CRIME AUTHOR JAMES ELLROY’S TEN FAVOURITE FILMS Copyright © 1998 james Ellroy interviewed by Ian Johnston


“It’s very different from the novel but I think it stands as a work of art, on its own merits. For one thing, it’s my novel, large blocks of my novel and my characters. It’s a film that could only have been derived from one of my books. It’s certainly not as harsh as the novel, but I thought that my characters were done justice, as was the book. So, that’s got to be my favourite crime movie of all time. Ed Exley is the strongest of the three characters, in the book and the film as well. I think Guy Pearce’s performance is the strongest of the three. He is the man with the most complex and ambiguous fate. He’s the only one to come out of that holocaust physically intact, and yet dark thinks may be awaiting him. The film captures that.”


“It’s much more finished than Part I. The individual scenes have been expanded. Production-wise, it’s a much better-looking movie and they obviously had a lot more money to spend on it. It’s a great epic, and like how many epic crime films have there been? Not many, and that’s the first one that comes to mind. The movie didn’t inspire me. Movies don’t inspire me, history inspires me. But I like the big canvas, I like big symphonic pieces of music, I like large films, and as I said how many large, epic length, epic scope crime movies have there been? Pacino doesn’t quite succeed in making that vicious, little piece of shit Michael Corleone empathetic but I felt like I understand the man at the end of Part II. He did everything for the family and he destroyed it. There is a great irony in that.”


“It’s a 1951 movie starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes. It’s a grubby, sweaty, perverted cop on the make and the lonely, horny wife of an all-night disc jockey. She is much younger than he is and she reports that she’s seen a prowler outside her home. I don’t really want to give away the plot to the people of Great Britain, it’s a good one and they may end up seeing it. They should. It’s not on video in the States. I saw it on French television when I was over there. It’s very plausible plot-wise in a way that very few film noir movies ever are. Van Heflin is great as the lead, Patrolmen Webb Garwood, a sweaty, trapped creep. He’s not quite a psychopath, but he’s very close to it.”


“It’s Sterling Hayden in a great robbery movie set in LA. Gene Nelson is an ex-con linked to a robbery by two former inmates of the same prison. Nelson has gone straight but he is forced to cooperate with these guys to protect his wife, Phyllis Kirk, and their family. Sterling Hayden is a great actor, and he’s chilling and very powerful in this as a detective who is convinced that Nelson is guilty. Crime Wave has great LA exteriors. At any time I can go back and live in the actual physical presence of Los Angeles in the 1950’s I am very happy, and this movie tales you there.”


“It’s Wise’s 1959 film noir which is almost the very anatomy of noir in that it deals with racism and fucked-up sexuality. It’s a film of desperate, twisted guys anxious to make one last score, robbing a small-town bank in upstate New York. Of course they are subconsciously self-destructive men and they screw it all up. To me, it’s just the best heist-gone-wrong movie ever made. It’s also rooting through the psychological and social issues of the time, which are significant and profound. Robert Ryan is really fuckin’ great in this as a racially prejudiced ex-con and Harry Belafonte is good too. You wonder why Belafonte wasn’t a much bigger movie star when you see him in this.”


“Anything else is grasping at straws beyond this, Ian. I don’t really have ten favourite movies, but I do have those five. I like The Killing; sure, it’s another great Sterling Hayden film. A good heist-gone-bad movie. Crime movies are the only films I enjoy. I don’t like comedies, I don’t like historical dramas, I don’t like westerns, I don’t like melodramas, I don’t like science fiction. I only like crime movies. They are the only kind of film that I see, and I see precious few of them. And as far as crime movies go, very few are really truthful. “


“When it comes to film noir, I didn’t discover these movies until I’d written a few books, even though I was raised in Los Angeles, where I was born in ’48. I remember being jazzed by a couple of heist ”“gone-bad movies when I was a kid, about ten years old, and they were The Killing and Plunder Road. Elisha Cook. Jr, Gene Raymond, Wayne Morris are members of a gang who rob a gold bullion train that’s heading for the mint in San Francisco. After the robbery they divide the gold into three different vehicles, but it all fucks up. It’s very low budget and fatalistic. Elisha Cook’s good, yeah.”


“Great San Francisco locations. Wonderful police procedure scenes. A great performance from Eli Wallach, who plays this professional hitman called Dancer. His older partner, Robert Keith, likes to make a note of their victim’s last words before they die. They have to find these three different packages of heroin that have been smuggled into San Francisco by three groups of travellers. Of course the cops are also trying to find the source of the heroin. Though I do like old film noir, there are some crime movies from the 70’s with real dirty, ugly, bad endings that I like, such as Don Siegel’s Charlie Varrick.”


“I dig Hitchcock’s great film of obsessive love. I like Psycho as well, but Vertigo is most definitely my favourite Hitchcock movie. It’s a real film noir even though it’s shot in lush colour. Bernard Herrmann’s music is wonderful, wonderful film score. That’s all I have to say really.”


“Last but by no means least, a really under appreciated film noir with Edmond O’ Brien at his sweaty, desperate anxious-to-make ”“it best as a guy in the race wire service racket. These businessmen are impressed with his technical skills and persuade him to create a wire service that connects the racing results from all the tracks on the West Coast. It all goes to his head. It’s a wonderful rise and fall story and it’s only an hour and forty minutes long. Los Angeles locations, Palm Springs locations, Las Vegas locations, Edmond O’Brien. That’s the ten, yeah? ALL RIGHT! FUCKIN’ A! Ian, I’ve got to get back to work. I’m not revealing the title of my next novel yet (The Cold Six Thousand, published in 2001) and it won’t be ready for a couple of years. I have a book of collected journalism coming out called Crime Wave. Dig it.”

Copyright © 1998 Ian Johnston


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