A Matter of Principal (Jeffrey Goodman , 2003) & The Last Lullaby (Jeffrey Goodman, 2008)

Hard Case Crime, Film Noir style

by Douglas Buck Volume 24 Issue 5-6-7 / July 2020 12 minutes (2793 words)

It was thanks to the ambitious American imprint Hard Case Crime — a label putting out monthly noir and crime titles since 2005, alternating its impressive output between new hardboiled takes from current writers, and Golden Age noir classics (sometimes even previously lost ones), from the 40’s and 50’s (with each new release gifted with a recreation of one those spectacularly flashy lurid covers from the style of yesteryear) — that I was introduced to the violent and sexy pulp tales of Max Allan Collin’s favorite professional hitman Quarry.

Told – at least so far — over thirteen books, one graphic novel and a couple of short stories written over a period of over 50 years (the first book published all the way back in 1976, the last one in 2019), covers a little over a decade of Quarry’s life (70’s through the 80’s) with a backstory in which our protagonist had returned from Vietnam to the unpleasant sight of his wife in bed with another man, killed the son of a bitch, only to find himself – understandably – turned into a bit of a pariah among friends and workers, approached by an enigmatic middleman known only as the Broker who convinced our out-of-work, drinking-himself-to-death vet that, hey, why not optimize those killing skills crafted as a US Marine sniper and take that experience into the illegal netherworld of the criminal private sector (where killin’ can make you a… well… a killin’).

The main thrust of each tale has the calculating professional known as Quarry (with his real name being, the working killer reminding us in the engaging and coldly amused first person narrative style the entire series is written in, ‘none of our business’) first recounting, usually somewhere within the initial 10 pages (of these relatively short novels – that being in the long-standing pulp novel tradition), his backstory, then leading us into his latest ‘assignment’ that naturally turns far more intriguing than expected, inevitably leading to a few twists in the road requiring some quick thinking survival instincts on Quarry’s part (as well as a few more violent deaths than initially expected), the bedding down of a couple of random horny middle American woman, and swimming… a lot of swimming, which Quarry does to relax his mind, be it in the lake at his hidden Wisconsin A-frame cottage, or the indoor pool of whatever nondescript motel he’s staying in while doing his weeks long pre-hit surveillance of his target (with the quiet pool at night being the place to meet a few of these lonely woman, naturally).

While the Quarry books may not be a trailblazer as far as following the continuing story of a sociopathic hired killer, Collins (he of “Road to Perdition” fame) has boasted (true or false, I have no idea) they’re the first to be written from the first-person killer’s perspective. While that may be true, what I’d argue lies at the heart of their success (and that speaks to Collins’ talent in creating a satisfying assembly-line approach, certainly with Quarry, and I’m betting for a number of his other series, such as his equally readable and digestible one following the tough-guy professional thief Nolan) is the author’s reliance on a steady formula, and repeating it just up to the edge of it growing a bit tired, then revamping the setup again, with the revised formula being something he can drape a few more tales off of, reworking again… and again… for… well… forever, or until Collins has had enough, I guess. Whichever comes first.

Following this approach, Collins’ tales drop his lead into three different epochs. First, is his time with the silver-haired, elegantly-dressed Broker, working hit assignments with his assigned slightly sloppy, short and stout — and flaming gay — partner Boyd (of who Quarry makes the occasional inappropriate old-school observation, but overall could give a shit less as long as Boyd does his job right, which becomes more questionable as this section of tales moves along). The second (and most cleverly devised) period comes post- the massacre that takes out both boss and partner, with Quarry left out in the cold, but coming up with a way of continuing his paying gigs; that is, by silently stalking a random other still-working assassin who was once an employee of the Broker (with the killer’s name found on the Broker’s hidden list Quarry managed to get his hands on) until he can discover who their latest target is, then contacting the prey to see if they wanna hire him to take out the aforementioned killer out to get them.

The last period moves us into the Reagan 80’s, with Quarry’s attempt at retirement in his lake cottage with the perfect wife (which, for that openly devilish Quarry, equals one having a young, willing and nubile body good for sex, yet a mind completely bereft of intellectual curiosity, allowing him to avoid those uncomfortable questions on how exactly he managed to secure his retirement) thrown into chaos and bloodshed as his old life has followed him back again, leading him first into a bout of pure alcoholic fog (something that always happens between books and is recounted by Quarry, as the tales always find him during the sober times in which he’s sobered up, drinking Coke only), then back into even more dangerous contract work, as well as, through sheer happenstance, moonlighting as a manager at a small Wisconsin resort in the country for an old ‘Nam buddy (a place where he always enviably manages to find plenty of female trysts, be whether an unhappy aging trophy wife of one of the rich guests, or some bratty college kid working the resort restaurant… ).

There have been a few cinematic takes on the books, with perhaps the most visible (which isn’t saying much as it only lasted a single 8-episode season) being the Cinemax series Quarry released in 2016. It starts narratively similar, taking place in the 70’s, with the show’s protagonist (given a name now, Mac Conway) returning from ‘Nam (to a lot of spitting, ‘baby killer’ placard carrying angry left-wingers at the airport, one of those enduring myths America’s Right effectively conjured up at the time to demonize war protestors) to find his wife having that affair; it’s the milieu, however, that has been transformed, from the colder climes of the Midwest, to a setting much more aligned with neo-noir, namely, the sweaty, blues-drenched South; specifically, Memphis, with the backdrop of social and racial unrest playing as an effective additional element to the expanded character universe of the story, with Quarry’s assignments taking him up and down the humid – and earthy — Mississippi.

Starting with the removal of the detached narrative style of the book, the show brings a far more messy, realistic version, with the show’s Quarry played by Logan Marshal-Green, perfect in the part, yet miles away from the book’s original version, as a dishevelled down home Southern boy, having been a mere grunt in Vietnam, rather than a cold killing machine, now struggling with PTSD, trying to work out that troubled relationship with a wife he still loves (yes, he kills her lover, but it’s a mistaken crime of passion rather than a cold deliberate act of revenge), deciding to take on the hitman job as a way to make money, and quickly finding himself in way over his head.

Quary TV series

As far removed as the show was from Collins’ creation, Cinemax’s Quarry still mustered up one extremely well realized, gritty slice of sweaty neo-noir life. It’s a shame it never found its audience.

Director Jeffrey Goodman’s 2003 twenty-plus minute film A Matter of Principal takes as its source (as well as the title) Collins’ darkly amusing short morsel that picks up our anti-hero near the very end of Quarry’s chronological run (at least so far – who knows where any further of Collins’ entries may pick up), back alone (with broker, partner, associates and lovers all pretty much pushing up daisies) attempting an anonymous retirement in another secluded A-frame cottage by a lake (the better to swim laps in in the summertime), with his last home having been burnt to the ground (murdered wife inside) by some nefarious types (have no worries, Quarry got his cold dish of revenge). Struggling with another bout of restless insomnia, he makes a trip to the local late night convenience store, only to stumble across a familiar face… a hitman he worked with in the past, tellingly buying women’s supplies. Following him, Quarry serendipitously comes across a kidnapping in progress by the shady character and his partner… and decides to take the opportunity to not only turn the kidnapping to his favor… but pay the two guys back for a past grudge… and by the conclusion, not only will the seemingly wrong spelling choice in the title be revealed as a clever play on words — its meaning moving from morality to straight cash payment — with Quarry revealing his less-than-altruistic motivations for freeing the spoiled little brat female kidnappee (a tight little bodied, rich-daddy-hating party girl who immediately tries to get Quarry in the sack)… but, as he tells us in the final entry of his first person narration, the ex-hitman finally gets his first good night of sleep in months.

While Goodman’s adaptation is faithful (no surprise, considering the script was written by Collins himself), the execution is hampered by its clearly miniscule-budget trappings, giving it a kind of awkward, student-esque quality. The relatively unknown actor chosen for Quarry, William Makozak, has the muscular stature (if nowhere near the acting chops) of a younger Peter Mullan, including graying beard, which is obviously not a bad thing on its own (in fact, the current Mullan is perfect as the less sophisticated, grittier version of the Broker character on the television series), but doesn’t at all fit the low key, blend-into-the-background everyman with a seductive charm borne straight from sociopathology (the Ted Bundy of the professional killer set) that Collins’ conjured up (in fact, if anything, Makozak is physically much more another Collins’ creation, the aforementioned big-time thief Nolan, who the Hard Case Crime folks have given a ringer-of-a-likeness to uber-tough guy Lee Van Cleef on their book covers).

For all the short film’s first-timer low budget transgressions, however, Collins was (fortunately enough) smitten enough by the excitement and energy of the young director that he allowed him another shot – the opportunity at directing a full feature-length adaptation of his novel The Last Quarry … and, man, did it pay off, as the re-named The Last Lullaby (with the reason for the title change perhaps the same as why Quarry is renamed ‘Price’ in the film, likely for some kind of contractual/rights issues) is one wonderful, (surprisingly) impressively subtle and thoroughly well-crafted cinematic trip into neo-noir/crime territory.

In an interesting set of creative circumstances, Collins slightly revised the events of his short tale A Matter or Principal and consumed it in as the prologue and jumping off point for his novel The Last Quarry, with The Last Lullaby following the same path, with director Goodman recounting the events from his short (in, it has to be said, a far more superior and cinematically riveting manner than the initial attempt), with the spoiled loose party girl that Quarry saves in that tale, then opportunistically ransoms back to her rich daddy, being the catalyst for the events that continue the novel’s narrative, that being her mob-connected father so liking the brash style of this Quarry guy that he offers the retired hitman an opportunity at a last assignment that’s just too enticing to resist… namely, a million dollars in cold hard cash… and all he’s gotta do is knock off some small town librarian… easy peasy, right? Yes… unless if the restless retiree whose been wiling away his lonely days and sleepless nights, suddenly finds himself during his usual surveilling breaking protocol by suddenly falling for his target… leading him down the dangerous path of trying to understand why this seemingly unassuming (though quite attractive, naturally) local administrator with a bullying boyfriend (until Quarry takes care of that) would be on any mob hit list…

With the setting of the tale moved to Louisiana – likely done for production tax credit incentives, but whatever the reason, as it did with the television “Quarry”, the milieu of the humid southern dripping over the tale does wonders for film — The Last Lullaby is a solid example of straight-up, tough and moody neo-noir. Dispensing of the voiceover used for the short film to replicate the Quarry stories’ first-person narration turns out to be the first of many smart choices, allowing the mystery to unfold of who this guy ‘Price’ is that we’re first watching (it almost made me wish I hadn’t read the books so I could be getting the full experience as well) restlessly meandering about his lake front cottage. The reimagining of the opening scenes of him stumbling across the kidnappers (no longer co-hitmen who once did him bad, but rather just some young punks looking to make a score) is the next upgrade to Goodman’s directing resume (and, holy hell, does the scene of Price coldly and viciously taking out the stumbling, quickly terrified kidnappers who have no idea who is hitting them raise the shockingly violent stakes) and the film just weaves along from there, with the slow revealing of information allowing a whole slew of quiet yet effective twists in the tale to come naturally, surprisingly, without being told by our narrator.

As per its noir pedigree, The Last Lullaby peppers the tale with colorful characters and familiar faces (including excellent aging character actors like Bill Smitrovich and Jerry Hardin, doing yeoman’s work as those immoral top-of-the-food-chain characters deviously pulling their strings). Price’s initial target Sarah, who is revealed as increasingly more mysterious, damaged – and possibly dangerous – the closer Price gets to her, is played by Sasha Alexander, a working actress I knew nothing about, but is really good here, holding back just enough, while also showing a suspicious stoicism as she learns the danger she’s facing. Looking quite a bit like Carrie Anne-Moss with less severe features, she’s physically perfect in the part… not a bombshell by any means, that would make her still working at the library something that could only happen in the movies, but enough of a looker that you can believe Price’s voyeuristic desires grow as he initially carries out his job.

Above and beyond all that, the real center of the film is Tom Sizemore as Price. While, again, not really the physical Quarry of the books (the actor is much more slouchy and messy than Collins’ lean creation), with the camera obsessively returning again and again to close-ups on the actor’s face, the film becomes in many ways a character study, allowing Sizemore to really show his skills, acting with a wonderful balance between deep intensity and also profound subtlety (an apt description that I would apply to much of the film), able to navigate and reveal Price’s constant emotional shifting – from tired and lonely ex-hitman, to ice-cold killer, to someone struggling with the reality that he’s allowing feelings back into his life. Sizemore is so good, while also gifted with that mysterious trait that all great actors have – namely, the camera loving them — you really have to wonder that hadn’t he so determinedly headed down his notorious path of crazed self-destruction for as long as he did, getting blacklisted all over movie town, if he wouldn’t have become a major star (rather than just the deservedly praised character actor he is known as… when not a punchline on TMZ for a sex tape or video of him smoking crack while delivering some barely coherent, vaguely racist rant). And, always of central importance to the success of this type of film, the chemistry between Sizemore and Alexander works. The sensual quality, borne from illicit and dangerous circumstances, is there between them.

As with many a memorable noir and neo-noir, The Last Lullaby isn’t a film looking to redefine a genre, or aspiring to some kind of elevated status. It’s a tough moody tale, happy to exist within a genre, of twisted betrayals and troubled love found against a backdrop of violence and deceit. It’s an admirable success and a more than worthy entry; sadly, it’s an under-appreciated film, seeming to reside in semi-obscurity. Too bad it’s the only two films Goodman has on his directing resume. Would love to see more from him.

A Matter of Principal (Jeffrey Goodman , 2003) & The Last Lullaby (Jeffrey Goodman, 2008)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Volume 24 Issue 5-6-7 / July 2020 Film Reviews   crime tv   film noir   hard case crime publishing   max allan collins