“Mercenary” – Elmore Leonard & Movie-Making, Mobsters

Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) was the author of more books than I can immediately remember off the top of my head, many of which ended up produced into films and TV shows. The 1995 film Get Shorty (starring John Travolta, Danny DeVito, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo and a bunch of other famous names and faces) was adopted from his 1990 novel, and is probably his most famous adapted work. A film buff loan shark from Miami Beach ends up in LA, and enamored with Hollywood, basically bullies his way into movie-making as a producer. It’s a good novel, but it’s a great movie, one of my favorite, primarily because so much of it has to do with the bullshit ins and outs of making movies, as well as highlighting an interesting intersection that Leonard comes back to again and again, time after time regarding crooks and actors and filmmakers. Movie-making, in Leonard’s eyes, wasn’t that much different from thieving to make a living. If anything, you could argue that both are about lying and getting money out of it, only that criminals are the ones who are honest about the con it ultimately is.

I noticed it in a recent re-read of Leonard’s novel Djibouti, and then again reading Road Dogs (the sequel-but-not-quite-a-sequel to his novel Out Of Sight, adopted into a 1998 film with Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney). Djibouti itself is a book about a documentarian and her one-man crew attempting to film Somali pirates and the various figures circling around her that inevitably come back to an interest in being filmed for a movie. In Road Dogs, the concept of being in movies is briefly flirted with but is still there, as ex-bank robber Jack Foley finds himself scamming and then wooing movie star Danielle, who feels she could turn his life into a film as he entertains the idea of being a kept husband. The ease with which the starlet insinuates that she could do what he did, and at the same time imply that it would not be that scandalous and in fact, add an element of respectability to him in Hollywood circles as a “reformed” bank robber hanging out with Tinseltown elite.

That this blurring of lines between outlaw and movie making is so prevalent in a lot of Leonard’s work is interesting, and makes one wonder just how much of it is from his own experiences with his own work adapted. He had a variety of his books and short stories turned into films and TV shows, and also wrote screenplays for the big screen (his minor character of US Marshal Raylan Givens was turned into the star of the tv show Justified, and he even penned the script to High Noon II, the sequel to the popular film). He was, by all accounts, no stranger to the myriad of ways things and stories are turned into stories and just how ridiculous those involved in the process could be. In a way, when Get Shorty first was published, the main character of Chili Palmer could be seen as a stand-in for the author, eager to work and ironically finding out that the world of crime is not all that different on the surface from the world of movie-making. When Leonard’s characters discuss film, and discuss how their lives intersect with the world of making film, gangsters and criminals realize that the lies and the posturing they’ve used their entire lives are intensely-valuable skills to navigate that world. Djibouti‘s Dara moves effortlessly amongst the spies, terrorists, and pirates, because in a way the attitude she’s built that if you just show up and act like you belong, someone will listen to you and do what you say, is not that far from what they do. Foley has no problem talking to a famous actress because he can easily recognize when she’s “on” (or can he?), and that strips a level of mystique away, enough for two kindred souls to recognize each other.

At the same time, we’re also seeing in the other direction a sense of voyeuristic appeal to hanging with criminals, portraying criminals, and associating with them. While Get Shorty‘s Harry Zimm and his desperate attempts to mimic Chili Palmer when dealing with loansharks is the pinnacle here of that voyeurism-influenced playacting, Dara convincing wealthy Texan Billy Wynn, who she meets in Africa who may or may not be a spy, to actively engage in vigilante activity so she can film it like he’s a hero in a Tom Clancy movie isn’t that far off. When Jack Foley thinks about how to frame one of his own crimes like a movie if it’s adapted, it’s remarkable at how easily he and the movie starlet manage to both feel like they’re conning each other and planning the heist. Even the “villains” of the setting, from British diplomat-slash-possible-gunrunner “Harry the Sheik” and pirate captain Idris, with his cultured outfits and summer bungalow, are eager to possibly see themselves featured, turned into larger-than-life versions of themselves, which Dara, feeling a part of their world as the men plot to make a fortune turning over terrorists to the US military for the rewards, eagerly feeds for more and more material.

Both worlds are primarily interesting to Leonard, and as a result us the reader, into the point of being at their root, mercenary. And it is this merenary nature in Leonard’s eyes (after all, all the good criminals never work for free, and hey, movie stars are movie stars because of the salaries they demand) that reveals human nature, human desires, and human motivations. No it isn’t all about the money, but that money sure does help. And sometiems what you get out of it, if not cash necesarrily, is still valuable.

The connections that Dara builds through out Djibouti through that blending of those two worlds are what counts here, because in the end it’s about the interconnected-ness of all the characters, which is what Leonard excelled at. In Road Dogs as well, while not as necessarily “film-oriented” or “filmmaker-oriented” as Djibouti or even Get Shorty, simply by framing those who work in movies in this well-to-do neighborhoods where bank robbers and ex-con mob bosses are tangling with a two-timing fortune teller, the FBI, and a movie star as different is enough. Again, there’s a framework of different worlds that can do so much for people, do so much for each other, and in the end, aren’t that too far apart.

What’s an actor or producer but a crook  who gets to do it above the board, after all?

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