Best Seller

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Dennis Meechum (Brian Dennehy) is an old cop who has spent a decade of his career moonlighting as an author of true-crime and detective novels. After his wife dies, Meechum is unable to write and disillusioned with being a cop until Cleve (James Woods) comes into his life. Cleve claims to be an assassin for corrupt businessman David Madlock (Paul Shenar) Meechum reluctantly agrees to write a tell-all about the killings and corporate espionage.

Penned by Larry Cohen and directed by John Flynn, Best Seller (1987) is one of the underrated crime films of the eighties. Cohen’s script positions Meechum as an active interrogator of the genre while Cleve constantly reinforces that the improbable that is so common in these features is actually the truth. Subversion is covertly folded into the fabric of the dialogue and the script itself. Meanwhile, Flynn’s excellent direction consistently ratchets up the suspense and exploits every opportunity for visual misdirection.

Like so many of the great crime films Best Seller posits that organized crime and law enforcement are morally and philosophically the same. But into this well tread dichotomy Best Seller introduces big business and politics as the patron of both sides; the glue that connects all the dregs of society. In American capitalist society crime, law enforcement, and politics are all just part of the business of making money. It’s when Meechum puts pen to paper and spells out these connections that Best Seller kicks into high gear as Madlock begins to make his move against Meechum and Cleve.

Stylistically Flynn builds upon the fast cuts and close quarters violence of Rolling Thunder (1977). But there’s something sleazier and more sexual about the violence in Best Seller. Cleve’s flashbacks to his murders are shot in close ups that isolate little details that are viscerally evocative. This stratagem is employed in scenes of intimidation as if Cleve’s ever gesture were fatal caresses. This sensuality exudes from Woods’ performance as well in how he stares at his would be victims as if they were objects of desire. This added layer distorts space and time while simultaneously clouding Cleve’s morality and obscuring his motivations.

Aesthetically Cohen and Flynn are linked by their interest in painting an authentic tableau that puts the action and the audience into specific environments. Cohen’s love for seedy urban spaces is present as is Flynn’s interest in moving the camera through such spaces, offering the audience a fluid series of vantage points from which to observe the milieu of the mise en scène. The illusion of this seeming authenticity contrasts with the fantasy inherent to the action sequences in Best Seller as if to restate the fundamental relationship of the two protagonists.

With all of this happening at once as Meechum and Cleve headlong to meet their fate, Best Seller becomes a masterpiece of genre minimalism. The dramatic beats come in a rapid succession so that the viewer is hardly aware of how the aesthetic machinations of Cohen and Flynn are working on them. With any leads other than Woods and Dennehy to sell this sordid piece of pulp Best Seller wouldn’t work half as well as it does. Woods and Dennehy are unique, powerhouse performers working at the peak of their powers to elevate a good movie to a great movie.

And yet Best Seller bombed at the box office and drifted into obscurity. Best Seller has had its champions of course, but too few to merit a cult following. The prestige of Flynn and Cohen may have increased over the years but with Best Seller as a noticeable omission. Best Seller is available on Blu-Ray from Olive Films so it isn’t a matter of the film being unavailable to audiences and cinephiles. Most likely Best Seller has languished as it has simply because no one has bothered to give the film a second look and advocate its reappraisal.