Bonus Feature: Who Loots The Looters?; The Genesis of Charley Varrick


” ‘Charley Varrick, Last of the Independents.’ I like that. Has a ring of–finality.”

I should probably explain.

Donald E. Westlake had no role whatsoever in the writing or production of Charley Varrick.  It was not based on anything he’d written.  I don’t know if the people responsible for this movie ever read any of Westlake’s heist books, though given that it came out the same year as John Flynn’s adaptation of The Outfit, it’s a safe bet they knew his name.  I don’t know if John H. Reese, the author of the novel this movie was very loosely based on was familiar with Westlake’s work in the crime/heist genre, but there’s reason to think he was.  Reese was mainly known for westerns, and wrote very little in the overall mystery field (The Looters was his first crime novel, and he only wrote one more), so Westlake probably didn’t read much or any of him, but you never know.

Here’s the thing–I’ve loved this movie for a good while now.  It’s probably my favorite film ever made in this genre.  Not just my personal favorite–I think it’s the best.  I think Don Siegel, the guy who made it, was the greatest director of crime flicks who ever exposed a negative (it’s him or John Huston).  And I’ve been curious for a while now about what the novel this film adapts is like.  And now I know.

The first edition hardcover is from Random House–1968–Westlake was still publishing there under his own name, but not for much longer.  Coe was still around, and Stark would show up there soon enough, so yeah, Westlake and Reese would presumably each have had at least some inkling of the other’s existence.

A good first edition of The Looters (or even a crap one) will run you well over a hundred bucks online. The paperback, making its futile misguided attempt to entice Mario Puzo readers, is ugly, and not cheap.  I decided to go with interlibrary loan–the copy on my desk hails from a public library upstate.  It has to go back soon.  So I figured I better write this now.  (Also, I’m still rereading the next Westlake novel in the queue–try to get that review done by sometime next week.)

It’s really hard to say why some books get bought up by Hollywood and some don’t.  If this had been any kind of bestseller,  if it had done even reasonably brisk sales, copies wouldn’t be so expensive now.    The high price for used copies nowadays probably stems from relatively high demand (because of the movie) combined with relatively low supply (due to average sales for the genre and publisher, and the fact that a lot of copies have not survived the decades).

Doesn’t seem anything John Reese ever wrote (and he wrote a lot) has made it to Kindle. Completely out of print, in all formats. But somebody bought the rights to The Looters, probably not long after it came out (conceivably before it came out), and it wasn’t the first time Reese had tapped into that well.  Three of his short stories in the western genre had been adapted, one into a movie with Fred MacMurray.

But for many who went to school in a certain era, the book below would be what they remembered him for–won him an award.  I remember reading it myself as a kid.  Good story.  Mind you, back then I’d read pretty much anything with a dog  on the cover.


Also out of print.  Because stories about ranchers ruthlessly exterminating wolves with the help of really big dogs (not in the frontier days, there’s cars and electricity and tourists passing through) just ain’t gonna play in most parts of the country anymore, nor should they.  Old Yeller can still get away with it, because he’s protecting his family (and the wolf was rabid).  And because that book is much better written and illustrated.   But see who the hero is here?  Not the wolf–one of Life’s true independents, and among the last ones too, on that range (you might say they’ve made a comeback since then).  Nope, the dog is the hero.  A canine cop, out to eradicate the independents.  Hmm.

The screenplay for Charley Varrick is credited to Howard Rodman and Dean Riesner, but in reading Don Siegel’s account of the making of this movie in his credit-by-credit professional memoir, A Siegel Film,  I learned that the two never worked together on it.  Rodman had been tasked with writing a script based on the book for Universal, years before, and nobody liked it much (probably stuck closer to the book), so the project languished in development.

Siegel took an interest in it, and hired Riesner, who had worked with him on his previous film at Warner Brothers, Dirty Harry, which had of course been a box office sensation, and presumably that gave Siegel a bit more leeway to do what he wanted here than he usually had.  I’m tempted to say he felt lucky, but that would be so obvious.

He tried to get his buddy Clint Eastwood, who he’d just finished turning into a  legit A-List star, interested in playing the lead–the lead being a bank robber who gets away with it.  Eastwood, who thought the world of Siegel, turned him down flat.  He didn’t like the character–said he had no ‘redeeming qualities.’  Yeah, looking at his list of roles, before and since, I don’t know what he meant by that either, but I’m guessing he just figured the movie wouldn’t do that well (he was right too), and he was just getting some real traction in the biz.  I like Clint’s movies and all (even some of the ones he made himself).  He has long struck me as being a character with few redeeming qualities away from the film set, but anyway he photographs nice.

So instead of the combative macho camaraderie that generally prevailed between Eastwood and Siegel, who I get the impression never tired of putting each other through various forms of hell, Siegel had to work with Walter Matthau–who had, in fact, made his own movie about a bank robber, years before–one who didn’t get away with it, who met with the traditional fate of movie heisters.  Interesting film, shot in a near-documentary style, not very good, pops up on TCM now and again.  He must have enjoyed the experience.  Met his wife on that movie, too, and she looks quite enjoyable indeed.   Marriage lasted.  No Eastwood, he.

But he put Siegel through a few kinds of hell also.  Siegel loved everything Matthau did in front of the camera, and said he was a pain in the ass to deal with once the camera stopped rolling.  Did not understand the script.  Did not understand the character.  And apparently, he didn’t need to.  Because he just was the character.

Lalo Schifrin, the Argentinian composer best known for the Mission Impossible theme, who had also worked on Coogan’s Bluff and Dirty Harry with Siegel, did the score. He and Siegel had a rare rapport, and Siegel talks with pure admiration of the way Schifrin figured out how to put music over the climactic biplane vs. muscle car scene in the movie, the kind of scene you normally never put music over, because it gets in the way, but somehow Siegel felt like this one needed it.

Michael C. Butler was the cinematographer–his first big gig.  His dad was close friends with Siegel.  His mother died just before shooting started. Siegel told him to go home, they’d delay shooting, he said no way, his mom would want him to work.  You getting the impression this was less like a film set than a family reunion?  (With Matthau as the cranky eccentric uncle everybody’s a bit in awe of, but not Siegel, because he was used to stars, and knew how to wrangle them.)

As was typical for many of his better, more polished, individual films–the ones he cared most about–Siegel was his own producer.  He always liked that.  Cleaner.  Simpler.

So you had a group of people behind the camera who knew each other very well, understood each other,  and since Siegel was the producer, no suits getting in the way most of the time.  No real star egos, except Matthau, who might kibbitz a bit, make a bunch of suggestions that wouldn’t work (because, I’d posit, he’d made his own bank robber movie, and it hadn’t turned out great, and he was trying to impose all the ideas he’d never been able to execute properly in his film on this film)–but he was all pro once the director yelled action.

(Lee Marvin could have maybe been an even better Charley, except he’d have been more dangerous, less cerebral.  It would have to be a different story, that would end with a fight, not a ruse.  Siegel had directed Marvin in a made-for-TV adaptation of The Killers that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Hemingway story, and I’d talk about that here, but Lady, I Haven’t Got The Time.)


Great supporting cast.  Joe Don Baker (his best performance ever, I think) as a Dixie-accented hitman.  Richard Vernon as a smooth unctious frontman for the mob.  Sheree North as a sly slatternly photographer who doesn’t impress easy.  And Felicia Farr as Sybil Fort, the Vernon character’s shrewd secretary/mistress, who implausibly but delightfully ends up ‘boxing the compass’ in a round bed with Varrick.  And the weird thing about that was that in real life she was married to Matthau’s buddy Jack Lemmon, and somehow it doesn’t seem fair that Lemmon never got to do a relaxed intimate grown-up sex scene with Matthau’s wife, but they do seem to be enjoying themselves.


Siegel claimed he believed every picture he ever made would be a hit, even though he knew in practice that you just never knowCharley Varrick was a flop.  Siegel’s alibi was that Matthau had been badmouthing the movie to every reviewer he talked to (what else would you expect from an independent?), but unlikely that would have made the difference between a hit and a flop.  A flop and a marginal success, maybe.

This movie wasn’t what anybody would have expected, and the objections of both Eastwood and Matthau were not entirely offbase–it’s not for everybody.

Some mainly pretty bad people rob a bank in a tiny hick western town.  Two citizens of the town  are killed, one of them a cop.  The heist planner–the hero of the movie, its title character in fact–didn’t kill anyone personally (never so much as punches anyone in the entire movie), but neither is he feeling any apparent guilt over his indirect role in multiple fatalities, then or ever afterward.

He’d tried making an honest living, working as a crop duster after his career as a barnstormer fizzled, and then the combines pushed him out.  He can’t work for other people, because he’s an independent by nature.  He can’t live on the dole, because he’s not a bum.  So he meticulously plans and executes minor bank robberies.  And he finally robs one full of mob money.  He realizes right away that’s what it must be.  Enough money to retire on, if you’re careful.  If you’re not careful, you won’t have to worry about retirement.

His wife  (played by a shopworn but still lovely Jacqueline Scott, best remembered for The Fugitive) was the driver on the job, and she died too, after getting them to safety.  He kisses her dead lips passionately, and then has his partner set the car to blow up with her inside it (and has guilt-free carnal knowledge of a total stranger very shortly afterwards, while wearing the ring he’d just taken from his wife’s cold finger maybe two days earlier).


The partner, played by another Siegel alum, Andy Robinson, is an edgy out of control fellow, unprofessional, untrustworthy.  He says to hell with whose money it is, who might be coming after them, he’s going to spend it, and he’s not going to wait long to do it.  He threatens Charley.  Charley, seemingly conceding, says “You called it, kid.”  He says that once more in the movie.

Most of the film is Charley, a deeper player than anyone could have guessed, working a long intricate con on both sides of the law, so that he can get away clean, with most of the cash, and nobody will ever know that he did that.  To just disappear into thin air, free as a bird–the Last of the Independents.  That was Siegel’s preferred title, the words that begin and end the film, but honestly, I think the title the studio stuck him with works better.  Though there were several.

There is no explaining Charley Varrick.  The film or the man.  You only know that a man like that can be either free or dead, and there is nothing in-between.  He’s precisely the kind of existentialist criminal character a filmmaker once told Westlake American movies don’t know how to do.  In American movies, either the bank robber is just a bad man who has to go down bloody, or he’s a good man who did the robbery because he needed money for someone’s operation (and may still go down bloody–High Sierra comes to mind, except that wasn’t exactly Roy Earle’s first dance, was it?).

Westlake said it wasn’t really that simple, but in commercial terms, it usually is.  People want the vicarious excitement of being in on some criminal enterprise, but then they want the robbers punished in some way–they die, they go to jail, they don’t get to keep the loot–to expiate their vicarious sense of guilt.  There’s none of that here.  You saw what Charley did, you wanted him to do it, you wanted him to get away with it, because if he doesn’t, that means the System always wins, and the System has to lose sometimes, or there’s no hope.

Yes, it was mainly mob money, but not entirely, and innocent people died because of what he did.  And his reaction to that is–well–there is none.  He didn’t want anyone to die, but he always knew it could happen.  He took his chances, and everybody else would have to take theirs.  No remorse, no regrets, no excuses.  They’re a waste of time.  Whatever Charley Varrick feels or doesn’t feel about what he’s done, he’ll never share those feelings with us.  His feelings are none of our business.

Not for nothing was this movie on a list entitled “Not Quite Parker” over at The Violent World of Parker site (RIP).  And not for nothing was blues guitar god Rory Gallagher inspired to write one of his best songs after seeing it.   Though when Joe Don Baker’s Molly is onscreen, Brute Force and Ignorance might be a better fit.  They debuted on the same album.


So anyway, there’s lots of reviews of this movie already, and it’s not directly on-topic for this blog, but here’s the thing.  I finally read the book they based it on.  And guess what?  It’s not very good.  Which is not to say it isn’t interesting–any storyteller with a vision, which I surely think John Reese had, can be interesting to read, if you are interested in people, since as I’ve mentioned several times since starting this blog, there’s no better pathway into a human mind than fiction, good or bad–and this isn’t bad at all.  It’s just not that good. It’s a bit of a mess, really.  Reese was out of his element here.

And it’s not about The Last of the Independents, either.  It’s really about a young, good-looking, sensitive, and deeply insecure policeman, serving his first day on the job in that tiny hick western town of Tres Cruces.  His name is Kenneth Steele, but his nickname–and it’s not meant as a compliment–is ‘Stainless.’  Yeah.  Stainless Steele.  That’s the name of the first chapter. And several others.  It’s one of those multiple POV books, where each chapter begins with the name of the character whose POV it’s written from.  The second chapter is from Charley’s POV, and a few after that.  Ten POV characters in all.  One of whom is named ‘Possum Trot.’  I am not making that up.

Okay.  Spoiler alert.  You want to know just how far the movie got from the book here?  If not, stop reading.

This novel is 177 pages long in the first edition.  Charley Varrick gets his head beaten in with a bowling ball by Molly Edwards on page 130.   Molly gets shot down by Stainless Steele on page 169.

Yeah.  Chew on that a moment.  I’ll wait.

In the novel, Charley Varrick is a career criminal, been to prison more than once, never remotely aspired to making an honest living, never gave a damn about anyone but himself. He was never married to Nadine, the character played by Jacqueline Scott in the movie, never felt anything but contempt for her, did not kiss her dead lips before setting her body on fire, felt nothing but relief that she was gone, except maybe irritation that she screwed up her job as driver for the heist (it’s not clear she actually did).  He has every intention of betraying his surviving partner.

He knows there’s something funny about that much money being in that little podunk bank, but never figures out he just stole laundered mob money until it’s much too late. He and Molly know each other from prison.  Molly, also nowhere near the fierce focused professional he was in the movie, but still a tough mean hombre (and also intending to keep all the money himself), spots Charley on the street, guesses right away he pulled the bank job, and that’s all she wrote for Charley Varrick.  Let me give you a sampling of Reese’s prose here, which is a bit hit or miss, but this is a solid hit.

Molly whipped the Imperial to the curb and rolled out of it.  “Charley!” he called softly.  “Come here.  Get in this car.”

Charley turned slowly.  In prison he had always been one of the wise old heads who by advice and example taught the wild youngsters to live out their terms without going mad. Molly was a different kind of aristocrat, solitary and dangerous, and he knew that he was one of the few people Charley Varrick feared.

But Charley tried. “Let me alone,” he said in a soft, expressionless yet carrying voice. “I been keeping clean, Molly.  See you around.”

“You ain’t been keeping clean,” Molly drawled.

“The least you can do is not make trouble for a fella.”

Molly walked toward him.  They were about the same height, but Molly was fifteen years younger and thirty pounds heavier than Charley.  He had moreover the quick, killing decisiveness of a panther, an animal quality somewhat lacking in Charley.

Yeah, I think Reese probably read some Richard Stark in his day.  Not that Stark invented the idea of a predator in human form.  And not that Reese could match Stark’s wily willful way with words, even at his very best.  Not going by this, anyway.  And none of his westerns are e-vailable either.  I mean, you can only read so many books in one lifetime.  This is a late book in Reese’s canon.  I have to assume he’s giving it his best shot here.

Reese’s Varrick has no ingenious intricate plan for survival, or anything resembling a sense of honor or professional integrity.  He’s the one threatening his frightened guilt-ridden out-of-his-depth partner, not the other way around.  He always intended to keep the whole score for himself.

He sure as hell never gets to screw a smart sexy blonde in a round bed–in fact, the characters never even meet, or learn of each others’ existence.  Sybil Fort is just a plot device here, to make sure the mobsters get theirs in the end too (she’s going to turn state’s evidence on her boss because one of his associates frightened the hell out of her).  And she’s not a blonde, or a knock-out, but that’s neither here nor there.  (It’s worth mentioning that Reese had a gift for describing ordinarily attractive women, and that is one of the legit pleasures of this book.)

The Charley Varrick in The Looters is, to put it plainly, a sleazy third-rate low-rent criminal sociopath, who knows his chosen profession pretty well, but thinks he’s a whole lot smarter than he really is.   Oh, and he can’t fly a plane–the crop duster thing, that ‘We are the Last of the Independents!’ motto on the side of the van he’s driving–that was just a front he was putting up to blend into the community, prior to looting it.

As a fellow once said, ain’t that a kick in the head?  Or a bowling ball, same thing.

Westlake said many times that Richard Stark was a romantic in the way he wrote about crime. Which doesn’t mean everybody in his books is perfect, far from it.  He wants us to see the ugly side of the underworld, but he still expects his professionals to be professionals, to know their business, to live up to some ideal that probably doesn’t exist anywhere in real life, and real life isn’t the point of the Parker books, never was.  You put enough reality in there to make the romance believable–and to convey the underlying truths about selfhood and identity the author is trying to get across.  You don’t have to believe Don Quixote is real to know Don Quixote tells the truth.

I think there’s a strong romantic streak in John Reese as well, but it expresses itself differently.  Like there’s an actual romance in the book–between Stainless and a slightly older girl who just moved into town to be the new art teacher.  He got a good look at the robbers, and they don’t have a police sketch artist in such a small department, so she gets dragooned to come see him in the hospital (he got winged during the robbery), and do some drawings based on his descriptions (which are of course superb), and of course they fall for each other at first sight, and they hop into a motel bed the moment he’s released, and are headed for the altar by the time the book ends, like maybe two days later, if that.  His frigid domineering mother doesn’t like it, but he’s determined to break free of her, and finally be a man, and you’ve seen this movie before, and it’s not nearly as good as Charley Varrick.  Oh, and he’s a virgin when the book starts–now you get why his nickname isn’t a compliment.

This would, by the way, have made a perfectly good 1950’s low-budget crime picture.  Which Don Siegel  might well have directed, and he’d have had somebody rewrite the hell out of it then too.  And the studio censors would have insisted the premarital sex at the motel be cut out.  Party poopers.   But it feels very dated for the time period it’s set in.

I’m giving the impression Reese wasn’t a good writer, and again, I haven’t read enough of his stuff to know how good he was.  There were points, here and there, where he really had me going, and I thought (as some online reviewers have) that this would turn out to be a forgotten classic.  But on reflection, I don’t believe it is.  I think it was forgotten because it’s largely forgettable.  Not because Reese wasn’t a pro–it’s very obvious he knows his business well, and he’s no hack–he believes every word he writes.  He’s damned sincere.  Maybe too sincere.

I found some points of comparison between him and another western-raised author, named Willeford, but Willeford was a whole lot more self-aware, and couldn’t write a clichéd turn of phrase or character development if his life depended on it.  So much comes down to knowing who you are, knowing what rings true, and what doesn’t. Literary technique is merely the medium by which you tell your truths to the world, and some truths are more compelling than others.

And yet, reason dourly asks me, isn’t this more true to life than the movie based on it?  Isn’t this the genuine nature and likely fate of a real-life Charley Varrick, and shouldn’t we be more sympathetic to an earnest young patrolman finding his way in the world (not to mention the older and highly professional lawmen, local and federal, who appear in this book), than we do to some sleazebag thief and killer?

Yeah, and we should probably care more about Banquo than Macbeth.  What’s your point? You want to see  a three hour play about Banquo?  Be my guest.   You can just bet that if Shakespeare hadn’t written that play based on scurrilous English propaganda about a great Scottish king who never did any of those vile deeds, the hero of any historical film they made of that story would be MacDuff.  I mean, he wins the final sword fight.

Reese creates potentially interesting characters, and then he over-explains them, while at the very same time under-developing them (it’s too many POV characters for such a short book).  He’s too much on the side of the law to be objective here.  Did he ever write differently about outlaws in the old west?   Maybe, but look who his hero is in that dog vs. wolf book.

He writes in some depth about organized crime, and not one word of it makes any sense–he dabbles in both anti-Italian and anti-Jewish stereotypes, and I don’t believe he was any kind of bigot–he just can’t quite see how offensive he’s being. Never mind offensive, great writing is often deeply offensive–he’s out of key.

He makes it sound like American Jews only got into the Mafia recently, after the Italians started losing interest–the book came out in 1968!  Meyer Lansky was in his 60’s by then.  Bugsy Siegel  (no relation, I trust) got whacked in 1947.

You compare it to Westlake’s brilliant little analysis in 361 (presented by an untrustworthy character, not the infallible narrator), of how it’s always outsider groups, of all ethnicities, who get sucked into organized crime, and you see the difference between a young master and an old journeyman (Reese was in his late 50’s when he wrote this book).

Siegel and Riesner got around the whole mess there by making Vernon’s character, who is Jewish in the book, a snooty WASP who makes snide comments about ‘bagelbiters’ (referring to Norman Fell’s honest put-upon FBI agent in the film, who is actually pretty close to Reese’s take on the same character–seriously, I don’t think Reese hated anybody, he does not strike me as the type).

Realistic?  Maybe not, but it’s better storytelling, because there’s no room in the story for that kind of in-depth social commentary, accurate or not (and it’s mainly not).  You have to know how far you can stretch it before it becomes a distraction.  Sneak those messages in, don’t blast them over the PA system.  Show, don’t tell.  But if you need to tell, tell it right.  Tell it straight.  And keep it simple.

Reese’s book provided nothing but the bare outlines of a story, and some raw character sketches, to the movie that is now better-remembered than any of his books (and still something of a cult film–you can’t even get a decent DVD of it in the U.S.–pan & scan!   Wait for TCM’s letterboxed version).  Siegel, who I think most definitely saw himself as one of the last independents, saw the potential for something much more interesting. And definitely for better dialogue (reading the novel, I don’t think I came across a single line I remembered from the movie).

And I’ve often complained on this very blog, and at some length, about this way movie directors have of taking some hard-working print author’s brainchild and remaking it so completely that it says the exact opposite of what it said before.  And I’m praising this director (and the screenwriter) for doing that here.  Because at the end of the day, it’s not about who did the story first.  It’s about who did it best.  It’s about who had the most interesting points to get across.   It’s about who knew precisely what he was trying to express, and precisely how to do that.   All stories are true, from a certain perspective.  Not all stories are equally well told.  Not all stories are equally memorable.  Some stories live on forever.  Others fall by the wayside.

Charley Varrick never had his brains bashed out with a bowling ball.  Charley Varrick never doublecrossed a partner who didn’t cross him first.  Charley Varrick had a plan.  Charley Varrick outsmarted the Law and the Mob.  Charley Varrick got away clean, and lived free, and died without regrets, except maybe he missed Nadine, who wasn’t some cheap slut–she was a hell of a driver.  Maybe that isn’t real.  But it’s true.  Charley Varrick was The Last of the Independents.  May his flame burn forever in the soul of man.  Because dammit, we can’t let the System win every time.   And Stainless Steele is a silly name.  You know what isn’t?



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51 responses to “Bonus Feature: Who Loots The Looters?; The Genesis of Charley Varrick

  1. rinaldo302

    You enjoy digging into why writers write what they write, and how, and your doing that makes me aware of more than I would have seen on my own. So I thank you for that. (Haven’t seen either this book or this movie, though I’ve seen other of Siegel’s work, so I have nothing specific to contribute.)

    Actors’ declarations about what kind of role they would ever play are best taken, I think, as snapshots of their mood at that moment. They may mean it, and think it’ll be true forever, but they’ll sincerely feel something different after having played that next role, at which point they’ll need different nutrition to balance out their life. (And the balance may well be “something that’ll earn money,” if they haven’t made any lately, and that’s fine too. Or “something different from this thing I just did.” Or “something that makes me feel like that nice part I did 2 years ago.” Or whatever.)

    • Yeah, I’ll buy that, but I think Eastwood’s main concern was that the film wouldn’t be commercial enough, which was almost certainly going to be the case. I don’t buy Siegel’s excuse for why it flopped. The Asphalt Jungle (made by Siegel’s only rival in my estimation for greatest crime movie director of all time) was certainly not being run down by Sterling Hayden before it came out–it’s basically the only film Hayden ever made that he didn’t hate–and it didn’t do well either. You get too far outside people’s comfort zone, defeat their expectations of this kind of story too radically, you have to take the consequences. But Siegel always believed every film he made would be a hit.

      Though I think this is Siegel’s masterpiece, he had more than one–Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for example. You see how the concern for individuality, how the many conspire to crush the one, is an overriding theme in his work. We talk about pod people because of Don Siegel, and he meant for us to do that (Jack Finney seems to have written the original novella as a mere anti-communist parable). But that movie was a success, maybe in part because the studio made Siegel tack on the the framing device where Kevin McCarthy is telling his story to the law, and then they realize at the end he’s telling the truth, so there’s still hope. Philip Kaufman stamped out that hope in his brilliant remake, but people were more ready for that by the 70’s.

      Another masterpiece of his was The Beguiled–Clint Eastwood brought that to him, he’d been reading the novel, he wanted to play the wounded Union soldier surrounded by pretty girls, all of them hungry for his lean spare body. That’s a character who really doesn’t have any redeeming qualities, and of course things don’t end well for him, but I think it spoke to his very divided feelings about the opposite sex, which can be glimpsed very clearly in his real-life relationships with them (and I will not for one moment pretend I’m not jealous, but I still wouldn’t want to end up lecturing a chair before a national audience).

      That didn’t succeed either, though the critics in Europe proclaimed it the work of an auteur. Honestly, I think Siegel deserves that title, one of the few American studio directors who do. But he didn’t mainly write his own scripts, come up with his own stories, any more than Hitchcock did. He shaped them to his own purposes, to express his vision of the individual against society.

      Even Dirty Harry is about that. A cop, the ultimate representative of The System, who is at perpetual war with The System. He and Eastwood had a merry war over the ending–Eastwood couldn’t stand that the script ended with him throwing his badge away–Harry’s not a quitter! Siegel fought him over it, then said fine, we’ll do it your way, he’ll just think about throwing it away, and decide against it, and Eastwood was happy with that. And then, at the very last possible moment, Eastwood said “You were right, he should throw the badge away.” And they hadn’t made a duplicate badge, so they had to be really careful they didn’t lose it.

      An underappreciated master, who had much in common with Westlake in terms of his general outlook. It’s a damn dirty shame he never adapted any of Westlake’s books. But for all that, to the extent you can compare two storytellers in such different mediums, I’d rank Westlake higher. Because he knew himself better. And he looked deeper.

  2. My Dad took me to see Charley Varrick when it first came out. It was not our usual kind of movie at all, so he probably thought it was a comedy, because it starred Matthau. We both liked it, though it was a lot more violent than expected.

    I’d forgotten that was Felicia Farr. There’s a mediocre comedy called Spies Like Us that stars Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd. In it Chase has a smirking make-out scene with Donna Dixon, which is even more uncomfortable if you know the she was Mrs. Aykroyd. (Still is.)

    • Never saw that one, but I can imagine. Chevy Chase basically specialized in smirking (which I suppose worked for Fletch).

      There’s no smirking at all in that scene between Matthau and Farr–it’s really not plausible, the way they just wind up in bed, when he’s shown up at her apartment and threatened her into calling her boss, so he can arrange a meeting (though an earlier scene intimates that Farr’s character is looking for a change in her life). Very few actors other than Matthau could carry it off. Once they’re in bed, they just seem totally comfortable and at-ease with each other, like they’d been dating for years. And of course they’d been friends for years, and maybe there was a bit of satisfied curiosity going on there.

      Farr was Lemmon’s second wife, and they stayed married until he died. Carol Marcus (her real name) was Matthau’s second wife, and ditto. Both women had been married once before as well (according to Wikipedia, Marcus married William Saroyan twice, but I’m Catholic so that only counts as once).

      There are reasons why people always think of Lemmon when they think of Matthau, and vice versa. And we shall never see their like again. Not in the movies, anyway.

  3. Thank you for this. I love Charley Varrick, and ’70s-era Walter Matthau in general. (I was absent from the blog when you reviewed Hopscotch, but I think I mentioned it a comment on your “Dortmunder and the Movies” post.) CV checks off a lot of boxes for me, including heists, cons, crime procedurals (from the criminal’s POV), and my niche barnstorming fascination. As with Matthau and Lemmon, we’ll never see its like again.

    • It’s interesting how Hopscotch (the movie) is basically a cuddlier more audience-friendly version of Charley Varrick. This guy has a plan, nobody can figure it out but him, both sides want him dead (the CIA and KGB in this case), and he has this smart sexy mature woman to fool around with. You know, there’s no way in hell Garfield didn’t see Siegel’s movie when it came out–and that one ends with a plane too……

      Everything is explained a lot more in Hopscotch) (book and movie) than it is in Charley Varrick. Siegel didn’t want to explain everything, he wanted to let the audience work a bit to figure it out, come up with their own interpretations. As he put it, referring to Matthau’s many quibbles, “Walter wants to see the banana before he slips on it, I want to see the banana after I slip on it.”

      Charley Varrick is much better than The Looters–it’s also better than Hopscotch (the movie). Although Hopscotch (the movie) is excellent. It’s good that Matthau got to play the Artful Dodger more than once. He was brilliant at it.

      Hopscotch (the novel) is far superior to The Looters, and as I said in my review, I was surprised to find my loyalties slipping over to it, even though I’ve loved the movie version ever since it came out. It also has a strong existentialist tinge to it (nothing matters but knowing yourself), but the movie based on it doesn’t (however you should also settle down with a nice girl and live a comfortable life listening to opera, drinking good liquor, and doing the Times crossword in pen, while living off your book royalties).

      Has there ever been a case of a book turned into a movie where you didn’t know which one you liked best?

      With me, it may be The Vikings (Edison Marshall’s novel, Richard Fleischer’s movie).

      • Jason

        I nominate ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ – really hard to pick between Ira Levin’s novel and Polanski’s movie version. They’re both pretty great. And yes, Charley Varrick may well be Siegel’s masterpiece, and is far FAR superior to the source novel – in fact, I didn’t even get halfway through the book, which is very rare for me.

        And since we’re talking Siegel, let’s not forget ‘Escape From Alcatraz’ – one of the very best prison movies ever made.

        • I can hardly forget that one, since that’s the only Siegel movie I got to see when it was first released. Prison movies were kind of a Siegel sub-specialty, since he really began to break out as a filmmaker with a low-budget prison flick called Riot in Cell Block 11. But that one is special, yeah–Siegel pulled out all the stops there. His old theme, the individual against the System, and is there a single redeeming quality about Eastwood’s character? Only that he’d choose death over imprisonment, every time.

          People rave about The Shawshank Redemption, but first time I saw it, I recognized so many bits of business borrowed from Siegel’s movie, which is so much more raw, brutal, unsentimental–stark. Shawshank is really about friendship, which is fine, and it tells us a man can break out of prison all by himself with a tiny rock hammer and a movie poster, which is–Hollywood–but Escape from Alcatraz is just about what prison does to the soul, and how some people will do anything to set their souls free.

          Perhaps the most perverse thing about Escape From Alcatraz is that the main villain of the film, the Warden, is played by the one actor who most perfectly defines both fictive Prisoners, and One Man against The System. Better than Eastwood ever did, by far. Yes, I’m still pissed at him. There’s a guy who became his own Warden, and I don’t think he’s ever breaking out. But hey, he still photographs nice, and his voice sounds cool, and that’s what really matters, right?

          Westlake mainly shied away from prison stories–only two novels about stir, one comical (with a built-in escape hatch), and the other is very much in the same vein as Siegel’s movie. But with a protagonist even tougher than Frank Morris. And even there, only about half the book is set in the prison itself.

          I suspect most people find it hard to choose between the book and movie versions of To Kill A Mockingbird, but that’s a rare instance of a filmmaker just putting the book itself on film, and making it work. It’s what you might call a Book on Film. I’m thinking more about movies that make radical changes to the book, while still capturing something of its essence, and you have the more detailed in-depth version the writer originally came up with, and the more direct visual pared-down version the filmmaker came up with, with a few new twists–two different visions–and you don’t know which one you’d choose if you could only choose one.

          I never read Levin’s novel. I don’t think any movie ever scared me as much as Rosemary’s Baby, even with commercial breaks. Polanski was really something then. I don’t know what he is now. Oh well, artists don’t have to be perfect. They sometimes have a tendency to outlive their own genius. Or maybe it just walks away from them in disgust sometimes. Or maybe he just couldn’t bear the thought of prison either, but like I said, some people end up being their own Wardens, and there’s no escape from that Alcatraz. 😦

          Consider me impressed you even tried to read The Looters. I didn’t find it a chore to get through–I happen to enjoy detailed descriptions of ordinarily attractive women–but was Reese capable of better than this? He had the bones of a really good book there, and he blew it with a lot of unnecessary characters, and none of them developed as well as they should have been. I think it would be really hard for anybody who saw the movie first to judge this book fairly. And hardly anybody would bother to read it now if it wasn’t for the movie.

          I probably took it a bit easy on Reese in my review because I could imagine him in the movie theater, thinking “This isn’t my story.” It’s really not his story. They went in the exact opposite direction with it. But it still would have been plagiarism if they hadn’t paid him for the rights. I hope it was a nice fat check, and I hope he had a hell of a good time with it, him and the missus. And no matter how good a writer he was or wasn’t, he was a writer, and he got a lot of books published, at real publishers, and my hat’s off to him and all others out there who write what they think and feel. I just think it’s important to recognize that some do it better than others.

          I really do want to read a few of his westerns sometime. I’ve noticed that western writers who move over to contemporary crime fiction always seem a mite uncomfortable there. Garfield and Leonard both wrote a lot of westerns, but I think they were always criminals at heart. 😉

        • ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is another case where the movie is so faithful to the book that it’s hard to separate them. Yet another: John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon.

          • As mentioned, I’ve never read Levin’s book (I was never one of his readers, for whatever reason). You notice how he always gets these fantastic film adaptations? At this point, Levin on film pretty clearly overshadows Levin on the printed page, which is something I think Westlake was always kind of ambiguous about–it would be good for book sales in the short run. In the long run, it could be a problem.

            I would probably choose Huston’s Spade over Hammett’s–feeling like a traitor as I did it–because of Bogie. I just can’t see Spade as a blonde, somehow–it’s a great story with a protagonist much less compelling than The Op, because there’s something a bit smug and self-satisfied about him–Bogart gave him a bit more of an edge. Now if only Huston and Bogart had done Red Harvest. Though I’d have settled happily for Rudolph Maté and Edmond O’Brien. That one would have to be done on a budget, or it would be DOA at the box office.

            Huston had a unique ability to take a certain type of novel, isolate every last bit of it that really works, toss everything else to one side, and boil it all down into a movie with a runtime of a bit over 100 minutes. I mean, seriously–The Maltese Falcon was his directorial debut! He was better on his first try than 99.9999% of directors get in their entire careers.

            And yet I still find myself rating Don Siegel a tad higher–purely in the area of films with criminals as protagonists. And I include Dirty Harry in that, because that really is a film about a criminal with a badge. Siegel took a lot of heat from liberal Hollywood over that one–they thought he’d gone fascist on them. But to him, it was the same story he always told–the individual against The Sytem.

            I liked that in Magnum Force, he refuses to join up with the rogue cops taking his methods to the next logical stage–because he’s a loner. He can’t join up with anybody. If you start systematizing it, then you become The System, which means The System has beaten you. Man’s gotta know his limitations–not Siegel’s film, but that’s his ethos. John Milius had his moments. Few though they were.

            • Now if only Huston and Bogart had done Red Harvest.

              Or The Glass Key. (Miller’s Crossing is a pretty good Glass Key adaptation, even if they didn’t credit it.)

              • Miller’s Crossing is my all-time favorite movie, and the best non-adaptation adaptation of The Glass Key, but even the Coens sand off some of Hammett’s sharper edges. In Roger Ebert’s lukewarm review of MC, he writes: “This doesn’t look like a gangster movie, it looks like a commercial intended to look like a gangster movie.” He pans the movie’s stylization, writing: “The dialogue is well-written, but it is indeed written.” (Wait, what?)

                I think his is a bad misreading of the movie, but it gets at something that’s missing (and mind you, this is my favorite movie). A grittiness, maybe.

                And yeah, I’d love the see the Coens take on a straight-up adaptation of Red Harvest.

              • rinaldo302

                This is getting more and more interesting — I too read & enjoyed The Accidental Tourist but never had the urge to read anything else by its author.

                In my case, when reading it I most enjoyed (I mean I really loved) the little incidental bits that would be given plenty of room and space: the travel tips for people who would really rather not be traveling, the guy’s labor-saving contraptions when he was left on his own, the details and characteristics of his extended family. Naturally, the former two ideas could only be hinted at given the time constraints of a movie, but the family was gloriously realized: Amy Wright, David Ogden Stiers, Ed Begley Jr…. perfection in casting, direction, and acting. I wanted to just move in with them.

                (It was also oddly right for their frozen-in-time scenes that it was Amy Wright, who had spent years and years playing teenagers on stage and screen because of her small size and youthful look — and suddenly here she was playing her real age, nearly 40.)

            • Come to think of it, two more examples are both Richard Condon books: The Manchurian Candidate and Prizzi’s Honor. The first is amazing in both incarnations. The second is notable because the book isn’t an undisciplined mess, unlike pretty much everything he’d written for the previous fifteen years, so there isn’t too much cruft for Huston to filter out.

              • Never read anything of his–I mean, I’ve never had any problem saying some movie adaptations are better than the book, but if you haven’t read the book, how can you know? I’d need to be pretty familiar with both to have an opinion at all. The Manchurian Candidate has been an enduring classic–Prizzi’s Honor was hugely acclaimed when it came out, but you ever notice they’ve pretty much stopped showing it? I have like a million cable channels, and I never see it anywhere. I feel like I’ve lost touch with it, though I saw it in a theater when it came out.

                Pierre Boulle wrote two novels that became two of the greatest films of all time–Bridge on the River Kwai, and Planet of the Apes, and his novels are remembered as shadows of those films. I did read the latter, a long time ago–it was a mixture of Swiftian satire and French fabulism, and I liked it a lot. It never remotely aspired to believability. If you ever saw the French animated film, Fantastic Planet–a lot like that. And of course you may have read it anyway. 🙂

                It wasn’t much of a story, though–Westlake once remarked that this type of satire tends to have a limited emotional range, by its nature–too detached, too clinical (that’s certainly a problem with his own science fiction). The characters weren’t terribly memorable. More like a dramatized thought experiment. On the whole, I’d rank the movie a bit higher, in spite of its own flaws, mainly an inconsistency of tone (there’s a case of a classic that actually was written by committee). Both are superior to the recent reboots. Better special effects don’t count for much.

              • I haven’t read Bridge on the River Kwai since high school. As I recall, the movie was pretty faithful other than building up William Holden’s part, because he was the biggest name in the film.

    • But in fact, Holden’s character is really important to the story–he’s the not-so-conscientious objector to the whole thing. And him being there makes the ending even more shocking and tragic. I will have to read Boulle’s version someday, though.

  4. rinaldo302

    I think of Donald Hamilton as a writer of westerns who moved into crime fiction, but on rechecking I see that he wrote crime right from the start; the westerns were more successful for him (two were filmed successfully) until he created Matt Helm in 1960. I haven’t picked up his books in decades, but I always liked and admired his writing.

    I think both the book and the movie The Talented Mr. Ripley are very good, but it’s the latter, which is a major reconception that gives it a whole different meaning (which Highsmith would probably have hated), that means the most to me — in fact it’s probably the movie of the last two decades that really burns into my soul, because of what Minghella added to it.

    • Highsmith would have hated it, yes, because to her, Ripley was not a gay man–he was a lesbian fortuitously born into the body of a man–her own criminally idealized self-image (as Parker was for Westlake), complete with a rich beautiful French wife and a charming chateau. To call him heterosexual wouldn’t be right either. He’s a self-aware narcissist (unlike someone I’m seeing far too much of on TV lately). He even has what might be called a conscience, but it functions very differently than the average person’s.

      I hate it because it’s too simple and obvious, and misses the point of the book entirely (and again, I spent this entire article praising Siegel’s movie for doing precisely that, so consistency clearly not one of my strong points). Ripley just can’t be explained away that easily. He’s attracted to the idea of Dickie Greenleaf, wants to become him–actually an idea much better stated by the film Single White Female.

      (Also, Gwyneth Paltrow is much too thin and pretty to be Marge, and I never liked Matt Damon, or any movie he’s ever starred in–Jude Law would have been a much better choice for Ripley, but never mind now).

      I prefer the earlier French adaptation, Plein Soleil (Purple Noon), which has the doppelganger motif and at least some of Highsmith’s imagery. Alain Delon has something of the character’s ambiguity, even if the script doesn’t. And it understands that Dickie’s murder is not the climax of the book–it’s where the story really begins, not where it ends.

      But honestly, no filmmaker could ever fully capture the intricacies of Highsmith–not even Hitchcock, who shied away from the darker elements in Strangers on a Train, which is a more resigned and moralistic version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, the work of a matured talent. Hitchcock was, of course, obsessed with the idea of being an innocent man, accused of a crime you didn’t commit. To Highsmith, there are no innocent people. We’re all guilty.

      At some point in the future, I’m going to write about Highsmith here–in more depth than I have to date. There are five crime writers who intrigue me as much as Westlake does, and she’s one of them.

      I suppose the answer to my conundrum (which is a film made from a book, and you’re not sure which you like best) could be The Princess Bride. I saw the movie first, read the book years later–the movie is a lot easier on the system, Goldman’s screenplay airbrushes out most of the pain of the book. The casting couldn’t be much more perfect. For entertainment purposes, it’s the better piece of work. But that’s not what really matters, is it? No, that won’t do either. Anyway, that’s a writer dumbing down his own vision. Mainly just to keep someone else from utterly butchering it, I’d assume.

      • Maybe The Accidental Tourist? The book has far more detail, obviously, but I enjoyed the performances in the film so much–I’d hate to have to choose. Of course, that’s not what I’d call a great novel, but it was pretty good. I can’t remember the author’s name. Or the director’s. Or who wrote the screenplay. Just the actors. And that the Corgi’s name was Edward. Probably not a good sign. Oh well.

        • I remember the writer/director of TAT because it’s Lawrence Kasdan, who had a streak of genre-hopping crowd pleasers in the ’80s before seeming to going go completely off the rails immediately upon the completion of The Accidental Tourist. (I Love You to Death made me angry that I was watching it.)

          • I looked it up after I posted that, and I probably won’t forget again. He strikes me as one of those screenwriters who started directing so that he’d finally have script control, but for a writer, sometimes too much power can be as bad as too little. Anyway, he’s a really powerful writer now–a Force in the industry. 😉

            I’ve never read anything of Anne Tyler’s other than that one book (it would take too long to explain why I read it, but it was a very weird reason), and I liked it, and it didn’t make me want to read anything else of hers, so I never did. It is possible for a writer to be justly acclaimed, while still being perhaps slightly over-acclaimed. Pulitzer or not, I’m not convinced she’s going to stand the test of time, but only time will tell. Maybe just a wee tad too–heartwarming?

            Honestly, the two things I liked best about the movie were the Corgi and Amy Wright, and I couldn’t really say which one was cuter, but they were both pretty darned cute.

            • TAT is the only Anne Tyler book I’ve ever read as well, and I felt much as you did. It was good, but I never felt the need to read anything else by her. One criticism a friend (who liked the book) leveled at the time was that he never once bought the “voice” of the novel as being male. (Even though it’s written in the third person, the omniscience is restricted to Macon’s perspective.) I don’t know that I agree, but it’s an interesting observation.

              I have no complaint with Lawrence Kasdan’s first four directorial efforts. They aren’t profound moviemaking by any means, but they’re well-made crowd-pleasers that boast a comfort with various genres. After that, though — yeesh.

              • As a writer, he’s genuinely gifted. As a director, he’s–workmanlike. And again, I think he turned director because that’s where the power is in movies. And as he went on, his movies got to be less and less about the writing, because unless you’re doing small personal well-crafted films now and again, it’s really impossible to do full justice to both jobs. You might say he gave in to the Dark Side.

                I don’t know that I agree that’s the problem with Tyler’s book–I’m a bit wary of talking about male and female voices in literature. One of my favorite SF authors, James Tiptree Jr., was, of course, Alice Sheldon, and that was a secret kept very well for a number of years, before she got ‘outed’ as a woman, but there were always those who speculated Tiptree might be female–and a number of male SF authors said “Impossible, that voice is unquestionably male,” and boy were their faces red a few years later.

                She got invited to participate in a sort of correspondence roundtable of mainly female SF authors (Philip K. Dick was in there too), and she was basically ordered to leave, because she was accused of imposing her chauvinist viewpoints on the group–and of course she never broke character.

                Then after her secret came out (much to her dismay), some people (guys, natch) started saying “You know, there was always something a bit off about those stories……”

                Thing is, Tyler isn’t writing just to women, but she’s writing as a female author. She’s marketed as one. Which is inherently different than writing as a male author–so many more expectations you have to deal with. A male writer is just a writer, unless he’s going for some really macho publishing niche. That’s precisely why Sheldon wanted to avoid all of those expectations, and just be evaluated as a writer, which she could only do by writing as a man. And maybe things have improved since then, but maybe not that much.

                I like TAT, but it’s basically a glorified romantic comedy with some darker elements (and therefore, the kind of thing you’d expect a woman to write). And there’s much to be said for that. There’s a market for it, and with all the crap out there selling like gangbusters, I’m grateful that any good writer gets the big sales.

                But to compare her to John Updike (and it seems many have) is weird. And I’m not even a huge Updike fan, but she’s so–nice. Thing about writers like Updike is, they don’t give a shit if you like them or not. Male or female. There’s no safety zone with Updike–or with Patricia Highsmith, or Shirley Jackson, or Toni Morrison, or Alice Sheldon (under any name). There is with Tyler. At least in that particular book.

                And sometimes there is with Westlake too. Just not all the time. I started out with the stuff that didn’t have a safety zone. Maybe if I’d read some of the safer stuff, written to the market, I wouldn’t have felt moved to keep going. It’s really hard to say, isn’t it, why some writers stick with you, and others don’t.

                Some male writers, in the meantime, are much much too male for me. Mickey Spillane–I feel embarrassed to be a man when I read his stuff. And he’s far from the worst of them.

                Whatever genitalia you were born with, whatever sexual preference, race, religion, nationality–just be a writer, and nothing human is alien to you.

      • rinaldo302

        As I said right off the bat, the movie’s characters are absolutely not Highsmith’s, except in the most general terms of names and situations, and not even all of those consistently. So that’s a given, and what you said you wanted.

        I (a gay man) am not at all certain that Minghella’s Ripley is fundamentally a gay man — he may be, but his deepest need is to be wanted, to be chosen, to be invited in. Through an uncorrected error at the start (instantly different from Highsmith’s Ripley, who really does vaguely know who Dickie is), the movie Ripley gets a chance to mingle with the beautiful people, and miraculously gets asked to join them, to be one of them. (The scene in the jazz club, where Ripley is invited onstage to be one of the cool guys, is almost unbearably gratifying for him — but it doesn’t last.) Then, when he’s inevitably cast out again, the desperation of rejection sets him on his new course. It’s the best movie I’ve ever seen about that longing to be accepted and “invited in” by the golden people who seem to lead charmed lives, the joy when it briefly happens, and the blinding misery when it ends. None of this is remotely what Highsmith had in mind, it’s newly invented, but it’s a subject that matters a great deal to me — more than her novel does, well-wrought though it is.

        It also permanently changed my mind about Matt Damon, whom I’d written off as a lightweight creation of publicity — the standard nonentity whom we’re expected to consider a star for a year. But his Ripley moved him up about 50 levels for me in terms of acting stature, and showed me how badly I’d underrated him. His later scenes, particularly the one in which he forces himself to talk about the fear of giving someone else a key to see your inner ugliness, can stand alongside the greatest screen acting I know.

        • The original problem I set was that there’s a novel adapted into a film, and you’re not sure which one you prefer, even though they’re quite different from each other–it seeems like you clearly prefer Minghella’s film, even though you’ve read and appreciated Highsmith’s novel. So this is your Charley Varrick, the difference being that the novel being radically reshaped is a great and influential one, which The Looters certainly isn’t.

          In this case, my loyalty is to the original vision of the book–the first one I know of in this genre where the protagonist commits a murder, profits from it, and gets away with it (though I suppose there is The Casque of Amontillado, set in a very different time and milieu than the author’s–very hard to find an idea in this genre Poe hasn’t at least touched upon). Highsmith pioneered a new morality in crime fiction–seeing things entirely from the criminal’s POV, and offering no apologies for doing so. In 1955, she was out there all by herself. It’s a radical piece of work (and sold many fewer copies than her earlier pseudonymous work, Carol, about a lesbian love affair).

          Highsmith’s Ripley doesn’t care that much about being invited in–he’s not really that social–his goal is to become a different person, rejecting the two-bit grifter he’d been. Dickie Greenleaf has rejected the life he was born into, and Ripley decides he’d be a better Dickie than Dickie was. And in some ways he is, though much of the grifter remains. The entire series is about Ripley’s shifting sense of self, the dangerous games he plays in the process of experimenting with his own identity, and the identities of other people.

          But yes, for you Minghella’s vision is more compelling, even though it radically changes that of the author. I would say his vision is more along the lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald than Patricia Highsmith. A murderous Jay Gatsby. Good chance Fitzgerald influenced Highsmith. However, I think her answer to Fitzgerald’s famous line “The very rich are very different than you and me” would be more along the lines of “Yes, they die more easily.” Like Westlake, she felt a great deal of contempt for the wealthy. Sometimes that goes along with a frustrated desire to be let into their society. But society itself was something she largely rejected in her life, and her work.

          Damon works hard at his craft, no doubt. I just don’t like him. I don’t like any of the current top leading men, you get right down to it.

          Sorry for not seeing you’d answered correctly on your own terms–I’ve been a bit distracted of late. Really, there is no right or wrong answer, we’re just tossing ideas around until I can finish the next review. 🙂

          • And I think I’ve found it–I prefer Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory to Roald Dahl’s book of not quite the same name (and I would like to erase all copies of the Burton/Depp version, the less said of which the better). I’m not saying it’s better, I’m saying I prefer it–even though Dahl disowned it (he was peeved they didn’t cast Spike Milligan as Wonka, as he’d suggested, and they made a number of change to his screenplay, and he was at times a fairly difficult person).

            And this is no doubt influenced somewhat by Gene Wilder’s passing, but these types of decisions are always somewhat emotional in nature, aren’t they? I appreciate both visions, but I like the film’s vision better. Though obviously it’s much less original. That sort of goes with the territory when you’re talking about adaptations.

          • rinaldo302

            My last comment was more satisfying, if less contributory to civil conversation, before I deleted a combative first and last paragraph. That’s why the day’s delay before I said anything — I’ve learned to let things sit in my text editor while I intermittently ask myself “Will the world really be a better place if you share that?” and wait until my answer is No. One good thing about getting older is getting well acquainted with one’s passing moods.

            Your idea of The Princess Bride may in fact be my own best answer to your question (inasmuch as my gut responds much more deeply to the Ripley movie, however much I acknowledge the book’s stature). My history with it is the opposite of yours: I read Goldman’s book when it was new, maybe a decade before the movie (a decade dotted with reports about how yet another attempt to film it had been abandoned), and privately felt that, much as I might feel the wish to see it enacted, the literary framing seemed to make it unfilmable. When the time came, they figured out a way to handle that, and cast it damn near perfectly. I do miss the rich details with which the book-within-a-book conceit is rendered, regret the loss of the Zoo of Death, and so on; but the pleasure of seeing it all come to life like this is hard to beat. So it’s a draw for me. (And by the way, Cary Elwes’s recent book about the filming is a huge pleasure, because he manages to answer every one of my idle questions about it.)

            • This interview with Elwes, talking about that book, is a delight. Who knew he was that funny?

              • rinaldo302

                I think we got a pretty good hint right there in The Princess Bride, the first time I ever saw him. He was clearly hired to be the handsome swashbuckling hero, all of which he did very well. But in the scene where he’s being dragged around “mostly dead” and only recently enchanted back to life by Miracle Max, and they’re trying to storm the castle, and they start using his head like a ventriloquist dummy’s, yanking it around while he talked… my goodness that was hilarious, and from such an unexpected cast member (and the bit isn’t in the book in that form).

            • What’s missing from the movie version is the deep acknowlegement of the unfairness of life–which you wouldn’t necessarily want in a film people are going to take actual children to see. Let them figure that out for themselves, when the time comes. The fantasy elements of the story are enriched by the present-day reality segments, which provides a layering effect. It would have been near impossible to put that in a movie. They actually tried doing something akin to that in the movie made of The French Lieutenant’s Woman–did not work.

              Goldman’s adapatation of his own book isn’t an alternate vision so much as a pared-down vision, just keeping the parts that are compatible with a successful entertaining film–that also succeeded in bringing many new readers to his novel. In his own words, it’s a ‘good parts only’ version–meaning just the parts that a kid would want to hear about. Which makes sense, giving the framing device in the film. I mean, he says in the novel that he’s leaving out all this material from the book he claims this story comes from, editing it down into something readable–he just continues that process in the screenplay, with his own actual book that exists in reality.

              So I agree, and I disagree, and I don’t mean that combatively. I’m just very very difficult to please. Also increasingly confused, since we all keep changing the terms of the argument. Well, a bit of confusion does the mind good, I always say. Wait, have I ever actually said that?

              • rinaldo302

                I don’t understand this commenting system! — I made my Accidental Tourist comment in the box at the bottom of the page, to be sure it would show up last (as the various branches of discussion had become a bit convoluted), and instead it’s about 15 entries up, before anyone else mentions the title! How should I have done it instead??

              • What I usually do is look for the ‘Reply’ option furthest down whatever section of the overall thread I want to respond in, click on that, and make my response. There are limits to how far I can push the nested comments thing here. Not sure why you didn’t get the result you hoped for–maybe some temporary glitch.

                Responding to what you said further up, I very much enjoyed all of that as well. And I kind of resented the more ‘serious’ stuff in the book for distracting from it. It’s very hard to mix comedy and tragedy that way–somebody living a comic existence because his little boy died. That was a huge challenge to take on, and I can respect her for doing it, and still feel like she didn’t entirely pull it off, but obviously a lot of people felt like she did. It’s a more forgiving genre, I suppose.

                (editing–I do that) Yes, the movie really does cover the book awfully well, doesn’t it? Obviously there were things they had to leave out, or encapsulate, and you enjoy discovering all those things if you saw the movie first, but the essence of the novel is there, and that’s partly down to the skill of those adapting it–but also, it’s just the kind of story that’s very compatible with being adapted.

                And I’m always a bit suspicious of those. I mean, this is a fairly long novel we’re talking about, and it covers a lot of ground, emotionally speaking, and okay, Geena Davis is far too young and pretty for us to feel like Macon is making some great life compromise by settling down with her, instead of going back to Kathleen Turner (who we retrospectively know was one of those screen beauties who was not destined to age well), but still–they fundamentally succeeded in putting the book onscreen, and why is that? Because, one might argue, there wasn’t all that much book there to start with. This was a short story blown up into a novel. And I think it could have been a truly great short story, James Thurber level, even. But as a novel–meh.

              • rinaldo302

                If there was a temporary glitch, it was undoubtedly in my own brain. But partly the problem (for me) was that the last comment in that particular branch had no “reply” link — it was probably too deeply nested. So, rather than following back up to the last previous one that did allow replying, I gave up and went down to the very bottom, foolishly thinking “that’ll keep everything in order at least,” when it in fact did just the opposite.

                I actually found Geena Davis to be awfully good casting — while indeed attractive, there was a real eccentricity and oddness about her that few of her movies used as well as this. But still, I just didn’t care about that whole side of it; what I enjoyed in the book and, to the extent they survived, in the movie were the curlicues around the edges. I think calling it a short story blown up is exactly right.

                As we’re discussing film adaptations, might I be permitted to propose a new question? (If not here, maybe for some future thread.) I bet most or all of us have read a novel or two that’s never been filmed but that we think would work well on the screen, and we’ve even figured out a cast and director for it. I’d love to see us share these. (I already did this with my late-80s Dancing Aztecs miniseries.)

              • Why, yes, I have read a novel that I think would make a greet movie. I’ve thought about this a lot. It’s not a very well known novel, I’m afraid: The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, and its sequel, The Dusantes. Every copy I’ve ever seen includes both volumes, but they were written six years apart. The first novel concludes happily enough, but leaves one huge question unanswered, fairly demanding a follow-up. Literally: One prominent fan wrote a letter to Stockton indicating that if he didn’t come through with a timely sequel, another author would be commissioned to do so.

                (You likely haven’t heard of Stockton, unless you happen to remember the author of his most famous short story, “The Lady or the Tiger,” but in his heyday he was the second most popular author in America, after Mark Twain — as good an argument I can think of for “They don’t remember second place.”)

                The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aelshine was written in 1886, but it reads like a screwball comedy made fifty years later. It concerns a young bachelor who befriends two midwestern widows on a steamer to Japan, and is promptly shipwrecked with them. But this is in no way a typical shipwrecked yarn, and the adventures this unlikely trio encounters are both wonderous and hilarious. Every time I read this book (and it’s been many, many times), I’m grinning like a fool by the time I get to the end.

                The book’s combination of gentle whimsy and caustic satire would be hard to pull off, but I’d love to see Wes Anderson or Rian Johnson give it a go. Years ago, I imagined George Clooney as the young bachelor, but he’s aged right out of the part.

                (And now we’re really far afield, where I do so love to venture. But I’m also looking forward to getting back to DW.)

              • Hmm–we could certainly talk about that, but not sure where we’d fit it in. At this point, I’ve done pretty nearly all the movie-oriented pieces I had in mind (plus a few I didn’t). The opportunity is bound to arise, sooner or later, and you can seize on it then–after conversation about the relevant work of prose fiction has exhausted itself.

                I found Geena Davis to be good casting, it’s just that her counterpart in the book is not any man’s sexual fantasy, which is the point–Macon had what most men think they want, and now he’s faced with a conflict between his outward desires and his inmost needs. But Davis works well enough, since a big part of Macon’s attraction to his former wife is not sexual, but social–she matches his proper place in society, in a way Muriel does not, and she represents the past, which he’s clinging to with all his might and main. To be with Muriel and her son, he’s going to have to change, and he hates change above all things, as has been more than adequately established in both versions of the story.

                But in looking at Davis, who is doing her level best not to look beautiful, my reaction was “Okay, maybe she’s all quirky and off-putting in public, but in private she’s going to take off her clothes and be a naked Geena Davis in her early 30’s.” Most straight guys would take that bargain like a shot. I don’t know if this helps, but imagine Muriel is named Murray, and is played by Brad Pitt in one of his quirkier acting modes. It’s still Brad Pitt, and your peers are still going to be really jealous. In the novel, it’s really really clear that Macon is choosing a plain woman over his glamorous ex. But realistically, it’s Hollywood, and Hollywood hates realism worse than Macon Leary hates change.

                Weirdly, Kathleen Turner played a dog trainer years later, in Marley and Me (the book wins in a walk), and man, she really did not age well. Movie Macon made the right choice even on the level of shallow sexual fulfillment. There’s a moral in there somewhere. Don’t ask me where.

              • Book that would make great movie–hmmm. Well, nothing by Philip K. Dick, and yet they perversely keep turning his books into hit movies that are nothing at all like the books. Even Blade Runner became a cult hit. I liked that movie okay, until I read the book, and now I can hardly bear to look at the movie anymore.

                I’m going to be really perverse and mention a book probably none of you have read, that was made into a really cheesy horror flick. Thor, by Wayne Smith. Horror genre. In terms of style, not unlike Stephen King, but with a key twist–the protagonist is a German Shepherd, loyal protector of a loving family, who realizes that a visiting family member, brother of the lady of the house, has become something very dangerous and evil, and he’s the only one who notices anything wrong. And when he tries to intervene, his actions are misinterpreted as him turning vicious.

                It’s mainly from the dog’s point of view, and that’s so hard to do right–and Smith makes it work. You believe it’s a dog’s mind you’re looking into, a dog’s skewed perspective of the human world (at one point we’re told that as a puppy Thor believed he would grow up to be human), and it’s really about the basic inequity of the human/canine relationship. Thor can’t possibly grasp the concept that he’s property, not family. When he’s exiled to the pound, he interprets that as a just punishment for his having broken the rules. You just want to hug every dog you meet after reading it, while apologizing profusely.

                So you’d need a really exceptional canine thespian, and an absolutely top-drawer handler for that dog, and a cast of human actors who’d be cool with the dog being the center of attention (the most serious obstacle by far), but if you could do it right, it would be amazing. And of course they just turned it into a crappy werewolf movie. But if they could adapt Old Yeller into a great film (and hey, maybe that’s the answer to my original query–I don’t know which I love more, book or film), why not this?

              • rinaldo302

                My own candidate novel would be Larry McMurtry’s Cadillac Jack, which I sometimes think I’m alone in ranking among his very best (it doesn’t even get its own Wikipedia article). The milieu of antique scouts and second-level government-adjacent socializing in DC is unique and flavorsome. I had it all cast when the book was relatively new, in the late 80s: Sam Shepard as Jack; Robin Wright as the gorgeous but insanely self-absorbed Cindy; Danny DeVito and Anjelica Huston as Boog and Boss Miller; and Marcia Rodd as wistful divorcée Jean.

                Coincidentally, I actually met Marcia Rodd a year later. Walking past Lincoln Center, I ran into an old music-school classmate who was sharing her apartment (in that Manhattan way where it’s just a matter of managing the ridiculous rents). I mentioned my movie idea to her; she’d never read the book, but seemed pleased that someone had thought of her in a context of “dream casting.”

              • You’re working so much harder at the casting angle–thing is, I always find it easier to cast the women.

                Like one of Jim Thompson’s last novels, South of Heaven, would actually make a pretty good movie–a lot more upbeat than most of his books (and still pretty hardcore with regards to subject matter, but compared to The Killer Inside Me, it’s an early 70’s Disney film with Kurt Russell, who would have been great for the hero if they’d made it back then, which they never would have done).

                And all I know for sure is that I’d cast Kat Dennings as the hero’s love interest. I should perhaps mention that like most Thompson women, she is dark-haired and bounteous of bosom, and there’s a scene where he sees her standing naked out in the desert, and she holds out her arms happily, beckoning him in, and there’s just not enough scenes like that in the movies these days. Used to be lots of that kind of thing back in the 80’s. Good clean wholesome entertainment, I calls it.

                Don Johnson would probably be pretty good as the hero’s worldly wise older friend. Now I just need the hero himself. Ay, there’s the rub. Kurt Russell’s too old (actually, he could play the older friend now). Who could ever be worthy of a naked Kat Dennings? She’s been doing that sitcom five years now, and they’ve found nary a male deserving of such bounty. 😉

              • Did you see the Cohn’s Hail Caesar? Alden Ehrenreich. The guy can do no wrong.

              • rinaldo302

                I’m reluctant to say such a thing about someone I’ve seen only once (though I saw a preview for him in the forthcoming all-star Howard Hughes flick), but yeah… just based on that one Caesar performance, which could have gone off the rails in so many ways but never did, Ehrenreich seems to be the real deal, and I want to see whatever he does next. He’ll be the answer to a lot of fantasy casting, I dare say.

              • This is one free-floating discussion we’re having–I better finish my next review soon, or it’ll drift off into the ionosphere.

                I’m sure he’s a good actor, but the character I’m talking about is a big gangly rough-looking kid. Jim Thompson’s younger self. This book is his equivalent to O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! Only set in an actual wilderness. I really think it deserves more of a following.

              • rinaldo302

                Another not-yet-filmed book that I’d like someone to try is The Once and Future King. Yes, I know that Camelot is officially derived from it, and the animated Sword in the Stone uses Book I (Arthur’s childhood). And we’ve had endless filming of the Arthurian saga.

                But on a recent rereading I’ve been reminded how full of vivid dialogue and situations T.H. White’s version of the story is — specifically the latter half, from Lancelot’s arrival in the story on to the end. The final Book was initially imagined as a play, and it shows in the placing of each chapter in a single room, driven by dialogue (including retelling of what happened in the past. All those lines are crying out for charismatic actors to speak them in beautiful medieval settings. I’m stumped on casting, though — especially the challenge that White describes Lancelot as the ugliest man in the world. When I first pictured this movie, back in the 1970s, I thought Charles Bronson would fit; I can’t picture a current candidate. Oh well, it’ll never happen anyway.

              • This is a whole different can of worms you’ve opened–the book that was adapted, but never quite correctly. More examples than could ever be counted–I mean, look at Frankenstein–now there’s a perfect answer to my question–I love James Whale’s two films with Karloff’s first dumb than monosyllabic creature, and they are conveying ideas quite different from Shelley’s. They are great films, but unsatisfactory adaptations. And that’s usually the best-case scenario for when a book becomes a movie. Nobody has ever even seriously tried to just do Shelley’s book straight, and I doubt anyone ever will. Same for Stoker’s Dracula.

                But I’m going to mention something almost comically obscure now–a film I managed to see again after many long years–Viva Max!, starring Peter Ustinov as a bumbling Mexican general who, feeling humiliated by a sarcastic senorita’s scorn, decides to take a hundred soldiers to a Washington’s Birthday parade in Texas, then use them to occupy the Alamo. You remember it? Used to be on TV all the time.

                It’s a very enjoyable movie, without an ounce of malice in it. But of course all the Mexicans with speaking parts are played by gringos (Ustinov could be deemed a citizen of the world, and he at least spoke fluent Spanish). Most of the soldiers were played by Mexican-American locals from around San Antonio. The humor is akin to the Jose Jimenez skits of Bill Dana. Not meant to be denigrating in any way, but out of fashion now.

                Well believe it or not, that movie was based on a satirical novel by Jim Lehrer. Yes, that Jim Lehrer. He hadn’t become a very staid respectable PBS news anchor by that time. He wrote quite a lot of novels, none of which I’ve read. But suppose somebody went back to that novel, and updated the story, and used it to deal with the present-day conflicts between Anglos and Latinos here–in many ways, the story is more relevant now than it was then. There’s this militia group–well, you must have seen it sometime–remember? John Astin as the loyal sardonic sergeant? Pamela Tiffin as the sexy sweet girl who thinks Max is a revolutionary hero, like Che Guevara?

                At its heart, a story about how we all need our pride, our dignity, and yet life conspires to rob us of it. And then we rob each other, to try and get it back, and that never works.

              • rinaldo302

                This is a whole different can of worms you’ve opened–the book that was adapted, but never quite correctly.

                I guess this is accurate, and I’m glad to read your thoughts on Viva Max!, but the case of The Once and Future King is (I would maintain) a little different, as nobody has really tried yet. Disney had the rights to what is really a stand-alone children’s book, and Lerner took the nicknames Jenny and Lance and maybe a few more elements of tone but in general is no more indebted to White than to Mallory or Tennyson — or Bulfinch. There’s still a missed chance there.

                The whole area of novel adaptations that were fundamentally changed in their first filming, but so popular in that form that later dramatizations feel the need to do the same thing, would make an interesting topic. Has any Wuthering Heights really given full weight to the second half of the book (the younger generation)?

                For that matter, I don’t suppose anyone will ever bother to do a brand new, music-less film of Show Boat (Edna Ferber is not that kind of immortal writer), but her version of Magnolia Hawkes — a woman who, when her husband abandons her and their child, finds a way to support them and keep going for decades more — would be more appealing and even a happier ending for today’s audiences than the way Hammerstein has the husband return decades later, instantly and happily forgiven. This came to mind just yesterday as I was teaching my History of Musicals class.

              • White’s book is very long, and mostly about personal relationships–it’s about all the stuff that goes on before and after the big battles and such–which is what the movies are most interested in. It would have to be a TV miniseries, and it would be better-suited to the golden age of BBC teleplays, which is over now, sad to say. Personally, I’d love to see the original Celtic Arthurian myths adapted faithfully, which would be one hell of a head trip, let me tell you.

                Funny you should mention Showboat, since that’s my other favorite film directed by James Whale. Never read anything by Ferber–I think it’s unlikely she’ll get any more movie adaptations–she certainly had her fair share.

              • rinaldo302

                Every time I talk to someone about dramatizing Arthur, they want to do the Celtic myths. I don’t! I want the full age-of-chivalry fantasy that White imagined, with an acknowledged debt to Malory. (He even tried to fudge the timeframe so that Uther the Conqueror happened instead of William the Conqueror, and at the end Arthur is telling his story to young Tom Malory; the dates work only if everyone lives a century or more.)

                Yes, Ferber had her day, and did very well out of it. I imagine that even libraries have gotten rid of most of her books — who ever tries to read them? But it’s funny to think that if someone were creating a Show Boat musical now, Ferber’s ending for Magnolia would be the obvious unproblematic one. (And of course it can’t be retroactively imposed on Kern’s musical; I’m not proposing that! But new revivals have always tried tweaking the ending to make Ravenal’s return more palatable.)

                I’ll be showing my students substantial stretches of Whale’s 1936 film tomorrow. It has to be seen because of the immortal performances it contains, links to the original productions that we almost never get for musicals of that era. (Robeson, Morgan, Winninger, Dunne.) But it’s interesting that its film techniques seem relatively primitive — you can always tell when an edit was made in dialogue because the musical underscoring jumps too (just a couple of years later, they would have rewritten and rerecorded the underscore to disguise the change). By 1939, The Wizard of Oz is completely sophisticated with such techniques. The talkies grew up fast in that first decade.

              • And yet, the best of those Pre-Code talkies hold up better now than most big movies made a decade ago, whose CGI already looks dated–the talkies also devolved fast.

                I read White’s novel in high school, and I was thinking of the Disney film when I read it–I understood pretty quickly this was something deeper, but on some level I resented the way the later part of the book pulls the rug out from under you–you get lured in with the enchantment of Young Arthur, full of wonder, changing into various forms, learning all Merlin has to teach him–and then forgetting most of it, making the same mistakes previous generations made, ending up mired in sadness and regret, yearning for the wonderment of days gone by Which is, of course, a fairly accurate description of what happens when we grow up.

                But just as Goldman had to airbush most of that out of his adaptation of The Princess Bride……you see the problem.

                As Westlake said, most of the time, a movie both can’t and shouldn’t be the book it was adapted from. And as I’ve said, on the rare occasions one is, it stands a very real chance of replacing the book in people’s imaginations. I’m just glad MGM’s Wizard of Oz went its own way, did things so differently, so there would still be room for Frank Baum’s more elaborate and pointed satirical fantasies.

                We can always have the perfect movie adaptations in our heads. I really do have to concentrate on the next review now, you know. 😉

              • My favorite thing in The Sword in the Stone is one of my favorite things, period:

                “Sir”, said Sir Ector, without looking up, although he was speaking to his own boy.

                “Please do not do this, father, ” said the Wart, kneeling down also. “Let me help you up. Sir Ector, because you are making me unhappy.”

                “Nay, nay, my lord,” said Sir Ector, with some very feeble old tears. “I was never your father nor of your blood, but I wote well ye are of an higher blood than I wend ye were.”

                “Plenty of people have told me you are not my father,” said the Wart, “but it does not matter a bit.”

                “Sir,” said Sir Ector, “will you be my good and gracious lord when ye are King?”

                “Don’t!” said the Wart.

                “Sir,” said Sir Ector, “I will ask no more of you but that you will make my son, your foster-brother, Sir Kay, seneschal of all your lands?”

                Kay was kneeling down too, and it was more than the Wart could bear.

                “Oh, do stop,” he cried. “Of course he can be seneschal, if I have got to be this King, and oh father, don’t kneel down like that, because it breaks my heart. Please get up, Sir Ector, and don’t make everything so horrible. Oh, dear, oh, dear, I wish I had never seen that filthy sword at all.”

                And the Wart also burst into tears.

                All the Wart ever wanted was to squire for his older brother, whom he worshipped. (Disney made Kay a bully that got his as the end, because there’s a formula, dammit), but then that watery tart had to throw a bloody sword at him.

  5. Just FYI, Charley Varrick is going to air on TCM on Sunday, March 18th, at 10:00pm. In the correct aspect ratio, as good a print as can be had, for love or money. Well, I don’t see what love would have to do with it.

    And no progress at all on obtaining Westlake’s Red Harvest screenplay. Some progress on getting another article ready. Not the one I had in mind, but I’ll get to that too, eventually. On a new tack now.

  6. Pingback: ‘Charley Varrick’ (1973): Don Siegel’s Masterclass in Seamless Storytelling • Cinephilia & Beyond

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