Best Seller is another great neo-noir crime thriller from the 1980s. It stars James Woods, with the always excellent Brian Dennehy co-starring.
In Best Seller, Woods plays hitman called Cleve and Dennehy plays a cop and true-crime author called Dennis Meechum. The story starts in the early 70s when a team of mooks rob the local cop shop’s evidence locker for a large amount of cash. Meechum happens to be in there at the time and is the only survivor after managing to wound one of the robbers. He parlays this into a successful book about the robbery.
We then cut to the current day, and Meechum is in the middle of a bust. He nearly gets killed, but then a stranger shows up and kills the man who was about to kill him.
As the days pass, we learn that his guardian angel is Cleve. The hitman wants Dennis to write a book about his life and help bring down his former boss.
Dennis is skeptical, so Cleve shows him the places where he took out various people so that his boss, Madlock, could grow his company and become one of the wealthy elite. In the course of the writing of the book, Dennis begins to be hounded by Madlock’s men. Their plan is to get him to cancel his book. This all builds towards a showdown at the end of the movie.
That really simplifies the plot but the best part of the movie is the interaction between Dennis and Cleve. It’s almost like a buddy movie as they travel around and Cleve relates his life and his murders to Dennis. Dennis begins to like Cleve, despite his background. Woods plays Cleve at his best. Cleve seems to be completely without morals and is as slick and cruel a character as Woods has ever played. Cleve is a total psychopath, and he’s a great character.
As the two travel the country, we see Cleve charm his way into the home of an old lady just so he can show Dennis where he killed a man. We visit Cleve’s farmer parents back home in Oregon. They are normal, decent people and Cleve insists that Dennis makes that clear in his book. It is a great approach. We see a killer who has a weird sensibility. It is more complex than you’d expect from this type of film.
The relationship between these two guys is pretty interesting. They both like each other but Dennis, as the good cop, won’t allow himself to show it. We see Cleve actually hurt when Dennis refuses to return Cleve’s attempts at friendship.
Of course, the movie forms a kind of redemption arc for Cleve, but still leaves you guessing, even right at the end. Is he really motivated by what little goodness may remain in his heart?
This is a great thriller. Woods excels at playing such a sleazy, murdering psycho that no one is really safe from. Dennehy is always great. He’s the hardass cop that no one is going to pull one over. This is a character we’ve all seen before but played to perfection by the actor.
Best Seller is a personal favorite of mine.