Category Archives: Donald Westlake film adaptations

Parker at the Movies, Part 4: Mr Suzuki and The Stark Homage.

His hand on the knob, she called his name.  He turned around, questioning, irritated, and saw the Police Positive in her hand.  He just had time to remember that it had to be either Chester or Mal–the two who’d been given the revolvers–when she pulled the trigger and a heavy punch in his stomach drove the breath and the consciousness out of him.

It was his belt buckle that saved him.  Her first shot had hit the buckle, mashing it into his flesh.  The gun had jumped in her hand, the next five shots all going over his falling body and into the wood of the door.  But she’d fired six shots at him, and she’d seen him fall, and she couldn’t believe that he was anything but dead.

He awoke to heat and suffocation.  They’d set fire to the house.

I shouldn’t need to tell you.

Rojini has offered cease-fire agreement in Paakaa. However the truce was broken by the traitor of the organization. But the son of man aiming secretly position of boss took the gold, Paakaa you charge the brunt of the attack, increase the fire, strikes back to unscrupulous traitor! Villain Paakaa and his friends, Ru Osoikaka mighty criminal organization. Premier epic yelling prime all the charm of the series.

Promotional text from the first Japanese edition of Butcher’s Moon, run through an online software, which only goes to show that some things are gained in translation.

Japanese film is yet another thing I loved a long time before I ever heard of Donald Westlake. And as I now discover, much to my delight, I can conclusively link up the two.  (This will be a short piece.  Hopefully get the motor running again.)

Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Kobayashi–I’ll admit I tended to favor the Jidaigeki, or period costume dramas, often dealing with the heavily mythologized samurai class, and creatively rebelling against those myths.  My first love was the Kaiju Eiga , naturally–what other Japanese flicks is an American kid going to know in the 60’s and 70’s?  Crush the grown-ups, Godzilla!)  I know many other names besides those three above. But I was never enough of a maven to know them all.  Too rich a vein to ever fully mine out, unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, which I am decidedly not.

You branch out over time–I’ve gotten a fair few kicks from Takashi Miike, ‘J-Horror’ being something many in the west have learned to warily love (and assiduously copy) in the 21st, and the variety of stuff available on cable and Region 1 DVD has kept expanding.  Japanese film isn’t what it once was, of course, but what is?

Miike also did Yakuza films, of which I’ve only seen the intentionally over the top and confusing Ichi the Killer, which being a David Lynch fan, I had no trouble following.  Well, maybe a little, but it didn’t bother me.  You’re either along for the ride or not, right?  Last chance to leap out of the getaway car.  Here we go…..

So TCM has recently been showing a lot of Japanese crime films (you can call them noir if you like, everybody else does) from the late 50’s and 60’s, usually in the wee hours of the night, but that’s what DVR is for.  Many of these were produced not by Toho or Toei, but by what you might call in Hollywood terms, a poverty row studio, Nikkatsu.  Founded in 1912, it opted in the post-war era to make the Yakuza thriller and the police drama its twin wheelhouse, because they couldn’t afford to hire the best samurai stars, and didn’t really know how to make good monster suits and tiny model cities for them to stomp on.  If you can’t afford the top names, make your own, right?  That’s what they did.  Worked for Warner Bros in the early 30’s (didn’t work out quite as well for Nikkatsu).

One of their top stars made himself, you might say–Joe Shishido, sometimes called Joe the Ace, though I struggle not to refer to him as Gerbiljaw.   A conventionally handsome man with both talent and ambition, he decided he needed something to make him stand out from the farflung field of fashion plates (and didn’t want to play cheesy romantic leads), so he had plastic surgery to enlarge his cheekbones, leading to a face looking like– well……a chipped chunk of concrete with eyes of flawed onyx? At some angles, chipmunk would be more like it, but he usually had directors who knew how to point their cameras.

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Regardless of whether the new look caused vibrations above the nylons among female filmgoers (definitely had that effect on women in his films), Shishido became the definitive star of the Yakuza Eiga.  And he frequently worked with a creative young director named Seijun Suzuki, who just recently passed away at the age of 93.

At times, the studio heads wanted Suzuki to be less creative.  He would actually trim his budgets, just to get them to leave him alone to do what he wanted, and as so often happens with geniuses, this made the films even more creative (and therefore, more problematic for the studio).  He claimed it was never his conscious intent to be surrealistic.  It just came out that way.

He’s been written about a lot.  Many a cult western filmmaker has waxed elegaic.  I’m not a film critic, and I haven’t seen most of his movies (and I have to admit, sometimes I fast-forward the ones I record off TCM, when he’s wanking around too much).  So let’s cut to the chase, since this blog ain’t The Suzuki Scenario. Came a point when Suzuki souped up the motorcycle too much for his own good.

It was when he got brought onto a project about a steely-eyed assassin working for the Yakuza, with Shishido playing the surly strong-willed hitter, like he’d already done a few times before.  Joe had the right face (paid well for it).

According to the Wikipedia article for Branded to Kill, the studio hated the original script, brought Suzuki in to rewrite it, then told him they couldn’t understand the script he handed in (a not-uncommon complaint), but there was no time for a do-over, because release schedules. They told him to go ahead and film it.  Even though the auteur theory was by this time a thing, Suzuki had no such pretensions, and was simply following orders–he just followed them his own way.  A true rebel doesn’t have to say no–he just does it.

Suzuki didn’t believe in storyboarding.  He wrote and directed by what I think could be justly called The Push Method, which is probably harder than it looks, and in his line of business, there wasn’t much time for rewrites.

He would often come up with ideas for a scene the day before shooting it, or while shooting it.  He did as few takes as possible, exposing the bare minimum of celluloid, which he said was a habit he picked up in the days after the war, when film stock was hard to come by, but maybe also because he didn’t want the studio to recut the film in a way he didn’t like (is any of this sounding eerily familiar to long-time readers here?)  25 days allotted for shooting, three for post-production, but he finished editing the sucker in one.  (Now don’t talk about efficiency, that’s racist.)

It was released on June 15th, 1967.  Just shy of nine weeks before John Boorman’s Point Blank premiered in San Francisco.  There is not the slightest chance either film impacted the other.  And yet, they somehow share a subplot and a scene. As well as the distinction of being revered visionary cult films that bombed to hell at the box office because audiences couldn’t figure out what the fuck was going on in them, but that’s just something that happened a lot with studio films in the 60’s and 70’s.   The subplot and the scene–that’s a bit different.

See, in Branded to Kill, Goro Hanada, #3 hitman in Japan, has a wife named Mami, who likes to talk about how terrifying her husband is, then have wild sex with him after he smells pots of cooking rice (don’t ask).  A conniving Yakuza boss starts chatting her up, and she is aware that Goro has been lustfully eyeing another woman (played by half-Indian actress, Annu Mari, and I for one don’t blame him), and she’s particularly concerned when he blows a major job because a butterfly landed on his rifle barrel (lousy special effect, but that’s hardly the point of anything).

Goro is planning to leave the country, while Mami lies in bed, holding a gun, looking scared.  To save her own lovely skin (of which we see a lot in the movie, which broke new ground in onscreen nudity), she shoots Goro in the stomach (just once, with an automatic) and flees in a panic, while he lies on the floor, seemingly dead.  For no rationally comprehensible reason, we see flames spring up outside the window immediately after her naked form scampers out the door. Well, the film isn’t trying to be rational.

Goro isn’t dead, though.  The bullet glanced off his belt buckle (Suzuki does a close up of the bullet hitting it, just so we’ll know).  He’s hurt, but alive–and enraged.  Off-kilter.  Bad stuff ensues.

Yeah.

Maybe this is a good time to mention that The Hunter (aka Human Hunting Parker/ Villain) was published by Hayakawa in 1966?  You can see the cover up top, along with a written dedication from the translator, Nobumitsu Kodaka, who seems to have sent Westlake a copy in 1975.  (These images courtesy of the Official Westlake Blog.)

So you know, just because you’re a brilliant artist doesn’t mean you don’t steal from other artists sometimes.  As Akira Kurosawa might have said to Sergio Leone if they ever met.  I don’t see anything else in the film specifically from the work of Richard Stark (who doesn’t make organization men his heroes, however surly they might be). I don’t think Westlake would have blamed Suzuki at all–he was known to lift the odd few things himself, though he was rarely this obvious about it.  (Godard would be another matter, since that involved welshing on a debt.)

What’s interesting is how both Suzuki and Boorman independently decided they had to justify the wife’s treacherous behavior, and have her be attracted to a criminal colleague of his  (who isn’t all that attractive), be dissatisfied with her marriage–she couldn’t just shoot her heinous hubby because she panicked under pressure, saw no other way out.  (Played out about the same way in Payback).

She has to be a willing pawn, I suppose, to justify what’s coming later, so the anti-hero doesn’t seem too anti-heroic for taking revenge (and of course, nobody ever goes with the face mutilation thing from the novel).  But Suzuki, who was never much inclined to pull his punches, doesn’t make his two-timing missus take the coward’s way out–hey, remember the floating hair thingy at the end of the climactic sword fight in Kill Bill Vol I?

(Mami saying they’re beasts, as she does earlier in the film, is also interesting, as if Suzuki is picking up on Parker’s lupine nature, but if so, he’s not seeing it as a positive.)

But understand, it’s not just one scene–there’s a build-up to that moment where the film goes full DaDa on us (because Goro is going mad), and it all clearly stems from the twisted relationship between Parker and Lynn in Westlake’s novel, that moment of betrayal that first introduces us to that strange mental state Parker goes into when someone betrays his trust.

Only Goro, while genuinely dangerous, is in a very different type of story, and doesn’t know himself the way Parker does, which is Suzuki’s point, fair play to him.  And the intent, as with Point Blank, is to send up the whole genre, deconstruct it (I doubt Suzuki used that term).  And, in many ways, to make a fool of the rugged hitman, cut him down to size, even while mythologizing him. As Westlake in a sense tried to do with Parker when he wrote what became The Hot Rock–only to realize it wouldn’t work.

Do I agree this is a work of visual genius, that influenced generations of filmmakers?  It’s every bit of that, whether I think so or not.  Do I think it’s a great film?  Ehhhh…..remind me what I said about Point Blank when I wrote about it?  Only that had Lee Marvin, and he didn’t need any surgical enhancements, did he?

There are some pretty serious second act problems.  I feel that Suzuki missed a great opportunity with the Annu Mari character, a female assassin, ice cold, deadly, and oddly vulnerable at the same time, who is written out far too quickly, and replaced by a less interesting (and far less alluring) male counterpart to Goro whose primary claim to fame is that he never uses the toilet when he has to go, because that would be unprofessional.

The film is not long, but seems endless, as bad dreams invariably do.  There’s a bit too much self-conscious posing for the camera, a bit too little attempt to make the nonsense make sense (as the best work of David Lynch does, for example).   It’s got the makings of a masterpiece, and in a certain limited sense it is (as is Point Blank), but not in the sense I’m looking for when I decide whether to call a film that or not.

Because a movie theater isn’t an art gallery.  In a movie theater, story matters, and stories have messages, however nuanced and ambiguous–and as with Point Blank, which I also admire from a visual standpoint, I am not at all sure this film has any message to convey other than “Isn’t this cool?”  It definitely is, but I need more.

Suzuki was on the cusp of a new style, but he hadn’t quite figured it out, and because of a famous legal battle with Nikkatsu that put his career on hold, he never really got the chance until much later, by which time his meandering muse had largely deserted him (studio suits can be annoying, but for some artists, they can be a necessary irritant).  It’s never easy to be in the vanguard, and I will say, I want to see more of his early work; what he constructed before he started with the deconstruction.  I don’t begrudge him one bit of his belated recognition as a cinematic trailblazer.

But remember, they just handed him this project, he shot it in 25 days, edited it in one, got paid a whole lot less than Boorman, and film buffs are still studying it. Maybe someday they’ll find a plot in there somewhere (and be shot for their pains).

Nobody has to look for the plot in Westlake’s novel–it comes hunting for you, and good luck trying to escape it.  It’s been hunting us down since 1962.

Cutting to the proverbial chase, Branded to Kill is not an uncredited  adaptation of The Hunter, but was sure as bloody hell directly consciously influenced by it.  Coincidence my Aunt Fumiko.  An unquestionable match.  Still and all, if anybody wants to question it, here I am, waiting.  There’s no butterfly on my rifle barrel.  Sayonara for now, suckers.

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Parker film adaptations, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

Wanted for Questioning: Westlake’s Continental Op

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can anybody out there make that happen?

It’s the stuff dreams are made of.

Yeah, I know, wrong book.

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake screenplays

Mr. Reese and the Candids

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It’s not hard finding images of movie stars online.  When putting together my recent piece on the seven actors I thought might have played Parker in the past, but never did, I had an embarrassment of pictures to sift through.  I picked the ones I thought got my points across best.

With one exception.  Tom Reese.  Born 1928, six feet three inches tall.  My personal favorite of the bunch.  By far the least famous.  (Compared to him, William Smith was an A-Lister.)  Call it my love of the underdog.  That’s an IMDb link, incidentally.  Google “Tom Reese, Wiki” and you get an article about a cricketer from New Zealand.

You can find the odd few screen captures of Reese, from this or that film, but the only one I could find from The Outfit was of very poor quality.  The others I found, relating to different roles, did not do him justice.  To be honest, most of his film roles did him no justice.  He fared somewhat better on television, where many a first-rate thespian eked out a living back in the day (and still does).  In no way shape or form could you call him a movie star.

I mean, when one of your career highlights on the big screen is playing an Oddjob style villain named Ironhead in one of those ultra-kitschy Matt Helm movies, and you have to pretend Dean Martin can beat you up–you get the picture.  Or you would, if you Googled around some.

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(At least Harold Sakata got to knock Sean Connery around some before he took a dive.  Geez, Reese was asked to autograph these things.)

Hating injustice as I do, I ordered a brand new remastered DVD of The Outfit, which just arrived this morning.  I did some screen grabs, and from now on there will be decent pics of Tom Reese online.

In The Outfit, Tom Reese plays a hit man.  Whose name in the credits is “Hit Man.” He’s the first character of any note we see in the film’s opening scene, where he kills Macklin’s brother, while dressed as a priest (which makes no sense, like most of the film). He’s accompanied by another hitter, Frank Orlandi, played by Felice Orlandi.  But Reese’s character is the one that matters, the boss killer, who plans hits for The Outfit.

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Reese and Duvall have no scenes together–Macklin isn’t interested in taking revenge on mere mechanics, seeing the organization itself as his target.  I suspect they didn’t have the budget to write more scenes for Reese, give him a name, motivation, etc–that way they’d have had to pay him more.  Their loss.  He gives the most interesting performance in this movie, far as I’m concerned.  (Okay, tied with Joe Don Baker, having fun with his second banana role.)

Reese comes on like a major player in every scene he appears in, somebody Macklin will eventually have to reckon with.  But for whatever reason, he’s treated as secondary (maybe more like tertiary) to Timothy Carey’s sneering over the top underboss.  Carey, who played small roles in a lot of important films, has something of an online cult, and maybe he earned that elsewhere, but not here.

“Hit Man” pops up again at a restaurant owned by Cody, the Handy McKay of this story, played by Joe Don Baker.  This time, he’s dressed as a hunter.  Suits him.

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He and a different partner (played by former boxer Roland La Starza) are there to kill Cody, but because the local law is eating there, that gets called off.  Reese, realizing the game has to be called on account of cops, gets up to go, nonchalantly tosses a coin on the counter, walks out, pausing at the door to say–

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“You know something, Cody, you ought to play the races.  You’re that lucky.”

No outward emotion.  He plays every scene, reads every line, 100% deadpan.  Not because Reese couldn’t do emotional reactions, if the director needed some.  He’s making a deliberate choice to keep it all inside.   You can see just a glimmer of annoyance when he realizes he can’t do the job now.  But he’s not frustrated.  If at first you don’t succeed…..

The attempted hit on Macklin, borrowed in a ham handed way from the novel, doesn’t involve Reese’s character.  They send Orlandi, without back-up, even though he’s nowhere near as good as Reese’s hitter.  (I mentioned this movie makes no sense, right?)

But as The Outfit begins to realize Macklin and Cody are a threat, they get the A-talent back in the game, and Reese is seen talking to a man outside the motel Macklin, Cody, and Karen Black’s Bett are staying at.  He walks off, a cheroot in his mouth, arms swinging at his sides, and I’ll say again–I don’t give a hoot what the credits say.  This is Parker!

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And after all that build-up, he is seemingly killed off in a perfunctory manner, almost as an afterthought, along with Carey’s character Menner and some other guy I don’t care about, when they use some bought cops to try and whack the independents out on the highway.  They come driving up slowly from the other direction, while the fuzz have them distracted, and you can just barely make out Reese in the back seat of the car.

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As they close in for the kill, you see Hit Man’s gun (same one he used on Macklin’s brother) stick out of the rear window–it’s a terrible position for him to be firing from.  You can sort of infer what happened, if you read between the scenes–he found Macklin, scouted the terrain, planned the hit, but Menner, looking for revenge, forced his way in, took it over, screwed it up. Kibbitzers.  They’ll get you ever time.

Macklin and Cody, having neutralized the cops, respond with superior firepower, the Outfit car goes off the road, turns over, bursts into flame–after Menner comes out shooting, with predictable results.  Bett gets killed in the crossfire.  You don’t see Reese or the other guy at all.  The implication is they’re unconscious/dead, and will get burned to a crisp, leaving an interesting puzzle for the real law when they show up.

Macklin, now having both his brother and his girlfriend to avenge (::sigh::) will mount an improbably successful attack on Mailer’s mansion (they do not reconnoiter before moving in, like Parker and Handy), then drive away with a wounded Cody in an ambulance, yelling “The good guys always win!”  Yeah, but you didn’t win any money, did you?

Flynn later explained that an MGM exec insisted on an ‘upbeat’ ending.  Which sounds a bit odd to me.  The end of the novel isn’t at all depressing.  It’s one of the most upbeat Parker novels I can think of.  Parker and Handy kick ass and get paid.  Nobody they like gets killed. I don’t know if Flynn’s story means Cody originally died in his script, Macklin went back to jail, or they just had to throw in the good guys joke at the end to send the audience out happy.  If it was either of the first two, I’d say the suit was the good guy here.

I know I’ve been very down on what is, for many, a classic of the genre (and a movie Westlake is known to have called his favorite of the Parker adaptations–I have my own opinions as to what he meant by that).

For me, it’s an exercise in frustration.  This could have been something amazing, if the script wasn’t so lousy.  Great cast, great atmosphere, great cinematography, great music.  Flynn does a fine job coordinating all this; he knew how to do that.  But he just had to write it himself, didn’t he?  Be the auteur. He didn’t know how to do that.  Anymore than Menner knew how to plan an ambush.  Kibbitzers.

After the shoot out on the highway, we never see ‘Hit Man’ again.  There’s never any direct confirmation he’s dead.  He and Macklin never once eyeball each other, even though he was the one who got the whole story kickstarted, before we ever laid eyes on Macklin.  It’s a very unsatisfying conclusion to a character arc.  If you want to call it that.

Here’s what I say happened–I’m imagining a post-credits scene, which they didn’t have very often in the 70’s, but what the hell.  Hit Man gets out, after Macklin and Cody (and the now deceased Bett) drive away, before the car explodes.  He dusts himself off.  He walks away calmly, arms swinging at his side.  He bides his time, makes his plans, no amateurs this time.  A few minutes after that ambulance leaves the mansion–well, turns out the good guys don’t always win.

I’m allowed to be prejudiced on my own blog. In a good cause.  Giving an honest workman a bit of overdue credit surely qualifies as that.

And speaking of honest workmen–hello, John.  You seem upset.  What’s that you say?  Fourteen straight posts about the other guy?  Fancy that.  Funny story, I actually reread your book like a month ago, but the other thing kept expanding, and I figured you could wait.  Save the best for last, you know?  Technically, Ask The Parrot was better, but your final outing is quite interesting.  I just have a few more things to say about the finer nuances of the Starkian aesthe–I beg your pardon?  You want your review now?

John, I’m sorry you’re upset, but you must recognize, I’m in authority here. Anyhow, what are you going to do about it? Everybody knows you never hurt anyb–oh.  Hi Tiny.  Didn’t see you looming in the shadows there.  You move quiet for a big guy.

No, I would never want to be rude, Tiny.  Proper etiquette is the driving force of my existence.  Ha, that’s a clever pun.  Yes, I heard the story about what you did to that procrastinator who annoyed you.  I know all those stories.  I should probably start working on that review now.  Good seeing you guys.  Regards to May and Josie.  Tiny, please don’t slam that–damn.  Better call the locksmith.

Well, no point putting it off any longer, folks.   All good things must come to an end.  Time to get real.

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, John Dortmunder, Parker film adaptations, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

Mr. Parker and The Casting Call, Part 2: Guns of The Reminiscent Seven.

To be honest, I don’t believe there are going to be any more attempts to adapt any of the Parker novels for a long time to come.  By the time it happens, if it happens, almost anyone we might think of who is the right age now could be out of the running.  So what are we doing here?  I won’t speak for  you, but I’m trying to convince myself it’s even theoretically possible to cast an actor who is spot-on right for this role.

To that end, I find myself casting an eye backwards in time–to actors born a mite too soon to play Parker (but may have had some influence on his creation).  To actors perhaps too iconic and sought-after to play him by the time it became an option.  Or to actors who, though much appreciated in supporting roles, often villainous ones, never quite made it as leading men, and thus would never have been considered in the first place, unless it was some lowly B picture from Poverty Row (which might have been the best option).

It’s all moot, but does that make for any less enjoyable an exercise? These days, I’m grateful for distractions, triter the better, so let’s survey the competitors, the youngest of whom is eighty-four.  (The rest, being deceased, are all the same age.)  I’m going to consider them roughly in order of generation.  Starting with–

RYAN, Robert.  Born 1909, Chicago IL.  Height: 6’4.  Eyes: brown. 

This may seem an odd pick.  By the mid-60’s, when Hollywood began to pay attention to Parker, Robert Ryan was pushing sixty hard. But I don’t feel like any list of actors who might have had the potential to play this role is complete without him. In the history of noir on film, there is no grander name to conjure with.

Not much doubt he was the best actor on this list of mine.  But he was never the kind of actor who put on airs–who was afraid to underplay, when that’s what the role called for.  He could be almost impossibly cool–but you could still feel the rage seething beneath, barely held in check.  He often played characters who were on the verge of losing control, fighting a losing war of self-containment.

But he could play calm well-balanced men as well, as he did in The Wild Bunch.  He could play cowards, pedants, bullies and blusterers.  He could play the hell out of just about anything.  The year The Hunter came out, he played John Claggart in Ustinov’s Billy Budd.  His last role was Larry Slade, in John Frankenheimer’s boiled down adaptation of The Iceman Cometh.  If he ever gave a bad performance, I haven’t seen it.

More than tall enough for Parker, built towards the lean and ropy side.  As a younger man, he was in splendid physical shape, knew how to box, could move like lightning.  He could project murderous intensity, and he could be sexy, without being conventionally handsome.  More of an ensemble player, but he had the charisma of a star–and people knew him the moment he walked onscreen.

So if you could figure out how to do a series of Parker movies in the 1950’s, he’d be hard to beat.  My reservation is the one I have for all truly great actors–with Parker, you have to know when not to act.  Much as I think Ryan could restrain himself as needed, his work in crime movies leans more towards the histrionic side (partly because that’s what the movies of his era called for).  He’d have been brilliant in those stories where Parker is on a rampage, all his buttons pushed.  But I’d like him even better in something by David Goodis or Peter Rabe.

Next up is another Robert–the guy you’d want to see in almost any hardboiled role in crime fiction.  Only trouble with him is that he’s too damn good-looking.

MITCHUM, Robert.  Born 1917, Bridgeport CT.   Height: 6’1  Eyes: dark blue (I think), heavy-lidded.

With Ryan, I’d like to somehow transport the younger man forward in time a bit.  With Mitchum, I don’t feel like he could have played Parker until he was well into his forties.  The Mitchum we want is the Cape Fear Mitchum–early 60’s vintage.  And who ever believed Gregory Peck could take him?  In a courtroom scene, sure.  Or a western.  Not anything hardboiled.

But he never needed to play the toughest man in town.  Never mattered much to him.  Never took himself that serious.  When you’ve got that kind of personal magnetism, doesn’t make sense to exert yourself.  Mitchum underplays almost everything, because he doesn’t need to try that hard to draw us in.  He’ll put in the work, reveal himself, if he thinks the role is worth it.  But most of the time, he just doesn’t give a damn.  Most of the time he’s hiding beneath a ceremonial mask of skin. (Or getting himself arrested–never had much use for authority.)

Mitchum fits the descriptions of Parker that lean towards big, blocky, shaggy.  Westlake didn’t always have the same image in his mind when writing the character, and neither do we when reading about him.

Though he was more often cast in sympathetic roles, Mitchum liked playing really bad guys, and you could make a case nobody ever played them so well.  If I’d like Ryan for the stories where Parker is angry at the world, out for blood, I’d like Mitchum for the ones where he’s hiding his true nature from the world–and of course, for the ones where there’s a woman involved.  Of all the names on this list, this is the one that would most easily justify Parker’s ineffable allure for the opposite sex.  I can’t think of a single leading lady Mitchum didn’t have chemistry with.  But as with everything else, he never worked hard for that either.  Lucky bastard.

He almost played Mitch Tobin, in a movie that never got made.  He’d have been right for that too, though in a different mode.  Not that he’d be right for any Westlake protagonist.  About the only worse pick for Dortmunder would be Robert Redford.  Strange be the ways of Hollywood.  Nobody found them stranger than the most reluctant star of all time, namely–

HAYDEN, Sterling.  Born 1916, Montclair NJ.  Height: 6’5.  Eyes: dark–something. 

The biggest problem with casting Sterling Hayden as Parker isn’t that he turned fifty before Point Blank was even made.  It’s that you would never know when he’d take a mind to jump in The Wanderer, set sail for distant climes, and not come back until his money ran out.

He didn’t even like acting until he got older, and they stopped trying to turn him into a matinee idol.  He hated being forced into any kind of mold.  Which is precisely what would make him a prime candidate here, along with his intimidating size, his patented surly glower, and the undeniable fact that he played a primary prototype for Parker, in one of the greatest crime films ever made.  You know the one.

I can’t pretend to myself that the Hayden of the 60’s could have played Parker, except maybe one of the later books.  He had happily moved into more eccentric supporting roles by then, the pressures of unwanted stardom no longer weighing him down. But I can’t watch Hayden as Dix, Sam Jaffe as Doc, without being further convinced that one aspect to Westlake’s conception of Parker was his aspiration to combine the two–brawn and brains in the same package.

Hayden only played a heistman one more time after The Asphalt Jungle–in that film he had brains and brawn (and bad luck).  See what you think.

He had, you might argue, the best pedigree (even if he was a blonde).  But again, born a bit too soon.  And a bit too fidgety.

Let’s move on to the one actor Westlake mentioned as a direct influence in Parker’s creation.  Not my personal pick, but you can’t talk about the might-have-beens without mentioning–

PALANCE, Jack.  Born 1919, Hazle Township PA.  Height: 6’4. Eyes: dark brown, verging on black.  Onyx, one might almost say.

Westlake would have gone to see a lot of movies about armed robbers in the years before he wrote The Hunter, so in all probability, he saw this one, a remake of High Sierra.  Not as good as the original–but the lead was somebody you’d be much less happy about meeting in a dark alley.  Or a well-lit one.

Palance, as an actor, was a mixed bag.  Huge ability, but he didn’t always know what to do with it.  In a picture like The Big Knife, he’s practically dancing across the screen, hyperkinetic, almost dizzying (personally, I find that film exhausting, but that may be Clifford Odets’ fault).  In other performances, he’s like the proverbial coiled spring–just about to snap.  I prefer the latter approach for him.  And for Parker.

He doesn’t look human–sometimes he’s more of a monster than Karloff was with Jack Pierce and the entire Universal Pictures makeup department helping him out.  There’s often this sense of him being out of place–of having been born not so much in the wrong century, but the wrong millennia, possibly the wrong geologic era (not for nothing did they cast him as Attila the Hun).  But the present day is where you most often find him, and he’s going to have to make the best of that.

He’d have been a good pick for Parker in the 50’s, into the Mid-60’s.  Though physically, he’d have been able for the role well into the 70’s, fitness freak that he was.  It would have been imperative to have a director who could rein him in.  He, unlike Mitchum, liked working too hard.  A natural born ham, he relished big dramatic gestures, strong facial expressions, and those are only rarely called for with Parker.

The Palance you want in this case is minimalist Palance, impassive as a rock, twice as hard–and he can be hard to find, but he’s worth looking for.  All he had to do to embody Parker was stand there and breathe.  He might not have found that interesting enough.

But if the acting career hadn’t worked out, he could have picked up some cash modeling for Robert E. McGinnis crime paperback covers.  He’d have looked terrifying, walking across the George Washington Bridge at dawn, murder in his mind.  And we can be pretty sure that’s the image Westlake had in his head when he wrote that scene.

 

Next is my most perverse pick by far, that even I don’t take seriously.  But I make it anyway, because 1)He could have played the part with zenlike restraint and 2)Some imp of the perverse within me thrills at the notion of making the ultimate white hat into the baddest hombre of all.  I speak of none other than–

ARNESS, James.  Born 1923, Minneapolis MN.  Height: 6’7 (in his cowboy boots).  Eyes: blue.

Anyone whose two signature roles are a straight-arrow TV western lawman and a carnivorous bipedal vegetable from another world can be said to have had an interesting career.  James Arness was, to all accounts, a very thoroughgoing gentleman, and there is reason to doubt that he would have been willing to portray Parker at his most dastardly.  So why am I bringing him up?

I guess because of scenes like this–

In a sense, Arness never stopped playing The Thing From Another World, only the planet he hailed from was Justice.  In scenes that called for Matt Dillon to get angry, he never lost his cool–he got even colder.  His eyes would turn to purest ice, bore contemptuously into whoever had roused his ire, and even if that bad guy was played by Chuck Bronson, he’d start to look scared. Matt Dillon was the most frightening good guy in television history.  I’m not sure even Palance could have shown that side of Parker so well.

Think about that scene in The Rare Coin Score, where Neo Nazi Otto Mainzer asks if fellow string member Mike Carlow is Jewish.  We’re told Parker just looks at him.  And Otto, a big scary guy in his own right, starts backpedaling, and we understand that he’s worried Parker will kill him right then and there, so that he won’t ruin the job with his personal crap.  How many actors could pull that off?  This one could.

So the question is, was there something in him that might have enjoyed playing the villain for once, if the villain’s targets were mainly other villains.  He was not one of the more ambitious stars you can name, but he knew his craft, and he knew as well as anyone how to underplay, show you what he was feeling with a relatively minor change of expression.

I think the main objection to him is that if he was playing someone who didn’t believe in law and order, and was more than willing to shoot first, it would be awfully hard to depict him as the underdog in any fight.  Slayground would literally be a romp in the park for that guy.

Humor me on this one, I’m a huge fan of early Gunsmoke (the Meston era, far as I’m concerned that show only ran ten seasons).  So much so that I’m going to put up another YouTube video–only this time the coldest eyes in the scene I’m looking at don’t belong to Arness.  Or to anybody who was ever any kind of star, though he sure had a long career.  Go in a bit over eleven minutes.

No, I don’t mean Strother Martin, though he’d have been a fine addition to the cast of any Parker adaptation.  I’m talking about someone  I first noticed in a small but important role in The Outfit.  He played a hitman, out to kill Duvall’s Macklin.  I don’t know how Macklin got out of that picture alive.  Fiction isn’t always fair. Best man doesn’t always win.  And in this contest I’m playing out in my head, the best man for the job might very well have been–

REESE, Tom.  Born 1928, Chattanooga TN.  Height: 6’3.  Eyes: Narrowed, depthless, unreadable.  Wouldn’t swear to their color.

You always want what you can’t have, and all the names on this list qualify in that respect.  Tom Reese never played the lead in anything.  But the more I see of him, the more I know–he was really something.  He’s my personal pick.

Big. Tall. Blocky.  Face like chipped concrete.  Eyes like a wolf, almond-shaped, unblinking, merciless.  Voice as impassive as his eyes, betraying little in the way of a regional accent.  There’s a scene in The Outfit, where he’s walking with his hands swinging at his sides, and you just know somebody made a mistake.  This is Parker.  Duvall is playing the crazy guy Parker’s going to kill.

He’s dressed as a priest when we first see him in that movie, and I wonder if maybe Westlake was thinking of that when he had Parker pose as a priest in Flashfire (it’s as good an explanation as any).  Later, he’s dressed as a hunter, complete with cap.  Suits him.  He doesn’t sneak up on his targets, he stalks them.  He’s a murderous automaton, that would give The Terminator nightmares.  They wasted him in that movie, but they usually did. And yet, he would find a way to get his point across, time after time.

And it’s hard to find suitable images of him online.  I’ve ordered a DVD of The Outfit.  Maybe later I’ll take some screenshots, put them up.  My personal tip of the hat to somebody who deserved a bigger career, but far as I know, he never complained.  Just did his job like a pro, claimed his split, went home.  Perfect.

But since perfection is not to be had in this world, here’s my idea of a compromise–

SMITH, William.  Born 1933, Columbia MO.  Height: 6’1-6’2 (opinions vary).  Eyes: dark as dark gets. 

Let’s play one last what-if game, just a little more rooted in reality.  Let’s imagine Point Blank had grossed enough to qualify as a minor hit.  Enough for MGM to consider a follow-up.  Let’s further imagine that they needed somebody to replace Lee Marvin as Walker, which doesn’t require much imagination, since he hated repeating himself.

And it’s a historical fact that the TV western Laredo, starring William Smith as Joe Riley–a role not unlike Clint Eastwood’s in Rawhide–ended the same year Point Blank came out.  Born the same year as Donald E. Westlake, just nine months earlier, Smith was just the right age to play Parker by then.  And it’s hard to imagine any actor more precisely resembling the character described to us in the opening paragraphs of The Hunter.  Or better able to embody the menace of the character.  Or his dangerous sex appeal.

Smith never got his big break, as Eastwood, Garner and McQueen did after their western shows ended (he fought the first two onscreen, he engaged in impromptu auto races with the last offscreen).  He, like Reese, was destined for a seemingly endless series of guest starring roles on TV, and a long succession of big screen heavies (and he was Conan of Cimmeria’s dad for like five minutes–he’d have fared far better than Arnold in the main role, but that wasn’t his karma).

Smith has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of Jack Palance, was perhaps not as good an actor, but given the generally putrid quality of the scripts he was given, it’s hard to say.  He made the whole country hate him in Rich Man, Poor Man.  He was encouraged to mug it up, because that’s what sneering heavies do.  Only rarely did he get a chance to show restraint, because restraint was almost never what the director wanted from him.  But he could keep a straight face when that’s what was called for.

WILLIAM-SMITH-8

WILLIAM-SMITH-2

What was usually called for was more like this–(he claimed Taylor broke a few of his ribs, and made it sound like a compliment.  Taylor never disclosed the full extent of his injuries.)

Or, on television, this (and yeah, I considered Garner for Parker, but would we want to lose him as Rockford?  He was too much the comedian to play it straight for long.)

The villains he usually played were too over the top, but does that mean Smith couldn’t have reined himself in, if he was the name above the title, instead of far below it?  Give him the right director, the right scriptwriter, an adequate budget, and he might have been the guy.  He sure as hell would have been available.

I’ve said it before, but for some roles, you don’t want the best actor–you want the right one.  Somebody born to play the part.  Willing to just let the character step forth,  unedited, unbidden, unforced.  Lee Marvin came the closest, but Marvin was too big a star by the time he came to Parker, and any major star is going to come with too many strings attached.

Think about what any casting director would have to find here.  Tall.  Powerful. Huge hands. Scary but sexy.  Calm, quiet-spoken, but able to project cold rage when needed.  Able to credibly scare the bejeebers out of mob bosses and criminal sociopaths, and yet mask his true nature from the straight world, and particularly the law.  Looking for all the world like a man born into the wrong age–or a wolf born into the wrong body.  Nothing to it, right?

That’s right.

So I’ve had several suggestions for somebody who could play Parker right now.  Michael Shannon.  Kevin Durand.  I’ve mentioned Joe Manganiello once or twice.  Not enough to justify a Part 3.  Anybody else got a pick?  If not, I’ve got one more thing to talk about before we get to the very last book in the queue.  Call it an addendum to my previous review.

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Parker film adaptations, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Mr. Parker and The Casting Call

 

Office women in passing cars looked at him and felt vibrations above their nylons.  He was big and shaggy, with flat square shoulders, and arms too long in sleeves too short.–

–His hands, swinging curve-fingered at his sides, looked like they were molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins.  His hair was brown and dry and dead, blowing around his head like a poor toupee about to fly loose.  His face was a chipped chunk of concrete, with eyes of flawed onyx.  His mouth was a quick stroke, bloodless.  His suit coat fluttered behind him, and his arms swung easy as he walked.

“I saw Point Blank at a film festival a year or so ago, and I was absolutely shocked. I’d forgotten.  It was a rough film.  The prototype.  You’ve seen it a thousand times since in other forms.  That was a troubled time for me, too, in my own personal relationship, so I used an awful lot of that in making the picture, even the suicide of my wife.”

Actors.  Can’t live with ’em, can’t shoot ’em.  Well, some do both, of course.  That second quote up top is from Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank, and I feel I must point out that the trouble in Marvin’s personal life was the break-up of his first marriage, to Betty Ebeling (why am I suddenly reminded of a passage from Adios, Scheherazade?

She did not commit suicide.  She left her movie star husband, because he drank, and he saw other women, and she had a hard time of it for a while there, but she published a tell-all biography, and got a career, and she made out okay.  Her ex maybe a little better.

Marvin, being an actor, was conflating his own past emotional tumults with that of his character, Walker–a character he’d played once, decades before.  Whose wife commits suicide.  In the movie Point Blank, directed by John Boorman.  Based on The Hunter, written by Richard Stark, aka Donald Westlake.  (I’m not sure Marvin ever read the book.)

But he did like something about the character in the original script, drawn heavily from the novel, that he literally threw out the window when he took control of the project, and gave it over to Boorman, who made a very interesting movie with a largely incoherent story, and it bombed.  Marvin had The Dirty Dozen out the same year, so again, he was fine.  Lee Marvin was always going to be fine. And he was the best actor ever to play Parker, the one who got closest to the character.  No cigar, mind you.

He wasn’t the first to play some version of Parker.  That was Anna Karina.  I’m not counting her.  Don’t yell chauvinism, I’m not counting Peter Coyote or Jason Statham either.  I think there are four film adaptations, from 1967 to 1973, of four Stark novels,  (plus one 1999 ‘remake’ I can’t leave out, though I’d like to), that are close enough to even talk about as adaptations.  Five performances worth evaluating as attempts to portray a fictional character who has been notoriously difficult to portray.

All are entertaining.  All have casts to brag on.  None of them got it right.  The books or the character behind them. Parker has eluded everyone who ever tried to capture him on film.  To be fair, some weren’t trying that hard.  Their interests lay elsewhere.

But let’s note two things–the books must have been popular to get four radically different adaptations, in so short a time, most of them featuring big names above the title.  And even if none of the movies hit big, they still gave a substantial boost to Westlake’s career.  And therefore, to Stark’s career.  And hence, to Parker’s longevity.  Would we have twenty-four Parker novels if not for those first four Parker movies?  The relationship can’t be denied, however poorly the progeny resemble the parent.

Let’s beg another question.  Could anybody get it right now?  Could anybody have gotten it right at any time in the past?  Is Parker just too elusive to be captured on film, pixels, or whatever they’re using now?  Big screen, small screen, episodic, serialized–could it ever work?  Should we give a damn either way?  Is there any better way to ruin a good book than to make a movie of it?

Thing is, we make a movie in our heads, every time we read a work of prose fiction.  We cast the characters from a pool composed of actors living and dead, people we have loved or loathed or just seen in passing on the street.  Quite often the result is a composite of all the above, an ideal, something that could never exist outside our heads.  Real casting directors have to settle for what’s available.  (And within their price range, and of course they have to think about things like name recognition, drawing power.  I don’t.)

So let’s start by talking about these five very different stars who at least got within spitting range of the character (who wouldn’t waste spit on any of them).  And next time, I’m going to talk about actors, ranging across a pretty broad span of time, who I think might have gotten closer.  With the right script.  The right co-stars.  The right director.  The right producer.  The right timing.  Sheahright.

(All the while aware that I’ve got one more novel to review here, but allow me this one last diversion before that part of the blog runs its course.)

Let’s run them down, one by one.

LEE MARVIN AS WALKER IN POINT BLANK (1967):

Though an argument could be made for #2 on this list, Lee Marvin should probably be considered the first actor who tried to play Parker.  (I don’t know what Anna Karina was trying to do, and judging by what I’ve read about the filming of Made In USA, neither did she.)

Does Parker have prematurely white hair?  No, and he probably doesn’t have blue eyes, though ‘onyx’ is a touch ambiguous.  Details.  Marvin’s face, his body language, his gaze, and most of all his voice, set the benchmark all subsequent interpretations have fallen short of.

Marvin, as he later indicated, was in a disturbed abstracted emotional state when he made Point Blank, because his marriage had broken up (there is some reason to think Westlake’s first marriage was getting rocky when he wrote The Hunter; it ended shortly before Marvin’s did).

After toiling in obscurity for years, he became an A-Lister almost overnight, an Oscar winner, the guy everybody wanted.  He’d already been through hell in the Pacific, and later he made a movie by that name.  There are things no acting class can teach you.  Life is the ultimate Method.

I’ve already talked plenty elsewhere about what I admire and deprecate in this film.  Marvin bears equal responsibility for both.  He had so much clout by then, he could give John Boorman final cut.  He trusted Boorman, and was willing to experiment.  Boorman, grateful beyond measure, was willing to take ad-libs (Walker blankly repeating what somebody says to him, as if it’s meaningless) and incorporate them into the film, often to good effect.

The end result is very very very strange.  Compellingly so.  Also confusingly.  At the end of the day, I don’t believe this film has anything at all to say.  It’s all surface.  But what surface.  You could fill an art gallery with nothing but stills from this movie.  And at the center of it is a performance like no other.

Without any pressure to create a character with comprehensible human motivations (since Walker may in fact be a ghost, or else having a fever dream of vengeance as he lies dying on Alcatraz Island), Marvin was free to just react–or not react.  To sit and stare at nothing at all, while we wonder what he’s thinking about.  To walk down a hallway with cold dead eyes, like he’s Murder Incarnate, which he well might be (even though he never directly kills anyone in the whole movie).

He doesn’t explain himself.  He doesn’t share anything with  us.  He doesn’t seem human.  He doesn’t react to anything he encounters in the story as a normal man would. Except Angie Dickinson, and that works fine for Parker too.  It’s just–perfect.  The script isn’t, but hey, quibbling.

If you contrast his performances as Walker with his character in The Dirty Dozen (a military heist film, Marvin as the planner, putting together a string, pulling a job), and his laconic hitman in Don Siegel’s The Killers, you see an actor uniquely outfitted to play this character.  And with no further interest in playing him.  To Marvin, this was just an interesting gig.  That ended when Boorman yelled “That’s a wrap!”

He flat out refused to do sequels (don’t hold your breath waiting for Dirty Dozen 2, though they never do stop remaking it under other names).  So even if Point Blank had done Godfather numbers at the box office, he wouldn’t have done another. A sequel to Point Blank wouldn’t have made any narrative sense, anyhow.  Which would at least have been consistent with the first film.

Marvin’s professional standards and perverse free-roving individualism–the things that make him resemble Parker even when he’s not playing Parker–made him unattainable for any further adaptations.  If there was ever an actor too well-suited to the role of Parker, Lee Marvin was it.

However, if there was ever someone genetically engineered to play Parker it was–

MICHEL CONSTANTIN AS GEORGES IN MISE A SAC (1967):

Not a lot of people out there have seen Mise a Sac (aka Pillaged) in a theater.  I’m one of them, and it was a beautiful pristine print from Le Cinematheque Francaise, on loan to the Museum of Modern Art, with subtitles projected below the screen, a large appreciative audience present.

I had a cold, but figured the chance might never come again, and so far, it hasn’t.  I sucked on Mentholyptus to keep coughing to a minimum, become far too engrossed to worry about bronchitis setting in, and far as I’m concerned, this is the best and truest adaptation of anything Westlake ever wrote.  And one of the most cunningly subversive crime films ever.

Westlake himself only saw it when visiting someone in France–they had taped it off TV.  No subtitles.  He said it looked good.  Not as good as Point Blank, which he always said was the best (not his favorite, that’s different). He had nothing to say about Michel Constantin’s performance.  I’m not sure his performance is really the point here.  It’s more about his presence.

Constantin was one of those guys who almost never got to play the lead.  He was mainly in crime films, a second banana in most–this is probably as close to a starring role as he ever got.  6’1, an inch shorter than Marvin, but that, combined with his lean build, craggy facial features, and a certain je ne sais quois, made him an eerie monstrous figure, towering over most of his cast mates.

Read that description of Parker up top.  Other than his thick black hair (which matches descriptions from later books) he’s a direct match.  Ugly, but in a way that probably gave a lot of women vibrations above their nylons.

He’s just–right.  I can’t explain it.  He doesn’t look like a movie star.  He doesn’t act like a movie star.  Because he’s not a movie star.  He’s some guy off the street who got tapped on the shoulder, and said “Pourquoi pas?”   (I bet he didn’t get paid like a movie star either.)

There are moments when he’s just walking down a street, his hands at his sides, and if you’re a Stark reader, you almost gasp.  He’s not somebody they pulled out of central casting.  He’s somebody they pulled off the cover of a vintage crime paperback.  You can’t believe this guy exists in three dimensions.  And then, as I said in my earlier review of this movie, he opens his mouth and ruins everything.  Well, he’s got to say what the script tells him to, right?  And in French, to boot.

Like I said, he wasn’t a star.  He would have had basically no clout on set, and maybe he never wanted any.  He wasn’t the kind of actor who gets called upon to act, which would be good, if the director knew what to do with that.  This is the best adaptation of a Parker story by far, but it’s a Parker story where Parker, as we know him, doesn’t exist.

What we have in his place is a workaday French thief, tough but not ruthless, operating out in the provinces. Laid-back, professional, courteous, jokes with his colleagues, and only shows flashes of the explosive violence we associate with the character he’s derived from.  This is an ensemble piece, no big names in the cast, no one player dominating. It works for the story being told.  But that story has been edited.

I believe Alain Cavalier understood what Westlake was doing with The Score, but he wasn’t quite doing the same thing.  He’s better at the visual end of things than he is at the dialogue (though he’s got a hell of a writer collaborating with him on the script, in Claude Sautet).

I don’t know if he could have done a heist film where they got the money and lived to spend it, and never even thought of reforming, but I can’t say I’ve seen a single French heist film where that happened.  Existentialism has a morality all its own.  And it’s not Starkian morality.  Damn Sartres, anyway.

Cavalier, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to make Parker the criminal juggernaut he is in the books.  He’s much more interested in Edgar, the character filling in for Edgars, the one whose vendetta against a town drives the plot.  I don’t agree, but I can’t really argue  That’s what most filmmakers would do in his place, unless they had a major star playing Parker, and he doesn’t.

It’s one novel, filmed out of sequence.  How much time does he have to explain Georges to us?  Very little, so he doesn’t try.  Would it be better if we got some backstory, flashbacks, monologues, telling us why this guy robs banks and jewelry stores for a living?  It would be much worse.  You have to respect the integrity of the story being told, which in its turn, respects the book it’s riffing on, much more than Boorman respected The Hunter, or John Flynn The Outfit.

Say what you will about how Cavalier used his version of Parker, he picked the right guy to play him.  And then didn’t give him enough to do, or the right direction as to how he should do it.  Frustrating.  Because I don’t think Constantin would have needed much coaching at all to hit that elusive bullseye, dead solid center.

There’s something about him–this watchful quality.  Which is, you know, the mark of a good actor–much more how you listen than how you talk.  There’s this great sense of situational awareness about Georges, an understanding that yeah, these are his fellow pros, the men he has to trust his freedom with, and he better not take his eyes off them for a minute.  He leans in when he’s talking to them, he enjoys their company–but he never lets his guard down–until one crucial moment.  And he becomes the second actor playing Parker to get knocked on his keister by some boob he should be able to take apart one-handed.  Oh well.  Nothing’s perfect.

I have my problems with the way this movie wraps up (the way most heist movies wrap up).  But I like the final moments of it very much, and I bet Westlake did too.

It’s been frustrating for me to have to describe this movie to fellow enthusiasts who haven’t seen it.  No DVD in the offing, there may be issues with the rights.  But it’s been shown on TV many times (though never in the U.S. that I know of), and maybe you should sit down now.  You probably are sitting down.  You ready for this?

Somebody uploaded the entire movie to YouTube last year.    Crappy print. Pretty sure this was originally taped off TV with a VCR, like the version Westlake watched, only this one has subtitles.  May have been edited for broadcast.  But this is probably as good as it gets for now.  And watching a bit of it just now, my estimation of Constantin’s Parker went up, not down.  The movie’s opinion of him may be wrong, but he’s just right.

But suppose they were to cast somebody who was super-tough in real life–on the gridiron, no less.  And given that many of Parker’s earliest fans were black men, isn’t it only fair that a black man get to play him?  Wouldn’t it be cool if he had an eclectic troupe of brilliant quirky thespians supporting his criminal venture?  Well, it would have been, if not for the script.  Again.

JIM BROWN AS McCLAIN IN THE SPLIT (1968):

The worst of the five films I’m looking at here, The Split coulda woulda shoulda been the best.  An adaptation of what many consider the best book of the series, I’d be willing to make all kinds of allowances for it, given the talent assembled here.  They transplanted the action west again, but okay (insert eyeroll here).  They spend too much time on the stadium heist, but that’s what they bought the book for.  They don’t have Little Bob Negli, but Peter Dinklage wasn’t born yet–although, Mickey Rooney would have been a cool substitute, and there have always been brilliant actors who happened to be vertically challenged.

The heart of the story being adapted was the string banding together to try and get their money back–not most of them banding together to try and take out the character standing in for Parker, as happens in the movie.  Forming what you might almost call a lynch mob.  Which is unfortunate, given that the character standing in for Parker is played by Jim Brown.

I mean, was this really necessary?

jim-brown-jack-klugman-the-split-1968-BP8D6W

I’m a fan of Jim Brown.  Not as a football player.  I don’t watch football.  Even if I did, he retired when I was in kindergarten.  I’d probably have enjoyed his Lacrosse game more (he did too).

I’m a fan of Jim Brown the actor.  Have been most of my life.  I think he could have been a great Parker.  A good actor. Not a fancy one.  As an actor, he was basic; intense, physically and sometimes emotionally intimidating, dangerously attractive to women, and at all times he displayed a quiet brooding intelligence, along with a general disregard for convention.

Parker isn’t white.  Parker isn’t black.  Parker’s just Parker.  He has no racial identity, because only humans believe in race, and he’s not one.  Could they have written a  role for a black actor–in the late 60’s–with an icon like Brown–that worked that way?  Probably not, but it would have been something to see.

I believe he could have gotten inside the Parker we see in The Seventh, in a way few other actors ever could.  But the character in that novel never made it into the script.  Not even close.

And of course, how are they going to have Jim Brown confront a white cop in his own home, with his wife and kids nearby, without everybody going crazy?  Parker may not care about race, but we still do.  How are we supposed to believe the cops in a small city in upstate New York won’t grab (or gun down) a Parker who looks like Jim Brown on general principle, after a major robbery?  Would Vegas be much different?  I doubt it.

So they made it about war among the criminals, and they divide along racial lines, because that’s what seems to make sense.  Hey, Stark didn’t write a book with an integrated string until the 21st century–hardly anyone did.  Ocean’s 11 was so goofy, nobody took it serious, and Sammy was part of the pack.  There was Odds Against Tomorrow, but Belafonte got to break some of the rules because he was Belafonte.

Dortmunder got integrated in the early 70’s because that’s comedy, and the rules are different.  But when they adapted that book for the movies, they cast Frank McRae as Herman X. I love him dearly, but that’s terrible casting.  And that was the least of it.  There are far worse Westlake adaptations than The Split, you know.

But this is the worst of the five films I’m looking at here, and all the more egregious because they had some of the best actors on the scene then–Klugman, Sutherland, Borgnine, Oates, Carroll, Julie Harris for crying out loud–a Quincy Jones score to boot–and they wasted it all, just like they wasted Jim Brown.  And not just in this movie.  Hollywood threw away Brown’s potential, over and over again, because they already had Sidney Poitier, and there wasn’t room for another one (and Brown wasn’t as subtle–or socially acceptable–as Poitier).

But in certain scenes in this film–like when McClain is testing out his potential string members–you see what could have been.  Just professionals, sizing each other up, never quite trusting each other, but ready to work together, to get their split.  Race doesn’t enter into it, because the only color they see is green.

And imagine him standing on top of that unfinished building, in the dark, over the Amateur’s dead body, realizing he got the same money he would have gotten if everything had gone just right.  Imagine Jim Brown’s laughter in the darkness. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.  Oh well.

From a talented actor who made it on the basis of his superb physical gifts to one of almost unequaled thespian achievement–and guess what?  Now Parker is a short bald redneck who wants to avenge his brother.  He’s versatile, give him that.

ROBERT DUVALL AS MACKLIN IN THE OUTFIT (1973):

I’ve made my problems with this movie known in the past, no need to dwell on it in depth here.  It has its cult, and I can see why, yet I still dissent vigorously. The Outfit is a decent drive-in flick, with some fine performances, an intriguing gritty atmosphere, and a script that does a fair to middling job of invoking the underground criminal subculture that Stark wrote about.  As a film, I rank it far far below both Point Blank and Mise a Sac.

So why is it here?  Because Duvall.  Is there a greater actor?  Probably not.  Could there be anyone more constitutionally unsuited to playing a man described as big, tall, shaggy, and irresistible to women?  You tell me.

Westlake spoke well of this film, calling it his favorite of the Parker adaptations, while still saying Point Blank was the best movie as a movie.  He didn’t say much about Duvall’s performance, that I can find.  Diplomacy.  He knew damned well that was not his character up on screen, but who wouldn’t be flattered that an actor that good would even want to play somebody you created–even as you waited in vain to hear him speak a single line you wrote?

What Duvall got right was Parker’s focus, his tunnel vision, the way he becomes the job he’s doing until it’s done, and everything else in him shuts down for a while.  He could identify with that (I suspect he’s very much like that himself, as was Westlake).  There are scenes in The Outfit where Macklin braces gangsters and treats them like punks.  But he’s too emotional.  He justifies his brutality in various ways.  He’s a misogynist and a knight errant at the same time.  He’s a psychopath with a professional veneer.

And his victory makes no sense, because honestly, he’s not that good at this.  No strategy, not even tactics.  He just walks into places and shoots people.  That’s not Duvall’s fault.  John Flynn was basically half a filmmaker.  The half that’s there is very good.  It’s not enough.

Again, there are moments, in spite of Duvall looking nothing like Parker, where you can still see the character glancing out for a moment–sitting at a bar, looking at nothing, as Marvin did–but Marvin trusted that.  He knew his face was so magnetic, he didn’t have to come up with bits of business to make him look at us.  Duvall knew he’d never have that kind of charisma.  If he was going to be a star, he’d have to make it on acting alone.  It’s a testament to his genius that he did.  But it doesn’t work here.

Duvall used the Method, and the Method says you have to know exactly what your character is feeling.  No human, not even Westlake writing as Stark, could ever fully comprehend what Parker is feeling.  There’s no mystery to Macklin.  But without that mystery, he’s an ill-conceived anachronism.  A heister out of the 30’s who never learned from his mistakes.  Just a good old boy who went wrong.  I’d award points for him not being dead or jailed at the end, but that’s true of all the Parkers.

Let’s run a comparison test.  Here’s Duvall walking down a hallway with murder in his mind–

Here’s Marvin,–

See the difference?  One is just playing the character.  The other is inhabiting him.  Duvall doesn’t understand Parker.  Maybe Marvin doesn’t either, on a conscious level.  But the way Duvall works, he can’t play anyone he doesn’t understand on a conscious level.  Marvin could.  And he was also big and shaggy and sexually charismatic.  Nobody said life was fair.  Parker sure never said that.

(And what I say is that if you watch the beginning of Mise a Sac, Constantin walks the walk better than either of them. If only he could talk the talk.  The total package.  So hard to find.)

And if anybody ever proved life is not fair, it’s–

MEL GIBSON AS PORTER IN PAYBACK (1999)

I have to give the film industry credit for one thing–they stuck to the one name thing when adapting these books.  Westlake wouldn’t let them call any of these guys Parker (he claimed that was about money, and I don’t believe him), but having one name has always appealed to show people (Vegas, baby, Vegas!), so they stuck with it.  Mind you, it’s always easy to tell if it’s a first or last name in the movies, so they even got that wrong, but I want to be positive where I can.

Of the five performances I’m ranking here, Gibson’s is last and least–but not bad. I’m prejudiced in this matter.  I don’t like the guy.  I think he’s talented.  I also think he’s got more and worse issues than your average major movie star–no small achievement.  But you judge an actor’s performance, like any artistic endeavor, on the merits.  And Gibson’s Parker is not bereft of merit.  He shows us a few things we haven’t seen before.

This is not so much a remake of Point Blank as a new interpretation of The Hunter, that went through the wash a few times after Brian Helgeland wrote it. But it focuses on a lot of the same crucial scenes in the book.  And like the earlier film, it chooses to have the protagonist’s wife betray him, not out of fear for her life, as Stark had it, but because she wanted to–with reservations.  In both cases, she’s remorseful afterwards, in both cases she kills herself because of that, but it was her choice.  (And never very well explained, in either film).

And in both cases, the character standing in for Parker is, we have to say, a lot gentler with her than Parker was with Lynn.  I question whether any filmmaker would ever faithfully adapt that part of Stark’s novel.  It’s too damn stark.  Parker slaps her to the floor, then tells her to take too many pills, and she does (because she’s addicted to him, far more than the pills she’s taking, and he’s made it clear she’s getting no more of him.)

Then he mutilates her face, so her corpse won’t be identified, and dumps her in the park.  But, we’re made to know, he could never have killed her.   Not even if she was coming at him with a knife.  Not even if she betrayed him to Mal again.  She was his, he was hers, and while he may no longer love her, he fears her, as he fears no one else.  He didn’t believe she could ever turn on him, but she did.  He has not fully recovered by the end of that book–to some degree, the recovery process extends all the way to The Rare Coin Score. Time wounds all heels.

In Payback, as in The Hunter, there’s another woman.  Walker and Porter each get seriously involved with a beautiful blonde they knew from before (the wife’s sister in the first movie, a call girl Porter used to drive in the second), with Lynn’s body barely cold.  The second version is closer to the book, but not by much.

Gibson really got into his performance here.  I happen to think it’s his best, in any movie of his I’ve seen.  Because it’s the most honest.  Most of his characterizations are extremely dishonest–which is by design.  He’s hawking a product, not telling the truth.  He’s appealing to that part of us that wants to perpetrate mayhem and still feel like a good person, and there’s always a market for that.

Even when he’s a psycho trigger happy cop, he’s a psycho trigger happy cop who is a total sweetheart to everybody but bad guys.  Somebody you’d trust with your beautiful teenage daughter who has a crush on him.  This is not who Mel Gibson is, but it’s who he typically plays.

His Parker is a decent enough guy to women he cares about if more than a bit rough around the edges–okay, consistent with the book character.  He’s wordier than I’d prefer in explaining himself to Maria Bello’s Rosie (now there’s somebody who gives honest performances), but they’re sugaring the pill for the audience, I get it.

They sugar the pill because while Porter is very  much a human being, not a wolf in human form, he’s still a human being who has nothing resembling a proper conscience.  He feels no guilt about stealing, killing, torturing.  He assumes everybody is as amoral as he is, and he’s usually right.

He sneers when somebody tries to attach some higher motive to his cash-based vendetta.  “Stop it, I’m gettin’ misty.”  Not something Parker would say.  But I applaud the sentiment.  Porter’s not a hypocrite.  And at times, playing him, neither is Gibson.  Works for both of them.

I applaud the dialogue, most of all.  The best of any Stark adaptation, which tracks, because much of it was ripped right from the pages of Stark’s book.  It was that dialogue, delivered with flair and zero apologies, that caught my attention when I started catching this one on TV.  It’s that dialogue that made me curious to read the originals.  It’s that dialogue that is responsible for this blog’s existence. The dialogue, and the verve with which the cast delivers it.

Most of the other actors in Payback (all of them very fine) put a bit of a wink into their dialogue–not Gibson.  Deadpan, and dead serious.  Give me my money or I’ll kill you.  That’s right.  Somebody says, “They’ll kill me if I help you” and he rejoins “What do you think I’m going to do to you?  Worry about me.”  That’s damn right.  And from the book.  And Gibson means every word of it.

He’s loving the chance, for once, to play the violent selfish vengeful dark-hearted bastard he really is, deep down inside.  (Okay, I’ve never met him, but I surmise, from a safe distance.)

An actor needs that leverage.  Some part of him or her that resonates with the character he or she is playing.  This is Gibson’s point of access.  And it works.  Up to a point.

See, the problem is, he enjoys it too much.  Both causing pain, and receiving it.  There are no scenes in The Hunter where Parker is tortured.  Nor were there any such scenes in the original screenplay for this movie.  Gibson wanted to get tortured.  He’s into that.

Parker is neither a sadist nor a masochist.  Gibson’s both.  Oh please, even if you never saw that Jew-baiting passion play he lensed (that ends with Jesus back from the dead, and looking to kick ass), you know that already.  It’s not any kind of secret.

He’s created a character who works on his own anti-heroic terms, better than any of Gibson’s other characters.  Because this time he doesn’t have to pretend to be a hero.  It must have been a huge relief, but the box office was only okay by his standards, so he went back to what he knew.  Pity.

Unlike Marvin, he can’t get into the enigma of Parker, the mystery–only the fantasy of being tougher, meaner, and more devious than any of his antagonists.  It’s a sharp performance, but also a shallow one, and that’s what the screenplay called for, even before it got tinkered with, so can’t really blame him for that.  I don’t think he had any problem with the superficiality of the role, though.  If he ever noticed it.

The Chandler-esque offscreen narration he recites (that he had written for him, when he took control of the picture), while probably a good device to keep the audience engaged, and evoke the genre, isn’t something Parker would ever do.  Parker’s not going to explain himself.  To anyone.  Ever.  Least of all us.  Gibson, at the end of the day, still wants us to think of him as a nice guy.  Duvall’s performance may present even worse problems, but it’s got integrity.  Mel Gibson knows not the meaning of that word.

And of course Gibson’s short.  And too damn good-looking.  See what I mean about life being unfair?  At least he’s got all his hair.  (Even more unfair.)

While I think each performance needs to be judged in its own right, having done so, I find, somewhat to my chagrin, that my personal preference runs in strict chronological order–Marvin, Constantin, Brown (more for what could have been than what was), Duvall, and Gibson.  As to the other three, they weren’t playing any version of Parker, least of all the one billed as Parker.

There’s no reason to think Hollywood will give Parker another go after the Statham film. There’s also no reason to think they couldn’t do even worse next time.  But I can’t convince myself that there couldn’t have been something better.

And next time, it’s the could have beens I’m going to look at.  Actors who might have played Parker, but didn’t.  You’ll guess some of the names I’m thinking of.  Not all of them, I bet.

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Parker film adaptations, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

Review: Forever and a Death

Until recently, when he visualized that destruction, the image in Curtis’s mind of the toppling skyscrapers was immediately supplanted by the image of the ancient bastards in Beijing, the shock and the fear on those age-lined pig-faces when they heard the news: someone has killed your golden goose. The image of those faces had been enough for him, could bring him a smile every time he thought of it.

But just in the last few days, he’d found himself, not willingly, thinking about the people inside the buildings. There would be no warning, merely a low rumble in the earth and then the buildings would go over like chainsawed trees. No escape.

Those people in the buildings weren’t his enemies. But he wasn’t going to worry about them. They’d made their choice when they’d decided to stay, after the bastards from the mainland took over. They could have gone away, almost every one of them could have gone away. They could have gone to Macao, or Malaysia; many could have gone to Singapore (as Curtis had), or Canada, or a dozen other places in the world. But they chose to stay, so what happened was on their own heads.

Still, now that he was thinking about it, it seemed to him, for a number of reasons, he would be better to make it happen at night. He’d always visualized it in daylight, in bright sun, the gleaming glass buildings as they went over, but that wasn’t necessary. He certainly wouldn’t be there to see it.

At night, it would be easier to make the collections.

It’s been months since this book,  the last ‘new’ novel we’ll ever see from Westlake, was released.  Time for me to review it properly, as so few of his novels ever have been, which is why this blog exists.  To discuss, and in some detail, character, motivation, subtext, influences, style.  And plot.  If you read this whole review, you’re going to know the whole story. Shall we proceed?  Open your sealed dossiers, and let the debriefing begin. (Oh get your minds out of the gutter, it isn’t that whole a story).

There have, to be sure, been many reviews out there–you can see quotes from them on Amazon, including a blurb plucked from my own non-review review of some months back (mildly disorienting for me to read there, but I’ll take it).  Generally sketchy, sometimes insightful, mainly positive.  Not all from Westlake fans, either.

Reader reviews have been more mixed.  The general gist seems to be “Not bad, but I thought this was a Bond novel.  Where’s Bond?”  He ain’t here.  Not out there in reality, either.  That’s the point of the book, I argued back then (in my blurb), and I stick to that.

There are real villains, in the real world, with real evil plans, and the very real power to carry them out, and they do.  There is, however, no handsome heroic multi-talented individual who can more or less single-handedly foil these villains.  That kind of story is fun to read, and to watch, but it’s not real, even if you cut out the cloak and dagger stuff. (Edward Snowden?  Remind me who’s paying his rent now?  More of an unwitting henchman.  With Assange, you can cut out the unwitting part.)

Now of course Bond was never entirely on his own, he always had allies, collaborators, an entire government apparatus behind him, but the Fleming novels, and the films inspired by them, are still celebrations of rugged individualism, even as they depict an organization man, someone of whom it can honestly be said (to borrow a phrase from a much better written spy series) They’ve given you a number and taken away your name.

Spies are real, no question about that.  They’re all around us, much more than we realize.  And their work is typically less glamorous and exciting than that of a bike messenger for a Wall St. firm.   More dangerous, perhaps, but that depends on where they’re doing it, and when.  They get information.  They convey it to their paymasters.  There may be a certain limited measure of kiss-kissing and bang-banging, but not much, if they’re doing the job right.  Flash does not pay in their business.

But it’s what you’re selling with a Bond novel, a flight of pure fancy, which this book serves as a more earthbound commentary upon.  It’s written in a genre that might roughly be slotted as ‘suspense/thriller’–it’s no kind of spy novel.  There are no spies in it (well, there is one–a minor character, and an amateur–you know what tends to happen to them in Westlake novels).  No government espionage agency, real or imaginary, is involved, or even referred to.

This was a deliberate choice.  Westlake could not legally publish a novel with James Bond  as the protagonist, but let’s remember that the people who control the 007 franchise don’t own the idea of manly secret agents battling baddies while bedding babes, which Ian Fleming did not invent, and couldn’t have copyrighted if he had.  Matt Helm, Derek Flint, and Austin Powers all attest to this precise type of story being in the public domain.

This could easily have been a novel about some freelance tough guy getting sucked into a Bondian scenario–Westlake had done that before, though more often as Richard Stark–Parker had been a sort of spy in The Handle, if without much conviction (that book gets a bit of a shout-out here).  Alan Grofield had been dragooned into the role of secret agent  in The Blackbird.  Under his own name, Westlake had sent up the entire genre with The Spy in the Ointment.

These are all more economical, less ambitious books than the one we’re looking at, and much better ones, written in his two strongest authorial voices.  For us to properly evaluate this book, we have to accept he wanted to try a new voice, a new approach, incorporating elements of what he’d done before into new settings, with characters you’d never want to try and build a series of books around, who are much more mundane and ordinary than characters in this type of story tend to be.  Because they’re standing in for us.

Westlake wanted both his villain and those opposing him to be unaffiliated, and he also wanted them to be newbs, unaccustomed to their roles, though each has applicable skills, if they can figure out how to apply them.  There are cops involved, and robbers, but mainly ancillary.  The characters who carry the action are a commercial developer, an engineer, a smuggler, a construction foreman, and three environmental activists of radically different backgrounds.  This is not to say they are the only characters who matter, because the point of the book is that everybody matters.  Everybody makes a difference.  For better or worse.  Sometimes both.

This is a story about a man attempting to murder an entire city, for revenge and profit, a few dangerous pawns who assist him for reasons of their own, and a few decent brave flawed individuals, who come to realize by degrees what he’s attempting, and try to stop him.  It’s a detective novel, as much as anything else.  But written quite frequently from the criminal’s POV–a Westlake specialty.  So also a heist novel. As are some of the Bond stories, most notably Goldfinger, probably the one Westlake was most familiar with, since he tried his own take on a military base heist in The Green Eagle Score, which I’d take over all the Ian Fleming books ever written, with the pastiches thrown in.

To sum up how all this happened, for those arriving late, Westlake was tasked with writing a story treatment for the Bond film that was going to follow Goldeneye, assuming Goldeneye wasn’t a flop.  He asked Jeff Kleeman to send him videocopies of some of the Bond films, making it clear he hadn’t seen them all.  Unknown which if any of the Fleming books he’d read.

I don’t know if one of the films he viewed in preparation was A View To A Kill, which I very much doubt Westlake went to see when it came out, and had not been greeted with much enthusiasm at the time.  Christopher Walken’s diabolic Zorin, a giggling over-the-top Nazi science project of a man, has an idea quite similar to that of the baddie in Westlake’s original treatment, relating to Silicon Valley (an idea that could not possibly work in reality, for reasons Westlake would have immediately perceived, but what else is new in Bond-town?)

Since Zorin’s plan was self-evidently inspired by Goldfinger, maybe Westlake never saw the later film at all, and was just extrapolating along comparable lines?  Westlake liked to avoid obvious repetition when possible. (But then, isn’t obvious repetition part and parcel of this franchise?)

Greg Tulonen, Phil P., and Jeff Kleeman (in his engagingly informative afterword to this book), have all helped us better understand how this project came to pass, and why Westlake’s treatment ultimately went nowhere, became something else, written by somebody else, with just a few of Westlake’s ideas marginally present.

He then felt moved to write a very long novel (610 pages in the original manuscript) that took the core ideas from his treatment and made a new story out of them, which met with a muted response from people whose opinions he valued, so the book was put aside, while still in early draft form.

But we’ve covered all that already.  What we’re looking at is the book that has now been published, boiled down to a more manageable length by Charles Ardai.  And our mission, should we choose to accept it (I know, wrong franchise), is deciding whether we can view it as any kind of success on its own terms, or simply an oddity, a forgotten relic from the career of a storied storyteller.

Our mission is complicated by the fact that the book was never properly finished.  This posthumously edited version differs in many respects from what we’d be reading  if Westlake had gotten it published in his lifetime.  There would have been more drafts, editorial notes, sharpening of character, tightening of story, tweaking of language.  All Ardai could do was what Abby Westlake reportedly suggested her husband do back then, namely that he ‘cut a hundred pages of hemming and hawing.’  (That’s how Westlake himself put it, perhaps Abby was more diplomatic.)

It wouldn’t rank among his best books, no matter how long he worked on it, because this type of material was never his strongest suit, and it was a bit late in the day for such a radical reinvention.  I wouldn’t call it one of his worst books, because there is a sense of energy and purpose to it, for all the missteps and rough patches–much better than Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, or Gangway!, both of which had comparable Tinseltown origins.  Not sure I’d call it a Westlake, either.

As I said, when I wrote about it some months ago, it strikes me as being written more in the style of Timothy J. Culver, the portion of Westlake’s psyche that wrote very long ‘airport’ novels of intrigue and adventure, with humor on the down-low.  Only Ex Officio was ever published under Culver’s name, and Westlake wrote disparagingly of this alter ego, but Kahawa, to a lesser extent, is written in that mode, as is Humans.  None of these books were big sellers, though Kahawa was critically well-regarded, has a loyal following to this day, and is in most respects superior to Forever And A Death.

Westlake reportedly wanted this one published under a feminine nom de plume, something Knox Burger, his agent of the time, found disconcerting.  It’s not clear why he was so bothered, since Westlake’s very successful friend, Lawrence Block, has written on and off as Jill Emerson for over half a century now.  Maybe it was something else about the name that bothered Mr. Burger, who would be thinking about how this book would impact the Westlake ‘brand’.  (And of course no matter what name it was published under, it would be outed as his handiwork, sooner or later–plenty of hints for the sharp-eyed).

Westlake had, interestingly, published four detective novels under the name Samuel Holt–same name as the protagonist/narrator of that series–and Burger specifically cites the Holt novels in his response to Westlake, not at all in a complimentary fashion.  Was his suggested pseudonym here also the name of a character from this book?  Somebody out there must know, but I don’t.

I do know I better start the synopsis–this is a good-sized novel, divided into four parts, each primarily set in a different location, with many a twist and turn along the way, involving at least 13 POV characters (the precise number is debatable).  I don’t intend to let this turn into a three or four parter, as I have in the case with shorter books with more fine detail work.

My intent is to make Part 1 about Parts One and Two, and Part 2 will be devoted to Parts Three and Four.  For all the POV characters in this book, there is one who looms above all the others.  And he’s not the hero.   But in his mind, he’s the–

ONE:

He was consumed with so much anger, so much hatred, that he found it hard to be around other people for very long.  The snarl beneath the surface kept wanting to break through.

And of course, everybody knew about it, which only made things worse. Everybody knew they’d driven Richard Curtis out of Hong Kong, those mainland bastards, once they’d taken over. Everybody knew they’d cheated him, and robbed him, and driven him out of his home, his industry, his life. Everybody knew Richard Curtis’s great humiliation. But what nobody knew was that the game wasn’t over.

This story begins and ends with Richard Curtis–a name I feel confident in saying is derived from Westlake’s two hardest-boiled pseudonyms–Richard Stark and Curt Clark. Because Richard Stark wrote The Score, the premise of which hangs upon a man with a blood vendetta against the town that exiled him, and is using the professional heist men he’s working with, Parker included, to get his revenge.

Curt Clark wrote Anarchaos, a science fiction noir about a man possessed by rage against society, who sets out to learn if an entire planet of criminals murdered his brother, and pass sentence if it has.

Curtis’ ambitions lie somewhere between those two poles.  As does his morality, if he can be said to have any.  His identity crisis lies in the fact that in order to try and regain the person he used to be, he’s got to become what he never was before–a killer.  And we should remember, Westlake wrote this not long after he wrote The Ax.  But all these books I mention were much more focused.

This story is going to be more divided in its attentions, and its sympathies.  A strength and a weakness. A challenging story to write, all the more since it’s using a borrowed template that needs to be subtly altered to get Westlake’s points across–Curtis is a rationalized Bond villain, with a rationalized Bond villain scheme, rationalized murderous henchmen with inner lives of their own, and more believable motivations than any villain I can think of from the Fleming novels, or the many films based on them.

The people who come to oppose him are, in a sense, a collective 007, standing in for we the audience.  Also rationalized, and fallible as all hell, forced willy-nilly into the role of hero, finding it not nearly as much fun as the movies make it seem.  Fascinating concept.  Incredibly difficult to execute properly.

We see a helicopter coming in to land, on Curtis’s yacht, at sea, off the coast of a small abandoned atoll, a former Japanese military base, under the territorial authority of Australia.  Curtis is on that helicopter.  He’s come to see a dream made real.  Not necessarily a pleasant dream.

Working with a brilliant young engineer, Richard Manville, Curtis intends to use a soliton wave, created by carefully set explosives, to turn the entire island to mud in a matter of minutes.  Thus creating a blank slate upon which he can build a luxury casino resort, his very own Cockaigne, though the name is never mentioned–Westlake drawing a sly subtextual parallel between Curtis and his earlier attempt at a Bond-style villain, Baron Wolfgang Friedrich Kastelbern von Altstein, who likewise made a paradise of vice out of a desert isle.

Though Curtis is genuinely interested in this project, its potential for long-term profit, what he’s allowed no one to know is how desperately he requires a massive influx of capital, that no legitimate enterprise could ever yield him in time.  As matters stand, each of his partners in the venture thinks Curtis has secretly sold him/her a bigger share than the others, and Curtis’s own share is accordingly diminished.  Scratch a capitalist, find a con artist.

He was a billionaire developer in Hong Kong, until the mainland Chinese government took over there, and forced him out, helping themselves to most of his assets in the process.  This wholly predictable turn of events hurt him far worse than it should have–he was too stubborn and self-willed to cut his losses and relocate to Shanghai.  A tiger fighting a dragon, doomed from the start.  He only surrendered to the inevitable once he had no other choice, and too much damage had been done for his fortunes to recover.

Richard Curtis, like many if not most people at the pinnacle of the One Percent, can’t abide any form of authority over him–not even one of the world’s most powerful and autocratic nations.  Nor can he ever forgive a slight–let alone a defeat.  There is zero chance of his dying in poverty, very little of his ever paying for his chicanery with prison time.  That’s not the point.  His identity is based on being a billionaire developer, and a billionaire developer he must remain.  No matter what.

In the eyes of the world, he’s still all of that, more or less self-made (though he more or less stole his company from the children of those who created it, marrying one of them in the process).  He began as nothing more than an oil-rig worker out of Oklahoma, son of a fly-by-night contractor.  He is decidedly not an entitled strutting self-promoting media-driven fraud like Trump, though comparisons are there to be made, if you like–most notably in the way he’s over-leveraged himself, owes far more than he owns, and is no more than a few years away from ruin, if he can’t make the kind of score that no one would ever imagine him capable of pulling off.  (Yes, there are parallels, I just said so.)

He’s no stranger to cutting legal and ethical corners, never had any qualms over doing so–but now he’s decided to commit mass murder, apolitical terrorism on a scale that would dwarf 9/11 (which hadn’t happened at the time this was written, and please note, a wealthy engineer was behind that as well).  All this in order to cover outright theft, of the gold reserves lying in underground vaults there.

But even more important to him, this would deal a vicious blow to the ‘ancient bastards’ in Beijing (another subtextual cross-reference, this time to Humans)–and by extension, the entire world economy.  Perhaps millions of lives will end by his hand, billions more will be impacted.  What Richard Curtis can’t control, he destroys.

Does he care?  Only to the extent that it changes the way he looks at himself.  He tells himself that he’ll do it at night, to minimize the number of people present in the business district of Hong Kong, built mainly on landfill, that will crumble the same way as the fragile atoll to the soliton’s kiss.  But this is not compassion, or guilt, and he has no capacity for shame.  He’s just not yet ready to fully accept what he’s in the process of becoming.

In the meantime, others are going through transitions of their own.  As Curtis and Manville prepare their experiment from Curtis’s palatial yacht (Manville has no inkling of what further use Curtis has for his idea), a ship from the environmental group Planetwatch approaches.  An expedition led by Jerry Diedrich, who has a long-held mysterious vendetta against Curtis, and has plagued him in the past.  He has learned about the soliton through private channels, and is claiming it will damage the Great Barrier Reef.  His public statements don’t match his personal motives. Curtis is his own personal Great White Whale, and the reef is just an excuse to throw harpoons at the blowhard’s blowhole.

Aboard the ship with him are various other activists, including Diedrich’s cool enigmatic German-born lover, Luther Rickendorf, made of sterner stuff than the temperamental Diedrich, who won’t come into his own until later in the book.

More important to this part of the story is twenty-three year old Kim Baldur, child of the middle class, American as they come, both a good and a bad thing (and when is it ever not?)  The last of Westlake’s perky blonde ingenues, and perhaps the best of them.  Brave, impulsive, naive, idealistic, decent, far too trusting for her own good.  And like most kids, convinced of her own immortality.

(I finally head-cast her as Michelle Williams.  A bit too seasoned to play Kim now–at least the girl she is when we meet her.  The woman Kim is by the end, Williams could still play admirably.)

Manville didn’t put in a fail safe device, so once the countdown has started, it can’t be stopped.  Diedrich refuses to believe this.  Kim, a trained diver with a Norse surname, takes it upon herself to be the sacrificial offering, believing as her mythic namesake did, that nothing in nature could ever harm her.

Without asking anyone’s leave, she launches herself into the ocean, swims for the island, believing this will force them to stop the explosions she has been told will irreparably damage one of the world’s natural wonders. But even the most ardent beliefs can’t change the facts, and Curtis probably wouldn’t give the order if he could.  By the time Kim and everyone else realizes what’s happening–

At first, the sea seemed to shrink, to turn a darker gray, as though it had suddenly grown cold, with goosebumps.  There was a silence then, a pregnant silence, like the cottony absence of sound just before a thunderstorm.  The island seemed to rise slightly from the sea, the concrete collar of its retaining wall standing out crisp and clear, every flaw and hollow in the length of it as vivid as if done in an etching.

Then a ripple appeared, faint at first, and rolled outward from the island, all around, just beneath the surface, like a representation of radio waves.  With the ripple came a muttering, a grumbling, as though boulders sheathed in wool were being rolled together in some deep cave.  And the ripple came outward, outward, not slacking, not losing power, with more ripples emerging behind it.

Planetwatch III, in too close, nearly capsizes in the backswell, but her captain keeps her afloat.  Nobody witnessing any of this believes there’s the slightest chance Kim survived. Manville is deeply troubled, feeling he was responsible for not foreseeing such an eventuality.  Diedrich, a good man for all his bombast, is likewise asking himself if he is responsible for this child’s death.

Curtis, to whom other people are assets or liabilities, sees a strategic opening.  If he can hang the death of this suicidal fool on Diedrich, he can tie the gadfly up in the Australian courts during the coming critical weeks–otherwise Diedrich might well appear in Hong Kong, since he clearly has a well-placed mole in Curtis’s company.  Curtis can’t believe his good fortune.

Not so lucky as he thought.  His men, doing the obligatory search for what they assume will be a corpse, find Kim floating unconscious off the coast of the reformed island.  There’s a faint pulse in her throat.  She’s brought on board, examined by the yacht’s skipper, Captain Zhang, who has some basic medical training.  He happily tells a disappointed Curtis that her injuries are not fatal.

The startled captain is then informed by his employer that he is mistaken–Kim Baldur will never wake again.  If necessary, Zhang must make sure of that. Believing without question that his none-too-subtle wishes will be carried out, since Zhang is a family man, and depends on Curtis for his present comfortable livelihood, Curtis proceeds to inform his business partners on the yacht, as well as Manville, that the girl died without ever regaining consciousness.

This is a mistake he will come to regret, leading to a cascade of subsidiary mistakes that will force him to go further and further out of his comfort zone, until his criminal enterprise is no longer a dry abstraction to him.  Diedrich was far less of a threat than the enemies Curtis is going to make by trying to neutralize all potential opposition–he has no suspicion that Curtis is an aspiring city-killer, nor was he likely to have found out on his own.  But his constant harassment got under Curtis’s skin.

Westlake had long made clear his contempt for people who make murder the answer to everything.  It is as much a logical as a moral disdain. Killing creates more complications than it resolves.  It’s the most unpredictable and dangerous tool in the kit.  To be used only when no other option exists (or where no law worth taking seriously exists).  If it had to be done, Curtis should have done it  himself.  But that’s a step he’s not prepared to take yet.  And he’s spent years ordering other people to do his dirty work for him.  Old habits.

Curtis has a sort of mad ingenuity, when he’s shouldering aside obstacles in his path, but a one-track mind is ill-suited to over-complex plans.  It was, after all, an engineer named Kelly Johnson who came up with the KISS principle.  (And not Gene Simmons, oddly enough.) You can find many over-focused megalomaniacs in Bond novels and films, making the same mistakes, but what you rarely find there is the carefully crafted inner monologues that bring us to better understand this monster, invite us into his confidence.

And we have to be brought into his confidence.  Because Curtis is never, at any time, going to confide the full details of his plans for Hong Kong to anyone, even his closest associates, who think they’re just going to steal a lot of gold, kill a relatively small number of people, and destroy a few city blocks to hide the evidence of their crime.  He knows they lack the imagination to encompass something on the scale of what he intends to do.  He uses everyone, trusts absolutely no one.

This is a huge break with both the Bond novels and films, and really with most popular fiction involving megalomaniacs and master plans and henchmen.  It was a leitmotif in the Bond novels all the way back to Moonraker, with innumerable antecedents, and the movies (lacking as they do a narrator who can put us in the villain’s head) magnified it to the point where anyone writing a Bond flick now has to struggle with a way to justify it.

(I’m curious as to how Westlake would have handled that hoary shibboleth, had his movie been made.  It should be said, Bond does at times figure out what the plan is without the aid of egocentric villains, but that often requires him to know far more than he ought to, another problem, that Fleming sort of danced his way around.)

It’s such a well-established trope for the villain to blab his evil plan to the hero that endless parodies have mocked this self-destructive compulsion. that is pretty much entirely an invention of desperate storytellers seeking plot exposition (pretty sure Hitler never phoned Churchill to brag about his V2 rockets).  Curtis makes a lot of mistakes, but never that one.  Well–hardly ever.  Westlake makes a sly curtsey to this tradition in Part One.

Captain Zhang is tormented with guilt and indecision, questioning whether he is the good man he always thought of himself as being–but doesn’t a good man protect his family from privation?  He delays as much as he can, hoping Curtis will change his mind, and the delay proves fatal to Curtis’s fatal plans for Kim.

Before Zhang does something that can’t be undone, Manville goes to Curtis and tells him he went to apologize to Kim’s corpse for not putting in the fail-safe (he can be almost annoyingly conscientious at times), and found a warm sleeping body instead. He knows Kim isn’t dead, but he heard Curtis tell an entire dinner party she was.

He’s figured out why Curtis would want her dead, and he figures all he has to do is tell Curtis he knows and the game will be up.  Curtis will find some other way around his difficulties.  Which is precisely what Curtis should do.  But Curtis hates to abandon any plan of action once he’s settled on it.

So instead he shares–just a little.  A little too much.  He tells Manville he’s really broke.  He tells him about what happened in Hong Kong.  He tells him about Jerry Diedrich’s vendetta.

“But what does that have to do with that girl, down in cabin seven?”

Curtis thought about his answer, then said, “All right.  The fact is, I have a way out of this mess.  I am going to be rich again, a lot richer than I ever was before.  But I have to be extremely careful, George.  What I’m going to do is dangerous, and it’s illegal, and I have to admit it’s going to be destructive.”

“With the soliton,” Manville said.

“I was going to do it without you,” Curtis told him, “and I still can.  I’m not asking you to be at risk, not for a second.  But you could share in the profit.”

He offers Manville ten million dollars.  In gold, if he wants.  All Manville has to do is stay quiet.  Maybe help out with additional calculations, if needed, though Curtis believes he can do that himself.  If he can get Manville to assent to Kim’s death, and by extension to the much larger thing Curtis plans to do with Manville’s idea, he’d be too implicated to speak up later.  Would he tell Manville everything if Manville came in with him?  We never find out.

It’s motivated quite differently from most Bond stories (though maybe just a bit like the film version of Goldfinger, wanting to bask in Bond’s admiration of his ingenuity).  He and Manville have worked together so well, understood each other so perfectly when it came to the project they just completed, that he felt like Manville was, in a sense, his other self, a secret sharer.  But this secret was never meant to be shared, not even in a vague hypothetical form.

Curtis can coldly plot the death of millions, order an underling to snuff out a young girl’s life, but hesitates to do the job himself–Manville is the obverse.  He can kill if he has to, but he’ll be the one doing it, with whatever tools come to hand.  He doesn’t yet know this about himself.  We don’t know our limits until they are tested.  Curtis has found Manville’s  He turns Curtis’s offer down flat.  Knowing as he does that now Curtis will try to have him killed as well.

A mistake had been made. Curtis understood that, now; he’d made a second mistake, while trying to adjust for the first. And both mistakes came down to the same error of judgment. He had gauged George Manville too poorly, dismissing him as just an engineer, which was certainly true, but without stopping to think what that meant.

Yes, Manville was just an engineer, and what that meant was, he had too much integrity and too little imagination. Dangle ten million in front of him—in gold, George, in gold!—and he hasn’t the wit to be seduced by it. First he has to take responsibility for the accident to the diver, a responsibility that was never for a second his, but which he assumed for himself simply because he was the project’s engineer. That unbidden, unasked-for scrupulousness leads him to learn the truth about the diver, which makes him a threat to Richard Curtis, to which Curtis responds by making mistake number two. Not taking time to judge his man, he tries to enlist Manville on his side, and tells him too much.

Before this, Curtis had once or twice wondered, if there were unexpected complications down the line, whether or not he’d be able to recruit Manville, and had guessed that a combination of cupidity and the engineering challenge would turn the trick, but now he knew he’d been wrong. Manville was too blunt-minded to be affected by cupidity, and his engineer’s honor would keep him from being caught up by the engineer’s challenge. If he could balk at finishing off one half-dead idiotic girl, how would he react to what was going to happen to all those people in the buildings?

(Parts of this read very much like a film treatment, don’t they?  The second paragraph in particular.  And we know why, but Westlake usually hid that kind of thing better.  He always worried about explaining his characters’ motivations for doing something necessary to advance the plot that didn’t quite make sense in pragmatic terms–as so much human behavior does not, but fictional humans get held to a higher standard, somehow.  He thought he’d explained Parker’s motivations too poorly in The Jugger, and sometimes he went to the other extreme, over-explained, to compensate.  The simple truth is, people with deadly secrets yearn to share them.  Not everything we do makes sense. Understatement of the century?)

Curtis pretends to relent.  Manville pretends to believe him.  Curtis flies off in his helicopter.   Captain Zhang takes a lot more time getting the yacht back to Brisbane than he ought to need.  Obviously there’s a plan to get rid of both of Manville and Kim.  Manville starts making plans of his own.

In the meantime, Kim wakes up, finds Manville standing guard over her, and is tended to by an increasingly guilt-ridden and confused Captain Zhang.   Manville tells her the situation they’re in.  But she’s still processing what got her in this situation.  Her Quixotic act, what she experienced when the soliton hit, and the price she has paid.  The price was knowledge.  Immortal no longer.

And once more she remembered her own final thought: Stupid me, now I’ve killed myself. But now she remembered more; she remembered what was inside that thought. Inside the panic and the desperate useless lunge toward the surface, and much more real, had been acceptance.

Resignation, and calm acceptance. She had known, for that second or two seconds, that she was going to die, and she’d accepted the fact, without challenge. She hadn’t even been unhappy.

How easy it is to die, she thought, and realized she’d always assumed it was hard to die, that life pulsed on as determinedly as it could until the end. It was a grim knowledge, that life didn’t mind its own finish, and she felt she had been given that knowledge too soon. I shouldn’t know that yet, she thought, and began to cry. She struggled to keep her breathing regular, to avoid the pain, and tears dribbled from her eyes, and then she opened her mouth and sighed and gave up the struggle and faded from consciousness.

(That didn’t read like a film treatment at all, did it?  More like a memory–or a premonition.  Westlake put a lot of himself into Kim, as well as perhaps some women he’d admired, and she is, in fact, one of his more successful attempts at a female protagonist.  She’ll need to be.)

She’s young and fit, and recovers quickly, but is still too shaky to put on a small boat and escape.  Manville has learned from Zhang that people are coming to kill them.  That’s why it’s taking so long to get to Brisbane.  He hides Kim, but they find her quick enough.  He looks for some weapon to fight them with.  All he can find is a large heavy pepper mill.   He clubs one of the searchers with it, and takes his gun.

He used to do target shooting, for fun.  He’s never shot at a living thing.  He’s never used this kind of gun before.  He has to learn fast.

He stood just out of sight of the people on deck, and studied the thing, a revolver with a bit of bullet showing at the back of each chamber. This small lever here on the side, handy to the right thumb; wouldn’t that be the safety?

The lever moved up and down, and when he first tried the thing it was in the down position. Would the man have done his searching with the safety on or off? There was nothing written on the pistol, no icons, no hint.

I’m an engineer, Manville thought, if I were the one who’d designed this, which way would turn the safety off, which way would turn it on? I would want the more speed when turning it off, would have less reason for speed when switching it on. The quickest simplest motion here is for the thumb to push this lever down, so if I were the engineer on this project I’d design it so the safety was off when the lever was down. The lever’s down.

If I’m wrong, I’ll know it when and if I have to pull the trigger. With luck, I’ll still have time to put my thumb under the lever and push it up. Without luck, I’m dead anyway, because this is nothing I know anything about.

He’s right.  And Curtis’s thugs, led by a cynical American smuggler named Morgan Pallifer, who Curtis has had past dealings with when he needed something illegal done, are wrong when they assume he’s bluffing.  Well, if they weren’t, that would be the end of the story, wouldn’t it?

So Manville and Kim tie up the survivors, and escape in their boat to nearby Brisbane–Kim has recovered enough by now, and they don’t have any choice.  Pallifer tells Manville he’d like to meet him again sometime.  Manville, a killer twice over now, much less disturbed by that fact than he would ever have believed possible, responds “I wouldn’t.”  End Part One.  And I’m well over 6,000 words.  Damn.

Okay.  One has to adapt to unforeseen exigencies.  That’s one of the lessons of this book.  I can’t possibly finish all three parts in the next installment.  So this will be a four-parter.  I’ll try to make the next one brief (it’s my least favorite part of the book).  One complication is that I don’t have four cover images for this book.  I have two–I’ll save the second for part four–it will be worth the wait.  As to the rest, I’ll improvise.

So next time Australia.  Then Singapore.  Then Hong Kong.  If there still is a Hong Kong when this book is finished.  And if there still is a world to read this review by the time I’ve finished it.  Did you hear that Kim Jong Un claims to have a hydrogen bomb he can fit into an ICBM?  Trump has thousands of the blasted things (poor choice of adjectives, that).

Like I said.  No shortage of real Bond villains in this world.  But if you’re waiting for Bond to show up and save you, well kids, you are just shit out of luck.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.  And I suppose this qualifies, though since almost nobody knew it existed before now…..)

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake screenplays, Ex Officio, Timothy J. Culver

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–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.

(Editing this in much later–Richard Curtis was the real-life name of a writer and literary agent Westlake would have been acquainted with, from his days writing sleaze paperbacks.  So maybe Stark and Clark were in his mind, but methinks I didst assume too much.)

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