Bright Lights Film Journal

Pulp with a Soundtrack: Getting Elmore Leonard on Film

A shot from Paul Schrader's Touch

“My sound is the absence of me.” – Elmore Leonard

The curious thing about Elmore Leonard is that while his books move fast, the films that capture his tone seem slow: they take it easy. The action in Leonard’s novels is intimidatingly packed: too fast for my mental eye, at any rate. Just when you’re done imagining that person and thinking this heist through, something else explosive happens – and then more characters crowd onto the scene, each with their own distinctive walk, their particular slouch to be visualized and remembered.

In Jackie Brown (1997), Tarantino gives us an equivalent of Leonard’s famously changing pace: punctuating raw action with the kind of gentle, talky “time out” scenes for which both artists are known. Yet while the descriptions in the source novel, Rum Punch, tend to come across as a barrage of quick cuts, Jackie Brown is a film that dwells from moment to moment – there’s always plenty of time to invest in small incidents, and the atmosphere of suffused desire. When it finds a restful place in a cafeteria, or hits the bridge in a Delfonics song, the film seems to say: let’s stay awhile.

The conversations and run-ins that seem so “frontal” in Leonard’s book recede into a generalized space onscreen; the languor of the women, the shout of the characters, and the dense use of color – which remains opaque on the page – become a mood to be soaked in. This sense of ease is enhanced by our reactions to the actors: instead of trying to internalize the tense, complex rhythm of their talk, we can enjoy waiting for them to play out the beats.

Leonard’s women have always been remarkably self-possessed, especially when it comes to the duality of their looks and drive. These aren’t girls who wield their bodies as weapons – they’re not fatales – but people who carry their assets calmly, conscious of their worth. In other words, they’re packing it. When Leonard tells us a female character has “bedroom eyes” or a “neat nose”, he’s merely informing us about her personal stock of attributes, and he’ll use hackneyed or commercial words to describe them – the language of the once-over. We’re not asked to delve into bedroom eyes, or suspect them of soulfulness. And there’s certainly no expectation we should melt into them – the narrator/writer isn’t succumbing, so nor should the reader. Women in Leonard have a detached, almost angelic attitude to their bodies – they don’t take more than a practical interest in any evaluation, and if there are to be upgrades or depreciations of value, they know it’s not personal.

It’s a sensibility that appeals to a particular kind of relaxed, good-humored performance, and the result is surely the best gallery of screen women any author has attracted. Get Shorty (1995) casts Rene Russo (perhaps the warmest actress in movies) as a maternal B-movie star, whose career as a “scream queen” gives her air of resignation an edge. The first time we see her, she’s slightly rumpled but soft-looking: dressed in a T-shirt, she’s still holding in the warmth she’s had from bed, and the way she seems to shelter her body and privacy gives us a novelistic sense of closeness with the character. Later, coming home from a film shoot, she’s erotic because of her protected quality: a tender body squeezed into hard, constricting clothes. As a Mafia widow in Gold Coast (1997), Marg Helgenberger puts her own spin on intimidation: turning up for a showdown in black satin, her jaw set, she shows no sign of the weakness she had earlier when telling her lover she’s a little older than he thinks. Bridget Fonda’s Lynn Faulkner (the girl with bedroom eyes) in Touch (1997) is a one-off: striking just because of her combination of poise and flakiness, business sense and yearning.

In Out of Sight (1998), Jennifer Lopez gives her federal marshal a superb armory of gestures, entirely suited to a Leonard woman. It begins with her body language – she carries herself very high but not tense, as if moving from a calm place towards action. And then there are those Lopez features audiences still don’t seem to understand: a smile that concedes only amusement at an uncomfortable situation; the bunched-up smirk that says, “I’m chewing it over”; the slide of her lower lip (a little like Alicia Silverstone’s) which denotes an off-hand acceptance of things. Almost intuitively, this cop shifts her weight foot to foot, sizing up her companion: Lopez is one of the most diligent actresses when it comes to giving a professional performance. It’s hard to imagine, say, Julia Roberts or Kate Hudson holding down more than a token job in a film, but Lopez seems to take pride in technical expertise: working on minute execution, and developing a set of gestures both accurate and forceful. As the room attendant in Maid in Manhattan (2002), we could see the tense concentration in her hands, the result of a focus on getting things just so; playing a tango teacher in Shall We Dance (2004), she keeps her eye trained on each body, as if resisting the urge to smooth it out. And here there’s an efficiency to the way she handles a gun and a baton: strapping her weapon in, striking the wall with a stick, so conscientious that she brings off the conceit of a fed in black leather. Her tight clothes are simply the sign of a held-in presence: “perfectly stacked” in the sense of being contained, a strength that doesn’t need to display itself.

Pam Grier, in the title role of Jackie Brown, is perhaps the most resplendent of them all: more shifty and uncertain than Lopez’s Karen, she’s nevertheless the most moving woman in a Leonard film, because of her sense of urgency. Grier’s stance is exactly that of a Leonard woman: upright, designed for the male gaze, but oddly enclosed – a blue-black object viewed in profile. Her hair and skin, the full body in its tapering clothes, are observed by Tarantino as a self-sufficient form, with the intensity of a bullet. The sequences of Grier set to music are almost a justification of the methods of 1990s indie film, with its use of saturated colors and conspicuous “quotes” of soundtrack. From the glory of the credit sequence – the “love theme” (Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th St”) that unleashes in response to the swirl of her hair – to the “slicing” opening of Randy Crawford’s “Street Life,” which corresponds to Grier’s scissor walk, this body has a rhythm that suggests itself to others, and determines the pace at which actions unfold. At the same time, what pulls us in is the anxiousness of the woman’s stare – her hesitant movements, her tongue slipping quickly in and out as she prepares to race in and reach for the main chance.

The most successful Leonard films combine an interest in small-scale performance with an overall infusion of mood. The attraction of Gold Coast rests largely in its actors; David Caruso uses the one, honed acting style he displays on NYPD Blue and CSI: Miami – freezing his entire face and using his voice like a scalpel, to dig into words and slice hard, thin layers off his lines. The technique hasn’t changed for a decade, yet it is curiously compelling and quite plausible in the context of a man who needs to insinuate more power than he has. Marg Helgenberger, with her diamond-shaped face (her jaw is almost tooled-looking, and your eye keeps tracing along it) is also arresting on a structural level, and her voice can switch between shyness and the tougher presentation it needs. (She’s also a star of CSI – the franchise seems to employ actors based on their ability to deliver lines with maximum point.)

The much-praised Out of Sight is a dazzling assembly of cuts: it conjures up a wonderfully cruisy Detroit through puffs of smoke and shots of skyscrapers, and we get the feeling of riding high on the city. But the high sheen of this movie – the tricky time switches, the way the camera moves across glass surfaces – makes it a somewhat conventional object; it falls short of Leonard’s amiability, and his surprisingly hesitating view of life. The conspicuous art direction – the red lighting of the meet-cute, and the harmonization of colours in the sex scene – seems like an attempt to squeeze out one more variation on the genre. The very enjoyable Get Shorty milks all its jokes effectively; it puts Travolta’s gaze to brilliant use, and contains maybe the best reading of a Leonard line. When the money man Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo) proposes a black actor for one of the leads in a movie, Chili Palmer (John Travolta) initially resists. But Catlett insists, “Color’s what the part needs, man, somebody to do it has some style,” and the warmth of his inflection and his sudden interest convince us that casting Morgan Freeman would indeed be an injection of energy for the film.

Jackie Brown, with its passionate view of ordinariness – the tiled interiors of LAX, the surfaces of the food court and motel rooms – loves everything Leonard does, and creates an almost meditative world from which the characters’ obsessions naturally emerge. And Tarantino’s packed, busy frames resemble Leonard’s cutting up of space – his novels tend to contain many objects of different textures, all on the one plane: Jell-O, facial hair, newspaper headlines, to-do lists, memories of Italy. Tarantino devises a complicated way of introducing “foreground” onscreen that’s comparable to Leonard’s staging of scenes. In Jackie Brown, the killing of Beaufort (Chris Tucker) occurs at an unexpected moment, because the “gearing up” sounds of the Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23” prepare us for the car to cruise forward for a while – we’re expecting to head into a zone. But suddenly the car doubles back into our field of vision, and the “action” – the gun shot – occurs in only a tiny square of the “grid” we see, amongst the trash and buildings of the yard. It’s similar to the way Leonard often gets us absorbed in technical operations – how people put on their jogging shoes, wear sports shirts, use a napkin – before a killing takes place, so that the shot is just one more unreal thing in a sequence. In Rum Punch, Beaufort’s murder occurs after a series of “irrelevant” comments and faulty maneuvers; it’s then followed by a reading of the digital clock on the dashboard, and a drive into the mall parking lot. Drabness sets in. So in both book and film, death is more than just an effective dispatch: it’s a discomfiting event, odd because it stays on the “surface” of one’s memory, an inaccurate and fumbling gesture.

But it’s Paul Schrader’s Touch that comes closest to the unique feeling of peace – almost of oblivion – that’s at the heart of Leonard’s works. As Leonard has said, the film Touch “has the ‘sound’ of the book”1 – and that’s a difficult thing to achieve: a sense of neutrality that exists but doesn’t rise above the mass of events, conspiracies, and characters. Touch takes an easy approach to story-telling: scenes start with cars gliding into the frame, or a character discovered on an expanse of sofa, without the reason for their presence being clear. Schrader handles the crammed plot in an even-tempered manner; he resists pumping up the sight gags, as in Get Shorty and Out of Sight. The film slides by incongruity without comment – it doesn’t make a meal out of a conman being an ordained minister, nor does it seem to detect anything unusual in illuminated crosses, or stigmata in the 1990s. Instead, Schrader maintains the quizzical, interested stance of an outsider, inquiring into different sorts of behavior, and willing to acknowledge the possibility of purity in these characters.

Not only does the film depict love and saintliness as real, unembarrassed phenomena, but it embraces all kinds of performance styles – from Tom Arnold’s hothead mode of acting, to Christopher Walken (given a roving camera to explore his jitters), and Lolita Davidovich (as wised-up as ever). The camera takes them all in unhesitatingly, coming in for a close-up when it needs to know more (for example, when Fonda’s Lynn is finding out whether an attractive young man can really be so straight) but otherwise settling back, and even making Arnold’s insincerity as an actor (he can’t turn his head without preparing his reaction shot beforehand) a part of the character.

Best of all is Skeet Ulrich – a remarkably serene actor at the time, with an instinctive, “reading” gaze: potentially kind, but just as possibly faking you out. Even in the other characters’ fantasy sequences, Juvenal’s expression is hard to place: what is that slow warming in his face? Is he interested by a death, or just perturbed? In the mid-1990s, while his confidence was high, Ulrich was a truly ambiguous actor: like a hustler inviting you to uncover his motives (which might well be honest.) In Scream (1996), his delicacy was one of the few aspects of the film that lingered: he was an unnervingly poised young man, always one play ahead, and sensitive for the purpose of being cruel. Even though plausibility was not an issue in the script, Ulrich made the concept work: you could just about believe that a boy this gifted, appealing and bored would have to spend his excess on brilliant, useless acts of violence. But here, as the ex-monk with the ability to heal, he’s like a warm-bodied child: inexperienced, but intuitively sensual (he lies across Lynn’s body in a beautifully old-school way, like a lord resting in the lap of a lady.) The film is most interested in the “downtime” between these two characters – their whispered, unheard comments, the undramatic scenes of forgiveness between them, Lynn’s response to the gift of Juvenal’s “healing” hands and body.

Touch has a curious feeling of nullity at its center; it captures something no other Leonard adaptation has – from scene to scene, the film moves fast and yet it feels reflective and slow, like the work of a patient man. We see these ludicrous events moving out of control – miracles on talk shows, fights within the religious right – and yet the ballooning plotlines don’t disturb the basic, central serenity of the film’s outlook. One gets the feeling that while this story is emotionally engaging, on some level it isn’t actually happening – that the movie’s sensibility is detached from an awareness of plot. Even as Tom Arnold is busy bungling a scheme, or appearing in a pantomime of ancient Rome, the “ridiculous” aspects of the story only heighten the film’s commitment to calmness: to the details of Skeet Ulrich’s performance, the meandering paths of the characters, and the succession of pleasant, unhurried scenes. During the many conversations in bars, clubs and hotel rooms, the camera seems to have no particular theme in mind; it moves from one face to another attentively, picking up details, then pauses shortly before heading off. The whole film has a horizontal, stretched-out feel – the radiating lines of buildings and cars are one of the few overt visual motifs – and this is enhanced by the “grazing” strokes of Dave Grohl’s guitar.

Perhaps the film’s best instance of “touch” is in the closing scene, with its final image of a blue car lifted off the highway, seemingly by divine hands. That last gesture – a straight motion erased from the screen – may be the closest a film can get to Leonard: an energy we feel driven and attuned to, but which evaporates on a second glance.

  1. Patrick McGilligan, “Get Dutch,” Film Comment, 34:2 (1998), 52. []