There are few crime writers who have managed to conquer both the publishing world and Hollywood. Elmore Leonard was able to do both with a style and flair that made his no nonsense works mainstays on both the big and small screen for over half a century.
Leonard’s gritty and award-winning prose sometimes ignored the rules of grammar to achieve a more realistic patois which is only matched by the love and care that he invested in his characters both good and bad. Leonard had that rare ability to make you want to root for both the good and bad guy as his realistic plots twisted and turned. His upcoming new film Life of Crime is a perfect example of Leonard always having much love in his heart for the boys who just can’t help but do bad.
Based on the 1978 novel Switch, the upcoming Life of Crime revolves around a pair of down on their luck car thieves, Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara (Mos Def and John Hawkes, respectively), who after meeting in prison plan one more big score when they get out; a kidnapping of a sleazy philandering real-estate developer’s (Tim Robbins) wife. played by Jennifer Aniston. Of course, things don’t go as planned when Robbins’ character decides its more advantageous not to pay the ransom and Hawkes develops some affection for their captive.
If you think you’ve heard of Ordell and Louis you’d be right; the movie is a prequel to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown which was based on Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. The characters Ordell and Louis were first played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro to much acclaim in the Tarantino-helmed feature. Now audiences get to see a sort of “Ordell and Louis Begins” as only the master crime writer could show them.
Born in 1925 in New Orleans, Leonard moved around with his family until they settled in Detroit, where he would spend much of his professional life and gather the influences that would earn him the nickname “The Charles Dickens of Detroit.” Leonard’s writing career began in the early 1950s, with him writing primarily westerns in the short story form, and bringing a particular love for Hemingway’s prose to the mix while stripping down “the parts that readers would skip.”
After publishing some 30 short stories he dove head first into the novel and produced The Bounty Hunters in 1953. Leonard would continue writing western stories that would be adapted into feature films, like The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre, Valdez Is Coming, and Joe Kidd, firmly establishing his position as a serious writer. By the late sixties Leonard’s work underwent a dramatic change; he shook off the trappings of the old west and ventured into the realm of mystery and suspense. A realm that he would eventually master and influence across a multitude of mediums.
Leonard would refocus his writing, examining the dark, lurid underbelly of society with gritty descriptions of both cop and criminal, spending most of the ’70s and early ’80s honing his stark prose and developing modern memorable characters. His 1984 novel LaBrava was voted best novel by the Mystery Writers of America and won him an Edgar Award for best work of 1984. The New York Times called him the “greatest living mystery writer”, and with that he was truly on his way to mega-mystery stardom. In 1985 his novel Glitz became an international best seller and Hollywood producers became extremely interested in his work again. And thus began a near thirty year streak of successful books and screen adaptations in the form of Freaky Deaky, Killshot, Maximum Bob, and of course Get Shorty and the sequel Be Cool.
Get Shorty turned the longtime writer truly into a household name and made him what some would call an “overnight success.” The next of Leonard’s novel Rum Punch became Quentin Tarantino’s acclaimed Jackie Brown, which was followed by Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight in 1998. Out of Sight bears special mention as it produced one of Leonard’s most memorable characters, the sexy and determined bounty hunter Karen Sisco.
Originally played by Jennifer Lopez, the Sisco character got a TV show in 2003 where she was played by Carla Gugino, who incidentally reprised a version of the character on FX’s Justified, also from Leonard. Justified’s heroic Marshall Raylan Givens was said to have known her under her maiden name. Cisco’s popularity even earned her a follow-up novel called Road Dogs. Cisco is not Leonard’s only creation to appear in multiple mediums or cross over into other stories. Michael Keaton for example, was the first actor to play the same character, Ray Nicolette, for two different studios as he appeared in both Jackie Brown and Out of Sight.
With all this crossover it comes as no surprise that Life of Crime returns to the fertile ground that made Leonard so popular, with a story focusing on good bad guys and even worse good guys. Shot in a mere 26 days, the movie is the last film the writer was associated with before his death. Perhaps the short filming time is a testament to Leonard’s minimalist sensibilities. Shown at this year’s Toronto Film Festival and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the critics who have seen it hailed the film as a fun romp through a world of sleaze and cons gone wrong. The Guardian perhaps puts it best: “This is a good-natured, show-not-tell treat, almost bloodless fun to finish a bruising, brilliant festival.”
While Elmore Leonard may no longer be with us, it’s clear that his work will continue to endure and thrill mystery, and western fans, all around the world. Be sure to see Life of Crime when it comes out and remember most of all, be cool.