By John Gilstrap
Following up on yesterday’s discussion of sex scenes in fiction, I thought I’d go the other way today and talk about violence, a fairly indispensible element of thrillers and mysteries.
Chases are staples of suspense fiction. Film is inherently better suited to chases than books are, but some books have left me gasping for breath at the end. Chases are hard to write. The secret, I think, lies with the pacing of the prose. Shorter, rapid-fire sentences give the writing a quicker pulse that passes on to the reader.
Another staple is the shoot-out, which I think is particularly difficult to pull off on the page. Movies have a decided edge here, simply because of the audio track.
All this thinking about violence and its fiction elements prompted me to cobble together my own one-voter Best List:
Most Off-Puttingly Violent Novel:
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. If you’ve read it, you know why. If you haven’t read it, know what you’re in for. Just awful.
Most Off-Puttingly Violent Movie:
This category is complicated by all of the Saw-esque stuff that rolls through the theaters. Since bloody violence and audience gross-outs are the very point of these films, I think it would be disingenuous to call them off-putting. If you’re wired that way, you shouldn’t go to spatter movies. To qualify for this category, the film needs to be a “real” movie that happens to turn my stomach. The winner, for the second category in a row, is American Psycho. (Why, one might ask, would one watch the movie after hating the book. Good question, for which I have no good answer.)
Best Chase Scene in a Novel:
This one’s a slam-dunk for me: the final sequence in Frederick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal, in which Claude Lebel is closing in on the shooter. I’ve written here before how TDOTJ is the book that made me want to write thrillers. The entire book is taut as an over-wound watch spring, but that final sequence—which, now that I think about it less of a chase than a will-he-get-there-in-time sequence—is amazing.
Best Chase Scene in a Movie:
Goodness gracious, where to start on this one? As part of my arbitrary ground rules, I decided that only serious car chases would count. That leaves out Smokey & the Bandit, and nearly every other movie Burt Reynolds made in the seventies. Even that restriction leaves a big plug of movies. The best I can do is pick a few of my favorites.
We’ll start with the obvious: Bullitt. I was 11 years old when that movie came out in 1968, so I wasn’t allowed to see it in the theater. In fact, to this day, I’ve never seen it on a screen bigger than the living room television. I really should oughta do that. Anyway, I can extrapolate from the small screen to the big, and I’m well aware that that San Francisco chase sequence between the 1968 Dodge Charger and the 1968 Mustang GT—two of the hottest cars ever—forever reset the bar for car chases.
Next up: The French Connection. We’re in 1971 now, and I saw this one live in the theater. Holy freaking cow! I had never had an experience like that in a theater. What makes it particularly interesting—and sets it apart from many other car chases—is the fact that it’s really about a car chasing a train. Rumors abound that the sequence was shot without permits or permission from the City of New York, but I find them hard to believe.
The next winner is also from 1971, and premiered on the small screen: Duel, Steven Spielberg’s first movie. Starring Dennis Weaver as a motorist terrorized by the faceless driver of a big rig, this could be one of the most unsettling, unnerving movies I’ve ever seen. Certainly, it was the most unnerving movie that I had seen until that time.
Okay, my last entry in the Chase Sweepstakes comes from 2002: The Bourne Identity. Having Franca Potente in the shotgun seat for this wild ride through Paris provided a lot of eye candy (and great acting). I consider this to be the best car chase since The French Connection, made better by the fact that it was done the old fashioned way, without benefit of computer graphics.
Best Shoot-out in a A Novel:
You know what? Nothing comes to mind.
Best Shootout in a Movie:
Time for more arbitrary rules. In this case, war movies don’t count. I know that one could argue that the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan was one long shootout, I’ll concede that it may be the best action sequence of all time, but for some reason in my mind, it does not qualify as a shootout. Feel free to disagree. Here’s my list, in no particular order:
True Grit. I so hope they don’t get this wrong in the Jeff Bridges edition of this Western classic. That scene as Rooster Cogburn charges across the field with the reins in his teeth, Colt in one hand, Winchester in the other always works for me. “I aim to kill you Ned, in one minute, or see you hang at Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s Convenience. Which’ll it be?”/ “I call that mighty bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!” / “Fill your hands, you sonofabitch!” Really. Does it get better than that?
Tombstone. Okay, I like Westerns, and I confess that this 1993 classic is as much about great mustaches as it is about plot, but it is hands-down Val Kilmer’s best performance. Among many gun-toting set pieces, my favorites are the unpleasantries at the OK Corral (“You know what, Sheriff? I don’t think I’ll let you arrest me today.”), and the 20-minute retribution sequence that peaks with Wyatt Earp wading into the stream without cover and taking care of business. Great stuff.
The Untouchables. I know in my heart that this is not a “good” movie, but it is one of my favorite guilty pleasures, and it is chock-a-block with outstanding shoot-em-up set pieces, including a shameless rip-off of Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence from the 1925 classic The Battleship Potemkin. This is Brian DePalma being Brian DePalma, with an utterly blind eye turned to history, but the movie really works for me. (“You got him?” / “Yeah, I got him.” / “Take him.” BANG!)
Heat. In many ways, this film is Michael Mann at his most self-indulgent. The movie is way too long, and way too talky, but the running shootout after the bank robbery might be the best gunfight ever filmed. Be sure to watch in with a good sound system.Wow, this is a long post. Okay, Killzoners, belly up to the bar. What have I missed?