Review: The Stepfather

Stepfather_1987JOHN LIST MONSTER

The story goes like this:  John Emil List, born 1935, raised a devout Lutheran, served in WWII, saw combat, spent some time in the military post-war, honorably discharged.  In 1971, he was living in a big rambling old house in New Jersey with his wife, three children, and elderly mother.  An accountant, he had been fired from his job as vice-president of a Jersey City bank a few years back, and had lost a number of less prestigious jobs since.  He even tried selling insurance, with little success.  His ambitions tended to outstrip his abilities.

He did not tell his family when he was unemployed.  Instead, he left every morning as if he was going to work, often sitting at the local train station the entire day, reading the Wall Street Journal. He was mired in debt.  His marriage was deeply unhappy.  At some point in time, he decided there was no other option but to erase his existing life and begin a new one.

When he was ready, he murdered his family, one by one, laying all the bodies out in sleeping bags downstairs (except for his mother, who he said was too heavy to move from her upstairs room).  He used two guns, including one German-made pistol he’d brought home as a souvenir from the war (hmm–that rings a bell). He left various explanatory letters, including one to his minister, where he claimed he was doing this to save their souls–it particularly bothered him his daughter was planning to become an actress.   The text of this letter was not available to to the public until 1990.

He destroyed every photo of himself in the house, so the police couldn’t use them in wanted posters.  He arranged for the neighbors (with whom he and his family had little interaction) to think they were going on a trip together.  Weeks passed before the police were called and the bodies were found.  By that time,  nobody could find John List.  By that time, John List did not exist.  But the man who had been John List was still alive, and free, and remained so for many years to come. Most people figured he’d either killed himself out of remorse for his bloody deeds, or left the country.   They figured wrong either way.

Carol Lefcourt, editor at a publishing house, brought this story to Brian Garfield.  Some months back I reviewed his book Hopscotch.  That’s about a man who employs non-murderous methods to create a new life and identity for himself after spending many years as a CIA Agent.  That book’s protagonist also destroyed all photos of himself in his CIA file prior to going on the run–an idea Garfield might well have gotten from the List story.  Lefcourt thought he might be interested in basing a novel on the story of John List, as Robert Bloch had based Psycho on the all-too-real story of Ed Gein.

The difference being, of course, that by the time Bloch started writing that book, people knew what had happened to Ed Gein–he’d been caught.  Nobody knew what had happened to John List.  Because of the timing of his disappearance, some people even thought he’d been D.B. Cooper (I thought that was Don Draper, I mean Dick Whitman, oh never mind).

Garfield considered the story, decided he was never going to write a book about it, but he was starting to produce movies (I would imagine the huge success of the film based on his novel Death Wish had something to do with that), and he was, of course, a close friend and admirer of Donald Westlake, with whom he had collaborated on a comic western novel that I have also reviewed here.  Small world.

He gave the story to Westlake, and said if he wanted to write a screenplay about it–not a factual rendering of the little that was known about John List (quite a few well-researched books about him now, none at the time), but a fictional story inspired by it.  Garfield’s production company would pay him for it, possibly make a movie of it, and whatever happened, he’d have a lot of say over the finished product.

Garfield and Lefcourt would both get story credit–their precise contributions are difficult to determine, based on available information.  There wouldn’t have been any movie without them, but Westlake was, as he himself put it, ‘the main writer.’  Very rare for there to be just one writer working on any film–this film came closer than most.

The idea of creative control was probably what most piqued Westlake’s interest. Nobody could change the script without his approval.  Talk about an offer you can’t refuse.  Joseph Ruben, later known for Sleeping With the Enemy, would be the director, but this, for the first (and last) time in Westlake’s now twenty-year old relationship with Hollywood, would be a movie where the writer was holding the reins, at least as far as the story was concerned.

But there would have been other things that attracted him to this project.  The murders had, after all, taken place in Union County, Northern New Jersey, not far from where Westlake himself lived with his family for a number of years. Also not far from where a certain fictional heist man lived for a number of years. And the name of the town List had lived in?  Westfield.  Cue theme from The Twilight Zone.

So Westlake started work on the screenplay sometime in the mid-70’s–right around Watergate–and the industry being what it is, the actual movie wasn’t shot until the Mid-80’s.  Many studios passed on it until finally Jay Benson, a producer at ITC, decided he wanted to make it, partly on the strength of Westlake’s involvement.  He was a fan of Westlake’s mystery  novels.  I mentioned it’s a small world, right?

It was shot in 1985, released in 1987.  It got solid critical notices for this kind of film, particularly for the acting.  It got a tiny release and did miniscule box office. Biggest name in the cast was Shelley Hack, former Charlie’s Angel, who had just proven she could act in The King of Comedy, the film that more or less blocked publication of Westlake’s novel The Comedy Is Finished until after his death (man, it really is a small world–entertainment, I mean).

But over time The Stepfather became a cult classic, and had a vigorous post box office life on home video (just then becoming a thing).  Nobody lost money on it. It had been shot very cheaply in Vancouver, where making Hollywood-funded movies and TV shows was also just then becoming a thing.

So there were several sequels, that neither Westlake nor anybody else from the first picture worked on, other than the brilliant Terry O’Quinn, unknown before now, TV stardom still in his future–they even replaced him for the third film.  The sequels really made no sense on any level, given the way the first movie ended for the title character. He’s a scary guy and all, but he doesn’t wear a William Shatner mask.

But you see, the rule in Hollywood is that if you are a creepy psycho who cuts people up with various sharp implements (the real John List had used guns, because this is America), you will come back in movie after movie, they don’t care if the original writing and production talent is involved, and they did this to Alfred Freakin’ Hitchcock, so of course they’d do it to Donald Everlovin’ Westlake.

And when the sequels are done, almost as a matter of protocol, they’ll remake the original movie, most often with absolutely nobody from the original film (even actors!), and it will stink to high heaven, and that remake was released the year after Westlake died (to general mourning), and then the remake died at the box office (to no discernible mourning at all).   It did not become a cult classic, or any other kind of classic.  Didn’t even get a Razzie nomination.   It opened in 2,734 theaters, to the original’s 148.

But in anticipation of the remake’s release, the original movie was re-released on home video, and the DVD has a nice making-of featurette with interview clips from Brian Garfield, Joe Ruben, and cinematographer John W. Lindley. Westlake could not participate, being deceased and all.   Interesting as that making-of featurette is, it does not contain any insights from the man everybody (except maybe Joe Ruben) agrees was the dominant creative voice on that project.

But Westlake had been interviewed, years before, by a man named Patrick McGilligan, for a book about screenwriters of the 70’s and 80’s.  This was one of the films they discussed.  And so he did get to share with us some of the ideas and influences that went into his screenplay for this film that was being made before anybody other than John List knew what happened to John List after he erased his family and vanished from the face of the earth.

And as he told McGilligan, he was drawing (not for the first time, or the last) upon his often painful memories of his parents, and especially his father, Albert.  A man he loved very deeply, but not always an easy man to understand.  A man who kept secrets, some of them to his grave.

The story did connect with me in a very strange way.  At one point during the Depression, my father lost his job and didn’t tell my mother that he had lost his job, and spent several weeks leaving the house every day as though going to work–but actually looking for work and not finding any.  On Fridays he would take money out of his savings account and bring it home as though it were his salary.  One day a woman friend of my mother’s blew his cover.  My mother and father always had trouble comprehending each other.  As far as my mother was concerned, the marriage was a partnership and she had been frozen out.

This guy in the clipping had done the same thing: either quit, or been fired from, his Wall Street job, and then for the next several weeks, he did the same thing my father did, except in his case it led to murder.  I found that a little spooky.  I decided not to turn away from that idea, but to take a look at how people had different viewpoints of what their communal experiences are.

As we’ve seen before, Westlake tended to focus on the underlying essentials of a story when doing research, and often botched the details of real life events that inspired his stories, because they weren’t significant for his purposes–and to be fair, the available newspaper accounts of List’s crime when he was writing had botched quite a few details as well.  List does not seem to have worked on Wall Street, and if he did, it wasn’t for very long.

Westlake probably did little more than read existing newspaper accounts about the murder.  It’s not ‘True Crime’ he’s writing here.  It’s a psychological thriller with a bit of a horror hook–a kind of story he’d done once before–Pity Him Afterwards.  About an escaped mental patient who steals the identity of a young actor he murdered, and keeps right on murdering.

Westlake’s characterization of the story he told doesn’t sound very scary, does it?  The movie most certainly is–still, it’s very different from what came before it, or afterwards, in this specific sub-genre.

Norman Bates, in Hitchcock’s 1960 film (faithful to Robert Bloch’s novel in most important respects),  is so attached to his identity as mama’s boy/motel proprietor/taxidermist, so rooted to the scene of his original crime, he can’t leave it for any reason, or admit that he’s killed his mother and stuffed her (spoiler alert).  He can’t stop being Norman Bates, wouldn’t even know how.  But finally his other identity, created to protect his original identity from the truth, kills him to protect itself.

The Honeymoon Killers, a decade later, was a more or less accurate account of a real life pair of multiple murderers, moved forward considerably in time, and told as a tragic love story, which is what the two real-life Lonely Hearts Killers had insisted it was all the way to the electric chair, so maybe they’d have liked it.   (The French absolutely loved it.)

About a year before The Stepfather, Michael Mann’s Manhunter,  the first film to feature Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector, was more of a procedural story about a cop trying to catch a killer while dealing with his own inner demons, but did spend some time getting into the head of the killer himself.  It didn’t really succeed very well.  Who is this guy?  What’s his motivation?  All the psycho-babble in the world won’t make him anything more than an oddly sympathetic Frankenstein’s monster without the neck bolts.  Personally, I think Karloff’s take was better, but it’s not a bad movie.  Lector’s barely even in it.

And a few years after The Stepfather, Jonathan Demme made The Silence of the Lambs, and the All Powerful and Oddly Urbane Serial Killer was well and truly a thing in our popular culture, and still is, and personally I think Freddy Krueger is more fun, at least when Robert Englund is playing him.  But a nice gig for Sir Anthony.  I do not acknowledge any other actor in that role.  (I also prefer Julianne Moore’s Clarice to Jodie Foster’s, sue me.)

So now we have movies like this all the time, but back then they were far and few between, and they didn’t tend to get us into the pattern killer’s head very much, or very well.  The story may acknowledge, at times, that the killer is human, has feelings–but not like us.   The killer must be some kind of social misfit, unable to have long-term relationships, live a normal life.  Not a family man, a scout troop leader, a regular church-goer. Certainly not vice-president of a bank.  But John List had been all of these things.   If he was putting up a front, it was a damned convincing one.  You had to look very closely to see the cracks in the picture.

So as he burrowed into the head of this monster, while creating his own somewhat different monster, Westlake had to ask himself the obvious question–“If I had done what John List did, what would I do next?”  And the answer, to him (and perhaps to Garfield before him) was obvious.  “I’d pick up right where I left off.”   Create a new identity.  Change his appearance. Find work.  Find a woman.   Make a new family.  Make a new life.  Fresh start.  It’ll work out better this time.

There are no second acts in American lives, Mr. Fitzgerald?   Says you.  American life is nothing but second acts, and third acts, and there’d be fourth and fifth acts if we took better care of ourselves.   The play may not be much, but we don’t ring down the curtain just because the first act was a dud.  The show must go on.

List would never kill himself, because he wouldn’t really believe he’d done anything wrong (he would later say it was because he was afraid of going to hell for the sin of suicide, and I can imagine a dark chuckle emanating from Mr. Westlake when he read that).  He wouldn’t leave the country, because there’s no better country to reinvent yourself in. That’s the jumping off point for the script. And gee, maybe a good jumping off point for me to review the movie, huh?   Since there’s a perfectly good synopsis on Wikipedia, I can mainly skip that part of it.

The Stepfather opens with a man standing in his bathroom, covered in blood.  He’s cutting his hair, shaving off his beard, shedding  his eyeglasses in favor of contacts, putting on a nicer suit of clothes.  When it’s done, he looks at himself in the mirror, well-pleased with his new appearance.  He walks calmly downstairs, past the butchered bodies of several people, some of them small children.  His family.  Or they used to be.  He seems completely unaffected by this.  He takes a ferry to a new city, smiling happily to himself.  Whatever just happened did not happen to him.

Next we meet Susan (Shelley Hack), married to Jerry Blake–the man we saw take shape in the bathroom mirror.  About a year has passed.   Susan is a widow, with a beautiful 16 year old daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen), who has predictably failed to accept her new stepfather.  He gives her a sweet little dog, who she instantly adores.  But nothing can change her mind about Jerry.  Something’s not right about him.  Kids, huh?

Westlake didn’t mention this to Patrick McGilligan, but in fact he was having problems with his own stepdaughter, as Brian Garfield mentions on the DVD.  Being a father of four boys with two previous wives, who had married a woman with three children of her own, he’d been variously successful in establishing relationships with her kids, and as someone who had  problems connecting with his own father, this clearly bothered him a great deal.

We saw some indications of this in A Likely Story, the protagonist of which is guilty that he did such a lousy job connecting with his girlfriend’s very young and insecure daughter.  But that relationship ends before the book does.  Westlake’s relationship with Abby Adams would last the rest of his life, and therefore, so did his relationship with her daughter, Katharine.  Whose name came up on some Westlake-related blogs, some time back, in relation to her thankfully brief disappearance.

The stepdaughter in the film actually rather strikingly resembles the description of Tom Diskant’s own daughter by his first wife in A Likely Story.  Dark-haired, feisty, competitive. And the story of this film rather strikingly resembles Hitchcock’s favorite of his own movies, Shadow of a Doubt, except that Jerry’s not Stephanie’s favorite uncle, or her favorite anybody.  All the same.  The film is much more about her relationship with Jerry than it is about anything else.  She’s the one he’s trying to convince here, and she’s the one sniffing out clues, smelling a rat.

His interest in her isn’t precisely sexual–he mainly seems to have very little interest in sex, except as a means of convincing single women with young children to marry him.  He wants Stephanie to remain pre-sexual, basically forever–like any father, really, but much much worse.  He’s infuriated to the brink of violence by her innocently kissing a friend from school, a young man named Paul (a name Westlake often used for male protagonists –the author is present in more than one form here).

Not sure how much Westlake knew about John List’s troubled relationship with his own daughter, about the same age as Stephanie when she died, and to all accounts a very attractive and somewhat flirtatious young woman–who confided to a teacher that she was afraid her father would murder her.

Stephanie is seeing a psychiatrist in the film, due to some behavioral problems in school.   She confides her own suspicions about her stepfather to him, and he arranges to meet Jerry, posing as a potential client.   This goes about as well for the psychiatrist as it does for Martin Balsalm in Psycho.   There are just some professions you do not want to be working in when Donald Westlake is writing the story.

Perhaps the least successful subplot in the film–but also one of the most necessary in terms of establishing a backstory–involves Jim Ogilvie, the brother of the woman Jerry murdered just before the film’s opening, along with everyone else in the house at the time.  Jim had been away in Europe when the killings occurred, and has become obsessed with finding his sister’s murderer.

He has a theory that ‘Henry Morrison’ didn’t move very far away when he disappeared, and is living a perfectly normal life with another woman, probably one with children.  And he’s supported in this theory by what the detective on the case tells him–that Henry Morrison didn’t exist.  That this was just another manufactured alias–there’s no telling how many identities this man has had, or how many families he’s destroyed along the way.  The detective also says that if it was his sister, he’d kill the guy himself–if he could find him.

Stephen Shellen, who plays Jim, does a perfectly creditable job in the role, but just isn’t that compelling–his obsession feels like a youthful whim.  Maybe that’s intended–Jim seems not to know himself or his capabilities very well, often a fatal flaw in a Westlake character.  He’s there to fill in details about the killer’s past, his m.o., to represent Jerry’s past catching up with him.  He plays a fairly important role in the finale, though not at all the one he’d hoped for.   Much like the role Scatman Crothers played in The Shining.   He provides what you might call the machina ex deus.  Bit thankless, but such is the life of a supporting character in this type of film.

But there’s no point taking issue with Shellen’s performance, or anyone else’s in this film–how many actors would ever look good compared to Terry O’Quinn?  Westlake was absolutely taken aback at how stunningly perfect O’Quinn was in the role of Jerry–this kind of casting magic had never really happened with anything he’d been involved with before (that it was a fellow Irish American bringing his creature to life was a nice bit of lagniappe).

O’Quinn somehow makes you like Jerry, even after you know what he’s done, and to whom.  He makes you believe he could just walk into the lives of these (invariably attractive) women, and yet never quite fit in there, always some part of his unfinished personality sticking out, making him dissatisfied, until he has to pull out the eraser, start from a blank slate again.

And the true climax of the film isn’t when he turns violent again–it’s just before–when he makes a critical error, forgets who he’s pretending to be for just a heartbeat–O’Quinn captures that moment of identity confusion in a way that’s both chilling and heart-rending.  “Wait a minute–who am I here?”  Well, we all ask that question of ourselves sometimes.  But we don’t usually follow it up with murder.

Shelley Hack does her job exactly right, not a false note in her performance, but Susan is mainly there to be conned, then terrorized.  Not much depth to the character.  No, the only two performances really worth talking about are O’Quinn’s and Schoelen’s–a few years older than her character at the time, she found something in herself I’m not sure she found again in any other role–a mixture of toughness, intelligence, humor and sensitivity that makes you root hard for Stephanie–not exactly the ‘final girl’ of your typical slasher (which this was never meant to be).

Rather more, as I said, a modern take on Teresa Wright’s Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt.  Not that good, of course, but amazingly close for someone working on a low-budget horror film shot over 40 days in Vancouver.   (Though the shower scene she does is more out of Psycho, and probably not strictly necessary to the story.  Appreciated nonetheless, Ms. Schoelen–gratuitous female nudity in films is one of the very few things about the 1980’s I remember fondly).

This is not, as the cinematographer mentions in the DVD, a dialogue-driven film.  There are a number of nicely rendered lines, but Westlake was much more interested in just telling the story visually, with the utmost of economy, and he had all the allies he needed for that–and he proved to be a willing collaborator on set.  Ruben suggested to him that the character’s backstory of parental abuse as a boy be eliminated–he readily agreed–maybe that was in the story treatment he’d been given, and he never liked it to start with.  John List had a somewhat troubled childhood, with a very strict father, but there was nothing there that really explained what he became.

Westlake didn’t write a lot about the childhoods of his characters.  We never found out anything about Parker’s early life, only slightly more about Dortmunder’s.  We find out who we are not in our earliest experiences, but in how we responded to them.  Two different people with the same precise background could be poles apart.  Personality–or in some cases, the lack thereof–is a mystery that no one has ever been able to solve.

A nice little story on that making-of featurette gives you an idea of what a good working experience this was for Westlake–the producer, Jay Benson, relates how Westlake wasn’t happy with the scene where Jerry corners Stephanie in the bathroom–she’s trapped in there, and the locked door won’t keep him out long–so she’s dead.   How can she credibly escape?  Benson had a rather neat solution to the problem, and instead of bristling at someone impinging on his script control, sticking his oar in, Westlake accepted the suggestion happily, wrote it in, and it still works.  Well, probably didn’t hurt that Benson had presumably already mentioned to him several times how much he loved Westlake’s novels.   There were many difficulties involved in making this film (mainly weather-related), but serious professional conflicts or misunderstandings–apparently not among them.

Another detail I didn’t get from the featurette–the images below are from the storyboards for the movie.  Snipped them from a site hawking an original copy of the script.  (Six hundred bucks is way out of my price range–I’m not that interested.  It’s not like Westlake drew the pictures.)

Probably my main nitpick is the score, composed by Patrick Moraz–which isn’t bad.  But it’s a synthesizer score, and while I suppose that does kind of fit the artificiality of Jerry Blake and the world he’s constructed for himself, that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to listen to.   At least John Carpenter would stick a little piano in here and there, some throbby bass lines.  You were expecting maybe Bernard Herrmann conducting a studio string ensemble?    Psycho was considered a very low-budget film for its time, but times had changed, the studio system was dead, standards had fallen.   The score doesn’t quite work, but it’s not a major problem.

(Reportedly, Jerry was supposed to whistle The Way We Were at key moments, but they couldn’t afford the rights–they had to substitute Camptown Races.  That works just fine.  Somehow I don’t see Jerry as a Streisand fan, though his ability to selectively suppress memories is precisely the point of the character–maybe a bit too on the nose?)

I guess my only remaining observation would be Westlake’s treatment of the dog–here’s the thing.  During the course of that one bloody day in his life, John List seems to have killed the family dog, Tinkerbelle.  Westlake doubtless read about that in the papers.  Nobody really knows why.  Did List think the dog was also on the path to a sinful life, and had to be killed to avoid the flames of dog hell?   Unlikely.  Nor could the dog ever bear witness against him.

Not sure anybody ever asked List why he did that (there were so many other questions to ask by then), but I suppose he might have said that Tinkerbelle would have starved to death by herself, and he was sparing her that–more pragmatically, if he’d let her go, neighbors might have brought her back, and discovered the murder scene before he’d completed his disappearing act.  That’s what he might have said, but I’d say the real reason was that he wanted to destroy every last vestige of his old life.   His family, wife, mother, children, pets, was merely extensions of his public persona, and had no right to exist apart from him.  I wish this kind of attitude, and the behavior that ensued from it, was unique to John List, but we all know that isn’t true.

There’s a scene where Jerry Blake looks up and sees the dog he gave Stephanie, an appealing little terrier mix, looking at him–he’s just beaten his wife unconscious and left her in the basement.   He’s picking out a knife to butcher her and Stephanie with, and his thoughts are accordingly dark.  The dog is scared.   Jerry speaks reassuringly, beckons the dog to him, knife in one hand–it comes to him, whimpering softly, uncertain. He caresses it gently, comfortingly, still holding the knife.  Then he lets it go.

Contrary to popular opinion, dogs really don’t know or care who’s good or evil–that isn’t relevant to them.  They sense emotions, positive or negative, nurturing or potentially dangerous–not character.  The dog comes because right at that moment, Jerry’s completely forgotten about what he just did, and is giving off genuinely affectionate vibes.   And feeling that way, he has no desire to hurt the dog, so the dog isn’t scared of him, does not perceive him as a threat, licks his face, scampers off to greet Stephanie at the door, not sensing any danger now. Jerry returns to the job at hand.

Aside from cunningly defeating the audience’s expectations here, Westlake is obeying certain  rules of popular storytelling–he knows damned well you don’t kill a cute little dog in a movie unless it’s a really important plot point (like motivating Spencer Tracy to wreak terrible vengeance in Fury).   He’s had his little joke.  He’s also conveyed something about the deeply compartmentalized nature of his killer. His emotions towards canine-kind remain mixed.   I note with some disquiet that the dog does not seem to be present in the final scene, where Susan and Stephanie get rid of the bird house Jerry built for the back yard.  It’s not only dangerous psychotics who might want to get rid of anything that brings up unpleasant memories.

The Stepfather opened in January of 1987, and as I mentioned already, very few people went to see it in a theater.  One of those who did was myself.   Plenty of seats in the auditorium, as I recall.  I didn’t know any of the actors in the cast other  than Shelley Hack, and I wasn’t particularly a fan of hers, though I thought she was good in The King of Comedy.  I didn’t know from Joseph Ruben, had never heard of John List (and the film wasn’t promoted as being inspired by that then-forgotten story, anyway). I’d read some favorable reviews, was in the mood for a good bit of horror, and I went.  I thought it was a pretty decent film at the time.  I never watched it again until I got the DVD so I could write this review.

I didn’t notice Donald Westlake’s name in the credits while sitting there in the dark, and would not have experienced even the slightest tingle of recognition if I had noticed the writer’s name.  It would be nearly a quarter-century later that I would first pick up a book of his and read it.  This was my first encounter with him, and as is so often the case with first encounters that ultimately prove fateful, I failed to perceive any significance in it.  Like pretty nearly everyone else who has seen that film, I wouldn’t have been able to pick up on enduring themes and interests of its screenwriter, even if I’d tried.   And now I can, or so I flatter myself.  You learn as you go.

Unless, of course, your life is devoted to not learning as you go.  Unless you’re stuck in the same place, living out variations of the same sad story, over and over, forever, and no matter how many times you leave your old life behind, it keeps coming back for you.

John List was found and arrested less than two years after The Stepfather came out.  I don’t know if he also went to see it during its brief run, but I rather think not.   He had relocated several times since then, married a woman he met through his church, and according to Brian Garfield, might have been having financial and relationship problems once more–Garfield implies he might have actually started fresh again, maybe even killing his second wife as well, if he hadn’t been found.  I don’t know if that’s true.  I think probably everybody reaches a point in life where he or she decides it’s too late to start over.  Even mad killers.

The point of Westlake’s story wasn’t to say “This might be what happened to John List,” even though some of it actually did.  It was Westlake’s take on what might drive a man to do something like that–the conflict that exists in most people between the lives they imagined for themselves and the lives they have.

‘Jerry Blake’ is putting up a front, always, trying to embody the American Dream he was raised with (though he hints his childhood was anything but perfect)–he seems considerably more successful in his work life than John List was, effortlessly excelling at any field that requires some level of salesmanship (and as we know, for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life–I would certainly know, since that’s what my father was, but thankfully, that was never all he was).

It isn’t financial failure, or personal unhappiness that drives Jerry to murder.  It’s that he can’t accept anything less than perfection, and perfection always remains somewhere just out of reach, as it does for everyone else, but he can’t see that–he can only see the surface of things, envying the happy families he sells houses to, wanting to somehow Stepford-ize himself and each new family, always falling short.

Since he doesn’t know himself, he can’t know anyone else, can’t empathize with the failings of his adopted family members, extend them forgiveness for having (as he sees it) failed him.   How did he start down this path?  How do most of us, subject to the same social pressures, the same mass-manufactured media imagery, avoid it?   Do we really want to know the answer?   Who do we see in the mirror every morning?  Who are we here?

It’s a good story, and a good film.  It makes a solid point without belaboring it nearly as much as I have.   Of all the screenplays Westlake worked on that became movies, it’s second only to one, and serves in some ways as a prototype for it–but I think its significance goes well beyond that.

Because here and there we can see hints of the old Westlake coming back to the surface.  The more focused, less playful writer who gave us Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, 361, Killy.  Since there’s no narrator here, and dialogue isn’t the point, he’s free to focus entirely on story and character, and perhaps begin to rediscover parts of himself he’d put aside for a while in the comfortable middle part of his life.  Parts that would be useful to him in future projects.  Parts that might, in time, lead him back to the best of his old work, and forward to the dark masterpiece only he could have written.

And since I miss that kind of Westlake book as much as anyone, I’m going to put off reviewing the rather neat little exercise in farce that would technically come next in our queue, in favor of an article delving back into the origins of an earlier criminal protagonist of Westlake’s who would have made very short work of Jerry Blake and all his Rockwell-esque aliases, had they ever been unfortunate enough to cross him in some way.  You know who I mean.  But do you know how many cunningly scavenged bits and pieces went into the making of him?  I think I’m just starting to get an idea.

I almost forgot to mention–John List died in prison in March of 2008–about nine months before Westlake died in Mexico. Just another strange little detail that makes you wonder who writes this stuff.  Just FYI, I didn’t plan to finish this one on Friday the 13th.  I mean, that’s not even the right franchise.

It can be strange, doing this blog–disorienting, because from week to week, I’m constantly forced to shift gears, as Westlake himself so often did, changing styles, subjects, emphases, the basic tonal quality of his work–while still somehow maintaining an underlying unity to it all.  It’s certainly been a challenge to convey all this, in the midst of living my own life, with its own confusions and cross-currents.

Anyway I certainly hope to see you all at the dog run clean-up next week–what?  What did I say?  Who am I here?  Fred?  Fred Fitch.  That’s right.  Care for a song?  They probably couldn’t have gotten the rights to this one for the movie either–hard to whistle, anyway.

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14 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake screenplays

14 responses to “Review: The Stepfather

  1. Ray Garraty

    Nice piece of work here, combining film critique, analyzing and rememorizing. Never heard about this film before, picked up BluRay of this.
    I wonder when we’ll see a collection of Westlake screenplays. Considering that even Faulkner’s Hollywood screen work was collected decades after his death, the wait will be long.

    • I’d be surprised if that ever happens. It’s such a small part of his overall body of work, and only two really amounted to anything. I would like to see some of his unproduced screenplays made available. Apparently, he did a screenplay adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s essay about car customizers, The Kandy-Colored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby.

      I don’t even know how that would work. Love to find out.

  2. rinaldo302

    First, I find that I’m echoing Ray Garraty in saying this, but I was moved to say it before I got to the bottom of the page and saw his comment: I very much appreciate how thoroughly thought-through and freshly considered your blog entries always are. You never phone it in, or grind out an article just because you have to cover this title now. Each essay is a pleasure to read and to think about. Thank you.

    Now. I too was one of those who saw The Stepfather in a movie theater — as soon as it reached my town. (My memory is that Pauline Kael had given it a rave review, and then was several months’ lag before it actually opened. Maybe I’m remembering wrong.) I was a long-time Westlake fan by then, as I’ve indicated before, so his name would have been an attraction on its own. And I persuaded some friends from work to see it with me. (They were knocked out, just as I was.) For me it’s one of the few movies I find genuinely scary, because it’s so plausible, and it makes me think “How much do we really know about neighbors’ and acquaintances’ lives?”

    I was also pleased to see Joseph Ruben’s name attached, though it wouldn’t have gotten me into the theater on its own. His one previous film I had seen, Dreamscape, is a nifty little thriller with depictions of dreams (they’re important to the plot) that do really feel like dreams, which is rare.

    • Dreamscape was another movie I went to see when it came out–I used to go to a lot more movies. I think I mainly wanted to ogle Kate Capshaw. But in spite of a fairly conventional treatment of an idea worthy of Philip K. Dick, it’s an entertaining film that I’ve watched again a number of times. Scanners was a lot better, though. And that one I didn’t see in a theater. Go figure.

      If I started letting myself crank them out, I’d lose interest pretty quickly. I have no excuse for that kind of thing. This is, after all, what I do instead of what somebody’s paying me for. What the hell, my boss was out sick today, and Fridays are usually pretty dead at my office. 🙂

  3. Westfield, New Jersey! That’s the next town over from where I was born. Then in the town I grew up in, there was this. I should write a book.

  4. I’d pick up right where I left off.” Create a new identity. Change his appearance. Find work. Find a woman. Make a new family. Make a new life. Fresh start. It’ll work out better this time.

    That’s what Flitcraft did, and I’m sure Westlake knew that one.

    • He also knew The Moon and Sixpence–more flamboyant, but the same basic story, and it’s happened many times. People just up and leave. How they do it, and what they do afterwards–that’s down to personality.

      • That’s a bit different. Charles Strickland made huge changes in his life each time.

        • Right–if he hadn’t, Maugham wouldn’t have been interested in him. He was always looking for the ones who took the road less traveled by. Hammett’s perspective is different. He’d say that people tend to be prisoners of their life-patterns, rarely ever breaking free, and never for very long. Some take stranger paths than others, but the longer you’re on the path, whatever it may be, the harder it is to leave it (and in the case of Nick Charles, changing paths was a traumatic experience, not a renewing one).

          Not that Maugham didn’t have something to say about all that as well. But he was, I’d say, more hopeful than Hammett. And that’s a strange thing to say, given the way Strickland ends up. But to Maugham, that’s actually a happy ending. Relatively speaking. Westlake was also more optimistic than Hammett. But still very much aware of the truths Hammett felt obliged to tell us.

  5. I’ll echo all the other thanks and praises for your consistently thoughtful blog posts. I was also going to mention Flitcraft, but somebody beat me to that too. In any case, Terry O’Quinn is so chillingly good in this movie.

    Also, and slightly off-topic (what else is new?), it’s probably worth noting here, even if you’re not necessarily a fan of his graphic novel adaptations, that Darwyn Cooke died early this morning.

    • Ah, damn. I just read that he was on palliative care, and that generally means it won’t be long. It wasn’t. Born the year after me. And he looked a lot better. Until he didn’t.

      I admired his artwork very much, and particularly the way he drew Parker. I had some problems with his writing (or his rewriting). I was thinking if they ever did do a Parker series, it would be cool if he helped produce an animated intro for it, to set the mood. Add that to the ever-growing list of cool things that won’t ever happen.

      You reach a certain age, and life becomes a quiet battlefield, with bullets whizzing by your head all the time, and you don’t even know it’s happening, until one of them has your name on it.

  6. MartinD

    I’d like to echo the comments here; I always enjoy your blog but this post was exceptional. So much interesting stuff here.

    I didn’t see The Stepfather in the theaters — but I did catch it on VHS, back in the days when VHS was a thing. Enjoyed it without noting the author of the screenplay. Saw it again, a couple of years later, and enjoyed it once again.

    You mention, briefly, that Westlake rarely mentioned his protagonists’ childhoods. And I thank him for that. When an author starts running over the main character’s younger years, I skip that chapter. I don’t remember skipping any of Westlake’s pages.

    • Geez, I’m getting so much good feedback on this one–and the main difference I see is that 1)It’s about a movie, not a book and 2)There’s just one quote in it. Is this a diplomatic plea for fewer and shorter quotes in my reviews? 😉

      There’s a tendency among writers of all kinds of stories to play amateur psychiatrist. All the answers to the riddles of personality are to be found in those childhood experiences. But are they, really? How much of who we are was determined while we were still in utero? Genetics and epigenetics. And of course, the things that happened after we were born, but before we started remembering things.

      But more than that, you could have probably made a few slight changes in John List’s adult life, and he never would have killed anybody. He didn’t kill anybody before or after that day (except in war, and one author of a recent book about him suggests he was suffering from PTSD incurred during WWII, which I have to say, doesn’t quite work for me either).

      Westlake didn’t really want to believe everything could be explained. Yes, there are reasons for the way people are. But that doesn’t mean we can understand them all. “A realist is somebody who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood. It isn’t.” And neither are human beings. Or wolves in the form of human beings. Though our behavior patterns can be obstinately repetitive, the mystery of identity is not only to be found in what we’ve done before. It’s much more in what we do next. The choices we make. Or fail to make.

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