Saturday, January 26, 2008

Elmore Leonard

He's probably better known for his gritty crime drama, but Elmore Leonard has always been a cowboy writer to me. I was first introduced to Leonard's work when I picked up a copy of Hombre a couple of dozen years ago. Cuba Libre is one of my favorites and I find it does a great job of walking the line between his westerns and crime novels.

Over Christmas I picked up a copy of The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard and have been slowly making my way through them. Of course I started out with 3:10 to Yuma. I knew that Leonard had been the screenwriter on the original Hollywood incarnation of the story, but I was surprised at how different the short story was from the movie.

The story was first published in Dime Western Magazine in March of 1953. Leonard had already started to master the short story and you can tell by the sparseness of the tale. The plot and location are the same, the main difference is the protagonist and the pacing.

In the movie, Van Heflin plays Dan Evans a rancher forced to take up a gun and escort the notorious criminal Ben Wade to hang at Yuma Prison. In the book, the main character is Paul Scallen a sheriff's deputy just doing his job and making sure that the outlaw Jim Kidd makes it to Yuma prison to serve out his 5 year sentence.

In the story Leonard manages to get across much of the ideas that he fleshed out for the movie with just a few sentences.

"And then one night a drunk cowhand you've never seen will be tearing up somebody's saloon and you'll go in to arrest him and he'll drill you with a lucky shot before you get your gun out." "So you're telling me I'm crazy." "If you don't already know it." Scallen took his hand off the shotgun and pulled tobacco and paper from his shirt picket and began rolling a cigarette. "have you figured out yet what my price is?" Kidd looked startled, momentarily, but the grin returned. "No, I haven't. Maybe you come higher than I thought."

In the end it's an excellent short story without all of the Hollywood additions. It's stripped down and bare and reminds me of a good stiff shot of bourbon. It goes down quick, burns a little with lots of flavor...and gives you something to think about.

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