Sad To See You Leaving 2013: Elmore Leonard

by George_East on December 29, 2013

Elmore LeonardWhen Reservoir Dogs came out in 1992 one of the unusual things about the film  that both critics and audiences immediately latched onto was that chunks of the dialogue had nothing whatever to do with the plot – the characters just chewed the fat about stuff, like the ethics of tipping or the meaning of Like A Virgin.    Tarantino would take this a step further in Pulp Fiction with most of the dialogue between Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L Jackson) falling into this category.  This has become something of a trademark for him and has been imitated to death by many inferior copyists since, until it has become more than a little hackneyed.

Although Tarantino can claim to be the progenitor of this style of dialogue in films, it was Elmore Leonard who is its true father.    In a series of stripped down crime novels written from 1969 to 2012, mostly set in his native Detroit, Leonard told tales of incompetent criminals and half-arsed cops.  The novels were dialogue-driven gritty, funny and page-turningly easy to read.   His characters were rarely successes in anything, thought they did not recognise that.  They would talk about stuff that people talk about, rather than explain what was going on.

However, Leonard believed in stripping down a novel to its bare bones.  He famously said that in the editing process if anything he had written sounded like ‘writing’ he would re-write it.   His literary style was to remove anything vaguely literary sounding.   He rarely used adverbs and sought to cut out the bits ‘that readers skip’ – no pages of description and setting, for Leonard.

You only have to read one of his novels to understand just how big an influence he was on Tarantino, who would adapt Leonard’s Rum Punch as Jackie Brown.  I also think it is coincidence that it is Jackie Brown that is Tarantino’s most (perhaps only) grown up film.     Tarantino’s tendency towards verbal diarrhoea is not something that you will find in Leonard’s books.

Although virtually all of Leonard’s books read very filmicly, his crime novels have rarely been successfully translated to the big screen.  With the exception of Jackie Brown and Steven Soderbergh’s take on Get Shorty (1998), most of the films do not really work that well (though to be fair it has been a long time since I saw the Charles Bronsen vehicle Mister Majestick!) – partly I think because they play up the comedy at the expense of the grit.

By contrast, before Leonard embarked on a career as a crime novelist, he wrote dime westerns.  Two of these were adapted into minor masterpieces:  The Tall T a wonderfully stripped back western directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, and Delmar Daves’ tautly psychological  3.10 To Yuma, which featured as the Cine-East Film Club presentation tribute to Leonard.

If you’ve never read any of his work, I suggest starting with 52 Pick Up, Swag and Maximum Bob, but you can’t really go wrong with any of them.

RIP Elmore Leonard 1925-2013

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