Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Elmore Leonard (1925-2013)

Elmore Leonard courtesy of Getty Images
Crime and western novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard died this morning in his Bloomfield Village, Mich. home. Leonard was hospitalized in early August after suffering a stroke and passed away at 7:15 this morning, according to The Detroit News. Leonard was 87.

Leonard was a cinematic writer. His novels demanded to be put on screen. Sometimes they dared, but usually they begged. He wrote characters that belonged in a format that was larger than life in an environment that was sultrier and more dangerous. Great filmmakers were drawn to the man’s work. Delmer Daves, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, James Mangold, John Madden, Barry Sonnenfeld, John Frankenheimer, John Sturges, and Martin Ritt are just some of the filmmakers compelled to explore the world of Leonard. It was a world of violence, with criminals and crime fighters defined as much by their brains as their brawn.

Leonard has over 40 credits listed to his name on the television and movie website IMDb.com. Of those contributions, his work seems split almost evenly between westerns and neo-noir crime stories. Included in those films are some of the most critically acclaimed of both genres. His short story “3:10 to Yuma” was filmed twice; once in 1957, the second time in 2007. Both are shining examples of the western genre capturing the volatile environment of the untamed law of the West and the stewing intellects of the men driven to exploit and define that law.

Not all of his film credits were simply for the source material. Leonard adapted many of his stories to the big screen, including “52 Pick Up” (which was also made into the movie “The Ambassador”), the Burt Reynolds vehicle “Stick”, and the steamy “Cat Chaser”. Several of his screenplays were written exclusively for the screen. He wrote the Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson vehicles, “Joe Kidd” and “Mr. Majestyk” respectively. He wrote the 1980 sequel to “High Noon”, and even adapted another author’s work for the out of character serial killer film “The Rosary Murders”.

Westerns like “Hombre”, “The Moonshine War”, and “Last Stand at Saber River” attracted the biggest movie, television, and even British stars to get their rawhides on. Paul Newman, Patrick McGoohan, Richard Widmark, Tom Selick, Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Glenn Ford, and Van Helfin all took the saddle for Leonard’s rich characters and desperate situations. His “Desperado” character, Duell McCall, inspired a series of made for television films throughout the 80s, and his recurring character Raylan Givens gave birth to the critically lauded television series “Justified” starring Timothy Olyphant.

His crime stories may have drawn an even larger amount of creative greatness to them. Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” is perhaps my favorite film based on Leonard’s work. Taken from the pages of his acclaimed novel “Rum Punch”, QT interpreted it as a romance between a flight attendant and her bail bondsman after becoming involved in muling drugs for a maniacal low-level drug kingpin. The film revitalized the careers of its leads, 70s blacksploitation star Pam Grier and Robert Forster. The film is exemplary of both QT’s and Leonard’s style of intelligent, thoughtful characters trying to work their way out of a sinister situation through great dialogue and sudden, severe violence. 80s comic star Michael Keaton also appeared in the film and in the same year appeared as the same character in Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Leonard’s “Out of Sight”.

Perhaps my least favorite of Leonard’s adaptations are the two films about his Chili Palmer character, played in the films “Get Shorty” and “Be Cool” by John Travolta. Having not read the books, I don’t know how well these Hollywood skewering comedies follow their source material. The movies suffered from the fact that Palmer was always the smartest person by double digits in every scene, severely limiting the level of suspense for the hero to come out on top. “Be Cool” still holds the record for being the shortest review I’ve ever written. It read simply, “Be dull.”

Regardless of their success, the film works of Leonard leave an undeniable impression on their viewers. Leonard is responsible for some of the most interesting and intelligent genre characters in all of film. They often inhabit desperate situations, but more often than not handle them with the same cool confidence of Leonard’s words and writing. American cinema has lost one of its great resources with the passing of Elmore Leonard. Of course, since his body of work will always exist, it’s unlikely that we’ve seen the last of his cinematic influence.

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