I’ve read almost all of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels, including A Walk Among the Tombstones, but happily it was long enough ago that I had forgotten all the details. Therefore I watched this film adaptation, written and directed by Scott Frank, with eager suspense. It’s an extremely hard-boiled private eye mystery, just the way I like ’em. It even gives shout-outs to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.
Frank, who has done well by Elmore Leonard in two films, does Block even better. There was Scudder movie released many years ago, Eight Million Ways to Die, with Jeff Bridges, that was not a success. Perhaps now, with Liam Neeson as Scudder, still with some of his Taken attitude about him, will get a series going, even if he is a bit old for the part.
Scudder is a former cop who has left the force due to alcoholism. The books consistently mention his AA meetings, and many of the plots start with people he meets there. So does this one, as a fellow alcoholic presents him with a problem: his brother’s wife has been kidnapped. The catch: the brother (Dan Stevens) is a drug dealer. Apparently a couple of psychos are snatching the significant others of prominent dealers, figuring they won’t go to the police. But these guys are really interested in cutting up their hostages into little pieces.
The film is set in 1999, (the book was published in 1992). The specter of Y2K, which we now was harmless, looms across the plot. It’s impossible to update Scudder, because he doesn’t fit in the digital age. He always uses pay phones, for example, and I believe there are no pay phones on the streets of New York City anymore. He befriends a homeless black teen who actually can use the Internet and fancies himself Scudder’s partner. This plot thread is a bit of a liberal fantasy, but Frank keeps the sentimentality to a minimum.
This is a grim movie. There are some lighthearted moments, mostly with the black kid, but overall it presents the city as a grid of mean streets. Justice is subjective–in fact, there are no police involved in this film at all. The tone and color pattern of the film–mostly grays–will not have you whistling a happy tune, and the closing song, a torch version of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” by Nouela, is the perfect music to grab your coat by.
Frank is also to be congratulated for an extended scene that reminded me of the baptism scene in The Godfather. This time a young woman, at an AA meeting, recites the 12 steps. This is cross-cut with the climactic shootout in a Brooklyn cemetery, and then the denouement in a house a few miles away. It’s powerful stuff.
Neeson brings the proper world-weariness to the role, though he starts the film with a New York accent that he gives up on in toward the end, his Irish brogue emerging triumphant. Stevens, who is best known for Downton Abbey, is unrecognizable as the drug dealer.
My grade for A Walk Among the Tombstones: A-.