Ross Thomas was one of America's great thriller/mystery/political skullduggery writers. He wrote 20 books under his own name and five as Oliver Bleeck. One would think he'd have been fertile ground for Hollywood to till. In fact, only one of his books made it to the screen, The Procane Chronicle under the Bleeck name. The movie, St. Ives, directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring Charles Bronson, is the result. We can see why Hollywood never tried again.
It's not that St. Ives is a poor movie. With Thomas' clever, twisty plot largely in tact, the last half of the movie moves briskly along. However, Ross Thomas and Charles Bronson make highly unlikely partners. Bronson's stoic, strong, silent guy-who-can-take-care-of-himself is not a good fit for what remains of Philip St. Ives' (now renamed, for some reason, Raymond). The second and more important drawback is that a movie of reasonable length will have a hard time coherently taking us through the twists and corners, the under-handed dealings, the false leads and the intelligent style in a Ross Thomas plot.
Ray St. Ives used to be a big-time crime reporter. Now he's trying to be a novelist. He lives in the cheap Hotel Lido and brews chicory coffee in an old Bunn coffee maker. St. Ives gets an offer. The eccentric, wealthy, 65-year-old Abner Procane (John Houseman) had five brown, leather-bound ledgers stolen. The thieves want $100,000. For acting as a go-between, Procane will pay St. Ives $10,000. All he has to do is be at a certain laundromat at 2 a.m., give the money and get the ledgers.
When St. Ives shows up, however, the only thing he finds, crammed into one of the dryers and turning with the spin cycle, is a man with a broken neck.
After he leaves the police station, St. Ives reports back to Procane with the money but with no ledgers. He meets once more Procane's zaftig assistant, Janet Whistler (Jacqueline Bisset), and Procane's friend and psychiatrist, Dr John Constable (Maximilian Schell). By the time St. Ives goes through the switch one more time in a men's restroom, he's been Bronson-beaten and Bronson-victorious in an abandoned warehouse, gotten on poor terms with two cops, found another cop dead with an ice pick in the chest but finally was able to return those ledgers to Procane.
St. Ives has also learned that Procane is not just an eccentric old gentleman who loves to watch The Big Parade. He is an elegant and supremely talented big-time thief. And one of the returned ledgers is missing four pages containing the meticulous plans Procane developed to relieve some very wealthy business interests of $4 million. No spoilers here; this is just a set-up for the main event.
It all starts to come together in a drive-in theater one evening where $4 million will be exchanged, where the ones who stole Procane's plans will act on them, and where Procane, St. Ives and Janet Whistler will be waiting to interfere as much as possible. With the exception of a few deaths, a couple of betrayals and a lit pool with one person oozing blood and life, it all works out as planned.
Ross Thomas' books are such a pleasure to read because they are well and pungently written, we can savor the plot twists and we can enjoy the personalities of the characters that Thomas builds for us. Thomas also had a knack for coming up with memorable names. Some I enjoy are Otherguy Overby, Morgan Citron, Anna Maude Singe, Ben Dill and, particularly, Velveeta Keats. His people are usually a bit cynical -- or at least supremely realistic -- about what they might encounter. The plots almost sneer with good humor at the hypocritical nature of some of the people we meet. But try capturing that in a Hollywood movie without losing the intelligent style. The movie St. Ives proves it is just about impossible.
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About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer (Charley2)
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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