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–

IMG_1032

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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4 Comments

Filed under Parker film adaptations, Parker Novels

4 responses to “Parker at the Movies, Part 2: Blanking on the Point of Payback

  1. 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. 🙂

  2. 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.

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