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Leonard to Film

Note from George Pelecanos:
The following first appeared in Sight and Sound magazine in April, 2005. I was asked to write about my favorite Elmore Leonard film adaptations, and this is what I came up with. Recently, I read an advance copy of Quiver, the debut novel from Elmore’s son, Peter Leonard, and, what do you know, the apple did not fall far from the tree. Needless to say, I was very impressed with Peter’s book, and recommend you look for it when it’s published. Anyway, it reminded me of the roundup below, which I thought you might enjoy. Here it is:

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

Based on an Elmore Leonard story, and in the tradition of High Noon (complete with Ned Washington-penned theme song, performed by Frankie Laine), this features an early example of the typical Leonard protagonist, a common man who is thrown into a dangerous situation and, with a steady hand, meets the challenge. Van Heflin plays a farmer who, out of desperation, takes a job escorting laconic killer Glenn Ford to Yuma as Ford’s band of outlaws closes in. Journeyman Delmer Daves (Dark Passage, Pride of the Marines) brings a suitably claustrophobic, noirish atmosphere to the proceedings, a natural fit in that many of Leonard’s westerns were, at the time, crime novels in disguise. Heflin and Ford are excellent, the tension is palpable, and the dialogue percolates with subtlety and causal menace. After quietly working on his craft in the 1950’s, the Leonard style begins to emerge.

Hombre (1967)

Martin Ritt’s adaptation of Leonard’s classic western novel has been repeatedly mentioned as an update of Ford’s Stagecoach, with the Indians as the good guys. It’s actually closer, both thematically and in the fateful actions of its protagonists, to Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles (1966). In Hombre, anti-hero Paul Newman, a blue-eyed white man raised by the Apaches, reluctantly comes to the aid of a group of “civilized” folks (Frederic March, Diane Cilento, and Barbara Rush among them) being menaced by cast-iron villain Grimes (Richard Boone, never better) and his men. Ritt seems most interested in exploring race and class issues, but delivers the genre goods in the final shootout, in which Newman, outnumbered and outgunned, coolly faces his enemies. “Now, what do you suppose hell is gonna look like?” asks Boone, before the Colts are drawn. “We all die,” replies Newman, without so much as a twitch. “It’s just a question of when.” Shot by James Wong Howe, and written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, who wisely treat the source material with respect. “I would like at least to know his name,” asks the dying vaquero (a memorable Frank Silvera), mortally wounded by Newman. “He was called John Russell,” says Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam), cementing the legend. Stay with this one to the end. A haunting film and one of the finest westerns ever made.

Valdez is Coming (1971)

Burt Lancaster plays Bob Valdez, a Chicano constable who accidentally kills a black man, then makes the mistake of demanding that Frank Tanner (Jon Cypher), the land baron who orchestrated the murder, pay the man’s widow one hundred dollars in restitution. Valdez spends the remainder of the film running, picking off Tanner’s men, bedding his woman (Susan Clarke), getting beaten, and coming back for more. Filmed in Spain, with the landscape and pace of an Italian western, this is a film, directed by Edward Sherin, which grows on the viewer with repeated viewings. Lancaster, like Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen, is an actor who can communicate volumes of emotion with his eyes, and does so here to exemplary effect. The most interesting relationship is between Valdez and Tanner’s top lieutenant, called El Segundo (Barton Heyman), who eventually comes to realize he is fighting for the wrong side. With Richard Jordan and Hector Elizando as two of the heavies, and the great Frank Silvera as Valdez’s friend. Valdez is Coming is based on my favorite Elmore Leonard novel, a perfect piece of lean, evocative writing, one hundred and thirty six pages (my Bantam paperback edition) of prose containing not one wasted word. Read the book, then see the film, preferably in tandem with Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid, another exceptional Lancaster western released the following year.

Mr. Majestyk (1974)

Mr. Majestyk features melon farmer Charles Bronson, another ordinary Joe who gets pushed too far, facing off against Mafia hood Al Lettieri after Bronson’s friends get roughed and his crop is machine-gunned to nothingness in a barn. This is a guilty pleasure, the kind of mid-budget 70’s actioner that was done so well by the likes of Don Siegel, Joseph Sargent, and here, Richard Fleischer. Bronson must have known this was a special script, as he seems to be having a ball, going with the cool-under-pressure dialogue and even allowing himself a smile beneath that Mongolian mustache. Includes a nice turn from Paul Koslo, who made a career of playing guys who thought they were way tougher than they were (see Joe Kidd, also penned by Leonard), and Lettieri, a brutish actor best known for his roles as Rudy in Peckinpah’s The Getaway and Sollozzo, Sterling Hayden’s unfortunate dinner partner in The Godfather. Mr. Majestyk also contains a notable off-road truck chase featuring a Ford F-150, and some energetic bits involving shotguns and automatics. Obviously, this isn’t for the arthouse crowd (I saw it thirty years ago at the Queen’s Chapel Drive-In, in Hyattsville, Maryland), but it is a whole lot of fun. Here we have Dutch Leonard, effortlessly in control of his talent with the original screenplay, and obviously enjoying the ride.

52 Pick-Up (1986)

This is the first film that truly captures the beneath-the-gutter atmosphere and acne-scarred, unwashed villains of the middle period, “hard” Leonard crime novels which preceded his more comedic phase. Like Maggie Greenwald, who went to the bottom and “got” Jim Thompson in The Kill-Off (1986), director John Frankenheimer wades into the Leonard cesspool and comes up with a winner. Great unhinged bad guys (John Glover, Clarence Williams III), a steady, unflappable hero (Roy Scheider), beautiful women (Ann Margaret, Kelly Preston, a pre-saved Vanity) and actual porn stars (Ron Jeremy) round out the mix. This one is sure to be offensive to some, but if the dark end of the alley is your meat, by all means, walk right in. Screenplay by John Steppling and Elmore Leonard, based on his novel.

Get Shorty (1995)

Elmore Leonard moved into the third phase of his career with novels that emphasized humor over gunplay, and while the books were an artistic success, the movie adaptations rarely caught the intended cymbal-brush spirit of satire and cool. Get Shorty did so, setting the template for the films that followed, and for that alone merits a special place in the Leonard canon. Credit screenwriter Scott Frank and director Barry Sonnenfeld for finding the right tone, and John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito, Delroy Lindo, James Gandolfini, and Dennis Farina, for their note-perfect performances. Get Shorty lacks steel, but it is a very funny film.

Jackie Brown(1997)

Quentin Tarentino owes much of his celebrated dialogue skills to Elmore Leonard (and has said so in many interviews) so his adaptation of Rum Punch was a long time coming and a natural progression. Leonard knows that criminals are not clever; rather, their humor is inherent in their lack of intellect. Tarentino seems to understand this, too, and runs with the notion. For the first time in his career he leaves artifice behind, presenting real characters who speak as they would, with honesty, based on who they are. In other words, he has taken the core strength of a great writer and applied it to one of his own films. The motivations make sense, the crime mechanizations work, and the middle-aged love story between Pam Grier and Robert Forster is human and affecting. Plus, there is some shocking, cold-killer violence in this one (kudos to Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro for losing themselves completely in their roles) that will please the hardboiled base. Jackie Brown is a rich look into Leonard’s world, both reverent and irreverent, as it should be. It is also Tarentino’s best film by a country mile.

Out of Sight (1998)

Steven Soderbergh’s comeback, a home run effort, as inventive and challenging for film freaks as it is grandly entertaining for the masses. Scott Franks is back with the adaptation, surpassing his work on the very fine Get Shorty. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez are completely believable, romantic, and hyper-sexual in their roles, with more than able support by a scary Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames, Isaiah Washington, Dennis Farina, Albert Brooks, and standout Steve Zahn. Soderbergh and editor Anne V. Coates play with time in a way that feels natural, and David Holmes (this generation’s Lalo Schifrin) supplies the ultra-modern, beat-heavy score. Comedy and suspense is a very hard mix to pull off, but Soderbergh and company do it stylishly. After forty years, Hollywood finally got Elmore Leonard right.

Originally published in Uncut Magazine‘s Magnificent Seven column.