Thursday, August 17, 2006

Sort-Of Related: Samaritan, by Richard Price (2003)/Sea Of Love (1989)

Nobody writes about city life better than Richard Price. I bought a copy of Samaritan when it came out – and then left it in a glass case, to be read in the event of a literary emergency. I finally broke it out the other day, a sticker on the front proclaiming “Entertainment Weekly Best Book of the Year” like a gold star from some forgotten class.

I have my problems with EW, but the magazine got that one right. The latest of Price’s novels to be set in the fictional New Jersey burg of Dempsy (along with Clockers and Freedomland), the book is about a one-time ne’er-do-well who hits it big in Hollywood and returns home bent on making a difference. His best efforts bring out the worst in somebody. When he’s viciously beaten he refuses to tell the investigating detective, an old friend from childhood, who’s responsible.

The truth comes out in talk, glorious talk. Stories told by the characters, stories within those stories. Samaritan seems to meander along while it’s cutting a savage path to the heart.

Price has also had a stellar screenwriting career. His 1993 book 3 Screenplays is one of the most instructive on the craft of writing for the movies, because it includes the early versions of his scripts. Comparing these drafts to the finished product is a fascinating exercise in what Price calls “the negotiation,” rewriting work to make it appealing to a broad audience while still retaining some of its essence.

The book includes Price’s Oscar-nominated script for The Color of Money, as well as the 1992 remake of Night and the City. (If anybody should have written a movie with that title, it’s Price.) But Sea of Love is perhaps Price’s finest hour as a screenwriter, a thriller in which the suspense is more emotional than psychological.

Al Pacino’s New York detective is the quintessential Price character, a man “floating in the urban night ... looking for things.” When he says to a suspect in a murder case, “Please, talk to me,” he’s not simply after a confession. He’s desperate for some kind of connection.

Price’s script is studded with acutely observed details, wonderful off-hand moments between people, and a reference to Have Gun Will Travel that reduces me to hysterics every time. It’s also got a phrase I quote constantly. At a crime scene a record of the title song is playing, and Pacino immediately suspects a woman because “no one whips out their old 45s on anything but a first date, when you’re doing your whole ‘the wonder of me’ thing.”

It’s also a startlingly well-cast film. John Goodman as Pacino’s partner, Samuel L. Jackson and John Spencer in small roles.

And then, of course, there’s Ellen Barkin. We’ve all got our one big silver screen crush, someone we saw during those tender late adolescent years when key decisions are being made. For me, it’s Ellen Barkin, from Buckaroo Banzai through this movie. Yowza.

I watched Sea of Love again recently, and it’s still razor sharp. But Price’s original script – with an ending that’s subtler and more logical – is even better.