Parker at the Movies, Part 3: The Bald Parkers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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19 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake, Parker film adaptations

19 responses to “Parker at the Movies, Part 3: The Bald Parkers

  1. Adi Kiescher

    Harry Dean Stanton. This is the guy who I see whenever I think about Dortmunder.
    Tommy Lee Jones. This one goes for Parker.

    • They’re both too old now, but of course that’s true of so many people who should have played them. Thing about Dortmunder is, he’s such a New Yorker. Parker doesn’t really give a damn where he is, but Dortmunder never wants to live anywhere but New York–well, Stanton could play a New Yorker if he wanted to.

      I didn’t get around to mentioning that Robert Ryan himself would have been a magnificent Parker–back in the 40’s or 50’s, before the first novel was written. He’s like a ghost, haunting The Outfit. It’s not one of his better performances–even from his later era.

      I have to think, though–dye his hair, give him an extra hour in the makeup chair, light him just so–he’d still be a better Parker than Duvall. Sexier, too. Westlake adored him–it comes out in a number of other books. He must have been over the moon when he found out Robert Freakin’ Ryan would be in a movie based on a book of his.

      I often hear Lee Marvin’s voice when I read Parker’s dialogue. Never Jack Palance’s–thing about Palance, who certainly could have played the crazed jumpy Parker we see in The Hunter, is that he had a tendency to over-emote. You’d need a very strong director to keep him in line.

      Actors who could play him today? As far as big stars go, there’s nobody. I’ve thought from time to time that Joe Manganiello could work for a cable series–VERY big, dark hair, dark eyes, powerful, reportedly knows how to throw knives, played a guy who turns into a wolf. Ugly him up a bit in the makeup chair, and you’d still buy that women are attracted to him.

      He’s never impressed anybody with his acting much, but he’s never really been given a chance, and again–Parker isn’t really about acting. You just have to inhabit the character and let him speak through you. A lot of highly-trained actors would find Parker impossible–they’d have to unlearn what they’ve already learned.

      Dortmunder, I see more as a series on USA–very light and funny, and maybe Tim DeKay as Dortmunder. He’s a really good comic actor, and that’s what you need. Honestly, I think George C. Scott could have worked, if that movie wasn’t so incredibly unbelievably BAD. And again, you have Joanna Cassidy in there, somehow giving an even more annoying performance than she did in The Outfit. She’s a good actress, but you’d never know it from her work in those films.

  2. i saw “the outfit” years ago, and the chemy scene is the only one that stands out in my mind. glad you called it out. the less said about “parker” the better…

    • If the whole movie was like that–only without the now-pointless dog murder–I’d be more than happy to bow down before it. It really is kind of funny how Flynn goes out of his way earlier to tell us “Hey, audience, Macklin LOVES dogs!”, just so he can keep the line from the book where Parker says he’ll break the dog’s neck. Duvall does not say that line convincingly, and of course he never touches the dog.

      I love my canine brothers and sisters with all my heart, and I always wince when I read that scene in The Outfit, but if you’re going to do it at all, do it the way it’s written. Westlake was afraid of dogs, I think–big aggressive ones, anyway–but he kind of admires them. You never see a dog behaving in a cowardly or disloyal fashion in any of his books. They do their jobs, and he respects them for that. But he doesn’t love them. Just because he’s my favorite writer doesn’t mean we have to agree about everything.

  3. Hey, someone has to defend bald Parkers!
    I know I’ll say an heresy but I quite liked Parker. Not like screen adaptation of a Parker book, but as an action film. Why I didn’t like all other Parker films, but not disgusted by this? That’s easy: I have yet to read the source. While watching Parker I made a distance in my thoughts between real Parker and what I was watching on a screen. I imagined I watched a comedy. crime comedy like those British crime flicks where Statham scored before. It worked to some degree. I made fun of a British guy, with an accent, bald head and passionate look on his face, who pretended to be Parker.
    The film was a bit better than usual Hollywood crap, and with other good performances, like from Bunk and Lopez. Apart from the opening clown mask scene, the action scenes were pretty watchable.
    If I read the source book before I’d been set to watch Parker, I wouldn’t finish it. In that I’m certain.
    As for the other baldie, you got it right: too much emotions on his face. Who was he trying to play? Romeo? It’s Parker, goddammit.

    • If I’d never read Flashfire, and could imagine this film was a comedy (which it’s not–not on purpose, anyway), I can see how ‘Parker’ might be an enjoyable enough way to kill two hours or so–I mean, I paid money to see Crank, so who am I to judge?

      Except I’d want a much better looking girl playing Claire in the shower with him, and I’d want that scene to last a lot longer. Not sure what ads you saw over there, but here they deliberately edited the TV spots and trailer to make it look like Statham and Lopez were in the shower. Bait & switch.

      Seriously, they should have just made Lopez’ character the love interest. Unbalances the whole movie, because she’s a star (on her way down, but still a marquee name) so they have to make a lot of time for her, and show ‘Parker’ being very attracted to her–when they say goodbye at the end, he’s obviously wishing he was an old school Mormon or something, so he could add her to the harem–which is out of character for the real Parker.

      But fans of Lopez’ romcoms who showed up for this were going to be mad enough she doesn’t get the guy in the end, so of course he has to fall for her–but not end up with her, because the producers figure there might be another movie, and they won’t be able to get Lopez (her character is only in that one book), so they felt like they had to have Emma Booth as Claire. I had to look her name up, and man her career did not go anywhere after this, but that was the point–she’d be cheap, and she’d be available, and I don’t mean that the way it sounds, but the movie would be a lot better if they edited her out of it.

      Just headscratchingly dumb–make Lopez the love interest, or don’t put her in the picture at all–they wasted so much time with two female leads–Claire is a marginal presence in that book, and she’s sure as hell not coming over to play nursemaid. They changed so much about Parker here, but they still have him as a strict monogamist? Only one who still lusts after other women? They’re trying to have it both ways, and it doesn’t work.

      ‘Better than usual Hollywood crap’–in the 21st century–doesn’t really cut it for me. I did note back then that ‘Parker’ did its best box office in Russia, so obviously you guys were just in the mood for a crappy Statham flick, which I can certainly identify with. I actually do like a lot of his movies. With the right director, the right screenwriter, the right fight choreographer, and the right girl (like that Taiwanese actress from The Transporter, still the best thing he’s ever done), Statham movies can be fun, but heaven help us when he tries for depth. It isn’t there.

      One thing I didn’t have time to mention–the film is a bit nasty in the way it treats its nonwhite characters. Parker chokes a large black orderly to escape the hospital–as I mentioned, that scene isn’t in the book. One of the guys at the check cashing place he robs and shoots is black (not in the book). The guy standing in for the character who gives him his fake ID and ends up dead is black (not in the book). One of the heisters who betrays him is black–and played by the wonderful Wendell Pierce, from The Wire–he tries to rape Lopez’ character–at the stupidest moment imaginable, when he knows ‘Parker’ is lurking outside the house–and she shoots him–obviously not in the book.

      I’m sure you’re hearing about what’s going on here now, in terms of race relations. I would not say this was a timely film for us, but it does, quite unintentionally, explain why scared white cops keep shooting large unarmed black men. They’re like Hulk Hogan! Only black! :\

      • I didn’t notice an explicit violence toward blacks, but I was only looking at Bunk.
        As much as I see Claire plain, I’d agree with you that they made a mistake with that actress. They should have switch Lopez and Booth: even if Claire were plain in the books, I would understand the change. Movies are not books, they have different rules.
        Yet Lopez as Claire? No.

        • I’d just as soon Lopez had been left out of it entirely, but if they had to adapt Flashfire (as the opening to a planned film franchise!), and they had to cast Lopez to play Leslie (at least she’s got the body for it), I’d say just scrap the stuff with Claire, give us Parker’s one-man crime wave in the beginning, and then have Statham and Lopez in the goddam shower (since nobody is ever going to do the thing where Parker has no sex drive during a job). Give us some value for our money, is all I’m saying. If you’re going to sell out, do it right.

          Not that I paid to see this thing. I got a bootleg on the sidewalk, a week after it opened, two blocks from my house. Capitalism–ain’t it grand? 😉

  4. I share most if not all of your objections to the adaptation of Flashfire, but I think I’m much fonder of the book than you are. It’s another example of Parker’s single-minded (and sometimes illogical) determination to “even the score,” and I think it’s kind of hilarious that he raises more money than he lost in pursuit of his revenge. More when we get to that book, a few years from now.

    • Oh I’m fond enough of Flashfire–it’s the first Parker AND the first Westlake I ever read. A strange place to begin, but that’s the earliest Parker the library had, along with Firebreak and Breakout.

      I was digging it pretty hard until he got to Florida. It’s probably Florida I don’t like so much. 😉

  5. Anthony

    Westlake himself said he saw Harry Dean Stanton as Dortmunder (I’m SURE I read this in an interview once, but Google has not tracked it down for me so I can’t back it up).

    Now, having given this about 20 seconds of thought…

    Dortmunder – Jackie Earle Haley
    Kelp – Ryan Stiles
    Parker – Believe it or not, I think Brad Pitt could do it, provided the director was ruthless about no winks or smirks.

    • I think when I’m done with this, I’ll start “The Westlake Interview Review”, in which I shall compile and catalogue all those Westlake interview comments you just KNOW you read somewhere, but can’t seem to find, no matter how long and hard you search.

      Dortmunder is not the most impressive physical specimen out there, but he’s TALL.

      And God Almighty couldn’t stop Brad Pitt from winking. Or smirking. 😉

      • Actually, I’d be fine with Harry Dean Stanton–in the early 80’s, when he wasn’t quite so haggard-looking. And as long as he could do a credible New Yorker. Because if Dortmunder is nothing else, he’s a New Yorker. There is no other city for him. So probably they’d have done the film with HDS in Las Vegas. 😉

  6. Is Dortmunder tall? Does it say that somewhere? He fit in a dishwasher in one of the books. I still think William H. Macy would make a great Dortmunder.

    • He’s very flexible when he has to be. Physical descriptions of him are not common in the books, and of course we’re never going to get an exact height, any more than we did with Parker, but he was referred to as tall a number of times–of course, what constituted tall back then? I’m considered tall now, and I’m a fraction under six feet.

      William H. Macy could have done it–maybe a tougher variation on the character he played in The Cooler, a favorite of mine–but he’s 64 now. I think more in terms of a TV actor for Dortmunder and Parker, since the movies have played Westlake so false. If it could work for a minor Elmore Leonard character, why not a major Donald Westlake character?

      We think “Okay, Parker is too enigmatic and strange and does horrible things to people without a qualm–they can’t do him right–but they could do Dortmunder to perfection.”

      But in practice, they’ve done a worse job with him than with Parker. I’d rather watch that goddam Statham movie again than Bank Shot, and I love George C. Scott. The Hot Rock could have been a classic, if they hadn’t cast Redford (George Segal is standing right there! What is wrong with these people?!), and if Peter Yates had any sympathy for the brilliant screenplay William Goldman turned in. And Martin Lawrence is supposed to be playing Herman X! Or if you’re doing a black Dortmunder, Lawrence would be the black Kelp. Does anybody there know how to play this game?

      Closest thing to a perfect casting move was Mitchum as Tobin–and they didn’t make the frickin’ movie. Face it, something will always go wrong. Maybe Dortmunder is a metaphor for the film industry. 😉

      • Anthony

        I direct us all to Westlake’s introduction to the last story in Thieves’ Dozen – the experimental short story with all the Dortmunder characters under different names (I don’t have the book handy, but I think it is Fugue for Felons). He came up with the name Rumsey as the Dortmunder stand-in but said it didn’t totally work for him because Dortmunder was – say – an even six feet and Rumsey was short.

        I can still see Jackie Earle Haley as Dortmunder. They could always use camera tricks to make him seem taller…

        • I’d forgotten about that (Rumsey, to me, was not a terribly memorable fellow, as Westlake thieves go), but there are, I believe, many prior indications that Dortmunder is no shrimp–no colossus either, of course.

          Haley’s 5’5, and even with lifts and a lot of short people in the cast–well, he does have an interesting face. He is experienced in playing sad sacks. But maybe a little too intense? It’s been a really long time since he did comedy.

          I mean, if it’s in your head, you can cast anybody you like. What would you say to Walter Matthau as Dortmunder and Jack Lemmon as Kelp? Other way around? Maybe they could take turns. 🙂

  7. Anthony

    Actually, I CAN see that working

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