Written by Larry Cohen
Of the numerous films that Larry Cohen has written, but not directed, Best Seller is probably the best of the bunch.
In a prologue set in 1972 Los Angeles, a group of gunmen wearing Richard Nixon masks pull off the daring robbery of two million dollars from a police impound. During the robbery, one of the gunmen kills three cops. Meechum (Brian Dennehy), the fourth officer in the room, manages to stab the gunman in the stomach before apparently being shot to death. The stabbed gunman makes it to the getaway van and the robbers escape.
The film then moves to the present day (1987, when the film was released). Meechum survived his injuries and wrote a book about the heist, leading to a second career as a Joseph Wambaugh-like author of police procedural novels. But after bills piled up while his late wife suffered terminal cancer, writer’s block, several missed deadlines, and a teenaged daughter to support, he finds himself under the kind of financial duress he never imagined. Even keeping his job as a police detective fails to help since he is quickly reaching the end of his rope with that profession.
It is during these darkest of moments that Cleve (James Woods) walks into his life.
Cleve claims to be a hitman who worked for a major corporation, assassinating politicians, businessmen, and anyone else who got in the way of greater profits. He claims he was kicked to the curb by the founder/CEO (veteran character actor Paul Shenar) of the corporation and now wants to write a tell-all book with Meechum, detailing all the murders he committed as a way of getting back at his former employer.
Meechum is naturally dubious of Cleve’s story, but after some investigation, comes to believe there may be some truth to his claims. As Meechum investigates the various murders and accompanies Cleve to retrieve evidence he stashed away, they find themselves followed and eventually have attempts made on their lives. But while Meechum comes to believe Cleve is telling the truth, he also finds himself locked in a game of cat and mouse with the borderline sociopath who always seems to have a plan in place to make his escape once Meechum does not need him for the book any longer.
If Cohen had directed Best Seller, the satirical elements of a corporation engaging in a string of murders would probably have taken a more front-and-center role in the plot. I can imagine Michael Moriarty as a truly unhinged version of Cleve, chewing the scenery, and savoring some of the character’s more outrageous moments. That version of the film that only exists in my mind would have been great. The actual film, as directed by John Flynn, isn’t great, but it is very good.
Flynn focuses on the Meechum/Cleve dynamic. The similarities they share as a longtime cop and career criminal is made explicit in a snippet of dialogue when Cleve refers to them as “two side of the same coin.” Meechum resists Cleve’s belief that they have anything in common, but the film constantly presents evidence to the contrary as they use violent force to protect each other. Their uneasy partnership mirrors the kind of cop/criminal dynamic that John Woo presented so well in films like The Killer and Hard Boiled. Flynn is not nearly the stylist that Woo is, but he brings a similar melancholy feel to the later scenes in the film when Cleve realizes he can never really befriend Meechum.
A director who put together a solid career across film and television, Flynn had one certifiably great film to his credit in the Paul Schrader-scripted Rolling Thunder by the time he directed Best Seller. (Note: His early efforts, The Outfit and The Sergeant, also have their champions as under-seen classics, but I have not seen either film so I cannot comment on their merits.) Like Rolling Thunder, Best Seller is a story of damaged, dangerous men looking for their own forms of justice. Both films were written by filmmakers who are considered auteurs while also making a living selling spec scripts.
It would be easy (and lazy) to say that Flynn simply had great source material and give him no credit. But Rolling Thunder avoids Schrader’s usual religious obsessions and Best Seller has none of the satirical angles of Cohen’s films. Both films share the same efficiency and brutally direct violence that Flynn was known for, both in style of storytelling and the presentation of a corrupt world where people are mercilessly tortured and killed for a little more money.
The other great asset the film has is the performance by Woods. While not doing much different with the character than he has done with any number of other scumbags he’s played, Woods does bring an element of true danger to the film. His Cleve is not a likable rogue who only kills those who deserve it. He is a vicious killer who takes life without remorse. Given all the best dialogue in the movie and freedom to go as over-the-top as he pleases, Woods makes Cleve fun to watch one second and frightening the next. In many ways, his performance is reminiscent of Joe Pesci’s turn in Goodfellas. In any given scene, you never know whether Cleve is going to tell a self-aggrandizing anecdote or slit someone’s throat.
While Woods is almost perfectly cast (but I’d still love to see the Moriarty take on this character) as Cleve, Dennehy is a bit of miscasting as Meechum.
Dennehy’s strength has always been as a character actor capable of bringing some charisma to a series of stubborn cops, gruff fathers, and good-hearted blue collar guys. At first glance, Meechum would seem to be a character tailor-made for him. But try as he might, he cannot sell the cop moonlighting as an author. Dennehy looks natural firing a gun or throwing a table aside to beat the hell out of Cleve in a memorable scene. But the second he is forced to studiously take notes (although the inside joke that his reading glasses have the same outlandish frames as the glasses Woods’ character briefly tries on in Videodrome is pretty hilarious) with a thoughtful look on his face, the movie lapses into unintentional humor.
If not for Dennehy’s performance, I would call Best Seller a forgotten classic. But even with that casting misstep, the film is still remarkably good. Aside from a generic synthesizer score and some dated fashions, Best Seller holds up much better than most ridiculous thrillers from the mid ‘80s. It’s a testament to Cohen’s plotting, Flynn’s no nonsense direction, and Woods’ charismatically sleazy performance that it has aged as well as it has.
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