If you read Kevin Mims’s last article for this site, you know that he’s something of an expert on the crime novels of the great pocket-paperback era. It turns out he’s also a devotee of crime movies; here are his picks for the three most important figures in that genre.—Janet Hutchings
Few American pop-culture icons remain active and relevant in their chosen field for very long. Most pop-culture icons are associated with a particular decade, even if they managed to put together a career that spanned a half century. We associate Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner with the 1960s. Nothing they did after the original Star Trek series was ever quite as important. We associate Olivia Newton John and Burt Reynolds with the 1970s. Writer Jean Auel was a 1980s phenomenon. Pearl Jam was a 1990s phenomenon. Only a handful of the artists who survived long enough to not only see this current decade but also to make an important cultural contribution to it were also culturally relevant in all of the previous six decades. That handful, you could argue, consists of only three men: Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, and Elmore Leonard. Yes, I am aware that Tony Bennett recorded his first number-one record in 1951, but he has never had anywhere near the pop-cultural cache that Eastwood, Allen, and Leonard have all achieved. Likewise, writer Lawrence Block has a distinguished publishing career stretching all the way back to the 1950s but, alas, he is a household name only to connoisseurs of great crime fiction. The average American couldn’t pick him out of a lineup.
Elmore Leonard’s first published story appeared in Argosy magazine in 1951. If we argue that no one really hits the cultural big time in America until he’s discovered by Hollywood, then we can date Leonard’s true cultural relevance to 1956, the year of his first credit on the Internet Movie Database. Woody Allen’s first IMDb credit dates back to 1956 as well. Clint Eastwood’s first IMDb credit is from 1955. In essence, all three of these men first crept into the public eye within the span of about a year.
Eastwood didn’t make a big splash until 1959, when he began costarring in Rawhide, a popular Western TV series. Leonard’s first big splash came in 1957, the year that two of his Western stories were made into films, The Tall T (from a story called “The Captive”) and 3:10 From Yuma. Allen first gained pop-cultural relevance when he began writing gags for TV performers such as Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Buddy Hackett, Jack Paar, and Ed Sullivan in the mid to late 50s. Born in 1935, Allen was more precocious than either Leonard or Eastwood. He began selling jokes professionally while still a teenager. Eastwood was born five years before Allen and Leonard was born five years before Eastwood, but they all hit the big time in the same decade.
The decade of the 1960s was a big one for all three men, though it certainly wouldn’t prove to be the acme of any of their careers. Allen’s first feature film as both writer and director, Take The Money and Run (a title befitting at least half of Elmore Leonard’s crime novels), was released in 1969. Eastwood’s legendary collaboration with Sergio Leone began in 1964 with the release of A Fistful of Dollars. And in 1969 Leonard made one of the most important transitions of his career when he switched from being a writer primarily of Westerns to being a writer primarily of crime novels. That was the year The Big Bounce, his first crime novel, was published.
You could argue (many have) that Allen’s career peaked in the late 1970s with the releases of Annie Hall in 1977 and Manhattan in 1979. Other prominent Allen titles of the 1970s include Love and Death, Sleeper, Bananas, and Play it Again, Sam. But of Allen’s 24 Academy Award nominations, 17 have come after the end of the 1970s. Three of them have come in the current decade. His work in the 1980s included such masterpieces as Hannah and Her Sisters, Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. I would argue that Allen, who will turn 80 this year, remains one of America’s most prominent, and relevant, filmmakers. His most financially successful film is Midnight In Paris, released earlier this decade.
Although the 1970s were huge for Leonard, his biggest decades were still to come. Four of the novels he published in the 70s (Fifty-Two Pickup, Swag, Unknown Man # 89, and The Switch) have been collected for posterity in a Library of America edition of his works. Likewise, four of his novels of the 1980s (City Primeval, Glitz, LaBrava, and Freaky Deaky) have received the same honor. The decade of 1990s was arguably his peak as a novelist. That was the decade during which he became celebrated by writers outside the crime/mystery genre. In 1995, Martin Amis reviewed Riding the Rap in the New York Times Book Review and declared that Leonard possessed “gifts—of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing—that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet.” Saul Bellow was also a fan. Two of Leonard’s best crime novels—Get Shorty and Out of Sight—were published in the 1990s, both of which became critically acclaimed films. It was also the decade in which he introduced the American public to Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, inarguably his-best known fictional creation. Givens first appeared in the novel Pronto, but made his biggest cultural impact in the FX network television series Justified, which is based on the Leonard short story “Fire in the Hole.” Justified will almost certainly stand as Leonard’s most widely known contribution to popular culture (the series was developed for television by Graham Yost). Leonard’s novel Pronto, published 22 years ago, has generated a mere 152 user comments on Amazon.com. The TV series Justified has generated 15,984 Amazon.com comments, roughly 100 times more than Pronto’s total. The series debuted in March of 2010 when Leonard was still very much alive and active. He received a writing credit on four of the episodes. Although Leonard died in August of 2013, the series remained on the air until April 2015. To the very end it remained popular with viewers and critics alike.
It’s difficult to say which decade of his career was Eastwood’s most successful, but there’s no question that his most commercially successful production was last year’s film American Sniper, which earned $349 million dollars at the domestic box office. Most of that money was earned early in 2015, making this year arguably Eastwood’s most successful. Of his eleven Academy Award nominations, ten have come in the last dozen years.
Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen. The three men share many attributes, both bad (messy personal lives) and good (tremendous critical and popular success), but there is no doubting that all three have shared a strong commitment to crime fiction that dates all the way back to the 1960s. In Leonard’s case, the commitment to crime fiction is self-evident. Most of his published oeuvre is in the crime genre. Likewise, Eastwood’s most iconic film role is the character of “Dirty” Harry Callahan, the San Francisco police inspector he played in five films between 1971 and 1988. And Dirty Harry was far from Eastwood’s only contribution to crime fiction. As a director he has brought the work of many noteworthy crime writers to the screen, including novelists Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, and David Baldacci (Eastwood and Elmore Leonard collaborated on the film Joe Kidd, a 1972 western starring Eastwood, written by Leonard, and directed by John Sturges). Play Misty For Me, Eastwood’s directorial debut, was a crime thriller. His filmography bulges with work in the crime and mystery genres: Escape From Alcatraz, Tightrope, Pink Cadillac, The Rookie, In The Line of Fire, A Perfect World, Absolute Power, True Crime, Blood Work, Mystic River, Gran Torino, and so forth.
Ask someone to associate Eastwood or Leonard with a particular genre of fiction and they are likely to mention either the Western or the crime story, although Eastwood, at least, has done plenty of work in other genres such as the romance (The Bridges of Madison County), the spy thriller (The Eiger Sanction, Firefox) and the war film (Heartbreak Ridge, Where Eagles Dare, American Sniper). Ask the average American to associate Woody Allen with a particular genre and they are likely to answer “film comedy” or perhaps “romantic comedy.” What many people seem to overlook is the fact that Allen has written and directed more crime films than many directors who are far better known for their work in that genre. As I noted earlier, his directorial debut was the comic crime caper Take the Money and Run (technically his debut was What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, but that spoof is primarily an overdub of a Japanese film directed by Senkichi Taniguchi). His film Sleeper is the story of a man on the run from a gestapolike organization in a futuristic police state. Broadway Danny Rose is about a talent agent involved with the mob. Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, Small Time Crooks—the very titles of those films scream out “crime story!” The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is about a jewel theft, Match Point is a tale of illicit sex and murder, Scoop is a supernatural murder mystery, Cassandra’s Dream is a dramatic tale of murder and its aftermath, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger includes a character who plagiarizes a dead man’s unpublished novel, and Blue Jasmine deals with a woman’s struggle to survive after her wealthy husband is jailed for multiple financial crimes. Even when he takes an acting job in some other director’s film, Allen seems to be drawn to crime stories. In Martin Ritt’s film The Front, Allen plays a man who attracts the attention of the FBI and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee after he agrees to fraudulently represent himself as the author of TV scripts that were actually written by writers blacklisted for their ties to communism. In Alfonso Arau’s 2000 film Picking Up the Pieces, Allen stars as a butcher who murders his unfaithful wife, chops her body into pieces, and buries them in a New Mexico desert. In the animated film Antz, directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, Allen voices a character who is falsely accused of being a war criminal. In John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo, Allen plays a pimp. Even much of Allen’s lighter comedic fair has some element of criminality in it. In Magic in the Moonlight, for instance, the main character, played by Colin Firth, is a magician who is trying to expose a con woman, played by Emma Stone. In Deconstructing Harry, a distraught woman (played by Judy Davis) attempts to murder her ex-lover (Allen) by firing a gun at him. Mighty Aphrodite involves a prostitute and her violent pimp. Shadows and Fog involves the search for a serial killer. What’s more, Allen has spoofed detective fiction in numerous prose pieces written for the New Yorker. These include such comic gems as “The Whore of Mensa,” “Mr. Big,” “Match Wits with Inspector Ford,” “This Nib for Hire,” “How Deadly Your Taste Buds, My Sweet,” and “Above the Law, Below the Box Springs.”
Clint, Dutch, and Woody. Until recently, all three were still walking the earth and still very much an important part of the contemporary cultural scene. It’s curious that three men who spent so much of their lives crafting stories about lives cut short by murder would themselves live such long and productive lives. Dutch is no longer with us, but Clint and Woody remain professionally active to this day. With luck, we may get another decade or two of work out of them. Let’s hope that at least some of that work is in the crime genre. Few filmmakers have done it better.