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Ellroy at the Movies

October 13, 2012

News reached the blogosphere recently of potential movie adaptations of James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere and Blood’a A Rover. These are brilliant novels and could possibly make excellent films. I think The Big Nowhere would be easier to film as the plot is fairly self-encapsulated. By contrast Blood’s A Rover is set over five years and takes many plot threads from the previous two films in the Underworld USA trilogy. Still, just because these films are ‘in development’ does not mean we are going to be seeing them at the cinema any time soon, if at all. As Ellroy has said on numerous occasions, movie production is a dysfunctional business. So in the meantime, we Ellroy fans will have to content ourselves with the adaptations of Ellroy’s movies which have already been made and the films he has scripted.

Here’s a run through, with video clips embedded of the Ellroy films which have been made so far:

Cop (1988):

James B. Harris’s Cop is an adaptation of Ellroy’s novel Blood on the Moon, the first book of the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy. James Woods turns in a powerful performance as the intellectually brilliant but manic and unstable Detective Hopkins, here on the hunt for a serial killer preying on single women. Cop received mixed reviews upon its release, but it has held up well as a taut, suspenseful thriller. The story may be fairly conventional, but there are still recognisable Ellrovian touches here and there, such as Hopkins’ unusual parenting methods. See video below.

LA Confidential (1997):

Curtis Hanson’s magisterial LA Confidential set the standard for Ellroy adaptations which no one has come close to since. You have to admire Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland for pulling off the near impossible task of compressing Ellroy’s epic fictional history of 1950s LA into a two hour and twenty minute movie. As an example of how perfectly Ellroy’s prose comes alive onscreen, here’s a scene from the novel where Bud White rescues Inez Soto from her kidnapper Sylvester Fitch:

A nude woman spread-eagled on a mattress – bound with neckties, a necktie in her mouth. Bud hit the next room loud.

A fat mulatto at a table – naked, wolfing Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. He put down his spoon, raised his hands. ‘Nossir, don’t want no trouble.’

Bud shot him in the face, pulled a spare piece – bang, bang from the coon’s line of fire. The man hit the floor dead spread – a prime entry wound oozing blood. Bud put the spare in his hand; the front door crashed in. He dumped Rice Krispies on the stiff, called an ambulance.

And here’s the same scene in the film:

Brown’s Requiem (1998):

Adapting Ellroy’s debut novel into film was never going to be an easy task, and Jason Freeland’s Brown’s Requiem fails in almost very way. The story veers uncomfortably between mystery and comedy and Freeland doesn’t know how to handle actors. Will Sasso is appalling as the psychopathic Freddy ‘Fat Dog’ Baker, Selma Blair hardly sizzles as Jane Baker and even the late great Brion James fails to be menacing as the villainous Cathcart. On the plus side, Michael Rooker puts in a strong performance in the lead role of private eye and repo-man Fritz Brown:

Dark Blue (2003):

Ellroy got a ‘story by’ credit for Dark Blue as the final film was partially based on a screenplay he wrote titled ‘The Plague Season’. Set in early 90s LA, Dark Blue is an intelligent, if never quite compelling, drama following corrupt Sergeant Eldon Perry in the days leading up to the Rodney King verdict and riots:

The Black Dahlia (2006):

Another film which split the critics, Brian DePalma was always a risky choice to direct Ellroy’s most personal novel as his lurid horror style is too dependent on gratuitous violence in telling the story of the unsolved murder of Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Short, LA’s most enduring mystery. Despite this, there are still moments of suspense and even a few touching scenes as in Betty’s audition tapes:

Street Kings (2008):

Another by-the-numbers cop thriller which Ellroy could probably write in his sleep. Ellroy has a co-writing credit on Street Kings with three other writers, and while it’s an entertaining watch, it lacks a compelling lead character in Keanu Reeves’ Tom Ludlow and the story is riddled with cliches.

(Spoiler alert) Video below is the ‘killcount’, which edits together all of the film’s death scenes. Enjoy:

Rampart (2011):

Officer Dave ‘Date Rape’ Brown (Woody Harrelson) has a complicated personal life and falls foul of his superiors in the LAPD after he is caught viciously beating a man who crashed into his patrol car. That’s about it plot wise. Rampart is a film, which like its title character, is boorish, pretentious and violent. In Hollywood the screenwriter will always come second to the vision of the director, and it’s hard to believe Ellroy wrote the film that Rampart became. Director Oren Moverman tries and fails to mix two fundamentally different genres – art movie and violent cop drama – and the results are risible. Avoid:

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