EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1982) by Lawrence Block

This fine private eye novel is first and foremost a powerful character study, depicting the slow recovery of an alcoholic but it also provides the requisite crime thrills too. It was the fifth in the Matthew Scudder series of New York mysteries and something of a breakthrough for the author. It was also loosely adapted into a problematic movie starring Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette and Andy Garcia, which recently made its way to Blu-Ray in a special edition.

I submit this book and film review for Bev’s 2017 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog.

“But I had another motive, and perhaps it was a deeper one. Searching for Kim’s killer was something I could do instead of drinking. For awhile, anyway.”

Set in early 1980s New York, before it was cleaned up and gentrified under Giuliani, this is a book almost entirely about the experiences of prostitutes, pimps and policemen. Beyond the fun alliteration, we get a very specific worldview here and it one of the strengths of Block’s writing that it never gets too oppressive as we never lose faith in the innate goodness of people, no matter how much they despair. And while the seedy milieu will not be to everybody’s liking, even in the realms of crime fiction, the characters I hope will appeal. First and foremost we have Matt, an ex-cop who left the force due to his alcoholism and to an accident on the job, when a young girl was killed by a stray bullet in a shootout. Now he helps people with problems for a fee (10% he always gives away as a tithe), though not officially as he does not have a PI licence.

“My life was an ice floe that had broken up at sea, with the different chunks floating off in different directions.”

He goes to AA meetings all the time but thinks it is about 15 years at least since he was sober for more than a week. He attends but does not participate and is never prepared to speak up. He has an ex-wife and a child and they still talk and he sends her money, when he has it. Every day is an ordeal but he is trying, amid constant failure, to get his life together. And every day he is saddened by tales of horrific violence that he compulsively reads in the papers (“if it bleeds it leads”). So when Kim, a young prostitute who wants to get out of the life comes to see him, he tries everything to help her. He approaches Chance, her pimp, who it turns out is very private and even secretive individual but  also highly intelligent and cultured and who treats the various women who work for him with a high degree of respect. So when Kim is murdered in a horrific attack, while the pimp seems like the obvious choice, matt isn’t so sure. And ultimately the two become friends and the pimp hires him to find out who killed Kim. Ultimately the case is solved but this not really the strength or the point of the book – instead we get to see Matt’s slow and steady progress towards a renewed sense of self as he find a sense of purpose and even optimism towards life and the possibility of sobriety.

The Matt Scudder series

  1. The Sins of the Fathers (1976)
  2. In the Midst of Death (1976)
  3. Time to Murder and Create (1977)
  4. A Stab in the Dark (1981)
  5. Eight Million Ways to Die (1982)
  6. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (1986)
  7. Out on the Cutting Edge (1989)
  8. A Ticket to the Boneyard (1990)
  9. A Dance at the Slaughterhouse (1991)
  10. A Walk Among the Tombstones (1992)
  11. The Devil Knows You’re Dead (1993)
  12. A Long Line of Dead Men (1994)
  13. Even the Wicked (1997)
  14. Everybody Dies (1998)
  15. Hope to Die (2001)
  16. All the Flowers Are Dying (2005)
  17. A Drop of the Hard Stuff (2011)
  18. The Night and the Music (2011) (short stories)

The movie rights were optioned quite early on, though original screenwriter Oliver Stone always intended to expand the book to strengthen the story and give Matt a stronger antagonist (in the book he only meets the killer once, right at the end). This ultimately led to the creation of a brand new villain, Angel Maldonado (ultimately played a young Andy Garcia). The producers decided to relocate the story and characters to LA (presumably because it would be cheaper), which makes nonsense of the title, a humorous riff to the famous phrase from The Naked City (movie and TV show) about New York. To do this they had the script rewritten by R. Lance Hill (using his standard screenwriting name, ‘David Lee Henry’). It seems that this displeased director Hal Ashby, who asked his old friend Robert Towne (the two hard-worked together on The Last Detail and Shampoo in the 1970s) to bring it back to the original. Ultimately though the cast worked with a minimal script with much additional improvisation on the set. The end result is a rather loose adaptation of course, but …

“I don’t have time for you, man!”

The book feels very 70s in its downbeat tone while the movie, from its synth soundtrack (by Arquette’s then husband, James Newton Howard) and pretty look is very 80s. Having accepted that the storyline was greatly modified and the characters almost completely changed – even Scudder, really the only character left from the book has practically his entire emotional trajectory altered – does the film work at least on its own terms? We begin with an enormously impressive helicopter shot (see the clip embedded above) in which we meet Scudder at the point where his life changes – in the book it is the accidental death of a young girl, here it is that of a colleague in an arrest gone wrong.

“What happened to her, is people think that if you have to kill somebody in the course of… doing business, sometimes it pays to advertise. You know, make it messy. Remind people they bleed when they die. It might even prevent more killings.”

The effect is the same – Scudder’s personal life falls apart. We catch up with him about a year later, trying to stay sober after being kicked off the force and left by his wife. As in the book, he is asked to help out a prostitute (renamed Sunny) who has fallen into bad company. But from this point on, the plot of the film runs in parallel to that of the book, echoing and overlapping occasionally, but often going its own way. The basic storyline was never that important in the book anyway and the movie proves rather pedestrian when it comes to the crime element, offering little that is new or has any bite and there is very little action until then. But we do have a very interesting cast and an emphasis on character, which is the one way that it really does successfully keep faith with the original novel. Bridges is very appealing here, while also utterly convincing in the dark scenes when he is in the grip of alcohol, which is crucial to keeping Scudder viable. He doesn’t quite have the vulnerability that Block provides, but it isn’t bad at all in the context of this kind of movie. Alexandra Paul plays Sunny, Kim from the novel, and probably has the hardest role as the prostitute who is genuinely scared but won’t say why and who ultimately gets fridged for her trouble. Arquette does well in a rather under-written part, one that is only loosely based on the book and Garcia is great as the volatile but intelligent gangster trying to move up in the world who sees right through Scudder. The extended individual scenes between the principals have an intimacy that really elevate the film and these are the one that benefit the most from the on-set ad-libbing (they are easy to spot). The action climax, in two halves,m is perfectly serviceable if perfunctory. And the final scene on the beach? Block would never have envisaged that, not in eight million years. It more or less works here though …

DVD Availability: The New Blu-ray from Kino Lorber offers the film with a very decent high def transfer with some worthwhile extra including an audio commentary that is rarely scene-specific, mainly focusing on the problems Ashby had making the film; and new video interviews not only with Garcia, Paul and Arquette but with Block too, which is especially welcome. For more details about this release, visit: Kino Lorber.

8 Million Ways to Die (1986)
Director: Hal Ashby
Producer: Stephen J. Roth
Screenplay: Oliver Stone, R. Lance Hill (and uncredited, Robert Towne)
Cinematography: Stephen Burum
Production Design: Michael D. Haller
Music: James Newton Howard
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette, Andy Garcia, Alexandra Paul, Randy Brooks, James Avery, Tommy Lister, Lisa Sloan

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

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This entry was posted in 2017 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, Lawrence Block, New York, Private Eye. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1982) by Lawrence Block

  1. I like the disclaimer you put on your rating, Sergio. I think Block is an outstanding writer who really does make you care about his characters – even those who are down-and-out, or have nasty sides to them. And he sets a great atmosphere, for my money. I have to admit to being a fussy, irascible, nitpicking, difficult purist, though. I like it best when films are true to the story…

  2. Colin says:

    I saw the movie years ago and don’t remember a lot about it apart from the fact i thought it was Ok but not really a lot more.
    I think the only book by Block I own is the Hard Case Crime edition of Borderline.

  3. realthog says:

    This is the only Scudder novel I’ve read; I liked it quite a lot, but haven’t yet revisited the series. I’ve managed to miss the movie entirely — didn’t even know it existed — which is something I guess I ought to remedy.

    • You really should, definitely part of that 1980s “neon noir” cycle. The audio commentary usefully compared it with Frankenheimer’s 52 PICK-UP, which is a better film but ultimately a lesser novel IMHO

  4. tracybham says:

    Now this is a series I really need to get back into. At some point I read a few of them, but then I wanted to read them in order and started on the first one and never got further than that. Don’t know why, I do know Lawrence Block writes very well. I had forgotten there was a movie and would not mind seeing it if only for the cast.

  5. A lot of people consider 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE the best Matt Scudder novel. I really liked A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES.

    • That was the first I read and liked it a lot too. Oddly enough, despite the film version of TOMBSTONES being pretty respectful to the source (well, much more so than 8 MILLION ANYWAY), I was;t all that persuaded. But I did see it on a plane, which si far from ideal …

  6. Sergio – Thanks for the review. I read this one a long, long time ago. Right now, WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES is in my TBre-R pile.

  7. Mathew Paust says:

    Seems like a lifetime since I read two or three Scudders. I remember liking them, but nothing about the plots. As you point out, Sergio, it’s the character studies that work best in Block’s novels. Not sure I read this one, nor saw the movie, but now I feel like revisiting the books.

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