What's your favorite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
by Paul D. Marks
It’s hard to pick just one. Off the top of my head a whole list pops up. And rather than go into specific plot details I’m just going to give my general impressions. Plots can be looked up on the web or, even better, seen when watching the flicks. So, in no particular order:
Double Indemnity: My favorite film noir. If I had to show a Martian an example of film noir this would be it. Sticks close to Cain’s book but deviates where it has to, while staying true to his vision. And I think the ending is better than his. But why not, it was written by Billy Wilder and that novice screenwriter Raymond Chandler who, it’s said, makes a cameo appearance. I’m not sure one can say this movie singlehandedly established the noir genre and look, but it sure did a lot to get it off the ground.
The Grifters: Every time I see this adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel I love it more. And that’s saying a lot because I liked it a lot the first time I saw it. Everything just works. And comes together.
LA Confidential: James Ellroy is—or was—one of my favorite mystery writers. Right up there with Raymond Chandler (well, he’s in a class by himself) and Ross MacDonald. But Ellroy fell a notch or two for me when his writing became so stylized and clipped that it was hard to read. He’s sort of moved up a rung again with Perfidia. But now to the point at hand: LA Confidential, the third book in Ellroy’s LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Conf., White Jazz). If I recall correctly it’s in LA Confidential that Ellroy begins the more clipped style that he would explore and expand further, but not necessarily to the better in later books. But LA Confidential is a terrific book and, in some ways, maybe even a better movie. I’m sure it was very difficult to condense down all the plots and characters of the novel into a cohesive movie that kept the mood, tone and spirit of the book. But screenwriters Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson, who also directed, did a terrific job. I went back and reread the novel after seeing the movie for about the 90th time (I’m hardly exaggerating) and had (and still do have) a hard time deciding which I like better. But I think at this point the movie has become the story for me for better or for worse.
The Postman Always Rings Twice: Another movie based on a James M. Cain novel. Imho, another great adaptation of a terrific crime novel. And no matter how much one loves the novel can it beat Lana Turner’s entrance in the movie?
Out of the Past: Another of my all-time favorite film noirs. Adapted by Geoffrey Homes from a novel by Daniel Mainwaring, who is Geoffrey Homes, so it’s sort of like the song Constantinople and Istanbul (“Istanbul was Constantinople, Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople...”). The novel’s title is Build My Gallows High and in the movie Jane Greer, one of the deadliest femme fatales, says: “Don't you see you've only me to make deals with now?” To which Robert Mitchum replies, “Build my gallows high, baby.” Another great adaptation of a great noir book.
Dark Passage: based on the novel of the same name by David Goodis. I actually think this adaptation is better than the book. I liked this movie so much that many years ago, after having seen it a couple times, I wanted to see who wrote the book it was based on. From there I read the novel and went on to read all of Goodis’ novels. He’s become one of my favorite noir writers, the “poet of the losers,” as Geoffrey O'Brien calls him. But speaking of good and bad adaptations, my favorite Goodis book is Down There, made into the movie Shoot the Piano Player by Francois Truffaut. Love the book, the movie, in which the characters are transposed to France, not so much....
The Maltese Falcon: What can you say? A great book by Hammett. A terrific movie by John Huston. One of the best in both categories.
In a Lonely Place: The screen version is written by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North, directed by Nicholas Ray. I’ve mentioned this here and elsewhere, to me the movie version is hands and fists better than the novel. Why? Because it’s more ambiguous and ambivalent. Spoiler: In the novel, by Dorothy B. Hughes, we know that Dix (the Bogart character in the film) is a stone cold bad guy from the get-go. In the movie, we’re just not sure. That makes all the difference for me, especially in his relationship with Gloria Grahame. This is one of my favorite movies of all time of any genre, actually tied for second place with Ghost World, and just behind my fave, Casablanca. This is a terrific noir and a great movie. And, of course, every time I mention it I have to mention the Smithereens song of the same name, which “borrows” and paraphrases these lines from the film: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” And, as a sidenote, and I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, though if I have sorry to repeat, I bought a one sheet poster of the movie from Pat DiNizio (lead singer and songwriter of the Smithereens), so every time I look at the poster I think about him sitting under it, writing that song. Doubt he’d remember me, but for me that’s a cool memory.
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On the opposite side of the tracks, a couple movies that were horrible adaptations:
Shoot the Piano Player: As mentioned above, adapted by the great Francois Truffaut from a book I love. Unfortunately, I don’t think it really works and I’d love to see another version that sticks closer to the book.
Bonfire of the Vanities: I put this here because it does involve crime. It was a great book that examined a lot of pertinent issues. But the filmmakers didn’t have the courage of their convictions and didn’t make the book at all. They tried to turn it into a silly farce or satire, but all they got was a mosh pit cesspool of crap. Why they bought it in the first place I’ll never know. If they wanted to make another movie they should just have commissioned a screenplay. But let this be a warning to anyone selling to Hollywood: once you do, they can do whatever they want with your property and once it goes through the Hollywood Grinder you might not even recognize it.
***And now for some delightful BSP – remember, there’s a P at the end of the BS!
Vortex: My new Mystery-Thriller novella coming September 1st.
...a nonstop staccato action noir... Vortex lives up to its name, quickly creating a maelstrom of action and purpose to draw readers into a whirlpool of intrigue and mystery... but be forewarned: once picked up, it's nearly impossible to put down before the end.
—D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
Fade Out: flash fiction story – set at the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine – coming on Akashic’s Mondays Are Murder, Monday (big surprise, huh?), August 17th. Here’s the link, but my story won’t be live till 8/17: http://www.akashicbooks.com/tag/mondays-are-murder/
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