Wednesday 9 September 2020

On cable and streaming - John Baxter is entertained by the JESSE STONE FILMS based on stories by the prolific Robert B Parker (with cinematography by Australian DOP David Gribble)


Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone
        It’s a truism of the modern cinema that we no longer speak of “great photography.” Steadicam spelt the end of shaky hand-held sequences and digital took care of almost everything else. Although there will always be the occasional Storaro to push out the envelope, the capacity to emulate Hollywood cinematography in your living room is within the grasp of anyone with an adequate digital camera. Another few years and it will be achievable on our smartphones – if it isn’t already.

       All of which makes the achievement of Australian cinematographer David Gribble in the Jesse Stone made-for-cable features even more meritorious. Shot initially on 35mm, later on 16mm but latterly, I assume, on digital, the eight features, of which Gribble shot six, begin in 2005 with Stone Cold and conclude in 2015 with Lost in Paradise. All are exceptional but those lit by Gribble provide an object lesson in sustaining a mood by purely visual means. 

       Using a subdued palate of autumnal reds and browns, Gribble emphasizes his effects with low “magic hour” morning and evening light, perfectly in tune with the rueful tone of the films and the use by director Robert Harmon of wood, stone and earth, with occasional glimpses of the ocean or the fog-shrouded coast of Nova Scotia, standing in for Massachusetts. Everything is in harmony with lead actor Tom Selleck and the community of Paradise, Mass., which he serves as police chief. 

Genre fiction writers generally succeed in the cinema to the degree they stay out of the kitchen and leave the cooking to others. Michael Crichton made a dismal director, and who can forget -however much we try – Mickey Spillane playing Mike Hammer in The Girl Hunters?  Robert B. Parker had the sense to remain at his desk, at which he produced an astonishing forty novels featuring Boston private eye Spenser (a no-first-name cop preceding Morse), a further seven about female detective Sunny Randall, three westerns about lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, and eight novels about small town cop Jesse Stone which many – well, me anyway – feel constitute his best work. 

William Devane as psychiatrist Dix

Parker had patchy success on film and TV. Sunny Randall was created at the request of Helen Hunt, who wanted a credible female detective, but none of the novels have been filmed. Appaloosa,the first Cole and Hitch book, became a superior film with Ed Harris (who also directed), Viggo Mortensen, and Jeremy Irons in a new take on the land-grabbing villain from Back East. Robert Urich made a credible Spenser in the series Spenser: For Hire, with Avery Brooks a moderately convincing version of his sidekick Hawk. Over the recent Spenser Confidential with Mark Wahlberg, however, it is kinder to draw a veil. 

In the Jesse Stone films, Parker found the best screen incarnation of his spare and wryly humorous prose. Tom Selleck, who co-wrote and co-produced most of the series in association with Michael Brandman, director Robert Harmon, composer Jeff Beal and cinematographer Gribble, perfectly embodies the city cop reduced to imposing law and order on a town where the traditional role of the police chief has been handing out parking tickets. 

It goes without saying that Stone finds more than enough crime in Paradise to go round, including rape and murder among the yacht-club set and the occasional domestic spat or liquor store robbery gone bad - not forgetting husband-and-wife thrill killers and a bank robbery perpetrated by two sisters to finance home help for their ailing mother. 

Tom Selleck and 'Reggie'

Through all of these, Stone ambles at a deceptively lazy pace, pausing occasionally to unwrap and chew a stick of gum, tease his latent alcoholism with a Scotch or two, brood over his ex-wife Jenn (no less a presence for being just a provocative voice at the other end of a telephone line), find friendship with his red setter Reggie, and, almost as an after-thought, take a number of attractive women to bed.  (That most of them, like Reggie, are auburn or red-headed is presumably no accident, since their colouring harmonises perfectly with Gribble’s lighting. Paradise is no country for blondes.)  

For anyone wishing to become acquainted with these superior pieces of entertainment, I suggest starting out-of-order with 2006’s Night Passage. As it commences, Stone, fired from the LA force for his drinking, is taking a last look at the Pacific before setting out across country to the only job going, in Paradise, Mass. Night Passage not only introduces Jesse but also some continuing characters, including his eager deputy Luther “Suitcase” Simpson and Stephen McHattie as the state homicide chief. Still to come are some familiar faces: William Devane’s Dix, a grizzled psychoanalyst, Kathy Baker’s Rose, the voice of compassion on Jesse’s team, Saul Rubinek as a larcenous used-car dealer with a light-up bow tie, William Sadler as a local gang boss, and such ladies-of-a-certain-age as Mimi Rogers, Sean Young and Rebecca Pidgeon who drop by to add class and style. 

Laconic dialogue makes the films a delight but there’s nothing to quote. Everything is inference. A glance, a raised eyebrow, a dog’s doleful look, Brahms’ piano music playing as whisky is poured on ice; Jesse’s lonely box-like house, perched on the scoured rock of  Nova Scotia, no less ground down than the man himself; all contribute, like the cinematography, to an autumnal and elegiac tone.  

   Another Stone film is supposedly in development but I hope Selleck thinks better of it. He’s 76 and, in Lost in Paradise, looked too heavy and slow for the few action scenes, never mind the occasional intimation of sexual interest in women young enough to be his grand-daughter. But the eight films made so far show everyone involved at the peak of their considerable powers and deserve our close and appreciative attention.  

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