60 Years of Elmore Leonard on Screen
We look back at the crime master’s legacy and rank the 10 best movies and shows from a flashy, sexy, foul-mouthed oeuvre
What makes for a great Elmore Leonard adaptation? After 60 years of hustlers, gun-slingers and femme fatales — that’s right, they’ve been adapting his work since 1957 — we can distill a few lessons on how best to bring the crime master’s work to the screen. In five basic steps:
(1) Embrace the chit-chat.
(2) Film somewhere sunny.
(3) Film in restaurants, bars, diners, coffee shops, and more bars.
(4) Hire Samuel L. Jackson. Or Pam Grier. Ideally both at the same time.
(5) When in doubt, throw somebody in the trunk of a car.
That’s pretty much the established wisdom. But what is the right ratio of caper to cool? What’s that perfect balance where an (almost absurdly) intricate plot plays out with enough space for the characters to breathe and let loose and just bullshit in that inimitable way that made Leonard’s material so iconic? The beloved author, one of the genre’s great craftsmen, has tempted many a screenwriter over the years. The results have been hit-or-miss. For every Travolta turn there’s a Caruso made-for-TV flick dragging the oeuvre down. But overall the track record is pretty impressive, especially if you like your crimes to play out in attractive climes, perpetrated by small-time hustlers with rakish lawmen on the trail. The last couple years, the pop culture has remained sadly outside the Leonard universe, ever since the end of FX’s long running hillybilly noir hit, Justified. The hiatus ends this weekend, when Epix launches Chris O’Dowd as Chili Palmer in a new adaptation of Leonard’s Get Shorty. How does the new iteration stack up against the old? Can O’Dowd come out of Travolta’s shadow? We’ll see.
For now we’ve taken it on ourselves to count down the top-10 adaptations of Leonard’s novels and stories. So, put on your cowboy hat, roll down your convertible top, and get ready for some flashy, sexy, fast-talking mayhem.
1. Jackie Brown (1997)
Can you think of a better pairing of director and source material? Leonard and Tarantino were a match made in a chatty, sleazy, violent heaven, and the author himself considered Jackie Brown the best of the many adaptations of his work. The 1997 flick boasted a jaw-dropping cast, starring Pam Grier at her most powerful, savoring every second of those long, slow Tarantino tracking shots. Who ever walked through an airport with more style? Not a damn person. Years later, Leonard told Martin Amis that Tarantino was nervous about having taken so many liberties in adapting the 1992 novel, Rum Punch. According to the author: “Quentin Tarantino, just before he started to shoot, said, ‘I’ve been afraid to call you for the last year.’ I said, ‘Why? Because you changed the title of my book? And you’re casting a black woman in the lead?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘You’re a filmmaker. You can do whatever you want.’ I said, ‘I think Pam Grier is a terrific idea. Go ahead.’ I was very pleased with the results, too.” Now that’s a solid working relationship.
2. Justified (2010–2015)
Justified — built out of Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole,” about US Marshal Raylan Givens chasing fugitives in his hometown hills of Kentucky — finally wrapped in 2015, after six seasons on the air. What began as a fairly run-of-the-mill procedural transformed into an ambitious serial, and one of the most enjoyable programs on TV. (It also seemed to be following a full-employment model for any actor who ever appeared in HBO’s Deadwood.) Timothy Olyphant as Raylan, the sly, wry gunslinger, was a revelation: a charmer with a conscience but more than willing to put the toe of his boot up your ass. But the show’s secondary characters were the real feast, with Damon Herriman as the unforgettable Dewey Crowe and Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder, who began as a stock villain but would eventually build a case as the show’s co-lead. There wasn’t much source material for Graham Yost and the writing staff to go on with Justified, but they always kept true to the spirit of Leonard’s work, reportedly wearing WWED wrist bands so that whenever they hit a bind in the plot or characterization, they would remember to ask, “What Would Elmore Do?” And the admiration was mutual, too. Leonard called the show “terrific” and told a 2012 FX panel that, “I’m amazed sometimes that they’ve got the characters better than I put them on paper…My god, it’s a lot better than what I would have written in the scene, you know.” Leonard even went so far as to write his final novel, Raylan, inspired by the show’s ideas and Olyphant’s work as Marshal Givens.
3. Get Shorty (1995)
Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1995 Get Shorty is probably the purist Leonard adaptation around: a snappy satire dripping with cool customers, hapless losers, and schemers of all stripe, all hopping between Miami, Las Vegas, and Hollywood in a madcap plot that’s really just a vehicle for a certain skewed and colorful worldview. And let’s get real: John Travolta is one of the ultimate Leonard actors. His Chili Palmer is preternaturally cool and endearing, a Bensonhurst tough guy seduced by Hollywood lore (seduced by Rene Russo, too, because who wouldn’t be?) and oddly expert at navigating the ins-and-outs of a troubled studio production. Throw in turns by Danny DeVito, Delroy Lindo, Gene Hackman, James Gandolfini, and yes, Bette Middler, too, and you have the makings of a damn entertaining Leonard romp, one that holds up surprisingly well all these years later and is just about always available for streaming on one service or another.
4. Out of Sight (1998)
This 1998 adaptation is best remembered for the heat emanating off its co-stars, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. And with good reason. Even Leonard owned it at the time: ‘’You put Jennifer Lopez in it,” the author said, “that’s going to make it sexy.’’ The movie’s opening sets the tone with one of the great meet-cutes in modern film history, as Clooney and Lopez are thrown in the trunk of the same car and get to know one another in those almost intolerably close confines. (It’s a fine line between claustrophobic and erotically charged, turns out.) Scott Frank, who also adapted Get Shorty for the screen, wrote the screenplay for Out of Sight, too, and brings the same zip to Leonard’s scenes. And Steven Soderbergh, fresh off a string of indie hits, proved with this one that nobody was more capable of telling a flashy, fun heist story (and thus the Ocean’s franchise was reborn…)
5. 3:10 to Yuma (1957)
3:10 to Yuma is the original, and still among the best Leonard flicks. Adapted from a short story in Dime Western Magazine, the 1957 film was directed by Delmer Daves and had about as striking a visual style as you’re likely to come across in any classic or modern Western. The story is simple — a prisoner needs to be escorted to a train; a good man takes the job, and the forces of evil and corruption align against him — but the suspense is astonishing. Glenn Ford and Van Heflin put on a master class in Old West drama, while Felicia Farr makes a damn fine barmaid/damsel. And for some trivia: the movie was such a hit in Cuba, of all places, “Yuma” has apparently become an everyday slang term on the island. That’s a pretty impressive cultural reach for a story that’s been around for more than six decades.
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6. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
A solid, almost inspired remake, all things considered. Christian Bale and Russell Crowe don the white and black hats and do their level best to exude the rugged morality and style that made the American West into a myth. The most interesting feature, though, might be James Mangold’s direction. Yuma, it turns out, was his apprentice project, with 2017’s Logan the payoff.
7. Hombre (1967)
Hombre doesn’t enjoy 3:10 to Yuma’s elevated status in the canon, but it brought to the screen a considerable style of its own and drummed up a leading role just about worthy of its lead actor, Paul Newman, who played John Russell, the gunslinger raised by Indians and forced to reckon with the cruel winds of change sweeping across the West. Plus it’s worth seeing what Martin Ritt (Hud, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Norma Rae) does with a Western.
8. Be Cool (2005)
Look, is this just a re-tread of Get Shorty without any special panache or perspective of its own? Sure, but so what? It gives us one more spin with Travolta as Chili Palmer. And it was the first movie where Dwayne Johnson, currently reigning as the world’s most magnetic movie star, proved that he was more than just a set of pecs and in fact had real comedic acting chops. Oh, and if Vince Vaughn had better advisors, he would find a way to only act in Doug Liman movies or stories set within the expanded Elmore Leonard universe.
9. The Big Bounce (2004)
Leonard’s first crime novel was twice forgettably adapted, once in 1969 and again in 2004. It’s hard to give one film an edge over the other, especially since hardly anyone alive has seen the 1969 version, although the New York Times called it a “hothouse item about swinging sex and crime, junior division,” which admittedly sounds…okay? Leonard cited the 2004 version as one of the worst adaptations of his work. “I know The Big Bounce was bad,” he told an FX panel back in 2012. “I don’t think anybody in the picture knew what it was about. The second time it was made they shot it in Hawaii and they would cut to surfers when they’d run out of ideas.” Still, the latter movie stars Owen Wilson and Morgan Freeman, not a bad pairing, and ‘when in doubt, cut to surfers’ isn’t really all that terrible a maxim for moviemaking, is it? Better than cutting to not-surfers.
10. Gold Coast (1997)
By all means, tune in for David Caruso and the South Florida scenery, but if you decide to stick around, it’ll be for Marg Helgenberger as the sultry widow. This was Leonard’s first trip to South Florida’s underbelly — a crime story about hustlers, mobsters, and real estate. The adaptation first aired on Showtime, way back before the Golden Era of TV. It was mostly a Miami Vice nostalgia vehicle for Caruso, looking also to capitalize on Leonard’s spike in popularity in the mid-90’s. Is this going to change your life or your opinion of Leonard’s place in the crime pantheon? Probably not, but you could do worse. And after all, how many authors have 10 great adaptations?
This one barely made it to theaters, having pulled off the somewhat difficult trick of making an Elmore Leonard story dull. But then again Mickey Rourke and Diane Lane in any sort of crime flick are almost worth the price of admission.
Valdez is Coming (1971)
Burt Lancaster is Valdez. And He. Is. Coming.