Elmore Leonard himself didn’t quite capture “that Elmore Leonard feel” in his first non-western story to be any good at all on screen. Leonard wrote an original script, but as directed by long time Hollywood hack Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green, Dr. Doolittle, Red Sonya) this movie actually became a Bronson action vehicle—though much better than the kind of junk that marked his late career after he quit playing characters and started playing CHARLES BRONSON.
Bronson plays a Vietnam veteran Army ranger who has settled down into life as a watermelon farmer. When he resists going into business with the mob, violence ensues. Leonard would later write the novelization of the film, which focuses more on the plight of the Mexican migrant workers that Majestyk protects from the mobsters—whether he did that as part of his contract, or to restore his intent to the story, only Mr. L knew for sure.
This isn’t a great movie, but when you consider how many other attempts were made to duplicate it later in Bronson’s career, it looks pretty darn good.
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9. Joe Kidd
Leonard again showed his progressive concern for border Mexicans in another original script in Joe Kidd. Directed by the great John Sturges, who was known for handling huge star-studded casts in great films like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, Joe Kidd is essentially a two-man show– a tense duel between gringos Clint Eastwood and Robert Duvall—despite the self-importance of a Mexican rebel leader played by the at-the-time ubiquitous John Saxon.
Eastwood is the laconic title character who is called in to help rancher Duvall put down some bandidos who are plaguing him. It turns out the Latinos have a legitimate gripe as Kidd realizes when he sees his employer’s brutality. (The basic plotline would later be borrowed to great effect in Tom Selleck’s best movie, Quigley Down Under.)
In typical Leonard fashion, however, the rebel leader is flawed at best– and richly deserves having Joe Kidd steal his girl.
Kidd makes inventive use of a locomotive and a heavy clay pot… and unlike Django Unchained or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, despite some unusual firearms, at Leonard’s insistence they are all authentic to the period.
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A meaner version of John Ford’s classic Stagecoach starring Paul Newman as a half-breed Apache who protects a group of travelers who despise him from marauding Indians, I think I admire this 1967 movie more than I enjoy it.
Along with his role as Zionist super-warrior Ari Ben Canaan in the film adaptation of the Leon Uris classic Exodus, I have always found this a curious casting choice that showed both just how willing Newman was to take acting chances—and just how wildly popular he was. After all, at the time, most of the world’s female population was swooning over his blue eyes.
This is one of the few movies about civilians besieged by savages that made me wish a few more of them would die—and sooner in the movie so I didn’t have to listen to them anymore. Still, this is a well-acted and highly regarded early version of the anti-Western that movie buffs need to see at least once.
7. 3:10 to Yuma
Forget the silly 2007 remake starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe in which nobody acts like a real person and which tries to squeeze in every Western action cliché possible. (The railroad workers are willing to kill their boss and a lawman in order to lynch a guy who’s being taken to be hanged anyway? Really? Why?)
The real deal is the 1957 version which builds almost High Noon-class tension out of another train schedule. Glenn Ford and Van Heflin (the father in Shane) are pitch perfect as the sharp outlaw and the ordinary guy who test each other’s resolve. Few could play likable evil as well as Ford, while Hefflin exudes a tough manly decency.
The story is about a hardscrabble rancher who takes on the job of guarding the infamous leader of an outlaw gang until the 3:10 train to Yuma rolls into town and takes him off to prison. The suspense builds as the Rio Bravo standoff meets a deadline which will likely result in a High Noon-like confrontation.
This film—like the short story it’s based on—has none of the over-the-top action scenes of the silly remake. (Really, outlaw Ben Wade jumps over rooftops and performs Die Hard-class stunts in order to help a guy deliver him to prison? REALLY?)
Instead, the real 3:10 to Yuma comes down to one moment, one small act, in which the outlaw has to decide if he has any humanity left.
This story is probably the reason TV producers hired Leonard to write an ill-fated sequel to High Noon starring Lee Majors. But the less said about that, the better.
Perhaps the least known of the Tom Selleck TNT Westerns, Last Stand at Saber River is also the best, thanks to a faithfully gritty adaptation of the Leonard novel, and a much darker tone than the overly ye-hah attitude that infected too many other TNT Westerns (like the adaptation of Louis L’Amour’s Shadow Riders).
Selleck plays Paul Cable, a disillusioned Confederate soldier who returns home unexpectedly after being reported killed in action. His wife Martha, ably played by Suzy Amis, is resentful of his absence since while her husband was fighting a war she didn’t understand their daughter died.
Cable decides to reclaim his Arizona ranch, but some Union sympathizers (played by the Carradine brothers) have already moved in. Cable and the Kidstond brothers feud until they face another enemy, a one-armed fanatical Confederate veteran who has a grudge against Cable, and is running guns to the banditos on the border.
Saber River is heavily plotted, but also gives its characters time to breathe—and their resentments and conflicts ring true, which makes their reconciliations all the more satisfying. Rather than taking sides in the Civil War, the story aims its barbs at the fanatics who were all too eager to fight it.
I’m not sure Selleck ever turned in a less than credible performance in a Western, but Last Stand at Saber River features one of his best, and perhaps his darkest. This is an under-seen gem.
5. The Tall T
The best—and least known—of the movie adaptations of Elmore Leonard Westerns, this tight little thriller boasts one of Randolph Scott’s toughest performances, opposite a menacingly witty one by the great Richard Boone.
The Tall T has made a bit of a comeback lately with the resurgence in interest in a half dozen small masterpieces directed by Budd Boetticher. The script was by veteran Western screenwriter/director Burt Kennedy from an Elmore Leonard story, The Captives.
Richard Boone and his gang mistakenly hijack the wrong stage, but find themselves in possession of the daughter of one of the territory’s richest men. They send her smarmy husband back with a ransom demand, but the outlaw leader takes a liking to Scott’s independent-minded ranch foreman and doesn’t shoot him on the spot. Big mistake.
Like all of the Boetticher movies, this clocks in at less than an hour and a half, but doesn’t seem slight or rushed in any way. The scenery is as unsparing as the violence perpetrated by its characters. The fact that legal issues surrounding another Boetticher film, Seven Men from Now, were finally cleared up and it was given a long-awaited DVD release brought all these film back to the attention they richly deserve.
4. Get Shorty
A nearly perfect adaptation of the Leonard novel that made the author a household name, it also made John Travolta’s comeback complete and informed us all of the little-known truth that the Oldsmobile Silhouette is “the Cadillac of minivans.”
A great cast including the always entertaining Dennis Farina, as a mobster who keeps getting more and more beat up as the story goes on, and Gene Hackman in one of his funniest performances as a buck-toothed idiot movie producer, and Danny DeVito playing, well, what Danny DeVito ALWAYS plays, along with Delroy Lindo as a drug dealer and Rene Russo as a B-movie actress, has almost as much fun as the audience.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld, who produced several movie and TV adaptations of Leonard works, is spot on in tone here, deftly condensing the best parts of Leonard’s too talky novel into a crime comedy that serves as Elmore Leonard’s revenge on the movie business that so often massacred his best work.
Travolta in the midst of his career comeback that started with Pulp Fiction plays Chili Palmer, a Miami strong-arm loan shark who ends up in Hollywood to collect a debt owed to his new, hated boss (Farina) by a B-movie producer (Hackman).
There is a long string of very good movies about the business of making movies. Some are satirical, some are tragic, but all are jaded. Perhaps none are as jaded as Get Shorty, in which Leonard supposes that being muscle for the mob prepares one very well to become a movie producer.
But after The Big Bounce (both versions) Cat Chaser, Stick, and The Ambassador, who can blame him?
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3. Out of Sight
After the wild success of Get Shorty, a somewhat well-received if not altogether successful Touch, and the superb Jackie Brown, Steven Soderbergh—who was then an up and coming auteur—made what many consider the best adaptation of a Leonard novel with Out of Sight. Of all the films made of Leonard books, Soderbergh easily was the director who most improved the material he was given.
Of course, part of the success of the movie is the great casting. When I read Out of Sight, the ride in the trunk of a car after a prison break with bank robber Jack Foley and U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco was not only a hard sell as the beginning of a romance, it also seemed endless, going on for page after page. As played by George Clooney at his best, and Jennifer Lopez in easily her best role ever, and cut down to the essentials, it really worked.
Out of Sight had a great cast, with Ving Rhames as Foley’s partner, Dennis Farina as Karen’s father, Michael Keaton (reprising his Jackie Brown character), the always funny Steve Zahn as a less than reliable member of the gang, and Don Cheadle as a real bad guy. Soderbergh’s terrific direction established him as a big time director.
I suppose it’s also possible that I give this movie extra credit because I attended the premier in Detroit at the old State Theater, which was also the setting for the boxing scene in the middle of the film. It also didn’t hurt that the author himself was sitting in the balcony, and that I got to meet him and stammer out some admiring fan nonsense in an accidental hallway meeting.
But since virtually everyone else likes this movie, too, I doubt it.
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From it’s opening Old West-style get-outta-town-by-noon showdown in modern Miami between a white hat-wearing U.S. marshal with a Kentucky drawl and a smirky cartel gunman, the FX television series Justified has justified every bit of praise thrown its way.
The show is the perfect marriage of the two worlds of Elmore Leonard, the Western and the modern crime novel. An old-school gunslinging marshal fights modern-day crime in the backwoods of Kentucky. What could be better? Not much.
Even though its main antagonists, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (played to absolute perfection by Timothy Olyphant) and all-purpose backwoods criminal leader Boyd Crowder (The Shield’s Walton Googins) are only from a Leonard short story, and the seasons all go off on their own original way guided by the great TV producer Graham Yost (Boomtown, John Adams), one could argue that this is the best representation of the Elmore Leonard spirit ever put to film.
It’s not surprising to find out that cast and crew wear bracelets emblazoned with the letters WWED (What Would Elmore Do?) You could watch any episode, and not be surprised to find out that the master had written it himself (though he never did.) After four great seasons, with each arguably better than the one before, it appears that Justified will provide Dutch Leonard with an ongoing legacy for the foreseeable future.
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1. Jackie Brown
Jackie Brown, the least favorite movie of the Quentin Tarantino fanboys, is arguably the director’s greatest film. Perhaps no other director is so well-suited to bring the rhythms of Leonard to the screen. (Though I would love to see the Coens take a crack at it.) An author given to long dialogues between characters meets the best director at filming them.
But don’t let me lead you to think this is a particularly talky movie; in fact, there are several talk sequences in Pulp Fiction that are far longer than anything in Jackie Brown.
With a great cast that features Samuel Jackson, Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda in supporting roles, and starring underused veterans Pam Grier and Robert Forster giving the performances of their lives, Jackie Brown is less ostentatious than Pulp Fiction, but still every inch a director’s film.
Tarantino isn’t overly faithful to the original, other than the plot. There are plenty of typical QT flourishes, but it is the director’s most adult film. And by adult, I mean adults can enjoy it with their brains on, it’s an almost shockingly mature movie, and despite the cynicism on its sleeve, there is a real heart that beats at its center. Kind of like primo Elmore Leonard.
In short, Jackie Brown is about a beautiful but aging stewardess (Grier) in a dead end job and obligated to a murderous criminal gun dealer (Jackson) until she finds a way to get out from under with the help of Max Cherry, a retired cop turned bail bondsman (Forster).
Grier is what we’ve always wanted from Grier, but Forster is a revelation. Max is in love with Jackie and knows she is using him, but he not only doesn’t care, he improves on her plan.
De Niro has a great supporting role as a loser with control issues (unfortunately for a very sexy Bridget Fonda).
I liked Rum Punch, but once again found it talky. Jackie Brown, despite its 2:45 length, feels tight and never drags.
After filming Jackie Brown (from the novel Rum Punch) Tarantino bought five more Leonard stories. So… come on, man!
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