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COVER STORY : Why Don't They Make 'Em Like This Anymore? : It's no mystery where some of the great film detectives come from--but getting one from book to box office is a tough case

March 27, 1994|ANN HORNADAY | Ann Hornaday is a free - lance writer based in New York. and

In March, filming will begin on "Devil in a Blue Dress," a movie starring Denzel Washington, to be directed by Carl Franklin, who directed the critically acclaimed "One False Move." This news in and of itself is unremarkable, except when one considers the film's source. "Devil in a Blue Dress" was originally a book written by Walter Mosley, the first installment of a detective series featuring the character Easy Rawlins.

Although Rawlins, a recently unemployed aircraft worker in post-World War II South-Central Los Angeles who stumbles into the world of murder, graft and seduction, presents an obviously inviting film role for any number of actors (Danny Glover and Laurence Fishburne both expressed early interest in the role), history shows that the chances of such novels becoming movies are about as likely as Sam Spade pouring himself a stiff Shirley Temple.

The obstacles are sometimes practical ones, sometimes artistic. But if cult followers of such best-selling gumshoes as Kinsey Milhone, Dave Robicheaux, Jimmy Flannery and Kay Scarpetta are waiting hopefully for their heroes to hit the big screen, they may want to find a good book.

There is a long, happy history of popular mystery books becoming popular films; in fact, an entire cinematic genre, film noir, was based on literary antecedents. The novels and serialized detective stories known to French critics of the 1940s as "Fleuve Noir" and "Serie Noir" featured the work of such authors as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Horace McCoy.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 3, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
In last Sunday's cover story on mystery films, the status of "Poodle Springs" was mischaracterized. The film is still in development at Universal Studios. Also, filming began last month on "Devil in a Blue Dress."

Several film noir classics were based on best-selling mysteries, including Cain's novels "Double Indemnity" (co-written for the screen by Chandler) and "The Postman Always Rings Twice"; Chandler's "Farewell, My Lovely" (released as "Murder My Sweet"), "Lady in the Lake," "The Long Goodbye" and "The Big Sleep"--all featuring detective Philip Marlowe; Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon"; Mickey Spillane's "I, the Jury," "Kiss Me Deadly" and "The Long Wait"; Donald E. Westlake's "The Outfit," "Point Blank" and "The Split" (the latter two released as "The Hunter" and "The Seventh"), and Graham Greene's "Ministry of Fear" and "This Gun for Hire."

Although revisionists lament a dearth of modern-day noir novelists, a respectable number of authors have witnessed successful film adaptations of their work.

The work of Jim Thompson, who wrote in the 1950s, was adapted for the screen in 1990 in Stephen Frears' "The Grifters" and most recently, if less spectacularly, in the remake of "The Getaway," starring Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin; Ross MacDonald's detective Lew Archer was portrayed by Paul Newman and renamed in "Harper" (taken from the novel "The Moving Target") and "The Drowning Pool"; and Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter--OK, he's not exactly a P.I. we root for--appeared in Michael Mann's 1986 film "Manhunter" before his reprise in "The Silence of the Lambs."

Six Elmore Leonard novels have been adapted for the screen, among them "Stick" (starring Burt Reynolds), "Cat Chaser" (directed by Abel Ferrara) and "52 Pick-Up" (directed by John Frankenheimer). And "The Big Clock," originally directed from Kenneth Fearing's novel by John Farrow in 1948, was remade in 1987 as "No Way Out" starring Kevin Costner.

Still, studio floors are littered with books (make that treatments of synopses of adaptations of books) whose characters, plot lines, dialogue and hordes of faithful readers seemingly have the makings of an automatic green light but seem indefinitely stalled.

When Alec Baldwin read "Heaven's Prisoners," published in 1988, he "fell in love with the character" of Dave Robicheaux, says Patricia Karlan, who represents author James Lee Burke. Robicheaux is a former New Orleans detective who now solves mysteries from his bayou bait shop. Baldwin optioned the book with Orion, but when the studio dissolved in 1991 the deal did too. (Only last month, after six years of development limbo, did the project finally get back on track; filming is expected to start later this spring for Savoy, with Baldwin starring.)

Similarly, Demi Moore was attracted to the character Kay Scarpetta, the Richmond, Va., chief medical examiner invented by Patricia Cornwell in the book "Cruel and Unusual." The author elected not to sign a contract with the actress, instead waiting for the fifth book of the Scarpetta series, "Body Farm," to come out in October.

Two books in the series starring Chicago ward heeler Jimmy Flannery by Robert Campbell--both popular and critical successes--have been optioned but not yet made.

In fact, there are a slew of contemporary mystery writers whose names have so far been missing from the movie marquee, among them James Crumley, Ross Thomas, T. Jefferson Parker, Robert Ferrigno, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller and James T. Hall.

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