Who are the patron saints of Outlaw Cinema?
There are obvious answers to this question from a directorial standpoint: maverick auteurs such as John Milius and Abel Ferrara, who blazed their cinematic path without ever losing an ounce of their larger-than-life personalities. Even superstars such as Clint Eastwood, who slaved inside the system yet still managed to produce uncompromising fare, deserve to have their visages chiseled onto the REBELLER Mount Rushmore (were such an amazing monument to exist in the first place).
But what about the writers? Who are the scribes providing narrative sinew to hold these renegade movies’ visual muscles intact? In the beginning, one name towered above the rest: Elmore Leonard. As a novelist, Leonard was practically the walking, talking cliché of a market-driven career man. Born in New Orleans but raised in Motor City Detroit, Elmore started out scribbling short stories (and eventually novels, with 1953’s The Bounty Hunters) in the Western genre. To make ends meet, the artist worked as an ad copywriter, getting a feel for just what the hell would sell during the day.
When the demand for Westerns dried up, Leonard filled the racks of drug and dime stores across America with his unique brand of hard-boiled crime fiction (beginning with The Big Bounce in 1969). Over the next 40-plus years, Elmore crafted one of the most impressive bodies of work in the history of pulp fiction, his knack for ingeniously structured plots and chewy, conversational dialogue helping to move more copies than the author ever dreamed possible.
As it usually does once the beast smells success, Hollywood came calling for Leonard’s storytelling prowess. His Westerns were brought to life by old-school widescreen workmen like Budd Boetticher with The Tall T (1957) and Martin Ritt with Hombre (1967), as Leonard parlayed an early Schlitz Playhouse gig into crafting a bona fide classic in 3:10 to Yuma (1957). The 1970s were an especially fruitful period, as Elmore wrote for classic tough guys Eastwood (1972’s Joe Kidd) and Charles Bronson (1972’s Mr. Majestyk), the latter of whom got to play the lead in one of Leonard’s most iconic works.
Many Gen-X and Millennial readers will likely know the author’s name thanks to a resurgence of interest in his books during the 1990s, as a new wave of mavericks like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh adapted his words into two of their best movies, respectively, in Jackie Brown (1997) and Out of Sight (1998). During the aughts, TV beamed Leonard’s modern gunslinger Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) into living rooms for six seasons on FX.
Still, there are many odds and ends in-between these generational staples that deserve to be sought out. They’re movies living in the shadows of the aforementioned titanic titles, further representing the breadth of Leonard’s talents. Without them, Elmore’s name would still certainly be worthy of the REBELLER Hall of Fame. Yet once these five deep cuts are also considered, it becomes clear that the scribe didn’t just influence the movie “hard man,” but helped cement his grizzled visage altogether.
The Moonshine War (1970, d. Richard Quine, w. Elmore Leonard)
Being a fairly hip cat, Leonard revised his Western roots to fit a post-Bonnie & Clyde (1967) era. Joe Kidd centers around Clint’s titular bounty hunter getting caught up with a group of Mexican revolutionaries (led by John Saxon, sporting a big, droopy Zapata mustache) after the same ruthless cattle baron (Robert Duvall) who’s been giving them guff steals one of the gunslinger’s horses. Mr. Majestyk follows Bronson as a poor melon farmer, who shows down at high noon with a gaggle of ruthless, inept gangsters. Both are cheeky spins on cowboy tropes, slightly modified for the morally gray epoch of New Hollywood.
The Moonshine War (1970) is no different. An adaptation of his own novel, Elmore gets sole screenplay credit (a rarity on this list), and thus you can clearly hear his swinging dick patter while simultaneously sensing his innate distrust of authority. The tale of a corrupt Prohibition man (Patrick McGoohan) who rolls into a Kentucky moonshining town and sets his sights on the biggest whiskey man the hills have to offer (a virile, black-haired Alan Alda), there are no good guys or bad guys in this lawless land. Once this supposed government official calls in the aid of a sexually predatory dental hygienist (Richard Widmark) and his trigger-happy goon (Lee Hazlewood), all bets are off. The Moonshine War is a surprisingly nasty little reconstructed outlaw yarn, where even the bloody finale brings no answers as to who the hell’s side the audience is supposed to be on. Classic Leonard ambiguity, through and through.
Stick (1985, d. Burt Reynolds, w. Elmore Leonard & Joseph Stinson)
Burt Reynolds is rightfully celebrated as being one of America’s finest movie stars; the first team All-Southern and All-State Florida fullback who done good with his combination of down-home charm and manly bravado (that mustache will forever be burned into all your moms’ libidos). Less celebrated are Reynolds’ accomplishments behind the camera, as he stealthily amassed an idiosyncratic collection of 1970s and 1980s vanity projects, ranging from the moonshine-running, car-crash classic Gator (1976) to the Dom DeLuise co-starring suicide comedy The End (1978).
During the 1980s, Reynolds helped usher in the decade’s reign of action dominance, beginning with his gritty vice cop opus, Sharky’s Machine (1981). Reynolds’ second contribution to the 1980s violent cinema canon was an adaptation of Leonard’s Stick (1985), which saw the author penning the screenplay with Sudden Impact (1983) scribe Joseph C. Stinson. It’s a compelling mess of a movie, as Reynolds’ original vision was compromised after the studio demanded massive reshoots to beef up the automatic gunfights and reduce the movie’s humor (thus causing Elmore to publicly disown the picture).
Interference aside, the author’s voice remains, as Burt was able to pull from his own Southern background to bring an eclectic group of Everglades-dwelling, sunbaked scumbags to life. From Charles Durning’s sweaty, pill-popping, stock-trading drug middleman (who strangely looks like a white trash iteration of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen) to Dar Robinson’s racist albino hitman, Stick is populated by a motley crew of killers that could’ve only come from the mind of one dime-store legend. By the time Reynolds is shooting up a kingpin’s bougie lair with a machine gun during the movie’s harried finale, you don’t care that the rest of the picture felt haphazardly slapped together via montages of helicopter footage, all scored to dreamy elevator music.
52 Pick-Up (1986, d. John Frankenheimer, w. Elmore Leonard & John Steppling)
The second adaptation of Leonard’s eponymous novel following the (much) softer Robert Mitchum/Rock Hudson-starring take from 1984 (J. Lee Thompson’s loose adaptation The Ambassador), 52 Pick-Up finds a leathery Roy Scheider attempting to thwart a trio of blackmail pornographers. You see, the semi-wealthy industrialist has recently taken on a 22-year-old girlfriend (Kelly Preston), and Raimy (John Glover), Leo (Robert Trebor), and Bobby Shy (Clarence Williams III) see the man’s secret indiscretion as a means to possibly pump some cash out of him. If the LA businessman doesn’t cough up $100K, they’re going to release a homemade video tape of him getting it on with the young dancer, ruining the budding political career of his lovely wife (Ann-Margaret). As you’ve probably already guessed, much murder, mayhem, and scandalous double-crossing ensue.
What’s rather remarkable is that 52 Pick-Up is not only the lewdest offering on this list, but also the very best. This is due to consummate genre professional Frankenheimer – who had helmed everything from paranoid classics (The Manchurian Candidate in 1962, Seconds in 1966) to silly killer bear pictures (Prophecy in 1979) at this point in his career – recognizing that the villains were often the most interesting elements of Leonard’s work (Glover and Williams in particular are pitch-perfect in their levels of slimy menace). When combined with a cornucopia of macho dialogue, 52 Pick-Up becomes a cum-drenched distillation of the great author’s distinctive voice, complete with a very naked turn from Prince protégé Vanity (as a stripper-turned-snitch). It’s a pervert’s paperback wet dream come true!
The Rosary Murders (1987, d. Fred Walton, w. Elmore Leonard & Fred Walton)
A no-frills, Movie of the Week-level replication of Leonard’s (not to mention countless other working pulp authors’) yellow-paged prose, The Rosary Murders sees Detroit priest Robert Koesler (Donald Sutherland) faced with a unique moral dilemma: A serial killer knocking off clergy members spills his crimes to the Father during confession. Now, Bob is burdened with the details of horrific slaughter, unable to inform the cops or fellow Catholics as doing so would break the booth’s holy seal. What’s a troubled Man of God to do? Well, play amateur sleuth, of course, as Father Koesler goes against his superiors’ wishes and attempts to solve the string of slayings his own damn self.
Directed by TV Movie and slasher legend Fred Walton (1979’s When a Stranger Calls, 1986’s April Fool’s Day), The Rosary Murders moves at the clip of a great airport novel, fleshed out with colorful characters such as Charles Durning’s cantankerous head of Koesler’s church, The Holy Redeemer. There’s also more than a slight questioning of Catholic morality, as it’s easy for the priests to banish a woman carrying a bastard child from their ranks, but Koesler’s efforts to stop a literal killer are met with scolds (“We’re here to save souls, not lives,” he’s told at one point). It all ends with a rather icky twist that will make fans of Italian gialli gleeful, echoing Euro whodunits such as Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? (1972). The only strange part is how chaste the whole affair seems. Were it not for a few F-words at the end, The Rosary Murders could have aired as the CBS Sunday Night Movie without a ton of cuts. So, if you’re looking for a mildly scummy murder mystery featuring vehicular mayhem and incest that you can watch with mom, look no further.
Cat Chaser (1989, d. Abel Ferrara, w. Elmore Leonard & James Borrelli)
By all accounts, the production of Cat Chaser was an utter disaster despite all the pieces for an explicit classic being in place. Abel Ferrara was coming off critical success with China Girl (1987), plus a string of high-profile TV work, including two gigs shooting for Michael Mann (on both Miami Vice and Crime Story). Peter Weller and Kelly McGillis were coming off massive hits in Robocop (1987) and Top Gun (1987), respectively. Euro-sleaze legend Tomás Milián was set to play the story’s heavy: a retired right-wing Dominican despot who used to torture his enemies using high-priced sporting goods. Leonard himself was brought in to do re-writes on the script, an attempt to replicate the aura of a novel he barely remembered penning. You even had Charles Durning back as another shady character, slinking around the Miami hotel Weller’s character runs. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, apparently, everything. Weller and McGillis hated each other (with McGillis even blaming Cat Chaser for her retirement from Hollywood). There were several accidents and injuries on set. The film was eventually taken away from Ferrara and re-edited by the producers, who added in a bizarre, God-like narration from an actor who wasn’t even in the movie to begin with (Reni Santoni, who famously played Clint Eastwood’s partner in 1971’s Dirty Harry). The final cut of Cat Chaser ran roughly 90 minutes, chopped down from the original two-and-a-half-hour iteration, and didn’t even make it into theaters. Vestron Video released the film on VHS in 1991, and Ferrara had, by that point, disowned it entirely in interviews. It would take until 2014 for the director to show a workprint of his version, which clocked in at three-hours-plus, at New York’s Anthology Film Archives, for the true depths of the movie’s butchering to be revealed.
As it stands, the readily available cut of Cat Chaser is a flat-out mess, nigh incomprehensible, plot-wise, yet still stuffed with the same hazy ambiance that would come to define Ferrara’s filmography during the 1990s. Everything feels distant and stilted, like a dream where you forget parts of the story that are crucial for understanding just what the hell is going on. But perhaps Cat Chaser’s tragic demise was necessary for Leonard’s work to be cinematically resurrected half a decade later, via Get Shorty (1995). Funnily enough, when Elmore took the gig to re-work the screenplay for Abel’s ultimately doomed picture, he was in LA doing research for that novel and ended up using his experiences working on the project to inform the asshole producer characters who populate Chili Palmer’s world. It’s a great example of reality and fiction folding in on themselves, before giving birth to a whole new wave of classic pulp cinema. The rest, as they say, is all bullshit history and half-truths.
(For further Leonard love, be sure to catch up with the killer podcast “The Suspense Is Killing Us,” which recently had an episode covering three of these movies, plus random tangents about Elmore’s career and pulp thrillers in general. It’s maybe this author’s favorite podcast right now!)
Jacob Knight is a film writer based in Austin, Texas whose work has appeared in several publications and who has spent more time watching action and exploitation movies than any human being probably should.