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From Best To Worst: Elmore Leonard Movie Adaptations

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 14, 2013 at 11:57AM

Today sees the release of a sparkling new Criterion version of "3:10 To Yuma," the perpetually-underrated 1957 Western that's somewhat overshadowed by the more recent 2007 remake. Even those who have seen the earlier version may not be entirely aware that it's based on a short story by a man that we consider not just one of America's finest crime novelists, but one of our finest writers full stop: Elmore Leonard.
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The Tall T
7. "The Tall T" (1957)
The very first Leonard-based movie to make it to the screen (based on the short story "The Captives," and beating "3:10 To Yuma" to theaters by about four months),"The Tall T" actually does a lot more right than most of the adaptations that would follow over the next few decades. The second of seven B-western collaborations between director Butt Boetticher, writer Burt Kennedy and star Randolph Scott, known as the Ranown Cycle ("Seven Men From Now" had been the first of them the previous year), it's a modest, but pretty enjoyable picture with a certain amount of Leonard flavor in the mix. Scott plays Pat Brennan, a former foreman, who loses his horse in a bet and is forced to take a lift with a stagecoach carrying newlyweds Willard and Doretta (John Hubbard and Maureen O'Sullivan). But the journey takes an unexpected turn when the coach is hijacked by a trio of outlaws (led by Richard Boone's Frank Usher), who kill the driver and take the three passengers hostage. Over the rest of the brisk run time, a game of wits plays out, with Usher developing a respect for Pat while Willard tries to sell his wife upriver, making it clear that he's not the man she thought she was. Boetticher wrings all the tension you could ask for out of the scenario, until it explodes into an impressive gunfight at the end, while the dialogue here ("From now on, when you walk, you walk noisy") has more fizz to it than in most Leonard adaptations, until at least the 1990s. It's pretty minor in scope and scale; it doesn't have much to say other than telling a story and fails to convince when it introduces a romantic aspect between Scott and O'Sullivan (who are both terrific, as is Boone), but for the most part, one could only wish that the rest of the Leonard adaptations that followed came close to being as solid as this. [B]

Touch
6. "Touch" (1997)
A definite outlier among both Leonard's literary output and his screen works (it was written in the 1970s, but not published for a decade, in part because of its religious subject matter, in other part because it doesn't quite fit his usual genre niche), "Touch" is a curious little film, but one with much to recommend it, and it's certainly been overlooked over the last decade-and-a-half. Christopher Walken stars as Bill Hill, an down-on-his-luck evangelist who decides that Juvenal (Skeet "Johnny Depp Wasn't Available" Ulrich), a young man purported to have a healing touch, is the person who could put him back on the map. He enlists an old friend, Lynn (Bridget Fonda, in the first of two Leonard adaptations of 1997) to get to Juvenal, but she falls for him, and things are further complicated by Catholic fanatic August Murray (Tom Arnold). It's a rather bizarre cast and an even stranger film -- whimsical, sincere, sharp and low-key. But given that religion has pervaded so much of his work, Paul Schrader was undoubtedly the right person to direct the film; there's a thoughtfulness and soulfulness to the film that other filmmakers would have buried under cynicism. On top of that, he has a strong enough feel for Leonard's voice (the writer praised him for, essentially, "shooting the book") that it's consistently funny, especially with Walken, Fonda, and even Arnold and Ulrich giving strong turns (plus fun side-characters like Gina Gershon and Janeane Garofolo knocking around the picture too). It's unruly and a touch unsatisfying, but it's certainly one of the most fascinating Leonard adaptations to date.  [B]


3:10 To Yuma
5. "3:10 To Yuma" (1957)
The reason we're here and hopefully the Criterion reissue of this tense, deceptively rich Western, the second-ever Leonard adaptation will restore it to the reputation it deserves. The plot is stripped-down and almost high-concept: when a feared and murderous outlaw, Ben Wade (Glenn Ford, who would finish up his career with another Leonard adaptation, the made-for-TV "Border Shootout") is captured, rancher Dan Evans (Van Helfin, who also returned to Leonard late in his career, in the 1969 "Big Bounce") volunteers to put him on the eponymous train to face justice. But Wade's men are determined to get him back. Unlike in James Mangold's remake, director Delmer Daves keeps the focus laser-tight on the relationship between Wade and Evans, the two actors proving to have killer chemistry, and Halsted Welles' script gives plenty of complexity to their relationship (and there's a striking modernity in the way some of the supporting cast are drawn). While it's almost by necessity a talky affair, Daves is careful to keep the ticking clock, and the ever-closer threat of Wade's men, continuously on the viewer's mind. It's surprisingly brutal, too; nothing in the 2007 version can match the power of when Charlie Prince kills the good-natured town drunk and hangs him from a chandelier. Daves handles the action well when it finally comes with the final dash to the station proving positively white-knuckle, thanks to all the tension that's come before. It probably doesn't quite rank with the finest of the genre, but it certainly comes across well in comparison to the similarly-premised, but preachier "High Noon," for instance. [B]

"Get Shorty"
"Get Shorty"
4. "Get Shorty" (1995)
The film that single-handedly revived interest in putting Leonard on screen, "Get Shorty" was one of the first films to surf the post-Tarantino wave. In fact, given that producer/star Danny DeVito's Jersey Films had also backed "Pulp Fiction" the year before, one can only assume that they knew what they had when they put its star, John Travolta, into production on "Get Shorty." But what stands out about the film nearly two decades on is the way that it doesn't fall into the traps of simply aping Tarantino and company; this is Leonard's voice on screen pure and simple, thanks to a terrific screenplay by Scott Frank. It's doubly impressive because the novel features one of the writer's most tangled plots: Miami loan shark Chili Palmer (Travolta) is sent by his new boss (Dennis Farina) to track down the debt of a guy who's faked his death in a plane crash, but Palmer ends up coming across B-movie producer Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman) and pitching a film based on his own life. Zimm likes the idea, but is in trouble with drug dealer Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo). And that's not to forget Bo's stuntman henchman Bear (James Gandolfini), diminutive movie star Martin Weir (DeVito), and his ex-wife Karen (Rene Russo), who takes a liking to Chili. There are a lot of players in the game, but Frank's sharp script and the crisp direction by Barry Sonnenfeld keep things coherent, lightning-paced and consistently funny. The cast all tear into the roles with relish, with Hackman a particular standout, and we'd even argue that Travolta gets a more definitive and iconic part here than in "Pulp Fiction." It might not have the soul of some of the films above it in this list, but "Get Shorty" gets right everything that its sequel "Be Cool" got wrong and that's more than enough to put it in the top tier. [B+]

Hombre
3. "Hombre" (1967)
Probably the best-known of the Leonard adaptations until "Get Shorty" came along and probably beating the original 'Yuma' to the title of his finest western (so far), "Hombre" combines the smart and complex character dynamics of that film with the social consciousness of "Valdez Is Coming," wraps it up with stylish and muscular direction, and puts a soild-gold movie-star performance atop it. If you've never seen it, it's a cracker. Paul Newman (reunited with his "Hud" director Martin Ritt) stars as John Russell, an Arizona white man raised by the Apache, who returns to his birthplace to claim his inheritance. But on the way back, his stagecoach is held up by Grimes (Richard Boone, virtually reprising his role in "The Tall T," though he's even better here), who makes off with the wife of fellow passenger Dr. Favor (Fredric March), who like the other travelers, shows no small amount of prejudice towards Russell. To further complicate matters, it turns out that Favor has stolen a large sum of money from Russell's tribe. The screenplay (by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr) expertly sets up the characters in the opening, so that by the time the shit hits the fan, everyone's clearly defined, their conflicts and clashes lining up organically, and every actor more than rises to the occasion, not least Newman, who's righteous, rage-filled and effortlessly badass. Like 'Yuma,' it's something close to a siege movie, but it's even more breathlessly tense and the final half-hour or so is a killer sequence. It also manages to be about something -- the mistreatment of Native Americans, prejudice in general -- in a way that lifts it above some of the pulpier Leonard western adaptations. Somewhat overlooked over years, maybe this should be on Criterion's hit-list now that they've got 'Yuma' in the bag... [A-]

Jackie Brown
2. "Jackie Brown" (1997)
It was a bit of a "Sophie's Choice" picking between the two films atop this list; not just because they're two rich, phenomenally made, wonderfully acted crime films, but because they're inextricably linked in our minds -- released less than a year apart, and even sharing a character in a way that, in an alternate universe, might have led to some kind of "Avengers"-style Elmore Leonard team-up movie. Ultimately, we went with Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" in the number two slot, but that shouldn't be read as a slight to the film, a spectacular piece of work in its own right. Based on Leonard's 1992 novel "Rum Punch," it follows the titular flight attendant (Pam Grier, in an astonishing comeback role), who gets caught smuggling money for gun-runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). He plans to kill her to tie up the loose ends, but with the help of sympathetic bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster), she sets out to play the sides against each other and gets out free, clear, and rich. Tarantino's film runs a hefty two-and-a-half-hour, but while it's arguably his slowest film, he absolutely justifies the real estate; the plot has time to unfold properly and we get to dig into all the principals, including somewhat fringe-y characters like Robert De Niro's Louis (one of his very best turns) and Bridget Fonda's Melanie. Tarantino and Leonard's voices meld perfectly, creating something that's true to the source material while doing its own thing and the direction is mature -- slick, but mostly getting out of the way of the story. It's a rare outing in Tarantino's oeuvre where he's making a film that isn't about other films (there are some Blaxploitation nods, but they're fairly thin), but about people. In the outstanding, melancholy turns from Grier and Forster in particular, the film gets a big bold heart that the director hasn't yet managed to recapture. [A+] 

Out Of Sight
1 ."Out Of Sight" (1998)
So we love "Jackie Brown," but we might love "Out Of Sight" just a little bit more, not least because it stands, to us, as the most definitive example of Leonard on-screen. Terrific script by "Get Shorty" writer Scott Frank? Check. Cameo from Michael Keaton as Ray Nicolette, tying it together with the other masterpiece? Check. A setting that encompasses both of Leonard's traditional stomping grounds, of Florida, and Detroit? Check. And most importantly, a cast of unforgettable characters double-crossing each other in a cracking plot of sex, violence and whip-smart dialogue (all directed with a career-reviving zeal by Steven Soderbergh)? Double check. A deceptively tricky timeline (masterfully reassembled by veteran editor Anne Coates, whose credits include "Lawrence Of Arabia") lays it out; bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney, in the part that set the stage for the decade and more of great work to come, as he bounced back from the disaster of "Batman & Robin") has busted out of jail, taking Federal Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez, never again even half as good as she is here) hostage in his trunk as he does so. He's got a final gig in mind; pinching diamonds from toupeed white-collar criminal Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks), but former prison-mate Snoop (Don Cheadle) has designs on the same score too. With Sisco on his tail, can Jack keep his mind on the job? Or might he have found something more important? Frank and Soderbergh keep the narrative moving propulsively, but find plenty of time to stop and catch breath with a cast of characters that might be Leonard's finest (including Steve Zahn's hapless Glenn, Ving Rhames' loyal Buddy, Catherine Keener's magician's assistant Adele, Luis Guzman's escaped con Chino, Isaiah Washington's sinister Kenneth, and even a one-scene wonder from Viola Davis). The director, relishing his second chance after a string of under-performing pictures, gives the film a New Wave pop, but there's a darkness and sadness here too that underlays the laugh-out-loud moments without undermining them. It's a goddamn masterpiece, one of the best crime pictures of the last few decades, and to our mind, the finest Leonard adaptation we've seen to date. [A+]

Also Out There: We've run down all of the major movies that got a theatrical release somewhere in the world, or at least played a festival, but there are a lot more out there, many which ended up on TV. Among them, the Leonard-penned western TV movie "Desperado" starring Alex McArthur, which got a number of sequels over the next few years, while the decidedly lesser made-for-television sequel "High Noon, Part II: The Return Of Will Kane" (starring Lee Majors, of all people) had preceded it in 1980.

His novel "Glitz" got an adaptation on the small screen starring Jimmy Smits in 1988, as did the mostly forgotten "Split Images" in 1992, while Tom Selleck top-lined "Last Stand At Saber River" in 1997. By then, Leonard was hot again thanks to "Get Shorty," and a few other of his novels ended up on the small screen that same year: "Pronto," starring Peter Falk and James Le Gros (the latter as Marshal Raylan Givens, the same role that Timothy Olyphant would later make famous in "Justified"), and "Gold Coast," starring David Caruso, and directed by a trying-to-redeem-himself-for-"Cat Chaser" Peter Weller.  More recently, there have been a couple of short films, too: the Oscar-nominated "The Tonto Woman," directed by "Harry Brown" helmer Daniel Barber, and "Sparks," by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

There have also been a few long-form TV adaptations over the last couple of decades. First up was "Maximum Bob," starring Beau Bridges as Leonard's eccentric right-wing Florida judge. Barry Sonnenfeld, straight off "Men In Black" and "Get Shorty," directed the pilot, and it's actually a lot of fun, but it only lasted a handful of episodes. The same fate sadly met "Karen Sisco," a 2003 series that saw Carla Gugino pick up the mantle dropped by Jennifer Lopez as the Marshal from "Out Of Sight," with Robert Forster perfectly placed to replace Dennis Farina as her father. Backed again by Danny De Vito's Jersey Films, it's a really good little show, but sadly was cancelled before the first season was through.

Now, of course, there's "Justified," and through four seasons on FX (particularly once it got past the patchier first one), it's become one of the most definitive versions of Elmore's universe on screen. Only the show's pilot has many ties to Raylan Givens' literary origins, but creator Graham Yost and his writing teams have perfectly captured Leonard's voice, with the result that each new episode feels like a new Leonard story. Each season feels like it's going to be hard to top (Margo Martindale's season two villain felt at the time like an impossible peak to surpass), but it's continued to be one of the best dramas on TV with no little thanks to the great performances by Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins.

There's more on the way, too. USA are developing a pilot based on Leonard's short story "When The Women Came Out To Dance," starring "Miss Bala" breakout Stephanie Sigman, while "Supporting Characters" director Daniel Schechter has wrapped a version of "Jackie Brown" precursor novel "The Switch," starring John Hawkes and Mos Def in the roles originally taken by Robert De Niro and Samuel L Jackson (with Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins also on board). There's lots more that's untapped too (among those never made were a version of "Cuba Libre," one of his best books, written by the Coen Brothers, and an adaptation of "Tishomongo Blues," that would have marked Don Cheadle's directorial debut and starred Matthew McConaughey), so there's little sign of Leonard drying up onscreen any time soon.

And to close off: Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules for Good Writing:

1.  Never open a book with weather.
2.  Avoid prologues.
3.  Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6.  Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9.  Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.


This article is related to: Features, Elmore Leonard, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, The Essentials


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