A Walk Among The Tombstones is a movie many crime fiction fans have been waiting for. It is one of the more admired books from Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series, and one of the touchstones of modern private eye writing. The adaptation was placed into the hands of writer-director Scott Frank, who is responsible for two of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations out there (Get Shorty and Out Of Sight), while his directorial debut, The Lookout, is one of the best crime films of this century so far. On paper, it was a tantalizing match, but there were also some reasons for trepidation. The book is the seventh in the series with Scudder in mid-transition, making it an odd choice to adapt to film. It is also close to 400 pages with an important sub-plot involving Matt’s girlfriend, Elaine, that contributes to that arc. On top of that, you have a lead character who is incredibly internal. After viewing the film and especially thinking about it after, one realizes that Scudder was in the right hands.
The film starts with a well executed and defining gunfight for Scudder. Then, after one of the most disturbing opening credit sequences you’ll see, the plot begins much like the book. Scudder, an unlicensed P.I. and recovered alcoholic (one of the main differences in the movie is he quits the day after that shoot-out) is approached by a fellow AA member to work for his brother. The brother, a drug trafficker, paid a ransom for his kidnapped wife, only to have her returned in pieces, wrapped like butcher meat. He wants Scudder to find the men responsible and bring them to him. Matt turns him down first, but takes the job, realizing the perpetrators are psychopaths, in it for the hunt and torture, and that they will do it again.
Most of the changes from page to screen come from Scott Frank’s compression of the tale to reach a manageable running time. A sharp bit of craftsmanship comes in reshaping a part of the book where a witness mistakenly believes there was a third suspect during the abduction of an earlier victim. Instead of this, Scott creates an unsettling yet utterly human character who gives Scudder three leads in one scene, though it took Scudder close to hundred pages to gather these in the book. Frank also had to jettison two supporting characters, a hooker who survived the psychos and the lawyer who represents her. Both alone are worth picking up the novel for.
Another character missing is Elaine, the call girl Scudder is at the start of the relationship with. She helps Matt in the investigation and his involvement with her marks a particular turning point in the series. It is in this book where Scudder makes the choice to truly connect with someone again or not.
Here, Scott Frank does something interesting. Instead of using the arc from the book, he tackles a small step in Scudder’s stumbling soul search. This is dealt with in his relationship with T.J., a street kid who acts as Matt’s Baker Street Irregular, portrayed without sentimentality by Brian “Astro” Bradley. He also uses a device employed by Block, where the shoot outside the bar becomes clearer as Scudder tells it in a more honest way. We’re seeing a man as he begins to realize his position in the dark world he has chosen for himself.
Fans will truly appreciate Liam Neeson’s performance. The actor allows his presence and natural gravitas do much of the work for him as he underplays with a worn and weary edge. He and Frank take a cue from the author, realizing the hero’s complexity’s and subtle contradictions, they simply let the character run and let the audience, like the reader, bring themselves to him. Early on we get to witness Scudder’s detached realism when he is asked if the corruption on NYPD made him quit the force and Neeson delivers the line. “No, I couldn’t have supported my family without it,” with perfect tone. At that point, we know we have our Scudder.
A Walk Among The Tombstones is a harsh film. I flinched at things I knew were coming from having read the book. With little gore and violence, we get the the the full impact of the very mean streets this private eye walks down. Much like Lawerence Block’s series, it pulls no punches, telling a very adult story and treating its audience as such. That alone makes it a film worth supporting.