Review: The Grifters

The difference between a movie and a novel is that a movie is just the surface of things, and the meanings and emotions can only be implicit.  Even if somebody stands on screen and says, “I’m in terrible pain at the moment,” you’re simply seeing someone who says “I’m in terrible pain at the moment,” whereas a novel can convince you that you’re really in the presence of someone feeling terrible pain at this moment.  It’s a different intensity, a novel.  Even a shallow novel is “inside” somewhere.

Since a movie is dealing with the surface of things, it’s easiest to start scripts in the instruction manual mode, as if you are doing an instruction manual from which somebody is making a film.  Start with basics–like in painting, where you put the colors on a canvas to convince somebody to get an emotional response–that’s what a basic script is.  You then put on top of that as much meaning and emotion and reality as you can, but what a script really is basically is a set of instructions.  I would never do a novel the same way.

One thing Stephen and I agreed on right away was updating the book.  A story shouldn’t be done “period” unless it is about the period.  There’s no problem with updating Thompson because his people only live in a very narrow world, with each other.  Their whole interest is the emotional struggle between them.  To update it, all you have to do is take their hats off.

Donald E. Westlake, talking to Patrick McGilligan

Donald E. Westlake, as I’ve mentioned many times before, had a long love/hate relationship with Hollywood, and with its primary product.  He’d grown up with movies, he loved movies, he freely admitted to being influenced by many of them.  But the thing about film making is, it’s an inherently collaborative artform, as well as an artform controlled by the people who finance it.  The more stubbornly independent you are, the less you’re going to get done, no matter how much of a genius you are  (Orson Welles alone is proof of that).

Westlake, an independent to his core, aspired to be in total control of his creative output.  That’s an ideal perhaps no successful artist ever fully attains in reality, but you come a whole lot closer with the printed word or the painted canvas than you do with the exposed negative or massed arrays of pixels.  He also aspired to financial solvency.   So what drew him to Hollywood was perhaps in part his fascination with filmmakers and actors, but it was much more the innate economic consequences of three marriages and four sons.

He spent a lot more time writing story treatments, screenplays, teleplays, than was widely known when he was alive.  Many of the projects he worked on never made it to the large or small screen (and in some cases, he ended up wishing they  hadn’t).  But it was mainly work-for-hire, not passion projects.  He was very much a gun for sale, and it often seems to me that he sold out as a screenwriter so he didn’t have to as a novelist.  The novels were what mattered to him.  He might compromise to some extent there as well–writing to the market–but writing on his own terms.  Not what someone else told him to write.

He always stayed aloof from the world of movies, even while observing it and the people who make it work (or fail to work) with rapt fascination, basing many a story on those observations, and above all filling his depleted coffers with its filthy lucre, so he could go back to writing the books he wanted to write, without having to worry so much about whether they’d be bestsellers (as apparently none of them ever were).

Westlake’s financial condition was so tied to the film industry that when a slump in that industry stalled development on a host of projects, he very nearly had to take that dreaded day job he’d been running away from for most of his adult life.  Like teach writing at a university.  Many eminent writers have enjoyed doing this, but to him it meant being an organization man, a mere employee, as opposed doing freelance work for publishers and studios.  Hollywood’s primary purpose, as he saw it, was to keep him solvent so  he could write more novels, and retain his treasured independence.  Thankfully, the crunch didn’t last long, and he was able to remain blissfully jobless to the very end.

But to Westlake, being a professional meant a whole lot more than just doing work for hire.  It meant doing the work, taking pride in your craft.  Whenever he took a job writing a script, he gave it his all –a task complicated by things like incompetent producers, directors who didn’t know how to get the best out of the cast and crew, miscast actors, etc.  And by the fact that (as is true of most screenwriters) the script he wrote was very rarely the script that got filmed.

The one major exception up to this time had been The Stepfather, a very rare instance of a writer who is not also the director having script control on a film–and the results had been impressive.  But still, hardly what you’d call great cinematic art.  Just good original storytelling (which is a rare and precious enough thing in itself).  Westlake was a skeptic about the Cult of the Auteur in movies, but he couldn’t deny that directors are the ones who make movies, even if they need a script to do it.  And I’ve seen no evidence he ever wanted to direct.

I just finished rewatching The Grifters, after also rereading the Jim Thompson novel.  I’ve never seen it in a theater.  This is a movie I remember hearing about when it was released, and when it got four Oscar nominations later on.  As usual for me back then, I paid no attention to who wrote it.  I had seen Stephen Frears’ Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.  But I was by no means a particular fan of Frears.  And I’d never heard of Donald Westlake.  Or Jim Thompson.   I’m pretty damned interested in both of them now.   Frears is a gifted filmmaker, but I’m not all that interested in him.  Well, you can’t be interested in everybody, can you now?   Anyway, the only  Westlake-related movie I have ever seen in a theater remains Mise à sac, the one hardly anybody outside of France has ever seen at all.  I like to be different.

It’s a very fine film, The Grifters.  On balance, I can’t call it a masterpiece.  Having now read Thompson’s novel twice, I don’t quite consider that a masterpiece  either, though I’d call it one of his five best books, the others being The Killer Inside Me, The Getaway, Pop. 1280, and South of Heaven (and yeah that last one isn’t on the lists of most other Thompson fans, but most other Thompson fans are wrong)

Thompson didn’t write polished literary gems.  He wrote strange genre-bending books, seething with dark emotions, that you can’t ever fully categorize, or put down until you’ve finished them (he also wrote some real clunkers, very hit or miss).  I feel about him roughly the way Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.) felt about Philip Kindred Dick, a writer to whom Thompson is often compared (because it’s hard to find anybody else to compare to either of them, I guess).  “I don’t know if he’s a great writer or not.  All I know is don’t try to take it away from me.”   

Westlake knew Thompson’s work very well, liked it a lot, saw its very serious shortcomings.  Thompson, he was wont to say, wrote too fast, so that he could hand in a book and get paid (and he knew that kind of writing very well).  It’s one thing to write quickly, but when he came to a problem that needed to be fixed, he wouldn’t rewrite what he’d already written.  He’d just stick in some jury rigged solution and keep going, because that’s how he worked.

Today, that makes him seem very ‘modern.’  His best stuff has dated beautifully, precisely because it’s so rough hewn, unpolished, full of odd unpredictable stylistic stunts (like three word final chapters–“He smelled good.”) that make him seem almost like the Beat Poet of Noir sometimes.  The very fact that he was virtually ignored by the literary establishment for his entire life merely adds to his luster now.  He’s here to stay, like him or not.

And he translates horribly to film–partly because the movies just can’t take him straight-up (neither can most film-goers, which is the problem in a nutshell).   Westlake must have known going in that there are things in Thompson you can’t put on film, not ever.  But he did walk away from this particular project feeling atypically pleased with the work, believing they’d gotten Thompson’s soul on celluloid for the first (and thus far only) time.

What do I believe?   That this film is a powerful flawed attempt to reinvent a powerful flawed book for a very different era than the one it’s set in, and a very different audience than the one it was written for.  And as such, I deeply respect it.  But I like the book much better, in spite of its flaws, and I think Westlake did too.

I believe that was one of the things that pleased him about this movie–perhaps more pleased than he’d ever been with any film he’d been connected with, before or since.  They’d gotten enough of the book in there to bring Thompson to a wider audience, retaining its fundamental meaning, without subsuming the book into the movie, as so often happens.  So he’d done genuinely good work with a talented collective of artists, without betraying (as he’d see it) a fellow wordsmith who hadn’t lived to see his name become a sort of hipster household word.  To him, that was the best possible result of adapting a book into a film.  The book should always take precedence.  Unless it stinks, in which case why are you adapting it?

As so often happens, a failed project led to a successful one (two, in this case).  He’d been working on a screenplay for Volker Schlöndorff, based on Passage of Arms, an Eric Ambler novel.  Schlöndorff enjoyed working with Westlake, but the studio kept sticking its oar in, and he decided to abandon the project, make The Handmaid’s Tale instead.  Not Westlake’s kind of story, so they parted amicably.  But he happened to tell Frears how much fun he’d been having with Westlake on the earlier project, and Frears reportedly said “Well, I’d love to have fun!”  He did.

Frears had some familiarity with the Stark novels, which he thought were very much in line with what he was aiming at for this film (he probably never saw Westlake’s early 60’s work under his own name).  He was under the impression Westlake didn’t write that kind of story anymore–just comic capers.  He screened The Stepfather, and came away thinking that Stark had written that script, not Westlake.  He offered Westlake the job, but wanted the screenplay credited to Stark.  Westlake pointed out that Stark was not a member of the Writer’s Guild, and he was not going to let his alter-ego be a scab.  It must have been a very interesting conversation.

What unites Stark and Thompson is that neither pulls his punches much (there are some lines neither will cross, like harming a small child).  What separates them is that Stark is a romantic, Thompson a fatalist.  Stark wastes a lot fewer words.  Parker would never be a protagonist in Thompson’s world–he’d just walk right out of the book, shaking his head.  If Thompson wrote about someone that amoral, he’d write him in the first person, make him talk to us, tell us what he’s thinking, bring us into his confidence, like Shakespeare’s Richard III.  And the ending would always be tragic.

Stark doesn’t really get tragedy.  See, to be a tragedian, you need to have believed happy endings were possible in the first place.  Westlake put that part of himself on mute when he wrote as Stark.   Stark is much less emotional, though no less bleak.  Also much more disciplined, precise, effective.  Thompson is wilder, more expressionistic, more atavistic, more–literary?  Nobody ever called Stark the ‘Dimestore Dostoevsky.’  I don’t know who’s better, just don’t try to take either of them away from me.

Point is, Frears thought Stark was the man to translate Thompson.  But Westlake hadn’t been able to write as Stark for about fifteen years.  Problematic.

Westlake himself had doubts about whether he was the one to write this, under any name–the book seemingly hit some exposed nerve endings inside him, though much less than The Killer Inside Me, his least favorite of the Thompsons, probably because of what its ‘hero’ does to the women in his life (another dividing line between Stark and Thompson–Parker might kill a woman, but he wouldn’t enjoy it).

Westlake never really wrote much about mothers and sons, and it’s exactly such a relationship which is the emotional center of The Grifters.   Frears told him to not think of the mother as the main character, just write it as a story of survival–one lives, one dies.  It’s still tragic, but it’s about choices.  Westlake could understand that (I’m not so sure I do, since clearly the mother is the main character in that film).  So he took the job.

He took Frears, who had never made a film in America before, on a tour of Los Angeles, a town he’d come to know well over the years.  He showed him Raymond Chandler’s house, in spite of his own well-known distaste for Chandler, knowing that English hardboiled fans really dig the guy–Frears loved that.  They got along swimmingly.

And Frears surprised the hell out of Westlake when he remarked in passing that he always liked to have the writer on set, in case the script needed last-minute tweaking (and it would).  This was going to be a collaboration, not just work for hire.  As Westlake put it later, talking to Patrick McGilligan–

I had kind of an astonishing experience with Stephen and The Grifters, and it clearly has ruined me for the movie business for the rest of my life.  Stephen behaved as if we were partners making a movie.  He was the partner who stood out front, like in a store, and dealt with everybody, but when we went inside the office we were partners.  I’ve never had that.

Westlake was on set for about half of shooting, along with Abby Westlake.  He also spent some time working with Frears during post-production.  He talked to the actors, rewrote their lines so that they were easier to read, wrote new dialogue, took out pages of existing dialogue.  He well and truly earned those two nominations for best adapted screenplay he got from the Oscars and the WGA.  Both of which he lost out on to the guy who wrote Dances With Wolves.  I bet Stark never stopped kidding him about that.   And I bet you think I’ll never get around to reviewing the movie.

No synopsis needed, Wikipedia has seen to that.  An awful lot of story from the book was cut out of the film.  But much of that cut material was in the original script, as this early draft available online tells us.   Westlake at long last knew what William Goldman had gone through when adapting The Hot Rock.  He and Frears were much more simpatico than had been the case with Goldman and Peter Yates, and the producers on The Grifters were not the hapless hacks The Hot Rock was saddled with.  Chief among them was Martin Scorsese, who had originally been attached to direct, and was very interested in how the movie turned out, had a lot of valuable input to contribute.

So he was in a much better situation than Goldman had been in.  But it’s the same basic problem, whenever you’re making a book into a film.  A novel is a complex piece of machinery, with lots of moving parts–how many can you take out, and still have the machine run the way it’s supposed to?   And sometimes new components have to be added as well.  I often think the better the book is, the harder the job becomes.  Plenty of great movies have been made from forgettable novels.  And no end of duds have been made from timeless classics.

So most of the backstory between Lilly and Roy Dillon, the reasons for their dysfunctional relationship, was cut. There were flashbacks in the the script that never made it into the film (and flashbacks in the film that aren’t remotely in the book, but those deal with another character).  Westlake had to find ways to imply what they didn’t have time to show.  To hint at the larger outlines of a long sad story of two people who wanted to love each other but never figured out how.  Lilly’s devastating final line in the novel doesn’t seem to have ever been in the script–but the lines that set it up it were, and Westlake sliced them out.  With regrets, I’m sure.

The rather important subplot involving Carol Roberg, a beautiful young Holocaust survivor, Roy’s nurse, who Lilly clumsily tries to push Roy into marrying–a POV character in one chapter–that gets reduced to a mere squiggle.  The nurse in the film is a silly wan figure, who Roy is never seriously interested in, no competition at all for Bening’s Myra.  It’s too much of a sidebar, that subplot.  Westlake and Frears, as noted up top, didn’t want to do a period piece (another way in which their interests converged).  The movie is set in the time period it was filmed in.  So the girl would have to be a survivor of some later mass atrocity (Cambodia, maybe?), which would feel a mite contrived.  And they’d need to tack at least another 20 minutes or so onto the running time, to do her justice.

And it’s a damned shame, because Thompson put some of his best writing into that subplot, and if it’s a sidebar, it’s a crucial one.  She’s there to remind us not everyone is on the grift, some people really are on the up and up.  She’s there to show us you can have a horrendous childhood, far worse than Roy’s, and still be a good person.  She’s there, perhaps most of all, to keep us from feeling too sorry for Roy.  His choices were his, no matter who his mother was.  I do think her loss is felt in the movie–that Roy’s character suffers in particular from her absence, the things his brief relationship with her tells us about him, the good and bad of him–she was his chance at something real, and he failed to grab it.  It’s one reason I prefer the book.  But it’s something a novel can do much more easily than a film (then again, I can think of many similar characters in classic noir movies–the girl the hero should have gone for, but the bad girl hypnotized him).

I think Westlake wrote the scenes with the movie Carol almost cynically–thinking “This is all we could show of that character in this format.”  If he was never as good a screenwriter as he was a novelist, I think this is why–he never fully believed in the medium.  Of course movies could depict a Holocaust survivor, many have, but the way Thompson believably shoehorns her into a cheap little crime paperback that has nothing to do with the Holocaust–and aims a withering sideways glance at the casual anti-semitism he quite certainly grew up around as a boy in the southwest–no equivalent film could do that.  And few novelists besides Thompson.  Many of his most interesting characters and storylines are entirely incidental to the main plot.  He went off on tangents.  I can relate.

The film focuses pretty much exclusively on the titular grifters, played by its astoundingly well-cast stars.  Huston, Cusack, and Bening were all roughly the same age as their characters, and understood them very well. Each of them gave the performance of a career in this film.  Perfect casting?  Probably no such thing.  But they got close to it here.

It must have been a trip for Westlake–not only was he working with the daughter of John Huston, one of the few living filmmakers he’d have been in awe of–she was, at the same time, the former longtime companion of Jack Nicholson, who must have been at least one of the models for Jack Pine, the protagonist of Sacred Monster (which was published around the same time Westlake started work on the film).  Bening would shortly be marrying yet another sacred monster, named Beatty, a relationship that started the same year The Grifters was released.  I said Sacred Monster was what got Hollywood out of Westlake’s system, but it might just as easily have been making this film.  His curiosity was satisfied on many levels here.

However, much as it was Huston and Bening who got the well-deserved Oscar nods, I’d personally say Cusack gives the best performance overall–closest to the book, in many respects.  Only Cusack really resembles his character, as Thompson described him.  In the novel, all three have dark hair.  But for reasons I couldn’t tell you, it was decided that Lilly and Myra (Moira in the book) would be blondes, though Lilly is clearly of the bottle variety.  They had to have similar hair for plot-based reasons–maybe they just decided Bening looked best as a blonde, so Huston had to follow suit.

Again, I think Thompson’s approach is better–Lilly’s fatal attraction to her son seems based on him being a younger less damaged male version of herself.   Two sides of the same coin.  The actors do manage to convey a familial resemblance somehow, but not as well as if they were more similar in appearance.

(Bening and Huston are not Thompson girls in terms of their figures–he liked his women short and stacked.  But that’s a really inside baseball nitpick, isn’t it?)

In the novel, Roy’s got a real shot at becoming a decent person, breaking out of the grifting world for keeps.  A job he took as a cover for his short cons turns into a real gig, almost against his will and he starts to like the straight life–at least part of his fateful refusal to help Lilly at the end is based on him feeling like she needs to go straight as well–as well as a rather petty sense of satisfaction that he did what she told him to do, and now she’s complaining about it (and in the novel, Thompson makes it clear that he also wants to keep Lilly available to him, sexually).

But without the groundwork Thompson did to make Roy’s reformation convincing, you just don’t get the same effect.  Some of that groundwork was in the original script–had to go.  Again, this weakens the impact of the ending–remember what I said about tragedy?  In the novel, you can believe Roy wasn’t too far gone, he just needed a bit more time–Lilly saved him from himself, then dragged him down with her.  But you never really believe it about Cusack’s Roy, hard as Cusack works to convince us.  Maybe in that sense at least, Stark had something to do with the script.

Bening’s Myra is a very edited verson of the more complex character in the book. Most of her best scenes are still in there, but somehow–different.  Moira Langtry isn’t all bad, you  feel–like Lilly, she appreciates decency in others, even if she doesn’t have it herself (she and Lilly are, like Lilly and Roy, and Roy and Moira, all mirror images of each other, working different parts of the same big game). You get into her head, and you find yourself sympathizing.  She’s doing what she has to in order to survive, just like Lilly.

But Myra Langtry, the movie character, seems more more empty inside.  Bening plays her as a sociopath.  It’s a compelling edgy sexy performance, that rightly got the critic’s attention, helped put her on the map as an actress.  Her first really bad woman (and lots of nudity, which didn’t hurt with the male critics).  At times she seems to be dancing her part as much as acting it, selling her main commodity for all it’s worth–always selling, with everyone.  That’s not untrue to the book character, it’s just a stripped down take on the more complex Moira.

One of the real departures from the book Westlake did was to do an extended flashback about Myra’s time as a ‘roper’ for a long con master–that seems to owe a lot to some of the long con episodes from The Rockford Files.  Westlake uses this interlude to make some rather pointed observations about the stupidity and greed of rich people.  He wants to show that not only working folks can be marks. Which is fine, except it’s supposed to establish Myra’s character, explain how she came to be this way, and it doesn’t.  Myra is beautifully acted in the film, but she never becomes as complete a character as Lilly or Roy.

In the novel, Moira tells Roy she does long cons, wants him to join her, but she doesn’t really go into detail, and her apprenticeship with Cole ‘The Farmer’ Langley seemed more in the short con line.  Basically, all The Farmer was selling was charm.  There’s a classic Thompson character, a figure seen again and again in his books, the older worldly-wise smooth talking country boy, folksy and quaint on the outside, all hard-eyed calculation on the inside.   But this version has been running from latent madness, and it finally catches him.  And Moira has to leave him, confronting her own basic selfishness.

Westlake can’t really make that transition work for the younger more sophisticated Langley in his flashback.  He goes nutty because that’s what he has to do.  I didn’t find that flashback sequence at all believable, but it’s entertaining. And like so much of the film, even though it’s set in the modern era, it has this archaic feel, like something out of a much earlier time.

Westlake said all you had to do to modernize Thompson’s characters is to take their hats off.  Well aside from the fact that some of them are still wearing hats, I don’t quite agree.  Yes, he’s right, they’re wrapped up in their own worlds, not interested in the grander events of their day.  But basically most if not all of Thompson’s great characters are, to a greater or lesser extent, children of The Depression, and of the Dust Bowl.  As Thompson himself was.

That experience shaped him, scarred him, and it informs all of his characters, even from his 60’s novels (some of which were set well back in time from when they were published–Pop. 1280 is set around the turn of the century).  He doesn’t have to say that, it’s just naturally implied.  Much of his audience had been through the same thing.  But two women in their late 30’s and a man in his mid-20’s–in the late 80’s–they never went through anything like that.  They grew up in relatively easy times.  Again, something is lost in translation.  Another reason most of the flashbacks from the book had to go.  They wouldn’t match up with the time period.

They had to strip everything down to the essentials–and even so, the characters still feel anachronistic.  Well, it’s the nature of some people to be anachronisms. I’d say everybody in this film is an anachronism to some extent.  Mintz, the old school grifter Roy learns his trade from, played by Eddie Jones in a Fedora (they didn’t take that hat off).  Bobo Justus, the syndicate boss, played by Pat Hingle in a three piece suit.  Henry Jones does a small splendid turn as the crusty manager of Roy’s hotel.

All wonderful casting picks, and all feeling like they’d been plucked from a much older film.  Basically, the only thing about this supposedly non-period movie that doesn’t feel period is the cars.  And since they’re mainly boxy-looking Cadillacs and Lincolns, they don’t feel so very 90’s either.  The film doesn’t really have a time period.   It’s set outside the time it’s set in.  Which is oddly effective in some ways.

Fact is, Thompson’s work always feels anachronistic as well.  Because, again, he’s really setting it in the Depression, no matter what year he says it is.   Just like Parker seems to have stepped out of the Dillinger era–but Westlake always gives you the feeling of the exact time he’s writing in.  Thompson doesn’t really see the era he’s writing in.  All he can see is the grim world of his youth that he somehow escaped–but never completely.  Always there in the background, haunting him.

Frears used Westlake’s guided tour of L.A. to grand effect, and the city he wants to show us is old L.A.   No shiny glass towers for him.  He wanted the seedy faded glamour of an earlier time.  He wanted Raymond Chandler’s L.A., mingled with Jim Thompson’s.  He wanted an Elmer Bernstein score (and he got it, which must have also thrilled Westlake).  He wanted old Hollywood (just like his fellow Brit, John Boorman did, when he made his first Hollywood film, based on a Richard Stark novel).  It makes for a weird disconnect, like the characters are stepping back and forth between the decades, unmoored in time.  I’m not complaining–visually, it works out just fine.  I just happen to be one of those people who doesn’t like seeing Shakespeare done in modern dress.  But the play is the thing, after all.

Even though I think Cusack gave the best overall performance, Bening the sexiest and most out there interpretation of her character, the emotional center of the film is Huston’s Lilly.  Always trying to hold herself in check, keep everything under control, measuring every move she makes, knowing her world can collapse around her at any time.  It was, to all accounts, a physically and psychologically draining role for her to play.  She never really equalled it again.

And her greatest moment comes at the end, when Lilly is forced to make a horrific choice.  Not Shakespearean–Sophoclean.  Crouching over Roy’s dead body, she keens like a banshee, giving birth to him in reverse.  Her survival instinct has triumphed over her maternal instinct, and she can’t accept it’s come to that.  But then she just goes into autopilot.  What’s done is done.  No use crying over spilt blood.

The elevator scene–the ‘descent into hell.’  Brilliant.  Evocative.  Hair-raising. But not from the book.  The book is much colder.  See, one thing both the book and the film tell us is that the supreme achievement for any grifter is not to take some poor fool–it’s to take another professional.  Somebody who was wise, somebody who knew the score.  As Lilly took Roy.  And if you’ve read the novel, you know Lilly is feeling that sense of triumph, as she delivers that line I mentioned further up–the one that wasn’t even in the early draft of Westlake’s script.

I don’t think Huston could have made that transition–from primal grief to cold contempt.  Actors are human, have limits.  It took her days to fully recover from filming that scene.  I don’t think it was in her, that transition, Lilly’s final reversion to form.  But I’m not so sure it was in Westlake either.  Maybe some of Richard Stark came back to him here–I certainly think doing this movie got some wheels turning inside of him, moved him in a direction that eventually got him back to writing Parker novels.  But it’s still a Westlake script.   And he just couldn’t go there.   But also, maybe he and Frears both felt the audience couldn’t go there either.  They could take a mother trying to seduce her son. But not a mother calling her dead son a sucker after she killed him.

A movie is not a book.  Westlake said that, over and over again.  It’s a different animal, and   as long as you’re true to the spirit of the book being adapted, you don’t have to follow it to the letter, and you probably shouldn’t.  For all its departures from what I feel are the best moments in Thompson’s novel, most of it is still there on the screen.  The best lines, delivered with style and verve.  The most viscerally unnerving moments of sudden violence–and sex used as the deadliest weapon of all.   And if I’d seen it when it first came out, the way it was meant to be seen, in a theater (preferably an old one, that had seen better days)–I might be a lot less objective.

And if I hadn’t read Thompson’s novel–but I have.  Twice.  First a vintage copy of the original paperback (with one of the best covers of any crime novel ever), courtesy of a collector friend of mine.  Then the ebook, for this review.  And just like I can’t help but find The Hunter superior to any movie they could ever make of it, I can’t in all conscience say anything but this–Jim Thompson was a better Jim Thompson than Donald E. Westlake.

And Westlake’s ghost would haunt me to the grave if I said anything else.

And we’re out of the 80’s, guys!  So up next an essay on the 90’s.  When Donald Westlake proved that he could be as hard as Thompson, writing under his own name or Stark’s.  As hard as Thompson and then some.

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40 Comments

Filed under Screenplays by Donald E. Westlake

40 responses to “Review: The Grifters

  1. rinaldo302

    Not much to add to this masterful summation. I did see it in a theater — I drove an hour to Philly to find a theater where it was playing (remember gradual releases?). Loved it, admittedly never having read the book — lots of talent on the screen and behind the camera. The three leads in particular seemed near-deal, virtually unimprovable as you say. (And I’m a big fan of the acting Cusacks, being a Chicago boy with a father who was friends with their father. John’s been excellent often, but never better than here.)

    Thanks so much for writing this. I’m now tempted to find the book and have a go.

    • Not hard to find, either in reprint form or the ebook. But I would love to own a copy of the Regency paperback original someday. Just for the cover alone. Although Thompson never got the mainstream appreciation he deserved–not so much because of the outre material in his books as that he was ‘genre’–he definitely had a devoted following by this time, and Regency pulled out all the stops to make that book look fantastic. They don’t write books like that anymore, and they don’t package them like that either.

      • Ray Garraty

        Dropped by just to say that you’ll get your copy of that PBO when a certain eBay fiend is back on track. But you wouldn’t like him back on track, would you?

  2. Regarding that descent into hell (which I agree: brilliant), you can’t tell me that Frears didn’t have this image in mind when they set up that shot: https://journeysindarknessandlight.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/a100d-halcon9.jpg?w=676. And how filmically significant is THAT — Anjelica Huston recreating an image crafted by her father for one of the greatest literary adaptations of all time?

    Look: I love Kathy Bates, and her work in Misery is just dandy, but her Oscar win over Anjelica Huston is ridiculous, as is Whoopi Goldberg’s over Annette Benning, as is Cusack’s failure to even be nominated. (To be fair,the Oscars in general are ridiculous.)

    I did see this one in the theater, at age 21, and it hit me right between the eyes — from the moment BH’s score kicked in over the B&W opening title shots, I was hooked. I love this movie. Love its anachronistic feel (Do you believe for a moment that any of these characters have seen Star Wars? Or Miami Vice? No, me neither.); love its argot-filled dialogue (much of it, as you note, directly from the page); love the sick, twisted take on the con-artist material previously treated so lightheartedly in “The Sting” (Myra’s flashback is essentially “The Sting” retold for the mean old real world.)

    And I love the performances. And not just the core three. It’s every performance. Stephen Tobolowsky makes a meal out of his one scene. Pat Hingle is truly terrifying as the cruel and vicious Bobo Justus. (“Tell me about the oranges, Lilly.”) Even Jeremy Piven is fun a sailor who gets taken by Roy.

    I had no idea who Westlake was when I saw this movie, and no idea who Jim Thompson was either (he was mostly out of print before this movie came out). But I found out pretty quickly. That’s how hooked I was.

    • Frears was totally geeking out over the whole experience. Not so much a kid in a candystore as a kid who suddenly finds himself running Willie Wonka’s factory. I guess for him the point of making it contemporary is that he doesn’t want to go back into the past–he wants to bring the glory and glamor of a bygone era into the present.

      The Oscars are not now, nor ever have been, about rewarding the best work done that year. If they do so, it’s by accident. Dances With Wolves was ‘significant’–and it made money. Now we can see how mawkish and self-congratulatory it is, how the Indians are reduced to the level of supporting characters in their own story. And that Costner never learned how to act (they should have given an acting award to the wolf, who stole every scene with him). Little Big Man should have won those Oscars (well, Chief Dan George at least got nominated), years before. But that was too dark and sardonic and countercultural.

      And it’s worth asking–did Westlake get sucked into Oscar fever, or did he hold himself aloof from it? Was he there on Oscar night? The acceptance speech clip on YouTube does not answer this question. It does, however, tell us that he knew he was up against some ferocious competition. If DWW hadn’t been in the picture, his picture might still have lost.

      Seriously, how did that movie win? Nobody watches DWW anymore, and most of those other films have gone down as enduring classics. Oscar voters get so high on a flick, and the money it brought in, and the glow of self-satisfaction at addressing an important issue (about a hundred years late in this instance) that they want to heap awards on it, and they abandon any sense of critical evaluation.

      But to have had his name read out aloud, alongside Scorsese, Pileggi, Kazan, Zaillian (talk about a ‘patient picture’)–and to have it read by Jodie Foster, no less–I think we can safely say he felt it was an honor just to have been nominated. And hey, it wasn’t all that long afterward he did his own story about Native Americans, and not the noble savages Blake wrote about.

      Would he have even wanted to do an acceptance speech? Did he have one prepared? Or did he just stay home? My guess, as I’ve already said, is that he felt like he’d finally had the experience with filmmaking he’d dreamed about, knew it would never get any better and might never be so good again. So having solved that problem–as we’ve seen in past–he lost interest in it. Still did movie work, but it began to taper off. He was running out of time to produce novels, and he knew the 80’s had not been his most productive era. And with the kids all grown up, his operating expenses became more manageable. Time to get back to his core identity–and, eventually, to Stark.

      And I think the long con flashback was more The Rockford Files than The Sting, but it’s a rich tapestry. 😉

  3. Thompson, he was wont to say, wrote too fast, so that he could hand in a book and get paid

    As did PKD, and, to be fair, a lot of SF writers not named Heinlein or Asimov. It’s how you make a living when you get paid a cent or two a word.

    • And so did Westlake, for years–but then he got a contract with Random House, which was a very big deal–and then the Parker sideline at Pocket. He said himself, when commenting on Thompson, that he knew what it was like, but he also knew that even writing on a short deadline, you could go back and rework a manuscript. He was more meticulous than Thompson, or PKD. That doesn’t necessarily mean he was better, since there’s a lot more to writing than technique. But it does explain why he wrote so many more readable books.

      A lot of his vitriol at the science fiction field was aimed at the lousy pay rates. He wanted to be able to make a living as a writer and a writer only. Many genre writers were not able to do that–most writers can’t do that, period. You say that’s how they made a living, but they mainly didn’t. They worked day jobs. He was perhaps a bit unfair to those who couldn’t do it his way, but in all fairness to him, he worked his ass off to make sure he’d never be working for anyone but himself. Which comes with its own consequences, naturally.

  4. rinaldo302

    I think that’s exactly right, Fred, about how the Academy Awards (or any other big-ticket awards) work: they gravitate to what has impressed people (people in the industry) most at that moment, for whatever reason worked right then, and that may look incomprehensible even a year later.

    I actually remember those awards, because I was delighted that in at least the leading acting categories, it was merit (as I saw it), and not fame or clout, that was rewarded. I didn’t expect The Grifters to win anything, much as I loved it; genre pictures (especially if not leavened by humor or uplift) almost never do — I was just thrilled that it got some nominations, and that I actually heard Westlake’s name read out as a nominee on the telecast. Meanwhile, Jeremy Irons was by no means a favorite (Costner or De Niro were the predictions), and Kathy Bates was somewhat of a newcomer. Not exactly unknown, she’d had “good little parts” in a few movies, but seemed destined for a future of unglamorous bit parts on screen. That she not only won this leading role, but beat out beloved prior winners (Huston, Roberts, Streep, Woodward) on the merits of her performance? I cheered. None of which subtracts anything from my love for The Grifters.

    A number of Thompson’s books came back into print around this time, prompted by the new film versions (After Dark, My Sweet was another). I saw a featured display for him in the local bookstore.

    • Westlake told McGilligan it was entirely appropriate to Thompson that his 15 minutes of fame came years after his death. Better late than never. I hope at least his widow got to spend some of that late-arriving money.

      I wonder–if Westlake had won the Oscar–which certainly looks nice on anyone’s mantelpiece–would he have doubted the quality of his work? He knew as well as anyone that awards are meaningless, and this award in particular. To be appreciated, sure–that’s a nice thing. But when they start fawning over you, you’ve done something wrong.

  5. Richard Grant

    Wondered if any more complete list exists of Mr. Westlake’s unproduced screenplays and teleplays beyond the list of unpublished/unproduced works in Wikipedia’s Donald E. Westlake entry.

    • That list has recently been substantially added to, courtesy of Greg Tulonen. There’s an archive in Boston that has a whole lot of unpublished/unproduced Westlake-iana–I will have to make my way there in future, perhaps by Fung-Wah bus, and see what’s worth reviewing (I’ve still got maybe another year’s worth of published work to review, depending on how far I choose to stretch it out).

      A complete list of everything he wrote for the movies and TV–not sure if anybody has that. The archive has the stuff from his estate. He seems to have written one screenplay based on a Tom Wolfe essay about customized cars and their owners. I don’t even know who would have paid him for that. But so long as they paid him……

      • Funny you should bring it up, as I actually spent seven hours at the archive just yesterday — and yes, it’s a goddamned treasure trove for any serious Westlake enthusiast. I’m currently writing a summary/review of the unpublished 1998 novel “The Fall of the City” (as well as some accompanying correspondence regarding the novel between Westlake and his agent, Knox Burger.)

        • How much advance notice did you have to give the archive? I feel a bit weird about saying “Hey, I do a blog about Westlake, can I come over and look?” but I don’t know what else I’d say.

          It’s a completed novel? Presumably written somewhere between The Ax and The Hook, and alongside two Parker novels.

          I need to see that review. And if it’s anywhere near complete, somebody needs to publish that novel.

          • rinaldo302

            Someone surely will (if… what you said) if it becomes generally known. We’ve already had two posthumously published novels.

            • I would assume the existence of the manuscript is known to people like Levi Stahl and the proprietors of Hard Case Crime. Memory was basically marketed as noir. The Comedy is Finished certainly counts as a crime novel, with both serious and comic aspects. This would seem to be entirely outside the area Westlake was known for. So how many Westlake completists are out there? My blog stats would indicate quite a few, but maybe not enough for a deluxe hardcover edition. Though I’d buy it. Damn straight.

              • I’d say it’s nowhere near as ambitious as as Memory, but similar in quality to The Comedy Is Finished. I think I liked it a bit better than TCIF, but I’ll admit my experience was enhanced by the thrill of handling Westlake’s original manuscript.

              • Since I thought TCIF was a minor masterpiece (and I never saw any manuscript of that), this really has me excited.

                It must have been so discouraging to him that his attempts to break out of his publishing niche kept getting rejected. You look at all the crap that gets into print, and you scratch your head. He used to be able to use pseudonyms to get around it, but that loophole seems to have closed. Probably one of the things that made him so furious at Tor for spilling the beans about Sam Holt. But he could get those books published, even though they were very far from his best work. He could have just as easily published them under his own name. But then people would say “where’s the comic capers?”

                Knowing all this will make reviewing The Hook a lot easier. Provides context for the story he wrote. And that got published (because it was the right niche).

          • They say they require three to four days notice, but it took me some time to get everything organized and approved. I first queried the archive on May 5. They responded the next day, asking me about the nature of my research project. “Our collections are open to those conducting research,” they informed me, “but not necessarily for general interest.” Well, crap.

            I immediately responded that while I wasn’t working on a specific project, “I am an active participant in an online community of Westlake scholars and enthusiasts” (that would be you and the fine folks in this comments section). Radio silence for one week. I wrote back, asking if a visit to the archive would be possible. Radio silence for another week, at which point they finally responded to ask me what day I wanted to visit. I asked for June 24 and here we are.

            So: If I was permitted access, I don’t see why you wouldn’t be. As keeper of this blog, you have more of a claim than I do.

            It is very much a complete novel, though I suspect Westlake would have taken another pass if he had managed to place it anywhere. (Nevertheless, it’s fully publishable as-is, in my opinion.)

            It was evidently written sometime after 1995, the year Westlake wrote two story treatments in collaboration with James Bond producer Michael G. Wilson in preparation for the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. After the treatments were rejected, he transplanted the setting and premise of his Bond villain’s evil plan to this book, which is NOT a spy novel, though there is some corporate espionage in play.

            It was evidently completed sometime before August 14, 1998, which is the date of his agent Knox Burger’s unenthusiastic response to the book. Had it been published, it likely would have been published under a pseudonym, Westlake indicates in his dispirited letter back to Burger.

            My review/summary is shaping up to be quite long and spoiler-filled, as many likely will not have the chance to read it. Officially, no electronic devices are allowed in the archive, so I didn’t have my laptop with me. (I wish I had, because I saw many breaking that rule and no one seemed to mind.) Nevertheless, I took copious handwritten notes, including long transcribed quotations. Stay tuned.

            • This is hugely helpful–so I won’t expect them to be all “Come on down!” The main purpose of an archivist, as opposed to a librarian, is to protect and preserve the material, as opposed to trying to get more people to look at it. Not to keep everyone out, but to be a bit selective, because these are the only existing copies, after all. What I’ll do is bring my iPad (which has no camera) and if they say no, they say no. I absolutely suck at handwritten notes, copious or otherwise.

              I wonder at what point Knox Burger became his agent, as opposed to Henry Morrison? By the 00’s, according to The Getaway Car, he was unrepresented. Burger certainly had a distinguished client list. Westlake was far from the biggest name he’d ever worked with. So did Westlake decide he didn’t need some agent telling him what to write? Or did he just figure he was stuck with Dortmunder and Parker for the rest of his career, and he didn’t need an agent to rep him for that kind of thing? He probably didn’t. More money for him.

              I would say we have about the same claim, until one of us actually gets paid for writing this stuff. 😉

    • This is in response to Richard’s post, which I notice is now almost a year old! So I hope Richard is still reading this blog … In any case, I’m the person who added the “unpublished/unproduced works” section to the Wikipedia entry.

      I do have a longer list of things held in the Westlake collection (not complete, but longer) based on notes I took during my two visits in 2008 and 2015. In all honesty, I don’t wish to share the information publicly out of respect to the guidelines set forth by the archival center and, presumably, the Westlake family — and I know for a fact that the archivists have a strict policy about publishing a complete list (or “pathfinder,” as they call it in the archival world) of the collection, which they did not allow me to even photocopy.

      You’ll notice that in the Wikipedia article, I have for the most part only listed unproduced works by Westlake that could be verified in other sources (hence the footnotes). So, for example, I know of the existence of the Murder in the Vanities stage script because I flipped through it during my visits, but I only included it in the Wikipedia entry because it was referred to in a previously published work, the James Kirkwood biography. That seemed like a good way of getting some of the information out to the public, but also respecting the wishes of the archival center.

      In terms of the Fall of the City manuscript, my article had already been published in the October 2015 issue of MI6 Confidential revealing the existence of the manuscript. This was done with the permission of both the archival center and Paul & Abby Westlake (Paul, in particular, was a great help and even provided photos of his father to the magazine.) Once the existence of the manuscript was revealed in that article, I felt it was appropriate to include the information in the Wikipedia entry along with a footnoted citation to my article if anyone was interested in reading more. Soon after, Greg T. saw the info and made the trip out to Boston.

      I have a lot of other interesting info that I pulled from the collection during my visit that I hope to reveal someday, perhaps in another article or two!

      • It was a tremendous and nigh-epochal contribution to our understanding of Westlake, even if your original research was done more to further our understanding of the genesis of a Bond movie that does not have Sean Connery in it. 😐

        And parenthetically, it’s entirely possible that if you hadn’t done this, it would have taken much longer for this book to be published, albeit under a different title, and somewhat edited down.

        • Thanks, and LOL at the Connery comment!

          • Laugh if you will, but I never joke when it comes to Connery. 😐

            • Oh, I’m a Connery fan myself and never though much of Brosnan in the role. But I was actually drawn to doing the research because of my love for Westlake (whose books I’ve been reading since high school). Tomorrow Never Dies is a weak Bond movie and would have benefited from some of Westlake’s more “out there” ideas.

              • I prefer Brosnan to Craig (just can’t get into the recent Bonds at all). And I thought Michelle Yeoh made a great Bond girl. But I’m such a purist when it comes to 007, I sometimes don’t see the point in watching anything but the first five films with Connery. I will get around to reading Fleming eventually–at this point, all I’ve read is Moonraker, which I thought was quite good, and then I found out it’s considered by many to be the gold standard of the franchise. You’d never know from the movie.

                In the afterward to Forever and a Death, Kleeman says that people tend not to realize that it was the Brosnan films that brought Bond back from the dead, after the debacle of Dalton. Goldeneye was a surprise smash, and Tomorrow Never Dies did basically the same box office, but at a higher budget, so it was less successful. I think you’re right that they got a little too cautious with that one. But there were reasons why they couldn’t continue with Westlake. And I’d rather have a novel from him than a screenplay, anyhow.

              • Wow, Kleeman actually refers to Dalton’s tenure as a “debacle”? That’s unnecessarily harsh, especially since Dalton’s portrayal has been reevaluated over the years and has gotten a lot of credit for prefiguring the Craig era. I loved both The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, although I’m aware that neither of them performed very well at the U.S. box office (at least when compared to the Moore films) and a new face was probably necessary. Looking forward to reading Kleeman’s afterword.

              • He’s not talking about how good the films were, or how good Dalton was as Bond. He’s saying they were commercial failures, and that there were serious questions in the industry as to whether Bond was still viable. Of course, they’ve been questioning that forever. As a kid, I remember seeing an article in Scholastic Magazine or something like that (one of those publications for grade schoolers) where they were talking about how Roger Moore was making Bond young and hip again, now that the paunchy Scotsman had hung up his toupe (and of course Moore was a few years older than Connery). They were making Connery sound positively ancient. They deliberately used pictures of the two to make Moore seem fitter and younger.

                Dalton was a debacle in commercial terms, that can’t be questioned (whether he should be blamed for it certainly can be), but the word is mine, not Kleeman’s. His exact words:

                The tale of reviving the James Bond franchise is too lengthy to unspool here, but this you need to know; when we made GoldenEye, the film industry iddn’t believe it would succeed. They had good reason. Marketing surveys revealed that the majority of teenage boys in 1995 had no idea who James Bond was. The few who were aware described him as “that guy my father likes.” There was a good reason for this; a Bond film hadn’t done substantial business since Octopussy in 1983. The Dalton Bonds had never found a large audience. Fifteen-year-olds in 1995 had been only two years old the last time James Bond had been culturally significant.

                So as had been the case with Moore, they wanted to make sure that the target demo–young men–would be engaged. No doubt that Scholastic Magazine article was a plant, meant to get us interested, and make us feel like Moore was the new boy in town, though he’d been around forever on television. They’re going to have to do this every time they reboot the franchise. Kleeman may be burnishing his own credentials a bit, but he’s right. If Brosnan’s Bond had failed too, that would probably have been it for some time. Every new Bond is going to be The Best Bond Ever–until the next one.

                But Connery doesn’t need to be The Best Bond Ever, because he IS Bond. 😉

            • Oh, and you guys can get a peek at the next thing I’m going to add to that “unproduced” list — which I did NOT find in the archival center, much to my disappointment:

              https://www.betweenthecovers.com/details.php?record=382088

              Now why wasn’t this mentioned in any of Joan’s obits? *winks*

              • I’ve known about that for ages. Westlake wrote Joan Rivers (under a different name) into one of his Sam Holt novels, around the same time he worked with her on that script. I’m guessing Mr. Westlake didn’t want that one preserved for posterity, though he seems to have greatly admired Ms. Rivers as a comedian. As an actress and collaborator, maybe not so much. But it was another check. And comics always fascinated him.

                Be interesting to see the script, though. I sure as hell wouldn’t have paid 550 dollars. I’m guessing that’s a Rivers fan who bought it.

              • Ah, okay, hadn’t seen your posts on the Holt books and haven’t read “I Know a Trick Worth Two of That” in over 20 years. (What sticks in my mind is that I wrote a fan letter to Westlake in ’96 or ’97 and asked him about the Holt books, and he basically denied writing them. I found that very amusing.)

                And, yeah, $550 is insane.

              • I believe that project was mentioned on The Violent World of Parker blog, which I miss very much. 😦

  6. I don’t want to oversell it. I think you liked TCIF more than I did (though I listened to it on audiobook, which may have been a factor). But I think the obstacles Westlake faced in publishing it had much more to do with genre than with quality.

    • I’d say that would be a pretty significant factor. Who’d they get to read it? Peter Berkrot? (googles) Well, who am I to judge another man’s livelihood?

      I know what you mean, though–it’s really best to discover books for yourself, but in the case of an unpublished Westlake novel, I think a bit of overhyping is entirely called for.

      I liked TCIF much more the second time than the first. That was probably why I was so high on it. A novel that can stand up to a second reading is actually a rare thing for me. Lately I’ve been reading some highly touted crime fiction by other authors (I name no names), and some of it barely stood up to the first reading.

      I’d say the best route for a book like this would be an electronic edition that could be marketed to all Westlake readers on the planet who can read English. The way Comfort Station was re-released by Mysterious Press. There’d be more than enough takers to justify the expense. And if it did really well, they could look into translated editions.

      Ex Officio is evailable. That’s certainly not Westlake’s familiar niche, and it seems to have done fairly well. How would you compare that with Fall of the City? Man, I’m really pumping you for details, aren’t I? When do I get to read this review? 🙂

      • Soon. But be warned: It’s very spoiler-laden.

        • Horrors! I abhor spoilers! 😮

          • Well, the idea was that few would be able to read this work, so it’s a detailed plot summary with quotes and commentary. But fine, here’s my relatively spoiler-free introduction to the review:

            There’s no sign on the building that houses the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center in Boston, Massachusetts indicating that the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center lies within. There isn’t even a building number on the building – no signage of any sort – so I actually walked past it twice before finally venturing inside, where I learned that the lobby sign, which indicates the locations and floors of various building entities, also make no mention of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. Nevertheless, I persevered and made my way to the fifth floor, where archivists were waiting for me, armed with a file box containing the manuscript for Donald E. Westlake’s unpublished novel, The Fall of the City.

            The novel’s origins lie in two story treatments Westlake wrote in 1995 in collaboration with James Bond producer Michael G. Wilson in preparation for the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. Neither treatment was used in the completed film, but Westlake was still fascinated by the idea he had come up with, and the research he had done concerning his Bond villain’s villainous scheme, and he incorporated those idea into this book – which is in no way, shape, or form a spy novel.

            These were Westlake’s original typewritten pages, 610 in all, with his handwritten edits and white-outed corrections (which were kind of a thrill to behold). I had to wear white cotton gloves to handle all materials.
            On top of the novel proper there were a series of newspaper articles about Hong Kong that Westlake apparently used for research, as well as story and character notes in Westlake’s cramped hand. In addition, there’s a dispiriting letter from Westlake’s agent, Knox Burger, in response to the novel in question. Dated August 10, 1998, the letter begins:
            “I am nonplussed by this Asian novel. I know you were entranced by your research into the Hong Kong landfill situation when you contemplated using it for the setting of a Bond film, but your novel is so different from any of the multifarious kinds of stories we’ve come to expect from you that I’m stumped.”

            First of all, I’m perplexed by Burger’s description of The Fall of the City as “this Asian novel.” The three settings are Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong – two thirds of which are admittedly in Asia, but that’s hardly the point of the novel. If you called The Score “this North Dakotan novel,” I’d suspect that you hadn’t read it. (I make that comparison for a reason.) Secondly, loosely translated, Burger seems to be saying, “This isn’t like your other stuff, and that makes my job harder.”

            Burger has more reservations:

            “Maybe it’s so plot-driven that you just didn’t want to devote your usual attention to shaping three-dimensional people.”

            Ouch (and also: bullshit). Knox tells Westlake that his opinions are shared by his reader, Pamela Malpas, a discriminating fan of Westlake’s past work, Knox assures him. (I looked her up. She has since become an agent herself.) Malpas undoubtedly read the manuscript much more carefully and produced summary and recommendations before Knox even looked at the thing.

            Knox isn’t done twisting the knife. He concludes:

            “I have a few specific notes I’ll spare you now… Despite my misgivings, which are obviously serious, I can forward your manuscript to Bill.”

            I’m not sure who Bill is – presumably Westlake’s editor at the time, but I don’t necessarily believe that Burger has more specific notes. This letter is clearly designed to discourage further discussion or action, and discourage it did. Westlake’s response, written four days later on Mystery Writer’s of America stationery, begins: “I see that Friday the 13th was on a Thursday this month, as Walt Kelly used to say.” He follows this up immediately with: “Well, no. I don’t want it to go to Bill.”

            For Westlake, the final nail in the coffin was likely that Abby didn’t much like it either: “Abby, in gentler terms, agrees with you.” (And no, Knox Burger had not been particularly gentle.) Westlake seems dispirited as he distills the bulk of the criticism he has received: “If I may draw the comments to their essence, the book is dull.” He seems ready to throw in the towel: “Abby thinks the cutting of a hundred pages of hemming and hawing would help, but then what? I think it’s attic-ready right now.”

            Nevertheless, he does indicate that he’s seeking a second opinion: “Jackie Farber [an editor at Delacorte Press] has agreed to give me a commercial opinion, which I’ll wait for. Then decide whether it’s a real thing or practice.”

            There’s no record in the archive of Westlake’s correspondence with Jackie Farber regarding Fall of the City, but if that exchange did indeed occur, it was evidently no less discouraging.

            Westlake concludes his letter with a final self-reproach: “This is a cuckoo’s egg in my nest, you know. The fact that I planted it three myself is not ad rem.”

            In other words, I should stick to stuff people expect from me (which, again: bullshit, but nevertheless, advice Westlake largely followed for the rest of his career).

            • Yeah. This is kind of huge. And I think if he’d been younger, he’d have reacted the way you and I are reacting, but powerful agents are hard for any writer to ignore. As are spouses.

              I mean, it’s all one to us whether his books sold or not. We just want as many books as possible, and as I’ve said before, the ones that don’t fit the usual profile are often the most revealing. He still had over ten years of writing left in him. I can understand the pragmatic aspects of it. But dammit, he’s not just some hack. He’s a great fucking writer, and nobody would have ever had the nerve to tell Graham Greene “This isn’t what people expect from you.” I mean, honestly, the first Greene I ever read was The Human Factor, not long after it came out, and it bored me to tears. It still got published.

              How the heck did Humans get published? That doesn’t have any great characters other than the demon (I retain the right to change my mind upon rereading), and the only familiar element in it is the heister protagonist (who has lots of fellow protagonists, none of whom rank among Westlake’s best). He used to stubbornly call that one of his favorite books–the red-haired stepchild that he had a perverse affection for, because it broke the mold.

              It sounds like this time he didn’t try to put anything in there that would remind people of his other work–he was doing the shapeshifting thing again, but the market had changed, and it was harder to hide behind a pseudonym. And again, repurposing work done for a film project, which he’d done with varying success in the past.

              But that somebody could write a letter like that to Donald E. Westlake–almost four decades after his first novel got published!–it rankles. As does his meek acceptance of the rebuke.

              Now I’m wondering if I’ll find some cunningly disguised version of Knox Burger in one of the later Parker novels. Have to be on the lookout for that. 😉

              (editing) Well, maybe not.

              http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/13/arts/13burger.html?_r=0

              But even the best editors and literary agents can be wrong. Henry Morrison was wrong about The Fugitive Pigeon. There wouldn’t have been any Donald E. Westlake as we know him if he’d always listened to these people (The Hunter was rejected by at least two publishers who presumably had great editors before Bucklin Moon said “Rewrite the ending and give us four books a year with this charcter.”

              Point is, the book was FINISHED. It’s one thing to say “You better write something else next time.” It’s another to say “You better just stick this in a file drawer and forget about it.”

              • rinaldo302

                Kahawa was off-brand too, and could be summed up as “this African novel,” but this didn’t occur to me when I first read it, as I found it hugely entertaining (and it was a kind of heist story). It’s hard for me to imagine a whole book from him at this stage coming out merely “dull,” whatever its other problems.

              • Kahawa was a heist story. That was, in essence, why he was so interested when Les Alexander told him about that actual train heist in Uganda. He could write a novel about Africa, about foreign affairs (in more than one sense of the term), and still market it as the kind of thing he normally did. It’s still about a tough wily bunch of pros taking something that doesn’t belong to them, even though it’s really about a lot of other things as well.

                And of course it was a commercial failure. Now maybe the characters in Fall of the City aren’t as well-drawn as those in Kahawa–Greg indicates the characters aren’t the problem, but maybe they didn’t seem to be Westlake characters to the people who read the manuscript, all of whom were well-familiar with his work. Honestly, the characters in Memory don’t entirely seem to be Westlake characters (in many ways, they’re more like Stark characters, only they’re the kinds of characters you’d see at the periphery of a Parker novel).

                What he’d done is create a brand for Westlake, and I think he’d wanted to do that, wanted people to like Westlake better than Stark or Coe, wanted to prove he was the dominant personality, so to speak. But he succeeded to the point where nobody thought he could do anything else, anything outside that brand.

                Even Stephen Frears (to bring this back on-topic) was dubious about hiring Westlake to write The Grifters screenplay, because he didn’t want what he thought of as a Westlake type treatment of the story. Once he persuaded himself that The Stepfather was really a Richard Stark story, then he went all out to persuade a very reluctant Westlake to come onboard.

                Pretty nearly any successful writer builds a professional identity for him or herself, then has a hard time escaping that identity. Lawrence Block, who knew Westlake as well as anyone, as a writer or a man, thought he could have written any kind of story. But a writer needs readers. And readers have a lot of choices, so if a writer doesn’t reliably give them what they’re expecting, they may abandon him.

                Anyway, looking forward to Greg’s review (and Greg, when it’s available, I certainly will post a separate article touting it–we’re just starting the 90’s, so your timing is impeccable).

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