"We're still at war, Plissken. We need him alive."

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Fletch

May 31, 1985

I hadn’t seen FLETCH since the VHS days, and remembered nothing about it. Back then I didn’t know it was based on a book, but this time I had the book, having picked it up from a laundry room book exchange shelf two moves ago. Our building manager had pretty good taste – lots of Elmore Leonard.

The novel is from 1975 and written by Gregory Mcdonald, whose books also inspired the 1972 movie RUNNING SCARED and Johnny Depp’s never-released-in-the-U.S. directorial debut THE BRAVE. It was followed by ten more Fletch novels, if you include the two about his son. It’s a mystery about newspaper reporter I.M. Fletcher, who’s been undercover hanging out with junkies on a beach, working on a story about the drug problem there, when he’s approached by a rich guy named Alan Stanwyk, who offers to pay him $50,000 to come to his house on a certain day and shoot him. Says he has cancer, wants to die before it gets painful, but doesn’t want to commit suicide so his wife can get the life insurance money. He’s got this whole plan for a drifter like Fletch to kill him and get away. Even has a plane booked to fly him out of the country.

Fletch continues with his drug investigation while also investigating Stanwyk’s story. Through various trickery he manufactures reasons to speak on the phone or in person with Stanwyk’s wife, doctor, business associates, etc. He’ll do anything from call his parents pretending to be an insurance investigator to walking right up to his wife claiming to be an old Air Force friend who met her at their wedding. He does that while pretending to be a guest at her dad’s tennis club, picking a name off of a locker and ordering screwdrivers on their tab. The more he digs in the more questions he has and the less he understands what this guy is up to. Until, of course, he figures it out.

As I read it I assumed the movie – which I knew mainly as the one where Chevy Chase wears an afro wig – wouldn’t have much basis in the book. So I was surprised by how much it actually does follow the story. Fletch in the book doesn’t wear funny disguises as far as we know, but he is a smartass. Chase (hot from the success of NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION in 1983) makes up his own smartass lines – they would let him do one take on script, one ad-libbing – but they’re in the same spirit.

I wouldn’t quite call this an action comedy, but it’s part of that odd trend in the ‘80s of movies that are ostensibly comedies but have serious criminal villains like a normal action movie or cop thriller: RUNNING SCARED, JUMPIN’ JACK FLASH, STAKEOUT, FATAL BEAUTY, TWINS, COLLISION COURSE, CROCODILE DUNDEE II, even THREE MEN AND A BABY. But the one it reminds me of most is BEVERLY HILLS COP. Both have a guy from Saturday Night Live riffing through the role of an investigator who likes insinuating himself into places by pretending to be different characters. Axel Foley pretends to be a guy looking for “the illegal chop shop,” a flower deliveryman or a Rolling Stone reporter, Fletch pretends to be a doctor, an airplane mechanic, a “friend of the Underhills.” I like his mechanic disguise, including a hairpiece that makes him look traditionally handsome, and fake teeth that do not. And I like his ploy of escaping police officers by crashing a ceremony at a VFW hall and making a speech that encourages everyone to stand up and hug the law enforcement officers to show appreciation.

FLETCH and BEVERLY HILLS COP even share a similar class theme, with scuzzy Fletch infiltrating the ritzy tennis club (though for some reason he knows alot about tennis) sort of like Axel does the country club and Beverly Hills in general. This must be coincidence, since it came out only about seven months after BEVERLY HILLS COP. What’s probly not is the score by German record producer Harold Faltermeyer, a protege of Giorgio Moroder who arranged and played keyboards on the soundtracks for MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, AMERICAN GIGOLO and FOXES before going solo with THIEF OF HEARTS which, like his mentor’s soundtracks, consisted of a synth score and a collection of pop songs.

FLETCH’s score obviously didn’t become as iconic as “Axel F,” but it consists of a couple different catchy themes that definitely elevate the movie. The pop songs include opening theme “Bit By Bit” by Stephanie Mills and songs by Dan Hartman (co-writer of “Living in America” from ROCKY IV), former Australian teen idol John Farnham, The Fixx and Kim Wilde (singer of “Kids in America”).

 

It’s very much a vehicle for Chase to joke around, but the supporting cast is great. Joe Don Baker (soon to join the 007 series) is the asshole chief of police, Richard Libertini (SHARKY’S MACHINE) is Fletch’s editor, Geena Davis (who had only been in TOOTSIE) assists him at the newspaper, George Wendt (a few years into Cheers, soon to be in HOUSE) plays drug dealer Fat Sam, M. Emmet Walsh (a year after BLOOD SIMPLE) plays a doctor who, in a great moment, is seen through a window joking and laughing with a guy doing an autopsy.

I guess more famously it has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (GAME OF DEATH) in an out-of-place-feeling scene where Fletch falls asleep and imagines himself with an afro joining the basketball game on TV. His Lakers fandom is a theme throughout the movie (wearing a jersey, having posters all over his apartment) but if there’s a reason for that I didn’t pick up on it. The only joke that’s arguably stupider is when he distracts an attacking doberman by claiming there are babies to eat nearby and it barks “WHUT?” like it’s Scooby-Doo.

For the most part, the jokes are built on top of the story from the book, with lots of insignificant shifting around and changing of names and locations. The last act is when it starts diverging from the book in what I consider a bad way. In the book he doesn’t reveal anything until the end, when he puts everything together and writes it as a news story. In the movie he suddenly admits to Gail that he’s a reporter, and then they work together to bust her husband. This really changes the dynamic of the story and isn’t true to the literary characters. The other drastic change is tying Stanwyk to the drug plot. It works much better in the book when they’re two separate threads that collide because of Fletch. In the movie it feels like convenient Hollywood bullshit. I don’t even understand how it works.

(Also, I definitely wouldn’t have understood the drug operation if I hadn’t read the book. Or was it even supposed to be the same? In the book the reason they only arrest Gummy [played by Larry “Flash” Jenkins in the movie] and not Fletch is because they give him the drugs to deliver to Fat Sam.)

The other thing is that book Fletch is way more of a scumbag. I’m not surprised they cut out the conversations about him throwing his wife’s cat out a window (which would’ve been the exact opposite of  what that one screenwriting book says to do.) But the audacity of his prickishness is part of the character. He has two ex-wives, both of whom he’s fighting with over alimony, and also who he’s still sleeping with. Gail, played by Dana Wheeler-Nicholson (TOMBSTONE) in the movie, is likable in the book, but not the bland sweetheart of the movie. She immediately makes advances at Fletch and actually does sleep with him. So when Fletch says to Stanwyk, “The thing that tipped me off was something your wife said the other night when we were in bed together,” it’s funnier in my opinion because it’s true and not really relevant but he casually throws it in there.

A less negative aspect about the book character that makes him interesting is that he was in the Marines and seems to have conflicted feelings about it. There’s a subplot about how his boss is forcing him to accept a medal he hasn’t bothered to pick up, and he keeps trying to get out of it. In the end he flees the country just in time to miss the ceremony, and a hearing, and both of his ex-wives bringing their belongings to his apartment believing they’re going to move back in with him. He exposes a corrupt police chief and foils a murder/fraud scheme and still goes out as a world class asshole.

It’s a good mystery with lots of laughs, but the part of the book that really got me – and that I was correct in assuming wouldn’t be in the movie – is Fletch’s relationship with a young addict named Bobbi. The movie does capture a tiny slice of it by portraying Fletch’s friends on the beach sympathetically. In the book it’s so sad, and kind of sweet how non-judgmental they are about each other. Bobbi believes Fletch gets his money from shoplifting, and that he’s too known at his regular spots to do it anymore, and she tries to give him supportive advice about prostituting himself.

When he gets beat unconscious by cops she takes care of him, until he tells her to “go get busy,” meaning turn tricks so she’ll have money to be the drugs she needs. “I’ll be all right,” he tells her.

“Are you sure? I mean, it is Saturday night.”
“I’ll be all right.”
“It’s going to be a long night,” Sando said. “Fat Sam is fresh out.”
Pain, anxiety twinged Bobbi’s face. She had built a big need.
“Are you sure?” Fletch said.
“Not even aspirin.”
Fletch said, “Christ.”
“I’ll go work up a couple of tricks anyway.” Bobbi’s voice shook. “It’s Saturday night, and there’s always tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” Sando said. “Sunday.”

I found something heartbreaking about that, this young girl going through so much for this sickness, and trying to keep a positive attitude. You don’t often see drug addicts portrayed with such humanity unless the story’s from their point of view. Another really upsetting thing is that (BOOK SPOILER) she dies of an overdose, and Fletch hides the body. Picture ol’ Clark Griswold doing that.

That, of course, would be a different type of movie. I guess we can’t be surprised that a Chevy Chase movie doesn’t go there. But there is some sense of reality to it. Cinematographer Fred Schuler (THE KING OF COMEDY) gives a pretty gritty look to the littered beach and all that. It’s not all wigs and giggles. It’s pretty well done.

The director is Michael Ritchie, an old TV director who got into movies starting with DOWNHILL RACER (1969) and then a movie I love, PRIME CUT (1972). He’s probly best known for THE BAD NEWS BEARS. After this he did middling comedies like WILDCATS, THE GOLDEN CHILD and THE COUCH TRIP, plus the well-regarded DIGGSTOWN.

The script is by Andrew Bergman (BLAZING SADDLES, OH, GOD! YOU DEVIL), reportedly with some uncredited rewrites by Phil Alden Robinson (RHINESTONE, FIELD OF DREAMS, GHOST DAD, SNEAKERS). Mcdonald initially hated the changes in the script, but visited the set and was convinced it was okay. Years later he said he thought Chase and Ritchie did a good job.

Like BREWSTER’S MILLIONS for Richard Pryor, FLETCH was Chase doing a movie while newly sober. But it was a much better vehicle for him. He got the role after a long list of possibilities during the nine years it was in development. Mcdonald rejected Mick Jagger and Burt Reynolds. Reportedly they also considered Michael Douglas, Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Barry Bostwick, Richard Dreyfuss and George Segal. In later years Kevin Smith tried to make a part 3, and then a prequel with Jason Lee, and more recently Jason Sudeikis almost played the character.

Variety said that Chase and Ritchie’s “teamwork turns an otherwise hair-pinned, anecdotal plot into a breezy, peppy frolic and a tour de force for Chase.” But Roger Ebert called the performance “an anthology of Chevy Chase mannerisms in search of a character.” He does allow that though it’s “not the first movie that Chase has undercut with his mannerisms… it is the best one since FOUL PLAY anyway.”

FLETCH opened at #2 at the box office, well below the previous week’s release RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, but above A VIEW TO A KILL and BREWSTER’s MILLIONS. Fifth place went to its cinematic cousin BEVERLY HILLS COP, in its 26th week of release! FLETCH ultimately made about $60 million worthwhile and did well on video, leading to Ritchie directing the non-book-based sequel FLETCH LIVES in 1989.

SUMMER OF 1985 NOTES

Pop culture:

• When Stanwyk asks Fletch his name he says that it’s Ted Nugent. At that time people knew Nugent for his music, and he was generally thought of more as a lovable nut than a deplorable one. His most recent album, 1984’s Penetrator, had not been hugely popular, but he was enough of a pop culture figure that he got to play a villain on Miami Vice the following year.

• Fletch quotes the less-than-two-years-old SUDDEN IMPACT line “Go ahead, make my day.” In the script, Bergman had it as “Go ahead, make my evening.” You’ll remember that the original line was already used in GOTCHA! this summer.

• Fletch jokes about going to “catch the last ten minutes of Dynasty.” Dynasty was also referenced in the James Cameron script of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II ( but not the finished movie). Similarly, Dallas was referenced in GOTCHA!

• Fletch has a record in his apartment that I believe to be Olivia Newton-John’s 1972 sophomore album Olivia.

• A Mr. Potato Head ad plays on TV.

• The most mysterious reference is that at the end Fletch puts on a Nostromo hat just like Harry Dean Stanton wore in ALIEN. I have searched and asked around and found no story behind this. The biggest Chevy Chase fan I know, Horror Movie a Day author Brian Collins, pointed out that Chase co-starred with Sigourney Weaver in his previous movie, DEAL OF THE CENTURY, but admits that connection is “flimsy af.” An IMDb advance search finds no shared credits between the two movies.

My strongest theory is that it was just a military-looking hat they found in a wardrobe, didn’t realize was leftover from ALIEN and thought would reflect Fletch’s veteran status from the book. (Unless someone a little older than me tells me Nostromo hats were sold as a novelty back then.)

Changed attitudes:

As Fletch is brought to the police chief he says “Yeah, I heard he’s mellowed out alot since he came out of the closet.” I would characterize this as mildly homophobic, since the implication is that the chief should be insulted by that. But we’ve all seen much worse.

Other connections:

Irene Olga Lopez, who played the maid Rosario in GOTCHA! (and Pilar in THE BIG LEBOWSKI) is seen briefly as Stanwyk’s unnamed maid at the beginning. I propose that she’s playing the same character as part of a Lopezverse that connects these movies with WAXWORK, LOVERBOY, BASIC INSTINCT, ONLY YOU, INDECENT PROPOSAL, EIGHT HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG and the TV shows Cover Up, Private Eyes, Knots Landing and Martial Law, all of which have her as an unnamed Maid, Domestic, Housekeeper, etc. If we were to take the leap that Rosario also works as a nurse or could be various unnamed Hispanic Woman, Bus Rider or Mother type characters the universe would be even larger.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 1st, 2020 at 10:28 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

27 Responses to “Fletch”

  1. Without really loving it, I have a soft spot for this movie and wish Hollywood would make that kind of “It’s a legit crimy mystery, but with lots of laughs” movies again. I even kinda enjoy the sequel, although Fletch crosses here the line to full blown asshole, who thankfully has a scene where he fools the KKK, or else he wouldn’t have any redeemable qualities.

    The novel has by the way a cool title in Germany. Tranlated it’s: CORPSE LOOKING FOR KILLER. Never read it.

  2. I loved this film as a small kid. I thought it was hilarious, and Chevy was awesome. I think I watched it 3 times in a week, when we had the rental for a week for some reason.

    I have never watched it since. I’m kinda surprised that it’s actually pretty good? I figured it must be terrible, but the review makes me want to visit it again.

  3. When it comes to Gregory McDonald, I own the Hard Cas Crime release of SNATCH I still havenot read it, but I aim too. Has anyone read it?

  4. When it comes to Gregory McDonald, I own the Hard Cas Crime release of SNATCH I still havenot read it, but I aim too. Has anyone read it?

  5. This is a 2.5/4 type film for me, it doesn’t quite come together but there’s a lot in it which is really interesting and/or memorable, more so than a lot of movies which do come together holistically. I’ve seen it a few times.

  6. Was never a fan of Chase, he’s just too smarmy.

    CJ, problem with that kind of story is they mostly went to tv, but you get a show like Justifed which is just about perfect. Monk is kind of a comedy but straight crimes. Love both of those shows. Goliath maybe doesn’t have a done of laughs but it can be funny. I hear Bosch is really good.

    I tend to prefer a lot of comedy but not quite enough that it IS a comedy. And Chase in Fletch is just doing ridiculous 80s broad comedy. Man, movies didn’t have a lot of subtlety back then.

  7. I have SNATCH but have not read it yet, but I’ve read a ton of Gregory MacDonald, so I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it’s worth reading. The Fletch novels were a big influence on my writing in terms of how little you have to tell a reader about a protagonist and his/her inner life. You never know shit about what Fletch is up to, and that only makes him more fascinating to follow around. You only figure out what he’s doing after he’s done it. I love that shit. It’s like an entire series of books made up of the parts in the OCEAN’S movies where they’re setting up the plan but never giving you any useful information about what the plan is. It’s some of the cleanest, tightest storytelling around, yet MacDonald gives the dialogue all kinds of room to breathe. What that does is create an environment where the reader has to actively engage in the telling of the story by filling in the bits of description and stage direction that most novelists lack the confidence to leave out. The reader gets more involved in the story that way. It’s just masterful work as far as I’m concerned.

    Even before I read the books, though, I thought this was Chevy’s best overall movie and character. Occasionally the film goes a little overboard in terms of being a Chevy Chase vehicle and all that entails, but when I’m reading a Fletch novel, it’s Chevy I’m picturing. In appearance and demeanor, he was perfect. I can’t think of anyone before or since who could have done it any better.

  8. It falls into an always underrated category. It is “easy to watch”. It has some laughs. Looks good. Good supporting cast. It is somewhere better than pleasant but not quite “very good/great”. I pretty much never want to watch it start to finish, but I will watch 20-50 minutes anytime (see also: Bloodsport). It’s also great to fall asleep too when you are at home sick on the couch.

  9. Watched bits and pieces of this a lot on cable back in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Watched it all about 5 years ago, and came away a bit lukewarm on it. Some of the charm was lost on me, but I can’t say I hated it at all. I actually like the sequel as much, or at least more than others.

    I remember some brief rumors of Chevy Chase doing a TV movie/backdoor pilot reprising the character around the time he was on COMMUNITY.

  10. Onthewall, I think that was the Ed Helms version, with Chase appearing in wraparound segments, kinda like YOUNG INDIANA JONES style. For some time, FLETCH was a surprisingly hot property in Hollywood. When Kevin Smith got off, SCRUBS creator Bill Lawrence was attached to a movie version with Zach Braff (although I don’t know if the Braff part was just a rumor). If I remember right, it fell apart because he wanted to make a movie that was closer to the books, while the studio wanted the Fletch, that wore wigs and fake mustaches.

    Muh, not sure if I would put something like MONK in the same category as FLETCH or BEVERLY HILLS COP, but I also can’t deny that it kinda belongs there. Although I would say PSYCH is with its smartass protagonist closer to it.

  11. In my childhood circles, FLETCH was held in the same regard as GHOSTBUSTERS or ANIMAL HOUSE, but I never really got the appeal personally. I don’t think I even knew they were based on books, but this review has me interested to check those out at least.

    Also, never knew this was directed by the same guy who did DIGGSTOWN. Both star notorious real-life assholes, but I have a big soft spot for DIGGSTOWN, watched it a lot with my dad growing up. It’s like ROCKY meets THE STING meets MY COUSIN VINNY. A good one if you can stomach James Woods anymore.

  12. CJ, to me Monk doesn’t if you’re comparing protagonists…I’m just talking about comedic crime detective stories. I think we’re not going to get those in the movies anymore.

    Kurgan, Diggstown is great! What a movie, I love it. The only problem I have is the boxing is really shittily directed. They needed to do those fights and really make them work dramatically but they don’t for the most part. In the end it doesn’t quite matter, but if they put more effort into those the movie would work even better for me.

    James Woods today is an asshole but frankly I always assumed he was an asshole.

  13. For some reason the idea of Charles Grodin in this role is really staying with me. Chase is good, but I’d like to see the alternate reality Grodin version. I imagine it much more like the grimy book version.

  14. I love these films. The first is a gem. Great theme music! Second is not great, but it’s Chevy as FLETCH. Fletch and Clark Griswold are his Rocky and Rambo, and they show the range and talent. From COMMUNITY ownard, Chevy comes off as a befuddled old fool, but you see with Fletch just how sharp-witted and effortlessly charming he could be. He’s Chevy, and you’re not.

  15. I’ve worked at a bookstore for 14 years, so take it from me: Gregory McDonald’s Fletch books (and Flynn spin-offs) are uniformly excellent. I pull a couple down and re-read them every year, even if I remember whodunnit. It looks like they’ve all been re-issued recently and are fairly cheap on Amazon. And I hate Amazon, but this is one of the few times I would advocate using the service. His knack for character and dialogue is positively uncanny.

    As far as the movie goes, it’s probably Chase’s best vehicle, imo. It’s probably the best, most commercial adaptation of the book possible that’s still true to the book. And the score is fantastic. It slaps, or bangs, or whatever awesome things do these days.

  16. grimgrinningchris

    June 2nd, 2020 at 7:30 am

    Though I’ve never found proof, I’m still convinced to this day that Whos Harry Crumb was originally a Fletch script, then rewritten for Candy.

    And yeah, Braff definitely was in talks for the role, but with Smith and the Scrubs guy… Smith wrote about their meeting and MEETINGS in one of his online diaries back then.

  17. Muh: BOSCH is very good, but not that funny at all. I liked what I saw of MONK a lot, too. One show that sort of came close to the BHC/FLETCH vibe was TERRIERS. No slapstick-y stuff but has a solid buddy comedy dynamic, mixed in with some compelling drama and modern noir vibes too. I thought at the time it was a cross between something like BHC or LETHAL WEAPON and CHINATOWN. It lasted one, perfect season and is now available to watch on Hulu.

  18. Thanks onthewall! I’ve heard a lot about that show, I’ll have to check it out. I’m not usually a huge crime/detective fan. I do like noir and I love crime stories, but generally more in the criminal POV. Gangster movies or the kind where a regular guy gets thrown into a bad situation like Red Rock West or Cold in July. But some of these more recent shows have been excellent.

  19. Fucking DIGGSTOWN
    It’s going to be burned forever in my brain, but whenever Woods straightens his tie and deliver ‘the twist’ was the first time I ever seen a theater absolutely fucking EXPLODE. In fact, I really can’t remember a reaction like that since. This probably 70-year-old black woman who looked like she just came directly from church stood up and shouted “Yeah! YEAH! YOU MOTHERFUCKER!”

    This is why the theatrical experience must be maintained.

  20. Yeah I read all the Fletch novels and the Flynn novels after hearing Kevin Smith rave about them back in the 90s. Love the dialogue in them. So fast paced and witty. Been a few years since I’ve read any.

    I think the Chevy Chase movie did a good job adapting the book. It shaved off some of the rough edges and let Chase run with the character – which was the right call I think. I miss those 80s smart alec characters from the 80s. Fletch, Venkman, Foley.

    I got kind of obsessive and have every book McDonald ever wrote. I’ve read Snatched but haven’t got around to Safekeeping. Apparently they’ve been reprinted as one book called Snatch.

    I thought Snatched was kind of fun. Smart alec kid gets kidnapped and caused headache for his captors and escapes on his own. Surprised they didn’t try and adapt it as a movie too.

    From memory Fletch Won was probably the best of the Fletch novels after the first one. I think McDonald wrote it around the time of the movie hoping it would potentially be adapted.

    All the Fletch novels have really neat set ups but I’d say the quality varied wildly. McDonald was clearly less interested in a consistent character than he was tackling some scene. Like politics in Fletch and the Man Who. Hollywood in Fletch’s Moxie.

    I’m kind of disappointed

  21. … that Chase was so “iconic” in the role that no one seems to want to do a remake or adapt the whole series.

  22. Terriers, I can confirm, is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) one and done tv shows of all time. It’s also mostly written by women too.

    Diggstown has a really weird view of racism where it’s just an afterthought and a lynching can be resolved by punching a dude out.

  23. I can also confirm that Terriers is fantastic. One of my favorite TV shows ever, despite only going one season.

  24. The REWATCHABLES podcast did an episode on this today. The first 20 minutes is more or less about Chase’s career though. For awhile it seemed like he was being pegged as Johnny Carson’s successor, but apparently the two didn’t get along quite well.

    Chevy Chase on the Johnny Carson Show '85 (Promoting the Movie Fletch)

    Cornelius Crane "Chevy" Chase (born October 8, 1943) is an American actor, comedian, writer, and producer. Born into a prominent New York family, he worked a...

    I really liked FUNNY FARM, and I have heard it’s his favorite movie of his own. It’s the kind of breezy mid-budgeted comedy they just don’t make more, or not as much if not at all anymore.

  25. Anyone see the news today that Jon Hamm is going to be the new Fletch. They’re doing Confess Fletch and it’s going to be directed by Greg Mottola.

  26. I’ve no particular fondness for Mottola, but sounds like a decent idea if it actually goes anywhere.

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