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Films of Elmore Leonard

The Tall T / Get Shorty / Out of Sight

The Tall T

(American, 1957, 78 minutes, color, 35mm)

Directed by Budd Boetticher


Randolph Scott. . . . . . . . . . Pat Brennan
Richard Boone . . . . . . . . . .Frank Usher
Maureen O'Sullivan . . . . . . . . . . Doretta Mims
Arthur Hunnicutt . . . . . . . . . . Ed Rintoon
Skip Homeier . . . . . . . . . .Billy Jack

Between 1956 and 1960, Budd Boetticher directed a clutch of films starring Randolph Scott -- SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956), THE TALL T (1957), DECISION AT SUNDOWN (1957), BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE (1958), RIDE LONESOME (1959), WESTBOUND (1959) and COMANCHE STATION (1960). Distributed by Columbia and Warner Brothers, often produced by Harry Joe Brown and written by Burt Kennedy, most were passed over by reviewers. This era in Westerns was bookended by John Ford's THE SEARCHERS and Howard Hawks' RIO BRAVO, big, brilliant, sprawling films, and in their shadows, Boetticher's chamber Westerns seemed quiet, even delicate constructions.

As indeed they are. The Boetticher Westerns, particularly THE TALL T, DECISION AT SUNDOWN, RIDE LONESOME, and COMANCHE STATION are small miracles of the Western cinema, films which repeat the same plot device (a bitter, lone lawman chasing lesser outlaws who seem sympathetic by comparison to him) marvelously ad infinitum. Like Hitchcock and his "wrong man" theme, Boetticher preferred the discipline of returning to the same central idea. Critics as diverse as Andre Bazin and Jim Kitses have pointed out how the Boetticher Westerns reversed the history of the genre: these films are not about vast frontiers and trackless open spaces, as much as they about limitations, physical and mental. This is not John Ford's sweeping, Monument Valley West; here, the allegory is gloomier, for the Boetticher West is one of gloomy little draws, dusty trail stations, and the long, long trail, all of them together making up a landscape of unusual cruelty. Boetticher's films don't love the idea of the West, but the West itself, its aimless places and the faces of its weakest citizens. As Kitses wrote of Boetticher in his admiring account of Western cinema named for a Boetticher film, Horizons West, "Unsupported by virtue, traditions, or the community, Boetticher's characters confront their destiny nakedly... the Western is deeply attractive for Boetticher in its insistence on an archaic world where the ambiguous drama of individualism can be played out."

THE TALL T is perhaps the most uncompromising of the Boetticher-Scott Westerns, in which the whole notion of Western "heroism" is called to task. "Brennan" (Scott) loses his horse, and finds himself on a stagecoach with a honeymooning couple. When the stage is held up, he finds himself in conflict with a brace of lesser outlaws. Against his guile and toughness, they are overmatched. Yet, Brennan's treatment of them is so raw, and they are so plainly seeking something other than money, that our affections begin to shift toward them. The attractions of this Shakespearean band of outsiders are many. Among them are there are the exquisite little verbal gestures, arising from Elmore Leonard's original story, "The Captive." Characters like Henry Silva's "Chink" speak in an unselfconscious poetry: "I like a quiet woman. I knew a quiet woman once. Outside, calm as Sunday. Inside, wild as mountain scenery." Or Richard Boone's trailworn "Usher," expressing his hopeless wish "to belong to something." Absurdist, existentialist -- THE TALL T's villains are human and pathetic, their courses doomed by the gun, and by their own stupidity. THE TALL T is remorseless and unsentimental, and the steely, gaunt Randolph Scott of this film is no Gary Cooper.

Much of the unique combination of danger and austerity that makes up the Boetticher Westerns is the image of the man himself. Budd Boetticher was a figure one part Ernest Hemingway, one part Robert Bresson, and one part Hamlet. An American matador, he had come to Hollywood as a technical advisor on 1941's BLOOD AND SAND. His Westerns recaptured the loneliness of the matador's life, moving from one arena to another, going about the business of killing, turning slaughter into a kind of art form, always in danger. Like the bullfight, this is a world of ritual enacted and reenacted again and again, the details blurring, but the fact of murder always preeminent. In the early 1960's, just after he completed THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND, the successful Boetticher left Hollywood behind to make a long dreamed-of film documentary on bullfighter Carlos Arruza, a film he intended as his testament on the things that mattered most to him. He found the independence he required, but it cost him dearly: he ran out money, was jailed for a week, saw his marriage implode, became deathly ill, nearly starved to death, and even spent time in an insane asylum. Arruza and several of Boetticher's crew were killed in an automobile accident. Finished in 1967, what there was of ARRUZA was finally seen in 1971, but Boetticher's career in Hollywood was over. He directed a film for Audie Murphy in 1969, and the two were discussing other projects, which might have recreated Murphy as the hero of another series of Boetticher Westerns, ala Randolph Scott, but Murphy was killed in 1971.

Randolph Scott was nearing the end of his career during his work with Boetticher, though it would remain for Sam Peckinpah to write the epitaph to Scott (and Joel McCrea's) career as a Western star in his 1961 RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, a film whose good humor, virtue, and even occasional nobility seem intended as a riposte to Boetticher and the tragic-comic world of THE TALL T. Boetticher's Westerns, and his remarkable, antithetical conception of the Western hero, influenced Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood in the 1960's and 1970's. The little Westerns of Budd Boetticher, each marked by what a critic called "savage concision," remain stark and violent, their efficient, knifelike structure and episodic violence a lesson in genius-struck filmmaking on a small scale.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

leonardgetshorty.gif - 4737 BytesGet Shorty

(American, 1995, 105 minutes, color, 35mm)

Directed by Barry Sonnefeld



John Travolta. . . . . . . . . . Chili Palmer
Gene Hackman . . . . . . . . . .Harry Zimm
Rene Russo . . . . . . . . . . Karen Flores
Danny DiVito . . . . . . . . . . Martin Weir

In Hollywood, everybody WANTS . . . but the way they GET can be outrageous. Two time Academy Award nominee John Travolta, double Oscar winner Gene Hackman, Rene Russo and Danny DeVito star in the contemporary comedy GET SHORTY. Chili Palmer (JOHN TRAVOLTA) is a Miami loan shark who’s sent to Los Angeles to collect on a gambling debt from film producer Harry Zimm (GENE HACKMAN). Harry’s luck may have changed though; Chili is an avid movie fan—even of the B-movie screamers that Harry churns out. Instead of breaking Harry’s legs, Chili pitches him an idea that could be the break of Harry’s career. Chili soon discovers that loansharking was the perfect training ground for making movies . . . .though you have to be ruthless to make it in Hollywood.

Actor/director/producer Danny DeVito is driving somewhere in Los Angeles when his car phone rings. On the other end is award-winning cinematographer-turned-director Barry Sonnenfeld. Good friends since they had worked together on DeVito’s THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN, the two had hoped to find another project on which they could again collaborate—this time with Sonnenfeld directing.

Sonnenfeld had just returned from a Caribbean cruise where he had hated everything—except the book he read: Elmore Leonard’s bestselling novel Get Shorty, a serious comedy about the business of Hollywood. He loved the book and could see it as the film project for which they had been looking. Barry Sonnenfeld’s enthusiasm for GET SHORTY was contagious to DeVito, and within a week they had purchased the screen rights to the book.

"The appealing thing about the story was that it was very real," DeVito offers. "The central character, Chili Palmer, is a kind of low-level loan shark who wants out of that world. He comes to Hollywood on the trail of a guy who ‘skipped,’ but when he meets

Harry Zimm, he sees an opportunity and seizes it. He gets involved with Hollywood and kind of teaches the ‘big boys’ how it’s done. He ends up changing his life just by being himself." Sonnenfeld adds, "I’ve always felt that the funniest comedy is reality-based—where the humor comes, not out of people telling jokes or one-liners, but out of ordinary situations with really smart writing. That’s what Elmore Leonard’s book, Get Shorty, is all about. I loved the characters, I loved the dialogue, and it had a really great story."

Celebrated author Elmore Leonard, renowned for his crime novels, acknowledges that his dealings with the movie business gave him the insight to write this incisive Hollywood story. "I’ve spent time in Hollywood on and off for 20 years, writing, selling screen rights . . . I felt familiar with what goes on here and it was always very entertaining to me," he says.

To adapt Leonard’s novel into an equally entertaining screenplay, the filmmakers turned to talented young screenwriter Scott Frank. Producer Stacey Sher was familiar with Frank’s work, and, more importantly, knew that he was a tremendous fan of the author. "The great thing about Elmore Leonard’s stories is that they are already very cinematic in that they have great dialogue and situations," Frank says. "I started to highlight the portions of the book that I thought would work for the screenplay and I ended up highlighting the whole book," he adds laughing. "Ultimately, I had to select the thread I was going to follow in tightening it up."

GET SHORTY was appropriately filmed at a number of signature Los Angeles locations, and captures the diversity of Hollywood, from the privileged world of those at the top to the seedier side of Hollywood Boulevard. Production designer Peter Larkin, with whom the director worked on FOR LOVE OR MONEY, was excited about making a movie about the movies. He and Sonnenfeld chose many of their favorite Hollywood "hot spots" as backdrops for the story.

Larkin notes, "In deciding many of the locations, we looked for places that are true Hollywood icons to most Americans. The great joy about making a movie in Hollywood is that most of it is still here."

The exterior of Harry’s office, for example, was on Hollywood Boulevard, directly across the street from Frederick’s of Hollywood. "The Boulevard is unique in its own way," Larkin says. "This was obviously a place that was hopping when Harry set up his office. It’s seen better days . . . but then, so has Harry."

The interior of the office was constructed on a soundstage in Culver City. The site of Karen Flores’ house was the exclusive Carbon Canyon in Malibu. An upscale retreat, it featured spectacular views of the Santa Monica mountains rolling into the blue Pacific. However, it was also one of the few homes that was spared in the devastating Malibu fires of 1993, and all around it was still-remaining evidence of the widespread destruction.

Other locations include: Cafe Med on the Sunset Strip, which is Martin Weir’s favorite breakfast spot; a Beverly Hills mansion, used for Martin’s house; Abiqui Restaurant in Santa Monica, where Chile has an explosive encounter with Bear; a Hollywood Hills "stilt" house, used for Bo Catlett’s home; and the Ivy Restaurant, the power-lunch spot of choice for Hollywood’s movers and shakers. In addition, Westside Los Angeles neighborhoods doubled for Miami, where the story begins. An Italian eatery in Santa Monica became a Miami restaurant where Chili and Ray "Bones" begin a long-standing feud. Interestingly, in that scene the real Chili Palmer appears as one of Ray "Bones" sycophantic cronies. Palmer, an old friend and researcher of Leonard’s, was obviously the inspiration for the literary character that bears his name. The real Chili, who does live in Miami, left "the life" in the early 60s and became a private investigator. He and the author met through one of Leonard’s college friends who ended up partnered with Chili in the P.I. business.

During filming, the cast and crew were treated to a visit from Elmore Leonard. "Dutch," as he is known, spent a week observing filming . . . and autographing crew members’ favorite Leonard novels. He also had an opportunity to watch dailies of the film, which delighted him. Sonnenfeld, who had first been inspired by Leonard’s book years earlier, was thrilled that the author was happy with the book’s transition to the screen. "I loved Get Shorty enough to stick with the project for three years to see it get made," Sonnenfeld remarks. "The great thing about this story is that Chili is eventually successful because he isn’t desperate. He doesn’t really have a game plan, but he still gets what he wants. So, I guess the way to get something in life is not to really need it, but just relax about it." DeVito concludes, "What’s interesting to me is that Chili is just a guy who’s trying to change his life. There are people all over who are stuck in their worlds and wondering when are they going to find their catalyst—their Harry Zimm—and say, ‘Wow, I know how to do this.’ Maybe it’s right around the corner."

— compiled by Suzanne Lance, Assistant to the Directors

outofsight.gif - 10257 BytesOut of Sight

(American, 1998, 122 minutes, color, 33 mm)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh



George Clooney . . . . . . . . . . Jack Foley
Jennifer Lopez . . . . . . . . . . Karen Sisco
Ving Rhames . . . . . . . . . . Buddy Bragg
Isaiah Washington . . . . . . . . . . Kenneth
Don Cheadle . . . . . . . . . . Maurice "Snoopy" Miller
Steve Zahn . . . . . . . . . . Glenn Michaels
Dennis Farina . . . . . . . . . . Marshall Sisco

Jack Foley (George Clooney), a convicted back robber serving a life sentence in Lompoc and his friend, Buddy Bragg (Ving Rhames), stage a daring prison escape in which a beautiful Federal Marshal named Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) is taken hostage. Forced to spend hours together in the trunk of the getaway car, Sisco and Foley begin to feel a mutual attraction, though she struggles to resist his charms. Managing to escape her kidnappers, Sisco finds herself torn between her lingering feelings for Foley and her sense of duty. Likewise, Jack finds himself thinking of Karen. As the manhunt for him heats up in Miami, he heads for Detroit determined to pull off one more heist that will allow him to retire in comfort. When Jack eventually meets Karen again, it’s once more on opposite sides of the law, as she’s now part of the Detroit task force charged with bringing him in. The two must choose between their personal goals and their mutual passion for each other.

"Two gorgeous leads and a good story are usually the best one can expect from a popular movie. Out of Sight has all that in Clooney and co-star Jennifer Lopez, and in a script based on the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name. But the film has something else that makes it, if not a minor masterpiece, certainly an estimable achievement—a top-notch director at the height of his form.

"Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies & videotape) has been working in the low-budget arena for the past few years, making weird, little-seen gems. Now, working with a big budget on a mainstream picture, he neither condescends to the material nor disappears. He blossoms. He plays with time and narrative to reveal character, mood and longing in ways you just don’t find in a mainstream crime picture.

"Soderbergh’s loopy humor is in harmony with Leonard’s. He manages to make Out of Sight funny without resorting to the desperate-to-be-hip, self-conscious, in-joke feel that characterized Jackie Brown and Get Shorty. At the same time, he creates a dreamy, evocative film.

"One scene, which lasts no more than 10 seconds, almost qualifies as a miracle: A useless pothead (Steve Zahn) is forced into participating in a gangland massacre. The audience braces for the carnage, but instead Soderbergh gives us just a splash of blood, quick cuts of the pothead’s eyes and some harrowing sound over the track. The miracle is that we come away not only with the event of the massacre but with a sense of its moral horror as well.

"That’s the violent part. Here’s how he handles sex: Clooney and Lopez, on opposite sides of the law, are so strongly attracted to each other that they meet in a hotel lounge. Soderbergh cuts between their conversation in the lounge and scenes of them, minutes later, kissing, undressing and getting into bed.

"This strategy is not just economical and not just a drawn-out tease. It has psychological truth. As the two are talking, the sex hovers over the moment. That’s what they’re thinking about, and that’s all the audience is thinking out, too."

— Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

Elmore Leonard stories have always been popular choices for movie adaptations. Over the past few years, however, they have become more prevalent, with Get Shorty, Touch, Jackie Brown (based on Rum Punch), and Out of Sight all reaching the screen. It’s not difficult to understand the appeal. Leonard writes great dialogue, creates interesting characters, and has compelling plots based on human behavior rather than contrived twists. His novels, while not necessarily realistic, are believable, primarily because the reader isn’t chapters ahead of the protagonist. When translated effectively to celluloid, a good Leonard novel makes for a very good motion picture. Such is the case with Out of Sight. . . .

"Everything in Out of Sight is smart—the dialogue, the characters, and the storyline. The film boasts some great scenes. In one, ,Jack and Karen are crammed together in the trunk of a car. [That scene was shot 45 times.] His hand strokes her thigh as the two discuss Faye Dunaway movies: Bonnie and Clyde, Network, and Three Days of the Condor. In another, the two meet face-to-face in a bar and, for the first time, openly admit the attraction that has drawn them together across the long miles separating Florida from Michigan. The opening bank robbery is also masterfully presented, with Clooney oozing charisma as he asks the frightened teller, "Is this your first time being held up?"

"Out of Sight has a superlative supporting cast. Ving Rhames, who has played a number of gangsters and bad guys during his career, is perfect as Buddy—a tough, reliable dude with a couple of unexpected foibles. Albert Brooks is almost unrecognizable as the weasely criminal millionaire. Don Cheadle is suitably vicious as Snoopy Miller, one of Jack’s acquaintances from prison who’s now living in Detroit. Steve Zahn’s Glenn, a perpetually-stoned thief, is the most openly comic character in the film. There are also a couple of memorable cameos, but I won’t spoil the fun by mentioning who they are."

— James Berardinelli

Out of Sight has a time line as complex as Pulp Fiction, although at first we don’t realize that. The movie’s constructed like hypertext, so that, in a way, we can start watching at any point. It’s like the old days when you walked into the middle of a film and sat there until somebody said, "This is where we came in." . . .

"At the center of the film is the repartee between Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney, and these two have the kind of unforced fun in their scenes together that reminds you of Bogart and Bacall. There’s a seduction scene in which the dialogue is intercut with the very gradual progress of the physical action, and it’s the dialogue that we want to linger on Soderbergh edits this scene with quiet little freeze-frames; nothing quite matches up, and yet everything fits, so that the scene is like a demonstration of the whole movie’s visual and time style.

"Lopez had star quality in her first role in My Family, and in Anaconda, Selena and the underrated Blood and Wine, she has only grown; here she plays a role that could be complex or maybe just plain dumb, and brings such a rich comic understanding to it. . . . Clooney has never been better. A lot of actors who are handsome when young need to put on some miles before the full flavor emerges; observe how Nick Nolte, Mickey Rourke, Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood moved from stereotypes to individuals. Here Clooney at last looks like a big screen star; the good-looking leading man from television is over with.

"For Steven Soderbergh, Out of Sight is a paradox. It’s his best film since sex, lies & videotape a decade ago, and yet at the same time it’s not what we think of as a Soderbergh film—detached, cold, analytical. It is instead the first film to build on the enormously influential Pulp Fiction instead of simply mimicking it. It has the games with time, the low-lie dialogue, the absurd violent situations, but it also has its own texture. It plays like a string quartet written with words instead of music, performed by sleazeballs instead of musicians.

— Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times



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