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 tough 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”
The 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 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.
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.
DVD 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 …
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