Category Archives: Donald Westlake film adaptations

First Read: Forever And A Death

 

The last Donald E. Westlake novel ever published.  Is what this is going down as.  Whatever its merits as a book may be, that one quality eclipses all others.  If you, like me, have developed a habit, worked your way through everything else on the list, once you’ve read this one, it’s over.  No more Westlake.  Okay, there’s sleaze paperbacks of variously dubious provenance, there’s uncollected short stories, there’s nonfiction articles, and there’s an archive in Boston you could visit under close guard, or possibly break into late at night; rather fitting, when you think about it.   But really.  This is it.

So is it any good?  To the true completist, this question can seem fairly inconsequential.  Mr. Westlake wrote far too many books for all of them to be polished gems, and he knew that better than anyone.  That so many of them are good, and often much more than that,  attests to his abilities, but I’d say an even more telling testimonial is how avidly many of us read even his less distinguished work, because on his very worst day he was capable of producing unique thought-provoking stories, and the more we read, the better we understand him.  His failures often tell us more than his successes.  But this, I would say, is neither.   Or maybe it’s both.  Somewhere in between.

I’m not here to review it this time, because first of all, I never review a Westlake novel I haven’t read at least twice.  The way I review these books is to take them apart, piece by piece, looking in depth at the story and characters, typing out quote after quote, so that (I like to think) if all copies of that book were to disappear, you could get a pretty good feeling for it just from my review.

I have said in the past that nobody should come here and read my reviews if they haven’t read the books first.  Well, hardly anyone has read this one, because it isn’t on sale until June.  I got an advance reviewer’s copy from Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime.  I will not abuse that confidence.  Not until several months after the book comes out.  Not until you at least have been given the option of reading it.  I mean, it’s not going to be much of a discussion if it’s just me and Greg Tulonen, and Greg hasn’t read the edited for publication version yet, I don’t think.

The sole point of getting an advance copy (other than impatience) is to write a review, so that people can decide whether or not they want to read the book.  That’s never really been what TWR is about, since if you’re here, you’re already hooked.  You don’t need me to tell you a new Westlake is a big deal.  You don’t need me to decide what books you want to buy.  But you might still be interested in what I think.  God knows why.

Let me talk first about the actual physical volume, which is what I read.  A glossy paperback, eight inches high, five across, and one thick.  463 pages, but just 435 of those are the book itself, so it’s not his longest novel by any means.  Westlake’s original 610 page manuscript has been trimmed down by about 10%, according to Ardai–mainly repetitive material, descriptions of restaurants, some local history relating to the various settings.  Things that needed to be more fully digested into the narrative as a whole, and probably could have been if Westlake hadn’t been discouraged from doing any more work on the book, and if he’d had a sympathetic editor to work with.

There is a substantial and fascinating afterward from Jeff Kleeman, the producer who hired Westlake to write several story treatments for the project that eventually became Tomorrow Never Dies.  Because, as he tells us right upfront, he was as avid a fan of Westlake novels as he was of 007 yarns as a kid.  He wanted to see how the two would go together.  Better than one might think, not as well as one might hope, is the short answer.

I’d have bought this book just for his description of Westlake’s creative process, and this I absolutely must quote from.  If he ever gives up on this major motion picture producing gig, Mr. Kleeman would make a passing good book blogger.

I’m fascinated by how ideas take shape and how writers write.  Some writers outline extensively, some start with an ending and work backward, some write a bunch of scenes in no particular order and with no obvious connection and then eventually pick a few of the best and build a story around them.  None of these were Don’s method  He relied on what he called “narrative push.”

Don would get an idea, usually for a beginning, an opening scene, something like, “What if there’s a bank robbery in progress and the getaway car can’t find a parking space in front of the bank? (This was the idea Don said was the spark for writing the first of his Dortmunder novels.)  Don would start from a premise like that and just write, without any plan for where he was going, trusting that eventually he’d end up with a story.  He told me there was only one story he ever started that he couldn’t puzzle out a way to finish.  It involved insurance fraud and after six weeks Don realized he’d written his characters into such a tight corner he was unable to keep them moving all the way to a resolution.  I hope one day Hard Case Crime will unearth the manuscript and we’ll get to see Don’s version of an impossible story.

Pretty sure Mr. Westlake was referring to The Scared Stiff, which he started writing after he finished The Ax, put aside, then published under a pseudonym in 2002, and I’ll be unearthing my copy soon enough so I can review it.  That’s about insurance fraud, and it’s another one of his books he was sort of cordially advised not to proceed with by people he trusted, because it wasn’t what people expected of him.   Maybe he was talking about an earlier attempt in this vein, but the dates match up pretty well, and how many insurance fraud novels was he going to write?

So as Kleeman explains, he loved the ideas Westlake came up with, and some were used in the finished film.  Most significantly, Pierce Brosnan owed Mr. Westlake a drink for getting to work with Michelle Yeoh, because it was Westlake’s idea that Bond partner with a female Chinese agent, work with her and then play of course, because Bond James Bond and Westlake Donald Westlake.

But once it became clear that Goldeneye, Mr. Kleeman’s first Bond, was a hit that had given new life to the franchise, and the studio wanted to move ahead fast with the next one, the scheduling got tight, and Westlake’s process didn’t work so well when you didn’t already know in advance exactly what the story would be (like an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel). Kleeman also mentions Westlake’s well known aversion to adapting his own work, which I think was not because he lacked objectivity, but because he didn’t want to mutilate his own children at the passing whims of some suits in Burbank.

They couldn’t know how well his Bond concepts would work until he’d turned them into a script using narrative push, and if the script didn’t work, it’d be too late to try again, and pre-production costs would keep accumulating.  So that’s why Westlake didn’t write the screenplay for Tomorrow Never Dies, and if you look closely at what we’re being told here, you can see why he never really clicked as a screenwriter, except on very specific types of projects, where his process could be made to work.  A writer on a studio picture is not a freelance artist for hire.  He’s a (very well paid) cog in a machine.  Ask Faulkner and Fitzgerald, neither of whom ever wrote a decent script in their lives.  (Ever see Land of the Pharaohs?) 

So there’s plenty more from Kleeman, and it’s all worth reading, but that’s just the dessert.  The book is the main course, and the book came about because Westlake had developed this idea that he knew the producers wouldn’t use, and he felt like it had potential.  There was no script, but there was a treatment he could turn into a novel.

He’d done something like this before, twice.  First time with Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, where the film had never been made, and he’d retained the rights.  That was probably his weakest novel–I think there actually was a finished script there, and he’d been taking a lot of notes from the producers no doubt, and trying to tailor it to the rather puerile standards of Mid-60’s light comedy.   It was probably not a strong script to begin with, and he struggled getting it to work as a book, but good bet it was better than the movie would have been.

Second time, he wrote the original screenplay for Cops and Robbers, which was turned into a modestly decent 70’s comedy/thriller, but he thought the director, a former film editor, just didn’t know how to be the boss of everybody, and the many good scenes in it just kind of lie there, instead of jumping off the screen at you.

He’d retained the rights to novelize his screenplay, and he did, and the result was one of his best and most original heist books, very focused and unconventional in its approach.  Much better than the film, which thankfully flopped, so that people who read the book wouldn’t have the masterful plot twists spoiled for them.  You do see a certain incompatibility of interests between Mr. Westlake and Hollywood at times, but they both got something out of the relationship, which is why it never really ended.

So this was his third attempt to turn a film into a book, but unlike the previous two, it wasn’t in the heist genre.  And he was told, respectfully but firmly, by people whose input he valued, that it just wouldn’t sell–which might have been true–and that it didn’t have the patented Westlake touch with regards to character and story–a reaction I can understand, while still not agreeing with it.

It has most of what we read him for, other than his humor, which is on the down low here, and for good reason. But at many points, and particularly in the early chapters, it feels like a preliminary sketch that needs to be filled in.  Well, a preliminary sketch by a famous artist can sell for millions at auction.  Isn’t Donald E. Westlake a famous artist?  And what’s the one thing all famous artists have in common?  Their work gets more valuable after they die.

Honestly, if he had filled it in, he still might not have gotten to publish it.  He’d already had his shot at making this general type of book work, several times. One was Ex Officio, a political thriller, longer and much less action-packed than this, written under the pseudonym Timothy J. Culver (the only one of Westlake’s pseudonyms he publicly killed off, in a mock panel discussion between his most famous literary personas).   I assume that did decent sales, since it was reprinted in paperback–but under the title Power Play, so probably nothing stellar.  It’s also a better book than this–a finished work.  He had good editorial relationships at M. Evans & Co., where many of his best books under his own name would later be published.

He wrote Kahawa under his own name, but I rather suspect Culver had a hand in it, the rumors of his death being much exaggerated.  That was for Viking, where he had terrible editorial relationships, and very little support.  That was at least outwardly a heist story, close enough to his usual fictive haunts that he could get away with making most of it about Africa, about Africans of all races, about various merry wars between the sexes, about brutal venal dictators and those who serve them, about the way we in the west look the other way when it comes to human rights abuses in the third world, because there’s so much money to be made there.  And about identity, because everything he wrote was about that.   It was a book he could be justly proud of.  And it sold like purest shit.

When you write the kind of book that’s supposed to be a best seller, at least close to it–and it isn’t, not even close–you are damaging your own professional profile.  As true in publishing as in the movies–you’re only as good as your last project.  Perhaps feeling encouraged by the extraordinary success of The Ax, he wanted to try once more to break out of the confines of what people thought he was.

He’d tried that back in the 80’s with the book that became The Comedy is Finished (again about a celebrity kidnapping, but no comic capering this time), and that became the second novel of his to be published after his death.

Though many disagree, I think it’s one of the best books he ever wrote, a searing look at the political and generational divide in America that existed a long time before the internet and social media, and not just at Woodstock.  And I don’t know it would have done any better than Kahawa if it had been published back when it was written.  Westlake in this vein has a problem–he’s too commercial for the intellectuals, and too damn smart for the people who just want a good read.  (Honestly, sometimes I think he’s too smart for the intellectuals as well.  They’re like “Who does this guy  think he is?”  Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?)

Memory, written in the early 60’s, was his one attempt at a book that didn’t fit any commercial cubbyhole at all, and it’s a dark brooding masterpiece that can haunt you for weeks after reading it, and we’ll never know how many more like that he might have had in him, or whether it would have been worth losing all the books we know him for to find out.   But knowing he had the potential to write that, we can’t help but wonder.

Writers build their own ghettos and live in them.  Westlake wrote genre books, books with a defined audience, never a very large one, but never too small either.  He couldn’t try to write The Great American Novel, as Philip Roth literally did, and it turned out to be about baseball, and it’s not that great, but it’s American.  And a novel.  If Westlake had his agent submit something different to some highbrow publisher like Knopf or FarrarStraussGiroux, what reaction would he get?  “Oh yes, the Dortmunder fellow, very droll, did this get into the wrong envelope somehow?”  Far easier for the highbrow author to explore the genre slums, and so many have, but it rarely works out.  Grass is always greener.

He doesn’t want to let this Bond story he slaved over, did more than his usual amount of research on, go to waste.  And there’s a larger problem he has been trying to crack for ages now, how to write an interesting long novel that isn’t a mystery, and will sell.  This is a story he wrote for James Freakin’ Bond, which should make it commercially viable.  But it can’t be about James Freakin’ Bond.  For obvious legal considerations, but also personal ones.  If you want my honest opinion, Westlake never believed in Bond.  He enjoyed the movies, maybe even some of the novels (I’m guessing there was a lot of tongue-clucking and eye-rolling when he read Fleming), but he never believed in any of it.

Not because of the gadgets, or the glamor, or the girls, or the utter disregard for gravity, but because Bond is an Organization Man.  He’s the Organization Man.  He can twit his superiors from now ’til Doomsday (which in his world comes every other week).   Doesn’t mean a thing.  He puts on a suit, and he goes to the office, and he flirts with the secretary, and he does what he’s told.  He kills on command.  He’s not a Westlake hero.  He never could be.  Doesn’t mean he’s not interesting.  He’s interesting the way Batman is interesting (and Westlake liked Batman too, almost wrote for the comic once).  But you know who’d be much more interesting to Donald E. Westlake than Bond himself?  Bond villains.

The thing about Westlake heroes is that none of them are, really.  Heroes.  Oh there are exceptions, but always very qualified and somewhat self-conscious ones, and even in those stories, the bad guys are usually a lot more interesting.  The characters we remember Westlake for are thieves, killers, cads, rogues, rascals.  Plus the occasional befuddled naif, picaresquely stumbling into adulthood.  Hard Cases, for the most part (hey, bloggers can do product placement too).

So when these villainous heroes (heroic villains?), who know themselves, come up against out-and-out villains who don’t, the result is predictable.  But suppose ordinary decent people, with considerable courage and some applicable skills, but absolutely no experience with the cloak and dagger shtik, came up against someone who is, for want of a better word, evil–and brilliant–and filthy rich.  And he’s got a plan.  That will make him still richer, and a whole lot of people dead.  A Bond story with a Bond villain–but no Bond.

No SMERSH or SPECTRE either, because Westlake would feel, and rightly so I think, that the most interesting Bond villains in the best stories all worked for themselves.  Auric Goldfinger.  Hugo Drax.  Francisco Scaramanga.  Blofeld was more interesting as a figure lurking Sauron-like in the shadows than as an active antagonist.  Who is this guy?  What’s his motivation?  World domination?  Pfaugh.  No evil scheme Blofeld irrationally blabbed to 007 before once again failing to kill him ever resonated half so well as Goldfinger’s epic rant–

(I can imagine Westlake standing up and applauding, which might have gotten him some odd looks in the theater, but he’d be used to that.)

Shakespeare knew the virtues of a great villain, and so did Lorenzo Da Ponte, and so did John Milton.   A villain of this type is a rebel, after all.  Somebody who refuses to bow to the established order of things.    It may be necessary to thwart him or her, but we can still appreciate the ingenuity of the scheme, the audacity of ambition that inspired it.

Of all Bond villains, Goldfinger is the only one 007 personally compliments.  He’s as delighted with the genius on display as any of us are.  As we are delighted by the fictional Richard III, or Iago.  While still knowing they must, in the end, be done to death.  Though Westlake was notorious for having his villainous protagonists get away with all kinds of things, up to and including the social destruction of an entire anti-social planet.  (See, not even going to give you that much of a spoiler.)

Anarchaos may well be the book most similar to this one in the Westlake canon, and that’s no accident.  Curt Clark is very much in the mix here as well, though this one doesn’t have the noir atmosphere, the hard-bitten first person narrator, ala Hammett.  The name of the villain here is Richard Curtis.  Richard, for Richard Stark.  Curtis, for Curt Clark.  And just as Rolf Malone used carefully placed explosive charges to put an end to the world that murdered his brother–well, that would be telling.

So Richard Stark is here, and Timothy J. Culver, and Curt Clark.  I can’t for the life of me detect any Tucker Coe.  The whimsy of Westlake is mainly missing, and I think that’s perhaps at least partly why people who read the manuscript complained that it wasn’t like him.  Of course, he wasn’t planning to publish it as a Westlake.  Knox Burger, his agent of the time, said in a letter Greg Tulonen read, that he was confounded by the pseudonym Westlake had suggested using.  I find myself wondering if the pseudonym might have been Richard Curtis.  Same way the Samuel Holt novels are accredited to Samuel Holt.  The fact that Curtis isn’t the narrator argues against that.  But somehow, one would like to know.

He wanted so much to not have to be Westlake all the time.  To get away from the established perceptions of him as a writer, to be free of that burden of expectations.  The publishing industry simply couldn’t accommodate him in this way any more.  So he put the book aside, and while it’s a finished work, I think we have to say that it’s also an unpolished one.  But in many ways, that just makes it more interesting, to those of us who want to better understand his creative process, and how he was able to write so much, so well, and so multifariously.

I read the early chapters with a slight sense of disappointment.   Then the pace began to build.  I found myself turning the pages faster, needing to know the outcome.  I felt the book was out of balance in some ways, but I wondered if maybe that was the point.  There are many protagonists here, some more interesting than others, none entirely good or evil, all imperfectly knowing themselves, though the two most clearly heroic characters both end up knowing themselves better as the story goes on.  Two of the protagonists are gay, and a couple–and two of the most serious obstacles to Curtis’s plans.  Not comic relief this time.  Well, there is no comic relief this time.

There is an Oddjob, though.  That was maybe the thing I found most fascinating.  We spend quite a lot of time in his head. Westlake must have really liked Goldfinger (he probably got the idea for The Green Eagle Score from it, and greatly improved on it).   Essentially, the improbable and largely mindless henchmen one finds in a Bond story are rationalized here, given souls and motivations and inner lives, comprehensible pragmatic reasons for their loyalty to the main villain (who feels no loyalty to anyone but himself).  But nobody gets to decapitate anybody else with a bowler hat.  Oh well.  Can’t have everything.

Anything else I might say?  Not yet.  Let me read it again, and a while after you’ve all had the opportunity to appreciate what this book has to offer, we’ll come back to it.  And decide how high to rank it.  I honestly don’t think I’ll place it as high as the other two unpublished works we’ve seen since Westlake’s death.  But I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if it outsells both of them.  We’ll see.

And there is a message to it, I think.  Aside from the identity puzzles one always finds in Westlake.  It would read something along the lines of “There are real Bond villains in this ever-changing world in which we live in.  But there is no James Bond.  It’s up to us to stop them.  Or join them.  Or be destroyed and/or ruled by them.  There are no other choices.”

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark, Screenplays by Donald E. Westlake, Timothy J. Culver

Review: Two Much

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How happy could I be with either,
Were t’other dear charmer away!
But while you thus teaze me together;
To neither a word will I say;
But tol de rol, &c.

John Gay.

“Humor is like a fountain,” I said.

“That’s life.  Are you a native New Yorker?”

I frowned at her.  “What’s that got to do with comedy?”

“There are theories about the humorist as the outsider,” she said. “We can make it work both ways.  If you were born and raised in New York City, you must feel isolated from the rest of the country: ergo, comedy.  If you came from Kansas or somewhere, you feel isolated and rootless here in New York: ergo, comedy.  I just want to know whether you go under Column A or Column B.”

“I go with the West Lake Duck.”

“Foreign or domestic?”

Westlake ‘only’ published two novels in 1975: both for M. Evans & Co., both of them stand-alone works, both featuring a thirty-ish unmarried male protagonist who gets into trouble, both ranking among his most interesting works.  And I’d say only the latter of the two protagonists would qualify as a Westlake ‘Nephew’ (not that Westlake ever used this term, that I know of).   But the protagonist of the book we’re looking at now is, I would suggest, an anti-Nephew.

And he’s something else you wouldn’t call most of Westlake’s leading men–an unmitigated cad.  Had this book (which inspired two film adaptations) been written three or four decades earlier, and then made into a Hollywood film (notwithstanding the fact that the cad in this book is a Yank), there really would have been only one actor in all the world to play him.

For back in that era, who but He Who Was Addison DeWitt could have portrayed such a irredeemable rogue and made you like him?  (Errol Flynn may have been the superior cad in real life, but movie-goers only liked him as a hero).  The same way he could pull off a line in the film Death of a Scoundrel–when a married lady he propositions says she is already taken, he replies with the most impeccable aplomb, “I don’t want to take you.  Just to borrow you.”

Mr. Sanders’ scoundrel comes to a bad end in that film, as he did in many others, and he’s forced to recant his wicked ways, as he was in the very disappointing and heavily rewritten ending of the otherwise surprisingly faithful film version of The Moon And Sixpence.   Because, you see, the movie-going public is heavily composed of folks like Strickland’s thick-witted son in Maugham’s book, making fatuous comments like “The mills of the gods grind slow–” and thinking they’re quoting scripture when they do.  Rarely do we let Don Giovanni descend into hell without making him apologize first.   Makes us feel better about ourselves for admiring him.

Maybe it doesn’t take a Mozart (or a Da Ponte) to portray an unapologetic cad, but it’s a rare storyteller who can make one work as the hero of a popular work of fiction.  Charles Willeford was writing this kind of protagonist as far back as 1953 (High Priest of California), not that anything he wrote before the Hoke Moseley books was popular (and ‘cad’ might be too gentle a word for some of his protagonists).   Westlake may have been responding more to Willeford than to any other living storyteller when writing this one, though he’d toyed with this type of character before.

Many of Westlake’s best short stories depicted cads (also a novella we’ll be looking at soon), but making one the center of a full-length novel is more challenging.  Alan Grofield has his caddish moments, true, but he only dabbles at it.  When we first met him, he got involved with a girl while pulling a heist, let her talk him into taking her with him, was ready to stand up to Parker himself to defend her life, and ended up marrying her–a happy  and devoted marriage it seems to be, in spite of his wandering eye–and for all his incessant wisecracking, he’s deadly serious about his two professions.

Eugene Raxford, narrator and protagonist of The Spy In The Ointment is clearly another prototype for this book’s ‘hero’ in terms of his glib freewheeling anti-authoritarian style, but he’s sincerely devoted to the cause of ethical pacifism, and is madly in love with his beautiful klutzy heiress girlfriend, even if he won’t ever admit that to us.

Westlake protagonists, written under any name–with this one exception we’re looking at now–either have a conscience, or (in Parker’s case) a sort of instinctive code of conduct that serves in place of one.  This guy has neither. Rotten to the core, and he likes it that way.  If he ever feels a pang of remorse, he suppresses it rigorously.  As I shall have to do now myself, because cad that I am, I am going to give away some major plot twists of this book (while sparing many others, because I can’t possibly cover them all in one review), but I don’t see how I can talk about what this story means without talking about what happens in it. Seriously, I’m not going to give the whole book away, but if you haven’t read it, stop reading now.  This one’s available on Kindle.   It won’t take you long.

Another thing Westlake protagonists all have in common is that we never see them die.  Westlake came close to showing us one of them kick it in Killing Time, but it’s possible–barely–that Tim Smith was telling his story to the cops from a hospital bed.  All we know for sure is that a very pissed-off Italian guy pointed a gun at Tim while his girlfriend screamed in the distance.  How would you show a first person narrator’s death, anyway?  I mean, if you weren’t going the Jim Thompson ‘exit interview in hell’s waiting room’ route, or a spectral voice-over monologue, ala Wilder’s  Sunset Boulevard?   Westlake has decided to kill this narrator off before our very eyes.  Is this a spoiler?  Not exactly.

I know it must seem I’m avoiding the central point of this book–that it’s about a man pretending to be twins in order to fuck twins.  That’s certainly the main point of the two films made from it, and going by the online synopses, they both totally miss the point.   The twins are mere matching MacGuffins.  This is a book about identity, of course–Westlake wrote it.   And the twin motif serves that end most admirably.  But it’s not really the axis the plot spins upon.  What is?  Money.  I’ll try to keep the synopsis brief this time, if only because I haven’t done a one-part book review in what seems like ages.

What can we say about Art Dodge, aside from the fact that he owes his pun-laden name to Charles Dickens?   He’s thirty years old–the age Westlake believed that we become true adults, and must make choices about how to live the rest of our lives, or else have them made for us.  He’s a philanderer par excellence, exceptionally successful with women, through some combination of good looks, wit, and roguish self-confidence, but he also has bad eyesight and a receding hairline–as did Westlake himself.

He’s a former military brat, who lived all over the place, and has a sister he’s not very close to–Westlake was in the Air Force, and had a sister he rarely if ever referred to in public.  Art’s mother ran out on Art’s dad–and on Art–when Art was still a kid.  This doesn’t seem to refer to Westlake’s own mother, but the hero whose mom checked out on him in some way is a theme you can find in other of Westlake’s books, such as 361.

I don’t know what that’s about–I do know Westlake’s mother had to work long hours to help support the family.   That can feel like abandonment, even though it isn’t.  His children’s book Philip has no father, and an ever-present mother.  That is not an autobiographical work–that is an expression of a lifelong yearning for female attention that permeates most if not all Westlake’s work for adults, and it can also help explain how a fellow gets married three times in twenty-two years.

Art apparently used to work in advertising, but at some point he struck out on his own, and founded a tiny and perpetually indigent greeting card company, Those Wonderful Folks, aka Folksy Cards.  The cards are all ribaldly humorous, full of not terribly subtle sexual innuendo and the occasional ethnic slur.  Art writes them all himself, then cons artists into doing the visuals, then finds ways to avoid paying them, and then his distributor finds ways to avoid paying him, and this is the rugged capitalist spirit that made America great, folks.

He has a long-suffering secretary named Gloria, who is equal parts gal friday, best friend, mother confessor, and more of a sister to him than his actual sister. He does pay her–occasionally.  She puts up with the irregular paychecks because working for him is so much more interesting than her last gig at Met Life (my mother sold insurance for Met Life–small world).

His best male friend is an earnest and staggeringly innocent young attorney named Ralph, who vicariously enjoys hearing about Art’s many conquests, and never once suspects that the mother of his children is one of them.  Her name is Candy, and she’s not really that sweet, but neither is Art.  Anyway, as the story begins, Art is staying with Ralph and Candy and their kids in their tiny summer cottage on Fire Island.  Since Ralph has to go into Manhattan on work days, Art has ample opportunity to take Candy from–eh–too easy.    Anyway, he’s only borrowing her.   In Candy’s mind, she’d like to be on permanent loan.

Then at a party he meets Liz Kerner, a busty brunette in a blue bikini, who turns out to have a house in Point o’ Woods, a tiny exclusive enclave on the island.  It’s not her only place of residence–not by a long shot.  Liz is loaded, being the daughter of a self-made lumber magnate and a mother who came from old money (that had started to run out, hence the lumber magnate).

She’s also a twin.  Their parents perversely named them both Elizabeth, only the other twin spells it with an ‘s’.  Her sister’s everyday name is Betty.  If you want to know what this name game means, I refer you to a quote I put in my review of Adios Scheherazade (Part 2).  But in brief, Liz is a party girl, and Betty is more straight-laced and respectable–in her own fashion.

The sisters, now in their mid-twenties, were orphaned a few years before, when a piano fell on their parents’ limo.  Yes, I suppose we all would love to drop a piano on some rich people from time to time, but the nice thing about being a writer of fiction is you can actually do it and not get arrested.   We get a few more conservative justices on the Supreme Court, probably even that imaginary loophole will be closed.

So Art and Liz, much to Candy’s disgust, head off for bed, and that outcome was never in doubt, so Art doesn’t really know why he suddenly piped up and said he was a twin as well–with an identical brother named Bart.   But clearly somewhere in the back of his mind is the dream all men have dreamed ever since seeing an attractive pair of siblings (please note I left room for gay guys in there), and particularly twins–“Could I have both, please?”  And having tried to pull the sister-switch before, he knows it just does not work.  There’s only so much even the most intrepid of men can accomplish–but suppose he were not one man, but two?

As he meets the equally well-endowed Betty, and finds himself expanding upon the myth of Bart, Art realizes he’s just got to try it.  He normally wears contacts, but he’s got an old pair of glasses, and he does something with his hair, and without really trying he comes up with an alternate personality for himself–he basically just leaves out all the things that make him interesting, becomes a real straight-arrow gee-whiz kind of guy (a male Betty, in other words), and somehow this seems to give him depth in the very gullible Betty’s eyes (the more cynical Liz is not impressed, but she’s got Art).  Art, as Bart, gets very drunk the night he beds Betty, and when he wakes up, they’re engaged.

Art can’t believe it either.  He’s so overwhelmed by his success, he keeps ignoring the little warning bells going off in his head, telling him that you can take a con too far (Kenny Rogers hadn’t yet recorded that song about how you gotta know when to fold ’em, and anyway, when it comes to busty brunettes, it’s so much more fun to hold ’em).

Art started out looking for random sex with a sultry stranger who smells of salt and sand and sweat–but now he smells money, something he’s never had enough of, and it’s skewing his judgment.  How much can he wangle out of these two matching marks before it’s time to call the charade off?

As he puts it, “I’ve never been familiar enough with money to feel contempt for it,” but like his creator, he feels no end of contempt for those who are excessively familiar with it.  He meets Betty at a party the sisters are throwing to find a suitable buyer for their Point o’ Woods house, and he just can’t believe what a bunch of hopeless squares they are.   You know, the way most of us reacted to the Romneys once we’d had a good look at them?

What kind of party was this to be hosted by two girls in their mid-twenties?  There were perhaps forty people present, but only about a quarter of them were under thirty, and they were as stiff as their elders.  There was no dancing.  In fact, there was scarcely any commingling of the sexes at all; women stood with women to discuss department stores, Arthur Hailey novels, absent friends and other parties, while men grouped with men to talk transportation, taxes, politics, and horses–breeding, not racing.  I actually did hear one man say, as I was strolling past, “After all, racing does improve the breed.”

“Quite the contrary,” I said.  “In point of fact, all our effort is the other way, to make breeding improve the race.”

This being the most incisive remark any of them had ever heard in their lives, I was immediately absorbed into the group, where the man I’d contradicted thrust his hand out and said “Frazier.”

I gave him my honest grip, and said “Dodge.”

Another man said “Of the New Bedford Dodges?”

“Distantly,” I said.

So if the unscrupulous Mr. Dodge is the hero of this story, who could the villain possibly be?   Well, you can’t go wrong with a lawyer, can you?

Mr. Volpinex had apparently been my age when he’d died, several thousand years ago, and in the depths of the pyramids had been given this simulacrum of life.  The ancient chemists had died his flesh a dark unhealthy tan, and painted his teeth with that cheap gloss white enamel used in rent-controlled apartments.   His black suit was surely some sort of oil by-product, and so was his smile.

“I take it,” this thing said, extending its hand, “I am addressing Mr Arthur Dodge?”

“That’s right.”  His hand was as dry as driftwood.

“I am Ernest Volpinex,” he said, and gave himself away.  No real thirty-year-old would have reached into his vest pocket at that juncture and given me his card.  So my first guess was right; he was the undead.

Volpinex introduces himself as the attorney for the Kerner estate, though it comes out later he only works for Liz, not Betty–and he would like very much to marry either of them, Betty in particular, but he’d settle for Liz.  He’s as mercenary as Art, but so much less amiable, and he sees the more charming Art and his more virtuous twin as threats to his supposed hegemony over the Kerner sisters, which is indeed the case–though not in quite the way he thinks of course, because a man of his humorless temperament couldn’t imagine the twin con in a million years.

Volpinex–is this a little wink of the eye at Ben Jonson’s Volpone?  I rather think so, but I also think he’s another of Westlake’s beast-men, like Parker, only corrupted (like Quittner, or Leon Ten Eyck)–a fox in human form, but no Reynard the Trickster he (that would be more Art’s line).  He readily admits to having no functioning sense of humor, seeing it as a sign of unreliability.  Rather critically to our story, he is exactly the same age, height, and build as Art, though no one could ever mistake them for twins.  He’s a Starkian doppelganger,  invading the world of a Westlake protagonist, but in his mind, Art is the intruder.

In a later, very telling conversation he and Art have at his club, Art tells him humor is what separates us from the animals, to which Volpinex responds rather perceptively that parrots tell jokes and hyenas laugh.  Art asks him what does separate man from the other animals, then.  “Nothing,” he responds, and they proceed to have a very civilized lunch, full of oysters, fine wine, and veiled threats.

As Volpinex runs background checks on him and Bart, Art asks the thick-headedly loyal Ralph (still in the dark about Candy) to run a check in the other direction, and it comes out that Mr. Volpinex’s wife died under mysterious circumstances a few years previous.  We are left in little doubt that he has already murdered someone very close to him to clear a path between him and the Kerner fortune.  In for a penny, in for a pound.

To make things worse, Mr. Volpinex is a martial arts expert, as well as a squash player who takes the name of his game a mite too literally, as Art finds out after lunch at the club.  And perversely, his ever-escalating threats, mingled with the occasional bribe, just make Art more determined to follow through with his scheme, even though he’s just making it up as he goes along, and he hasn’t really figured out any kind of endgame yet.  This is very much out of Peter Rabe, by the way–the criminal protagonist keeps getting himself deeper and deeper into an impossible situation, partly because he’s determined to defeat a rival even worse than him who is after the same unreachable prize–he wins–and it doesn’t matter.  The game was not worth the candle.  But hey, a Pyrrhic victory is better than none.

Before he actually ties the knot with Betty, Art meets a rather different kind of girl than either of the Kerner sisters.  Linda Ann Margolies, a grad student at Columbia, finishing her master’s thesis on comedy.  She’s extremely familiar with Art’s work, both as an ad copywriter and a purveyor of snarky greeting cards, and she arranges to meet with him at his office, looking to do some research.  You know how I like to say that while Westlake’s protagonists don’t invariably make the right choices, he always gives them a chance to do so?  Linda’s the chance.

Ah, yes, there are moments when I understand cannibalism.  Food imagery kept filling my head as I looked at this lush morsel: home-baked pastry, crepes suzette, ripe peaches.  If she were any shorter, it would be too much, overblown, fit for a gourmand rather than a gourmet, but she was just tall enough to cool the effect slightly and thereby become perfect.  Sex without loss of status, how lovely.  “Come in, Miss Margolies,” I said, and ignored the jaundiced lip-curl of Gloria in the background.

You know how I know when Westlake is describing his feminine ideal?  When his description of her is simultaneously rapturously evocative and frustratingly vague.  Just as with Claire Carroll, we never learn the color of her eyes or hair or anything, we just know she’s very full-figured (in contradistinction to the model-slim Claire–like any true admirer of female beauty, Westlake knew that perfection comes in many sizes and shapes).  Margolies is typically a Jewish name, of course.  Which doesn’t tell us what she looks like, but we can make some educated guesses.  If they made yet another movie adaptation right now–

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(Hey, Linda’s got to work her way through Columbia somehow).

So we have a lively exchange of questions, answers, ideas, and one-liners, part of which you can see up top, climaxing with Art, feeling correctly that Linda has dared him to come around his desk and take her on the floor, does precisely that, to their very mutual pleasure.  You know, maybe Don Juan will always wind up in hell in the end, and Captain MacHeath is going to the gallows in all but the most contrived of finales, but somehow one can’t help feeling there are compensations…

Westlake had by this time fully mastered the art of having a narrator tell us more than he intends, or even realizes, and it’s obvious to us–but not to Art–that Linda is more than just another easy lay to him.  Mr. Westlake has dangled a potential soulmate in front of his anti-Nephew, someone who can not only accept him as he is, but prefer him that way.  Only she’s got no money.   She’s just another penniless adventurer, albeit of a more intellectual bent.  And he finds it oddly disconcerting that she knows him so well when they’ve only just met.   She was reading those cards very closely.  She knows what the clown is hiding behind his puns and pratfalls.  She was seeing what he wrote between the lines.  Somebody please love meThe real meWhoever that is.

And this is, sadly, the last we see of the luscious Linda in this novel, though she periodically reaches out to Art, by phone and by mail, sensing their connection, wanting to make something of it, and he thinks about it, even yearns for it, but there’s so much else going on right now, you see.  And this is Westlake testing Art, hitting him over the head really, yelling in his ear, “Hey–dummy!  That’s The Girl.”  But Art is just too much in love with his own cleverness to listen.  Until it’s much too late.   And much as I wish we men were not that stupid–well, as my female readers (I must have some) will know all too well, we’re just precisely that stupid at times–even when we don’t have rich sexy twins to distract us.

So it’s back to the fortune hunt, and what follows is not so much a tango as a lively gavotte, with Art changing partners (and identities) at a rate that both we and he have a hard time keeping pace with.  The only variation we don’t get is Liz sleeping with Bart, but she does propose marriage to Art, much to his horror–and temptation, because she’s offering (via a contract drawn up by Volpinex) an arrangement any penniless Lothario would cheerfully sell his soul for, if he had one.  No romantic strings attached, on either side–and two thousand a month for Art.   And hey–what is it about these Kerner sisters that makes them so eager to get hitched to twin brothers they barely know, who they’ve never even seen in the same place at the same time?

The answer keeps coming out the same way–money.  See, Liz had told Art half a truth–that if she didn’t get married soon, she’d take a huge tax hit (Pre-Reagan era, remember, the rich had to work harder to hold onto their money back then).

But in fact, she and Betty are suing each other for control of the Kerner fortune, along with a host of minor relations, and because of the terms of their father’s will, they both need a husband to win out, and their social circle simply doesn’t include anyone who is both presentable and available, the way Art and Bart so prodigiously are.   Okay, it probably doesn’t hurt that they’re both so good in the sack (though in a rather identity-rattling moment for Art, when Betty cheats on her non-existent husband with his increasingly confused ‘brother’ one night, she whispers in Art’s ear that he’s better).

Betty, more accomplished at fooling herself than Liz (because she’s so much more invested in the culture that goes with their class), believes she is genuinely in love with Bart, who was concocted mainly as a male version of herself.   Liz, by contrast, is genuinely like Art in many ways, and has been rebelling against her class with her hard-partying lifestyle and sarcastic asides, but it’s all an act, and she knows it.  She doesn’t own the  money, it owns her–at one point, she asks Art how he thinks she’d have reacted if he’d turned down her very unromantic proposal. “You would have loved me more, but you wouldn’t be marrying me,” Art suggests.  And she’s very unhappy to realize that’s exactly right.   He sees her looking at herself in the mirror later, frowning strangely.  Art’s is by no means the only identity crisis in this story.  But it’s the only one that gets definitively resolved.

So many twists and turns in this one, so many ruses, reversals, and revelations.  I could easily turn this review into a two or even three-parter recounting only half of them, but you all know what bedroom farce is, right?   That’s the fun part of the book, and there’s quite a lot of it (286 pages in the first edition hardcover) but it’s not all sex, lies, and gigolo japes.  It’s got a lot to say, and as Bernard Shaw had his Don Juan remark, there is much to be learned from a cynical devil–you definitely won’t find a sentimental one here.

The identity of an adventurer–or a comedian, same difference–isn’t terribly well-rooted to begin with.  Constantly putting on masks, rarely if ever letting them slip, Art is barely on speaking terms with himself, but he is capable of moments of real insight when prodded.  Like what he tells Linda, about a minute before he fucks her on the floor.   She’s just asked him why some people choose comedy as their defense against the many dangers of this world.

Taking a deep breath, I said “Because the comic is a killer himself, that’s why.   The comic is the last civilized man to feel the killer inside himself.  We’re omnivores, little girl, and that means we’ll eat anything that stands still, we’ll eat anything that doesn’t have flashing lights.  ‘Comedy instead of some other defense,’ you said, and that’s right.  Comedy is surprise.  I make you laugh, that means I surprise you, that means you’ll keep your distance, you won’t attack.  Laugh meters should record in megadeaths, because that’s what comedy is all about; I kill you for practice to keep you from killing me for real.”

And, self-evidently, to keep from having to kill anyone else for real, and here’s the thing about Art–he’s a complete and total bastard, not a redeeming trait in him, but he’s got not one ounce of malice in him–towards anyone.  He just wants to enjoy his brief time on earth as best he can, to have both a variety of pleasurable experiences and absolute liberty, and that’s hard, folks.  Very few ever manage that balancing act for long (some rich and famous people can fake it to beat the band, but it’s all done with mirrors) and he’s been teetering on the high wire for some time now.   He wants the money the Kerners proffer, because he thinks that will stabilize him.   Oh that it will, Art.

Volpinex had him pegged, at the club, when he offered Art 30 grand in venture capital in exchange for backing away from the Kerner sisters.  It seems an improbably on-target assessment from such a soulless drip, but we all have hidden depths, I suppose.

“You are not quite the standard fortune-hunter,” he said, “some money-mad chauffeur out to make a quick killing.  You are better than that, more educated, more intelligent, more talented.”

I put my fork down and stared at him.  “Now you’re trying to sell me an encyclopedia.”

He ignored that, saying, “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that you enjoy the life you already have: the freedom, some sense of adventure and experiment, the opportunity to employ your talent.”

“And the bill collectors,” I said.  “They’re my favorites.”

He nodded, thoughtfully.  “The money Elizabeth offered you has gone to your head, and why not?  It’s a lot of money.  But it isn’t what you really want.”

Ah, but you see, Mr. Volpinex, for a man to know what he really wants, he has to know what he really is.  Maybe you know it reflexively, being more of a Starkian figure, however corrupted.   But Art Dodge is just a man, and he’s never taken the time to figure himself out, because the answers would have come with a few too many inconvenient questions, that might get in the way of his fun.  That might force him to grow up.

He just figures he can kill Bart off when the time is right, so Art can thrive–or the other way around–what’s the difference?   What’s in a name?  It’s just another Dodge.

When the whole twin act falls to bits, as Art always knew must happen eventually, he’s unprepared for it–he’s got no escape hatch ready.  He has to start killing people to keep his secret.  Or else honestly face up to the consequences of his myriad deceptions, something no cad ever willingly does–that’s what makes him a cad.   And if the comedian kills you symbolically, to keep from having to kill you for real, that means Art Dodge is comedian no more.   He’s the other kind of murderer, and his identity has been irreparably compromised.  Not least by the fact that he has become fabulously wealthy and powerful–and it turns out he’s very good at it.  Money has no loyalties, you know.  The Kerner money is Dodge money now.  And it couldn’t care less.

A strange way to punish a rogue.  A strange hell for Don Giovanni to descend into.   But that is precisely what we’re witnessing here.  Art Dodge is dead.  And damned.  And there’s not enough left of him to care.

It doesn’t happen all at once.  He resists.  He tells himself “I am becoming Volpinex” and the thought truly horrifies him (choose your enemy carefully…).  But the inexorable twin pulls of survival and money keep dragging him down, forcing him to become an alien creature, as spiritually mummified as his now-deceased rival.

As the story concludes, he’s in his old office, giving up Folksy Cards, giving Gloria two thousand bucks severance–clearly saddened at the end of their relationship, she asks won’t he need a secretary where he’s going?  He suggests she talk to the consortium of disgruntled artists he’s held at bay for years, who will take his place.   She can see something is terribly wrong, but she can’t understand it.  He tells us she squints at him, as though he’s surrounded by smoke.  We realize that there really was somebody who loved this clown for himself–and will mourn his passing.

And maybe one other.  Gloria hands Art a card from Linda Ann Margolies–whose master’s thesis he tried to read, found it rather frivolous, how could he have been attracted to someone so common, so immature?  Sitting at his desk for the very last time, he concludes what we now realize was an extended epitaph for his soul.

I very nearly tossed it out at once–something about my brief encounter with that girl bothered me, I couldn’t say what–but curiosity got the upper hand.  Opening it, I found a greeting card inside of the kind I used to publish, though not one from my company.  The front showed a man in the front half of a horse suit, with a theater’s stage in the background.  Inside, it said, “I just can’t go on without you.”

Was that supposed to be funny?  I threw it away.

Brrrrr!

In the massed ranks of the books Westlake published in his lifetime,  there is only one that can stand beside this in terms of a truly chilling anti-climax (still a ways off, and much more in the Starkian mode, with more than a touch of Coe).

For all his understandable cynicism about the human race, his black Irish melancholia, Westlake was a hopeful optimistic person by nature, and something in him hated to let his heroes die–even if they lost everything, they still had themselves (indeed, losing everything might prove the very best way to find yourself, as many a visionary has opined).  Perhaps this aversion to killing his protagonists stemmed from him wanting to be a just God to the people he breathed life into–perhaps because it was too much like suicide by typewriter.

But in this breezy bedroom farce of his, having so much in common in its style and plot material with the desultory sleaze novels he’d cranked out under false names earlier in his career,  he truly does rise above the material at last, even as he shows his hero sinking ever-deeper into moral quicksand.  There were a million ways he could have ended this one, and he chose the truest and most painful.   And it seems damned few people at the time appreciated that.

‘Newgate Callendar,’ whose New York Times review of Butcher’s Moon I referenced a few weeks back, just could not seem to wrap his mind around the fact that Mr. Westlake was never going to be content to be a mere composer of light entertainments for our momentary diversion.   The first edition of the next book we’ll be looking at bore a blurb from his review of this one, acclaiming Westlake “The Neil Simon of the Crime Novel,” but read in context, that’s not so much a compliment as a politely worded put-down.

Callendar always paid warm tribute to Westlake’s skill as a writer, while obtusely failing to understand his choices as a storyteller (it’s tragic but hardly surprising that he succeeded the far more qualified Anthony Boucher as the prime writer on the mystery genre for the Times).  As he saw it, this book “belabors a situation that is impossible to begin with, ends up with too pat a solution and turns farce into tragedy.  The author of the book is the deus ex machina and that is always a cop-out.”

Leaving aside the tiresomely obvious fact that the author of every book ever written is the deus ex machina, it is precisely the turning of farce into tragedy that elevates this book above most of the other stories Westlake wrote about confused harried bachelors with overly complex personal lives.  Newgate Callendar, in his everyday guise of Harold C. Schonberg, may have been a brilliant music critic–when it came to discussing mere technique–but why do I suspect that if he’d been critiquing Mozart while the latter was still alive, he’d have missed the point of every opera?  Just like most of Mozart’s contemporaries did.

Diabolus ex machina would be more to the point, since Westlake has tempted his hero with Mephistophelian ingenuity–while still clearly pointing him towards the path to redemption, which he fails to follow, or even recognize.  And this is entirely logical for the character we’ve been shown.  It’s no cop-out–it’s a fair cop, as the Brits say.  And yes, contrived as all hell, but that’s no less true of the Dortmunders, which Callendar heartily approved of–because he didn’t take them seriously.  More fool he.

All this modern-day Faust had to do was say to Linda “Stay, thou art beautiful!” (the precise meaning of her name in Spanish) and he would have been saved, even if he remained as lecherous, light-fingered, and leering as ever.  His damnation lay in his failure to know himself well enough to withstand temptation–not of the flesh, but of filthy lucre (Westlake whole-heartedly approved of temptations of the flesh; much as they may need to be resisted at times, to resist them at all times is to fail at life).

And yet, I fear it was Newgate Callendar’s take on this book that won out, at least in the short term.  People wanted the farce, bedrooms and all, sans the tragedy–the people making movies certainly did.  Film producers hear “Neil Simon” and think “Money”, so it got two film adaptations, as already noted–one French and one American.  The French one starred one of those comic actors nobody but the French care about, and had a happy ending. I suspect this is the better of the two, but it still sounds pretty bad.

The American one came ten years later, and starred Antonio Banderas (well, at least that makes Art’s romantic prowess more believable), and the sisters were played by Melanie Griffith and Daryl Hannah, which of course destroys the whole twin angle, and Art is an artist (the kind who paints), and I’ve never seen it, and I don’t care if I ever do.  I mean, if you have to stick a happy ending on it, why not Art and Linda going off into the sunset?  Because Linda is too small a part to tempt a big star, and of course one big star has to end up with another big star.  And virtue has to be rewarded–not self-understanding, which was the point of the book.  For some reason, self-understanding isn’t usually a big thing in Tinseltown.

“Thus do we artists adapt the facts of our own lives to the purposes of our art.”  So Art Dodge tells us, as he scrawls the text for yet another witty greeting card on the Fire Island Ferry.  Westlake knew the temptations of money very well–and I think he often lusted for big material success, the blockbuster best-seller he never got–and feared it at the same time.  Somebody as talented and prolific as him really should have been rich at some point, right?  Why didn’t he ever get there?  Maybe, on some level, because he didn’t want to.  Because without the need to get up every day and dodge bill collectors, dodge exes, dodge rivals, the supreme dodge that is art would fall away from  him, never to be regained.

It wouldn’t necessarily for everyone.  I’m sure Stephen King is a nice enough person in real life, and he’s written some very good books since he got rich.  If he’s written anything as good as Two Much, I’m not aware of it.  Well, that’s just my opinion.  And it’s a different thing to earn your money through creativity than through connivance.  Not all rich guys with political aspirations are stick-in-the-mud bores, as we’ve had occasion to learn recently–but self-understanding will never be theirs.  And their only real love affairs are with themselves.  But they provide ample material for the true clowns of the world.  So ridi, Pagliacci.  Ridi.

Our next book could not be more different from this one, and yet I’d argue it was intended as a companion piece to it–Westlake must have written one right after the other, maybe working on both at the same time.  It features a slightly older and ultimately much wiser protagonist, and a Nephew he is, to his very core–but he’s a Nephew with lots of brothers, and that makes all the difference.  And if you’ll excuse me now, I’ve got to try and get that review finished by October 25th.  I must say, I’ll be very impressed with any of my readers who understand why that particular date.  Oh, for a muse of fire….

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Two Much

Bonus Item: Playback (Mad Magazine does Payback)

As promised, here’s the second (and to date, final) Westlake-related parody in Mad Magazine. Dortmunder fans can take some small satisfaction in the fact that The Hot Rock got seven pages, and Payback only four, though that probably relates more to changes at Mad in the ensuing decades than to the quality of the films being spoofed. And I note with approval that they didn’t even notice Parker. It was out of theaters too fast for them to do anything with it, anyway.

I tend to agree with the artist’s unspoken assertion that the most enjoyable thing about Payback was watching Lucy Liu and Maria Bello strut their considerable stuff. And hey, the movie wasn’t that inconsistent about how much money he’s asking for. Okay, maybe it was a little. Anyway–Playback.

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6 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake film adaptations, Parker film adaptations

Bonus Item: The Cute Rook

Ah, the joys of the comments section.  Anthony helpfully pointed out to me there was a Mad Magazine parody of The Hot Rock, which was published in issue No. 154, Oct. ’72, which sold at the time for 40 cents (cheap), and which I easily obtained via ebay for $5.50 (inflation).  My copy arrived this morning.  And having gained a bit more proficiency with the optical scanner at my place of business, I’m going to try to make it available to my loyal readers, so they don’t have to further clutter their gracious homes with useless collectibles.   (See, what I didn’t realize when scanning Philip is you can convert the images to JPEG’s.  Well, that all worked out for the best anyway.)

Now for Mad Magazine, as we all know, there has never been any such thing as a good movie or a movie star who knew how to act.  That’s just the form.  But I wouldn’t say they are equally hard on all movies–you can see them showing a bit more respect for something like The Godfather (The Oddfather in their version).  That one you can find elsewhere online.  I think there is some legitimate criticism being made here, as well as the usual by-the-numbers disrespect for everything and everybody that we all happily plunked down our allowances for when we were kids.

They did not feature The Cute Rook on their cover (it’s Alfred E. Neuman eating corn on the cob), but overall I think they did a credible job.  Worth it for the Zero Mostel caricature alone (Drucker obviously loved him, and so do I).  And I think I was right on target in my guess that their main target would be Redford.  Uppity goy.

So without further ado–The Cute Rook.   No need to thank me.  I live to serve.

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I’m obviously biased, but I think Westlake’s book was a lot funnier.   Still, you aren’t anyone until Mad Magazine has sent you up.   Any other Mad parodies of Westlake movies I could put up here?   Cracked would be fine too, I’m no snob.

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, John Dortmunder novels

Dortmunder at the Movies, Part 1 (in a one-part series): The Hot Rock

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Dortmunder at the movies was like a rock on the beach; the story kept washing over him, in wave after wave, but never had any effect.

From Bank Shot, by Donald E. Westlake

Rarely has a screenwriter talked to me about adapting one of my books.  The first time was William Goldman [scenarist of The Hot Rock], who holds the whole field of screenwriting in contempt.  Either in spite of that, or because of that, he is, I think, the best living screenwriter.  Nobody on earth could have made a movie of All the President’s Men [1976] and he did.

When he took the job of doing The Hot Rock, he called me and said “I want to take you to lunch and I want you to tell me everything you know about these characters that you didn’t put in the book.”  I thought, “What a smart guy this is!”  We spent time together.  The director [Peter Yates] and producers [Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts] didn’t give a damn, but Bill would send me portions of the script and say, “What do you think?”  He was very forthcoming.

He took out the only thing I thought of as a movie scene in the whole book, a scene where they have stolen a locomotive from a circus because they have to break into an insane asylum.  It’s a complicated scene, but that seemed to me like a movie scene.  Bill explained why he couldn’t use it and he was right.  Every once in a great while–I don’t think in terms of movies if I’m writing a book and I think anyone who does is crazy–I’ll look back at something I’ve written and say, “That’s a movie scene…” And if the movie rights are sold, that scene is never used.

Donald Westlake, talking to Patrick McGilligan, and you can read much more in The Getaway Car, still in fine bookstores near you I would hope, but if not, there’s always the internet.  (Parenthetically, the locomotive was borrowed from an amusement park, not stolen from a circus, but would you want to be the one to tell him that?)

I don’t really want to talk about the Dortmunder movies.  I’ve only seen two–the first two–and those are probably the only two I’ll ever see.  The first is a decent film that could have been a great one, and we’ll be looking at that now.  The second (Bank Shot) is a DeLuxe Panavision nightmare from which I briefly feared I might never awake.

(Can I just ask, while we’re on the subject, what do the people who adapt Westlake’s books have against Joanna Cassidy?  She was in both The Outfit and Bank Shot, and if I were her, I’d conspire to have all prints of both films destroyed.  A beautiful talented actress, who has done many fine things, and it seems like certain filmmakers once lived to dress her in the most horrible clothes imaginable and make her talk like the village idiot.  Except for Ridley Scott, who dressed her in glitter and snakes and not much else in Blade Runner, but she was an android in that one, so maybe that works–I think the book was better in that case as well, but that’s for a different blog entirely, which I’m quite sure already exists–probably hundreds of blogs like that exist.  Thousands, even.  But I digress.)

So this will not be a series of articles on the Dortmunder films, as I’ve already done for Parker, because I think there’s only one Dortmunder film worth discussing.  Or for that matter, watching.  And frankly, the world would not have been all that much the poorer if even that one had never been made, though obviously Mr. Westlake himself would have been somewhat the poorer.  In strictly monetary terms.

Why are the Dortmunder films so bad?   Probably for the same reason most of the Parker films after Point Blank are so bad–because the first Dortmunder film that was only half-bad flopped to hell, in spite of having a dynamite cast, a big budget, the same director who made Bullitt, and, as Westlake himself ardently agreed, the best screenwriter in the business.   And having failed with A-List talent, Dortmunder got relegated to the B, C, D, and possibly even E list ever afterward.  That doesn’t really answer the question of why it failed with the A-List talent, though.

There are, needless to say, quite a few immortal classics of the cinema that originally failed at the box office (like, for example, Point Blank).  This isn’t one of them.   I do think it deserved to do better than it did.   I’m not at all surprised that it didn’t.

I already discussed, in my review of The Outfit, how you can hire a great actor to play a role who gives it his all, and it’s just not good enough, because he’s wrong for the part.   Robert Duvall couldn’t play Parker because there’s just no way Parker looks like that, and because his acting style didn’t work for the character.   They did the same thing with Robert Redford and Dortmunder, only there’s no way Dortmunder looks that good.  How are we supposed to buy somebody who won the genetic lottery like few guys before or since as one of life’s perennial losers?

Redford was much more than just a pretty boy–you don’t have to tell me that.   From early in his career, you could tell he didn’t want to coast on his looks, anymore than Paul Newman did.  Fact is, he played a lot of losers in his career, but they were mainly losers by choice.   Dortmunder is a loser by fate, who occasionally guts out a victory by dint of sheer willpower and ingenuity.  He is not one of Mother Nature’s fair-haired boys–so why is he being played by the ultimate fair-haired boy?

The obvious answer is money.  To make an even half-faithful adaptation of Westlake’s novel, you’d need a very large budget.  For example, the sequence where Dortmunder’s gang invades a police station by way of a helicopter.   You remember how Major Iko kind of flinched when he was told a helicopter was needed for that job–imagine if they’d needed two of them–one for the gang to ride in, and another to film them riding in the first one.  Helicopter shots cost big money, particularly when they’re being done over Manhattan Island.   That’s just one short segment of the film.

The production budget, according to Wikipedia, was not quite 4.9 millon–which doesn’t sound like much, until you look at a list of other 1972 releases, and see that The Poseidon Adventure was made for 4.7 million.  Well, that was mostly shot on indoor sets, you see.  But Jeremiah Johnson was shot entirely on location, way out in the wilderness, much of it in winter, and cost 3.1 million.  The Godfather cost six or seven million, and that had Pacino and Brando.

So they needed a marquee name, to placate the money men.   Redford’s stardom was not, we should remember, an overnight thing.  He’d broken into movies in 1962, but didn’t really break out until Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969.  Then he had a solo hit with Jeremiah Johnson in 1972.  But he’d interspersed these successes with more challenging lower-budget ‘message’ pictures, like The Candidate.  By 1972, he was just becoming a really big established star, though he probably didn’t seal the deal until The Sting, and then The Way We Were.   The Hot Rock took maybe a little wind out of his sails, but not for long.

One thing Redford always knew how to do was read a script.  He knew how talented Goldman was, and how much fun it had been to read his dialogue.  Butch Cassidy proved they made a good team (on the right project, one should always add).   So it seems like a fair assumption Redford got a copy of Goldman’s script for this film while it was making the rounds during the development stage of the project–he signaled his interest, and that was that.  He wanted to try something different; they needed him to get the financing.

Now according to this blog, they wanted George C. Scott to be Dortmunder (as he eventually would be, in a much worse movie), and Redford would have been Kelp.   But the deal with Scott didn’t pan out, so Redford took the top spot, and George Segal got to be Kelp (and if there’s one perfect casting pick in the film, that’s it).  And that probably goes a good way towards explaining why the film feels so off-balance.  Sometimes unexpected cast changes work in your favor–sometimes not.

It’s possible Redford read Westlake’s book before he was signed, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  I feel quite confident in saying Peter Yates hadn’t read it beforehand.  Goldman, by contrast, had been a fan of Westlake’s for years, and said so (and as you can see above, they had a mutual admiration society going on there).

Westlake would later state his conviction that if they’d simply filmed Goldman’s script the way it was originally written, they’d have had a much better picture.   In particular, he thought it was a shame the big final scene at the airport was skipped, because Yates didn’t want to do another airport chase so soon after Bullitt (this probably also explains why we see so little of Murch’s crazy driving in the film).

Yates didn’t seem to be that enthused about the project, and though he would in his career direct a number of excellent slice of life comedies like Breaking Away, this wasn’t really his kind of comedy–he didn’t know how to make it work.  Since he could do both crime and comedy well, it might seem natural to assume he could do both at the same time, but such was not the case.

Yates, like Redford, hadn’t been a major player for very long.   Bullitt was his first hit, and it had been followed by two star-driven critically panned duds (John and Mary and Murphy’s War).  When he had a good script that he could understand, he usually delivered a solid piece of entertainment, but his two real high points, creatively speaking, are Bullitt and Breaking Away–which couldn’t be much more different, indicating that Yates wasn’t the secret ingredient in either.  He just made them both look really great, and to be fair, he made The Hot Rock look sensational as well.

Looking over his filmography, it’s hard to find any consistent themes–he was a capable director, not an ‘auteur’.  All surface, no substance.  He excelled at big visuals, lyrical wide-angle shots, and there’s always a certain romanticism to his work.  You can’t really place him among the cinema gods, but I must say, I’ve always enjoyed Krull.

I can’t evaluate the screenplay Goldman originally turned in, because I don’t have it (somebody must, but there’s not enough interest to justify publishing it).  I’ve just seen the film again, and I have no doubt there were major changes made to the script in the course of filming.  Even though this is filmed in New York City (and even in an era renowned for fantastic on-location shooting in New York, there’s some exceptional stuff here), they still had to change things around a lot.   And some changes they didn’t have to make, but made anyway.   They always do that.

The first thing we learn from this movie is that Robert Redford is actually a rather short man.

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This has been a matter of some controversy–he’s stated in interviews that he’s six feet tall.  He’s generally listed as being 5’10.  He’s probably closer to 5’8–but in most of his films, a combination of special shoes, camera tricks, shorter co-stars, physique, and sheer unbridled charisma, has made him look like a big guy.

In this film, he looked his actual height, which may well have been intentional–they knew this wasn’t the typical Redford character, and they wanted to make him less studly (he doesn’t even have a girlfriend, which may have been ill-considered, commercially speaking), so they didn’t go to such pains to conceal his stature.  He presumably assented to this, like the pro he is.

Personally, I always see Dortmunder as being somewhere in the six foot range, but I think it was the right call in this case to let him be short–creatively speaking.  Though I’m guessing a lot of Redford’s fans didn’t want to see him this way (why do you think he lies about his height?), and that was just one of many things that hurt the box office.

If you’ve never read the book or seen the movie, and you want to enjoy both, I’d advise seeing the movie first.  No, seriously.  That way you end with the more enjoyable story, and you won’t spend the whole movie saying “Why did they do that?”, over and over again.  Like for example, why does the warden in this movie tell Dortmunder he knows he’ll see him again–and why does Dortmunder agree, basically admitting (while he’s still in prison!) that he’s unreformable?  Because they don’t want to show Robert Redford being sneaky?  He’s playing a career criminal.

Why is Kelp married to Dortmunder’s hot sister (one of only two female characters of any note in the film), who has made Dortmunder an uncle, and who is barely even in the movie?   Because they don’t see any other way to justify Dortmunder agreeing to work with him?  Fact is, he actually brings up the problem that if they’re both caught, his sister won’t have anybody to support her and the baby.  So that doesn’t work.

They compound this error by making the devious attorney Eugene Prosker, (Abe Greenberg in the film, played by the great Zero Mostel) the father of Alan Greenfield/Grofield (just Greenberg in the film, played by the not-so-great Paul Sand).   Now I think this is to explain why Greenberg agrees to tell his lawyer where the stone is, but is that really so hard to explain?  The hard thing to explain is how either version of the lawyer got into the cell the jewel was stashed in when his client wasn’t there.  And the film doesn’t explain that either.  You notice it a lot more in the film, somehow.

And later, they try to leverage the father/son thing (which takes up way too much time in the film) to explain why the lawyer agrees to tell where the stone is.   The elder Greenberg seems to love his son, but not as much as money, and so he only caves when he thinks they’ve killed his son, and believes they’re going to kill him too (this is the scene where the audience is told that Dortmunder can’t actually kill anybody–like he’s a criminal Batman).  But he’s carrying the safe-deposit key on his person.  They couldn’t just search him?  Anyway, why would he think they’d let him live, when he believes he’s just witnessed his son’s murder?   Westlake must have been shaking his head wearily at the premiere.

If all this pointless family stuff was Goldman’s idea, shame on him.  It’s bad cliched writing, something he was not often guilty of at this stage of his career.  But a screenwriter is rarely the only person responsible for the story you see in a film.   He writes what the higher-ups tell him to write, as best as he can.   I have little doubt Goldman would have loved to adapt The Hot Rock the way he later adapted his own novels–sensitively yet efficiently, keeping in all the best scenes, cutting out what doesn’t fit, making it all flow together effortlessly.  The fact that it doesn’t flow at all in this movie–that it feels so choppy and forced, something one can rarely ever say of a Goldman scripted film–tells me that he got a lot of notes, had to make a lot of changes, and that it wasn’t just the end of his script that got the chop.   And I’m going to prove that theory before this review is done.

Because there are so many pointless scenes in the film, a lot of very important scenes are left out altogether, or get very short shrift.  Dortmunder at no time attempts to give up on getting the gem–which is a diamond here, not an emerald, and I guess they figured diamonds are more commonly found in Africa–except that the technology to cut and polish diamonds didn’t exist until modern times, and this is supposed to be an ancient sacred object that these African nations have been fighting over for centuries (if I tried to list all the errors in the film, the review would run to 10,000 words).  You just know they were hoping for something like The Pink Panther here, but if that’s what they wanted, they should have hired Blake Edwards.

Professionalism is a big part of any Westlake heist book, and it’s commendable that they want to go to such pains to depict Redford’s Dortmunder as a dedicated pro, but he’s so damn cool, even when he’s failing, the whole point of the story–his sense that the universe is conspiring to make him look foolish–is lost.  He never looks foolish, even when a half-naked bum steals his watch at knife-point outside a police station.   I’d blame Redford’s sang-froid, except he did disheveled frustration so well in Butch Cassidy.   But somehow, on that movie, everybody knew what they were supposed to be doing (and I think they mainly just filmed Goldman’s script the way he wrote it, because it would have been a crime not to).

Redford doesn’t have a firm grip on the character he’s playing here, and that’s because the people making the film don’t either.  Without any real sense of who Dortmunder is, he’s got nothing to project but poise and coolness, which undermines the whole concept of Dortmunder, who wouldn’t know from cool if you parachuted him into the Antarctic. It’s one of the weakest performances Redford ever gave in any film.

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Segal, by contrast, is so well-cast in his role that all the stupid lines they give Kelp don’t hurt him nearly as much.  Still, he’s also a far cry from the character in the book.  He’s playing the nervous nebbish to Dortmunder’s Mr. Cool, and there’s a lot of useless back-and-forth sniping between them when they’re supposed to be working (Kelp’s the lockman in this film, since they cut Chefwick and his toy trains out entirely, more’s the pity).  His whole role in the book is to keep cajoling Dortmunder back to work, and they try to work with that in the film, but it just doesn’t wash, because Redford’s Dortmunder would never give up on a job once he started it.

Why is this guy a thief?  With the Dortmunder in the book, it’s never necessary to ask.  We know he grew up in an orphanage, he got drafted to fight in Korea, he had basically no education, and he does not look like Robert Redford.  But the Dortmunder in the film is a thief because the script says he is–we’re just supposed to accept it.  We’re told he’s a genius planner who has been arrested and convicted over and over (not just twice, like Westlake’s Dortmunder–there’s also no indication that if Redford’s Dortmunder takes one more fall, he’s going away for keeps).

They do convey something of the odd fugue state Dortmunder will go into when he’s trying to plan a job, sketching on bits of paper, matchbook covers, trying to get an idea.  But Redford’s Dortmunder just doesn’t seem to belong in the professional world he inhabits.  George C. Scott (around 44 at the time the film was made) would have done a much better job, and it would be easier to buy him as a seasoned veteran who has been to prison quite a few times.

Ron Leibman’s Murch is pretty good–Leibman had fun with him, you can tell.   A character actor rarely has trouble playing characters.  They bring in Murch’s mom briefly (played by Charlotte Rae, who is also damn good), and do the bit with the Daytona Speedway record, but it’s an isolated moment in the film, that doesn’t tie in to anything–we don’t even get to see Dortmunder and Kelp look quizzical when they hear the engine sounds.

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I’m guessing it was better handled in the original screenplay, but Goldman probably had to fight to keep this much Murch in, when the producers clearly preferred Paul Sand’s Greenberg–there is way too much Paul Sand in this picture, and none of his scenes work at all–apparently he’s been to a lot of fancy schools where he learned about home-made bombs, and I don’t care.  Murch gets two quick chances to display his New York traffic expertise, but they’re just throwaway bits–Yates isn’t interested, so he doesn’t focus in enough, and the running gag just doesn’t get across.  None of them do, really–and this story is all about running gags.  These characters are a collection of running gags.

They don’t even explain why Murch wants salt for his beer when they’re talking at the bar.  So why bring it up in the first place?   How much would it have added to the budget to show a guy sprinkling some salt on his beer to restore the head?  One close-up of a beer glass.  They couldn’t be bothered.  And it’s the little details that make this kind of comedy work.  Not the epic panoramas.

But that’s what they thought would sell the movie–they obviously blew a big chunk of the budget on the helicopter raid on the police station, which really is well done, and must have been technically challenging, to say the least. It’s a bit haunting to see the nearly completed World Trade Center in the background, which sort of ruins the comic effect for us now, but it’s still an inspiring tableau. Goldman came up with a few original bits of business, like them landing on the wrong roof and asking some geezers for directions–and the police chief, believing (as in the book) that the raid is actually a revolution, and saying (in a satiric echo of Lyndon Johnson) that he won’t be the first American police chief to lose a station.

But having done that, they’ve shot their wad. There will be no locomotive raid on a mental hospital (I wish Westlake had shared Goldman’s explanation of why that wouldn’t work–my suspicion is that the main reason was money and time). There will be no face-off at the airport, nor will Dortmunder commandeer a small plane to make his getaway with the titular gem. Nor will we see his Machiavellian revenge against Major Iko (Dr. Amusa in the film, for reasons I could not possibly guess).   You can’t convince me audiences of that era–or any era–wouldn’t have liked that better than what they got.

But we do get Miasmo the Great–only just Miasmo here, and played by Canadian actress Lynne Gordon (apparently she had a talk show in Canada), who is effective, but not the least bit funny–the hypnotism scene in the elevator–the most absurd thing in the whole story–is played absolutely straight–like we’re supposed to take it seriously. Now it’s easy to poke holes in retrospect, but I’d have gone with Richard Libertini, who looked so much like the tall impressive black-bearded hypnotist Westlake described, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that wasn’t a coincidence. Gordon just comes across as–well–disturbing.

(Here’s Libertini in a scene from The In-Laws, in 1979–more of a Westlake comedy than any of the comedies anybody ever made from an actual Westlake novel, and still one of the funniest films ever made–at least somebody was paying attention).

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So anyway, Dortmunder goes and gets the jewel, like he does in the book, and the movie is over. He’s assuming, like the book Dortmunder, that something will go wrong, but it all goes smoothly, and he gets out of there just before the now-collaborating Abe Greenberg and Dr. Amusa show up to claim it (why did they wait so long?).

And Quincy Jones, who did a fine job with the score, has the first-rate modern jazz musicians playing it (who Jones went out of his way to get screen credit for) launch into a Dixieland riff, and Dortmunder does a sort of victory strut through the Manhattan streets, to the waiting getaway car with a giant key on the roof. He gets in, everybody cheers, they drive away. The End.

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The End? Just like that? Some people watch this film now and say “how charmingly counter-intuitive.” I like the scene for what it is, appreciate Yates’ undoubted talent for the lyrical, and I still say it stinks as an ending, and that’s what most people said back then. We already know Westlake thought so–he wanted that airport scene Goldman wrote. Of course, the point of the victory strut is that they worked so hard, did all these big elaborate heists, and then it just falls into their hands. We’ve already been told they can deal directly with the insurance company (we’ve also been told the Amusa’s people might come after them if they do that, but how many nitpicks can I do in one review?).

Thing is, they didn’t work that hard. They stole the gem from the Museum only to lose it (it was The Brooklyn Museum, since obviously they couldn’t manage the New York Coliseum, which was a busy place back then). They sprung Greenberg from prison–that’s another good scene, particularly the stuff with Murch driving the getaway car into the truck. They raided the police station. And then they did the thing with Miasmo (Miasma?), still believing they were on Amusa’s payroll, but they didn’t tell him about it (so where’d they get the money to pay her?).

That’s only three bad jobs to one good one. Dr. Amusa calls it ‘The Habitual Crime’ (a phrase Goldman probably got from Westlake during their chats), but they wasted so much time (and money) on lackluster scenes that aren’t in the book, there isn’t enough build-up to make the pay-off work.  It’s not quite habitual enough to make that line ring true.  The rhythm is off.

Watching it on your TV now, with limited expectations, you can see the charm of it, insubstantial though it be–but imagine shelling out money for tickets, and getting this fizzle of an ending, that doesn’t really resolve anything–if it wasn’t for the credit crawl, you’d think the projectionist lost a reel. This is how it ends? I’d have wanted my money back.

I think they went over budget, and started trimming desperately to get the film finished.  The producers gave up on it.  Can I prove this?  Surprisingly, yes.   Here’s Dortmunder near the end of the movie, doing a variation on the Jinx Speech from the novel–

Not me. I’ve got no choice. I’m not superstitious. And I don’t believe in jinxes, but that stone’s jinxed me and it won’t let go. I’ve been damned near bitten, shot at, peed on and robbed. And worse is gonna happen before it’s done. So I’m takin’ my stand. I’m going all the way. Either I get it, or it gets me.

When was this Dortmunder ‘damned near bitten’?  We know where that’s coming from.  The German Shepherd who menaced the book Dortmunder while he was trying to sell phony encyclopedias, and then Kelp and Greenwood come and talk him into another shot at the jewel.   One of the funniest scenes in the book–Goldman, being no dummy, obviously put it in his script.  Was it filmed?  One would think so, since the line is in there, but either way, it’s not in the finished film.   And there aren’t any dogs at all in the film, that I remember.

We saw him get mugged (which isn’t in the book), and his sister’s kid pees on him (which has nothing to do with the job and it seems a bit petty for him to bring it up), but there’s no near-biting episode–and what we learn from this–one of Redford’s better bits of dialogue–is that they were getting sloppy.  They needed to either show him being nearly bitten before this scene, or they needed to reshoot the scene, but it was the helicopter scene–they couldn’t possibly manage a do-over.  They didn’t have the money.  The film was probably already over-budget.  It’s the only explanation that fits.  But for the filmgoer in 1972, it’s like “I remember the mugging.  They shot at him during the prison break.  The baby peed on him.  When did he get almost bitten?  Did I miss something?”

Maybe that scene with the dog (if that’s what it was) wasn’t actually shot–movie scenes aren’t usually done in the order in which they occur in the narrative–maybe they did the helicopter scene early on, and it cost so much more than anticipated that they just threw out whole chunks of the script to compensate.  That would explain the way the film doesn’t flow–so atypical of both Goldman and Yates.  It feels very tacked together.  Because (rather fittingly, for a Dortmunder adaptation) things did not work out as planned on paper.  They did not shoot Goldman’s original script.  If they had, we might remember this movie quite differently.

There are many enjoyable moments in this film.  Westlake saw that, and so do we, watching it today.   It’s not a horrible film.   It’s just not a very good one. We know the screenwriter was genuinely great.   We know the director was capable of very good work.  So who’s left holding the bag with the paste diamond in it?

When all else fails, blame the producers.  Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts–who also produced the abysmal Bank Shot a few years later, with George C. Scott as Dortmunder this time, but they didn’t have the greatest living screenwriter, or Peter Yates–the movie was directed by former dance star and Broadway musical director, Gower Champion.  Who had never made a theatrical film in his life.  And never did again afterwards.

Landers and Roberts made some successful films over the years (their big hit was Death Wish, adapted from a novel by Westlake’s old buddy Brian Garfield–though maybe more of the credit there goes to Menahem Golam and Yoram Globus), but best as I can tell, they never made a really good picture in their lives.  They were, you might say,  small time operators who occasionally tried their hands at a big job.  And when they did, it never worked out well.

This is, I’m sorry to say, the story of Westlake at the movies.  It’s remained the story even after his death (see Parker).   Some very talented people have tried to adapt his books here and there, but the people behind those people–the people who hold a project together–have not usually had the right stuff.  Westlake badly needed the money from selling the movie rights to his books.  He had two families to support.  So he couldn’t sit around waiting for the right production team to come along.   He just sold the book rights to whoever made a non-insulting offer, and hoped for the best.  And never got it.

But so what?  He got the money.  So he could go on writing more great books, and not have to take a teaching job, or some other such indignity.  He got to hang out with people like William Goldman and talk about writing, got to see the movie business up close, learn things about it, things that would serve him well in the future, in a number of ways.  And did he really want somebody to make some brilliant hit movie out of one of his books?   I have my doubts.   Mr. Westlake knew the score too well.

The Hot Rock basically vanished without a ripple into the endless Sargasso Sea of Forgotten Films.  1972, as we all know, was the year of The Godfather.  For a long time after that, I couldn’t go to a garage sale without seeing four or five paperback copies of Mario Puzo’s novel lying around in milk crates.  The book had been a best-seller before the movie, but after it, everybody bought one.  Puzo must have made a fortune.  He even got to write the Superman screenplay.  But what happened to his career as a novelist?   Not much.   Who reads the novel version of The Godfather today?   Not  many.  The movie replaced the book.  Devoured it.  Subsumed it.   Puzo could never manage a convincing second act.

Movies based on books can do that, and they don’t have to be better than the book, or even half as good, to make that happen.  They just have to work well enough, and hit big at a strategic moment, and then people will always think of the movie first, the book last.  The list is endless.  It’s even happened to Lord of the Rings a bit (thankfully, long after Tolkien’s death).

But it never happened to anything written by Westlake–even Point Blank, a genuinely great (albeit flawed) cinematic expression, was too much of a flop when it came out–and too different from the book–to ever overshadow The Hunter, which is one of those books that gets bigger over time, not smaller.   As Westlake is one of those writers who get bigger over time, not smaller. And I think, given a choice, he’d have rather had what he got out of Hollywood–enough money to go on–and the learning experience.

If this or some other movie had been a smash hit, and spawned a franchise (the era of the franchise just now dawning with The Godfather), Westlake could have potentially become quite wealthy.  And without the need to keep hammering out more books on his legendary Smith Coronas, without the pressure of yet another deadline, yet another pecuniary shortfall created by kids braces, family vacations, alimony, child support, college tuition–would I be looking at maybe another two years of non-stop blogging to review all his remaining work?  A question that does not admit of an answer, and that’s probably just as well.

The question I have to try and answer next week is why are there not one, not two, but three epistolary novels, written by Westlake and two of his friends, all dealing in one way or another with the pornographic novel industry?  Well, not exactly pornographic.   Well, actually one of them is, but I’ll tell you about that next time.  Until then, adios, motherfuckers.

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, John Dortmunder novels