Cops and Novelists: Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, and other moonlighting screenwriters
Now in its third go-around, Anthology Film Archives’ recurring “From the Pen of . . .” series foregrounds that most unheralded contributor to the potluck art of filmmaking: the screenwriter—frequently treated in auteurist criticism as a necessary prosaic inconvenience in a medium whose quintessence is visual poetry.
This “From the Pen of . . .” installment is built around American novelists moonlighting in movies—but there’s no Fitzgerald or Faulkner, no acerbic Nathanael West, none of the grudging prostitutes of talent during Hollywood’s studio Golden Age. In fact, the earliest film in Anthology’s 12-film selection is 1960’s House of Usher, the first of Roger Corman’s eight Edgar Allan Poe–themed films for American International Pictures, this one written for the screen by I Am Legend author Richard Matheson. In Matheson and Corman’s hands, Poe’s Gothic, premature-burial tale becomes a fable of young love sundered by the generation gap. Nice kid Mark Damon can’t take fiancée Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey) out of the ancestral home thanks to the intervention of her (much) older brother, Roderick (Vincent Price), who, obsessed by his conviction of the Ushers’ insurmountable hereditary curse, decides to ground his sister for life—the sort of thing sure to stoke incipient youth rebellion in the drive-in, with ’60s-prophesying proto-psychedelic dream sequences.
Ever receptive to the cultural tremors visible behind the film screen, Joan Didion wrote on the “underground folk literature for adolescents” of AIP’s motorcycle pictures, including Corman’s The Wild Angels, in her essay “Notes Toward a Dreampolitik.” Two films co-scripted by Didion and husband John Gregory Dunne feature in Anthology’s program, including 1972’s Play It As It Lays, adapted from Didion’s sick-soul-of-L.A. novel of the same name, a kind of Day of the Locust c. 1970. The great Tuesday Weld plays Maria (pronounced “Mar-EYE-a”), an actress on an indefinite ennui hiatus, with Anthony Perkins her wrung-out confidant and Adam Roarke her otherwise-occupied filmmaker husband, wearing William Friedkin shades and directing—of course—a motorcycle picture. (Terry Southern and Tony Richardson’s nail-bomb 1965 delivery of Evelyn Waugh’s limpid satire The Loved One should likewise be sorted with the Hollywood Hate Mail.)
As much as literary stylists like Didion and Southern, however, this program celebrates the work of genre craftsmen like the prodigious and dextrous crime-fiction writer Donald Westlake. Cops and Robbers, 1973, has blue-collar NYC cops Cliff Gorman and Joseph Bologna taking a foray on the other side of the law while, working from his own novel, Brooklyn-born Westlake uses his internal five-borough map to custom build set pieces around the city, captured by director Aram Avakian in the humid miasma of late summer. Reworking the basic material of Shadow of a Doubt, Westlake found blight beyond the urban jungle in 1987’s The Stepfather, with Terry O’Quinn a suburban Seattle Bluebeard worming his way into the heart of Jill Schoelen’s single mother. The Stepfather never touches the profound ambivalence of Hitchcock’s film, as Schoelen and O’Quinn’s interplay never suggests the charisma of evil, but with his to-the-letter Dale Carnegie friendliness, O’Quinn’s fastidiously be-sweatered fraud is a genuinely unnerving—as is the film’s implication that chipper bullshitting is all one needs to frictionlessly glide through modern life.
The venerable Elmore Leonard is the other Mystery Writers of America Grand Master honored. Among the Dickens of Detroit’s earliest screen credits is the classic 1957 western 3:10 to Yuma; more recently, he provided the kernel of the FX series Justified; in between, he has seldom been out of work. Leonard is represented by a Clint Eastwood western (1972’s Joe Kidd) and a contemporary-set Charles Bronson actioner (1974’s Mr. Majestyk), a pendanted pair that share a concern with the marginalized Mexican-American’s historical plight, a veneration of stubborn, stoic individualism, and the presence of unsavory character actor Don Stroud. It’s easy to take for granted such unostentatious, well-told genre works—Mr. Majestyk, fluidly directed by Richard Fleischer, is a perfect model of such, “extraordinarily beautiful in [its] instinct for the real look of the American West,” to borrow from Didion—but this classical middle-range moviemaking is the very foundation of a healthy film culture, the solid baseboard that must be in place in order to spring into the unknown.
Sports movies of this same period had a particular knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and the great utility director Michael Ritchie’s 1969 character study Downhill Racer helped to create the template. Robert Redford stars as Dave Chappellet, a ski-racing Winter Olympics hopeful whose Eastwood-Bronson stoic individualism is revealed as a form of arrested self-absorption when viewed in the round. Chappellet learns precisely nothing about teamwork or love in the course of James Salter’s screenplay, a blanket of small- and shoptalk chatter under which one can see the outline of essential things left unsaid.
Downhill Racer is based on a 1963 novel by the California writer Oakley Hall, whose masterpiece, Warlock, came to the screen stillborn due to the incompetent midwifery of less-than-Majestyk director Edward Dmytryk, also responsible for 1962’s Walk on the Wild Side, playing here because of its John Fante script. Wild Side reunites many the successful elements of 1955’s The Man With the Golden Arm, save that film’s director, Otto Preminger. There’s a seedy Nelson Algren source novel, a swinging Elmer Bernstein score, and a Saul Bass title sequence that prowls in time to it—after which the movie falls right off a cliff, into the grossest off-label Tennessee Williams. Proof positive, even in this celebration of the screen scribe, that a screenplay counts for plenty—but it can’t go it alone.
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