Monthly Archives: November 2014

Parker at the Movies, Part 3: The Bald Parkers

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Have you ever noticed how the movies adapting famous book characters tend to pretty them up?   A great example would be Donald Westlake’s own John Dortmunder; tall, angular, stoop-shouldered, dark-haired, and generally unprepossessing in the books–played by Robert Redford in the first Dortmunder movie–and the only one to date that isn’t slow torture to watch–but you still look at Redford, who you know is giving it all he’s got and it’s not his fault he looks like that, and you just kind of roll your eyes a bit.

Another classic case would be Raven, the malnourished hare-lipped hit man of Graham Greene’s A Gun For Sale, who has thus far been played by fashion plates Alan Ladd and Robert Wagner.  Neither of whom had a harelip.  Or was English, but never mind that now.

Point is, when you’re making a movie, you’re investing a lot of money, and you want people to go see it.   That means you cast stars, or people you think are going to become stars.   Stars tend to be good-looking.   So book characters adapted to film will generally be prettier in their screen incarnations.   Not always.  But usually.  What would be really unusual–downright bizarre, you  might say–would be casting leads who are far less attractive and physically impressive than the character in question.   Why on earth would anyone do that?

The very first thing we ever learn about Parker (other than the fact that his manners leave something to be desired), is that he’s tall, powerful-looking, rough-edged but irresistibly attractive to women, and has a full head of hair.   And that he’s got huge vein-covered hands.  That last one is a tough order to fill when you’re casting around for actors to play him, but the rest of it should be no problem.

We’ve already seen that order filled three times, by Michel Constantin, Lee Marvin, and yes, even Jim Brown (though obviously the Parker in the books isn’t black).  The movies they were in all had significant shortcomings (The Split is 90% shortcomings), but casting wasn’t one of them.

All of these portrayals, and Mel Gibson’s as well (I think we can all agree that’s a more predictable Hollywood casting move, though technically Gibson cast himself), lived up to another aspect of the character–that he only seems to have one name–whether it’s Georges, Walker, McClain, or Porter.  Nobody calls them by any other name.  And they don’t call any of them Parker, because Westlake wouldn’t have it.

One other thing–there’s no indication, in any of the books, that Parker has a strongly identifiable regional accent–let alone a foreign one.  We know he grew up in a large eastern city, probably in New York state.  Really though, he could pass for a local almost anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.   It would take a veritable Henry Higgins to draw any conclusions as to his place of origin simply by listening to him.

So how then to account for the fact that each of the two remaining films I’m going to discuss in any detail here feature a ‘Parker’ who is short and balding?   The first of which answers to the rather conventional name of Earl Macklin, and talks like a redneck from Kentucky (which he tells us is where his family came from–he’s got his granddaddy’s pocket watch as a keepsake).

And the second of which, even though he’s arguably further off the mark than any portrayal since Anna Karina’s (possibly worse), actually gets to use the Parker name–though he’s clearly English, and referred to as such in the movie–and this guy was never an A-List star, or a terribly well-regarded actor, though he’s certainly a busy one.  How does he rate the name all the others were denied?

That last question is the easiest to answer–Westlake had died.  His heirs didn’t feel as strongly as he did about not selling the Parker name, and a producer acquaintance of Westlake’s best known for some rather forgettable TV movies for the Lifetime channel, convinced them to sell him and his partners the film rights to possibly the most forgettable of the Parker novels–along with the right to use the name Parker, based on what turned out to be the empty promise of doing more adaptations if the first one worked out, which it did not.   Worth mentioning that this acquaintance had been after Westlake for years to work with him on a project, and Westlake seems to have always put him off.   And I’ll put off further observations regarding that film until later.

The first film, of course, is The Outfit, and was Westlake’s personal favorite among the Parker film adaptations–I would draw a clear distinction between calling a movie your favorite, and calling it the best–two entirely different things.  My favorite movie of all time is probably Lady and the Tramp.  I would not try to convince anybody that’s the greatest movie ever made.    It’s simply very near and dear to my heart.   As The Outfit, in its own way, was to Westlake (though he might have only seen it once or twice).   And to a small devoted coterie of buffs, who have long defended the notion that this is the best Parker adaptation ever.   And I humbly dissent from this view.

The film has many fine qualities, to be sure–rest assured I shall not neglect mentioning a one of them.   It did not deserve to be forgotten, as it was for many years.  It’s an entirely good thing that it’s easily available on DVD now, and online, and is periodically shown on TCM, the way it was meant to be seen (I still have it on my DVR from the last time they showed it).   But there are reasons why when you look up a list of Robert Duvall’s best movies ever, this movie is never listed, unless all his movies are listed, in which case it’s still out of the top 40–well underneath his uncredited 20 second cameo appearance as a (presumably alien) priest on a playground swing in Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Back in the day, I would go see movies simply because Duvall was in them (his performance in Tender Mercies still makes me tear up).   I don’t anymore, because his movies mostly stink now (like everybody else’s), but they didn’t always.   He had one of the great careers in cinema history.  He is one of the most brilliant and original thespians who ever lived.  And he is so tragically miscast here it isn’t even funny.

You don’t hire the best actor–you hire the right actor.   So why hire Duvall?  Well, partly because he’d just become a lot better known, due to his acclaimed performance in The Godfather.   Acclaimed, but not nominated–too small and quiet a role, but basically everybody who went to the movies knew Duvall’s face now, after his reputation had been steadily building over the course of the late 50’s and 60’s.  Could he be a marquee name, the way Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and other short, pug-ugly actors had been in the past?  The way Gene Hackman would be?   Talent can trump looks in the right roles.  Audiences get tired of looking at vapid pretty boys all the time.

So he was a rising talent, but still not a very expensive one.  This was not going to be a big budget picture–the director, John Flynn, hadn’t done much of anything yet (and ultimately never would).   Flynn had wanted to do it period, but the studio said no dice–hard to see how it changed much, since the novel was set only about a decade before the film came out.   I think you have to go back more than ten years to call it period.  Call me old fashioned.

Duvall was semi-famous but affordable–add in a few more semi-famous but affordable actors, along with some formerly big stars from the golden age, and maybe you’ve got a winning formula.   They added Joe Don Baker and Karen Black, and the poster would play them up like this was a contemporary take on Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde.  And boy was that not going to work.

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Baker was cast as Cody–the movie’s equivalent to Handy McKay, and he looks nothing at all like Handy, but he gives an effective performance all the same, and having just appeared as Buford Pusser in Walking Tall, he might well have sold more tickets than Duvall in some parts of the country.   He’s there for sex appeal, something Duvall has never possessed.   By the way, he totally steals this picture from Duvall.  He probably would have been a better Parker.  He’s got a better poker face, he’s 6’2, and he’s got hair.

Karen Black is clearly supposed to be there for sex appeal, but strangely has none (not usually a problem for her).   She plays Bett–the name lifted from the novel, but she couldn’t possibly be any more different from the spoiled sadistic heiress Parker has temporarily hooked up with.  Black’s career had also been gathering steam of late, with appearances in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces.

But there’s nothing easy about watching her performance in this film–it’s excruciating.  Not her fault–she strikes no sparks with Duvall (few actresses ever did), and the role is badly written and conceived–she shouldn’t be along for the ride at all, and it’s never really explained why Macklin wants her there.   And yet there she is, all through the picture.   Like I said, they were hoping to get some of that Bonnie and Clyde vibe, but for that you need onscreen chemistry, and she and Duvall have none.   And I mean zero.

There’s a love scene between them–that takes place right after he slaps her around for touching his gun (really?)–that makes me want to gouge my eyes out.   She says “I wish I didn’t love you so much” and he seems good with that.

Point Blank, based on The Hunter, had not been a success in the U.S., partly because of its large production budget (though it did very well in Europe, and probably did turn a small profit eventually).  I don’t know why MGM decided to make an informal sequel six years later, with an entirely new cast and director–maybe they’d picked up the rights to The Outfit, just in case Point Blank hit it big (though Lee Marvin always said he’d never do sequels–they could have recast), and then decided to do one on the cheap?

The Outfit does indirectly follow up on the events of The Hunter, but since this is a completely different (and much less interesting) version of Parker, with a different backstory, and different motivations, there was no attempt to link the two films in the promotion, or in the script.   And the script is the real weakness here.  John Flynn wrote it himself.   John Flynn has exactly two writing credits on IMDb, and this is his first–the second is for a 1983 TV movie.  He was not a writer.  But we’re still in this era where the directors felt like they could do anything, and the studios tended to let them try.

Talking about the movie years later, Westlake expressed his disappointment that Flynn’s career never really went anywhere, but with 20/20 hindsight it’s no surprise at all.   He was an incomplete talent, with a visual style even his admirers had to admit was on the pedestrian side (he came out of television and he ended up there), and he never had the knack of getting the best performances out of his actors.   He also had terrible judgment–he needed an experienced screenwriter to adapt this book for him–arrogant as John Boorman might be, insistent on the supremacy of director over writer as he was, he knew better than to try and do it all himself.

Westlake wouldn’t have written the script (he refused to adapt his own works), but there were many others who could have done a fine job.  Maybe there were reasons why Flynn had to do it, but the only parts of it that work at all are where he more or less copies directly from the book.   When he goes off on his own tangents, it’s a disaster.  And he does that a lot.

What I heard about this film before I saw it was that it makes no attempt to humanize ‘Parker’, lets him just be a predator fighting his way through a human jungle, but that isn’t true.   The movie opens with his brother Eddie (yes, he’s got a brother named Eddie), also a heister, being killed by two hit-men (one of them dressed as a priest, for no comprehensible reason), while Eddie’s dog Soldier, a long-haired German Shepherd, cries miserably, being unable to protect him, since he’s tied up.

Macklin later goes to speak to his brother’s widow (played by Jane Greer–many bit roles in this film are filled by faces out of the past), and knowing the dog did his best, goes over to pat him gently on the head, and throw a stick for him to fetch.  Aww.

The film is full of dogs for some reason–instead of the black and tan cur in the novel that Parker has to kill just to show us he doesn’t give a damn about dogs either, there’s a White German Shepherd named Judge at Chemy’s place (Shepherds are easier to train), who Chemy’s treacherous sister-in-law sics on Cody for rejecting her (because who’d believe she’d throw herself at Macklin?), and does Macklin kill the dog?  Does Cody?  No, Chemy does it, with an axe handle.  Why’d there have to be a dog at all?   You’ll have to be the judge of that.   There’s a bunch of Doberman Pinschers in the film as well, but they just strut around looking cool, and don’t do anything.

This is possibly the best scene in the movie–and the truest to the book, in spite of many changes.  Several lines grabbed directly off the page, mainly spoken by Richard Jaeckel’s (excellent) Chemy–you could imagine him doing a radio show called Criminal Car Talk.   Good stuff.   There’s so much good stuff here.  But it keeps ringing false, because Flynn doesn’t trust the material enough.   You know who he got to play the fat ugly red-headed sister-in-law?

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Sheree North–one of the great blonde sex goddesses of the 50’s (they thought she’d be the next Marilyn Monroe), who turned into quite a decent actress in the 60’s and 70’s, and she does a good job here, but how does it make sense that ‘Parker’ is a short balding flabby slightly pot-bellied yokel, while possibly the least attractive character who ever appeared in a Parker novel is–this?

I understand they needed somebody to be sexy to sell the film–North beats out the much younger Karen Black by a country mile here–but she’s only in the movie for like five minutes.  Did it ever occur to them that she might be a bit more appropriate to play Macklin’s girlfriend, if he absolutely had to have one?   Black is still too green.

The plot of The Outfit echoes that of a far superior crime film, based on the work of a much less distinguished novelist, that also saw release in October of 1973–Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick.  The script, written by two frequent Siegel collaborators (Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman, who did the script for Dirty Harry), came from a now-forgotten book by John H. Reese (who mainly did westerns, but dabbled in crime fiction).

And just to show what a small incestuous world Hollywood filmmaking can be, the film also stars Joe Don Baker as a steely hit man, Sheree North as a slutty photographer who hooks up with Baker, and Point Blank‘s John Vernon as a weak-kneed mob flunky (he was good at those).

Charley Varrick begins with the title character, played by Walter Matthau (one of his greatest roles), robbing a small bank with his gang, that turns out to be a mob bank, so the mob sends men after them.   The Outfit begins the way it does because the Macklin brothers and Cody robbed a bank that turned out to be a mob bank so the mob sends men after them.  Quite the coincidence, huh?   Or maybe not.   Flynn would have been in a position to hear about what Siegel was working on.

Of course, in the story The Outfit is based on, the mob couldn’t give two shits about Parker until he comes after them for the money his former partner gave them–he wants that exact sum, nothing more or less–when they send men after him, he puts pressure on them to stop by getting various heisters across the country to hit their operations randomly, costing them millions of dollars, and creating an opportunity for him to take out the head of The Outfit without any fear of reprisal from its new chief.

Here, Macklin already has the money, but he’s mad about his brother, so he and Cody keep hitting Outfit operations all by themselves, saying it won’t stop until they give him the totally arbitrary sum of $250,000.   To pay for his brother’s life and for Bett getting tortured to try and make her betray him (which by the end of the film, you kind of figure she should have done).

He seems to have completely forgotten about that 250k by the end, and it seems like there’s nobody to take over from the boss he’s killed–because organized crime in California, where this is happening (note the palm trees), is built entirely around one rather passive pussy-whipped horse-breeding semi-retired mobster played by Robert Ryan.   Yeah.  It’s a bit different.

In the best-known scene from this film, Menner, the man who burned Bett with lit cigarettes, is shot in the hand by Macklin for his ungentlemanly behavior (“You shouldn’t use a girl’s arm for an ashtray.”).   Macklin knows this is the guy who put the hit on him and his brother–and he leaves the guy alive.  To try again. For no reason other than that Flynn figures there’s more mileage in the character.   There isn’t.   He’s just annoying.   Played by a unique-looking character actor named Timothy Carey, who has a bit of an online cult these days, but there’s no depth to him at all.   He’s ugly, mean, and stupid–only there to make Macklin look good by comparison–doesn’t quite work.

I mentioned that Joe Don Baker might have been a better ‘Parker’ than Duvall–but there’s one actor in the film who’d have been nearly perfect, if he hadn’t been one of those guys who never gets to play the lead–in this film, he doesn’t even get to have a name–his character is billed as ‘1st Man’.

His real name was Tom Allen, but he usually got credited as Tom Reese.  He’s the hit-man who killed Macklin’s brother while dressed as a priest for no reason. His partner in one scene is played by Roland La Starza, a former boxer (former light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore also shows up in a brief cameo–why?  I dunno.  Why is Anita O’Day singing in the background at an Outfit bar, and you never even see her?  Why not?).

Can’t find any images of him from The Outfit–here’s what I could find.

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Reese was from Tennessee, but he didn’t have any strong regional accent when he was working–great voice, deep, resounding, and stark.   Powerful yet muted screen presence.  Big.  Blocky.  Six feet three inches tall.   Large veiny hands that swing at his sides when he walks–there’s this one scene where the camera looks down on him while he walks away, and you think there’s been some mistake–THAT’s got to be Parker.  He and Duvall are never in the same scene, though given that he killed Macklin’s brother, and is trying to kill Macklin and Cody, you’d expect some final confrontation, but I guess they figured there wasn’t time.

Keeps popping up through the film, looking all scary and professional, and then fades into the background–he seems to be in the back seat of the car Menner is in when he makes his final stupid attempt on Macklin’s life, but it’s hard to be sure, the way it’s shot.  Sloppy filmmaking, slipshod storytelling, and a waste of a fine actor.   Who realistically couldn’t have played Parker, because the studio would want a bigger name.   But one thing you can be sure of–he would have played the part straight.

And Duvall can’t.   He’s too much of a Method man–studied with Strasberg.   He’s got to know what Macklin is feeling, and find some way to link that up to his own experiences–and since even Richard Stark didn’t always seem to know what Parker was feeling, that approach is never going to work out.   He didn’t understand the character intuitively, the way Lee Marvin did–Marvin sensed there was something alien and unreachable about Parker, something you couldn’t explain or act out–just inhabit.   Marvin had the kind of screen charisma where he could just sit there, his expression blank and vacant, and you could read anything into those eyes.

Duvall, lacking that kind of gift, had to rely on his peerless acting skills, but they’re ill-suited to this role.  He can’t just inhabit Macklin, because he doesn’t get him at all (the script isn’t giving him any help, and neither is the director).

So he grimaces, fidgets, laughs at odd moments, smiles all the time, and in spite of his rather bloody profession, he’s a pretty nice guy to the people he knows and trusts–except Bett, who he abuses, then makes out with–and refuses to just leave behind, even though she’s got absolutely no skills to contribute to the job at hand.  Her main function is to get killed by the bad guys, so Macklin has an excuse to go kill them at the end.   It’s not enough that they owe him money.  Because this is a movie.

He and Cody have a major bromance going on (that’s the real love story in the film, not Macklin and Bett).  They make a half-hearted stab at the scene in the book where Parker doesn’t want Handy to come in with him out of friendship, but it doesn’t work, because they are friends.   They love each other–it oozes out of every scene they’re in.  When a wounded Cody tells Macklin to go on without him, you never for one second believe that’s going to happen.

And at the end, when it all comes out their way (except they got no money at the mansion, and don’t seem to care), Cody yells out the film’s final tagline “The Good Guys Always Win!” and Macklin thinks that’s just hilarious.  Freeze frame, roll credits–on ‘Parker’ laughing like an idiot at a bad joke.  His girl got killed by bullets meant for him a few hours earlier.  You don’t want him to cry about it–though he looked about ready to when it happened.  But that was a few hours ago.

Why’s he doing all this crazy dangerous stuff?  Because the script tells him to.  Why does he keep winning, in spite of being apparently the worst heist planner in the history of the genre?   Ditto.

Why’d it all go so wrong?   Because they had the wrong director (who insisted on also being the wrong writer), the wrong star, the wrong love interest (they were wrong to have a love interest),  and the wrong idea–but they were trying to get it right.   I really believe Flynn was trying to adapt the book, but here’s the problem–when you’re trying to do a Parker novel straight, you can’t do it half-way.   Either do your own thing, like Boorman did, or stick as close as you reasonably can to the structure and spirit of the book, as Cavalier did with Mise à Sac.

Why did Westlake and others (including George Pelecanos, whose work on The Wire I respect the hell out of) think it went so right?   I think mainly because they mentally airbrushed out all the things that didn’t work, because they so loved the things that did.   And a lot of things in this movie work really well.

For the first and thus far only time in a Parker adaptation, you have a community of professional heistmen and their associates–a network of professionals.   You see Macklin and Cody get their guns from a sort of mobile arms dealer working out of his suitcase–not as believable or interesting as the equivalent scene from the book, but still pretty good.

You have Madge and her motel (it’s more of a bar, but never mind), as gossipy and chatty as in the book, though not nearly so perceptive and well-informed.  Marie Windsor is the only older star in the film who seems to be having a good time with her role–of course, she wasn’t that big a star to begin with, so this isn’t such a demotion for her.  Ryan and Greer both seem to be remembering better days (and they were better, but what’s past is past).

You have Chemy and his brother cooking up innovative getaway cars.  You have Cody at his diner (we never actually saw Handy’s diner in the books, but what the hell).  You have some good casual conversations in the periods between the action scenes.   These aren’t icons–they’re people.   Often badly written people, never brilliantly acted people, but sometimes that just makes them seem more real–most of our scenes in real life aren’t Oscar-worthy either.

And as Westlake observed, the film has a certain ‘flat’ matter-of-fact quality to it–a lived-in look.   Like I said, it really didn’t matter whether they made it ‘period’ or not, because the locations they were shooting in looked exactly the way they would have in the early 60’s, and well before that.

Of course, the setting is wrong–it’s not New York, not even northeastern–but none of the films ever get that right.   It’s always France, L.A.,  Chicago.  Nobody ever wants to put Parker in his proper setting, for some reason.   Just like nobody ever sets an adaptation of A Gun for Sale in England–one of them is actually set in Turkey, believe it or not.   Setting matters, and nobody’s ever going to get Parker right until they put him in his natural habitat.  If you adapt Plunder Squad, you can set it in California, okay?

I think Westlake would have loved it just for the fact that it had Robert Ryan as the Bronson character (named Mailer here).   He would have loved seeing so many of his peripheral characters brought to life, even if they are mere shadows of their true selves.   I think the very modest nature of the film would have appealed to him–its lack of pretension–he knew there was no danger of this movie ever overshadowing its source material.   It was safe for him to love it, because so few people ever would.   It did decent drive-in business, maybe–but was probably not even one of the Top 40 grossers for 1973.

Let us not forget, the first adaptation was made without his approval, because he hadn’t been fully paid for it, leading to a lengthy irritating lawsuit.  The second and far better French adaptation he probably hadn’t even seen by the time The Outfit was made.   Point Blank he knew to be a magnificent if somewhat incoherent piece of work, but that was, you might say, his problem with it–that and the fact that the director had been openly dismissive of his profession in general, and his novel in particular.   The Split took one of his best novels and tossed 99% of it in the trash.

Then later there was the movie based on Slayground, the one Parker novel that positively begs to be made into a tightly focused bottle story, and I don’t even want to talk about how far wrong that went–I’m amazed they spelled the title right.

So what was the one ‘Parker’ film that actually tried to do the book some measure of justice?   This one.   It failed.  Badly.  But it tried.

And then it basically disappeared for a long time after it left theaters–surfaced here and there on latenight television, then vanished from there as well, only popping back up on DVD after Westlake had died.   So by the time he was doing interviews about the films based on his work, it had probably been over a decade since he’d last seen it.  In my case, I only saw The Outfit after having read a bunch of enthusiastic fan reviews online–and it did not, for me, live up to the advance publicity.   The books were fresh in my mind.  I was disappointed.  First impressions tend to be lasting ones.

I can think of one more reason why Westlake might have overdone it a bit in his praise of The Outfit–it’s just a guess, but note the ending.   Macklin and Cody have finished off Mailer at his mansion–the cops and EMT workers are coming.  They need to slip away unnoticed, so Macklin puts on a white ambulance driver’s jacket (don’t ask me where he got it), loads the wounded Cody into a waiting ambulance, and drives away.   Sound familiar?   Need a hint?   It’s 1973.  Westlake is writing Butcher’s Moon.

He stole the ending.   I mean, it’s a script based on his book–if Flynn can use Westlake’s ideas as he pleases, why can’t it work in the other direction?   Only fair.  It’s a great idea, rather badly used in the film–they just improvise, the way they’ve been doing all through the picture.   In Butcher’s Moon, the ambulance has been stolen in advance, Parker leaving nothing to chance if he can help it.

It’s a much better idea the way Westlake uses it.  But still–not his idea.   There’s a certain sense of professional obligation there.   He’s going to be a little nicer than he otherwise would have been.   Not feign enthusiasm, but perhaps exaggerate it a little.

Like I said, just a theory–but Westlake lifted that ending.  It’s pretty obvious.  I guess it’s possible Westlake gave the idea to Flynn, but he said they really didn’t communicate any, and Flynn taking his suggestion would have also made him feel more favorably towards the film, so it works either way.   And either way, I think I’ve said all I’ve got to say about The Outfit.   If somebody wants to tell me I’m full of it, I’d be only too pleased.   But let’s get this straight–Parker isn’t short.  Parker isn’t sentimental.   Parker isn’t BALD.   Three strikes yer out, Macklin.

So given that I’ve vowed to never let any of my articles go longer than 6,000 words again, I’ve got less than a thousand words to talk about the other baldie.   Oh no.  How terrible.  And I was so looking forward to discussing Jean-Luc Parker and his bullshit enterprise (yes, I’m very proud of that, thanks for noticing).

This was the film they promised would be like the book–one of the worst books of the series (and the worst possible pick to begin a film franchise with), but still a decent piece of work–and you can vaguely perceive the outlines of its plot here and there in this film, the very first where ‘Parker’ is named Parker, and that’s why it has a special place in my personal movie hell.

I can’t really get that mad at the Godards and Boormans of the world for not doing what they never said they’d do.   But this–thing–truly does mark a new low point in the long strange history of Parker at the movies, and I’d actually prefer not to dwell on it any longer than I have to–also, to properly review it, I’d have to watch it again.  In the words of the immortal Bartleby, I would prefer not to.

Here’s how it begins–I’ll use (NIB) as shorthand for ‘Not In Book.’  Parker and  his associates are robbing a state fair (NIB), with his associates dressed up as clowns (NIB), and Parker dressed as a priest (again with the priestly garb?  in the book, but not during a heist), and actively involved in the heist as opposed to creating a diversion (NIB), never mind that this means that he can be easily described and identified by the guards he helps overcome, not to mention all the people whose attention he attracted earlier by winning a sweet little girl a stuffed animal at a sideshow game (!!!).

He flashes back (in the middle of a job!)  to taking Claire to a barbecue (NIB), at her father’s house (NIB), where he tells her she looks beautiful (!!!), and then she tells him how much she loves that he loves her dad (!!!!).   Then back to the heist, where Parker gives a panicking guard a little heart-to-heart talk about women (NIB), after having already told everyone there that he doesn’t steal from people who can’t afford it,  or hurt people who don’t deserve it.   Which is, by the way, repeatedly contradicted by his behavior throughout the rest of the picture, without any sense of irony that I can detect.   Oh, and (NIB).

Still engaged in the heist, he flashes back to the barbecue again (seems to have some kind of attention deficit thing going on), where Hurley, who is his mentor (NIB), tells him in person (NIB) about the heist he’s going to be pulling with these guys, who are there at the barbecue for no discernible reason (NIB).

Then back to the heist, which nets them a million dollars (NIB), and Parker is asked to kick in his share to pay for a bigger job–a jewel heist–and it slips out they’re paying a million dollars for a house in Palm Beach–it’s a 100k downpayment in the novel, and who buys a million dollar house cash upfront to pull one job?  And instead of an isolated McMansion trashed by a rock star, the house is on a tiny plot of land, surrounded by other houses, and Lord only knows how many potential witnesses.  Why not put out a neon lawn sign with a blinking arrow on it saying “This way to the jewel thieves”?  (NIB)?  You betcha.

They don’t want to tell him anything else about the job they’re pulling (NIB) even though they mean to kill him if he won’t participate (NIB), and then he leaps out the window of a moving car (NIB), and then the punk named Hardwicke whose uncle is a Chicago mobster Parker will later kill (NIB) has to go shoot him, causing life-threatening injuries that Parker somehow recovers from during the ride to the hospital he gets from some kind hearted tomato farmers he will later give a lot of his money to in gratitude (NIB).

Then at this hospital he learns that the fire set by the punk (NIB) as a distraction at the fair (NIB) has killed a man (NIB), to which news he responds with what looks an awful lot like guilt (!!!!!!!!) and then he chokes out a black orderly (NIB) and escapes using a scared cancer patient for cover (NIB), seemingly little the worse for wear (NIB).

And this is just the first 20 minutes of the film.

This film was a critical and commercial flop, and since this time they used Parker’s name, it probably poisons the ‘franchise’ as far as movies are concerned, for at least a generation.  Given the trendlines of this three part overview I’ve just written, that may not be such a bad thing.  The two best films came out almost half a century ago.     Been downhill ever since.

On to cable television?   How the hell would I know?  Enough about ‘Parker.’   In my personal opinion, there may someday be a film/show/whatever that does Parker justice, but there will never come a day when all the Parker adaptations combined are worth the worst Parker novel ever written.

And speaking of which, our next book is The Black Ice Score.  Which I just reread, and I liked it this time.  Maybe it’s the company I’ve been keeping?   Enjoy the turkey–as long as it’s the kind you eat.

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Parker film adaptations

Parker at the Movies, Part 2: Blanking on the Point of Payback

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Hollywood started buying my books around 1967, with Point Blank, which is a terrific film.  I did nothing on the film.  They bought the book and went their own way.  That’s usually been the case.

Donald E. Westlake, talking to Patrick McGilligan.

Carter (shouting): Look Walker, I’m a businessman.  Let’s sit down…talk business.

Walker (roaring): Business?  What’s your business?

Carter: My word…my word.

Walker: Redeem it.  Redeem it.

Carter: I’ve got securities.

Walker: Paper.  You’re made of paper.

From a cut scene in the script for Point Blank, written by Alexander Jacobs and John Boorman.

Although the French may have jumped to an early lead in the Parker movie sweepstakes, Hollywood was not far behind.  Two major motion pictures adapting Parker novels came out within a little over a year’s time–the second of them, an adaptation of The Seventh, starring football legend Jim Brown as a heister named McClain, went so far off the rails of the story it was adapting that I don’t much see the point in discussing it.   Unbelievable cast, though.  What a waste of talent–and how they thought the story they told was anywhere near as good as the one they abandoned it in favor of–well, that’s Hollywood.

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It’s fascinating to me that Parker’s first really serious fans (at least going by the mail Westlake received) were black men–he explained that by saying that they liked Parker because instead of society rejecting him, he’d rejected it first.  A serious football fan (baseball metaphors come far and few between in his books), Westlake didn’t think much of Jim Brown’s acting abilities, which to be sure, were never really the point of Jim Brown making movies (I happen to love his films, bad as they often are; just not this one).

The movie bears such a faint resemblance to the book, you can’t really call it an adaptation.   It is the one ‘Parker’ film I can think of where ‘Parker’ steals money directly from honest citizens, and gets away with it–maybe.  If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean.  Honestly, when even Julie Harris isn’t giving a very good performance, you know you’ve got a bad script and a bad director, but at least ‘Parker’ isn’t short and bald and full of odd facial tics.   I’ll talk about that movie next time.

As I said last time, Godard had set the tone for most Parker adaptations with Made in USA–the books were popular enough to be worth buying up the film rights on spec–but not so popular that people would be up in arms over directors and screenwriters doing whatever the hell they wanted with the story and characters.   Westlake himself said a movie based on a book has to be its own thing.   That doesn’t mean he didn’t wince sometimes when he watched the ones based on his books.

But anyway, that was Hollywood’s second try–the first attempt is, to this day (and probably all days), the best film anybody’s ever made from anything Donald Westlake ever wrote, under any name.  Not the best adaptation–the best film, as a film.  It’s a masterpiece–on visual terms alone, a bravura cinematic achievement with few rivals and even fewer superiors.  That sets out to say the exact opposite of what the book it’s adapting was trying to say.  And ends up saying damned little, other than “Doesn’t this look incredibly cool?”   And it really does.   A bit too cool for school, which is maybe one reason why it flopped so badly.  But a damned influential flop it turned out to be in the long run.

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The late 60’s/early 70’s were a unique and tumultous time in the history of Hollywood filmmaking.  The studio system was in the process of breaking down–television was making ever greater inroads.  Big stars were no longer mere salaried vassals to the moguls, but were increasingly in control of their own artistic destinies (whether they knew what to with all this new power is another story).  The only way to beat television, the reasoning went, was to give the people what television couldn’t.   To be different and new, and that meant hiring different and new people to make the movies, and letting them have their way a lot more often.   Let the directors, already powerful, become all-powerful.  It sounded great in principle, and it often was in practice, but as a business plan, it was inherently problematic.   Genius doesn’t give a damn about corporate balance sheets, nor should it.

John Boorman had made a reasonably popular and well-received movie featuring the Dave Clark 5 in England–a half-successful attempt to clone A Hard Days Night–and some MGM executives approached him about directing a movie based on The Hunter, which of course he’d never read (and I can’t for the life of me find out if he ever did sit down and read it cover to cover).   They already had a script, which was to all reports very faithful to the book–which doesn’t necessarily mean it was any good, and frankly I doubt it was all that faithful, since I have read The Hunter.   Intrigued by the prospect of doing a big budget Hollywood film, Boorman discussed the project with Lee Marvin, who was filming in London at the time, and they formed an odd partnership that made them both incredibly powerful for a short time.

After a long career in TV and film, Marvin had, in his early 40’s, suddenly become one of the hottest names in the business–he’d won an Oscar for his comic turn in Cat Ballou, then headed up the all-star cast of The Dirty Dozen (the very film he’d been working on in London), and I don’t need to tell you anything about that, do I?

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Sort of a who’s who of actors who should have played Parker (or one of his associates), and two who actually did.

The director of that film, Robert Aldrich, would probably have been a better pick to adapt a Stark novel (in certain respects, The Dirty Dozen plays like a Stark novel, only with GI’s instead of heisters), even though a decade earlier, when he’d had his turn adapting a hard-boiled two-fisted noir story–Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadlyhe’d turned its hero into an arrogant unethical womanizing bastard who triggers a small scale nuclear holocaust–of course one might argue that actually constituted a spiritually faithful adaptation of a Mike Hammer novel….

But in actual concrete terms Aldrich had said the exact opposite of what the book’s author had set out to say–well really, the screenwriter, A.I. ‘Buzz’ Bezzerides, had done that.   Bezzerides made no bones about the fact that he loathed the book he’d been hired to adapt, and Aldrich seemed to echo that contempt, but the film (made on a low budget with no big stars) did actually make some money, and has a cult following to this day.  Spillane hated the movie, but couldn’t do a thing about it–proving even a writer as rich and popular as Spillane had no real power in the movie biz–no writer ever has, when you get right down to it–not unless he became a producer as well.   You don’t believe me, ask F. Scott Fitzgerald.

So anyway, MGM wanted Lee Marvin for this new project very very badly, and they liked the idea of having this hot young Brit director make it–this being his first big break he should be easy to control, they probably thought–but the problem for them was that these two very different men had become fast friends, and in the studio’s haste to secure Marvin’s much sought after services, they had given him total artistic control over the picture–which he then transferred to Boorman in a studio boardroom scene that if you saw it in a movie you’d say “That could never happen in a million years.”   And Boorman’s first use of his newfound authority was to throw the original script out the window–literally.  Along with any notion of doing an even halfway faithful adaptation of The Hunter.

Even though the studio system was dying, its infrastructure was still largely intact, and the talented but inexperienced Boorman had a vast array of seasoned production talent to help him along, particularly cinematographer Philip A. Lathrop.  The best of the old and new worlds of filmmaking were arrayed here at this transitional moment.   Like many a wunderkind before him, Boorman was not shy about spending the studio’s money, and they were getting more and more nervous (justly so, as it turned out), and he feared they would say the hell with the contractual control Marvin had given him, and insist on taking the film away to recut it–he deliberately shot as little extra footage as he could, so they wouldn’t have much to work with if that happened.

But when it came time for them to make their move, the legendary film editor Margaret Booth, who had gotten her start working for D.W. Griffith in 1915 (before the studio system had even come into being), said they would touch one frame of Boorman’s picture over her dead body.   Seriously, the story of how this film got made is often harder to believe than the story it actually tells, and that’s saying something.

Boorman was in his early 30’s, arrogant as all hell, and almost stereotypically disinclined to stick to the script.   He believed in the brand-new auteur theory absolutely–well, creative egocentric people do tend to respond rather favorably to anything that confirms their suspicion they are the Be-all and End-all of existence, and who can blame them?

Nonetheless, he had a damn good screenwriter in Alexander Jacobs, another Englishman, who went on to write The Seven-Ups, The French Connection II, and other stirring tales of modern mayhem.   Boorman would work with him and Marvin shortly afterwards in the WWII film Hell in the Pacific, which also starred Toshiro Mifune (and which also flopped at the box office).   He and Jacobs basically rewrote the script from scratch, so one would like to think they both carefully read The Hunter, but something tells me Jacobs did more of that than Boorman.

Boorman got a lot of press around this time, and he ran his mouth a bit–said he wanted “to use writers…exploit them, steal their ideas, and then discard them.”   He also said he didn’t like getting a really good script for a movie he was making, because he wouldn’t be able to play with it as much and then he’d just be “making somebody else’s work.”   I’m paraphrasing somebody else’s work right now, by the way–The Cinema of John Boorman, by Brian Hoyle.   But I needed the material, so I stole it and used it for my own ends, which are not at all according to Hoyle.

Marvin didn’t always stick to the script either–for one scene, he refused to speak his dialogue, but stared off into space while Sharon Acker (who played Lynn in the film) asked his questions and then answered them, as if they were communicating telepathically.   In a scene that comes shortly afterwards, the guy playing Stegman’s terrified messenger says his lines, and Marvin just repeats them with the slightest inflection of irony–it’s clever, though probably not the best method of interrogation.   Again, Marvin’s idea.   He was having a really good time making this picture.

A whole lot of the time, Marvin is just looking at nothing at all, while people bustle around him, making noise.   I’m guessing he did read the book–though he didn’t much care for the story in it, he loved the character of Parker, said he’d never seen anything like him before, and like so many before him, identified very strongly with that sense of detachment from the world around him Parker always gives off.   Marvin, like Parker, had served in WWII as a teenager, and it marked him for life, physically and emotionally.  He was a strange guy–a total individualist.   And probably one of of the ten best screen actors who ever lived.   And no, I don’t feel like naming the other nine right now.

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For Lee Marvin, acting means underacting–everything is beneath the surface with him, 99% of the time, an eruption always about to happen, and watch out when it does.   His silences are more profound than what most actors say out loud.  He says as little as he possibly can and still get his points across, and when he talks, everyone listens.   While somebody like Michel Constantin may more closely resemble the man described in the Parker novels, he couldn’t convey the inner dimensions of the character, the enigma of Parker, the sheer mythic unaccountability–how could such a person exist?   Of course, in the adaptation Constantin appeared in, ‘Parker’ isn’t really at the center of what is basically an ensemble piece–in Point Blank, he’s the whole story.   The sun around which the lesser planets revolve.

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The film’s story makes no sense, and doesn’t try to.   Is Marvin’s character (known only as Walker, so they kept the one name thing anyway) a man seeking vengeance for his wife and best friend betraying him, and the money he feels is owed him?  A ghost returned in solid form, who can beat the crap out of hired toughs, punch them in the groin, knock them out cold, but not actually kill them?  Or is this just a dream he has as he lies dying on the floor of a cell in an abandoned penitentiary in San Francisco Bay?

Boorman has always refused to say–and it’s pretty obvious to me that’s because he doesn’t know himself, and he doesn’t want to admit it.  None of these explanations make any sense if you think about them logically, so you don’t think about them logically.   There is no right or wrong answer, but that also means there is no right or wrong interpretation, which means the movie isn’t really saying anything at all.   It’s just one big beautiful Eastmancolor Rorshach Blot.

To me, saying “It’s all a dream” is stupid, because it’s a movie–everything you see in a movie is a dream.  You think Dorothy never went to Oz?   You think Kansas is all monochrome and sepia-tinted in reality?   You think Miss Gulch had an orchestra following her around on her bicycle to play her scary dog-killing theme music?  And anyway, in a dream, Walker would have been able to kill people himself, instead of only causing people to die as an indirect consequence of his actions.  It’s not that uncommon for people to dream about murdering other people.  It’s only your own death you can’t dream about, or so Freud opined.  Everything you see in a movie is somebody’s dream.  A lot of somebody’s, in fact.

If Walker’s story ended with Mal’s death (and let me just say Richard Vernon did a splendid job playing Mal, even though the movie makes him a lot sexier than he was in the book), then sure, it could be a dream.   But then there’s this whole story after that, with the organization, and people Walker has never heard of, and agendas he could not possibly know about, so there goes the dream theory.   And yet as a straightforward gangster story, it makes no sense either.  And if he’s dead, he shouldn’t be able to punch people and have sex with them, though of course Clint Eastwood borrowed that concept for High Plains Drifter.   Like I said, a very influential film.

One thing Boorman and Marvin agreed on was that Parker’s quest for retribution and restitution in the novel was pointless.  They wanted to make it clear in the film that they were not endorsing his vendetta, even while they made it look unbelievably cool and iconic (and really, how you look in a movie means about a million times more than what people say about you in that movie).   Various people in the movie tell Walker he’s really dead (we don’t know if this is a metaphor or a statement of fact).

The Angie Dickinson character (more or less based on Parker’s hooker friend Rosie, but a bit more liberated–also a lot less plausible) tries to slap the revenge out of him, then uses a handy intercom system to mock his single-minded obsession, then hits him over the head with a pool cue–then has sex with him.   It’s kind of hard to buy into the futility of any quest that leads to passionate consensual intercourse with Angie Dickinson.   The film doesn’t even agree with itself.

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This dichotomy stretches across much of Boorman’s later work–he’s drawn to violence, obsessed with it, but feels obliged to condemn it even while he’s glamorizing it.   Well, that’s not just him doing that, of course.  That’s the entire film industry, past, present, and future.  But he’s more ambivalent about it than most.   I’m sure Westlake could commiserate with him about that particular form of identity confusion, but he’d still argue that if you want to actually make the point that violence is bad (as he did in The Spy in the Ointment), you shouldn’t then undermine it by making the most violent character in the story the coolest and most easily identified-with character in the story, and letting him get everything he wants.   Even if he then decides he doesn’t want it–bit late, wouldn’t you say?

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This identity crisis sabotages Point Blank, makes it work against itself, and I suspect that’s why American audiences largely rejected it at the time, feeling like they’d come to see a revenge story, and the director was making fun of them for that, even though that’s exactly what it was sold to them as.  It performed much better in Europe, but European audiences were more used to ambiguous narratives, confused chronology, etc–after all, Boorman’s intent had been to make a Hollywood picture that resembled the best of European cinema–Europeans were also far more inclined to go to see a movie purely as a work of art–and as a work of art, it’s very hard to fault this film.   It’s just one stunning image after another–a rogue’s art gallery, if you will.  A graphic designer’s wet dream, which has inspired many an homage.

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Westlake greatly admired the film–said more than once that it was the best movie ever made from a Parker novel, maybe the best ever made from any of his books–but there was always a certain coolness there.   He was no camp follower.  He understood he was being insulted here, belittled.  Neither Boorman nor Marvin ever praised The Hunter as a book, ever recognized what a seminal important work it was, and they seemed to think they had come up with a startling new interpretation of Parker, as Aldrich and Bezzerides had with Mike Hammer–they acted like the alien inhuman quality to the character, his emotional blankness, was something they’d painstakingly extracted from a cliched piece of paperback trash–when in fact it was something Westlake had made ever more abundantly clear in each subsequent book in the series.

They felt superior to the material they were adapting, and that’s deadly.  Unless you are, in fact, superior to the material you are adapting, and that’s decidedly not the case here.   The Hunter knows exactly what it is, and what it has to say.   It’s a tight focused story, making use of certain conventions in the crime genre, but transforming them into something new and startling–to know just how good it really is, you’d have to read a lot of crime fiction.  Boorman’s reading of the book was shallow and self-serving.   And in many ways, so is the movie he made from it.

He thought he was doing what Aldrich had done with Mike Hammer, subverting a brutal sexist revenge narrative, but in fact he never got that Parker’s quest isn’t for vengeance, or money–those are just means to an end, the end being peace of mind.   Parker steals because that’s who he is–he kills when people disrupt his plans, behave in ways that don’t make sense to him, upset his mental balance–which he then rights by erasing them from existence.  The point of the stories isn’t “This is how you should be”–it’s “This is how this particular guy is, and here’s these other people in the same general line of work, and look how different they are.”   The point is that Parker wins because he knows who he is, and the others lose–and die–because they don’t know themselves.

And that point doesn’t exist in Point Blank.   It’s irrelevant to the narrative.   Walker isn’t trying to find out who he is, it’s debatable whether he even wants to know, and you can interpret the story as him looking for justice, or revenge, or $93,000, or the love of a good woman, or just denying his own death.   And those could all be valid points for a story to make, but which is it?   Boorman won’t tell us.   The truth is, Boorman doesn’t care.   He just wants to paint a picture, and he does it really well–with the help of scores of talented fellow professionals.   But Westlake did it better, with nothing more than a typewriter and his imagination, and he actually knew what his story was about.

Westlake would have liked the anti-authoritarian, anti-corporate attitude of the film.  He would have liked the way Walker remains inexplicable, inaccessible, aloof from the world around him.   He would have liked the way Walker refuses to play anybody else’s game–the ending, where he just decides to remove himself from the game altogether, remains powerful, though also a bit of a let-down.  Jacobs actually wanted Walker to kill Yost/Fairfax, the manipulative schemer played to perfection by Keenan Wynn.  Boorman stuck to his guns, and the results remain impressive.  There’s plenty to like about this movie–it’s a great work of art.

But as a story, it’s not all that much, and a movie like this is supposed to tell a story.   It’s not some low budget experimental art film.   And the problem with that is when you have one experimental big budget film after another losing money because the director is seeking his bliss while ignoring the bottom line, you’re sending a message to the money men–you’re telling them to stop investing in experimental movies–to find a more profitable mode of filmmaking.

They found it–with Jaws, and Star Wars, and ‘franchises’, and merchandising, and that great experimental moment in American movie history ended, and will probably never return.    Walker beats the soulless corporate suits in the movie, but in reality, they had it all their own way.   And Boorman’s career ended up being a promise largely unfulfilled, full of odd, over-indulgent, but still fascinating fiascos like Zardoz and Excalibur, though he had a few more high spots.  One in particular is worth noting.

A few years later, Boorman would bring southern poet James Dickey’s first novel Deliverance to the screen.  The movie avoided the more jarring discordant elements of Point Blank, while still being strikingly shocking and original (and in its own way, amoral–the protagonists commit several murders, and get away with it).   And please note–he adapted the book very faithfully indeed–almost page for page.  The result was his most critically acclaimed and financially successful film ever–the film that made his reputation for life.  Writers, it turns out, do have their uses.   Just because you’re “making somebody else’s work” doesn’t mean you can’t make it your own as well.

But rarely has anyone followed that dictum when adapting Donald Westlake’s work.   And he’d be the last to complain about that (maybe a little, well after the film in question had bombed).  He understood, as well as anyone ever has, the need to do your own thing.   Even when what you were doing was actually his thing.   But he did have his own little tradition, that began at this time–he would insist, whenever he sold a Parker novel to the movies, that they could only use the name Parker if they agreed, in advance, to adapt all the existing books in order.  He knew that wasn’t going to happen with Point Blank–Lee Marvin refused to do sequels to any movie he was in, even if the movie was a hit.

The truth is, he must have known he was making an unreasonable demand, one that would never be met.  Parker’s name wasn’t famous enough, valuable enough, distinctive enough (it’s one of the most common names in the English speaking world) to be worth making that kind of commitment for.   Just buy the book and change the name; if the movie’s successful enough for a sequel, that name will work just as well, so why burden yourself with such an obligation?

Westlake knew this–and he never altered the demand, though it could have been profitable for him to do so.   So what was the point?   In practical terms, the point was perhaps that if you were going to do all the books in order, you’d be doing a more honest adaptation by definition–you’d have to, for the plot elements to match up.   And of course you’d have to pay for all the books.  But he obviously never thought they would do that–so in metaphysical terms, it meant he was never really selling Parker.  Just the right to take his stories and mess around with them, which is something any writer dealing with the film industry has to put up with.

In theory, he was willing to sell his brainchild down the river–but this is like the crusty backwoodsman who says he’ll sell his grand old hunting dog–for some utterly ridiculous sum that no one would ever pay.   What he really means is “I wouldn’t part with that fleabitten cur for anything, but I don’t want you to think I’m sentimental.”   Westlake, like Parker, didn’t like getting caught doing things that made no sense.

Point Blank is actually the second ‘Parker’ movie I ever saw, and the second Westlake adaptation, and I saw both of them before I finally was moved to read my first Parker novel.   In all probability, if not for the first Parker adaptation I saw, I would not have read any Donald Westlake novels, let alone all of them, nor would I be doing this blog, so you can blame Payback for that.   Payback, as they say, is a bitch.

Made over three decades later, in a radically different Hollywood, the story of Payback is diametrically opposed to that of Point Blank, and yet a logical consequence to it.  Stars had indeed become a lot more powerful, and the star of this film was (until he went batshit crazy) one of the most powerful of all.

Brian Helgeland, the talented screenwriter who had adapted James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, had decided to try his hand at directing–he wanted that kind of control over his work, but as Westlake put it, “everybody rises to the level of his own incompetence.”   He had started out doing a very direct very faithful adaptation of The Hunter (too faithful, Westlake observed, with typical perversity), which wasn’t going to have a very large budget, or an A-List star–and then Gibson muscled his way in.

I’ve seen both versions of Payback–the one Helgeland originally made (still a lot different from his original conception, and from the book), and the theatrical version that’s been shown shown on television every other day for over ten years now, and is probably the most-watched Parker adaptation ever (when the recent Statham film came out, it seemed like everybody on the internet was calling it a rip-off of Payback–and it kind of was, but more about that next time).

The original version is better looking, with a warmer palette, no offscreen narration by Gibson, and an ending in which it seems like ‘Parker’ (Porter in the movie, but you knew that) is bleeding to death in his getaway car.   Oh, and instead of Kris Kristofferson as Bronson (a great bit of casting, I thought), it has Sally Kellerman’s voice on the phone–and instead of seeming unnerved and offbalance, the way Bronson does in the book, she’s this untouchable force, that may have ultimately succeeded in killing Porter at the end.  I don’t like that.  Nobody would have liked that.

It has a lot of painfully cliched ‘movieisms’ (like Rosie screaming at Porter not to die on her), and quite honestly it doesn’t flow all that well.   It’s also almost as comedy-oriented as the theatrical cut, but keeps trying to undercut the comedy, instead of working with it.   In either version the characters are all well-drawn caricatures, depicted by skilled actors (brilliant casting all around on this one).  In either version, the only performance that isn’t a cartoon, is Maria Bello’s Rosie–and frankly, she’s the best thing in that movie.   And the only image, other than the poster up top, that I’m going to display here.

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Yeah, Helgeland actually stuck a dog in there–for no reason–then killed the dog–for no reason.   That got fixed in the theatrical version.  He grumbled afterwards that the reason his cut tested so badly was that he didn’t realize you can kill all the humans you like in a movie, but you can’t kill a dog.   Tell it to Old Yeller, Brian.

In fact, it’s not an improvement over the version most people saw–in some ways, it’s actually worse.   Like Boorman, Helgeland feels like he can’t just show a successful campaign of bloody retribution and have the antihero walk away happy, healthy, and successful at the end (but that’s what happened in Kill Bill, and that was a hit!).   In both versions, Porter takes a hell of a lot of punishment, but of course part of that is Gibson’s legendary onscreen masochism (that he would later use to project himself into Jesus on the Cross–well, they do say all actors want to direct).

What Gibson did, when he took the picture away from Helgeland (in direct antithesis to Marvin giving control of his picture to Boorman), was to make it jauntier, add the noir-style narration (wrong for a faithful Parker adaptation, but of course this had already ceased to be that),  stick in a few new plotlines, and just go with the fact that this guy loves killing people.  Porter is the most unapologetically vengeful and criminally-minded of the Parker clones, and you kind of have to respect that–other than the Love of a Good Woman thing, no attempt is made to humanize him.  But he’s still very human–not a wolf in human form, but just a mean nasty thug who doesn’t give a damn–except when he does.   It’s not The Hunter, no–it’s sure not Parker–but it’s Porter, it’s Payback, and if you have two hours to kill, it’s not a bad bit of entertainment, which is why it keeps popping back up on TV.

Gibson may be a hypocritical paranoid narcissistic fanatical conspiracy-mongering Jew-hating misogynist drunken piece of shit (or am I being too kind?), but he’s proven over and over that he has sound commercial instincts, and the fact is, Helgeland’s cut would have probably flopped.   Gibson’s version was not a hit by his standards back then, but it did well enough at the time it came out.   It’s a star vehicle, and the star in question is best known for the Lethal Weapon movies, which combine over-the-top violence with slapstick comedy, and suggest their hero may be crazy (but still nicer than all the guys he’s killing).   In this Hollywood, with increasingly rare exceptions, the director is no longer God–he’s God’s publicist.   Assuming the star doesn’t want to direct as well.

Westlake hated the movie, spoke rather contemptuously of it, and yet there is something about Payback that every Westlake fan should love–the dialogue.   Whole chunks of raw vibrant hardbitten dialogue, ripped right out of the book, and plunked onto the screen, and it works beautifully.  Other than Maria Bello (I really really like her), this is what drew me to the movie–I loved the way the characters talked.  It wasn’t until I read The Hunter that I realized Helgeland, too good a writer not to know great writing when he saw it, had been unable to convince himself he could improve on Richard Stark’s way with words.  For that alone, I doff my proverbial cap to him.

For all the changes made, this is the most faithful Hollywood adaptation of a Parker novel–in terms of dialogue, the most faithful ever–and strangely, the most successful in terms of box office.   Much more so than Boorman’s film, for all its undoubted superiority on the visual front.   Writers have their uses.   It sometimes seems like it takes a writer to recognize that.   That or a director who knows his limitations.

And I aspire to know mine, so maybe I better start winding this down.   I agree with Westlake that movies based on books are their own form, that require their own solutions, but I also think, as did he, that you can’t find those solutions if you don’t understand the book you’re basing your movie on.  The reason Kiss Me Deadly worked, in spite of its obvious loathing for the book it’s based on is that the screenwriter adapting it understood the book he was working with very well–possibly better than Spillane did (self-awareness not really being The Mick’s thing).   He understood it, and that’s why he hated it.  But it was honest hate.   That script has a very defined message, which you can agree or disagree with, but you know what you’ve just been shown.

Boorman, attracted to the violence of the story and character he was working with, but also repelled by it, played a sort of clever mindgame with himself, and left the rest of us out.  The result was a beautifully shot glimpse into his soul, but nobody necessarily gave a damn about his soul.   I mean, it was his first big movie–Hitchcock didn’t start making movies about the dubious state of his soul until he’d had quite a few hits under his belt.  And Vertigo flopped too, you know.  Still a great movie.   I do sometimes blank on what the point of it is.

Payback, by contrast, was made in an era where the violence was the point.   Where it had become normal for a brutal thug to be the hero–where we could be encouraged to root for the bad guy–as long as he was up against worse guys.  So in that sense, it came closer to the mark, but still missed the point–Parker only does what’s necessary.   There’s ten times as much violence in the movie as there is in the book.   But the really chilling moments, like him mutilating Lynn’s face so she won’t be identified, aren’t there, because while we’re identifying with the brutal thug, we still want to believe we’re nice people.

Violence is not the point of The Hunter.   The point is identity.   How do you know who you are, where your limits are.   It uses the world of crime, the language of violence, because that makes for a stronger metaphor (you choose wrong, you die), and because there’s a large audience out there for that kind of story.  The story doesn’t have a moral, but it has a point.  Boorman’s story has a moral, and absolutely no point.   Helgeland’s story began as an homage (which are typically pointless), and ended up as a star vehicle (the point of which is to make money).

But here’s what I think the point of those movies is–I followed Payback to Point Blank.   Then I followed Point Blank to this–

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And around a hundred other books, and not all of them are as good or better than these two movies.   But most of them are.   At the end of the day, all movies are made from screenplays, original or adapted.   Screenplays are printed on paper.   Therefore, movies are made of paper.   Then they become celluloid–or pixels.  But paper first.

To be concluded in Part 3–The Bald Parkers.

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Filed under Parker film adaptations, Parker Novels

Parker At the Movies: Part 1–The Frenchman Always Shoots First

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NUSSBAUM: Now that you have seen several of your creations transferred to film, do you subscribe to the auteur theory, or are you one of those wise-ass scribblers who refuse to acknowledge the artistic superiority and creative transcendence of the director?  (Answer by mentioning two American and two foreign directors, one of whom must be French; and relate their work to the young Orson Welles and the imitative product of Peter Bogdanovich: Use more than one sentence if necessary.)

WESTLAKE: I love your question.  Remember the scene in The Third Man where Joseph Cotten, the writer of westerns, is posing as a literary-type lecturer?  He’s asked a question about James Joyce.  If you can find a still of Cotten’s face when he’s reacting to the question, you’ll have my answer to you, sir.  But I might have some additional things to say, so why not start a new paragraph and see?

I subscribe basically to the theory that a movie is not the book it came from, and in almost every case it shouldn’t be the book it came from.  I have never adapted one of my own novels to the screen.  Movies are a different form, they require different solutions.

Al Nussbaum interviewing Donald E. Westlake by mail (the entire piece can be found in The Getaway Car).

By the end of 1967, ten Parker novels had been published under the name Richard Stark.   None of them had been best-sellers, but sales had been strong.   The reviews had been glowing, the audience had been growing, and Hollywood was starting to take notice.  But Hollywood has never been the be-all and end-all of film making, much as it might like to think otherwise, and Richard Stark had many ardent fans who could not read English.  Parker translated very well into other languages, it seems.   Translating him into other mediums was going to prove a much more challenging prospect.

One place where the Stark books were developing a following was France, where they were published by Gallimard under the Série Noire imprint, which specialized in French translations of American crime and detective fiction of the hardboiled variety, though it also published some very impressive homegrown literature in the same genres.  Please note–the French Wikipedia article on Serie Noire has a photograph of Westlake–and mentions Killy, under its French title of Un Loup Chasse L’Autre–(‘A wolf hunting another’).

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These books generally had plain black covers with the title in yellow print, and often no cover art–very stark indeed.  Parenthetically, a Jose Giovanni Serie Noire entitled Classe Tous Risques (later made into a superb film, like so many of Giovanni’s novels), features a character named Eric Stark (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in the film).  That book came out in 1958–the first short story Westlake sold under the name Richard Stark was published in a science fiction magazine the following year.  Coincidence?  Yeah, probably.  Lot of that going around in this genre.

Depending on which source you’re reading, Gallimard’s Serie Noire books may have inspired the coining of the phrase Film Noir by the French critic Nino Frank–he was originally referring to American films like Double Indemnity and D.O.A (okay the directors of those two were European, what’s your point?), which had been hugely influential in Europe–but  French readers of policiers and roman noirs were no strangers to ruthless anti-heroes who came back in book after book–they were way ahead of us there.  Back in 1911, the first in a long series of novels about a deadly master criminal named Fantomas appeared–a shadowy figure who evaded definition as easily as he evaded the police–a supervillain you’d probably call him today, but one the reader is invited to admire if not quite identify with.

A later and far less diabolical example would be Géo Paquet, aka The Gorilla, who appeared in a long series of books in the 1950’s–in the first film adaptation in 1958, starring the great Lino Ventura, he breaks out of jail by bending the bars of his cell (he possesses amazing strength, hence the name), and ends up embroiled in a plot involving stolen nuclear secrets.  And I wish I knew more, but all the sources are in French.   I’d watch any Lino Ventura movie, so hopefully it’ll pop up on DVD here in the states.

I wish I could begin to express my stunned admiration for French noir at its best–master film makers like Jacques Becker, Jean Pierre Melville, Henri-Georges Clouzot.   Actors like Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, Alain Delon, Paul Belmondo, who combined acting ability, star charisma, and often the kind of physical prowess you’d expect from trained stuntmen.   What Warner Brothers started in the 30’s and 40’s, these idiosyncratic artisans took up with a vengeance, focusing and perfecting it to a degree that has never been surpassed.   When it comes to films about  ice cold yet oddly vulnerable gangsters, outlaws, and heisters, with a sang froid you could crack nuts on, there’s the French and then there’s everybody else.

And tragically, none of these masters ever adapted a Stark novel–no, the first Parker adaptation ever was lensed by the one French director who could be guaranteed to have no respect for the form he was dabbling in.   Or any other form.  Or form, period.  Love him, hate him, don’t give a damn about him, you must acknowledge that Jean Luc Godard respected nothing but his own oddball muse, and his main reaction to a well-crafted story with great characters was to turn it upside down and inside out, and unravel every last plot thread onto the cutting room floor.  Character?  Qu’est-ce que c’est?

I’ve already told the story of how Made in USA came to be in my review of The Jugger. I’ve got nothing to add to that. And zero interest in ever seeing that film again. Once was plenty. When I look at film stills online, I can appreciate the imagery, the sense of composition, and of course Anna Karina–her I could look at all day long. And I can appreciate the weird irony that Parker was first portrayed as a woman–not like it would matter to him either way.

There are maybe one or two scenes in the film that seem to bear any relation to the story Westlake told; even there you have to squint hard to see it. The only actor who is remotely well-cast is the one playing Tiftus (Typhus in the film, ha-ha, très très drôle, maestro). I personally don’t think the film even works on its own incoherent terms–it’s a collage of shout-outs to various American writers, directors, and actors Godard seems to have liked, combined with an affectation at contemporary political commentary that I don’t think anybody really understands (though many pretend to).

The haphazard quality of the piece is not wholly by design: the film’s screenplay, such as it is, was cobbled together at the last possible moment, so Godard could use the same equipment he was renting to make Two or Three Things I Know About Her to simultaneously shoot this film, which he finished in less than two weeks. And let me say, it looks it. To paraphrase Moliere’s misanthrope, “I might, by chance, make something just as shoddy–but then I wouldn’t show it to everybody.”

Godard never gave a damn about the downtrodden of the earth, as I see it–he had a vision, and he wanted to express it, and I can respect that, wish him well of it, and mainly avoid his films, because I don’t like them.  This is not aimed at the Nouvelle Vague in general–Truffaut I like, Malle I like, Agnes Varda I adore (and her late husband Jacques Demy); Melville is probably my favorite French filmmaker. We all have our tastes.  There are many ways to tell a story, but my impression of Godard is that he never cared about stories at all.

But for all of that, Made in USA set the pattern for very nearly all the Parker adaptations that followed–the people who wrote and filmed them were not interested in doing a faithful adaptation, even if they said they were (Godard, at least, is guilty of no such double-dealing).   Something about the character of Parker interested them, or the general heisting milieu, or they just wanted to do a crime picture and they could get the rights to a Parker novel cheap enough (always with the proviso that they couldn’t call him Parker), but they were out to tell their own stories, usually very different from the ones Stark had told.

They had their own vision and worldview to get across, which Stark (and Westlake) would generally feel little affinity towards (Westlake had nothing to say about Made In USA, other than it was ‘a rotten movie’, and I think that’s the film buff in him talking, not the writer who got cheated out of his pay).  Also, not surprisingly, none of them had the nerve to show Parker the way he is in the books, because he does horrible things to people, with not so much as the slightest pang of guilt, and gets away clean in the end, usually with a lot of money.   Screen versions of Parker can get away with robbing other crooks–sometimes–somehow, second-hand theft is okay.  Whatever.

Donald Westlake was well aware of the fact that the main point of any film based on a book is not to literally transcribe the printed page into imagery and dialogue.   An excessive concern with fidelity to the source can do more harm than good.  The point is to make a good film–but he also felt strongly that the script should at least attempt to convey some essence of what the original writer had been trying to say.   Godard’s film would have to be considered the worst in this regard–but the other French adaptation of a Parker novel was, by this standard, far and away the best.

And far and away the hardest to see, but I got lucky.   Almost exactly a year ago, I was able to see a pristine print from La Cinémathèque Française unreeled at the Museum of Modern Art–no subtitles, but they had a screen under the screen where titles could be shown.  Packed house that night.   It is apparently possible to download a version screened for television years ago (pan&scan, I assume), but I’ve never done this.   So I’ll be going by memory, and notes I made at the time.

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Information about Mise à sac (often translated as Pillaged) is hard to come by–particularly in English.  It’s a little-known film outside of France, though it seems to have had some kind of release somewhere in the English-speaking world under the title Midnight Raid.  Its director, Alain Cavalier, a protege of Louis Malle, would not generally be considered to occupy the first rank of auteurs, but as one of the few surviving names from an exciting era of filmmaking (he’s eighty-three, and still working), who worked with talents like Catherine Deneuve, Romy Schneider, and Jean-Louis Trintigant at their peak, he’s somebody any serious fan of classic French cinema should be familiar with.

As they should be aware of Claude Sautet, who shared a screenwriting credit with Cavalier on this film–he’s better known for writing and directing that very film adaptation of Classe Tous Risques I mentioned above, where Jean-Paul Belmondo played Eric Stark.  And again, I’m almost sure that’s a coincidence, but they do start to mount up after a while, don’t they?

The way Cavalier and Sautet went about adapting a Stark novel was in total contrast to Godard–first of all, in that there was no legal confusion over the film rights, leading to a lawsuit.   Westlake was properly paid for The Score, and there can be no question at all that the screenwriters studied the book closely–whether it was Cavalier’s idea to make a film of it, I don’t know, but once he was actually doing so, it seems to have been his intention to get as close to the spirit and letter of the novel as possible–within reason, of course.

You can’t very well do a perfectly faithful adaptation of a book that opens in Newark New Jersey, and whose principal action is in a western mining town, if it’s set in France.   Some translation of setting and motivation and general cultural milieu shall be required.  And while French noir tends to be much less inclined to moralize than its Hollywood equivalent, you rarely ever see criminals profit from being criminals in it–usually crooks die or get caught in the end, and when they don’t it’s usually because they didn’t actually commit the crime they intended to commit.  Law & order must prevail in the end–the question is how and to what extent.

And also, I would say, the influence of existentialism, and a general attitude of fatalism that permeated French filmmaking at this time, lead to a sense that these individualists, however admirable on some level, will have to pay the price for being individualists–life will always find a way to bring down those who rebel (which does not necessarily make their rebellion less admirable).   The best French noirs tend to be tragic stories–of powerful uncontrollable personalities on collision courses, with each other and with destiny, and the most they can generally hope for is to remain themselves to the (very) bitter end.

But I must say, I don’t quite see that in this film.  I see the general style and mindset of French noir in Mise à sac, but I also see much of the Starkian ethos in it–you will be rewarded or punished not in accordance with whether you toe the line, but rather with how well you know yourself and your profession.  I get the sense that Cavalier left himself open to the material he was adapting more than any other filmmaker, before or since.  He got infected by it, discovered an affinity with it.   And for this we can only commend him, while recognizing that it’s still his vision on the screen, and that he, like everyone else to date, has not given us a true cinematic incarnation of Parker.   Parker remains untranslatable.

What did Westlake think of Mise à sac?   He told Patrick McGilligan that he’d sold the rights via the usual channels, and had never once spoken to anyone who worked on the film.   Some time later–presumably in the VCR era–he saw it at a friend’s apartment in Paris–probably taped off the air, and not letterboxed, so hardly as the filmmakers intended it to be seen.  He did not know French, and there were no subtitles, but “I figured I knew the story.  It looked modest but good.” It looked a whole hell of a lot better than that to me, but modest it is, yes. It just wants to tell you a story.  No pretensions of any kind here.

The film opens with the Parker character, called only Georges here (I think that’s a first name), heading to a meeting about a potential job, in the city of Lyons.   He realizes a man is following him, and he waylays him–and roughs him up–doesn’t have to kill him, as happens in the book.   I guess Cavalier felt like a dead body in Lyons would attract more attention than one in Newark, and he probably had a point.

Georges raises a stink about being tailed when he gets to the meeting, but the mastermind of the heist (with the first name Edgar, instead of the last name Edgars) calms him down and does his presentation–where he proposes to rob an entire factory town in a remote rural area of central France.   Everyone is suitably taken aback by the audacity of this plan; Georges has serious reservations, but it all goes much as it does in the book–the money and the challenge are too good to pass up.

Nobody is named Grofield here, but there’s a Paulus, a Wiss, and a Salsa.   The Grofield character is named Maurice, and he’s not an actor (and frankly, he’s not that interesting).  They’re a merry crew of heisters, joking back and forth, enjoying each other’s company.   The personalities are not as well-defined as in the book–it’s hard to convey in a film what Stark does with his thumbnail portraits–but the actors do a great job making us believe in these  guys–they look like workmen preparing to do a job, and that’s precisely what they are.

The Edgars-Jean-Parker triangle is dispensed with rather quickly–Edgar has hired a callgirl, and Georges, worried about Edgar’s professionalism–sensing something wrong with him–exchanges a few words with her, to see if he can learn anything.  She is not seen again.

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The heist begins 25 minutes into the film, and takes up most of it–unusual for a Parker adaptation, and only slightly less so for a Parker novel, but this is an adaptation of The Score, and that one really is all about the heist.   Just like Copper Canyon, this town basically sleeps at night, and there’s an eerie quiet on the streets.  And then this small caravan of vehicles appears, and the game’s afoot.

And just like Parker, Georges patrols those streets in a commandeered police car, while the police themselves are locked up in their own jail–along with the unfortunate young man who sees a robbery in progress, and tries to call it in–the expression on his face when Georges shows up at the phone booth to ‘arrest’ him is priceless–we get to see him in bed with his very pretty girlfriend shortly before (she’s got lovely breasts–on full display–vive la france!), and we, like he, are wondering why he didn’t just stay in bed.

I actually think this is an improvement on the scene in the novel–the hapless young lover in that one just ends up bound and gagged in an alleyway, catching a bad cold–but that’s because in the novel, the police station is going to get blown up, and Westlake didn’t want to kill the poor kid.   Here, Cavalier takes full advantages of the topsy-turvy scenario of the novel–the way the criminals have become the police, and the law-abiding citizens are tossed behind bars simply for getting in the way of a smooth-running operation.

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In the meantime, Maurice is watching the telephone exchange, and making time with one of the operators, who is of course a lovely young woman named Marie. She’s attracted to him, but she’s not trying to persuade him to take her along.   He’s no Grofield, I think I mentioned.

The middle of the picture, dealing with nothing more than the systematic pillaging of all the major businesses in town, is quite simply a joy to behold.   The most perfect translation of a Stark novel you could imagine.   But of course you’ve still got to stick the landing, and that’s where things get a bit messy.

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Edgar, like Edgars, has a vendetta against the town–only this time it’s much more personal and specific.   He’s not a disgraced police chief here–he was fired from his position at the local plant by the owner and manager, and one gets the feeling he originally just thought he’d get his revenge by stealing everything in town, including the factory payroll–but as he looks at the beautiful house this man lives in, he decides it’s not enough.   He doesn’t want to burn down the entire town–just the man’s house, with him in it.  There’s a woman involved somehow, but I only saw this once, a year ago, so the details are a bit hazy.

Georges realizes something is wrong, and confronts him–and somehow Edgar knocks him down.   Which you know was never going to happen to Parker, but this ain’t Parker.   Coulda been, shoulda been, woulda been, but no cigar.

I should talk about Michel Constantin now.   He was never a big star, or really a star, period–this is probably the most central role he ever played in a film.   He was always the heavy, or the sidekick, though greatly prized in that type of role.  He made his debut in the classic Jacques Becker prison escape picture, Le Trou, and let’s just say his acting skills never really got past the basics–but he exuded a certain authenticity.

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(That’s not from Mise à sac, but you see what I mean, right?)

He was only 6’1, but seems much taller on film.  He tends to loom over the other actors (not a lot of tall people in these movies).  He just looks big–and blocky–and shaggy–and ugly, but somehow you know it’s the kind of ugly that gives at least some women vibrations above their nylons.   He walks in a certain indefinable way, with his big veiny hands swinging at his sides, and you just go “right”.   He’s Parker.   Until he opens his mouth.

See, he has to speak the dialogue he’s been given, and he’s got to react the way the director tells him to, and Cavalier isn’t trying to give us the Parker from the books.   He either doesn’t want that, or doesn’t know how to convey it.  He’s interested in telling a story about a group of thieves pulling a daring robbery–he’s interested in the subversive nature of that robbery, and the interaction of the robbers with the townspeople, and the whole notion of what happens when a little town is asleep.

But he’s not giving us the mythic lethal enforcer, the master planner, the wolf in human form, and certainly not the guy who has no sex drive until after he finishes a job–I’d guess he thought that would detract from the gritty realism he was going for with this scenario–bit late to argue with him now.   To see things from his POV–he doesn’t have a star–none of these actors, talented as they are, were big names.   It’s an ensemble piece, and that is in fact one of its strengths, but there is still a vacuum at the center, where Parker ought to be.  And isn’t.

Georges is a rather polite soft-spoken fellow, who laughs and jokes readily, reacts with horror to Edgar burning down the plant manager’s house, and seems entirely human–nothing terribly enigmatic or unaccountable here.  He conveys Parker’s professionalism, his calm, but the only time he shows us the more frightening side of the character is when he comes up behind a guard at the factory in the darkness, looking like something out of a horror movie (the spare and effective background music sounds like a horror score at points), and takes the man out hard–at which point one of his colleagues exclaims angrily “Oh, so we’re killing people now?”

Actually, it’s a good question–why kill a guard when you don’t have to?   It’s not clear whether the man is actually dead.   But that’s basically the only serious act of violence committed by Georges in the whole movie.   Cavalier didn’t really do violent films–it wasn’t his thing–and this is his only real crime film that I know of.

He obviously loves the material, but he’s a bit restrained about it.   He’s depicting a small French town being despoiled by brigands–not in the past, but in the time period he’s making it in–and he’s worried people might think he’s saying crime pays.   He’s only dabbling in this genre, and the fact is, heist movies in general–regardless of nationality–hardly ever play out the way a Richard Stark novel does.

And it doesn’t–not here.   The job is thoroughly spoiled by Edgar’s vendetta–he ends up dead in his own fire, and the rest of the gang flee with the loot, but they aren’t in the American west–they can’t disappear into a vast uninhabited landscape and hide out until the heat dies down, as happens in the book–there’s farms all around the town.   There’s a lot of cops.   There’s no place they can hide in the country.  Their plan was to get out of town before anybody knew what was happening, and get to Lyons or some other big city where they could blend in.   The plan in the book wouldn’t work here, and Cavalier doesn’t really want it to work.   This money was stolen from honest citizens.   Something must go wrong.

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The truck with the loot gets stuck in the mud of a small access road they’d hoped to avoid the cops on.   Georges and the others make a run for it.   Maurice is hung up on Marie, who he’s taken along as a hostage, and can’t accept the money is lost–it slows him down enough to get caught.  The police close in with tracking dogs (Parker might actually watch this part of the film with interest), and nab most of the crew.  But Georges and one of the other heisters make it to a small village, wait calmly for the bus, and get away clean.   Georges didn’t get the money, but he didn’t forget who he was, and what he was there for, so he lives to steal another day–that, at least, is Starkian morality.   And it’s the end of the film.   Roll credits.

I loved it, but with obvious reservations.   Parker isn’t Parker, which is made all the more frustrating by the fact that they had an actor exceptionally well equipped to play Parker.   The Grofield/Mary subplot is basically gutted of all the things that make it work, and comes across as a petty distraction.   There isn’t really time for the last act, with the heisters hiding out after the job, police helicopters overhead, tensions quietly mounting, Paulus freaking out, and Parker insisting Mary has to die–but it’s sorely missed.   And of course Georges doesn’t get to to back and have sex with Edgar’s girl, who isn’t really his girl anyway, but it would have been a nice finishing touch (did Constantin ever get the girl, in any film he ever made?).

I agree with what Westlake told Al Nussbaum in that quote I put up top, but when you start throwing out whole chunks of story in a book this tightly plotted, it’s bound to create problems.   It’s like you’re in a plane, and you’re in a hurry to reach your destination, so you start tossing out bits and pieces of machinery to lighten the load, hoping none of them are essential.   Probably not a good idea. But at least Cavalier mainly refrained from adding entirely new storylines and characters of his own devising, in place of the jettisoned material–which would be a problem with most of the later adaptations.

It’s a terrific little film, but it’s not The Score–and that’s going to be a recurring theme with all these pictures, good and bad.   Most of them have great moments. None of them come close to the books they’re adapting–but overall, I’d have to say this one came the closest.   And naturally, in the perverse universe we live in, this means that it’s the most impossible one to see, and may never get a DVD release, because the rights are reportedly all tangled up, and with no stars in the cast, there might not be enough potential profit involved to get them untangled anytime soon.   C’est la guerre.

But for a good 30-40 minutes, watching this film, I was transfixed–for all that something is lost in the translation, something is gained as well–there are things a novel can do that a film can’t, but the opposite is also true, as Westlake acknowledged.   In terms of story and character, Mise à sac falls quite a bit short of its model, but visually, it has distinct pleasures of its own–what Westlake has to describe, it can simply show us, and it does so with a quiet  efficiency, and just a touch of grim humor.   A great film it’s not, but it doesn’t pretend to be.   It just tells us a story, and since the story is by Richard Stark, it’s well worth hearing–and seeing.

Much as I like the title I came up with for this, I don’t in fact know for sure the order in which the first three Parker adaptations were shot.   Mise à sac got released in France a few months after our next film was released in America, but release dates and production dates are two entirely different things.   Based on what Westlake told Patrick McGilligan, the two films described here were the first to go into production, but if so, the third film was not far behind them.  

And the third film, in terms of sheer visual panache, not to mention star power, is far ahead of all of the Parker films.   It is, in fact, a great film (whatever the hell that means).   But it’s also kind of a shitty adaptation.   And that shall be the point I try to convey next time, assuming I don’t draw a blank.   

PS: Actually none of these films are the first Westlake adaptation–and neither was The Busy Body with Sid Caesar.   The first-ever film adaptation of anything Westlake wrote was Le commissaire mène l’enquêtein 1963.   It’s an anthology film, and one of the episodes is based on Westlake’s short story Lock Your Door, which was first published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 1962.   So any way you look at it, the French shot first, n’est ce pas?

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Review of Mise à sac

The Green Eagle Score, Part 2

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“Then there was a boom like an explosion.  Not like a rifle shot at all.  A real explosion.  And I looked and there was a bullet coming toward me.  It looked like a train in a tunnel, except it filled it all the way around, there wasn’t any place to squeeze in and let it go by.  And the front was all flat and squashed. I started running away, but I was slow, it turned slow-motion, you know, the way they do.  But the bullet was slow, too, it was just behind me but it couldn’t catch up.  And my father’s eye was still up at the other end, he wouldn’t get out of the way.  I kept hollering at him, but he wouldn’t get out of the way.”

In the course of telling all this, Roger’s voice had lost its usual whine, his expression had calmed, and he had shown briefly who it was he might have been if things had been different.  But now his face twisted back into its usual expression, the whine came into his voice again, and he shrugged negligently, saying, “That’s when I woke up.”

“Not hard to interpret, that dream,” Dr. Godden suggested.

“If I come out of this with my skin,” Godden said, “I’ll consider myself well ahead.  Ellen Fusco told me about you, Parker, but I underestimated you, I didn’t really listen to what she was saying.”  His face clouded.  “I underestimated Roger, too.”

One thing that always amazes me about the Parker novels, no matter how many times I read them, is how much Westlake managed to pack into each and every one–what a concentration of exquisitely detailed little thumbnail portraits and sage, sparely expressed observations of human nature they are.   I’ve said several times already that each of them is a study in comparative psychology–the way different people react differently to the same situation–this one adds an actual psychiatrist to the mix, and finds him just as easy to lay open on Richard Stark’s unforgiving dissection table of the mind as any layperson.   He may understand his confused patients better than they do themselves, but he’s as much a stranger to himself as any of them.  If not more.  A little knowledge of the mind’s workings can be a truly dangerous thing.  All the more when you misuse it.

They are mainly quite compact for novels, but would be little more than short stories if all they did was narrate the events leading up to and away from each heist.  There are always stories within the story, and one such episode that I’d hate to finish this review without mentioning is Parker’s side-trip to get financing for the job at hand, confined entirely to chapter 6, in Part 2 (Stark arranges his books as if they were plays, with four acts and no intermission, because you can’t put them down).

As we’ve already learned, Parker and his colleagues usually get an outside man–quite often a doctor or some other professional–to put up the money they need for equipment, and other sundry expenses–if the job goes well, the financier in question gets double what he put in–if not, he gets nothing.  But either way, he’s got a lot of spare cash he doesn’t want the IRS to know about, but would like to profitably invest.   He doesn’t have to worry about reporting any returns on his investments, either.

Nor does he have to worry about the law coming after him.  It’s part of the unwritten code of the heisting profession that if caught, you never finger the money man. You may need him again once you get out, and it’s bad for business if these guys hear about somebody getting busted for being a backer.   The money man knows nothing about what you’re going to do, probably won’t even read about it in the papers, since he doesn’t live near the site of the job.  He just knows if he gets double his money back or not.  A purely financial transaction–probably be difficult to prosecute, even if one did get caught.

So basically, the Stark heisters get a no-collateral-or-questions-asked loan they only have to pay back if they succeed, and the guy putting up the money has absolutely no say over what they do with the money.  I have no idea if this was a real thing in the real world of real heist-men, in the real 1960’s, or ever–it sounds a bit dubious (why would the money men trust thieves to honor the illegal non-binding agreement, and how did they ever get involved in this business to begin with?).

Westlake is not doing a documentary here.  Maybe it’s just a convention of the genre (though I haven’t seen it elsewhere, so far.)  Maybe he saw it in an old Warner Brothers gangster movie.   He drew on those a lot, and admitted it more than once.   But he invests quite a bit of effort into making us see the logic of this system–and it allows him yet more opportunities for comparative psychology.

The money man for this particular undertaking is, appropriately enough, an undertaker, name of Norman Berridge.  Westlake had done some research about the mortuary business for previous novels (notably The Jugger and The Busy Body), and it’s still coming in handy.

Berridge is middle-aged, out of shape, wanting to do something about that, not actually doing anything about it.  His apprentice is Puerto Rican, because he can’t find any gringos who want to be morticians (this is a long time before Six Feet Under–remember Rico?).  Parker, who he knows as Lynch, shows up in his office, as he has in the past, and says he needs three thousand dollars.

They go to the bank in Berridge’s Toronado–again, the car expresses the personality–middle-aged bourgeois affectation–Berridge knows all the other Toronado drivers are out-of-shape middle-aged men as well, but the impractical car and its made-up-out-of-whole-cloth name still make him feel young.  A man trying to be something he’s not–while Parker remains ‘as clean and cold and empty as the interior of a new coffin.’   Berridge assumes Parker s judging him harshly, the same way Berridge is judging everyone who isn’t like him.  I guess he never saw that scene in Casablanca.

He considered himself an honest and upright and patriotic man, he detested beatniks and peaceniks and other antisocial freaks as much as anyone, and if his income tax statements were annual pieces of remarkably baroque fiction, that was no contradiction at all, but merely another facet of his character, the hardheaded businessman facet. Poorer families tended to pay morticians in cash; cash was untraceable; untraceable income would only be reported by fools; Norman Berridge was nobody’s fool.  If in a safety deposit box in a bank downtown there were wads of wrinkled bills, just as they had come to him from the hands of his clientele that was simply one way of an ordinary person’s defending himself from the encroachments of Big Government.

Don’t worry Norman; you’ll find less stressful ways of doing that in the future.   Just hang in there ’til the ’80’s.

To Parker, Berridge is nothing more than an overly gabby ATM (pardon the anachronism).   He takes the money out of the envelope Berridge hands him, counts it, hands back a twenty because Berridge miscounted, conceals the money in his suit, gets into Devers’ Pontiac (which is nothing but a means of transport to him) and drives away, leaving the superfluous envelope behind in the Toronado.   Berridge feels unsettled and humiliated by the encounter–the shabby pretense of his mediocre life, and his gutless, selective, and mainly vicarious rebellion against the system, is briefly and harshly illuminated, as if laid out on a slab under a fluorescent light in the basement of his mortuary.

The chapter this all occurs in serves no purpose in terms of telling the story–Reader’s Digest would have probably excised it, in the unlikely event it had ever published a Richard Stark novel–it just reminds us that people living the ‘straight’ life can be pretty crooked, even if they don’t have the nerve to be actual crooks.   So anyway, back to the main story, which was just heating up where we last left off.

Parker and his surviving associates, the neophyte Stan Devers and the veteran Philly Webb, now know what happened to their dead compatriots, and more importantly, their money.   Ellen Fusco, whose house they planned the job in, blabbed about the job to Dr. Godden, her analyst–he wanted the money–he recruited some patients–they heisted the heist.  Their choices are to get out of Dodge, aka Monequois, right now, or make one last attempt to recover the loot.   They opt for the latter–be a really short book if they didn’t.

Ellen is a basket case, knowing her father confessor betrayed her, and the actual father of her child is dead because she let herself get conned.   There’s no consoling her, and they don’t particularly want to try, so they tie her up and head for Godden’s office, since they don’t have his home address.  They find it on an envelope at the office–along with the dying Ralph Hochberg, who’s been shot–he’s strangling on his own blood–Parker pushes him on his side, to slow the process–not quite sure why he does that–why not?   It costs him nothing.   He hates it when citizens die on his jobs.   It’s messy.   Bigger headlines.   Maybe that’s why.  No point asking him.

They go to Godden’s house, and he’s holed up there with a rifle, scared out of his wits.   He thinks Parker is Roger St. Cloud, come back to kill him–Parker plays along until Webb can sneak in and disarm him, and now they get the rest of the story.   Roger St. Cloud, the acned over-aged adolescent with daddy issues that Godden persuaded to help out on the job got drunk on all the power he suddenly had in his twitchy hands.

Godden sees it all now, with crystal-clear 20/20 hindsight.  Roger had to kill Marty Fusco and the other two heisters guarding the money, just to know what that would be like.  He had to take all the money for himself, to know that kind of power as well.  When poor pliable Ralph said Roger didn’t really want to do that, he shot him for the sin of not recognizing the godlike being that Roger had now become.   Godden belatedly realizes that giving a paranoid and deeply disturbed young man a rifle and urging him to commit armed robbery may have been a slight miscalculation.

Now that Godden has suddenly reverted back to being a doctor again, Parker figures he can use that–asks him where he thinks Roger would go now–Godden realizes with horror that the next logical step would be for Roger to go home and murder his overbearing father–that would make this Greek tragedy of a heist complete.   Godden, forgetting the situation he’s put himself in, and somehow thinking the Hippocratic Oath still applies to him (maybe a similar sounding form of oath) wants to call the father and warn him–Parker doesn’t want to warn the son, so he ties Godden up, and they’re off again.

Godden called it.  There at the St. Cloud household, Roger is holding off the entire Monequois police force, while the neighbors look on in fascination.   He kills a policeman while they watch.  The father is obviously dead; possibly the mother too; it isn’t relevant to Parker, so we never find out.  What is relevant is that Roger starts tossing the money out the window, to lure onlookers into his sights–and it works–they start grabbing at bills like they’re on a damn game show.   He’s happily potting away at them, killing one after the other, like Zeus hurling thunderbolts (having first disposed of daddy Cronos), when the drama finally winds down–

Parker looked across the street, saw a uniformed cop there with a rifle to his shoulder.   He was being damned finicky under the circumstances, taking his time, being extra sure of his aim.  With all the noise, Parker couldn’t hear the sound of the shot, but he saw the rifle kick in the cop’s hands.  He looked back and saw St. Cloud drop into the people.  “All right,” he said, “Let’s get out of here.”

“Right.”  Webb put the Buick in gear, made a tight U-turn, and they headed away from there.

Devers, disappointment thick in his voice, said “What now?”

“Godden’s office,” Parker said.

Webb leaned forward to glance at him past Devers, then looked straight again, saying, “Why?”

“Because two suitcases went out the window,” Parker said.  “There were three.  He was on foot and two was all he could manage.  The third one is hidden around there somewhere handy.”

“Son of a bitch,” said Webb, and leaned on the accelerator.

It’s like we saw in The Score, if not on the same epic scale–they aren’t happy about all the civic mayhem they’ve indirectly caused–it’s been a major inconvenience–but it’s not something they’re going to spend any time fretting about.   Not their department.   They know what side they’re on–and Devers, though he’s not even processing it now, has joined their side completely.   He’s just thinking about the money too–and he’s the one that finds it, concealed in a trash can outside the office building.  The job hasn’t gone completely sour.   They take the now-deceased Ralph Hochberg (no point letting the law figure things out any faster than need be), and head back to Godden’s house to hide out until the heat  dies down.

Devers brings Ellen and her three year old daughter Pamela there as well, and now they’ve just got to keep things quiet a few days.   Parker coaches Godden on what to say to the police when they come calling, what to tell reporters over the phone when they call to ask questions about his now-infamous patient.  Parker tells Godden he can live if he does exactly as he’s told, and Godden really wants to live.

Ellen isn’t so sure she wants to, but Parker plays maybe the most cold-blooded card we ever see him play in the entire series–he tells her she and her daughter are dead if she doesn’t stay in the house and keep mum until he and his partners are well out of town–Stan isn’t feeling particularly inclined to protect her anymore.   That relationship has run its course.

This can almost get past you the first time you read the book–it’s not something Stark dwells upon at all.   Does Parker mean it?   A three year old can’t testify against you in a court of law.  Pam has no more idea what’s going on than a puppy would, though she’s clearly aware of the fact that everyone is very tense, and she’s keeping very quiet.   Parker never interacts with her at any point in the book.   He has no soft spot for small children.   He doesn’t smile when he looks at them.   He doesn’t try to make friends with them.   They are just young humans.  Not useful to him.   Not a threat to him.   Therefore not relevant to him.   Except as leverage.

I don’t believe Richard Stark would ever have put Parker in a situation where he had to harm a child.   Westlake wouldn’t let Stark let Parker do that, even if Stark wanted to.   But they both allow Parker to be in a situation where he has to threaten a child’s life to frighten a young mother into submission.   They both want us to know that if he were in a situation where there was no other alternative if Parker wanted to stay free…..but then again, if she somehow contacted the police, and they were closing in, what good would it do Parker to keep his promise?   It would just guarantee him the death penalty, if caught.   It wouldn’t make any sense.

And could he kill a three year old, even if he absolutely had to?   There’s a scene in an upcoming book that makes me wonder about that.

Ellen knows this about Parker–his pragmatism–she told Godden that he wouldn’t do anything for or to anybody unless it benefited him somehow.   But she also knows she’s put her little girl in a very dangerous situation.   She knows something else–the man most responsible for the situation they’re all in is upstairs, bound hand and foot, helpless.  The man who betrayed her confidence.   The man who pretended to be her doctor.   The man who lied. The man who thinks he can just walk away from all this, like it never happened.

By the time they find Godden with his throat cut, it’s too late–Ellen has taken Paula and fled to her parents (actually leaving an apologetic note!).  The law will get her, and then they’ll come looking.   The roadblocks are down.   They make a run for it, Webb going one way, Parker and Devers the other.   They got a decent enough haul.   About 42k per man.   Not much less than they’d have gotten if they’d split the original take six ways.  Parker’s strange luck is still holding.

Ellen told Dr. Godden earlier that she had problems with being a mother–she didn’t feel comfortable in the role, that she was just play-acting at it–but faced with a real threat to Pam’s safety, her identity crisis is at least temporarily resolved–she had to kill Godden for what he did to her–she needed that as much as Parker needed to kill Mal Resnick in the first book–but having done that, she has to get Pam to safety–she can’t gamble on Parker not meaning what he said.

She still feels enough loyalty towards Marty and Stan to refuse to talk to the cops about what happened, and given what she’s been through, they can only lean on her so much–just as well, since her telling them the whole story would involve confessing to premeditated murder.   It’s hard to feel optimistic about her future, but at least she has one.

Parker and Devers head for Albany, a big enough city to disappear in, but on the way they hear Ellen made it to her parents’ house, and Parker knows this wouldn’t be on the news if the police hadn’t already traced her back to Godden’s house, and found Godden’s corpse, and they are driving Godden’s Cadillac.  They ditch it in Saratoga, get the train to Albany, and now it’s time to say au revoir.

Parker is pleased with the way Devers is shaping up–he’s a good recruit for The Profession–somebody he can work with in the future, but he needs seasoning.   Parker tells Stan to look up Handy McKay at his diner in Presque Isle, in Maine.  Handy will show him the ropes.   Probably fry him an egg too.

In nothing is Parker more wolf-like than in his attitude towards younger heist-men, when he likes the cut of their jib.  He wants them to get better and better at their jobs–to pass on what he knows to them, help them along, keep them from making too many stupid mistakes that will get them jailed, or dead.   It’s enlightened self-interest–the more good men he can call on for future jobs, the less often he has to work with incompetents (or psychos).   He’s expanding his network.

But he also just seems to enjoy it.   It touches something in him.  Not necessarily something human.  Something that existed long before the first humans.  True, these youngsters will never be like him.   No matter how experienced they get, they’ll still be men.   But he’s willing to overlook that.

The epilogue takes up half a page–Parker goes back to Puerto Rico.   He finds Claire, more or less where he left her.  “You did come back”, she says.   “I always will”, he replies.   And in that moment, he means it.   He’ll be more honest in a much later book.   They make dinner plans.   She asks if they’ll go to the casino afterwards.   You will recall that Claire is always particularly ready for lovemaking after losing fifty bucks or so at the craps tables.  Parker has already done the thing that puts him in the mood.   But he’s learned the value of patience–he can wait a few more hours.   “Yes,” he replies.

Parker doesn’t know it yet, but he’s just pulled his last profitable heist for a good long while.   His opponents in the near future will be of a different order than the paltry likes of Dr. Godden and Roger St. Cloud (or the U.S. Air Force, which proved to be something of a pushover here).   That promise he made to Claire will be increasingly difficult to keep.

And Claire herself is a problem Westlake is going to have to deal with–what’s her place in the series?   She was little more than Penelope to Parker’s payroll snatching Odysseus here, but can she be more?  Should she be?   The next book in the series will address that question directly, and many would say, not too successfully.  But I’m not going there yet.

Since I finished this one up a bit quicker than I thought, I’d like to talk about the covers, which I don’t normally do that much–none of them are all that evocative.   McGinnis’ cover for the Gold Medal first edition (which you can see in Part 1 of this review) is lovely to look at, but McGinnis just has Parker in the foreground with a gun, and Claire in the background without a top.

The point being that Parker is focusing on the job at hand, but he’s got Claire in the back of his mind.   And we saw in the book that this is perfectly true, though only briefly expressed, so clearly McGinnis did read at least some of the hundreds of books whose covers he so ably illustrated over the years (and he’s not finished yet).

But none of the illustrators, far as I’m concerned, really capture the essence of the book–they usually focus on the Air Force angle, even though it’s less important than the storyline revolving around Ellen and Dr. Godden.   They use various military regalia to illustrate this is about a base heist, even though only Stan is in uniform during the heist, and only briefly, and it’s a guard’s uniform–none of them impersonates an officer, none of them wears one of those cap things officers wear.  The heist is, paradoxically, too simple in its structure to get across easily.  The artists keep trying to make it more complicated.

Looking at all the covers in order, you see various attempts to convey the story, and none of them succeed terribly well.   The Gold Lion reprint has beautiful artwork–clearly that’s Ellen looking all pensive in the foreground, but is that Parker clutching his arm in the background?   Did Parker’s arm get hurt and we missed it?   Did a car blow up?   Would he really wear that color shirt?   It’s just an assortment of captain’s hats, and saxophones, and firearms, and I guess all it really has to do is catch the eye, but only McGinnis gets a real point across, and it’s a very selective point indeed, because that guy had women on the brain, and no doubt still does.

The novel was also reprinted in that comically awful men’s magazine I referred to in an earlier review–care to guess what they decided to rename it as?

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Well, that’s kind of a scene from the book.   For some strange reason, I’m moved to wonder why Stan has dark hair, and Ellen is a blonde, when it’s made very clear in the book they are reprinting word for word that the opposite is true.   I won’t even bother to ask why she’s suddenly got implants.   Doesn’t pay.   But presumably the magazine paid Westlake for the rights.

We’ve reached the end of 1967, and it’s been one hell of a year–arguably Westlake’s best ever, at least if you go by publication dates.   He can’t keep this pace up forever.  Six novels, all of them still in print today (if only electronically in some cases), five of them ranking among his finest work–sorry Grofield, you didn’t make the cut this time.   And a children’s book, lest we forget.   And an Edgar Award, which far as I’m concerned is for a body of work that simply shouldn’t be this voluminous and impressive after only seven years.   Westlake could have retired right then and there, and his reputation would have been made–but his fortune would not.   Miles to go before he sleeps.

But before I put this one to bed, I’ll harken back briefly to Mr. Norman Berridge, heading up in the elevator of his mortuary business, having been informed a Mr. Lynch is here to see him about ‘the annuities.’

Lynch was not, of course, the man’s real name.  One time when he had come with another man, the other one had called him by a different name, which Berridge could no longer be sure he remembered.  Porter, Walker, Archer…something like that.

Yet another little meta-textual reference, but a lot more people would have gotten this one at the time.  It’s 1967, and Parker has entered a new medium–where he will not be called Parker–not for a long long time–not if Westlake is around to stop it.  Walker today, Porter well into the future.   Also Macklin, McClain, Georges, Stone–no Archer.   But would you believe Paula Nelson?

Believe it or not, I’m going to take a few weeks off from book blogging to review the Parker film adaptations.   Some of them, anyway.   Some I may not find the patience to sit through again.   One in particular I’d give my eyeteeth to have on DVD.   But mainly, I just want to briefly forestall the sad sad day when I will have drunk the last of the 1960’s vintage.   I’m already grieving the end of 1967–it was, as the song says, a very good year.   Hey, could Sinatra have played—hmm–maybe the musical version.  Guys and Molls.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels