Though he remains the gold standard of hip noir, Elmore Leonard would have turned ninety this month had he not died in the summer of 2013. It’s not just the literary world that feels his absence. It’s movies and television, too, though the Detroit-based Leonard was such an industrious worker that we may be dining on adaptations of his books for decades to come. Part of the appeal of his stories actually stems from his identification with hard workers. As Joan Acocella pointed out in the New York Review of Books, “His criminals didn’t become what they were out of any fondness for vice. They just needed work, and that’s what was available.” This working-stiff ennui, coupled with a natural laconicism and ear for dialogue, is what renders Leonard’s stories so cinematic. As he wrote in the essay Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing: “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
Clearly, Hollywood appreciated this omission. To date, roughly thirty films and TV series have been made from his books, some of which have been adapted more than once; Leonard himself wrote eight screenplays, though he shined most as an author; and many of our greatest contemporary directors have made their best films from his novels and short stories. Though all Leonard adaptations – even obvious lemons like “The Big Bounce” (2004, not 1969) – bear a whiff of his patented charisma, here’s my totally subjective list of the five best.
“Jackie Brown” (1997)
Few knew what to do with “Jackie Brown” when it came out. Directed by Quentin Tarantino on the heels of his “Pulp Fiction” mega-success, this low-key adaption of Rum Punch (1992) stars Pam Grier as a down-on-her-luck flight attendant running cash for small-potatoes arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Q.T. muse Samuel L. Jackson). With a supporting cast including Robert De Niro, Chris Tucker, and where-is-she-now 1990s queen Bridget Fonda, this sad-eyed thriller is a study in restraint and rue. “Jackie Brown” is the best – and certainly most adult – film Tarantino has ever made.
Few remember Leonard wrote Westerns for decades before he found his footing as a crime novelist, but everyone should. His 1953 short story “Three-Ten to Yuma” generated not one but two very fine adaptations, and the TV show “Justified” is based around a character from the novels Pronto and Riding the Rap and the short story “Fire in the Hole.” Starring sweet-faced Timothy Olyphant at his absolute steeliest, this FX series about a U.S. Marshall ruffling feathers in his Kentucky hometown is arguably the most original depiction of the American West ever to grace a small screen. (Here’s looking at you, “Deadwood.”)
“Get Shorty” (1995)
After master career resuscitator Quentin Tarantino gave him a second wind with “Pulp Fiction,” John Travolta compensated for the dark “Look Who’s Talking” years with a smart, subtle turn in “Get Shorty,” adapted from Leonard’s eponymous 1990 novel. Typically, meta-movies are the worst kind of Hollywood navel-gazing but this well-paced, hyper-deadpan account of a gangster-turned-film producer is a happy exception. Bonus: The great Gene Hackman as a B-movie schlock-jock.
“Life of Crime” (2013)
It takes a keen sense of the absurd to successfully adapt an Elmore Leonard novel to screen, and writer/director Dan Schechter’s low-ball/screwball sensibility is a match made in heaven with Leonard’s prequel to Rum Punch – if heaven were a micro-noir in which people tried to pull off half-baked scams in between stumbling into the wrong person’s bed. Jennifer Aniston taps into her core jaundice as a wealthy housewife kidnapped by a pair of ill-intended dingbats (Yasiin Bey/Mos Def and John Hawkes) who are still nicer than her cad of a husband (Tim Robbins).
“Out of Sight” (1998)
The ostensibly retired director Stephen Soderberg may have been happiest when making such estoterica as “Full Frontal” (2002) and “Schizopolis” (1996) but he actually worked best when making “ones for them” – and stylish, soulful, sexy “Out of Sight,” adapted from Leonard’s 1996 epnymous novel, is the best of that lot. Starring a grizzled George Clooney as a career bank robber looking to pull off one last heist and Jennifer Lopez as the U.S. Marshall with whom he has irresistible chemistry, this laid-back thriller is studded with brilliantly edited and shot zigs and zags, not to mention extraordinary supporting performances from the likes of Albert Brooks, Michael Keaton, Catherine Keener, Don Cheadle, and Ving Rhames. Bonus: Best meet-cute scene of the last thirty years.
This was originally published in Word and Film.