Trying to pick my five favorite heist novel adaptations is like asking me to pick my five favorite Led Zeppelin songs. There are too many awesome choices, and several worthy inclusions will be left off the final list. (sorry, “Misty Mountain Hop”) There are great movie adaptations, (Rififi, notably) that came from a less-than-admired source material, and we could talk for days about the great books that ended up as lousy movies. But crime, criminals, and the criminal perspective have been a part of moviemaking from the start and literary adaptations have always played a major role. Here are my choices for the ones that did it best.
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1949) – William Riley (W.R.) Burnett was a prolific author and screenwriter and a pioneer in the heist and caper genres, providing his characters with a relatable humanity both on screen and on the page. His characters were always looking for a better life. His breakthrough came with Little Caesar (1932), based on his 1929 novel, which gained him entry into Hollywood where worked steadily from then on, adapting his novels such as “High Sierra” (1941) starring Humphrey Bogart into classic films. But it was this 1949 film, based on his novel released that same year, where he would become best known. Adapted by the great John Huston and starring Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe, and a young Marilyn Monroe, The Asphalt Jungle introduced many elements that are still seen in heist and caper films today including common character types, topics of conversation, and a ragtag band of anti-social misfits who possess the skills and hard-edged character traits suited for this kind of work. It all starts here, gang. A classic. The novel is largely out of print, with online copies running almost $900 in some places. The movie, however, is easy to find.
THE BOOK: OUT-OF-PRINT AND HARD TO FIND.
THE KILLING (1956) – came from the novel “Clean Break” by Lionel White, a crime novelist in the vein of W.R. Burnett who also had several of his novels adapted into movies. This was by far the most well-known, mostly due to the fact that it was adapted (along with veteran crime novelist Jim Thompson) and directed by a then 28-year-old Stanley Kubrick. This film also starred the always outstanding Sterling Hayden (who would later go on to play General Jack D. Ripper in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). The common heist and caper tropes are all here and done masterfully: the hardened criminal out for one last job, the betrayals, and that no one ever really gets away with it in the end. While the movie didn’t do well on its original release, but Hollywood knew they were dealing with a unique talent in Stanley Kubrick. They weren’t wrong.
THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3 (1974). A Tony Scott adaptation of this 1973 novel written by John Godey (née, Morton Freedgood) was made in 2009 and starred Denzel Washington and John Travolta (taking over the Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw roles from the original, respectively) but I don’t think the new version was nearly as good as the 1974 version. It’s a great book, thrilling and well-plotted, and I thought it made an even better movie thanks to the casting of veteran character actors like Matthau, Shaw, Martin Balsam and Hector Elizondo. Maybe I liked it because this was the New York I remember, long before commercialization and gentrification stripped the city of its grit and character. The ending of this movie is simply terrific; it’s one of my favorite endings ever. I miss Walter Matthau. That face. He was like a human Shar Pei. What character.
THE MOVIE: (1974 version)
THE MOVIE: (2009 version)
PAYBACK (1999) – When it comes to authors in the heist and caper genres, in my opinion, no one tops the late, great Donald Westlake, who wrote this book as “The Hunter” under his Richard Stark pseudonym. This 1999 adaptation by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) doesn’t get the critical love that Point Blank, the 1967 Lee Marvin / Angie Dickinson starrer gets, but no one has captured that mean son-of-a-bitch Parker (or “Porter” in this case) onscreen better than Mel Gibson. Critics called it cold, mean-spirited and violent, which means they’ve never read a Parker novel. “The Hunter” is the first in the Parker series, and one of the best in the genre, IMHO.
Donald Westlake (Richard Stark). We’ll talk about the Dortmunder novels, too. A genius, this guy.
THE MOVIE: “PAYBACK” (1999) (AMAZON)
Being Australian, you’d have thought Mel would have talked to them about that tagline. Talk about getting behind a movie!
THE MOVIE: “POINT BLANK” (1967) (AMAZON)
Despite my preference, you can’t go wrong with a badass Lee Marvin and a smokin’ hot Angie Dickenson.
The graphic novel adaptation of “The Hunter” by Darwyn Cooke, who passed away recently, is really outstanding as well, and if you dig this story as much as I do, you should check it out. The world is worse off that there won’t be more of these.
THE GRAPHIC NOVEL:
JACKIE BROWN (2002) – Elmore Leonard is that rare author who has had more books adapted into movies than books that haven’t been adapted into movies. Successful adaptations over the years have included Mr. Majestyk (with Charles Bronson), 52 Pick-Up starring Roy Scheider and Ann-Margaret, and Get Shorty with John Travolta. But this one is my favorite. Directed with what was considered uncharacteristic restraint by a red-hot Quentin Tarantino, this adaptation of Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch” is sparked by a dynamic, career-resuscitating performance from Pam Grier, who stars along with Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Robert DeNiro, Bridget Fonda and a Best Supporting Actor-nominated Robert Forester. This is the Tarantino movie for those people that don’t like Tarantino movies. Pam is bad to the bone.
THE BOOK: “RUM PUNCH” (AMAZON)
THE MOVIE: “JACKIE BROWN” (AMAZON)
Elmore Leonard is right up there next to Donald Westlake on my literary Mt. Rushmore.
Okay, so that’s what I think, but what the hell do I know? Which are your favorites? What am I missing? Let me know in the comments below. Please, no wagering.
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