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June 09, 2008

The Big Bounce

big bounce (1969) 2.jpg

Alex March - 1969

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George Armitage - 2004
both Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Elmore Leonard's novel, The Big Bounce, was his first foray into the contemporary crime fiction that Leonard is primarily known for now. It would be a few more novels before Leonard would fully develop the snap to be found in The Switch or City Primeval. The basic elements are there - the crooks, shnooks, and criminals with ambitions that exceed their abilities. The basic story is about a young drifter, working a migrant farm in northern Michigan, hits the field boss with a baseball bat. A kindly judge offers him work at the small resort area he owns. The drifter, Jack Ryan, falls for Nancy, the young mistress of a property owner, Ritchie, in the area. Ryan's background as a petty criminal excites Nancy, who is looking for the adrenaline rush she calls "the big bounce". Nancy and Jack dare each other to commit a variety of misdemeanors until Nancy encourages Jack to steal from Ritchie. In the meantime, Ryan's former associates are looking for ways to make in easy score, with and without Ryan.

At the time the first film version of The Big Bounce was made, Elmore Leonard was still a stranger to the New York Times best seller list. The second version seems to have been made at least partially because of the recent success of Get Shorty and Be Cool. What is interesting in comparing the two films is what was chosen in transferring the novel to film. The first version is closer to the book in spirit, and spends more time with the characters, while some Leonard's complications are pared away. The second version is more interested in the mechanics of the plot, so that some short-hand is used to substitute for character development, while more attention is spent on planning the crime. While the first film betrays Leonard in the end with an ending that is less hip than simply repugnantly amoral, the second film tries to be more complicated in its plotting with even less satisfactory results. In neither film is the title explained.

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While reading Leonard's novel, I was struck by the similarity with with Pretty Poison. Both stories are about young men, outsiders with criminal pasts. They meet a young woman who they bond with initially with small acts of rebellion against parental or authority figures. Activities escalate to a point where the women goad the men towards more serious criminal activity. It is eventually made clear that the young women are psychopathic, and driven to murder primarily for the thrill of the act. There are similarities in the expression of Tuesday Weld's face when she shoots her mother to the face of Leigh Taylor-Young in the first filmed The Big Bounce. She Let Him Continue, Stephen Geller's novel that was the basis for Pretty Poison was published in 1966, with Noel Black's film released in 1968. Elmore Leonard saw The Big Bounce published in 1969, shortly after the release of the film. That the novels and subsequent films came out within this three year time span, sharing similar plot elements could be considered coincidence were it not for one conspicuous link between the two films.

The screenplay writer of Pretty Poison was Lorenzo Semple, Jr. In 1966, Semple had made his name as the main writer and story editor of the television series Batman. The first filmed version of The Big Bounce was produced by William Dozier with a screenplay by Robert Dozier. William Dozier was the producer of the Batman series, while Robert wrote some of the episodes. While I will not assume that Elmore Leonard was familiar either with Geller's novel or Black's film, I cannot imagine that the Doziers were unaware of the activity of the main Batman scribe.

The first film version of The Big Bounce may not much for a film adaptation of Elmore Leonard, but it does have a couple of points of interest. Even by Hollywood standards of the time, the nudity is generous, with heaping helpings of Leigh Taylor-Young and even Ryan O'Neal dropping trou in a couple of shots. I can go without close-ups of Van Heflin chewing his food, but it is worth noting that this his other appearance in a film based on Leonard's writings, the other appearance being the original 3:10 to Yuma. On the down side is a soundtrack by schlockmeister Mike Curb, with dopey lyrics by Guy Hemric. In Leonard's novel, he tries to show that he has some kind of pulse on the then contemporary music scene, as evident from this description of Nancy: "She changed allegiance from the Hermits to the Loving Spoonful to the Blue Magoos to the Mamas and the Papas." Robert Webber was much too old for the role as Ritchie's foreman and Ryan's rival for Nancy.

Still whatever was wrong with the 1969 version of The Big Bounce, it is still better than the 2004 version. Sebastian Gutierrez adds unneeded complications to Leonard's plot, while the film, clocking in at less than an hour and a half, still finds time to pad the action with shots of surfers. The story, moved to Hawaii, wanders even further in spirit from Leonard's novel. Perhaps had director George Armitage written the screenplay as he had for his version of Charles Willeford's funny and nasty Miami Blues, there would have been a better film. Instead, the film coasts on having laid back Owen Wilson and upright Morgan Freeman, with the stunt casting of Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton, in place of anything resembling character development. Say what you will about Leigh Taylor-Young's limited acting abilities, she makes a more convincing temptress than 2004's Sara Foster. What over sixty years of film noir should have taught today's filmmakers is that the leading lady needs to not only be able to hold her own against the leading man, but she can't be forgotten when the film is over.

Maybe a second film version of The Big Bounce should not have been attempted. When asked about the worst film adaptations of his book for Time magazine, Leonard replied: "Well, it has to be The Big Bounce. When The Big Bounce came out the first time, in 1969, I said, 'This has got to be the second worst movie ever made.' I didn't know what the first one was until they remade The Big Bounce."

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Posted by peter at June 9, 2008 12:22 AM


What a great piece, fascinating. That last Leonard quote is hilarious. I often complain that contemporary movies run too long but it sounds like the second version would have been too long at sitcom length.

Leigh Taylor Young was so deliciously pretty that I honestly never notice whether she could act in something like I Love You, Alice B. Toklas. The first vresion sounds quite interesting despite the compromises.

Did Leonard's novel explain the title? I feel like the word "bounce" should never appear in any title.

Posted by: Campaspe at June 16, 2008 10:48 AM

Leonard has the character of Nancy describe the high she gets from being a bad girl as a bounce. Leonard read some article that gave him the impression that bounce would be a popular slang word.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at June 16, 2008 08:13 PM