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.
For over 60 years, the now-87-year-old author has been working at a prodigious rate, cranking out countless short stories and novels, often funny, intricately plotted crime tales, frequently set in his hometown of Detroit, and full of eccentric characters, sparkling dialogue and brutal violence. Stephen King called him “the great American writer,” and Martin Amis once told him at a live event “Your prose makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy.”
It’s no surprise, given the nature of his writing, that Leonard has long appealed to Hollywood and his work has been gracing the screen in various forms for over 50 years. We couldn’t be bigger fans of Leonard, and so to mark the Criterion release of “3:10 To Yuma,” we’ve gone back and watched every major big-screen Leonard adaptation (excepting anything made for TV — see the bottom of the piece for more), and ranked them from worst to best. So what came out top? Have a look below to find out and let us know your own favorite Leonard adaptation in the comments section.
21. “Be Cool” (2005)
You know when a band reunites years after their prime for a cash-grab tour followed by an album significantly worse than anything they did before, which serves only to sully the reputation of their earlier work? “Be Cool” is the movie equivalent of that. A decade after the success of “Get Shorty” revived interest in Elmore Leonard on screen, John Travolta returned to the role of Chilli Palmer in an adaptation of the writer’s 1999 sequel novel (itself inspired by the success of the earlier movie), which sees him getting out of the movie industry and helping Edie, the widow (Uma Thurman) of a recently-deceased record mogul pal (James Woods), fend off the attentions of thuggish managers Nick and Raji (Harvey Keitel and Vince Vaughn) and gangster-turned-super-producer Sin (Cedric the Entertainer), while also plotting stardom for singing sensation Linda Moon (Christina Milian). But what seemed effortless when Scott Frank and Barry Sonnenfeld were in charge feels desperately, hopelessly strained the second time around. In fairness, the novel “Be Cool” is far from Leonard’s finest hour, but it’s a masterpiece compared to the laugh-less script by Peter Steinfeld (“Analyze That“) and tension-free direction by F. Gary Gray. Creaky and dated, the moment the sets were taken down (not helped by the presence of the now-forgotten, deeply bland Milian and cameos from the likes of Fred Durst), it seems to have been made by people with no sense of how the record industry actually works or any feel for what made “Get Shorty” so enjoyable. Even the impressive-on-paper cast disappoints; Travolta and Thurman display little of their “Pulp Fiction” chemistry (not least when Gray decides to reprise their famous dance sequence in front of a live performance by the Black Eyed Peas), Keitel is sleepwalking and Vaughn, at the nadir of his pre-“Wedding Crashers” slump, is phenomenally annoying. The sole bright light is Dwayne Johnson, charismatic and funny as Vaughn’s gay, country-music loving bodyguard (though the film sells him up the river too). Pretty much a disaster from start to finish. [F]
20. “Freaky Deaky” (2012)
The most recent screen-adaptation of a Leonard novel, “Freaky Deaky” is one of the writer’s best-loved stories and was one of the package of options that Miramax picked up in the mid-1990s for Quentin Tarantino (with “Rum Punch,” aka “Jackie Brown,” the major beneficiary). The rights eventually lapsed, and after cycling through various cast options including Matt Dillon, Sienna Miller and William H. Macy, Charles Matthau (son of the great Walter) finally got rolling on this independent, low-budget adaptation. As you might expect from its Z-list cast, it’s pretty dreadful. Transplanting the original novel to the 1970s for no apparent reason, it sees ex-bomb squad cop Chris (Billy Burke) drawn into the world of lunatic heir Woody Ricks (Crispin Glover) after he’s accused of rape, just as the millionaire finds himself the target of ex-radical bomb-makers Robin and Skip (Breanne Racano and Christian Slater). There’s plenty of other colorful figures knocking around, most memorably Michael Jai White as Glover’s Machiavellian bodyguard (and least memorably, Andy Dick as a movie producer), but the cast have such low star-wattage (Burke in particular virtually fades into the background) that it’s never especially entertaining, even if Matthau has directly transposed much of Leonard’s dialogue, which crackles, but never takes off. More crucially, the writer-director ensures that the wacky dial has been turned up to 11 which 1) doesn’t make it any funnier and 2) undermines the more serious elements — it’s hard to take a shine to the ker-azzzy characters when there’s a sexual assault sub-plot in the mix as well. The ultra-low production values (most of the budget seems to have gone on music clearance) could be forgiven; a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes Leonard tick can’t be. [F]
19. “The Big Bounce” (2004)
A second film version of “The Big Bounce” wasn’t a bad idea, in and of itself. The 1969 film was hardly some unimpeachable classic (see below), the thought of moving the story to Hawaii to add some color wasn’t a bad one and director George Armitage had shown plenty of capacity for this kind of thing in the past, as the man behind “Miami Blues” and “Grosse Pointe Blank.” But given the result, it’s understandable that Armitage has been stuck in director’s jail ever since. Owen Wilson takes the lead role this time around, as Jack Ryan (not that one…), a surfer bum/manual laborer/breaking-and-entering specialist, who’s just served a little time for thwacking the foreman with an aluminum bat. He’s told to leave the island, but comes under the wing of local judge Walter (Morgan Freeman) and the spell of Nancy (Sara Foster), the bonkers mistress of local bigwig Ray (Gary Sinise). All the ingredients are there, but Armitage can’t decide on a tone; it’s equal part crime comedy, easy-going Hawaii postcard and super-broad comedy. Like the original, it’s a bit turgid and aimless (it’s not Leonard’s tightest-plotted novel in the first place), but Armitage lays on an omnipresent, irritatingly jaunty George Clinton score that just plain murders any tension and the film seems so keen to be ingratiating that it forgets to be interesting. It’s also fatally miscast at almost every point: Wilson’s quippy-shtick overwhelms the rest of the picture, Foster (a former model and TV presenter in her acting debut as the femme fatale) couldn’t act if her life depended on it, and the rest of the cast seem to have been assembled entirely at random: Charlie Sheen! Vinnie Jones! Willie Nelson! The film aspires to a certain effortless, but it’s only too obvious on screen how little anyone involved cares about what they’re doing. [D-]
18. “Cat Chaser” (1989)
Leonard was increasingly dissatisfied with screen versions of his work as the 1980s continued (rightly so, as we’ll see), but “Cat Chaser“
must have felt somewhat like the final straw: another bad-tempered
production, another picture re-cut by the studio, and another film that
barely saw a release (it got a theatrical outing in the UK and
elsewhere, but went straight to DVD in the US). Directed by Abel Ferrera (who would bounce back soon after with “King of New York” and “Bad Lieutenant“), the film stars the hot-off “Robocop” Peter Weller
as George Moran, an army vet who served in the oft-forgotten 1965
invasion of the Dominican Republic. Returning to Santo Domingo to find
the teenage sniper who saved his life back in the day, he instead
encounters his ex, Mary (Kelly McGillis, who had such an awful
time time making the film with Ferrera that she essentially left the
spotlight altogether), who’s now unhappily married to a psychotic former
general. She plans to leave her husband with a $2 million settlement,
even as another military buddy of George and an ex-cop (Frederic Forrest and Charles Durning) scheme to rip him off, but the general won’t let her
go either. In theory, it should be crackling stuff and what Ferrera
does pull off is the atmosphere; there’s a sticky, sweaty sensuality to
the film that suits the film’s sensibilities nicely. But the trouble is
that Ferrera seems to only prick up his interest when there’s sex
involved — grubby, misogynistic sex at that — and at every other
point, he seems to have simply pointed a camera at the actors and let
them at it. While the studio did cut Ferrera’s film nearly in half
by the time it was released, even then, it’s hard to imagine that
there’s some hidden masterpiece of a cut out there. The film is languid
as it is, so while Ferrera’s ideal version might actually make sense in a
way that the released version doesn’t, it’s unlikely to be any more
17. “The Rosary Murders” (1987)
A rare screenwriter-for-hire gig for Leonard, “The Rosary Murders” was pretty much done as a favor. Robert Laurel, a fellow Detroit native, had picked up the rights to one of William X. Kienzle‘s novels featuring Catholic priest/detective Father Robert Koesler, was looking for someone to add some local flavor, and who better than its most famous crime-writing son? Yet the film turned out to be a pretty poor match. The picture’s a fairly conventional thriller, top-lining Donald Sutherland as Father Koesler, who vows to track down the killer of priests and nuns, but finds himself caught between the right thing and his vows when the killer comes to confession. It’s a decent set-up (reminiscent of Hitchcock’s “I Confess“), but despite some vaguely interesting inner-church intrigue (Kienzle himself was a priest who left the church in protest of their attitude towards divorce), the film doesn’t do much with it. It’s a dull thriller with some slightly creaky production values, which for the most part feels like the pilot to some USA Network show. Sutherland is typically good value in the lead, as is Leonard vet Charles Durning as Koesler’s conservative nemesis (the actor reportedly apologized to the writer on set for his participation in “Stick“). So something of a washout, but it’s hard to treat it as a true Leonard movie: by the writer’s account, he took the job for the money, and was mostly rewritten by the film’s director, Fred Walton (“When A Stranger Calls“). If you do watch it, it’s worth keeping an eye out for a cameo from a young Jack White as an altar boy. [D]
16. “The Big Bounce” (1969)
Though he’d been writing for over a decade and had already been adapted to the screen several times, “The Big Bounce” was the novel that set up the template for much of what we think of as the archetypal Elmore Leonard story — his first full-length contemporary crime story, it features much of the quirkiness, double-crosses, femme fatales, and everything that’s come to figure into his best known work. It’s not his most fully realized effort, but on the page, it’s a lot of fun and it’s not surprising that it’s come to the screen twice. As we’ve seen already, the recent Owen Wilson-starring version was a misfire, but unfortunately, the 1969 original was nearly as problematic. Moved from the Michigan setting of the novel to California, it stars Ryan O’Neal as Jack Ryan, with the “Love Story” actor’s then-wife Leigh Taylor-Young as Nancy, James Daly as the villainous Ray Ritchie, Van Helfin in the Morgan Freeman part of the local judge, and Lee Grant, the best thing in the movie, as a tragic local single-mother, a part excised completely from the remake. The two films are an interesting case-study, because they each miss the mark, in entirely different ways — if you were somehow able to combine them, you might somehow get close to something pretty good. Whereas Wilson is as winning as ever in the 2004 version, O’Neal is charmless and unpleasant. Whereas Sara Foster’s Nancy is a virtual non-entity, Taylor-Young is magnetic (if a bit shrill in the closing stages). Whereas the recent film takes nothing seriously, the ’69 take is dour and cynical. The one thing the two versions share (other than hideous scores — in this case, sub-Beach Boys surf-guitar stuff) — they’re incredibly dull, with no real sense of urgency or any real attempt to capture Leonard’s voice. Maybe another filmmaker would be able to get it right third time around, but history at this point suggests that they’d be unwise to try. [D]
15. “Stick” (1985)
As far as directorial debuts from a figure such as Burt Reynolds go, 1981’s “Sharky’s Machine” wasn’t a bad effort — a tough and watchable crime flick that showed the perm-tached 1970s megastar had some talent behind the camera. Elmore Leonard‘s “Stick,” could have been a decent follow-up. Reynolds directed (working from a script by Leonard and “Sudden Impact” writer Joseph Stinson) and starred in the movie, but it coincided with the his creative and commercial decline and has deservedly been swiftly forgotten. Burt plays the title role, a car thief just out of the prison who gets embroiled in a drug swap with an old friend, only to see his pal double-crossed and murdered. Lying low, he takes a job as a driver for an eccentric movie producer (George Segal) while romancing a financier (Candice Bergen) and seeks vengeance on the men behind the death of his friend, drug dealer Chucky (Charles Durning) and the sinister, voodoo-employing Nestor (Castulo Guerra). The film was a tumultuous production; delayed for a year, heavily re-shot at Universal‘s behest to add more action, and denounced by Leonard as a result. And that’s part of the problem; there’s little of Leonard’s spirit in there, not much in the way of wit and smarts, to the extent that it feels, more than anything, like the kind of Jason Statham movie that disappears from theaters in two weeks. But studio interference can’t take the whole blame as there’s plenty of poorly thought-out decisions in here to lay at the director/star’s door, from an ill-advised hair-metal wig for Durning’s villain, to Segal’s shrill comic relief performance, to the creepily incestuous vibe between Reynolds and his teen daughter. It’s better than “Be Cool” and its ilk by being somewhat watchable, but it’s still an immensely forgettable effort. [D+]
14. “Killshot” (2009)
This adaptation of one of Leonard’s best-loved novels was a long, long time coming. Initially optioned (alongside “Bandits” and “Freaky Deaky“) by Miramax for Quentin Tarantino after “Pulp Fiction,” produced by his partner Lawrence Bender, and initially intended to be “Presented” by QT (he took his name off the film), “Killshot” was in development forever, but finally came to the screen under the unlikely direction of “Shakespeare In Love” helmer John Madden, who started shooting in 2005. Taking four years to make it to the screen, the film was beset by post-production issues, heavy re-shoots, and behind-the-scenes feuding. When it did arrive finally, it wasn’t a huge surprise that the movie was a mess. Mickey Rourke (post-“Sin City” comeback, though the film was released on the tail of his Oscar-nominated turn in “The Wrestler“) toplines as Blackbird, a half-Native American hitman who, teamed with the reckless Richie (a greasy, kind of terrible Joseph Gordon-Levitt), target a married couple (the pleasantly-rhyming duo of Diane Lane and Thomas Jane) who’ve gone into the witness protection program. You sense that there’s a good film, or at least a half-decent one, tucked somewhere in here: Rourke in particular is strong, giving a nice sense of melancholy to the picture, and it’s handsomely shot by the great Caleb Deschanel. But the script (by future “Drive” writer Hossein Amini), at least in the form it takes on screen, takes forever to get going and grinds to a halt every time Lane and Jane’s blander-than-bland leads come center-stage. Ultimately, it’s not a film that’s especially bad (Gordon-Levitt’s performance aside) on a scene-by-scene basis, but as a whole, it’s turgid and, frankly, boring. [C-]
13. “The Moonshine War” (1970)
A curious entry in the Leonard filmography, based on one of his lesser-known early novels (which also recently lent its name, if little else, to a “Justified” episode), “The Moonshine War” is a sort of 1970s answer to “Lawless” and proves to be just as unsatisfying when it comes to capturing Prohibition-era criminality. The convoluted plot sees corrupt internal revenue agent Frank Long (“The Prisoner” star Patrick McGoohan) come to Kentucky to see if he can get a cut of the moonshining business of his army buddy Son Martin (Alan Alda). The two fall out and Long brings the psychotic Dr. Taulbee (Richard Widmark) into the mix. Director Richard Quine (“How To Murder Your Wife“), working from a script by Leonard himself, never quite gets to grips with the story, in part because the character’s motivations often feel nebulous. But that’s the least of the problems with the performances. Widmark makes an entertaining villain (backed up by musician Lee Hazlewood, of all people), but McGoohan and Alda are both wildly miscast, struggling with the accents, rarely convincing, and in the former’s case, swinging for the hills in a way that comes across as faintly embarrassing. Quine’s nodding to Arthur Penn with his direction, but there’s little flair here and it feels pedestrian throughout. Lower your expectations and you might have a reasonable time with it, but there’s little reason for even the most ardent Leonard fan to track it down. [C-]
12. “Valdez Is Coming” (1971)
Elmore Leonard‘s career both as a writer and onscreen is roughly divided into two eras — he started off as a writer of short stories and novels in the western genre, but from the mid-1970s onwards has almost exclusively figured moved into more contemporary fare. His movies have followed that pattern too; most of the earlier adaptations were of western novels or stories, but now, the likes of “3:10 To Yuma” are the outliers. Probably the least of those early Westerns was “Valdez Is Coming,” a passable, but creaky vehicle for Burt Lancaster. The legendary star plays the title character, a part-Mexican constable who stands up against Tanner (Jon Cypher), the corrupt rancher who caused him to gun down an innocent man. Valdez tries to raise some money from Tanner for the widow, but the villain responds by forcing the lawman to carry a wooden cross into the desert — Christ allegories ahoy! But they made a mistake not finishing him off and he recovers, dons his old cavalry uniform, and returns for vengeance. A borderline Spaghetti Western (US-backed, but shot in Spain), it’s a neat setup, but its themes of bigotry in the Old West were tackled better elsewhere and the unsteady hand of director Edwin Sherin, a theater veteran whose screen career never really got going, makes it feel awkward, poorly paced and half-cocked. Even the star turn doesn’t quite come off. Lancaster’s as solid as ever, but time hasn’t been kind to his brown-face turn here, leaving Richard Jordan as a bug-eyed villain to walk away with the acting honors. [C]
11. “Joe Kidd” (1972)
While Leonard’s come to the screen many times and often received screenwriting credit on the adaptation (mostly on films where he was heavily rewritten and proved to be unhappy with; it’s worth noting that most of the top picks on this list feature no writing contribution from Leonard), the novelist never took to original screenplays in the way that you might imagine for a writer who’s so adept with dialogue and plotting. But there are a couple of decent exceptions to that in the early 1970s, the first of which is “Joe Kidd,” an original western screenplay that teamed two other giants of the genre: star Clint Eastwood, and director John Sturges (“The Magnificent Seven,” “Bad Day At Black Rock“). Eastwood plays the title character, a jail-bound bounty hunter press-ganged into a posse led by corrupt landowner Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall), to capture Mexican revolutionary John Chama (John Saxon). There’s certainly a reason that the existence of the film probably comes as a surprise to all, but the hardiest Clint-heads or Western fans: it’s a pretty unashamed B-picture, one shot through with the sense of social justice that’s so common in Leonard’s western work, but ultimately breaks little ground, especially with Clint on something close to autopilot (it’s worth noting that the actor’s next two westerns were the far-more boundary-pushing “High Plains Drifter” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales“). That said, the film’s still a lot of fun, especially when it comes to Duvall’s loathsome but textured bad guy and some cracking action, which peaks as Kidd drives a train to a saloon (not exactly at high speed, it should be said…). Hardly an undiscovered classic, but if it was on TV on a Sunday afternoon, you’d be unlikely to turn it off. [C+]
10. “Mr. Majestyk” (1974)
And then there was the second of his original screenplays — which went on to be turned into a novel by Leonard, entering his canon for real as a result. It’s better-known status is also helped in that it’s a favorite of Quentin Tarantino (it’s referred to in the dialogue of “True Romance,” and the poster can be glimpsed on Michael Madsen‘s wall in “Kill Bill Volume 2“) even before he adapted Leonard himself. Originally written by Leonard for Eastwood (presumably Clint lost interest after “Joe Kidd” opened to mediocre reviews and worse box-office), it soon became a vehicle for Charles Bronson, who takes the title role of a Vietnam vet turned melon farmer who ends up capturing a mobster (Al Lettieri) who’s behind the protection racket that’s been threatening his business. There’s a certain amount of (mostly) unintentional humor in Majestyk’s obsessions with his melon crop, but it’s otherwise a highly competent pretty straight-ahead action flick. Free of the questionable politics of the “Death Wish” series (indeed, its pro-union stance places it on the other side of the aisle in many ways), it gives Bronson one of his best roles of the period, with Lettieri proving to be an excellent adversary for him. And while it takes a little while to really get going, the third act is cracking, with blood and melons flying, and genre specialist Richard Fleischer (“Solyent Green,” “Tora! Tora! Tora!“) handling the action with aplomb. Leonard wrote the story up as a novel while the film was in production and it hit bookshelves at about the same time as the movie; it’s probably better on the page, though it’s still not one of his top flight works. [B-]
9. “52 Pick-Up” (1986)
The story behind “52 Pick-Up” must rank as one of the strangest paths to the screen that an Elmore Leonard picture took. Optioned by the legendary (not necessarily for the right reasons…) Cannon Group honchos Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Leonard turned in a script that was then completely rewritten into the 1984 film “The Ambassador,” a political thriller that bears no resemblance to the novel, directed by J. Lee Thompson, and starring Robert Mitchum, Ellen Burstyn, and in his last screen appearance, Rock Hudson. (We didn’t include as part of the main list, because, in Leonard’s words, “It has none of my characters, none of my situations, nothing.”) Then, two years later, Golan and Globus remade it with a rather more faithful adaptation, directed by John Frankenheimer, and with Leonard retaining script credit. The film wasn’t especially well-regarded, but given that it’s a Cannon Films production, we were pleasantly surprised at what an enjoyably nasty little thriller it turns out to be. Roy Scheider stars as a L.A. industrialist who is having an affair with a much, much younger woman (Kelly Preston) while his wife (Ann-Margret) is distracted running for city council. But he’s confronted by a trio of blackmailers (John Glover, Clarence Williams III and Robert Trebor), who ask for $100,000 to keep his secret safe. When he tries to tell them he can’t pay up, they kill the girl and frame him for the murder. The film’s undoubtedly exploitation fare (barely a couple of scenes go by without a pair of bare breasts), but the sleaziness feels appropriate here in a way that it didn’t with something like “Cat Chaser,” while Frankenheimer’s fine handle on tension was still with him, resulting in a truly taut narrative. Scheider, whose star was fading somewhat, is actually excellent, while the villains, especially Glover, are tremendous foils. The whole thing falls apart at the end and becomes something closer to a traditional ’80s action film, but it’s a lot of fun until then, even if you do feel a bit dirty afterwards. [B-]
8. “3:10 To Yuma” (2007)
The most recent Leonard-adaptation you actually remember (even if many aren’t aware that ‘Yuma’ is a Leonard tale at all), the remake of “3:10 To Yuma” was in development for years — Columbia picked up the project in 2003 and people like Tom Cruise and Eric Bana were linked to the lead roles before the studio dropped it. But Lionsgate and Relativity Media picked up the reins and James Mangold finally got to make his western, with the hot-off “Batman Begins” Christian Bale as the hero and Russell Crowe as the bad guy. The script, by Michael Brandt & Derek Haas (and hewing close enough to the first adaptation that they shared credit with original scribe Halsted Welles, who died in 1990) follows most of the same beats, while fleshing out the characters a little more; so Bale’s hero Dan Evans is now an amputee out to prove his masculinity to his son (a strong debut from Logan Lerman), while Crowe’s Ben Wade has something of a Hannibal Lecter side to him, somehow. There are also a few new characters, including Peter Fonda‘s grizzled, cantankerous Pinkerton, and a soggy new mid-section featuring an inexplicable Luke Wilson cameo. Some of the changes are for the better — Ben Foster is terrific as Wade’s terrifying terrier of a right-hand-man Charlie Prince — and so little is broken about the conceit that it’s engaging throughout, particularly with Crowe giving one of his better turns and the typically solid Mangold at the helm. But the extra half-hour it has on the lean original sometimes feels too much like padding and an altered “darker” ending is unsatisfying on multiple levels (not least to Leonard, who told Vice a few years later “It’s just dumb. In the new one, he shoots his own guys, and then he gets on the train and whistles for his horse! I don’t know what that means. I have no idea. Is the horse going to follow him all the way across Arizona?”) Still, as present-day Westerns go, it’s a decent effort. [B-]
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]
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]
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]
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+]
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-]
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+]
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.