HEAT (1985) by William Goldman

William Goldman – novelist, journalist and screenwriter – turns 82 today. Not just the author of the bestselling memoir, Adventures in the Screentrade, he won Oscars for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men and was nominated for Misery (the best of his three Stephen King adaptations). He also wrote the Mel Gibson version of Maverick and turned Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target into Harper for Paul Newman. Marathon Man, Magic and The Princess Bride were Goldman’s adaptations  of his own popular novels, as was the Vegas-set Heat, first filmed with Burt Reynolds and now remade with Jason Statham. What follows reviews the book and the film …

The following review is submitted for your approval (albeit a day early) for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog. I also offer it as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – click here for links to other participants’ reviews.

“At least nothing was broken.”

The book (which, by the way, was published in the UK as Edged Weapons) is an exciting adventure, filled with the author’s trademark ingenuity and caustic wit. It begins with a typical Goldman paradox / reversal when we meet our protagonist Nick Escalante without really knowing it. His friend Holly, badly beaten up by a narcissistic mobster and his two bodyguards, is taken to hospital calling out for ‘The Mex’, who is assumed to be the assailant. At the same time a casino manager gets the better of a hulking barroom drunk, which impresses his girlfriend no end even though he has to sacrifice his expensive toupee in the process. But it’s all a ruse to impress the girl and Escalante turns out to be a Goldman-Edged-Weapons-hb-covertough but honourable guy. He has been stuck in Vegas for 15 years (the action all takes place around his 5,000th day in situ to be exact, not a happy anniversary for him) but dreams of travelling to far away places and so attempts to build up a stake of $100k, enough he thinks to feed his wanderlust for 5 years. The only problem is that he currently has only a few hundred bucks in the bank. On this day we follow him on three cases as he tries to help his friend Holly track down the men who brutalised her; the preacher who received a severed finger in the mail with a blackmail note; and Cyrus, an Ivy League nerd with a scraggy Arafat beard who has made millions from computers but desperately lacks confidence and wants Nick to teach him how to get it.

“You’re not a violent man, then?”
“I’m just good at it,” Nick Escalante said.

Everyone has secrets in this book – Holly, a small-time prostitute that Nick has known since she was a teenager, says she wants to sue the men who attacked her but really has something much nastier in mind; the preacher may have sired a child out-of-wedlock despite being allegedly sterile and clearly desperately in love with his ailing wife (who, by the way, is by far the most sympathetic character in the book); and Cyrus really is not what he appears to be at all. And this goes for Nick too as it turns out that, for all his virtues and extraordinary combat skills (he has become the poster boy for survivalist and war nuts, much to his disgust), the reason he is stuck in Vegas is that he is a compulsive gambler with a dangerously self-destructive streak.

“It always helped – at least it always helped him – to dislike the enemy. But contempt was good. Disgust was better. And loathing perhaps best of all”

Goldman-Edged-WeaponThe main plotline is set up by Nick’s eventual decision to help Holly, even though this is seemingly suicidal as the men she wants are all far up the mob food chain. This leads to an extraordinary set-piece in a chapter entitled “Eighteen Seconds”, a piece of bravura writing that across some 10 pages describes in fantastic detail just what happens in this brief time span, during which Nick gets the upper-hand on the three men who violated Holly. It’s the literary equivalent of extreme slow motion and works brilliantly well (the technique works less well in the movie version oddly enough, but we’ll get to that in a minute). This is then followed by an agonising sequence in which Nick says goodbye to Holly and goes out gambling using money she took from the mobsters as payback, wins nearly enough money for him to leave town for good (he reckons that with $250k in municipal bonds he would never need to work again and could travel for the rest of his days) and then loses it again – it’s another standout sequence, one that amps up from the action of the preceding chapter and then completely deflates you as Nick crashes and burns. He is found by Cyrus, at which point he becomes more prominent in the story as Nick tries to avoid retribution from the mob while still attempting to help the preacher.

“He cocked his head, asked himself something: Was death actually preferable to Los Angeles? Good question …”

It is only in this latter part of the book, when the investigation moves to LA as Nick delves into the preacher’s past, that it becomes clear that this is Goldman’s hommage to Ross Macdonald and his Lew Archer mysteries, which at their height were all takes on the theme of the undiscovered past and its impact on the present. Here Goldman comes up with a highly original variation on the theme, one that Macdonald probably would have been proud of, as it ties up several plot strands with a great twist. Goldman in fact knew Macdonald (aka Kenneth Millar) and had helped get him the recognition that had largely eluded him, first by writing the Harper movie and then by getting The Goodbye Look on the best-seller list in 1969 by arranging to have his own review and an interview with the author appear as a special feature in the Sunday edition of The New York Times (all of this, and more, is lovingly recounted in the memorial publication, Inward Journey, published by Mysterious Press in 1984).

Goldman concludes Heat with a brilliantly concise bit of writing to find a solution to the hit placed on Nick by the mob, achieving this with just a few asides to the reader that actually tells you all you need to know (really) without any need for exposition (it’s a neat trick and I’ve never seen it done as well elsewhere). The book is thrilling and exciting and for all its uses of coarse language (and a couple of sex scenes thrown in for good measure) is quite old-fashioned,  a contemporary update on the hardboiled genre and a good one. In adapting his own work for the screen, as he did with Macdonald in the 1960s, Goldman had to make several changes along the way … Heat-Macnicol-Reynolds Heat was filmed not long after the book came out but failed to capitalise on this as the production was beset with massive problems, not least getting through several directors. These included, briefly, Robert Altman, though in the main it was directed by Dick Richards (who made the fine Robert Mitchum version of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely) and Jerry Jameson. Stylistically it doesn’t feel too disorganised considering the behind-the-scenes chaos though some of the action sequences are a little odd, especially the equivalent of the “Eighteen Seconds” chapter, which uses slow mo and Hong Kong style zooms in what seems like a superfluous attempt to jazz up an already perfectly dynamic sequence. Perhaps predictably, Goldman’s screenplay simplifies the story considerably, eliminating the subplot about the preacher (and the trip to LA) entirely and changing the impetus underlying Cyrus’ character. This is a real shame as it robs it of its most original plot points frankly. In its place he comes up with an extended action climax in place of the paragraph which ends the novel, which is certainly understandable. He also makes Nick less agonised and more stoical to fit Reynolds, who is in fact very good casting in the role. His desire for escape is also refocused into a simple yen to travel to Venice in Italy.

Reynolds-Heat

The ending is also altered – indeed, two endings were provided – one, happier, was used for the US release; the other for Europe. They are not radically different but it does change the fate of one of the supporting characters and also gives a clearer conclusion to Nick’s conflict with the mobsters. The film looks very good, thanks to the efforts of master designer Dean Tavoularis, and is otherwise very faithful to the book (as you’d expect given the writer’s involvement), but it is also a little bit slow. It will be interesting to see what the Statham version is like, which has a great supporting cast including Anne Heche,  Sofie Vergara, Jason Alexander and Milo Ventimiglia and Stanley Tucci as mobsters. It seems as though Goldman is unlikely to publish any more novels, which is a crying shame, so we need to celebrate his past – Heat is in every sense a superior hardboiled novel and well worth looking out for.

Heat-posterDVD Availability: Surprisingly hard to get on a decent DVD, the 4:3 edition I have comes from Italy (where it was retitled ‘Black Jack’) – it offers a perfectly respectable but non widescreen transfer, the original soundtrack and both versions of the ending. One would hope that a better widescreen edition may become available when the remake comes out though of course the exact opposite may happen – we shall have to wait and see …

Heat (1987)
Director: ‘RM Richards’ (aka Dick Richards, Jerry Jameson et al)
Producer: George Pappas, Cassian Elwes, Keith Rotman
Screenplay: William Goldman
Cinematography: James Contner
Art Direction: Jerry Wunderlich (consultant: Dean Tavoularis)
Music: Michael Gibbs
Cast: Burt Reynolds, Peter MacNicol, Karen Young, Howard Hesseman, Deborah Rush, Neill Barry, Diana Scarwid

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5 for the book / ** the film)

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35 Responses to HEAT (1985) by William Goldman

  1. Colin says:

    I haven’t seen Heat in I don’t know how many years! I think I saw it on a rental VHS when it came out, and that was it. I do remember it seemed one of the better Reynolds’ movies from the 80s though.

    • Hi Colin – well, the book is much better, let’s put it that way. The movie is I think OK, but coming as it did after the awfulness of Stroker Ace and such sub-par offerings as Rent-A-Cop, it would stick out as a proficient little thriller. Having said that, I actually think Reynolds did some OK movies that decade too like City Heat, Switching Channels (replaving Michael Caine, stranded by overruns on the set of Jaws the Revenge would you believe) and the sadly underestimated Breaking In, one of his first character parts.

      • Colin says:

        Totally forgot about Switching Channels – I remember that as being quite fun too.

        • I didn’t expect to like it much being such a fan of His Girl Friday but I thought it was a surprisingly funny adaptation and Reynolds was good in it (apparently he and Turner hated each other pretty much on sight …). Ted Kotcheff is not a director you normally associate much woith medies but I remember liking Tiara Tahiti of his but have not seen seen his film of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and have been meaning to for ages (on the other hand I have no burning desire to re-watch Weekend at Bernie’s …)

  2. Sergio – You know, I always wondered why the filmed version of Heat didn’t impress me, and it makes perfect sense given the major changes from the book. Now, I should say right here that I’m not all that much of a Reynolds fan (although I did think City Heat wasn’t bad, and he’s done a few others that I thought were OK). So I always figure I wasn’t being fair to the film because I’m not a Reynolds fan. But you’ve done such a fine job of outlining the differences between the film and the novel, and giving background on the filming, that my reaction makes much more sense now. Thanks

    • Thnaks very much Margot, very kind of you. Like you, I like some of Reynolds’ films a lot (especially Deliverance, which I suppose is the one most would pick as career high, as well as his original version of the satirical prison movie Mean Machine (aka The Longest Yard) and the bleak Hustle, his two collaborations with director Robert Aldrich) but a lot of his other films are quite poor or lazy, often rather charmless box office confections though I remember lovinh Hooper and Cannonball Run as a teenager! When it comes to Heat, the Goldman book is infinitely preferable, that’s for sure!

  3. le0pard13 says:

    Great look at the novel and its film adaptation, Sergio. This was one of William Goldman’s books that I’ve not read, but will attempt to rectify. I did enjoy Burt Reynolds in its movie version, but know Goldman really shines on the written page (I’m thinking of ‘Marathon Man’ as an example). I wondered if a better director (rather than Dick Richards) would have brought out a more compelling film? Goldman, though, did write screenplay. Of course, we’ll have a second adaptation arriving (with Jason Statham). You’ve convinced me that I need to read the novel, my friend. Thanks.

    • Thanks Michael – Richards made a couple of films I really like (most notably the Mitchum version of Farewell, My Lovely and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, which I have fond memories of but have not seen in decades sadly), but he was merely one of several (he was ultimately responsible for just over 40% of the finished film apparently). But Peter Yates for instance would have made a much better job of it probably. The book works very well on its own terms however and i hope you enjoy it when you track it down.

      • le0pard13 says:

        I was racking my brain on who might have delivered with ‘Heat’ and I think you’ve nailed who could have done right by this material. Yates would have been awesome.

        • Playing fantasy football with such movie mishaps is just too hard to resist sometimes! Hell, it would have been better if they had got Mike Hodges or even Richard Fleischer and stick with it all the way through at least, though I don’t think it strays too far from the screenplay – it just doesn’t do enough with the material and the supporting cast is rather lacklustre too which is a shame.

  4. Patrick says:

    I personally prefer the movie of the same name with Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Val Kilmer. It’s very very long and if you’re just there for the final shootout it’ll get insanely boring, but to me it’s an example of the “psychological” crime fiction done *right*, albeit in film form. I confess I am unfamiliar with this movie or the novel it’s based on.

    • Hiya Patrick, good to have you back chum. Well, yes, these two films are very different movies despite the title. The big budget Pacino/De Niro is a bit of an epic and, for my money, takes itself way too seriously while being undeniably compellng and tautly put together. I think you’d like Goldman’s novel as you enjoyed Ross Macdonald’s work (and of course are a fan of The Princess Bride so …).

  5. TracyK says:

    You definitely have me interested in the book. After The Princess Bride, I have wanted to read more by Goldman and did not know where to start. The movie… I will have to think about that. Burt Reynolds is fine, but overall it seems like a mess.

    • Definitely read the book first TracyK! Of Goldman’s occasional thrillers Marathon Man is the best-known I suppose but I would also recommend Magic, which is in some ways a unique suspense novel, as well as No Way To Treat a Lady, a darkly comic riff on the Boston Strangler case that I reviewed many moons ago here.

      • TracyK says:

        I may have read both Marathon Man and No Way to Treat a Lady, back in my youth, but that is so long ago it doesn’t count anyway and I should read them. Definitely saw both movies when they came out. I enjoyed your review of No Way to Treat a Lady, and seeing that it is only 160 pages, I should definitely read it soon.

  6. Sergio, I’m going to follow your advice to Tracy and read the book first before I see the film. Thanks for the review and especially the comparison between the book and the film. Though the endings are not “radically different,” how does one who has seen the US version reconcile with the European one or vice-versa? I knew that titles of films are changed to suit different regions but I didn’t know directors made the same film with two endings. I agree Reynolds, who I always felt was a better comedian than a serious actor, fits the role of Nick Escalante. I have seen a few of his films and remember him most in 100 RIFLES, THE CANNONBALL RUN, and SHARKY’S MACHINE, the latter two well publicised in India. I’d forgotten about Reynolds until I saw his little cameo in MR. BEAN. He has always been underrated as an actor.

    • Thanks Prashant – well, shooting multiple endings remains common practice and in fact was a frequent occurrance even in the silent era when tragic endings used to be filmed especially for export while happier ones were used in the US. I’m planning a brief review of it in a couple of weeks, but the Melg Gibson film Payback is a classic example of where radically different versions were created. In the case of September, Woody Allen’s 1987 drama, he shot the entire film, decided he didn’t like it and did the whole film again using in some cases different actors. In the case of Heat they were just hedging their bets – in the export version one the main characters is killed off but for the US release we then have a perfunctory scene in a hospital to show that the gunshots weren’t fatal. There is an amusing look at 50 alternate endings right here, but beware – of necessity, it is full of spoilers!

  7. Patti Abbott says:

    I don;’t think I ever saw this film. Interesting indeed.

  8. Sergio, I’ve read HEAT and agree it’s a very good book. William Goldman writes wonderful movie scripts and great books. I’ve never seen the film version, but I’ll look for it now.

    • Thanks George – the movie is actually a bit hard to find (at least on this side of the pond) – I’ll be very curious about the remake though I;m not sure when it is actually due out.

  9. Todd Mason says:

    I need to catch up with Goldman reading. I’ve read two of his novels and SCREEN TRADE, so far.

    • Cheers Todd – would love to know what you think. Well, I’m a big fan as you can probably tell – Screentrade may end up, with Princess Bride, being his most successful and influential book – in the 80s I think every aspiring filmmaker must have read it! He is a bit misanthropic, especially in some of the novels but I still wish he had published more prose fiction in the last 25 years (Buttercu[s Baby, a brief but hilarious sequel to Princess Bride, is pretty much it in fact after Brothers, his weird SF sequel to Marathon Man).

  10. 282daniele says:

    Caro Sergio, ti ho inviato una email. Leggerai due cose carine: 1° c’è un’intervista nuovissima che ho fatto ad Halter, 2° ho inaugurato un mionuovo Blog. Questo e altro nella email.
    A presto.
    Piero

  11. Kelly says:

    I really ought to read Goldman, especially as you’ve reminded me that he wrote All the President’s Men, which remains one of my favorite films to this day.

  12. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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