Category Archives: Donald Westlake film adaptations

Bonus Item: The Cute Rook

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, John Dortmunder novels

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

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

From Bank Shot, by Donald E. Westlake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, John Dortmunder novels