Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Picture Books: Gerald Petievich

Gerald Petievich is a former Secret Service agent and the author of several novels about Secret Service agents, three of which have been adapted as feature films. I showed the first in my Hardboiled Wonderland Film Series, and I've got real affection for another as well, but... here's where I confess my ignorance of the source material and admit I've not read the books. The Picture Books series is supposed to be a look at the adaptations of books by a single author, an examination of their treatment by the film industry and to see if you can get a hint of the original voice that inspired the collaborative efforts.

So here goes.

To Live & Die in L.A. (1985) - Adapted for the screen by Petievich and director William Friedkin. A full-on glossy hollywood treatment from an A-list director and featuring a cast to die for including John Turturro, Steve James, Dean Stockwell, Robert Downey, Jane Leeves and Gary Cole in small roles.

I've always thought of the film as Friedkin's west coast companion piece to The French Connection - both about obsessively driven and not terribly concerned about protocol or strict legality cops - men who seem to have gotten into law enforcement for exactly the kind of juice that being out on the hunt gives them, seeking out quarry who've risen to their level, but its initial reception put it clearly in conversation with its contemporary television counterpart, the show famously pitched with a two-word memo "MTV cops", Michael Mann's Miami Vice. That's a comparison worth making too as L.A.'s leading man William Peterson had made his screen debut in a blink and you'll miss it bartender role in Mann's Thief and the year after his first lead role in L.A., held the center of Mann's adaptation of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon - Manhunter, not to mention the heavily-relied-upon original soundtrack by current MTV heavy rotators Wang Chung to rival Vice's iconic use of Phil Collins's In the Air Tonight (edge goes to Miami Vice there - come to think of it, both Mann and Friedkin had used Tangerine Dream for original scores to Thief and Sorcerer respectively... hey David Lynch used Toto for Dune).

Peterson plays Richard Chance, an agent, stuffed into jeans three sizes too small that make him walk with a bow-legged swagger Mick Jagger would envy, who's just caught scent of that prey that will make him up his game. It's invigorating, it's what he lives (and is willing to die) for. Doesn't hurt of course that his target, a counterfeiter named Masters, just killed Chance's partner.

Doesn't hurt either that the film spends half its screen time following and developing Masters (played with macho androgyny by Willem Dafoe) rather than being a simple procedural. The hunt takes the rather on the nosedly named Chance from one risky move to another morally and mortally shaky proposition while Masters confidently prowls his jungle equally at home and ease putting out prison hits on potential informers, dispatching betrayers himself, out-muscling muscle twice his size and attending modern dance productions, gallery openings and steam baths. He's a thoroughly modern animal comfortable in any environment.

Along the way Chance will risk the life of his confidential informant Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), a woman he uses every way he can - he callously exploits every vulnerability she'll expose: her sexuality, her kid, her finances, her connections and rap sheet - if she doesn't put her reputation and life on the line for him he tells her he won't hesitate to violate her right back to prison. She and we believe him. She's the beating heart of the whole dismal affair and by the picture's end there's a strong possibility she's used him right back, but her ultimate position is what makes this thing clearly a noir rather than a hardboiled crime thriller.

Chance is also plenty ready to sacrifice his brand new partner Vukovich (John Pankow) along the way. The moment Vukovich lets on that he's got reservations about going off the reservation, Chance pounces all over perceived insecurities - pushing him relentlessly to push himself and his sense of right and wrong and acceptable risk and losses in pursuit of Masters. Chance seems to want to mold his new partner into his own image or infect him with the same adrenaline bug he's got.

The film suffers some from a hell of a lot of expositional dialogue delivered in cliches, but has a propulsive forward momentum that makes it easy to forgive and by the time "the good guys" are committing armed robbery themselves, in order to fund a sting operation the Secret Service won't pay for, the whole thing has hit critical mass and terminal velocity and it's a rush to watch the great clusterfuck unravel.

Worth noting too that it features a car chase second only to The French Connection in Friedkin's body of work (I'd throw the one in Jade in at number three and I might even cheat and call Sorcerer's entire second half a car chase).

Boiling Point (1993) - Script by Petievich and director James B. Harris and based on the novel Money Men, the first of four books featuring Treasury Agent Charlie Carr (one of which is titled To Die in Beverly Hills... no connection that I know of to To Live & Die in L.A.). Harris has a short but remarkable list of credits - as a director his previous effort was Cop, the first and one of the most successful adaptations of James Ellroy material (from the novel Blood on the Moon), and as a producer for Stanley Kubrick's collaborations with Jim Thompson. So... yeah, he's got a taste for the material.

Wesley Snipes plays the agent at the center of the action here, this time also determined to nab the guy who killed his partner. The supporting cast in this one is very respectable too - Dan Hedaya, James Tolkan, Valerie Perrine, Lolita Davidovich and Tony Lo Bianco all have chances to contribute, but I'd forgotten how engaging Snipes could be when he seemed like he gave a shit. He's tough without being a cartoon, world weary without feeling like a cliche and unexpectedly and genuinely vulnerable.

As good as he is though the movie really belongs to the bad guys. Dennis Hopper and Viggo Mortensen play career criminals partnering up just out of prison. Hopper's Red Diamond is a hustler with big plans and bigger debts to Lo Bianco's gangster. He's also mentor to Mortensen's younger, trusting and casually violent muscle. Hopper is all talking-with-hands, full of shit and honestly hurt when you don't believe him, while Mortensen is not too bright, but having fun. He's also loyal and ready to throw down any time his partner gives him the cue.

Like L.A. the movie spends equal time on the cops and the crooks which I love. Like former prosecuting attorney George V. Higgins, ex-secret serviceman Petievich seems to be drawing equally from his own experience and an apparent fascination with the criminal characters whose paths he crossed and the whole underworld economy they operate in. This time the film has a nice touch cutting scenes of all three leads talking separately to the women they love as a seamless conversation. The parallels between them don't stop there - Snipes and Hopper spend time with the same call girl (Davidovich) and both have something more than just a john relationship with her. Snipes and Hopper cross streams not only with the call girl, but also in the men's room of a hotel before either know their adversary by sight.

More than once they do - the film opens with Snipes, Hopper and Mortensen all at the same hamburger shack - Snipes getting grub for his stake out/sting operation, Hopper and Mortensen waiting on a phone call to lure them into said sting - illustrating the smallness of the world or more probably the draw of their elements toward each other - circling the same action, the same attractions, the same drain.

Unusually strong too are the beat scenes of the procedural. Jonathan Banks has a few scenes that he carries as a lawyer engaged in many extra legal operations (the parallel to Dean Stockwell in L.A.) while Tobin Bell is a particular stand out in his only scene (a convict Snipes is trying to turn snitch), Paul Gleason holds up his half of the film's best suspense sequence as Banks's bag man and Seymour Cassel lends so much class and gravity to the whole affair just by showing his face.

Not an action movie. Folks seeing Snipes aim a gun at them from the poster will be forgiven for feeling mislead. Snipes does get a single flying kick in when busting through a door, but that's the extent of the film's quick moving stuff. Even the shootouts are bang, bang and done. Which is nice. Unlike To Live & Die in L.A.'s frenetic extended action sequences this one just kind of stews in atmosphere and lets the plot simmer until it reaches its uh boiling point.

The Sentinel (2006) - Adapted from Petievich's novel of the same name by George Nolfi and directed by Clark Johnson. Michael Douglas and Kiefer Sutherland are Secret Service agents chasing down a lead that one of their own may be planning to kill the president. Sutherland heads up the investigation and if you've ever seen any Michael Douglas movie before you'll not be surprised to find out that he's surprised to find out the evidence is pointing to him - because he's Michael Douglas in a Michael Douglas movie and had y'know an affair with the first lady (Kim Basinger). Has any actor ever been so singularly branded as the guy whose dick gets him in trouble? 

Since it can't be settled by a conversation, Douglas has to evade Sutherland while foiling the real assassination plot. The Fugitive by way of No Way Out?

This one feels like it was financed as a safe bet. In fact the whole thing feels like an episode of a TV series you've never heard of, but feel completely familiar with anyway. Probably by design too. Johnson is such a reliable television director (dude did the pilot episodes and series finales of both The Shield and The Wire for fuck's sake), Sutherland was at the height of Bauer-power and Eva Longoria was hot on Desperate Housewives too. So why wasn't it a hit?

It just wasn't very good. It wasn't very bad either. It was competent and smooth and put together just fine, but it lacked any sense of suspense, urgency or, more importantly, personality.

Having not read the book, I don't know where to put the blame. Yes, this one is about personally compromised government agents doing agenty shit, but it isn't balanced by the other foot being in the criminal world. This one's more of a who-dunnit or a who's about to do it and once you've seen the rest of the cast list you'll get zero points from me for guessing.

Petievich collaborated with William Friedkin twice more on the made for television movies C.A.T. Squad (1986) and C.A.T. Squad: Python Wolf (aka C.A.T. Squad: Stalking Danger) (1988) about an anti-terrorism squad. Haven't seen those, but they look like a lot of fun from the posters.

They look like the kind of men's-adventure fare Brace Godfrey might have written.

And I'm good with that.


JJStick said...

Quality writing, and some good cinema, Petievich knows his stuff.

mtm said...

Petievich's EARTH ANGELS is one of my favorite crime novels.