The Beloved Spouse and I watched Heaven’s Prisoners last night, a 1995 film starring Alec Baldwin as James Lee Burke’s protagonist Dave Robicheaux. Not a great movie, but a solid effort and well worth watching.
I’ve often wondered why more of Burke’s books haven’t been made into movies. This is the second I’ve seen (along with In the Electric Mist, with Tommy Lee Jones), and both came off well. Louisiana is a great setting for the kinds of stories Burke tells, mysterious more than mysteries, and the scenery and lifestyle are photogenic. New Orleans is just down the road, and The Big Easy is always good for a great scene or two.
I’d not read the book, but had meant to see the movie for some time. Baldwin is good as Robicheaux, though his accent slips occasionally. In his late thirties when the film was made, he’s almost too young to have done what Robicheaux has done by that point in his life (Army, NOLA cop, notorious homicide detective now off the force), but uses that to his advantage. He’s not a grizzled drunk with a hard-on. Baldwin’s Robicheaux wants what’s right, and will push the envelope beyond what’s rational to get it. Every bad thing in the movie happens because he can’t leave well enough alone, but his initial motives are pure. He has no way of knowing when he starts he would have done well not to push things, and it goes badly for him. Once the ball is in motion, he can’t help himself, and he’s more than capable of giving as good as he gets.
The screenplay was written by Scott Frank, who also did the first successful adaptation of an Elmore Leonard crime story with Get Shorty. (Hombre and the original Three-Ten to Yuma both pre-date it and were, of course, superb adaptation of Westerns.) Not having read the book, but well aware of Burke’s work, I saw many of the things that made Get Shorty successful in Heaven’s Prisoners. Frank keeps as much of the original dialog as he can, which adds considerably to the flavor, as both Burke and Leonard have their own distinctive styles with speech. (No, as I said, I have not read the book, but I know how Burke writes dialog. Work with me.) He’s also more concerned about remaining true to the tone of the book than with replicating the plot. Robicheaux’s friend, Clete Purcel, is missing from the film, though there is a scene that could only have been written for Clete in the book, his movie role filled by a DEA agent. Clete is problematic for screenwriters, as his presence in Robicheaux’s life often overwhelms his importance to the plot. (He is also missing from In the Electric Mist.)
Heaven’s Prisoners is not a great film, though it is the kind of movie American studios make too rarely these days: a crime film not filled with car chases and shoot-outs that gets you to the end with a satisfied feeling of knowing your time has not been wasted. (It should be pointed out the two main action sequences and both well done and compelling.) Watching inspired me to go to the local library and pick up a copy for comparison purposes. It also fired up my writing impulses, left mostly dormant for the summer, as it reminded me why I wanted to write in the first place: so I could write stories like that.