Friday, January 15, 2010

JDM on Film

Since there doesn't seem to be a 100% complete or error-free list of John D MacDonald's works on film and television, I thought I'd post those I know of. Since MacDonald was rarely done well on either screen, it is, perhaps, not surprising that a reliable listing hasn't been put together. I've seen stuff in print and on the web, but everything has something missing. Even the IMDb, to which I have submitted numerous additions and corrections, has several errors and omissions they seem incapable of correcting. I'll break this up between theatrical releases and television adaptations, beginning with the easy one, film. Television will follow sometime next week.

1. MAN TRAP (1961) Directed by Edmond O'Brien, starring Jeffrey Hunter, David Jansen and Stella Stevens. Based on the novella "Taint of the Tiger" which was published in the March 1958 issue of Cosmopolitan. It appeared in book form in August of that year under the title Soft Touch.

Producer Stanley Frazen purchased the film rights after reading the novella in the Cosmo. He still recalls the film fondly, stating in 2009 "It was a great heist caper with a terrific performance by Janssen." He is in a definite minority, as I have never heard of anyone else feeling warmly about this hash of an adaptation. The New York Times Guide to Movies on TV called it a "a second-rate melodrama, derived from a typical, brass-knuckled John D. MacDonald crime yarn that read better and certainly moved faster." In 1984 MacDonald told Ed Gorman "I think I would have a warmer feeling about Soft Touch had it not been made into a pretty sorry motion picture called MAN TRAP." That remark implies he actually saw the film, which is belied by a 1986 TV Guide article he wrote titled "The Movies of My Books? Listless, Dumb, Inept." "A friend advised me not to see it," he wrote of the film, "but I would have, had it been shown anywhere handy. Another friend saw it listed on a billboard in Kentucky as the third feature in a midnight drive-in fiesta."

I saw MAN TRAP once about 30 years ago and remember it as being utterly boring. According to the IMDb, it was actor Edmond O'Brien's first solo effort at directing a feature-length film, and it shows. Stella Stevens would go on to a better JDM screen adaptation in the 1973 Made-For-TV version of LINDA.

2. CAPE FEAR (1962) Directed by J. Lee Thompson, starring Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum and Polly Bergen. Based on the novel The Executioners, published in April 1958.

Peck purchased the film rights to the novel after reading it and decided to both produce and star in the film. He formed his own production company, along with co-star Mitchum (Melville-Talbot Productions) and hired James R. Webb, a screen writer of primarily westerns to do the adaptation. Director J. Lee Thompson had just directed Peck in The Guns of Navarone. According to MacDonald's biographer Hugh Merrill, Peck originally wanted Telly Savalas to play Max Cady but was overruled by the film's backers because Savalas lacked the box office power. He settled for a smaller role as a private detective. The film was moderately faithful to its source, adding a few new characters and completely changing the location and action of the ending, moving it from the Bowden's home to the Cape Fear River.

Often touted as the best adaptation of a MacDonald work, the author himself apparently didn't think much of the end result, referring to it as a "dreary moving, I mean unmoving, picture." He later wrote "Artistically the movie warped the concept of the novel -- which was that no matter how threatened you might feel, you don't get police protection until you have been hurt." He was more involved with this effort, attending the Florida premier and making several publicity appearances. "I stood on those stages," he said, "and said it was a fine movie. When they asked if I had someone like Barrie Chase in mind, I said 'Sure.' But she wasn't in my book. She had been written into the script."

The film is best known -- rightly so -- for Mitchum's iconic performance as Max Cady, MacDonald's archetypal soulless villain. He is truly frightening to behold. According to MacDonald, he took on the part with great relish, going as far as to do a bit of his own wardrobe, purchasing that cheap, distinctive hat for a dollar in a local second-hand shop.

3. DARKER THAN AMBER (1970) Directed by Robert Clouse, starring Rod Taylor as Travis McGee and Theodore Bikel as Meyer, with Suzy Kendall and Jane Russell. Based on the novel Darker Than Amber, published in June 1966.

The first attempt to film a Travis McGee novel, DARKER THAN AMBER was not well received at the time but tends to look better as the years roll on. MacDonald fought for years to keep McGee off the screens of both film and television. At one point in 1965 Goodson and Todman proposed a TV series starring Chuck Conners as McGee, and waived huge amounts of money in MacDonald's face, only to be told that McGee wasn't for sale at any price. But the author was much more receptive to the idea of putting McGee on the big screen. In 1966 he signed a deal with Major Productions Corporation to film a McGee movie every eighteen months, with MacDonald's cut significantly larger with each succeeding film.

For years MacDonald had harbored the idea of having actor Jack Lord play McGee, having first seen him in the television series Stoney Burke. MacDonald believed he "had all the right moves" and "had the look of a sailor." Lord apparently expressed an interest in playing McGee, but in 1968 he was cast in the long-running television series Hawaii Five-O, which was filmed in Hawaii and occupied most of the shooting year. (It has also been told that MacDonald's wife Dorothy thought little of Lord's acting ability, once telling her husband, "John, all he does is act with his teeth!")

Once AMBER had been chosen to begin the "series" and the project was given the go-ahead, the search for McGee began. Many names were considered and many actors coveted the part, including Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen and Vic Morrow. The producers of AMBER very nearly signed Robert Culp for the part, but the deal fell through, much to MacDonald's relief ("Culp was a disaster," JDM wrote. "No comprehension of the touch needed. Glad he will not be McGee... too wispy and elegant") Ultimately Australian actor Rod Taylor was cast. MacDonald was initially unhappy with the choice, but after visiting the set and meeting Taylor, he grew to accept the casting ("...he understands what McGee is all about," wrote the author, "...the anti-hero, tender and tough, with many chinks in the armor.") He was ecstatic over the casting of Theodore Bikel as Meyer ("Bikel is Meyer," said MacDonald), but was less happy with the script and battled for months over its final form.

The final result was not well received, and the film was a flop, effectively burying the series idea. A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune wrote that the film was "feral, cheap, rotten, gratuitously meretricious, shallow and embarrassing," leaving little doubt as to where he stood. MacDonald regretted ever having sold the rights, vowing never to do so again (the rights reverted back to him once a second film was axed), but that was to prove, unfortunately, a false vow.

Years later, MacDonald's memories of the film had soured considerably. "I had an advance look at the script and thought it dreadful. I rewrote the first 30 pages as a gift [but it] was ignored. I hated the way they turned Meyer, a fine fellow, into a fat dumb clown." He concluded the filmmakers' efforts had been totally inept.

Seeing the film again a few years ago, it didn't seem as bad as it was made out to be, outside of the cheap film stock that seems to be the hallmark of most films made in the 1970's. Taylor comes close, and Bikel is OK, but the script is a mess, having McGee pine over the departed Vangie, despite the fact that she was part of a murder ring. As Lewis D. Moore wrote, " [It] makes a disappointing moral hash of the novel."

Still, it looks like a Bond film compared to the next McGee adaptation, which (mercifully) was limited to television.

4. A FLASH OF GREEN (1984) Directed by Victor Nunez, starring Ed Harris, Richard Jordan and Blair Brown. Based on the novel A Flash of Green published in 1962.

It took an independent filmmaker with very limited experience to finally bring John D MacDonald convincingly to the big screen. A FLASH OF GREEN is far and away, the best film version of anything JDM ever wrote. With a budget of just $1 million, Victor Nunez directed, wrote the screenplay and handled the cinematography. He beautifully captured both MacDonald's voice and the Florida of the early Sixties. The novel is a thinly disguised retelling of a real-life developer's attempt to fill in Sarasota Bay, and it holds a special place in the hearts of MacDonald aficionados. (Jim Harrison, writing in the New York Times Book Review in 1975, called it "the first and best of all novels with an ecological base...") Actor Ed Harris had just achieved stardom in The Right Stuff the year before, but had signed on to GREEN before that, otherwise Nunez would not have been able to afford him. Richard Jordon, who played villain Elmo Bliss, had been a longtime fan of the novel and was instrumental in getting the financing put together; he also served as the film's producer. MacDonald himself was a backer, contributing $30,000 after attending a screening of Nunez's first film, GAL YOUNG 'UN. GREEN was shot on Casey Key, where the MacDonald's had once lived from 1951 to 1952.

American Playhouse, a PBS anthology show of the time, was also a backer, which allowed it to air the film on television after its general theatrical release. They were forced to do a tiny bit of editing, cutting only a brief glimpse of Blair Brown's breast. The film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, but lost out to the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple. It had a general release, against MacDonald's wishes (he wanted it limited to art houses) and was favorably -- if unenthusiastically -- reviewed. Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, was typical, calling it "...not perfect, [but] provocative and nearly always intelligent."

In the 1986 TV Guide article, MacDonald complained that a poor distribution plan robbed the film of any chance of success. Still, he loved the film, writing:

"Through some special magic Victor Nunez captured the flavor and pace and ambience of my novel, and the scenes of anger and indignation and frustration are very close to what was happening in my head when I was writing the novel 24 years ago. Even the color tones of Florida sunlight and shade are reproduced with an uncanny exactitude...Damn it, the movie does move slowly -- because it is supposed to. It fits the style and mood of my novel better than I had believed any movie could.... the long wait was worth it."

5. CAPE FEAR (1991) Directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Robert DeNero, Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange. Based primarily on the previous film version, but using some of The Executioners.

This remake was originally to have been directed by Steven Spielberg, who ultimately turned it down and offered it to Scorsese. Scorsese was initially skeptical and had little interest in the project -- in fact, he showed open disdain for the original novel. He ordered many, many rewrites, until a satisfactory script was written. Unfortunately, by that time, the script had nothing to do with the MacDonald original, save the bare-bones outline of the plot.

If MacDonald thought the original film version of The Executioners was "a warped concept of the novel," he must have been spinning in his grave over this remake. His story of the inability of the legal system to protect its citizens becomes an overwhelming, nearly operatic tale of retribution, a world where the protagonists are nearly as guilty as the villain. Instead of being a witness to Cady's original crime of rape, Sam Bowden is now Cady's original defense attorney, one who willfully withheld evidence that would have exonerated his client. The Bowden family is changed from a typical middle-class representation of the average citizen into a group of amoral sinners, each worse than the next. Sam, in addition to his prior questionable legal tactics, is an adulterer who has had to move his family to another state because of a prior indiscretion, and who may now be indulging in another. His wife is a cynical, chronic nag who chain-smokes, and their daughter is just plain creepy, a slack-jawed semi-literate who longs for Cady to rape her. All of this may be material worthy of exploration, but it has absolutely nothing to do with John D MacDonald.

The climax of The Executioners takes place at the Bowden home, and that scene -- eliminated in the first film -- is retained, prior to the real climax, a CGI-enabled chase on the Cape Fear River taken from the first film. Scorsese used three actors from the original film -- Peck, Mitchum and Martin Balsam -- in bit roles, and used Bernard Herrmann's score from the original, adapted by Elmer Bernstein.



    "Man Trap" might not have been much of a film, but I thought it had one scene that captured the spirit of JDM's work. It's the scene at the end where Jansen is wounded and on the run. He stops at small diner in Mexico and orders a glass of beer. When he is asked to pay for the beer, he realizes he doesn't have any cash on him. When he tries to run out on the tab, he is shot and killed by Mexican cops. It's the only scene in the entire damn film that has stuck with me.

  2. That's one more scene than I remember, I only recall being extremely disappointed, especially since I had just finished reading Soft Touch. I do recall some scenes of Stella Stevens flouncing around the living room. Stevens is hard to forget...