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R.I.P. Elmore Leonard: 1925-2013

Thompson on Hollywood By David Chute | Thompson on Hollywood August 20, 2013 at 2:04PM

When the late Elmore Leonard began writing fiction in the early Nineteen-Fifties, Westerns ruled the roost, so most of his early heroes wore cowboy hats. When this great American writer, who died today at 87, went with the flow in 1969, and switched to writing urban thrillers (with the twice-filmed "The Big Bounce"), the change wasn't a wrenching one. He didn't ask his characteristically watchful and laconic heroes to change much more than their hats when they relocated from the deserts of the Southwest to the mean streets of Detroit and Miami.
Jackie Brown, De Niro, Jackson

Although Leonard was short-spoken to a fault and rarely made great claims for himself as a writer, his colleagues in the profession were more than happy to oblige. The British novelist Martin Amis was a famous admirer, declaring that Leonard's prose "makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy."

Recounting a conversation about Leonard with a celebrated colleague, Amis said: "Saul Bellow and I agreed that for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there was no one quite like Elmore Leonard."

Many critics have noted the influence of the stylized naturalism of Elmore Leonard's dialog on the screenwriting of, among others, Quentin Tarantino, a debt the filmmaker acknowledged when he adapted the 1991 novel "Rum Punch" as "Jackie Brown" in 1997.

Leonard's own claims for his writing were less grandiose. "I try," he said, in the short and useful book Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, "to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip."

The humor built into Leonard's work was not always recognized by his Hollywood adapters, although the most successful Leonard-based films, such as Barry Sonnenfeld's "Get Shorty" (1995) and Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight" (1998), have also been among the funniest. 

Due for release later this year is "Life of Crime," based on Leonard's 1978 novel "The Switch." The new film is a defacto prequel to "Jackie Brown," with John Hawkes and Mos Def assuming the roles previously inhabited by Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson.

This article is related to: Elmore Leonard, Obit, Justified, Quentin Tarantino, Quentin Tarantino, Quentin Tarantino, TV

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.