One Bite at a Time

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

2017 Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference, Part II

Today we resume my wrap-up of this year’s Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference, beginning with Saturday’s after-lunch session.

The Insider’s View of the Submission and Acquisition process at Kensington press
Michaela Hamilton

I almost didn’t go, as I have a publisher, but I’m glad I did. Michaela had a metric tonne of insights about how business is conducted that were worth hearing for anyone involved. Well worth anyone’s time.

Passive Voice, Exposition, or Dark and Stormy Nights: The Nitty-Gritty of Prose
John Gilstrap, Peter Blauner, John Wren, Penny Clover Petersen (Moderator)

A truly outstanding discussion of craft, in which Penny Clover Petersen did a fine job of putting the topic out there and letting a formidable panel have at it. The highlights are too many t mention here, so I’ll limit it to several of the best.

Blauner and Gilstrap agreed that it’s best to ground exposition in the voice of a character. Filter description through the sensitivities of the character. Tell the reader as much as he needs to know, when he needs to know it.

Blauner said the initial scene should give an idea of what the book is about, which Gilstrap followed up with his idea of the greatest opening line in modern literary history: Well, I’m pretty much fucked. (From The Martian.)

Blauner likes to set a mood or increase tension through the use of ordinary things, such as a pause in an argument with the tension brought out by the sound of the ice maker dropping cubes.

Gilstrap said a subtle way to ratchet up tension is for something not to work. Example: If someone needs to sign a document he doesn’t want to sign, the pen can run out of ink.

If I could have a recording of any one panel, this might be the one.

The Difference Between Writing for the Screen and Writing for the Page
Peter Blauner

Or maybe this one. Peter started with lessons learned in undergraduate school and on, spicing things up with anecdotes from other sources from time to time. A few highlights:

  • It’s not about the best writing or telling the best story. It’s about meeting the requirements of the show.
  • The most interesting stories aren’t ripped from the headlines. They’re on Page 7.
  • Not even the best TV can replicate the intimacy of reading.
  • He takes time off from TV when he wants to write a novel. Can’t switch back and forth.

Tools in the Investigator’s Kit
Karl Braungart, David Swinson, Lanny Larcinese, Bernard Shaffer (Moderator), and me, once again lowering the level of discourse.

Hard to take notes when you’re on the panel. What I remember most, selfishly, is how good it felt when two serious business and experienced cops validated much of what I’ve based my books on. This would have been worth the price of the conference all by itself.

Keynote address by Jonathan Maberry
There’s no way I can do Maberry’s story justice in the space I have here. I’m not even gpoing to try. Suffice to say that if there was anyone in the world who could describe himself as overcoming difficult circumstances to succeed in his chosen field, it’s him. Yet, as do so many who actually have done this—especially, I’ve noticed, writers—he spent much of his talk noting how lucky he’s been that people along the way took an interest in him and helped without any expectation of return other than to do the right thing. His grandmother, a librarian, and famous writers such as Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury. A humbling experience to listen to someone at the top of his profession, and a talk all those born on third who think they hit triples would do well to take to heart.

I think Friday’s bar session took a little out of some folks, as things were quitter on Saturday. I personally limited myself to Arnold Palmers for the evening. (I think the bartender assumed I was a designated driver, as he never charged me.) A wide-ranging and pleasant conversation until the final conference attendees left the bar.

Sunday, September 10
Keeping Readers up all Night
John Gilstrap, Ilene Schneider, Bill Rapp, Belinda Gordon (Moderator)

Lots of good back-and-forth on the benefits of cliffhangers, leading the reader into the next scene, or knowing the exit line is good enough by itself. John may have had the money quote of the conference here when he said, “Resolutions are boring. Questions are interesting.”

911: What’s the Emergency?
Peter Blauner, Bernard Shaffer, Michael Black, Lanny Larchinese, Denise Camacho (Moderator)

This panel also got into some fascinating tangential discussions. Everyone on it had unique perspectives on emergency calls to make this a panel that could have gone twice as long and no one would have minded.

Bernard Shaffer set the tone when he said that not only do the 911 operators have to get all the necessary information, they have techniques to work with panicky callers, and may have to give emergency instructions in the case of choking or bleeding until help arrives. They also never get closure, as they never see the outcome like the cops do. It leads to PTSD issues on their own.

Peter Blauner extolled the virtues of subtlety in creating tension, that not every such scene has to be a gun to the head. Bernard followed up with a reminder that The Sopranos was the master of this, how any little thing could set Tony off and you never knew which ones would.

Bernard also had the perfect exit line for the conference as a whole when he said that the real heroes—more than the cops and other first responders—are the victims (kinds, rape victims, elderly) who have to sit in open court a few yards away from the attacker and tell their story.

C3 is a rising event on the annual conference tour, and one that’s footprint increases a little every year. I have no financial interest in the con, so I have a clear conscience when I say writers, aspiring writers, and readers who want to get up close and personal with each other in an intimate setting should take a look into attending in 2018. I know I’ll be there. I already signed up.

Friday, September 15, 2017

2017 Creature, Crimes, and Creativity Conference, Part I

The 2017 Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference in Columbia MD is history. The fifth C3 continued the progress of its predecessors and raised the bar even higher for next year’s. As with any event where multiple sessions are always underway, all I can do is to judge highlights from my perspective, but that’s okay. My perspective is the one I care about.

One caveat in advance: I took notes the best I could, but I am not a stenographer. Nor does my handwriting become more legible as I hurry. Apologies in advance for missed quotes, misquotes, and misattributions.

Friday September 8
Jason Bourse, Lara Croft, or Bruce Lee: Getting Fight Scenes Right
Moderated by yours truly with panelists David Swinson, Michael Black, Jonathan Maberry.

I hit the ground running with this high-profile panel. We covered plenty of tips, advice, pet peeves, dos, and don’ts, including:
  • Cops are always aware of what is behind the target when they’re thinking of shooting.
  • Many martial arts are sports, not self-defense techniques.
  • Street fights are different and tougher than a competition or practice.
  • How to look for possible weapons in any situation.
Oh, and Jonathan showed us how beat hell out of someone with a shot glass.

High Tech, Hunches, or Shoe Leather?
John Gilstrap, Bernard Shaffer, Rick Ollerman, Walter Curran (Moderator)

This panel looked not only at some techniques, but examined truths we should all think about when discussing law enforcement, whether fictional or real. John Gilstrap pointed out the author doesn’t have to know what the character knows; he just has to convince the reader that the character does. He also noted that if you took sirens off firetrucks you’d have 25% as many firefighters.

Bernard Shaffer followed up with a point that cops’ personalities are pretty much the same around the world.

Both agreed that cops, firefighters, and other first responders have to walk into the worst moments of people’s lives and bring order. Bernard added that we don’t do a very good job of keeping the wrong people out of the jobs.

Seducing Your Readers in Chapter One.
John Gilstrap, Sandra Campbell, Bill Rapp, Denise Camacho (Moderator)

A lively panel that discussed how to hook readers early, though not necessarily in the first paragraph or sentence as some would argue. The two money quotes were both Gilstrap’s, who said the key to any story is interesting people doing interesting things in interesting ways in interesting places, and reminded us all that the beginning of the book is not the beginning of the story, using Harry Potter as an example. The story begins with Harry’s parents and Snape at Hogwarts. The book begins substantially later.

Booze, Unemployment, or Drugs: Developing Flawed Characters
Peter Blauner, Chris Bauer, Jeff Markowitz, Eric Gardner (Moderator)

Jeff Markowitz believes there’s one thing he needs to know when creating a character. It can be just about anything, but it’s the hook on which he’ll hang the characterization.

Peter Blauner spent six months with probation officers researching his first book. They’re as much social worker as cop and get into the job to help people. Quote from a PO: First you want to help them, then you find they can’t change and you end up hating them.

Keynote address by Peter Blauner
The after-dinner address was entertaining and educational. It’s always fun to learn how top professionals’ careers end up not at all where they have begun, and to hear the twists and turns that brought them to where they are. Blauner is a rare combination, a writer who’s successful both as a novelist and in television. I believe his experiences in each taught everyone there something, regardless of their own experience level.

Well, yeah, then I went to the bar. A C3 bar hits the sweet spot. True, there aren’t as many people there as at Bouchercon, but that means you can actually talk to those you want to talk to, be heard, and you can get a frigging drink. Thanks to Bill Rapp, David and Catherine Swinson, Bernard Shaffer, Peter Blauner, Jeffery Deaver, and at least one other person whose names I’d remember had not I had that one last beer for what I think is the best discussion of craft I’ve ever had at a conference.

Saturday September 9
How to do a Great Book Signing
Austin Camacho, Jeff Markowitz, Patricia Hale (Moderator), and me.

Once again they put me to work first thing. I knew in advance this would be a lot of fun. Patricia set us up well, and Austin, Jeff, and I have been friends for a while now and had a ball playing off each other.

Bringing it all Together: An Example of Writing a Thriller
Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver took his time to walk us through his 13 Rules of Writing. I’m not going through them all—you want to know, get off your ass and go to a conference—but highlights included:
1. Define your goal as a writer.
2. Understand that your mission is to tell the most emotionally engaging story you can.
3. Writing fiction is a business, not an art.
8. Re-write, re-write, re-write. (See? I said I wouldn’t tell them all.)
10. Writer’s block does not exist.
And my personal favorite:
13. Be happy.

Jeffery was informative and entertaining and made the 45 minutes fly by. It was also gratifying to see Peter Blauner, David Swinson, and other established writers in the audience, still looking to learn.

Saturday’s lunch included me interviewing David Swinson, which was a treat in every way. Many thanks to organizer Austin Camacho and to David for allowing me to share the dais with a good friend and rapidly rising writer who truly does not appreciate how good he is.

We’ll have more on this year’s conference next week.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Movies Since Last Time

The Summer of Western Research™ begins to wrap up with a few oldies but goodies.

Gone Baby Gone (2007) Dennis Lehane has the gift of knowing exactly who to sell his
books to in order to have the best movie made. Ben Affleck directed and co-wrote the screenplay from what Lehane says is the best of the Kenzie-Gennaro novels. Affleck stays true to the source material in tone and uses as much of Lehane’s sterling dialog as he can afford to without making a mini-series. No one thought Casey Affleck could pull Patrick Kenzie off, but he did so admirably. Amy Ryan is beyond good in an Oscar-nominated performance. (Tilda Swinton won for Michael Clayton.) The supporting cast of Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Michele Monahan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver, and John Ashton is as good as you’d expect from that crew, which is to say excellent. As successful an adaptation of a book as one is going to find, and from an excellent book, no less. Highest recommendation.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) Stupid fun that knew
it was stupid fun, and that made all the difference. Unlike a lot of more recent movies—a lot—that present impossible acts in impossible situations way too seriously, Buckaroo Banzai makes no excuses: None of this has ever happened, nor will it ever. Just embrace the craziness and have fun. I did.

The Professionals (1966) I saw this one in a theater instead of watching the first Super
Bowl, which shows a lot less about how bad I wanted to see it than how little respect the Super Bowl had in those days. Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Woody Strode, and Robert Ryan play guns for hire who contract out to a railroad magnate (Ralph Bellamy) to rescue his wife (Claudia Cardinale) from the Mexican bandit who kidnapped her (Jack Palance). Great action, just the right amount of fun, and, of course, things aren’t what they looked to be at the beginning. The film’s attitude is summed up in the final lines, after Bellamy calls Marvin a bastard. Marvin’s reply: “In my case an accident of birth. You, sir, are a self-made man.”

Valdez is Coming (1971) Part Two of a Burt Lancaster double feature. This time Lancaster
plays Bob Valdez, a constable on a border town who has to kill a black soldier he finds out later was not the one who allegedly killed a white man. Bob wants the man responsible for the mistake to pay $100—which the town’s other businessmen will match—to aid the dead man’s woman. What follows is a little like a Western version of Richard Stark’s The Hunter, as Bob wreaks havoc across the desert, never asking for more than the hundred bucks. Based on an Elmore Leonard novel, this is a fine example of an early post-Wild Bunch Western.

Wyatt Earp (1994) I liked this better while watching it than I did a few days later. Lawrence
Kasdan does a nice job of capturing a pretty close account of Wyatt Earp’s (Kevin Costner) life up through the O.K. Corral and the subsequent Earp Vengeance Ride. The authenticity is good and Dennis Quaid—of whom I’m not a big fan—was surprisingly good as Doc Holliday. (Not Val Kilmer good, but Val set the standard. Quaid took the part a different direction.) Looking back, though, it’s too long and tries to cover too much ground. I’m not sorry I watched it, but now that I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it. Next time I get a Wyatt Earp hankering, I’ll watch Tombstone.

Blazing Saddles (1974) Maybe the greatest comedy ever, due to its success on so many
Hold it, men. He's not bluffing.
different levels. The first of Mel Brooks’s satires on established genres, no holds are barred in this examination of Westerns and racial prejudice. I can’t imagine how large the protests would be if Blazing Saddles had been made this year. Truth is, it would never have been released. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve seen it—this is another one I first saw in a theater on its initial release—and I still get tears of laughter five minutes in just because I know what’s going to happen. Genius.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


My Summer of Western Research™ has provided me a couple of opportunities to read books in conjunction with their film interpretations. Both examples were worthy adaptations. We’ll start with Hombre. (Novel by Elmore Leonard. Screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. Director Martin Ritt.) I wrote about both the book and the movie individually over the past few weeks. Today I’ll do the compare and contrast.

As I’ve said before, Hombre may be Leonard’s best novel. The story is tight and the
characters are a diverse mix. He also shows the dialog traits that would serve him so well in his crime fiction, with undertones of smart-assery throughout. The movie does well to keep all those and uses them to good effect.

There are two key differences that may have had more to do with the facts of moviemaking in 1967 than any artistic choices. In the movie, John Russell (Paul Newman) visits the boarding house he has inherited and meets Jessie Brown, the woman who runs it. (Diane Cilento.) She learns Russell plans to sell the house and decides to make her exit on the same mud wagon he’s leaving on.

None of this is in the book, including her. Instead of both Jessie and Doris Lee Blake, the book has a woman referred to throughout as “The McLaren Girl.” She’s apparently a teenager taken by the Apaches and later rescued by the Army, on her way back to her parents. She serves the role of conscience played by Jessie in the movie. All Doris Lee did was whine and stand in to show what a bastard Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone) is. (In another interesting change, the heavy in the book is named Frank Braden, which is the name of the lawman gone bad in the movie, who also does not appear in the book.)

This is all frosting on a delicious cake compared to the core change made for the film. In the climactic scene, Newman’s Russell gives everyone a chance to carry the bag of money down the hill, which is what Grimes says it will take to save Mrs. Favor from dying of dehydration. Everyone passes until it comes Jessie’s turn. When she says she’ll go, Russell decides he will. The strong implication is that he just wanted to see if anyone else would do it.

In the book, everyone passes and Russell goes anyway, pretty much throwing it in their faces that for all the shit they talked about him, he’s the only stand-up one in the bunch. He and the McLaren girl bond a little before he leave, which shows a little more of his humanity.

I have to wonder if the reason for this key change might have been a perception that the audience wasn’t ready to see everyone bail on a woman in need, redeeming Russell’s sometimes questionable character when he won’t allow Jessie to go to her death. In the book, he makes them all understand they’re nothing but talk. They can plead all they want that the Favor woman can’t be left there to die, but no one will do anything about it but him. Either way, Russell gets his pound of flesh for the shabby treatment he’s been afforded. Only he, who freely admits he doesn’t care about the woman one way or the other after what she said about “those dirty Indians eat dogs,” has the humanity to save her. That’s quite a difference.

That’s not to say it makes the movie any less wonderful; its interpretation of Russell’s character is just as valid. If any of my film student friends has any thoughts on why these changes were made, I’d love to hear them.

Friday, September 1, 2017

August's Best Reads

The Summer of Western Research™ draws to a close. It’s been a rousing success, not only committing me to writing the Western (though not immediately), but giving me a multitude of ideas and broadening my reading horizons. 

Here are the August highlights:

Hombre, Elmore Leonard. Quite possibly Leonard’s finest novel. Not a wasted word, but nothing left out, either. The decision to tell the story through a single set of eyes other than the main character’s was inspired. If you haven’t read it, you ought to. It’s a clinic. (I’ll have more to say about this and the movie next week.)

Appaloosa, Robert B. Parker. First of the series featuring itinerant lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch and the best of the four. (I’ll have more on that soon, too.) The sparse style and clipped dialog that Parker settled into late in the Spenser novels serves him much better here and the relationship between Cole and Hitch is fascinating and expertly done in this story about what is in essence a very strange love triangle.

Down & Out: The Magazine. Volume 1 Rick Ollerman, editor. I’m not a huge short story guy and anthologies are always iffy due to their unevenness, but Ollerman hit it out of the park in his first at bat for Down & Out. Not a weak story in the bunch and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Reed Farrel Coleman’s entry get notice during next year’s awards season. If you’re into digests of short crime, you should get on the bandwagon. Even if you’re not.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Picked this up in an airport waiting for a delayed flight. It’s exactly what it claims to be, as I started reading in the lounge and finished before the plane landed. Loaded with insights and tidbits not a lot of people are aware of with Tyson’s easy style and wit evident throughout. (“Yes, Einstein was a badass.”) An entertaining and enlightening read.

Monday, August 28, 2017

A Conversation with Terrence McCauley

I discovered Terrence McCauley and his writing when we shared a panel at Bouchercon Albany on noir vs. hard-boiled fiction. We hit it off right away and I quickly discovered he’s a great foil for discussing a wide range of literary topics, as he someone who actually thinks about the things his books are about instead of settling for a good story well told. (Not that I’m implying a good story well told isn’t important. It’s the most important thing, but it’s also just the entry point. Readers should expect/demand that just to buy the book.)

Terrence is the author of the University series of novels featuring James Hicks. Of his new book, A Conspiracy of Ravens, no less than Reed Farrell Coleman says, "In our new reality, Terrence McCauley’s A Conspiracy of Ravens is not far from the realm of possibility. He hits all the right notes while creating a simultaneously entertaining and frightening scenario. Read it." (A Conspiracy of Ravens is the third book in the University series, to be released by Polis Books September 19.) He also writes a series of books set in Prohibition-era New York that includes Prohibition, Slow Burn, and the upcoming The Fairfax Incident.

Terrence started an enthusiastic discussion in Facebook a few weeks ago about heroes and villains, right about the time I got word I’ll be on a panel covering heroes and anti-heroes at Bouchercon in Toronto. One thing led to another and here we are, chatting about exactly those subjects.

One Bite at a Time: In your mind, what’s the difference between a hero and an anti-hero?
This man is NOT an asshole.
Terrence McCauley: To me, the anti-hero is the character that does what he or she is going to do anyway to serve their own purposes. They just happen to be for good. A hero, often in my opinion misdiagnosed as the protagonist, seeks to do the right thing for the cause which he or she serves.

OBAAT: You write the much-acclaimed University series of thrillers. Where does your main character, James Hicks, fall in this spectrum?
TM: In Hicks, I sought to create the anti-Bond. Hicks and the University do what they feel they need to do to protect the interests of the West. Sometimes that puts them in direct conflict with their own government who isn't sure of what the University is or what it's trying to accomplish. He spends a good amount of time in Sympathy for the Devil and A Murder of Crows combating his own government as much as the terrorists seeking to attack the country. This is why I would call Hicks an anti-hero.

OBAAT: We had an interesting conversation on Facebook a few weeks ago about Vic Mackey from The Shield. Vic trod a very thin line between anti-hero and villain for the show’s entire run. You know what he’s willing to do when he shoots a cop in the pilot, yet by the time Forrest Whitaker tries to take him down you can’t help but root for Vic. How does he managed to do this, and what is it about him that makes him a villain in the end?
TM: Secretly, everyone likes a bad guy. Who would you rather hang out with in Deadwood? Dudley Do Right or Al Swearengen? Vic Mackey is compelling because he does a lot of good while he's doing so much bad. He's a conflicted character and therefore believable. We can relate to him in a way we can't really relate to a hero like Superman. We're not perfect, hence the reason why so many people like Batman. To borrow from another medium, people related to Oprah because she faced a lot of the same struggles her viewers had faced. Poverty, weight problems, professional problems and, finally, success. Megyn Kelly has said she wants to be the next Oprah. A thin, blonde white woman who looks like a model? I don't think that'll go over so well because her audience can’t relate to her. In many ways, she is what many of her audience will never be. In Vic Mackey, we could relate because he was as flawed as the rest of us. We knew he was bad, but he was relatable.

OBAAT: You have a way with anti-heroes. Both your Prohibition Era novels, Prohibition and Slow Burn, are filled with characters who embody many admirable traits but are by no means heroes. Charlie Doherty from Slow Burn is a particular favorite. Truly a corrupt cop, he still does the job so it comes out right. Terry Quinn in Prohibition is a mob guy through and through, but his loyalty to Archie Doyle is moving, and reminds me in some ways of Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key. You mentioned a minute at what attracts you to such characters. What makes you so good at writing them?
TM: I always try to create believable characters, whether they're anti-heroes or villains or heroes. I make them believable by not allowing myself to write cookie-cutter characters. In my University series, Roger Cobb does horrible things to people, yet my readers tend to like him because they can relate to him. Same thing with Doherty and Quinn. They're products of their respective times and have their own motivations for doing what they do. Quinn has no problem murdering someone, but he's loyal to Archie. Doherty went into the Van Dorn case looking for blackmail money, but he gets won over by the family and the case. James Hicks is cold-blooded and distant, but he acts in what he feels are the best interests of his country and our way of life. They're complicated characters who aren't perfect and aren't flawed in the ways readers have come to expect in literature. My characters are all perfectly flawed and I wouldn't want them to be any other way.

OBAAT: I’ll tell you why I’m asking this in a minute, but can a hero become an anti-hero?
TM: Spoiler alert here, but Vic Mackey went from being hero to anti-hero to villain. The reason why it worked was because of consistent, strong writing. The seeds for his evil turn were planted from the very first episodes of the series and came to bloom in the final two episodes of the show. He was always the villain. We just never saw it. That's why I consider the ending to be the best ending of a series I've ever seen. It fit perfectly. It took a stand. It was believable.

Circumstances in a story can change so that a hero can become an anti-hero, but it has to be done well and it has to be done over time lest the writer be accused of jumping the shark. It can't be sudden and it can't be contrived. But if it's planned for over time, then I think it can be achieved. To use the comparison with another TV show, I think you're starting to see that in Homeland.

OBAAT: The reason I asked—and the reason I’m so glad to hear your answer—is that’s what happened to my PI character, Nick Forte. He starts out as a Chandlerian hero, doing the right things and trying to do them in the right way. Each book wore him down as things didn’t work out the way he wanted them to until now he’s reached the point where if he decides someone has to go, they go. Period. The thing about Forte that’s completely different from Vic Mackey is that I didn’t realize what I’d done until I was four books in and took a few years off to work on another series. Have you ever had a character evolve on you like that, even within the course of a book?
TM: Sure. Doherty evolves big time in Slow Burn and even more so in the upcoming The Fairfax Incident. James Hicks, over the course of three books, evolves into a character the reader can understand. With Hicks, that was by design. In Sympathy, I spend a lot of time introducing the reader to the world and technology I've created. I show who the protagonists and antagonists are and kept the backstory and motivations to a minimum. In Crows, the reader learns more about the University and sees a more human side of Hicks. I folded it into the plot of the book, rather than blatantly show you who he is and where he's coming from. In Ravens, readers will see a much more personal side of Hicks than they've ever seen before. My beta readers have all given me wonderful feedback on Ravens because they feel the evolution is believable and fits with the story. My goal is to continue this evolution in future novels and I hope to have the opportunity to keep the University Series going both during the current day and in the University's past with Charlie Doherty.

OBAAT: I know you’re a fan of the TV show Justified. Where did Raylan Givens fall on your personal hero/anti-hero scale?
TM: I love Raylan, but I'd classify him as a hero. Sure, he broke the rules, but not enough to make him a criminal. He was good with a gun, maybe too good, but all of his shootings were, indeed, Justified. Great character. Great performance and skillful writing made the show one of my favorites. But Vic Mackey is in a class by himself.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Movies Since Last Time

I am enjoying this Summer of Western Research™ even more than I thought I would.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) A disappointment. I’d seen it before but didn’t remember
anything beyond the early sequence where Billy (a miscast Kris Kristofferson) escapes from jail. There’s a reason for that. The film lacks any definite narrative direction, a pursuit story that meanders through episodes alternating between Garrett (James Coburn) and Billy until they end up at the same place. I’ve read that director Sam Peckinpah was pretty much incoherent drunk through most of the production. It shows. (In case you’re wondering, we saw the 2005 Special Edition Blu-Ray, so the cuts that ruined the film’s original release should not have been a problem. It’s just not very good.)

The Magnificent Seven (1960) Shows its age a little, but once it gets going it’s still as
entertaining a Western as you’ll find. It likely begins the turning away from the idealized horse operas with its frank examination of a gunman’s life, a movement that picks up speed with Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country and the spaghetti Westerns until Peckinpah breaks the mold forever with The Wild Bunch. Good as it is, it has what has to be the single worst cut for time of any movie I’ve ever seen, when The Seven start to work their way into the hills to take out three snipers then magically appear in town with the snipers’ guns. The entire missing scene is explained away with “You got them?” I don’t know if the sequence was never filmed or cut for length. Either way, it should have been handled better. Still, among the Top Ten Westerns ever.

Hombre (1967) A masterpiece, based on what might well be Elmore Leonard’s best book. I don’t just mean his best Western; his best book, period. (If you haven’t read it, get busy. It’s
as fine a piece of taut storytelling as you’ll ever read, with nary a wasted word.) I was struck this time by how close this falls in Paul Newman’s body of work to 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and how there can’t be two characters more different than Butch and John Russell. Newman’s gift as an actor was how he never seemed to be acting. The entire cast provides outstanding work, and this may be Richard Boone’s best performance. Screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. kept much of Leonard’s dialog and captured the tone perfectly. Hombre never tries to be more than it is, and it’s a lot. There have been Westerns as good, but I can’t think of any better.

The Long Riders (1980) Never seen this one before, in part because I thought it was a
Hollywood gimmick to have sets of brothers (Keach, Carradine, Quaid, Guest) play brothers (James, Younger, Miller, Ford). I should have paid better attention. The casting was organic, stemming from the Keach brothers wanting to play the Jameses, talking to David Carradine about it and him thinking his bros could play the Youngers and it grew from there. An outstanding example of minimalist storytelling as Bill Bryden and Steven Smith team with Stacy and James Keach plus director Walter Hill to tell you everything you need to know without wasting time on exposition. The action scenes ring true and the violence appears as painful as it must have been. Well worth the time as an entertainment, and just as much as a way for storytellers to see how to get in and out quickly without leaving anything behind.

Open Range (2003) Hard to believe people were once worried whether Robert Duvall could play a cowboy. Here he’s Boss Spearman, one of the last of the free range cattlemen, who
grazes his herd over unclaimed ground across the West with the help of his small crew led by Charlie Waite (Kevin Costner). Costner was the driving force, producing, directing, and even putting up his own money, though he insisted Duvall get top billing and says the film might not have been made had Duval not agreed to do it. Pitch perfect from stem to stern, including outstanding performances by Annette Bening as Charlie’s awkward love interest and a pre-Dumbledore Michael Gambon as the evil cattle baron who runs the town. I don’t see it often listed as among the great Westerns, but it should be.

Appaloosa (2008) Here’s another one that should be right up there, Ed Harris’s adaptation
of Robert B. Parker’s first Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch Western. Harris directed and co-wrote the screenplay in a faithful adaptation of Parker’s book, about which I’ll have more to say in a couple of weeks. Harris and Viggo Mortensen play a pair of traveling lawmen who will go to any town that wants to clean itself up so long as the town agrees to their conditions. The basic story is a clever variation of a love triangle, with Harris’s Cole becoming enamored of newly-arrived widow Allie French (Renee Zellweger), whose efforts to play Cole and Hitch against each other spur the core friction in the story. Well told, well acted, faithful to the original material as well as the period in history, this is another that deserves more attention than it seems to get.