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.
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.
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?
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 Deadly—he’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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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–
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.
21 responses to “Parker at the Movies, Part 2: Blanking on the Point of Payback”
I stopped watching both of these films after 15 minutes. Point Blank because it was not faithful, Payback because it was too modern.
Maybe – just maybe – if I hadn’t read the book first, I’d watch them to the end. But, as you said, paper first.
Hell, I even couldn’t watch Vertigo and thought it was bad.
I can’t agree with you about Vertigo, though personally, I prefer Rear Window–I don’t see how Cornell Woolrich fans could possibly complain about that, though I bet some of them have.
I very often get to the movie before the book–and then after I’ve absorbed both, I have to decide where my loyalties lie–usually with the book, but not always. Sometimes my loyalties end up divided (Cool Hand Luke would be one example). Of course, if I don’t like the book so much, I’m not shy about saying the movie (or series) is an improvement.
That’s how I feel about Game of Thrones–George R.R. Martin has a remarkable gift for creating characters, and crafting complex stories, but he doesn’t know how to edit himself, and his characters tend to benefit from being played by well-trained aptly cast actors. I tried to read the books–I have the first few–but I kept getting bogged down. The best of him gets distilled from the books, and put up on screen. There are many types of writing talent, and most writers are incomplete in some way. But there would be no hit HBO series if Martin hadn’t put it all down on paper first.
TV is more of a writer’s medium than film, of course. Writers are actually respected there. Prose fiction writers need the film industry for revenue–the industry needs writers for ideas. Without writers, they have nothing. And yet they treat writers like dirt most of the time.
I feel precisely the opposite about the Lord of the Rings movies, which I loathe with all my heart and soul. Not because they’re badly made, because they’re not–but because they distort Tolkien’s meaning–turn a lifetime of deeply held convictions and research into something shallow, stupid, and jingoistic.
It’s a terrible thing when a movie adaptation eclipses a good book–but in time, the book will usually win. Paper, properly cared for, outlasts celluloid. And pixels. Look who’s talking here. 🙂
Payback (I’ve only seen the “Straight Up” version) is a frustrating movie to me, although to be fair any adaptation of Westlake is bound to frustrate me. (Some of my favorite adaptations are of books I don’t necessarily care for — The Godfather, for example.) Payback has a superb look to it, desaturated and retro, which begs for a cleverer script and a more dangerous leading man. When the film sticks close to the book, as much of it does, it works reasonably well. Its own inventions, such as the Asian gang subplot, are idiotic. And Gibson ultimately just doesn’t work for me as Parker. The character probably needs to be played by an unknown, someone audiences could believe is truly dangerous and capable of anything. Danny Trejo, before he descended into self-parody with the Machete flicks, maybe could have done it. He has the right physicality, if not the right race.
Not only have I never read Puzo’s book (though I read most of Fools Die a long time ago, believe it or not), it’s only recently that I finally sat down and watched Godfather I & II all the way through. I would always catch a piece here, a piece there. I will never read Puzo’s book. I don’t see the point.
Some film adaptations really do replace the novels they are based on, and I think that’s something Westlake was terrified of–I believe he would have been miserable if a movie based on one of his books had been this instant classic that everybody loved and never stopped talking about for the rest of his life.
He loved movies–drew upon them constantly–but he wanted them kept under control. He didn’t want them to overwhelm what he was doing. He also knew, as anybody with eyes knows today, that the industry was changing for the worse, and for big movies at least, it was going to be all about the suits, who are increasingly people who know everything about money and nothing about movies.
Gibson didn’t work for me as Parker either, but since I knew Porter before Parker, I just see him as a completely different character, loosely based on Parker. It’s actually my favorite performance of his (you might gather, this is not the highest praise I can render). Like Marvin, there was something about the character that attracted him, but he simply doesn’t have Marvin’s depth. Or really, any depth. Gibson is all surface as an actor, though sometimes he did interesting things with the surface.
I do like the way he keeps rolling his eyes at the idiocy of these guys who refuse to grasp that yes, he really is going through all this for a lousy 70 grand. Great little moment there when they’ve been torturing him, and Bronson shows him 130 grand to taunt him (because that’s what he thinks Porter wants–it couldn’t possibly just be 70), and Porter’s going to correct him, and then you can just see him thinking “fuck it, never mind.” But in both versions, they play it so much for laughs, you’d almost think this was an attempt at showing us a psychotic good-looking Dortmunder.
Can you explain to me why Helgeland thought it was a good idea to do a retro film about WASP gangsters, clearly set decades before the film came out, and make the Boss of Bosses Sally Kellerman’s disembodied voice? See, that in itself ruins Straight Up for me. I’ll say it once more, heresy though it be in some quarters–the theatrical cut is better. It’s not much of a film, but it knows what it is. Helgeland’s version is already corrupted by having to write around Gibson’s quirks, but it’s still trying to be what it was originally supposed to be, and that ruins it. And why the hell does Porter have to be all shot up in the end? And why is Rosie wearing that stupid hat?
I can’t discount the fact that I know Parker because of Porter. And I can’t stop ogling Maria Bello. So the next time Payback shows up on cable, I’ll probably watch it again. But I’ll always hate myself in the morning.
Parker has to be big–well over six feet. He’s got to be powerfully built. He’s got to have some measure of sex appeal–can’t be conventionally good-looking, but women have to like him–a lot. He’s got to have dark hair (I’d make an exception for Marvin, but he’s dead, so never mind). He’s got to have hair, period. He doesn’t necessarily have to have monstrous hands, but he sure as hell better not have dainty ones. He’s got to be played by a good actor, but also an actor who knows when to stop acting. And doesn’t care whether the audience likes him or not. Tall order.
One thing I’m going to be stressing next time–the best actor isn’t necessarily the RIGHT actor. Casting is a dark art. Doesn’t necessarily have to be an unknown. But probably best for it to not be a really big star. Because a big star is going to have too much power. And that thing with Marvin ceding all his power to Boorman–that was a one-time deal. What happened with Gibson and Helgeland is a whole lot more typical these days.
The only problem with making Parker another race, is that then race becomes the point of the character–but whose problem is that, really? Parker doesn’t give a damn what race he is. He’s not even part of our goddam species. If they’d done a movie with Jim Brown as Parker, and they’d stuck to the freakin’ book, I’d bow down and do it homage.
I propose another theory as to why Westlake had the name change obligation: He had really grown to resent the name “Parker” as it meant constantly having to find various ways to avoid writing shit like “Parker parked the car”. So, with studios buying up the rights to various books in the series, he figured this would be his one shot to correct that mistake!
Ok, onto Made In U.S.A. done correctly, better known as Point Blank! It might not be my favorite, but I readily admit it’s the best of the adaptations. Look at the imagery, listen to the soundtrack, look at the coloring, look at Lee Marvin! In fact, for an adaptation somewhat infamous for playing fast and loose with its source material, Point Blank had a surprisingly book accurate cast.
John Vernon as Mal was fantastically loud and boisterous when powerful and suitably cowardly and pathetic when the odds were against him. Michael Strong was a wonderfully wormy Stegman. Lloyd Bochner played Frederick Carter with the right amount of smug calmness. Carrol O’Conner KILLED it as Bronson/Brewster, his performance fit the over the top blowhard of the novels to a tee. Angie Dickinson (for how loosely base her role was) still managed to portray the snarky but vulnerable quality that Rose had. Even Sharon Acker’s rather emotionless performance fits Lynn being emotionally dead inside during her scene. And then, of course, there’s our lead.
He might not be 100% accurate appearance wise. He might still fall short of fully capturing the source material. He is still the best Parker variant. To date, no other variant (including the actors portraying them) has even attempted to capture the sheer otherworldly force that is Lee Marvin’s Walker. For me, what makes him the best variant is that he’s the only incarnation that makes an attempt to be a different being in human form. (She said, not even having to watch the remaining Parker films she hasn’t seen yet) In this case, a ghost that’s still on the mortal plane. It doesn’t work as well Parker being a wolf in human form, but I admire the concept. Having a Parker variant be some other unique creature or force in human form is something I wished the other adaptations tried more often…Well, ok, having Jim Brown play “an inhuman character” probably would’ve raised a few eyebrows but still! A small moment I like is when Walker gives Chris the money that was meant for Lynn. Because Lynn’s dead and, being her sister, Chris then inherits the cash. If nothing else, I think that recreates Parker’s professionalism perfectly and is evocative of how he always gives a fellow heister their share, even when they get jailed.
So, here’s the thing, not only do I think this is actually a fairly faithful adaptation of The Hunter all things considered, I think Point Blank is spiritually faithful to Parker, not the series, the character! Let me explain: The plot is almost beat for beat the same, with the only big differences being Walker receiving help from a mysterious third party and the Rose equivalent being more involved with Walker’s revenge quest. Oh there are countless small differences. Some of the names are different, a few character deaths are switched to other characters or altered completely, a few scenes from the book happen in different order to different characters (Brewster/Bronson being the one who has to call a member of the organization to see about the money instead of Carter, for example). However, when stripped down to the essentials, both plots of Point Blank and The Hunter line up more often than they don’t.
In other words, Point Blank doesn’t follow the fancy drawn up map, but it DOES follow the technical map of The Hunter. It’s not concerned with the fancy details, it’s focused on the blueprint. Parker to a T, or to a fault.
Speaking of adaptation, there’s one scene I think Point Blank actually improves on from The Hunter. It’s the scene where Walker confronts Lynn and she explains wha happun. Now yeah, the book’s incarnation was brutal and effective in catching the reader’s attention and establishing that Parker’s a bad mofo and completely done with Lynn. But I think the film did it better by not having Walker hit her and excising all his lines. See, without Walker responding, it alters the scene considerably. It comes off as a weird halfway telepathic conversation, as you yourself said, but you know what it also resembles? A monologue.
Lynn is talking all by herself, explaining to Walker what’s going on, telling him she’s glad he’s still alive, and why she did it. And Walker does not give two shits about what she’s saying. He doesn’t even look in her direction. After knocking her down to make sure she doesn’t warn Mal, Walker acts like Lynn doesn’t even exist for the rest of the scene. This is why I think the film handled Lynn’s reasoning for betraying Walker. Simply put: It doesn’t matter why she did it. She can monologue about why she did it, she can bleat all these platitudes and excuses, Walker is done with her. That tree already fell. And that is MUCH more effective than if Walker beat her around and sniped at her to take too many pills. For the opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy.
I don’t think the plot’s all that confusing, it makes sense well enough no matter what interpretation you’re going for. Even the dream one. Yes, none of them completely follow “logical” sense, and you can definitely poke holes no matter what reading you give it. But as Jean Cocteau asked of his audience in his 1946 adaptation of Beauty and The Beast:
“Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.
I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s ”Open Sesame”: Once Upon A Time”
Or, if you like it more modern:
“If you’re wondering how he eats & breathes,
And other science facts…(la! la! la!)
Then repeat to yourself its just a show,
I should really just relax”
Of course, it cuts both ways. While the audience has to suspend their willing of disbelief, the storyteller has to be engaging enough to earn that suspension, and they also have to break said disbelief within reason. But for me, the plot of Point Blank did that. It was fairly straight forward, it made enough sense to where I wasn’t confused or baffled or lost, and it was definitely engaging.
One final thing, you referenced Kiss Me Deadly throughout your review and how that adaptation understood the point of Spillane’s novel better than Point Blank understood The Hunter, despite both being scathing portrayals. I agree on the whole, but the thing is? I think I have a reading that shows how Point Blank works as a Kiss Me Deadly like deconstruction of its main character:
What is a core element of Parker? While there are several, I think we both agree that one of them is definitely him being an independent. He’s not an organization man, he’s no pawn, and he’s definitely no cog in the machine. He’s everything Mal Resnick isn’t and that’s a big reason for why Parker wins in the end. Walker seems to be that way, too. He effortlessly gets to Mal and kills him with ease, he outsmarts Carter, Stegman, the entire Organization. And he did it with some help from Chris and a mysterious man named Yost…except not.
Because Yost? Yost is actually Fairfax, and since Walker essentially took down the competition, he can be the man on high purely by himself, no one else. And Walker helped him without even realizing that’s what he was doing. In the end, Walker wasn’t an independent. He was an unwitting pawn, a cog in the machine, an organization man ultimately no different from Mal.
I think that’s certainly something to think about! …….I’m ALSO sure it’s not completely intentional sooooo yeah, you should probably watch Kiss Me Deadly instead of this. I was gonna do the full bit but you pretty much already listed all the correctives I had in mind in your review.
Westlake says a lot of shit he doesn’t mean in interviews. So I don’t take that thing he says about being tired of typing Parker’s name one bit. That was the name he wanted–his protagonist is a criminal who goes by different names all the time. Could have just switched to one of the aliases. Though I don’t think Parker was born with that name, that’s his name, and nothing would make him change it. It shows up in the Continental Op Stories once or twice–Anthony Boucher’s real name was William Anthony Parker White–there’s a Parker street a few steps away from the George Washington Bridge–take your pick, or pick something else. That’s the name Westlake wanted.
And it works. (Also one of the most common names in the English speaking world, but not so obvious as Smith or Jones.) Also two syllables, two hard consonants, and it just rolls off the tongue. He didn’t want anyone else using it for some ersatz version of the character. He would never sell this one. Just some story ideas he knew they’d never stick to.
But leaving that aside, I follow your take, it’s not that different from mine, I certainly don’t think this is the least faithful adaptation (that ship sailed with Godard) but I think you let the film hypnotize you. It does that. It’s hypnotic.
For example, you seem to have spaced on the fact Walker never kills anybody. In the entire film. He shoots a pillow. Lynn kills herself (and he doesn’t even tell her to do it, unless it’s by telepathy). Mal dies by accident. Carter and Stegman are killed by mistake. Bronson/Brewster is still alive at the end, yelling at Walker to come get him, but Walker just withdraws, into the spirit world, or whatever. He’s supposed to be heading for the Keys (or to get plastic surgery, not that you’d ever want that face altered). It’s a goddam moral statement about letting go. Doesn’t belong here. This Parker is all vulnerable and shit. Parker can be a lot of things, but not that. Mal actually knocks him down before the big cross happens. See, I get deconstruction, but it works for Mike Hammer, because he’s a macho fraud. Parker isn’t.
So much as I dig your interpretation, I can’t agree with it, because Parker couldn’t leave someone who crossed him alive, and certainly couldn’t leave without his money. It’s not him. It could have been. Because obviously nobody else could invoke the blankness of Parker like Marvin–and that’s the real point.
And yeah, it’s an awesome scene with Lynn. They improvised that. It works. You don’t have to sell me on the sterling qualities of this flick. But it’s still so much less than the book.
And I prefer the scene with Lynn in the book. Because it shows just how deeply she wounded him–not with the bullet–just by pulling the trigger. He didn’t believe it was possible she could betray him, and his behavior in the novel shows the temporary derangement that occurs–that resolves itself only once he’s strangled Mal. Causing her death gives him no relief. He understands she was just a tool. But once he sees her as that–then the tree is dead for her.
It does matter why she did it–it had nothing to do with attraction to Mal, or not wanting to live that life. She was afraid to die. In the clutch, she couldn’t cut it. She let Mal take control of her. She could have warned Parker silently, and he’d have finished Mal. She knew that later, and that’s why she killed herself. She couldn’t take that risk. As we later see, Parker will risk anything for Claire. Lynn may have been his wife by law, but she wasn’t his mate by Natural Law. He found that later, with Claire.
As to Rose, she’s not here. For one thing, she’s a redhead, and for another, she’s not interested in getting even with anyone, could not care less about revenge, or justice. She is 100% on the bend, whereas it’s hard to see how Dickinson’s character ever got mixed up in this world. Sexy as hell, because Dickinson, and tough as nails when pushed–but straight as a die.
In the book, she’s had her eye on Parker a while, now he’s available, she thinks maybe she could pick up where Lynn left off. I love the character, regret that she had to run, but given what Parker did to The Outfit, it’s unlikely that ever caught up with her. I think she somehow reincarnates as Brenda Mackey. That’s why I always see Brenda as a redhead, even though Westlake eventually decided she was blonde (at the end, he was making everybody blonde).
I’d have to think a bit about how closely Point Blank resembles the structure of the novel–I see a whole lot of variations. It’s a very very rough match, at best.
Hell, Walker doesn’t even walk over the Golden Gate Bridge. I mean, not that this would be as cool as the George Washington–or as ironic–but why has nobody ever tried to capture that image? They sort of half-assed it with Mel Gibson (we’ll get to him), but it’s some minor Chicago bridge nobody knows.
Still, that’s the film that has the Stark dialogue, and what kind of chutzpah would someone need to think he could improve on that?
I feel there’s things you’d like to change about The Hunter. There’s a rawness to the emotions there. But that’s why it’s going to last. On a visual level, Point Blank will endure as well. But the characters just never convince me. Maybe because on some level, like every other Parker film, they’re trying to explain him, redeem him, reform him.
And Parker isn’t a ghost. He’s much scarier than that. And he doesn’t kill people by accident–except for that woman in the beauty shop–at some point, you can read my article Geneology of a Hunter, to find out where I think Westlake got that. When you’ve got the time, lady–that’s a Lee Marvin ref. 😉
…Wow, I honestly thought Walker killed Mal during the end of their confrontation, it looked to me like he deliberately shoved Mal to the ledge. But yeah no, it was an accident. Hell, we all misread scenes at times, right? (………..right?)
Even further though, it didn’t even register to me that Walker never killed anyone. I looked back on it though and, yeah, you’re right. Maybe it’s the film’s hypnotic power that made me think he killed, I dunno.
To clarify, when I said it didn’t matter why Lynn pulled a betrayal, I was specifically referring to this adaptation. Obviously, it matters in The Hunter but Point Blank was going for something completely different I feel.
I mean, I certainly think the plots of both match up fairly identically. Of course, I think I’m also more lenient on what counts as a similarity and a change. If a scene from a book happens the same in an adaptation with the essential components but with a scene placement switch and a swapping of certain characters, I’d probably still label it more or less the same scene. And, of course, it probably also helped that I recently watched Made In U.S.A. with the hilarity of that being considered a Parker adaptation in any fucking shape inadvertently making me grade on a curve.
If you’re feeling generous, I’d argue Walking marching down that long hallway is meant to be the equivalent of Parker walking the George Washington bridge.
As for whether I want to change stuff from The Hunter, honestly I’m not sure. I mean, on the surface I don’t feel there’s anything that needed to be changed, it’s a damn good book. On the other hand, the fact I prefer the objectively less violent confrontation of Lynn in Point Break…maybe I AM more bothered by it than I tell myself. But that’s the thing about art like The Hunter, it’s not something you have simple feelings towards.
That’s it in a nutshell, but crime fiction that disturbs no one probably isn’t very good. I’ve even found some Dortmunder books disturbing. But The Hunter, as we’ve discussed, was supposed to be a one-shot, and Parker is one in a long line of tough abrasive noir protagonists who die in the end from hubristic overreach. Peter Rabe did no end of those, and Westlake thought the world of him. But he thought more of Hammett, and Hammett protagonists always survive–they may not be happy, but they keep breathing. Sentenced to Life, one might say.
I love the hallway scene–it is very Parker. But shooting a pillow isn’t. Parker never goes off half-cocked. But Point Blank, as you now see (it can take several viewings), is a film about violent imagery, not violence itself. Unlike Deliverance, which is visually not as interesting, but narratively by far the better film, and violent by any standard. Ah, but that was a ‘serious’ novel. And some of the men in it are ‘good’.
I think Boorman found the book and its ‘hero’ unsettling, so he tweaked it. Not unlike the way Nicholas Ray tweaked In A Lonely Place. I just checked, and that wasn’t a strong box office performer either, out of the top ten for 1950–critics loved it, audiences didn’t–maybe they should have done Hughes’ novel straight-up, as Bogart wanted them to do, but some books attract and repulse Hollywood at the same time, and the result is often a film that has its own unique power, but says the exact opposite of what the book said. Ray, like Boorman, had very definite ideas about wounded male egos–when in doubt, go with the book. (He says, then continues to think Game of Thrones beats Fire & Ice, every time).
Shameful confession–the single scene that turns me on the most in Point Blank is Mal almost getting it on with Chris (who if we’re matching up the film to the novel, is obviously a stand-in for the high-end call girl Mal finds his perfect thrill with, just before dying). In the novel, the mere idea of Mal being with a woman turns my stomach. But John Vernon’s performance is deeply charismatic in this film–as is Gregg Henry’s in Payback–casting can overcome narrative in a film. Mal is a sneaky self-deceiving sleaze in the novel–in both films, he’s still a sleaze, but kind of a sexy one. Dontcha love Hollywood? They needed an arch nemesis, but in the book that’s not Mal–that’s an entire criminal organization.
There’s not a story out there that can’t be changed or hasn’t been–there are multiple versions of The Mahabarata. The Hunter is itself a retelling of I don’t know how many previous crime novels (I keep finding more). And many subsequent stories have refashioned it for their own purposes. But for me, it stands in a class by itself. And I still think movies are made of paper.
See, I thought the scene with Mal and Chris would be a turn off considering it ends with Mal having this pitiful teary eyed look of horror as Walker slowly drags him off the bed with the bedsheet. Not that I don’t see the appeal of Angie Dickinson.
The only thing more pointless than trying to explain why one person finds this or that sexy is trying explain why one person finds this or that funny.
I’m sure some people get their jollies watching Chris beat Walker senseless, after he originally just stands there non-selling her blows, acting like he can’t even feel them. I mean, it’s great filmmaking, great acting. It’s not Parker. They’re trying have their cake and eat it too. Hollywood always does this with crime fiction. Parker would take one slap then level Chris with his giant hand. You know that. Everybody who has read even one book knows that. But Walker isn’t Parker. Though he’s much closer than Macklin. Can’t wait to get your take on Macklin. That time, they went a bit too far the other way.
The Split is a movie that exists.
Ugh, I’m of two minds on this movie:
1. I want to champion this movie as an underrated flick that’s silly but solid with an out of this world cast.
2. This movie really pisses me off and there’s something low key obnoxious about how it “adapts” The Seventh.
For the first two acts, I was actually really digging it. No, it wasn’t The Seventh. No, McClain wasn’t Parker. And no, none of the silly bullshit methods used to plan and conduct the heist were as compelling as what Westlake wrote. But you know what? For what it was, I was having a fun time. At the very least, it was solid on its own terms.
And then Elly got shot. This is where the film went downhill because now, the film tries to adapt The Seventh with barely about what, 40 or 50 minutes left? And it’s so obnoxious, because the result is two movies, one a really dumb (albeit fun) heist movie and the other a pitifully truncated, rushed, and heavily inferior adaptation of a masterpiece of crime fiction.
Likewise, McClain pisses me off as a Parker variant, even more disappointing than Paula Nelson. In the first two acts, I liked him well enough. He wasn’t Parker, but he wasn’t trying to be. And of course, Jim Brown’s a charismatic actor with great presence. But then we get the half that attempts to adapt The Seventh and suddenly McClain’s acting like Parker and of course Jim Brown fucking kills it which makes it even more frustrating on account of what could have been. But the thing is, this final act doesn’t feel like a natural part of McClain’s character, he never acts this cold or ruthless in the first two acts of the film. It feels exactly like what it is: Bit and pieces from a much different character plucked right into this character with the result making you wonder “Where the hell did THIS guy come from?!” To be quite honest, I think I rank McClain below Paula Nelson. At least Paula’s “almost Parker” scene was only ten minutes long and was at the beginning before plunging into “Different movie” land.
Back when I first started coming to this joint, I ranked Mise a Sac as one of the best adaptations that tried to be an adaptation, with the theatrical cut of Payback being the worst (again, of the ones that actually tried). Well, now that I’ve seen that, I award The Split the dubious honor of the worst Parker adaptation. There’s simply too many elements from The Seventh for me to treat the film as its own thing and it has a truly bad case of identity crisis as a result. As you yourself said, the theatrical cut of Payback knew what it was. And hell, it frankly did a much better job of molding the source material into its own thing than The Split did. (But we’ll get to that later, 😉 )
What to instead of this: If you want a crime film with racial commentary, try Deep Cover by Bill Duke. Laurence Fishburn plays an undercover cop who has to trek the seedy underworld of drug dealing to take down a powerful drug kingpin. He does this by partnering up with a crooked attorney played by Jeff Goldblum, who has criminal ambitions of his own.
Or, hell, fucking watch Day of the Wolves. That’s a HELL of a more entertaining time. (Thanks for linking that to me, btw! I had a lot of fun with that shlocky low budget mess.)
I hoped you’d like it. I mean, it’s basically a TV movie, low budget even by that standard, so it’s very hard to go in there with high expectations.
And at least there’s one adaptation (uncredited) where most of the string gets away with the cash, even if the job doesn’t go precisely according to plan. And when does it ever? W.R. Burnett laid out the basic formula for this subgenre long ago, and there are many possible variations, but Murphy’s Law always has its say.
It certainly did with The Split. So much potential, so little to show for it. But as I’ve said more than once, where most Westlake productions go wrong is with the production team. They had almost all the pieces, and didn’t know how to put them together. And they probably figured a job in L.A. would be more glamorous, but mainly it just makes it all less plausible–security would be way tighter than at a small upstate college game. (Also, and this is a fair quibble–in a small white upstate NY town in the 1960’s, Jim Brown couldn’t not get arrested, just for walking around like he owned the place–in L.A. there’s what you might call protective coloration in play).
What I could never forgive was not including Little Bob Negli. I mean, was Mickey Rooney not available? He was doing a ton of crime movies at this stage of his career, he wasn’t 50 yet, and while he wasn’t quite that short, his name still sold some tickets. The Mick could be a really bad hombre when the script called for it. And he could do psycho-killer to perfection. Okay, fine, maybe some folks would have freaked about Jim Brown shooting Andy Hardy in the back of the head. People.
I must reluctantly issue a ruling: No one is allowed to comment on the worst Stark adaptation until that person has watched Slayground.
Oh! One more thing before I head on over to The Outfit, you know how you felt Tom Reese should have played the Parker variant instead of Robert Duvall? Well for me, I got that feeling upon seeing Donald Sutherland in The Split. Granted, Jim Brown’s still a good pick (and, again, McClain is so off the mark it wouldn’t have mattered much) but I still feel Donald Sutherland would’ve been a great Parker variant.
He could have played the character, but like Duvall, wasn’t really built to play him (in spite of being 6’4). Still I know what you mean. I dunno, I’d probably reject almost any name actor they ever brought up. It’s one thing to play someone like Parker–who has that wolfish gleam–another to embody the being in the books, and part of that embodiment does have to do with the body itself. The spirit can be willing, but the flesh better not be weak. A wolf in a sheep’s body is going to end up as mutton.
Hey guess what? You’ve lived long enough to see me dissect Payback! Now, I’m mostly going to be talking about the Straight Up cut but I figured a quick post of the theatrical cut was in order. Literally, considering it’s next in the timeline and the Straight Up cut came out in 2005. Also, I mean shit, I talked about Made In U.S.A and Slayground AND The Split, it’s only fair I talk about a film that easily trumps all three in the quality department.
So yeah, the theatrical cut of Payback is an above average thriller that’s held back by Mel Gibson suddenly getting cold feet.
There’s certainly things unique to this cut that I like. The narration is good old cheesy fun, for starters. The metallic blue color grading is a nice touch. John Glover gets a few more lines in this version and I’m always down for that. I liked Keis Kristofferson as Bronson, he was a good pick. This version also has a variation of the scene where Parker asks a hooker for information on Rose that I dug, I especially liked how the hooker here saw through Porter’s bullshit about Rosie being his sister, and she still gave him what info she had because hey, it’s all business right?
Overall, though, I think the theatrical cut is actually at odds with itself, and I disagree on it knowing what it is. The first two portions of the film have a fairly timeless atmosphere, a vague construct of the 70’s-90’s without really being tied down to any specific decade. The reshot footage is pure 90’s, especially when Johnny shows up at this jarringly modern looking boxing ring.
Another thing inconsistent is Gibson’s performance, shockingly enough. For a good portion of this film, he’s fairly subdued and quiet, with an almost blank expression on his face. Then you get to the Gibson/studio portion and suddenly he’s quipping crass one liners while acting significantly more with his face.
One more inconsistent thing that bugged me. Porter tells Rosie that he sought her out because he wanted to remind himself he wasn’t in hell, that she was the only good thing in her life. Except, no, the film establishes that Porter sought Rosie out because of the photo that Val had.
None of this is to suggest that Payback is a bad movie. In fact, I feel the additions make for a fun movie on its own merits. It’s not the version I prefer.
What to watch instead of this: Get the Gringo, starring Mel Gibson. It’s a sort of spiritual sequel to the theatrical cut of Payback but it works much better on account of it being planned this way from the star. I mean, it has questionable portayals of Mexicans but then, it was co-written by Gibson.
I can’t accept the ‘straight-up’ ending. It stinks. And this is particularly irksome to me because it’s trying (and miserably failing) to be the climax of The Hunter. And for whatever reason, reestablishing the idea of Parker presumably dying for his sins at the end, that Bucklin Moon put paid to decades before. Sally Kellerman as an omnipotent untouchable Bronson? What the actual fuck?
The basic structure of the film that works comes from Helgeland, but for whatever reason, he lost control of the story. It probably didn’t help that Gibson got into the act, brought in all that money and kibitzing, but it was Gibson who saved the film by partly reshooting it. It’s not Parker, but it’s a decent hardboiled. And unlike all the others, it made a bit of money. Not just because of Gibson. Lee Marvin was at least as big a star in the 60’s. That’s how he had the power (like Gibson) to take over the project, before stars were doing that as a matter of course.
I guess I buy the thing about him wanting to see Rosie to know he wasn’t in hell because for a while there Maria Bello was my idea of heaven. She really is the reason I started this blog, because I watched the film enough times, just to look into those big brown eyes, that I got curious about where all this great dialogue came from. And how much of that great dialogue is in the ending of either version? That’s right. Zilcho. And the movie sags along with the bad lines Westlake didn’t write.
So yeah, you got it absolutely right–but it’s both versions that lose focus towards the end. It starts out keeping remarkably close to the structure and spirit of the original (with the proviso that Gibson could never be Parker either, though he’s got the right general attitude–surly). It gives us whole scenes that play out pretty near the way they do in the book. Then it just can’t stick the landing. With Parker, they never do.
That being said, I love the look on Bronson’s face when he realizes he’s fucked. And since they were never going to do The Outfit, they really did have to deal with him in this film–which Helgeland’s cut does not do, and that ruins it for me. It would be just as bad no matter who they cast–but Hotlips Houlihan? Pourque?
Kristofferson is okay–Devane and Coburn are fucking brilliant. I almost wish they’d made one of them Bronson, but you know, Carter and Fairfax are more interesting characters anyway. (And never a Karns do we ever see, because movie Parkers are all balls, no brain).
As to the torture scene, you know Gibson had to have that. It’s like a motif. Humphrey Bogart smokes cigarettes, Clint Eastwood does this facial tic, Mel Gibson gets tortured.
I sort of prefer the warmer tone, but I can see why they went with the cold one, so people wouldn’t feel the violence so much–make it less real. More like a comic book, which is where movies like this tend to go, because the pulps and the paperbacks don’t give them enough visual cues.
Once again, there’s this pathological need to build ‘Parker’ up, then tear him down. Because they’re afraid to identify with him, and without that the stories don’t work. You have to see the world from his POV–you can show others–but his is the one that matters. In many ways, this one comes the closest. But again they drop the cigar. But at least they had it for an hour and change. Now the next one……
Alright, onto the main event: “In defense of Payback: Straight Up”.
This is one of my favorite films, one that’s very near and dear to my heart. I’ve rewatched too many times to count. For that matter, Porter’s my favorite Parker varaint and he’s the one I relate to, in spite of Mel Gibson…well, probably not approving of my identity to put it lightly. He might be a bit too human, but I think Porter’s the one who best captures the singleminded and precise aspect of Parker. He wants his 70 grand, no less and no more.
The film’s a lean mean fighting machine, the shortest of all the Parker films at about 86 minutes. The music is versatile and a wonder to listen to. And I’ve had a small crush on Rosie when I was younger (being played by Maria Bello, I’m sure you understand). Hell, the cast all around is impeccable.
To answer your questions from years ago:
Bronson being a woman is to add to the overall theme of Porter and women. Namely, that while Porter can easily outsmart and take on men, women tend to elude him. Lynn’s the one who shoots him, Rosie has Porter pretty much figured out, it’s only when Pearl joins the Triad gang that they have a shot at getting Porter, and finally, the girl on the train station is the one who blindsides ans shoots Porter.
Plus, I think Lynn’s reason for shooting Porter was pretty well explained. She thought Porter was cheating on her because of the photo that Val showed her, she was too distraught to think things through, and so she agreed to shoot Porter out of revenge. Granted, it’s a tad cliche, but it’s not too cryptic.
I actually liked most of the changes/additions and I think some are actually faithful to the rest of the series as a whole. Just to mention a few.:
The addition of the photo (along with Val having been a client of Rosie) is a nice organic way to have Porter look for her for information. Pearl being this psycho dominatrix reminds me a lot of Bett Harrow, she’s certainly sadistic and that fur coat she wears in her introduction makes me inclined to believe she’s at least a little spoiled. The crooked cops try to muscle in on Porter’s quest for the money and they rightly get clowned by Porter, because a cop is a cop is a cop and even crooked ones are no match for a professional crook.
Finally I want to give my reading of the film and why I think Payback: Straight Up makes for a fascinating companion piece to The Hunter:
Parker knows who he is, of this there is no doubt. But does Porter know who he is? I don’t think so. Throughout the film, he clearly sees himself as a consummate professional nobody wants to fuck with, but that’s not what everyone else sees. Rosie sees a dead man who’s thick headed to realize as much, meanwhile Bronson sees a punk with the right balls to brain ratio.
He certainly has a blindspot when it comes to women, as I mentioned earlier. He has such a hard time conceptualizing a woman being deadly that he essentially falls for the same gambit twice. This also makes him an interesting contrast to Parker, who has no such preconceptions about women (or any human for that matter).
And then there’s the smoking gun that suggest Parker is ignorant of who he is: his feelings for Rosie (you didn’t think I forgot about that part did you? 😉 ). In the theatrical cut, the romance is pretty basic “Big tough bad man falls for a good hearted woman” fair. The romance in Straight Up APPEARS to be the same, but there’s a subtly insidious underbelly to it.
For one, Porter doesn’t openly comfort Rosie here (doesn’t ask her if she’s ok, doesn’t monologue about how she was the only good thing left in his life, etc.). The most affection he gives is kissing her, and later holding her hand. In fact, it’s not too different from how Parker is with Claire, not as compelling I admit but I feel there are similarities.
Most importantly, these feelings begin to seriously fuck with him as the film goes along. He kicks Val for having seriously beat Rosie (Porter’s noticeably aggravated when he asks if Val hurt her), he’s very awkward when him and Rosie try to make out, he fucking kills a guy for making a crass comment to her. And take note of that last point. The killing of that asshole is quite similar to Parker accidentally killing that asthmatic girl in The Hunter. It’s the only kill in the movie that’s objectively unjustifiable, all the other people Porter killed you could reasonably argue were trying to kill him first or were stubbornly being obstacle in his way. This sexist jackass though was already de-armed and handcuffed. He was no longer an obstacle or a threat. Porter killed him because of his growing unstable feelings for Rosie.
Of course, she wouldn’t have gotten that disrespect had Porter not gotten her involved further than he already did. She also wouldn’t have gotten attacked by Val AGAIN had Porter not gone back to her apartment. The truth is evident: Porter wants it both ways. He wants to be in a relationship with Rosie, he also wants his money back. Is he a compassionate lover, or is he a deadly professional ?
He can’t be both, and so Porter is lost as to his true identity. And we all know the fate of Richard Stark characters who don’t know who they are.
This is partly why I’m not bothered by the ending where he gets shot up. Because it fits the Starkian worldview of the series. Yes, Parker would NEVER not know who he is, but this isn’t Parker, it’s Porter. But there’s one more twist to this analysis, and it’s the other reason I don’t mind about the different ending.
So Porter goes through his own variation of the train station climax, except this time he’s not paying attention to what he should be (a woman is explicitly the boss of the outfit and he doesn’t stop to consider she might use another woman for this operation) and he’s promptly shot.
Sidenote: I love the interaction between Porter and the bag handler. Where handler man assures him that all 130 grand is in there and Porter stubbornly snaps “It’s 70 you dumb bastards, open it!” He doesn’t roll his eyes and lets it go like in the theatrical cut, he knows the goddamn number is 70k and these jokers are gonna get it right. He might not be Parker, but in that one moment Porter echoed him beautifully. And of course, the way the handler gives Porter the smallest twitch of his mouth before instantly ducking still affects me to this day.
Anwyay, Porter’s now limping down the station and onto the streets where he lies still. In one of my favorite scenes in cinema, Porter smokes a cigarette and contemplates the events of the film (shown to us via black and white flashbacks). The question is clear: Was this worth it? Did Porter’s refusal to know himself pay off?
Well, as Porter holds Rosie’s hand and places it right on the bag of money, the answer is clear. Yes. It absolutely was. Porter doesn’t care if he dies, he also doesn’t give a shit if he knows who he is. If this is the end, he got to be with Rosie during his last moments and he got his money back. It’s the principle of the thing.
Aaaand, going by your reponse I probably should’ve put both write ups in one post but that’s on me. Hopefully my enthusiasm for the Straight Up Cut makes up for this wall of text?
You ask me, all that ‘feminism’ is to justify the rampant sexism, but we can agree to differ–Kellerman’s ‘Bronson’ isn’t any kind of character, but in the book he represents The System, and how the fuck does that work with a woman? (Unless it’s Margaret Thatcher–maybe they could have gotten Streep?). I respect your take, it will never be mine. Does not work. Parker is never fighting women, he’s fighting power. If the woman has the power, so be it, but that doesn’t happen very often.
I only watched this version once, so a lot of the fine plot details are stuck in the back of my head somewhere, but I will agree Lynn’s treachery is better explained than in the other version. Not as well explained as in the book. Straight-up panic, leading to identify confusion, the loss of self, destruction. But in all versions, Lynn represents weakness. Somebody who does not know herself, and is therefore easily manipulated. So at least that much is true to Westlake’s original.
Yeah, we’re on about the same page about why Porter is different from Parker–but I think for both Helgeland and Gibson, this was more interesting, as it was for Boorman and Marvin, many years earlier. Parker does have some identity confusion earlier in the novel, before he gets Mal, because he needs to kill the cause of his mental chaos in order to quell it. You can see him become something different, something deadlier, something Not Human, sitting by Mal’s body. He’s metamorphizing–finally ready to leave the chrysalis, not that he’s a butterfly. Many have commented that the Parker books wouldn’t work if he was the only character, but action movies like to stay very focused on the hero, which I suppose is what Porter is, even though one tagline for the film was “Get ready to root for the bad guy.” Promises, promises.
Yeah, they need to reassure the audience Porter’s a big old softie, because Mel is going to have to do some more family friendly stuff later on, don’t want to make people think he’s a malovelent masochistic macho man child for real, even though he is. However, I tend to like Rosie more in the theatrical. Go figure. She actually has more to do there, if memory serves me right. (You have the advantage on me–been a few years since I watched this one–or the theatrical, but I watched that at least twenty times on cable, so I can call up pretty much any scene with a bit of effort).
I appreciate the Jesuitical slant of your argument–Parker would never do this, but this is not Parker, so the ending works. But I was watching Parker there earlier in the movie, speaking lines only Parker would speak, and therefore I cannot accept that what could have been a Parker movie is in fact a Porter movie. Anyway, I wanted Bronson dead. Either one. Both.
It’s an old old trope in noir that femme fatales are precisely that, most of all to men. It’s not anything new. If anything, Stark subverted that by saying women are deadly only to the extent they know themselves, and it’s kind of hard to make the case any of these women do. Two are prostitutes, one is (implausibly) leading a gang almost entirely composed of men (even Kill Bill had to do a scene justifying that in Japan). I get that this version works for you, but it can never work for me. Because for me, The Hunter is the ideal form of this story, and while this is a decently made film, it’s not a bravura masterpiece like Point Blank. The only thing that sets it apart from the rest is they did a few scenes more or less according to Hoyle, whose real name is Stark. So when it departs from that, it loses me.
Porter seems at times to know himself very well, is the thing. He knows what he’s capable of, he knows the score about pretty much everything, and he’s outmaneuvering everybody, including the women. He’s not a planner on Parker’s level (it would be nice, just once, in a Parker film, to see a really well-planned heist–Mise a Sac gets most of the way there, but they don’t get to keep the money). Yes, there’s some emotional issues, but you know, guys.
Porter lives in a world where basically nobody has any self-knowledge–even Rosie is at odds with herself, because she clearly hates here life, she’s smart and beautiful and has money saved–why not just leave? You don’t ask that about the Rose in the novel, because she’s part of that milieu. She wouldn’t know what to do with herself in the straight world. But Rosie doesn’t know what to do with herself in it. She’s waiting for a man to come rescue her, and voila.
One supreme moment for me is her reaction to Parker just swatting Resnick like a bug. Just for a moment, she’s wondering if he’s going to kill her too. (I can’t remember if that’s in the Straight Up version). That does evoke The Rare Coin Score a bit, except we’re not in Porter’s head that moment (and never in the version with no VoiceOver narration), so we’re not told that yeah, he’d kill Rosie if he had to, though he’d rather not.
He’s less than Parker, but he’s more than anybody else we meet. Because hey, he’s the star. Because hey, it’s a movie. With a 90 mil budget. An action movie. And it’s that in both versions, but Straight Up is also trying to be some kind of art film. I can see the joins too clearly.
The main reason I prefer the theatrical cut, for all the virtues of the director’s cut, is that it moves better. And that matters. In that respect, it’s closer to Stark. But ultimately, neither really pulls it off. (Except the second one did, at a the box office, which I’m sorry to say, is probably why we got ‘Parker’)
PS: One thing that irritated me, reading reviews of the theatrical cut, was how the male critics were salivating over Lucy Liu–Maria Bello’s far more layered performance was largely passed over in favor of Liu’s very effective caricature of a dominatrix. (She and Bello both got a boost from this film, Liu probably a bit more of one). I like them both, but for some time after that, I was going to see any movie with Bello in it, and they all disappointed but one–The Cooler–so that’s my alternate take. And much closer to the true spirit of noir, but with a bit more mercy to it. Well, as we’ve seen, even Jim Thompson could lighten up now and then. Just a little.
Well, as the old saying goes, “agree to disagree”. I’m glad I was given the chance to gush about a movie I loved.
And to be honest, I actually agree with you that the “Porter’s a badass to men but is utterly eluded by women” theme isn’t that feminist. Believe it or not, that wasn’t me theorizing, that was actually Brian Hegeland’s vision (he goes into it in the commentary for the Straight Up cut). Hell, I find it very 90’s “strong female character with no personality” feminism. It’s also very “women are biologically wiser than men” which I heavily disagree with but that’s a WHOLE other can of worms I don’t think anyone wants to open.
I think I’m like how Westlake was to The Outfit (1973), I’m not as mindful of the flaws because I’m so entranced by what I think works.
I also admit that I’m projecting a lot of my own inner struggles and journey for identity into the film, but that was probably already apparent. 😉 (Hell, don’t we all do that?)
What can I say? I know when I’m up against an expert and I know when I’m no match….this time. 😛
Speaking of unfortunate truths, sweet jesus, you’re very likely right about Payback inadvertently spawning Parker…my god.
Good news is, it’s the final Parker movie I’ll have to cover (for a good while, anyway). Then I can get back on track.
Ps. The Cooler is a fantastic film. It must have been a hell of an emotional rollercoaster for William H. Macy to finally shoot a sex scene (for which he had spent decades keeping his body in shape for), only to have most of it left on the cutting room floor. Such is show business, I guess.
I like Helgeland, but never believe what people in The Biz say about their own work. I don’t even believe Westlake about his work, some of the time. I only believe what storytellers say in their stories, not what they say about them afterwards. And what this story says is “Porter is a bad bad man.” If he dies, he dies a winner. But Gibson, of course, had to make him even more of a winner, albeit a heavily mangled one. Both movies end with Porter and Rosie driving away. It’s not really that different. And Rosie is the only woman in this story who is worth anything. The others are all tools of an evil system. Sure, Kellerman’s character is in charge, but mainly as a sop–because it’s a deeply sexist story. She doesn’t even have a personality. She’s a machine running a machine. What worse fate could there be? But the point of Parker is, sometimes the machine loses to an individual.
I know how it is to enjoy a story so much you overlook all the problems with it. Then I write a review and detail all the problems with it. A good argument for never reviewing anything. Anyway, we agree (and many others would not) that there’s the bare bones of a good movie here, and only disagree over which version fleshed out the bones better.
Now get it over with. Watch–that thing. And tell me what you thought. Other than “For the love of God, why?” It has to be done. So we can get back to books. Pull the trigger, and don’t miss. 😉