If you like crime fiction or westerns at all — or just well-crafted, idiosyncratic stories with a sense of humor — Elmore Leonard, who passed away Tuesday at 87, was a sure thing, one great story after another, with larger-than-life, quirky characters and great dialogue. And if you never read his stuff, go do that now to honor him on the occasion of his passing. While you’re at it, if you’re a writer, go check his 10 rules for writing, which include the wise admonishment, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” He stuck to that; you won’t skip much in his novels and short stories.
Despite some missteps, Hollywood managed to do Leonard some justice more than once. In fact, some of the more memorable crime sagas and westerns of the past 50 years were based on his work. Here, in no particular order, are ten examples worth seeking out of Elmore Leonard in Hollywood:
Quentin Tarantino turned Leonard’s Rum Punch into a showcase for his own quirks and for the return of Pam Grier and Robert Forster to prominence. The movie follows the plot of the novel but is marked by Tarantino’s dialogue and pacing, transplanting the story from South Florida to the South Bay of Los Angeles County, with strip malls in the background and some key action at the Del Amo mall food court. (As a resident of said area, it works for me.) Loaded cast, clever plot, memorable characters, and a faded ’70s sheen on top of it all…
Out of Sight
Steven Soderbergh directing Clooney as a charming bank robber and J-Lo as the federal marshal who chases him from Florida (and a memorable ride in a car trunk) to Leonard’s own home town of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where Clooney and his gang — Steve Zahn and Ving Rhames — go looking for gems at the home of a braggart businessman (Albert Brooks!). If you look at that and think, well, how could it go wrong?, it didn’t.
Travolta, Hackman, Danny DeVito, a hilarious Dennis Farina, James Gandolfini, Rene Russo, Bette Midler (!), Bobby Slayton, all in a story that ties the South Florida mob together with show business and kidnapping. How could it go wrong? Again, it didn’t. Vastly entertaining. Skip the sequel, Be Cool, which tried to do the same with the music business and didn’t click at all.
3:10 to Yuma
There was a remake in 2007 with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, but the original from 1957 is the one to watch. Based on a Leonard short story, it’s about a desperate rancher (Van Heflin) who volunteers, for a few hundred badly needed bucks, to transport a wanted criminal (Glenn Ford, playing the heavy in an atypical performance for him) out of town and onto the titular transport. Things go awry, with much of the action on the psychological level. It holds up very well today. In fact, it might be my favorite western.
Wait, you’re not watching Justified? WHAT IS WRONG WITH… okay, I’ll calm down and just send you off to find and watch it from the beginning (Amazon Instant Prime has it). Timothy Olyphant IS Raylan Givens, a character originated by Leonard, and Graham Yost adapted him into a series that has the Leonard style and charm all over it. Walton Goggins is great as nemesis Boyd Crowder and GO WATCH IT NOW.
They made a TV series out of the fed played by Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, and it got buried by ABC. But Carla Gugino was really quite effective in the role, Robert Forster was terrific as her dad, and, yes, if you watch Justified, you know that Gugino showed up as a character named Karen who Raylan, once based in Miami, knew back there when she went by her unmentioned maiden name. Ahem. Anyway, the show pops up on cable now and then, and it’s better than you might assume a show that got cancelled after seven of its ten episodes aired would be.
Try and find a clip of this summer series from 1998 on ABC anywhere and you won’t find much. (Link it in the comments if you do.) But if you want quirk, oh, boy, this one had plenty of that. The most overt link you’ll find between Leonard and the similarly-spirited Carl Hiaasen, this one, set in a swampy small town in Florida, featured Beau Bridges as a tough-sentencing judge (hence the nickname) surrounded by weirdness like a psychic wife, dancing sheriff, and Liz Vassey (from The Tick) as a public defender from Miami. It didn’t have time to develop, and ABC burned the episodes off in August when nobody would be watching, but it had charm and eccentricity to spare.
Leonard write the original screenplay (okay, then it’s not TECHNICALLY an adaptation, but I don’t care) for this Clint Eastwood vehicle directed by John Sturges and co-starring Robert Duvall and John Saxon. Clint leads a posse to capture the leader of a Mexican peasant revolt, only to find that things aren’t as they seem and the good guys and bad guys aren’t easily defined.
Another Leonard western, with Martin Ritt directing Paul Newman as a strong, silent type, raised by Apaches and fighting stagecoach robbers and bigotry. The plot takes a couple of interesting twists along the way, and our hero proves clever, honorable, and — spoiler alert 46 years later — doomed. Dig that crazy trailer, too.
Okay, by the time Leonard’s screenplay made it to the big screen, this one became your basic Charles Bronson vehicle, meaning it was one man against the world, with guns. But the story is more interesting than the typical Bronson action flick, about a melon farmer (!) who ends up tangled with the mob when he comes to the aid of his farm workers. So it’s one man against the mob. Guess who wins. The difference is in the dialogue, which has Leonard’s style all over it. They marketed it as another Billy Jack or Walking Tall in the trailer, but it’s smarter than that. And it’s more cerebral than Death Wish, which came out the same year and became a cultural phenomenon.
So, go, read, watch, enjoy the work of a unique talent. It’s sad that there won’t be more, but he’s left us plenty.