Elmore Leonard, the great writer of crime fiction, passed away last week at the age of 87. Many an obituary has been written to mark this sad occasion, so I won’t eulogize the man, but I will take the opportunity to share my top five films adapted from his novels. My introduction to Leonard was actually through the movies based on his work, which date back all the way to the 1957 Budd Boetticher western The Tall T. I haven’t read all (or even most) of Leonard’s novels, but I’ve greatly admired those I have, and I can understand why filmmakers might be drawn to his gritty stories, strong, vividly rendered characters, and methodical prose. Full disclosure: of the films I included, I’ve read just one of the novels on which they’re based—to be specific, number three. Naturally, I selected each film based on my admiration for the film itself, not for its success as an adaptation of the original text.
5. Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998) Although it’s flashy and stylish in a way that doesn’t exactly befit Leonard’s style, this comedy warrants inclusion simply because it’s one of Soderbergh’s better films. As is typical of the director’s earlier work, the film has a heightened sense of artifice, both visually and thematically. The famous “trunk scene,” in which George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez misquote famous movies and wax poetic on Bonnie and Clyde while extraneously bathed in red light, justifiably stands as one of Soderbergh’s most beloved sequences.
4. Touch (Paul Schrader, 1997) Maybe Schrader’s most bizarre film—and that’s saying something, because Scharder has made some bizarre films in his day. The movie is designed to be a comedy, but Schrader’s ear for humor seems pitched somewhere between satire and, well, the opposite of satire. Much of the dialogue and story is supposedly lifted straight from Leonard’s book, resulting in the mishmash that is Leonard’s jaunty prose and Schrader’s unaffected, pseudo-Bressonian style. The characters speak in droll quips that disparage religion and media, but the lines are delivered in a manner that’s both unconvincing and unfunny. That said, the results aren’t necessarily uninteresting. The game cast holds the material together, and the fact that the film isn’t all that funny is actually somewhat charming, as if Scharder was resigned to the fact that comedy isn’t his genre but went ahead and made one anyway. A fascinating failure.
3. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997) People often cite this post-blaxploitation crime caper as the least Tarantino-esque of Tarantino’s work, probably because of the film’s effortless assimilation of Leonard’s unique voice. Indeed, Tarantino’s typically flamboyant style is dialed back considerably here. His other films are exercises in self-aware style, pop culture idiosyncrasies, and cartoonish violence, but Jackie Brown adheres to an internal logic and formal rhythm reminiscent of Don Siegel’s classic crime dramas. The overall effect is quite similar to reading Leonard’s novel, whose straightforward stories belie an intricate structural design.
2. 52 Pick-Up (John Frankenheimer, 1986) A classic Cannon Films release, and one of Frankenheimer’s most stylistically precise films. Not unlike Touch, there’s an interesting disconnect between Frankenheimer’s and Leonard’s personal styles, but Leonard actually served as the film’s coscreenwriter, so a fair amount of his voice finds its way into the film, where it gels nicely with Frankenheimmer’s ascetic formalism. The disconnect reaches even further when Frankenheimer’s pulpy conceits clash with Leonard’s more classy characterizations, but the end results are eclectic rather than contradictory.
1. Cat Chaser (Abel Ferrara, 1989) In certain ways, this is Ferrara’s least ambitious film, adhering strictly to generic tenets—not disassembling them, as he usually does—and rarely displaying the primal, Baudelairean traits seen in his best work. It’s a safe film, but safe doesn’t always mean bad. For starters, it’s a great looking film—Ferrara took to story’s exotic locale and found historical, sociocultural, and aesthetic implications in the Dominican Republic setting. It’s also formally scrupulous. Like Jackie Brown, it’s a film that honors Leonard’s focused structure and tightly wound stories—precisely the sort of classic style not generally associated with Ferrara. In many ways, the film is a portal to a different dimension, where Ferrara disavowed exploitation in favor of tidy entertainment, which I personally find fascinating.