Mr. Westlake and the Fender-Bonder

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Dear Jeff,

In LIVE AND LET DIE, I am the passenger in the red car in the stunt driving sequence on the FDR Drive in New York.  When I saw the movie, back then, I was astonished at how much that black silhouette (moi) inside that car was being thrown around.  At the time, it had just seemed like a little sideswipe, not such a much at all.

Donald E. Westlake, writing to Goldeneye producer Jeff Kleeman, in 1995.

Well, it’s taking me a bit longer than I thought to write my review of Forever And a Death, but I kind of thought it might take me longer than I thought, which sheds perhaps an unfortunate light on my  mental processes, but there you are.  Maybe tomorrow (assuming tomorrow doesn’t die).

In the nonce, I found something interesting to share with you all, that I considered just mentioning briefly in the review (in a prologue that’s already getting very long), but I think it’s worth highlighting, because it’s such an odd quirky little story, based on an unpredictable series of coincidences. A very Westlake story, when you get right down to it.

The story goes like this: long before he was ever approached to write a story for a Bond film (the story that eventually became Forever And a Death), Westlake was in a Bond film, namely Live And Let Die.  This happened in 1972, when he was at the very peak of his powers as a writer, and amazing novels bearing his various professional names were getting rolled out in the bookstores five to seven times a year.

He told Jeff Kleeman this story, when approached about writing the follow-up to Goldeneye, and Kleeman kept the letter, the relevant section of which you can see above.  You can read more in Kleeman’s (superb) afterward to the novel I’m supposed to be reviewing now.

No, he’s not in the cast, don’t bother looking on IMDb.  He was, in a sense, an unpaid extra. To even call it a cameo would be gilding the lily–it’s unclear whether the director, Guy Hamilton, had the slightest inkling who this bespectacled fellow in the back seat of a red Chevy was, or if he’d have cared.

But he was in the back seat, I’m pretty sure, though he didn’t specify–the guy at the wheel would have been a pro, the guy on the passenger side up front has very long hair, and can be pretty clearly seen–not a ‘black silhouette.’  I don’t know that there’s any technical wizardry that could produce a recognizable image of Mr. Westlake in that car.  (Hell, I didn’t even make the screen capture up top, found it on a discussion forum where they talk endlessly about cars used in movies. Obsessives can be very useful, I find.  I trust I’ve been useful at times myself.)

Last night, having borrowed the ‘James Bond Ultimate Edition 2-Disc DVD Set’ (2006) from the library I work at,  I watched the scene in question with the commentary enabled–first from the director, then Roger Moore.  (Moore wrote a book about his experiences making Live And Let Die, not evailable, paperback copies are now prohibitively expensive, and it’s not that important, is it?)

Moore wasn’t much help, though drily entertaining as always (much more fun when he’s not being Bond, you ask me), but Guy Hamilton filled in some useful details that provided a clue as to why Westlake would be in that car at all.

Hamilton enjoyed filming that scene very much, one of his favorites I think.  That section of the FDR Drive was closed off to traffic for the shoot, inconveniencing many a Sunday motorists out for a day’s pleasure, we can be sure.  Hamilton was well and truly chuffed at how eagerly the local authorities facilitated all this hugger mugger, awfully decent of them, really.  (Other local authorities were less helpful, but we’ll get to that.)

It’s the scene in which Bond, having been picked up at the airport by some unfortunate fellow named Charlie at the behest of Felix Leiter, survives an attempt on his life by one of Kananga’s henchmen, Whisper.  Poor Charlie gets a dart in his brain, which not only kills but paralyzes him, so that he’s just sitting there gripping the wheel, dead eyes staring vacantly ahead, which to be sure is a commonly seen expression on the faces of Gotham motorists.

Bond, realizing his chauffeur is now deceased, and therefore not fully competent to handle New York City traffic (though I’ve seen worse),  has to be a literal backseat driver, and can I just ask, if the goal was covert assassination, why didn’t Whisper dart him instead?  People who are not indestructible globetrotting secret agents survive horrific car crashes every day.  This is perhaps a topic best reserved for Bond-blogs, of which there is no present shortage.

You can watch the entire sequence on Youtube–the part with the red car getting jostled comes a bit over two minutes in–

So what Hamilton reveals in his DVD commentary is that they were filming this scene very near the Manhattan offices of United Artists, which provided distribution for all the Eon-produced Bond films prior to Octopussy (MGM having absorbed UA by that time).

Some studio ‘brass’ as he refers to them had wanted to come by and watch the scene being shot.  He told them they weren’t going to see anything much as distant bystanders, and they’d get a much better view from inside one of the cars being used in the scene. But he was grinning inwardly as he told them that.  He names no names, and a good bet he had a pretty vague grasp of who any of them were.

He probably just got a call from some high muckety-muck at Eon (the people actually signing his checks, remember), saying there were these dashed Yanks who’d like to take a look around, try to humor them, there’s a good chap.  No director in the history of cinema has ever taken kindly to such requests.

So he put them in the car that was going to get bumped up into the highway divider.  Not a terribly difficult or hazardous stunt (though I just bet you they didn’t have Moore in the other car doing the bumping when they filmed it).  But Hamilton figured it would seem like a fifty car pile-up to them.  As he relates, with great satisfaction, they got out of the car white as a sheet, looking as if they had momentarily concluded their last day on earth had dawned.

Westlake’s account of how scary it was differs quite a lot, and he was one of the people in the car, wasn’t he?  But then again, he was Donald E. Westlake, wasn’t he?  And he’d done a stint in the Air Force, meaning that he’d experienced far worse jostling, thousands of feet in the air, over water.  Maybe the others (there are perhaps three passengers in all, other than the stunt driver, hard to tell)  experienced it differently than he did.  Or maybe Hamilton didn’t want to admit his practical joke had been thoroughly enjoyed by its victims.  Or maybe Westlake was retroactively editing his own reaction.  We shall never know.

But that’s not really the question here.  My question was more along these lines: Westlake wasn’t any kind of studio brass.  He had no connection with this movie, in any capacity whatsoever.  Hamilton doesn’t even seem to have known who he was.  What the fuck was he doing there?

And I figured out the answer, or so I think.  Strange as it may seem, there were a few other United Artists releases in 1973, besides Live And Let Die, and one of them was this.

cops_and_robbers_7

(The more interesting movie of the two, but try telling that to the public.)

One of the few instances of Westlake writing a script based on his own (very) original story that actually got made into a decent enough movie, which he subsequently expanded into a much better novel which I’ve already reviewed.  It was released in theaters about a month before Live And Let Die.  Meaning it would almost certainly have been in production around the same time.

There’s little production info out there about Cops And Robbers, but there’s plenty about every Bond film ever lensed.  The exterior scenes featuring Bond in New York were mainly filmed in December of 1972, according to Wikipedia.  The Hot Rock, based on one of Westlake’s most successful novels, had been released in January of that year–not a hit, but still a big movie with Robert Redford as the star.  So while he was hardly a name to conjure with in Hollywood, he would have been somebody the suits were keeping tabs on, in case he could be useful in future.  And therefore, somebody who’d be taking a fair few meetings, doing the odd few lunches.

He was probably taking a meeting there that day (it was a Sunday, so fewer people around the office), maybe with one of the execs who wanted to go check out the Bond shoot nearby.  Not much of a stretch to figure somebody asked him if he wanted to come with.  Can you imagine him responding “Nah, thanks, I’m going to go get some lunch, maybe hit a museum”?  Me neither.  Mr. Westlake liked to watch professionals of any kind at work.  Research.

At a different point in his correspondence with Kleeman, Westlake tells a story that Moore corroborates on his commentary track–a black stunt driver from Pennsylvania, who didn’t know the rules of the road in New York very well, had to go off and get gas, prior to shooting the scene.  He was dressed as a pimp, in a car customized as a pimpmobile.  He made a right turn on red, on a Sunday, in the Wall Street district, with no traffic, and he got pulled over (as a banker in a Beemer probably wouldn’t have been).

He had no registration for the car, because why would he?  His wallet was in his other set of clothes.  He tried to explain to the officer he was working on a James Bond movie.  Would you have believed him?  He got bailed out very late in the day, after it was too late to reshoot the scene.  And all this tells us is that 1)Westlake really was there that day, and 2)Some things never change.

One more thing of interest (out of many) from Kleeman’s afterward–Westlake told him he had not seen all of the then-sixteen previous Bond films.  He was anything but a diehard fan of that franchise (probably not of the Diehard franchise either).  It was just a casual interest, which is all it is for most people.  Kleeman had sent him video copies of three Bond movies (I’d guess Goldeneye was one of them?), and he asked for one more.  He wanted to see Live and Let Die again, “because I’m in it.”  It was 1995, you could get that movie anywhere there was electricity.  He probably didn’t have a single Bond video in the house.   (Well, neither do I, but I work for a library.)

In the same letter to Kleeman that I quote up top, he wrote “A continuing motif, I see, is birth through water; I have no problem with that.”   Meaning he could work with that.  And he did.  But not, ultimately, in a Bond film. And the one being reborn through water would not be Bond.

Okay, fine, I’ll get back to work.

 

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17 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake screenplays, Uncategorized

17 responses to “Mr. Westlake and the Fender-Bonder

  1. An excellent blend of research and supposition, relaying a great story. Sometimes I think that future historians will have it much easier, able to trace their ancestors’ movements down to the minute just by tracking their social media history. But it seems much more likely that all of that digital data will someday disappear, by catastrophe or design, banishing an entire generation’s memories into the digital void. (Moral: Keep local copies of your blog posts.)

    Looking forward to discussing FaaD.

    • I was struck by how easily the material to back this up could be found. I was just looking up how to do a screenshot from YouTube (my work PC won’t play the library DVD, and my Mac at home has no DVD player of any kind, I mean, movies on physical discs, what is this, the Flintstones? Next thing you’ll be trying to play a stone record with a talking woodpecker.)

      Then I remembered–the internet–car buffs–it’s gotta be there. There it was. Along with the entire sequence from the movie. My screenshot would have been a lot crappier, trust me. Not sure I could even find that discussion thread again, but thankfully I never have to. It was a boring conversation, anyway. Westlake had a point about how people who are really really interested in old cars are kind of strange. But in this case, usefully so.

      I know it’s supposition, but I don’t think there’s any other explanation that makes sense, and you know what The Great Detective said. And I don’t mean 007.

      • Oh, and Greg–have you read the published edition yet? Since you’re one of the few living souls who have read the original manuscript, your thoughts on how the two versions differ are going to be of considerable interest. (Translation: If you haven’t read the published version yet, do so now. That’s an order, soldier! Remember the Bangalore Relay scene on the beach in The Big Red One? Think of me as Lee Marvin. You get to be Luke Skywalker.)

        😉

        • I’m reading it now. It’s pretty close to what I remember. It looks like the changes are mostly through cuts, but I’m relying on my year-old memories (and notes, thank goodness).

          • Great timing. I didn’t get the feeling anything important had been cut, in terms of story or character development. The latter of which is something the book needed more of, I think–but that’s a hard thing to pull off in this genre, with this set-up.

            You compare it with Ex Officio and Kahawa, the characters here are potentially just as fascinating–but they’re getting lost in the schematics, part of the time. It’s a very hard thing he’s trying to do here, take something that’s intentionally fantastic, escapist, making it believably down to earth, and a commentary on the real world.

            A stern but fair appraisal of it will be something of a challenge as well. I’ll probably do worse at my job than he did at his, but what else is news?

            • I’ll likely never be able to give this book a fully dispassionate appraisal, my affection for it informed by the nerdy adventure I went on to first read it, as well as the fact that I’ve held the original manuscript pages in my (white-cotton-gloved) hands.

              • I can well understand–though I’ve never had that specific experience you did, anybody who has collected rare out of print genre books knowing what it means to discover some forgotten gem–and being so blown away by the fact that something so good has been forgotten, that its flaws are at least partly overlooked, or at least overshadowed by the joy of rediscovery.

                It’s very difficult to read David Goodis’ last novel, Somebody’s Done For–still not evailable, few copies available online, long out of print in all editions. In many ways, it’s my favorite out of everything I’ve read of his–a copy of the first edition paperback passed through my hands a while ago, and it blew me away (got my own copy now).

                But how much of that reaction is my awareness that he was writing it shortly before his death, in near-obscurity, and that it was published by some desultory forgotten house, shortly after he died, and nobody much noticed or cared? To know that you are one of the few who has seen this testament, and glimpsed something of the author’s true nature in it, gives you a special feeling for the material, that a casual reader would never have.

                Since even the greatest literary masterworks have flaws, and one can never truly appreciate any book by focusing solely on what’s wrong with it, I would hope we can agree that nitpicking a book to death is not good criticism. And I hope to never be guilty of that, but I probably am anyway, some of the time.

                There’s what the writer was aiming at, and there’s how close the writer got to the target. Westlake’s goals here are admirable, and far subtler than many will recognize (what else is new?). But we’re reading a book that was never truly finished, even though it has a beginning, middle, and end. Westlake himself wrote about how important it was to be able to go back and fix your mistakes in the first draft. Doesn’t seem like he ever did that. And this was a problematic idea to begin with. He’s trying to do a number of different things he’s had problems with in the past–all at the same time. And clearly relishing the challenge. But a challenge it is, and he only partly surmounts it.

                I don’t think all the criticisms made at the time by friends and colleagues were wrong. I just think they were only seeing what was wrong with it, because they didn’t want him to have another embarrassing failure. The fact that he wanted it published under a pseudonym tells us he was worried about that too.

                And odds are good that’s what it would have been. But failures can, as I have said before, teach us more than successes. And a gem, forgotten or otherwise, is more than the sum of its flaws.

                (And I still haven’t read the draft he submitted, and quite possibly never will, so what do I know?)

  2. Adi Kiescher

    “… That section of the FDR Drive was closed off to traffic for the shoot, inconveniencing many a Sunday motorists out for a day’s pleasure, we can be sure. …”

    Let’s just hope Stan Murch didn’t have an appointment with the boys in the O.J. on that day. He would’ve been late and, boy, what a story to tell Tiny for an excuse. 😉

    • You know, there’s still one more Dortmunder for me to reread, but that’s one excuse for lateness I don’t Murch trotted out. Maybe he did, and I forgot. So many by now.

      Movie and TV shoots are a constant thing in my nabe and many others, but shutting down a whole section of a major highway is a big ask, and I don’t know that it happens very often. But what Hamilton observed back in late ’72 is still very much the case now–our city officialdom treats filmmakers like the gods they fondly imagine themselves to be. They ask, they get.

    • I’m imagining Kelp explaining Waze to Murch.

      • I just had Google explain it to me.

        I’d be more interested in hearing Murch’s Mom explain Uber.

        Correction.

        I’d be more interested in seeing Murch’s Mom take a very large monkey wrench to Uber.

  3. There appear to be some pretty significant changes to the Singapore section (including the exclusion of an entire character). I’m prepared to take a deep dive into the changes when the time comes.

    • I’m really living up to the title of the book being reviewed here, aren’t I?

      I tried to get something up yesterday, but been fighting fatigue of late. Plus I’m questioning my decision to make it a two-parter, as Part 1 keeps growing longer. Also my dog ate it.

      Well, not literally. But you know, Mr. Kipling had a point. Even if he did express it a bit harshly.

      https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/power-dog

      On top of that, I have been handed a stupendously boring project at work.

      But my supervisor is on vacation next week, so keep your fingers crossed.

  4. Good article. I definitely appreciate this site.
    Continue the good work!

    • For as long as I can, which may not be much longer. My incantations to raise him from the dead, to write more novels for me to review have not gone as planned. But you know, the odd zombie apocalypse here and there is only to be expected. 😐

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