Written and set in 1977, but belatedly published after a decade because it could not be readily pigeonholed with his customary crime fiction, Elmore Leonard’s Touch is the story of a former Franciscan missionary called Juvenal (né Charlie Lawson), who displays stigmata whenever he uses his apparently miraculous healing powers. I was sufficiently low on the food chain when we launched the novel at Arbor House (see “Dutch Master”) that any menial tasks I may have performed on its behalf did not require me to read the book, yet doing so now, I think it is indeed a comfortable fit with the rest of the Leonard oeuvre. His gritty and realistic dialogue is as sharp as ever, and his obligatory assemblage of morally dubious fringe players just as vividly etched, even if their goal here is to exploit a reluctant faith healer, rather than to engage in a more overtly criminal enterprise.
While I don’t know what Leonard thought of the 1997 film version, I doubt he could have quarreled with its pedigree, starting with writer-director Paul Schrader, whose scripts include four for Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Bringing out the Dead (1999). He has also worked with Sydney Pollack (The Yakuza, 1974) and Peter Weir (The Mosquito Coast, 1986), while his diverse directorial efforts—most of which he wrote himself—encompass Blue Collar (1978), Hardcore (1979), American Gigolo (1980), Cat People (1982), Patty Hearst (1988), Affliction (1997), Auto Focus (2002), and the ill-fated Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005). Sadly, among his abortive projects is an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s award-winning Playboy story “The Distributor,” which would make a smashing film; Richard’s own speculative script remains unproduced as well, but was published in Duel & The Distributor.
Assuming the pivotal role of Juvenal, who craves anonymity and makes no claim to sainthood, is Skeet Ulrich, fresh from achieving a considerably higher profile as one of the young serial killers in Wes Craven’s mega-hit Scream (1996). Among his other credits are The Craft, Bruce Beresford’s Last Dance, Boys, Kevin Spacey’s Albino Alligator—all released in that busy year of 1996—James L. Brooks’s As Good as It Gets (1997), and Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999). Befitting Leonard’s colorful cast of characters, Ulrich is supported by a lineup that runs the gamut from Mason Adams (late of TV’s Lou Grant) to Anthony Zerbe, e.g., Tom Arnold, Lolita Davidovich, Conchata Ferrell, Bridget Fonda, Janeane Garofalo, Gina Gershon, writer-director Paul Mazursky, and Christopher Walken.
Schrader adapts the novel with unusual fidelity, albeit relocating it from Leonard’s Detroit milieu to contemporary L.A., signaled by the opening scene of rapper LL Cool J storming off the set of an interview with Debra Lusanne (Gershon), which in the book had involved Frank Sinatra, Jr., and blowhard Howard Hart. David Grohl’s hip score sets the perfect tone for the appearance of Bill Hill (Walken), who went bankrupt after moving his Uni-Faith church—famed for the world’s tallest illuminated cross—from Georgia to L.A., and now sells recreational vehicles. Bill has been called to the house where his blind former organist, Virginia Worrel (Ferrell), is being beaten by her alcoholic husband, Elwin (John Doe), and Juvenal soon arrives to check up on Elwin for the Sacred Heart rehab center run by Father Donahue (Zerbe).
The plot is set in motion when Ginny regains her sight after being touched by Juvenal, and although Elwin’s blow to her head may have been the cause, she believes Juvenal healed her. Smelling an opportunity, Bill recruits his former baton twirler Lynn Marie Faulkner (Fonda)—already disenchanted with working for Artie (Mazursky) as a rock-music promoter—to infiltrate the center and learn about the elusive Juvenal…but Bill isn’t the only one. Juvenal has also drawn the attention of August Murray (Arnold), the head of Outrage (Organization Unifying Traditional Rites As God Expects), who stages frequent demonstrations by his Gray Army of the Holy Ghost while trying to restore the Latin mass.
Juvenal senses that Lynn is only posing as a drunk, and deflects her questions when asked why he hides himself at the center, but although they are clearly drawn to each other, she flees after seeing him help a man with the d.t.’s and bleed spontaneously. August and Father Nestor (Adams), who served with Juvenal in Brazil, orchestrate the rededication of St. Isidore Catholic Church (“Honoring Traditional Sacramental Rites”), at which August arranges for the presence of a group of crippled children. Caught off guard, Juvenal is approached by and cures Richie Baker (Theo Greenly) of leukemia in the presence of reporter Kathy Worthington (Garofalo), Bill, and Lynn, who leads Juvenal away from the ensuing chaos.
“You touch people, they change,” says Bill, citing a budding relationship between the previously cynical Lynn and Juvenal, who has never been in love, but August believes that Lynn is contaminating him. Further inflamed by Bill’s representation of Richie’s mother, topless dancer Antoinette (Davidovich, best known for playing stripper Blaze Starr), August trashes Lynn’s apartment and tries to shoot her, only to plunge from her balcony during a struggle with Juvenal. Bill gets Juvenal on national television with Debra, yet when she reveals that they are to receive $600,000 for a book deal with Kathy, and then produces August in a body cast, the disillusioned Juvenal heals August before decamping to Des Moines with Lynn.
Nicely capturing the book’s satirical edge, Schrader wisely leaves much of Leonard’s dialogue intact, and the cast is uniformly spot-on, with Ulrich’s laid-back, tabula rasa characterization well suited to Juvenal’s reserved, rather naïve personality. Although considerably condensed from the novel, the scenes at the rehab center gain extra poignancy from the fact that Leonard, who had been in AA since 1974, quit drinking the year he wrote Touch (and was divorced from his first wife), and overall the film must be considered one of the truest adaptations of his work. Meanwhile, back at the FX ranch, his series Justified is cooking along nicely, so be sure to tune in on Tuesdays.