Wanted for Questioning: Westlake’s Continental Op

It’s always interesting seeing how one novelist approaches transforming another novelist’s work to the screen. So, besides produced films like “The Grifters”, Don’s unproduced screenplay for “Red Harvest” and the script I adapted from Steven Saylor’s book, “Roman Blood” all provide insights.

Jeff Kleeman, in the comments section here, who tarried not for questioning.

It’s always nice when Jeff Kleeman pays one of his periodic visits here, and tells us stuff we didn’t know before, though I have to say, this is something I feel like I should have known already.  And didn’t.  Not a clue.  But once I went looking around online, I found mentions of it in multiple places–it was no deep dark secret.  Lying around in plain sight, like the purloined letter.  Or a gold falcon, covered in black lacquer.

Donald Westlake has a lot of admirers, stretching across multiple generations, and stands to reason that (with no biography in sight) nobody knows everything there is to know about his many-faceted career, him being the elephant, and we the blind men (and women), feeling our way in the dark.

It’s becoming clear that he did a lot more work for the movies and TV than one would have believed possible for a man with nigh on a hundred published novels (not mentioning short stories and sleaze paperbacks).

There’s an archive in Boston with a large collection of screenplays he wrote that never got produced.  Greg Tulonen was there, when he went looking for the manuscript of Fall of the City, now known as Forever and A Death.  He didn’t know about this one either.  He said it isn’t listed as part of the collection.

So cutting to the chase, there’s this legendary Italian film producer, named Alberto Grimaldi–he’s still around, at the age of 92.  Back in the 70’s, he got obsessed with making a movie of Red Harvest.   Not set in feudal Japan, or the old west.  Not the usual Hollywood butchery of the source material, either.  A legit straight-up adaptation, class all the way, that would capture the essence of Hammett, without making it into some over-reverent museum piece.

(And would star Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, or Warren Beatty as the short pudgy balding Continental Op, okay, we get it, you need a star to get the money to make the movie.  But he never did, and the movie was never made.)

Bernardo Bertolucci was attached to direct for some time, and co-wrote two drafts of a screenplay, one of which you can buy online pretty easy, and I couldn’t care less, no disrespect meant.  Many other scripts were commissioned, nobody seems to know how many, but it is known for a fact one of them was from Westlake.  I’ve found multiple mentions of it.  I just can’t find the screenplay itself.

Some guy on an old listserv discussion forum (apparently linked to Miskatonic University), says he bought a copy on ABE.  He posted that in 2000.  I emailed him.  Even though it was one of those addies that ends in ‘.net.’  Gmail says it’ll keep trying for another two days, but that lead’s not going to pan out.  Neither did any of the online sources for screenplays, produced or otherwise.  Neither did ebay, Amazon, Bookfinder, or ABE.  If it’s out there, it’s keeping a low profile.

Seems like Westlake got approached sometime after he wrote the script for The Grifters.  His best work as a scripter (that got produced, anyway), nominated for an Oscar, successfully reworking a noir classic in a way that respected the original without getting bogged down in it.

Martin Scorsese was involved in the Red Harvest project at one point as well, as were several other big names, but things got complicated.  And of course he was a producer on The Grifters.

So that all tracks, but how do I put this?  Red Harvest would mean more to Westlake than everything Jim Thompson ever wrote.  Not because it’s a better book than The Grifters (debatable).  Because it’s Hammett.  And Hammett was the foundation stone of everything Westlake ever wrote in the crime genre.  And Red Harvest is a book Westlake had used as the starting point for multiple novels of his own.  Notably Killing Time, Anarchaos, and Butcher’s Moon.  But you can find hints of it scattered throughout his oeuvre.

It’s no secret he wrote it, as I said.  Lots of people know about it.  Lots of people have read it (I’m guessing one of them is Kleeman).  But I don’t remember ever reading an interview where Westlake mentioned it.  Sore spot, possibly.  Because it didn’t get made, or because he didn’t like how it turned out?

Nothing would bring out the unforgiving critic in him more than a project like that.  He was hardest on himself about The Jugger–(one of my favorites) and what’s that about?  A man coming to a small corrupt western town to solve a murder, and he gets caught up in various agendas, playing both ends against the middle.   Only that man is Parker, and Parker isn’t The Op.  (Though we’ll never know either one’s real name, they’ve got that in common.)

And what’s Joe Sheer, the titular Jugger, to Parker?  Just a bit like what The Old Man is to The Op, wouldn’t you say?  But so different, you really have to squint to see it.  Hammett was the literary father figure Westlake kept trying to measure up to, and never quite sure he’d managed it.

So I would like to read this attempt to do just that, and decide for myself.

Can anybody out there make that happen?

It’s the stuff dreams are made of.

Yeah, I know, wrong book.

And yeah, I’m still working on that other thing, but got bogged down, so feel free to chime in while I’m digging my way out.  Passes the time.

(And Jeff, if you’re out there, I’d love to read that Roman Blood thing too.  Hail Cicero.)

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14 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake screenplays

14 responses to “Wanted for Questioning: Westlake’s Continental Op

  1. I don’t remember seeing “Roman Blood,” but there is a screenplay in the archive based on “Arms of Nemesis,” the second book in Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series. Westlake titled the script “Funeral Games.”

    • Interesting that Westlake adapted Saylor as well (and that neither script got produced). I’ve never read Saylor. Seems like the idea of making a movie/show/whatever out of his Roman novels has been out there a while, but nothing ever comes of it.

      But as with Westlake, I’d assume that he’s happy if they buy the book and the check clears.

  2. Forgot to mention–Greg sent me this YouTube link–Westlake did get to write a teleplay adapting one of Hammett’s short stories about The Op–that got produced–for Showtime–back when Showtime wasn’t making good television.

    Man, they never cast The Op right. I read one review that said regardless of age, Darren McGavin should have been The Op–back in his Kolchak days, he’d have been as good as anyone possibly could be. But he was pretty damn old by the time they made this. And Westlake had to write for the show this was going to air on.

    The problem with filming hard-boiled crime fiction from that general era is that they just can’t stay away from the visual tropes associated with the Roaring 20’s. They never focus on story and character–they’re just trying to make it glamorous–Hammett wasn’t writing nostalgia, he was writing contemporary fiction–he wasn’t nostalgic for any of this stuff. There’s nothing glamorous about Hammett at his best. He’s about the seedy underbelly. They should be looking at old photographs, not old movies. (Or new movies aping old movies.)

    All I can say about Christopher Lloyd is at least it isn’t Robert Redford. Though you know, he is short, and he could have gained some weight. And he would have played it straight, at least.

    • I agree with your assessment of Fly Paper. The ugliness of the events depicted is undercut by the nostalgic razzle-dazzle of their presentation, from the visuals to the performances. Everyone’s talking in quotation marks, leaning into the references. I know you’re not a big fan of Miller’s Crossing, but it remains my favorite unofficial take on the material (with a healthy dose of The Glass Key sprinkled in). Roger Ebert was also not a big fan of Miller’s Crossing, describing it as follows: “This doesn’t look like a gangster movie, it looks like a commercial intended to look like a gangster movie.” I don’t think that’s quite fair to Miller’s Crossing, but I think it’s a terrific description of Fly Paper.

      • I’ll have to give Miller’s Crossing another go sometime. You don’t have to sell me on it being better than most films of this type. But it’s not my favorite type of film.

        I am often underwhelmed by gangster stories–by which I mean stories where a mobbed up guy is the protagonist. It took me a very long time to watch the first two Godfather movies–I admire them, but I don’t love them. I didn’t quite connect with The Friends of Eddie Coyle, though I got the point of it very well, and admired the style. The movie, with Mitchum, didn’t grab me either, though it was quite well executed, and wouldn’t you know, that one they got Mitchum for, and he never played Mitch Tobin. And as you may remember, my least favorite of the early Westlake Nephews is a gangster. (He only had two mobbed up protagonists in his long career, and neither number among his best.)

        But I adored The Sopranos from start to finish, and I’ve never much cared for Scorsese’s Post-Goodfellas stuff so go figure. I guess it’s because they’re satirizing the milieu, mocking the mob guys, as opposed to romanticizing them. In that, I am in synch with Westlake. There’s nothing much to like about them, except that they’re humans, with all the same flaws as the rest of us, only worse. The Wire worked for me because it was about a whole society within a society, and the ones you rooted for were always the independents.

        The way to do Hammett, for movies or TV, I think, is low-key. Underplay everything. No orchestral score–just ambient music, if any. No scenery chewing. No winking at the camera. No tropes borrowed from Chandler or Spillane–pretend they never happened.

        I mean, look at the best Warner Bros. crime films from the Pre-Code era, the ones with Cagney and Robinson. Bare bones, graphic, unadorned–stark. It’s all very stylized, but it feels 100% real, almost a verite look and feel to it.

        And yet, when they tried to adapt Red Harvest in 1930 (Paramount, not WB), they got scared–so political–so uncompromising–not really making it clear where the line between right and wrong was. (Like anybody knows for sure.) So they turned it into a comedy–with Jimmy Durante even!

        Kurosawa got closest. Put me among those who believe 100% he was adapting Red Harvest when he made Yojimbo, no matter what he said in public–like Westlake said, never admit to your sources until copyrights expire. But still playing it pretty safe, setting it in 1860. Not stepping on anybody’s toes there. Leone, copying him verbatim, played it the same way.

        And the crux of the story, in both cases (and the later Bruce Willis thing, that I don’t really care about), is who’s quickest with a sword or gun. The Op isn’t the best at anything–except seeing things the way they are. That’s his superpower. Hard to put onscreen. But worth trying, surely. Just once. To see how it looks.

        So how did Westlake try to do that?

        • Greg, one thing that bothered me about the Fly Paper teleplay, aside from the cutesey tone of the overall proceedings–the relatively untroubled collaborative relationship between The Op and The Old Man.

          That seems in keeping with neither Hammett nor Westlake.

          TV is a writer’s medium, more than film is anyway, but only if the writer works on the show. Otherwise, it’s producers and directors who control the way the story is told. They think the appeal is nostalgic here, and they have two beloved TV stars working together for the first and (I’d assume) only time, so they want to give the audience a thrill, seeing them piece the mystery together as a team, Sherlock and Mycroft. But that’s not the relationship Hammett wrote about, and I have a hard time believing Westlake thought it was.

          The Op is afraid of becoming The Old Man, resents his authority, and you get none of that here.

          Of course, when you write for TV, the producers give you little notes to tell you what you’re doing wrong.

          I see no reason to think they’d suspend that charming custom for Donald E. Westlake. Probably wouldn’t have suspended it for Hammett either. Or Shakespeare.

  3. I LOVED Miller’s Crossing, although it is clearly a rip off of The Glass Key, my least favorite Hammett book. I recall an interview in which Westlake spoke of being asked to write a screenplay of a Hammett novel (I think the Dain Curse, and maybe it was for TV?) and he tried to persuade them to switch to The Gutting of Couffinal, a great Op story which he thought would fit the length better.

    And I definitely remember him being interviewed at a Bouchercon and mentioning that he had been hired to write a screenplay of a Roman novel in which an aristocrat was killed and all of his slaves would be executed unless the killer could be identified. Was that one of Saylor’s novels?

    • Must have been. He wasn’t shy about discussing unproduced screenplays he’d written (and he wrote a lot of them).

      So how come he never discussed Red Harvest?

      Hmmm—did he not get paid for that? Always a sore point with him. He’s the only writer I know of who created a series character whose main personality trait is that if you owe him money, you’re probably gonna die.

    • mikesschilling

      There was a TV version of The Dain Curse, starring the tall, handsome James Coburn. We talked about it at https://thewestlakereview.wordpress.com/2015/03/19/dortmunder-at-the-movies-part-1-in-a-one-part-series-the-hot-rock/#comment-881 .

      • Well, at least he wasn’t Robert Redford handsome. Or Christopher Lloyd weird.

        Interesting that other stories featuring the Op have been adapted, no problem (even if the adaptations have mainly sucked). Red Harvest has been the problem child. The Dain Curse is a fairly conventional hardboiled mystery of that era, and in spite of some idiosyncratic Hammett flourishes, would probably work about as well for Marlowe or some other (lesser) gumshoe.

        None of which gets me any closer to that script.

        Or to finishing my next article.

      • I just ordered the DVD set (now available new, so no huge mark-up for rare used copies).

        Reading The Dain Curse now (also for the first time–you know, I’m realizing that part of the problem was I was looking at the LOA’s Hammett’s, and those are not the best reading copies–layout’s too prissy for the material–ebooks work better).

        Whatever flaws the miniseries has, at least it is a miniseries, which is the only way you could adapt this sprawling demented story. That contains some of Hammett’s most insightful and bluntly compassionate work. He was amazing. I really missed a lot by not digging deeper. Oh well, gives me something to do now.

        Also, I’m a big Nancy Addison fan, going back to her days on Ryan’s Hope. She’s maybe a little old to play the naive Gabrielle, but early 30’s–c’mon. Not a big deal. What that girl goes through would age anyone.

        As for Coburn, they seem to have gone out of their way to make him look like Hammett, which I suppose is a working compromise. (You know, there have been short stocky actors who were very popular.)

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