Don’t expect much from John Flynn’s Best Seller (1987), an occasionally atmospheric, but badly mangled suspense/thriller, written by Larry Cohen, whose other ‘gems’ from this period include Maniac Cop (1988) and Bette Davis’ tragic swan song, Wicked Stepmother (1989: the one where she morphs from an old hag into a cat and then, Barbara Carrera). Best Seller ought to have been more than it is: the tale of a semi-retired assassin, Cleve (James Woods at his most scummy, slick and treacherous), intent on exacting bloody revenge on his former employer, David Madlock (Paul Shenar). To achieve his goal, Cleve has concocted a particularly inane plan of action: exploit a forthright cop cum best-selling author, Dennis Meechum (Brian Dennehy), whom he nearly murdered back in the late 1970’s, to write an exposé on Madlock’s criminal activities. Indeed, Cohen’s script ties in the fact Dennis and Cleve have met before; during a raid on the police department’s property room – inexplicably accessed through a secret passage via the men’s room at city hall. Cleve, along with three other men, all wearing Richard Nixon masks, leave a bloody trail inside this hidden bunker, murdering three of Dennis’ fellow officers and damn near killing him too. At the last possible moment, Dennis plunges a concealed knife into the gut of his would-be assassin – Cleve – who nevertheless takes a few pot shots before stumbling into the getaway van.
Fast forward to the present – or rather, 1987: Meechum, still on the force, despite his formidable girth and advancing years. Ah, but here he is, plain clothes and involved in a high security sting operation on the docks that, predictably, turns ugly and leads directly into a prolonged and not terribly prepossessing chase sequence. It seems every mystery, drama, suspense thriller from the 80’s had one of these to recommend it. Best Seller’s hot pursuit is a fairly inarticulate and wasteful affair; staged with pedestrian theatrics by director, Flynn, occasionally from an interesting overhead or low angle to elevate the overall intensity; Jay Ferguson’s tinny industrial-sounding score never going beyond the tradition of canned excitement; just something cooked up on a synthesizer to fill the aural gap between heavy breathing and even heavier soles beating across the tarmac.
Unexpectedly, Meechum is reunited with Cleve, whom he does not recognize at first without the mask. Cleve saves Dennis’ life by executing a drug-smuggling longshoreman (Branscombe Richmond) who nearly puts a bullet in Meechum’s back. It’s all very dramatic in a ho-hum sort of way – Meechum puffing like a rhino; his suspect opening fire on an unsuspecting crane operator (presumably, to illustrate for the audience his gun is, in fact, loaded) before taking to some overhead mechanized rigging in a large hanger; the God spot from which he intends to do away with Meechum once and for all. Cleve’s omnipotent quality (he seems to be everywhere all at once all the time, knowing exactly what is going down or about to happen and how best to effectively diffuse the situation). This is more than a little unsettling – at first.
We can almost buy into this notion too, mostly because James Woods is a consummate actor; gutsy, self-involved, egotistical and full of cunning. Believing Dennehy as the rough n’ tumble, burn out of a cop/author with an axe to grind and an almost unquenchable thirst to have Cleve scraped off the pavement, takes a little more convincing; chiefly because Dennehy is always above his character’s limited pugnaciousness and seriously flawed modus operandi. He’s a widower, a father, and a frazzled wordsmith with writer’s block. His ‘relationship’ with Woods’ is a little like Foghorn Leghorn vs. the dog in those old Warner Brothers cartoons; Dennis, perpetually itching to send Woods’ antsy and preening hitman through a plate glass window or brick wall with his bare fists all the doo-dah day. Dennis does, in fact, split Cleve’s lip wide open during a nightclub brawl. He matches him with half-cocked weaponry during a bedroom confrontation in the wee midnight hour, the moment laced with some cheap Freudian ‘show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ homoerotic subtext; even less convincing than the notion these two warring whack jobs could wind up being good friends.
Best Seller is already a B-grade/C-budgeted effort. As though to prove this point we are introduced to some other fairly nondescript characters, given next to nothing to enliven the plot; Victoria ‘Flowers in the Attic’ Tennant as Dennis’ frigid editor, ice queen/snow bitch, Roberta Gillian, her knickers in a ball over Dennis’ lack of motivation to finish another ‘best seller’ on the advance her publishing house has already afforded him; George Coe as Graham, Madlock’s personal attorney with a pocket full of congenial threats that go nowhere fast; Jeffrey Josephson, as Madlock goon, Pearlman, whom Dennis makes fun of for bad hair plugs, and finally, Edward Blackoff, as Thorn, a particularly ineffectual stooge in Madlock’s army of gun-toting idiots; his big moment – threatening Dennis’ sixteen year old daughter, Holly (Allison Balson) before having his neck snapped by Cleve; Holly caught in perpetual teary-eyed cringe mode. And then there are Cleve’s parents (Mary Carver and Charles Tyner) to consider, or rather, to forget. I am genuinely at a loss to explain director, Flynn’s retrospective on Cleve’s childhood, particularly as it intrudes upon the main plot with virtually no tie-in or payoff later on.
As far as thrillers go, Best Seller begins with an absolutely nonsensical premise. Dennis discovering it was Cleve who shot and nearly killed him during the diamond heist gone awry nearly a decade ago ought to have spelled the end for their already strained buddy/buddy alliance of convenience. After all, Dennis is the Dudley Do-right of this piece; a little frayed around the cuffs and collar, and increasing getting steamed underneath it, but otherwise, basically, a ‘good guy’ counterpoint to Cleve’s cookie full of arsenic; unrepentant about killing for hire, except now he wants retribution to rain down on the man who made his oily cock of the walk possible. You know what they say about biting the hand that feeds; what it does for the cool cat tempted by curiosity too? Cleve will not come out on top. He really hasn’t that option. Alas, instead of explaining away the reasons why an autonomous assassin would expose his identity to the cop he nearly murdered, even out of desperation to have him write a ‘tell all’ to destroy his own arch nemesis is more than a little fishy. Okay, honestly, it stinks to high heaven. Why Dennis should follow Cleve from L.A. to New York on a whim – or rather, for proof against Cleve – and damn near miss getting blown to bits by a failed car bomb for his troubles – making a pilgrimage to Cleve’s family home; a little farm where good, honest and hardworking folk first spawned the Frankenstein monster, as yet, without knowing it; these are moments of introspection in Larry Cohen’s script dealt with in the most clichéd inadequacies of screenwriting 101 yet.
Worse, the central ‘vengeance is mine’ scenario just doesn’t hold up. Cleve wants Madlock dead. So why not do the job himself? Why involve Dennis? The most his book could do is smear Madlock’s nose in the already foul stench of his own reputation. But why does Cleve want this instead of Madlock’s blood spilled? Good question. Evidently, Cleve is persona non grata; an exile from Madlock’s criminal organization, now using charitable philanthropy to cloak deeper sins and ongoing political corruption, drug smuggling, etc. and et al. Larry Cohen’s screenplay is a little vague into which piles of manure Madlock is up to his elbows. But why should any of this matter to a big shot like Madlock? He could easily have Cleve rubbed out instead of fired from his organization. Somewhere along the way, Cohen’s script gets very sloppy, to the point where it cannot quite justify exactly what the story is about or where exactly its characters are within its ever-unraveling chain of events. To bolster the plot, or perhaps confuse and divert the audiences’ attentions even further, we momentarily digress to a spookily lit industrial laundry service, where one of Cleve’s complicit former paramours (Jenny Gago) now fears for her life. Good intuition on her part. For within moments of meeting this scared mountain goat, all hell once again breaks loose; leaving Cleve and Dennis on the defensive and this young disposable gal on her knees with a fatal knife wound to the chest. Another one bites the dust!
Pity, none of these loose narrative threads are tied up with any degree of finality, much less competence. Madlock’s arsenal of supposedly high paid mafia-styled protection are the equivalent of the Keystone Cops; bumping into furniture and each other as they struggle in vain to escape Cleve’s dead aim. And then there’s Cleve. Who is he? Practically psychotic during the diamond heist prologue; later, reveling as he slits the throat of a New York City cabbie, Foley (William Bronder) inside a photo-mat booth (the most gruesomely unexpected moment in the movie), after he learns from Foley Madlock paid him to abandon Cleve and Dennis in the backseat of a taxi with a bomb about to go off. Later, Cleve takes Dennis to a brownstone on the lower east side merely to prove to him he’s been there before and murdered its former owner, pleasantly bribing the current proprietor (Anne Pitoniak) into letting them in; picking a bar fight he can’t win without his gun against a Texas-styled longhorn (Michael Crabtree) over a silly young blonde trick, dumb as a post, but bumped out in all the right places, and who ultimately winds up splayed for the obligatory thirty-second nudie shot, reading a magazine in Cleve’s bed.
But again, who is Cleve? James Woods gives us some compelling insight peppered with that usual self-assured neuroticism that infiltrates virtually all the actor’s finely wrought characterizations. Too bad Cleve is less three dimensional than a variation on a very flatly premised mama’s boy who was never quite able to crawl out from under the Midwestern angst and pall of being just a good ole boy turned rancid without a cause or purpose. He’s a freak, as Meechum goads; illustrating the epitome of his volatile bipolarity in the movie’s climax; a balls in/guts shot out finale at Madlock’s palatial beachfront home, playing host to some sort of underprivileged children’s house party. Remember, Cleve is a ruthless killer. He enjoys it. But knowing Dennis has suddenly made him soft – mostly, in the head. He rescues Holly twice, takes out Madlock’s bumblers with ease, demanding to know their names before each kill, but then pursues a totally implausible policy of altruism that costs him his own life in the end. Does Cleve want to die? Nothing about the character indicates as much. And Madlock is hardly the kind to get his own hands dirty at the point of a gun. That’s what the hired help is for – however ill-conceived for the job they may be.
It’s frankly painful to watch Woods and Dennehy go through the motions of this last act finale, so unsatisfying and contrived, both actors must have set their artistic integrity from ‘stun’ to ‘comfortably numb’ with a good bottle of scotch after cashing their paychecks. Best Seller achieves a level of mediocrity few thrillers have by misfiring at even the most base level. Suspension of disbelief is one thing. But Best Seller strains the audience patience for even a straight forward suspense yarn. Larry Cohen ought to have steered clear of the twists and turns; all of them ultimately leading to a dead end. ‘Clever’ is so obviously not his thing! Ditto for director, John Flynn, whose post Best Seller career speaks for itself; badly achieved B-grade shoot ‘em ups with Stallone and Seagal; also a quickie schlock horror flick. Best Seller is about as captivating as watching pudding harden. Nothing wrong with that if you like either your tapioca runny or your smooth vanilla with more than a few clunky lumps mixed in. But honestly, there’s better work out there to feed your fix for a solid two hours. This one has excised two from my life I can never get back. Regrets!
Okay, moment of truth for the folks over at MGM/Fox, the custodians of the old Orion Pictures library, who continue to offer us such crap-tac-u-lar 1080p transfers as this. As already explained, Best Seller is hardly a great film. But if it’s deemed worthy enough for a reissue in hi-def the least that can be done is to clean up these existing elements to satisfy Blu-ray’s long abandoned claim of ‘perfect picture’ and ‘theater quality sound’. When was the last time ANY vintage catalog from MGM/Fox met those requirements?!? Best Seller has been farmed out to Olive Home Video, presumably to keep its’ crummy quality a solid distance from the MGM/Fox banner. It’s properly framed in 1.85:1; probably the best that can be said of this disc; otherwise cribbing its visuals and audio from tired old and improperly archived elements in need of preservation and restoration. The opening several minutes include optical dissolves and montages and are among the most unstable and pathetically subpar looking visuals yet achieved in hi-def. Frisbee disc, anyone? Grain – exceptionally heavy. Overall softness? Yep, you bet. Crushed blacks, weak contrast, faded, dull and muddy colors? Oh yeah! Sign me up. If I wanted this film on VHS I would have sought it out in a $1.99 bin at my local thrift shop, thank you very much!!!
The counterbalance to all my caterwauling is that once this prologue has ended, the image begins to snap together as it should. Colors and contrast both improve and outdoor sequences deliver an admirable amount of clarity. I should, however, point out MGM’s old DVD from 2002 offered similar improvements, leading me to deduce this Blu-ray transfer is another of the studio’s quiet bait and switches, using the same digital files merely bumped to a 1080p signal herein. No new remastering to satisfy Blu-ray’s vastly superior technology. More proof: age-related artifacts are present in exactly the same frame captures from both the Blu-ray and the DVD. Overall, nicks, chips and scratches do not distract. Biggest disappointment: the color. Orangey flesh persists. Overall color is dated and occasionally quite muddy. Best Seller's DTS 2.0 audio sounds about on par with the old DVD tracks, albeit, minutely crisper with slightly better separation between dialogue and effects. This is a base effort – if even the word ‘effort’ can be used to describe MGM/Fox’s commitment to external catalog titles currently under their distribution umbrella. Pass – and be sincerely glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)