Okay, now that TCM’s Kurosawa retrospective is over, you’re all allowed—nay, encouraged—to devote your Tuesday evenings to the new Elmore Leonard series Justified on FX. I haven’t had a chance to watch the second episode yet, so all I will say about last week’s premiere is: good cast, good characters, good story, good production. Like you need any more than that, especially with Leonard’s name attached? And it seems I’m in for some remedial reading, for in addition to the story “Fire in the Hole” (found in When the Women Come Out to Dance), on which the eponymous pilot was based, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylen Givens also appears in Pronto and Riding the Rap.
Fixated as I am on the nexus between literature and film, I often encounter an author’s work initially by comparing it with its cinematic adaptations(s), and only if I really like said work, as I do Leonard’s, will I read beyond that. But I have a lot of catching up to do with his, even though Pronto was made into a 1997 cable TV-movie starring Peter Falk, with James LeGros as Givens. Leonard’s relationship with Hollywood goes back to such fine Westerns as The Tall T and the original 3:10 to Yuma (both 1957), based on his short stories, and Hombre (1967), adapted from his novel by the terrific triumvirate of director Martin Ritt and married screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.
I’m sure Dutch, as he is informally known, doesn’t remember this, but I worked with him (and the equally celebrated Ed McBain) in a very modest capacity while serving in the publicity department at Arbor House. Later “folded into” William Morrow as an imprint, Arbor House is probably now nothing more than a memory—if that—in the minds of dinosaurs like myself and Greg Cox, but it obviously had an impressive roster of writers. Back in ’87, we were launching Touch (filmed by writer-director Paul Schrader in 1997), which was such a departure from his other work that some feared it wouldn’t sell, and we were going all out to ensure that it did. Leonard showed his appreciation by signing copies of his previous bestseller, Bandits, for the troops, and I hope to hell I still have mine.
I think it was at a booksellers’ convention in Washington, D.C., that I got a chance to chat with Leonard about the adaptations of his work, and learned that he disliked a lot of them, even including several he had worked on himself. Ironically, among those was The Moonshine War (1970), which is not only one of the many underdog films I have championed over the years, but also held in such low regard that it appears not to have been released on home video in any format. It’s the story of Son Martin (Alan Alda, whom I believe the self-adapting screenwriter felt was completely miscast) and his incomparable moonshine, which is in such demand that it sets off, well, a war.
Why do I like that film so much (or perhaps I should say “did I,” since I haven’t had access to it for more years than I care to remember, and am not sure how I’d feel about it if I saw it tomorrow)? Well, you can start with the fact that it has an interesting and unusual plot with a nice ending, which I won’t spoil—not that you can watch it anyway—and a fine villain in Richard Widmark. And you can add the totally retroactive appeal that its leading lady, Melodie Johnson, later became one of my more charming mystery writers at Viking under her married name of Melodie Johnson Howe. But its biggest asset can be summed up in two magic words: Patrick McGoohan.
When I was a kid, watching him in Danger Man (which we saw in the States as Secret Agent, with that unbelievably great Johnny Rivers theme song) and The Prisoner, McGoohan was the guy I wanted to look and sound like. He may even have exceeded Sean Connery as Bond in that respect, and it’s only in recent years that I’ve come to suspect this is at least partly due to a perceived resemblance to my late father; I say “perceived” because, as usual, nobody else seems to see it but me. It should be noted that for the last thirty years of his life, I never saw Dad without a full beard and mustache, which made said resemblance less obvious until McGoohan showed up similarly endowed in Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (1985) and I almost fell off my chair.
McGoohan didn’t make a lot of movies, at least not after his twin television triumphs, but one of them, Ice Station Zebra (see “Bradley’s Hundred #51-60” when the time comes), is a personal favorite. The Moonshine War was his very next film, and you can see him having a whale of a time trading his heroic image for the juicy role of corrupt revenue man Frank Long, who wants the moonshine for himself. McGoohan continued to delight me with selected appearances in the likes of Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz (1979), as Clint Eastwood’s warden nemesis; The Phantom (1996), as Billy Zane’s father (!) and predecessor; and of course “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes,” the brilliant Simpsons parody of The Prisoner.
Other notable entries from the Leonard filmography include Valdez Is Coming (1971), starring Burt Lancaster; Joe Kidd (1972), which despite teaming Leonard with Eastwood and John Sturges was less than the sum of its parts; Mr. Majestyk (1974), one of the better efforts by both Charles Bronson and Richard Fleischer; John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up (1986), starring Roy Scheider; the sublime Get Shorty (1995); Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), based on Rum Punch; and the George Clooney/Steven Soderbergh Out of Sight (1998). And, although I may be alone in this, I enjoyed the 2004 remake of The Big Bounce, albeit without having read the novel or seen the 1969 original, which starred the dreaded Ryan O’Neal.
As for Justified, I’ll keep watching, and perhaps reporting back here, but I won’t hold my breath for it to stick around after the previous Leonard series, Maximum Bob and Karen Sisco (spun off from Out of Sight), met the same untimely death as almost every other show I’ve liked.