Best Seller Review
The art of the B-Movie thriller has now been dissipated in a welter of straight-to-video trash but even as recently as the late 1980s there were some directors who excelled in this surprisingly rewarding genre. Some of them - Craig R. Baxley, Rowdy Herrington - were one-shot talents, but the best of the lot, for my money, was John Flynn who began by directing pseudo-arthouse movies in the 1960s like The Sergeant but found his true metier in tough thrillers such as The Outfit and Rolling Thunder. After some years in the wilderness, he smashed his way back into contention with the excellent Best Seller and made Sylvester Stallone's trashiest and most wildly entertaining star vehicle Lock Up and Steven Segal's best movie Out for Justice. But Best Seller is his best film and it now looks like one of the most impressive thrillers of the period.
It begins with a prologue set in 1972, detailing a raid on the LA Police Evidence Depository building. Three thieves disguised in Richard Nixon masks get away with an impressive haul, killing two of the cops on guard and seriously wounding a third. That cop, Dennis Meechum (Dennehy), begins a lucrative secondary career as an author after he writes an account of the raid and is planning to retire from the force to write fulltime. But a botched raid on a shipping warehouse changes this when Meechum's life is saved by a mysterious stranger called Cleve (Woods) who claims to be a hitman for powerful businessman David Matlock (Shenar). Cleve wants Meechum to write a book about him in which he will reveal the trail of bodies behind Matlock's rise to fame and success. Meechum is sceptical and ready to arrest Cleve but an attempt on his life begins to change his mind. As he goes deeper into Cleve's story, he gradually becomes fascinated with the contradictions of the hitman's life and begins to understand how brutal murder and corporate success could go hand in hand.
The plot skirts a number of well-worn areas. Conspiracy theory, the connections between cops and criminals, the heart behind the hard faced killer etcetera, etcetera. What makes it work so well is the central relationship between Cleve and Meechum. On paper it must have seemed a little trite but in the hands of two actors as good as Woods and Dennehy it becomes something special. The grudging alliance between the two men is cautious and somewhat antagonistic and when they begin to communicate it never becomes expected or sentimental - a potentially sickly moment when Cleve tries to give Meechum an engraved watch is beautifully undercut by Dennehy's disinterest in the gesture. The two actors work so well together that they give the narrative - which is a rather wild conspiracy plot - a core of emotional reality.
James Woods has been brilliant in so many films, from Salvador to Midnight Sting, that it's perhaps unnecessary to detail how good he is here. But he turns Cleve into a fascinatingly complex character, as capable of brutally slicing a thug's throat as he is of empathising with Meechum's pain over his wife's death from cancer. Not many actors would be prepared to play such a complete bastard and one scene towards the end - when he threatens Meechum's agent (Tennant) in her bedroom - is a triumphantly disconcerting moment. Although we know that Cleve will become, to some extent, a hero by the end of the movie, Woods manages to persuade us that this is a seriously unbalanced and rather frightening man. The miracle is that we don't hate him. Whatever Cleve does, the intensity and wit of the performance makes you simultaneously nervous and fascinated about what he might do next.
The case of Brian Dennehy is more unusual. This is an actor who, for about four years in the 1980s, was one of the best reasons to go to the movies. He gave great performances in films as varied as FX Murder By Illusion, Twice In A Lifetime and Belly Of An Architect. Then, suddenly, he seemed to lose it. Following his stunning performance as child killer John Wayne Gacy for TV in 1989, he seemed to end up in more and more made for television melodramas and the quality of his films declined rapidly. This is one of the greatest losses to American cinema in recent years and his performance in Best Seller demonstrates why. Dennehy is a big man, a real presence and he brings the sort of weight to this role that you don't expect. His intimidating physicality makes him a good match for the wiry Cleve and means that we genuinely don't know which man might have the upper hand at any given moment. But he balances this with a real warmth and humour which means that he instantly gains the sympathy of the audience. When he and Woods are together on-screen, which is most of the film, they play off each other like a veteran comedy team.
John Flynn's direction of this material is an object lesson in lean, pacy action filmmaking. The pacing never flags, the action set-pieces - sparse but effective - are brilliantly staged and he allows his leading actors space to develop their characters. No-one could call him a great director but he is a very proficient one, knowing exactly when to emphasise the violence and when to pull back and when to allow the camera to make his points for him. He keeps the film moving, allowing every new plot turn to register without being overstated and there isn't an ounce of fat to be seen. Credit should also go to David Rosenbloom's taut editing - the opening bank raid is a model of good action editing. I could happily live without Jay Ferguson's synthesiser score, which screams 1987 as surely as the costumes, and Fred Murphy's glossy lighting isn't anything special. But the other collaborator who deserves praise is Larry Cohen. Once a fine director in his own right - God Told Me To is a favourite of mine - he has written some great B-Movie screenplays in his time. Cohen understands that intelligent characterisation is as important to an action or horror movie as it is to the most respectable costume drama. He also writes great, hard-boiled dialogue which suits Woods and Dennehy perfectly.
The supporting cast generally does just what is required and sometimes more. Paul Shenar, a neglected actor who was very good at Yuppie sleaze, is very funny as the self-justifying Matlock whose frequent good work for charideee doesn't hide his venal nature. His speech upon receiving an award for citizenship is a little classic of duplicitous charm. There's a nice bit from George Coe as his lawyer, making veiled threats while appearing as reasonable as could be. The only problem is, as so often, Victoria Tennant. I would call her a bad actress if it weren't for the fact that she doesn't seem to do any acting. Admittedly, the role of Meechum's publisher doesn't require the talents of a Vanessa Redgrave, but Tennant's cut-glass vowels and freshly coiffured appearance totally fail to convince. As ever, she over-enunciates like Julie Andrews on valium and consequently ruins just about every scene she's in. Only one moment convinces; in the scene when she is threatened with physical assault by Cleve, she looks genuinely terrified, but then a rampant James Woods would probably terrify anyone.
I don't want to give the impression that Best Seller is some kind of neglected masterpiece. It's very unlikely, somewhat absurdly plotted (especially towards the end) and it doesn't entirely live up to the implications of its team of hitman and cop. If they are two sides of the same coin, how does that come about and what exactly distinguishes them ? This is addressed but only in asides. The ending is a bit silly as well - a subplot involving Meechum's daughter is introduced solely to add a kidnap twist to the final reel. It also contains one of the worst end-title songs you've ever heard, sung by Ben E.King - briefly hot again in 1987 following the release of "Stand By Me". But as a brisk, witty action movie it is way ahead of most competitors thanks to the clever script, the sharp direction and the exceptional lead performances. If you haven't seen it, you've missed out.
Best Seller is another MGM catalogue disc and it's up to the same adequate standards as most of the others from the studio. Nothing special in any department but nothing disgraceful either and considering the cheap retail price it's not bad value.
The film is presented in an anamorphic transfer reflecting the original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Apart from an excess of artifacting during some of the night exteriors, it's a pretty good transfer. I noticed some edge enhancement during the scene where Woods and Dennehy walk down a busy New York street and some of the flesh tones aren't particularly natural. But it's sharp and the colours are reasonably rich so I'd say that it was slightly above average. There is a fair amount of grain visible in some scenes but this acts to the film's advantage, stopping it looking too much like a sleek TV movie.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Again, nothing special but it's a crisp track without hissing or distortion. The music comes over rather well throughout and the dialogue is clear.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer. There are 16 chapter stops and, as ever with MGM, a good selection of subtitles.
A highly entertaining thriller which is worth re-discovering, Best Seller demonstrates how good casting can raise a film from competently watchable to genuinely memorable. The DVD isn't at all bad and should satisfy both fans of the film and those watching it for the first time.