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Massachusetts noir: Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone November 6, 2007

Posted by jackal in : TV, Film Noir , trackback

Robert B. Parker is a fixture of American crime writing, most famous for his long-running Spenser series, now some 35 novels strong. In recent years, however, he’s also turned to a couple of new central characters: female Boston P.I. Sunny Randall (originally designed as a movie vehicle for Helen Hunt) and the troubled anti-hero Jesse Stone. A depressed, functioning alcoholic fired from the LA police force, Stone winds up as police chief in the small Pacific coast town of Paradise, Massachusetts. Haunted by the ex-wife he left behind, Stone’s humble new job is his last chance at salvaging a life and career, and he knows it.

From this starting point Parker is slowly building an increasingly rich and satisfying series of novels, a deliberate departure from the world of Spenser. Stone is younger, flawed, less of a wise-guy. Thus far we have had six novels: Night Passage, Trouble in Paradise, Death in Paradise, Stone Cold, Sea Change and High Profile, which is released in paperback here in the UK this month.

Spenser never translated fully well to the big screen, largely because the right actor to play him hasn’t been found; neither Robert Urich nor Joe Mantegna fully fit the bill of the honourable Boston P.I., an ex-boxer from whom the wisecracks slip as easily as breathing. Parker’s own suggestion of Robert Mitchum in his prime doesn’t get us anywhere, at least without a time machine, and I struggle to think of anyone today who genuinely suits the role.

For whatever reason, Jesse Stone is somehow an easier character to cast. I’ve always pictured Kurt Russell while reading the books, but you could easily find a number of actors for the role. So when the novels came to Hollywood a couple of years ago, in a Stone Cold TV movie starring … Tom Selleck, it seemed an odd choice. Selleck was then 60, playing a character written as 35. It didn’t seem obvious casting.

As it turns out, Selleck was a fan of the books and, serving as executive producer of Stone Cold, protected the integrity of the adaptation. When that film was a ratings hit, a TV movie series bloomed, and Selleck has continued to ensure that the spirit of Parker’s books makes it to the screen intact. There have been plot changes here and there, but at other times entire scenes, frequently down to the dialogue, are lifted from the books unchanged. Parker has in fact called the Jesse Stone movies the most faithful screen versions of his work.

Following 2005’s Stone Cold (actually the fourth novel), Selleck and co. went back and filmed the first novel, Night Passage, as a prequel. Death in Paradise (the third novel) followed that, but was set after Stone Cold. Then (if you’re still keeping up), bringing the series back into line with the novels, Sea Change (a rather loose adaptation of the fifth novel) premiered earlier this year. Currently in post-production is Thin Ice, from an original screenplay, and planned for a Spring 2008 premiere. If it maintains the ratings success, the series will surely continue.

Parker’s characters, dialogue and plots aside, the chief reason for the movies’ success is Selleck, who has delivered consistently exceptional performances as Jesse Stone. Physically, he brings immense gravitas to the character. With his broad but aging 6′ 4″ frame he resembles a grizzled bear, bowed but not broken. Stone is just as he appears in the books: a man of deep regrets. In Sea Change he says “you know, you live long enough, you have regrets. And the ones that nag at you the most are the ones where you knew you had a choice.” The lone picture on display in his home is of a diving Ozzie Smith, a reminder of Stone’s own once-promising career as a shortstop, curtailed by injury. He’s a drunk, barely staying in control, and knows it. He’s also a disciplined police officer with a strong sense of justice and a line in self-deprecating humour (his catchphrase: “I’m just a small town cop; mostly I give out parking tickets”). There’s an economy to his actions; every move is deliberate, each word or gesture has a purpose, and backing it up is a quiet yet visceral strength. On top of it all, Selleck looks more than a decade younger than his 60-some years, negating any concern over his suitability for the role. He got an Emmy nomination for Best Actor in a miniseries or movie for the most recent adaptation, Sea Change, but lost out to Robert Duvall for Broken Trail. Selleck richly deserves to win at least once before the series is through.

Also integral to the continuing success of the films is director Robert Harmon, who has been behind the camera for every entry so far. He succeeds in letting the story unfold at a relaxed pace, allowing characters room to breathe and ensuring that the sparse action, when it does come, is sharply crafted and makes an impact. There are no car chases or gunfights every ten minutes; the movies are somewhat old-fashioned police procedurals, given real bite by the character of Stone and Selleck’s powerhouse portrayal. The atmosphere throughout is downbeat, melancholy; noir is the watchword, and Jeff Beal’s stark but haunting score is the perfect accompaniment. Okay, these are only TV movies, but they’re thoroughly satisfying, and several notches above the competition. They come highly recommended from these quarters. Just make sure you read the novels first.

Now if only somebody would make a similar series of Sunny Randall movies with Katee Sackhoff in the lead. Too young? Maybe, but she’s got attitude to burn, and more than enough charisma and talent to take on the role.

Sackhoff and Jamie Bamber in BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

Starbuck again. Hard at work as always.


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