Category Archives: Donald Westlake screenplays

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.)


Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake screenplays

Review: Forever And A Death, Part 2



She rubbed her eyes. “What’s that you’re reading?”

He showed her the cover. “It’s a caper story, called Payback, by an Australian writer named Gary Driver. He’s imitating the Americans, but he’s pretty good. He’s teaching me how to behave in dangerous situations.”

Grinning at him, she said, “You behave fine.”

This is Westlake’s globe-trotting novel, his most extensive tour of the eastern hemisphere.  Begins well out at sea in Part One.  Part Two is set in Queensland; the greater Brisbane area, then the outback.  It’s off to Singapore for Part Three.  And then the big finish in Hong Kong.

Most of Westlake’s best fiction is set in the U.S., but he loved to travel–and then put the places he’d visited in his stories.  He wrote about Canada now and then, Mexico and South/Central America much more often.  He liked the Caribbean as well; Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and he became the most improbable author of an entire non-fiction book on Anguilla.

He dabbled in European intrigue, but not much.  He devoted an entire novel to East Africa, where he spent some time doing research, and there are other books that reference his enduring fascination with that continent.   He ventured to Moscow, very briefly, in Humans.  Perhaps in reality as well, though some of his traveling was doubtless of the armchair variety.

So aside from his desire to make something out of the premise he’d dreamed up for a Bond film that never got made, he might also have thought that since this type of story usually comes with multiple changes of setting, he could cross several more exotic locales off his bucket list in the process of writing it.

The problem with a globe-trotting novel, of course, is that the author’s treatment of the various settings will, of necessity, be more superficial.  Westlake did research, some of it in person (possibly some of it in preparation for writing the film treatment), but he could never have the same connection with Brisbane or Singapore that he did with Manhattan or Albany.  There are a lot of references to local restaurants in this novel–and Charles Ardai has indicated there were a lot more of those before he edited the manuscript.  Well, that’s one of my my favored methods of world exploration as well.

His heroes are themselves mainly unfamiliar with the terrain they’re negotiating, and therefore supposed to feel disoriented and out of touch.  His villain, by contrast, is fully at home in all of these places.  One of which he intends to destroy.

So last time out, engineer George Manville and environmental activist Kim Baldur had escaped Richard Curtis’s yacht, after four hired thugs tried to kill them at Curtis’s behest–leading to Manville critically injuring two of them.

After tying up the remaining two, Manville and Kim take the boat their would-be assassins arrived on, and make for Brisbane harbor.  Kim is still feeling the effects, both physical and emotional, of her close encounter with the soliton wave that nearly killed her.  Manville is wondering if he’s going to have a career to go back to, after defying one of the richest and most powerful men on earth, who he now knows intends to put Manville’s soliton technique to use in some way that will be both criminal and destructive.  But that’s all he knows.  Except that now they’re–


Movement made him turn his head, and there was now somebody seated next to him. He was in his forties, heavyset, a bruiser with a large round head, thick bone above his eyebrows, a broken nose. Manville had never seen him before, but he knew at once that this man was connected to the killers on the ship. And that something bad had happened to Kim.

The man leaned forward, as though he wanted to deliver a secret. “George Manville,” he said. Manville looked carefully at him.

The man’s large bony hands rested on the table, empty. He didn’t act threatening, he was just there.

“Yes,” Manville said.

The man nodded. “If you look out there,” he said, his voice raspy but soft, his accent showing him to be a local, “you’ll see a fella that isn’t walking. He’s looking at you. He’s got his hands in the pockets of kind of a big raincoat.”

Manville looked. “I see him.”

It was another stranger, cut from the same cloth as this one. The man said, “If I stand up and walk away from this table, and you don’t stand up and follow me, that bloke’s gonna take a machine pistol out of his pocket and blow your head off. And probably a few other heads around here, too. He’s got rotten aim.”

This is, oddly, my least favorite section of the book, yet includes some of my favorite moments from it–many of which are more than a little redolent of Richard Stark, who at the time of writing had only just made his return.  Elements from past novels by Stark, and elements from novels Stark had not yet written, that would be published long before this novel.  Westlake hated to let good words go to waste.  And Stark famously wasted no words at all.

At 34, Manville is ten or eleven years older than Kim–which is, when you think about it, less than the average age gap between an actor playing James Bond and whatever actress they hire to play the girl he’ll be screwing at the end of the movie.  Michelle Yeoh, whose character in Tomorrow Never Dies was at least tangentially influenced by Westlake’s original story treatment, was nine years younger than Pierce Brosnan.  I’d guess a similar age gap existed between Mr. Westlake and his third wife, but I don’t really know. Just a number anyway, right?

Obviously there’s going to be a romance between them, though they will decidedly not be screwing at the end of this novel, and only twice during it.  Not hard to justify, given that George just put himself at considerable risk to save Kim’s life, they’re hiding out in motel rooms, they’re both good-looking people, and the close encounter with death they shared would serve as a natural aphrodisiac.  That isn’t the problem, and Westlake had long experience writing stories about men and women finding love in dangerous circumstances.

This is not going down as one of his better efforts in that regard, and the love story is not that central to the plot.  He’s trying to make the obligatory Bond-style hook-up a bit more real here, to rationalize it, as he is rationalizing all the elements that go into a standard 007 yarn.  There’s rarely much of an effort to justify the sex in a Bond film (the latest did an above-average job of it, it still feels tacked on, and Lea Seydoux is seventeen years younger than Daniel Craig–the record age gap is thirty–it’s good to be the king, huh?)

Kim isn’t a ‘Bond Girl’–she’s as much Bond as Manville is.  She’s going to perform some of the tasks that Bond normally would handle (though her license to kill never gets stamped).  Her big moment is going to come in Part Four.  Manville’s big moments come in Parts One and Two, and he’s mostly absent from Part Three.

He’s absent when Part Two begins, having docked the boat under a bridge, and gone to get some things they need, like fresh clothing.  Kim waits for hours, knowing George took a huge risk to help her, feeling grateful, and at the same time doubting he’ll come back.  And then he does.   Her relief is as complicated as her doubts were.

George is older, more experienced, and knows how Curtis operates.  Kim wants to go to the police (her fellow activists and her parents all still believe she’s dead), but he says Curtis will probably try to make them out to be the criminals (which he does).  He’ll also try to get George blackballed as an engineer (which he does).  George needs to find allies, get the lay of the land, and he doesn’t know Australia that well.  He’s being cautious, but Kim is right–they should go to the cops.

He also needs a place he and Kim can disappear for a while, and figures that’ll be the Gold Coast, Australia’s Miami Beach, not a long drive from Brisbane.  Jammed with tourists, and they can blend in for a while.  But most of those tourists aren’t Yanks, which is going to make it easier for Curtis’s men to find them.

Fact is, Curtis has not given up on killing Kim, even though there’s every chance she’s going to reach out to friends and family before he can make that happen (though she takes her own sweet time doing that).  This is yet another mistake, him trying to tie down every possible loose end when that simply isn’t possible, but it’s consistent with the character–he doubles down on bad ideas, refuses to admit he can’t control everything.

His head flunky, Morgan Pallifer, a 62 year old American exile who served time for drug smuggling, and will do pretty much anything Curtis asks of him to get what he wants (his own boat), is very eager for another crack at the man who surprised and humiliated him aboard that yacht, but Curtis tells him to get Manville alive, if possible.  He knows now that he can’t bring George into his full confidence, but he’s not 100% sure he won’t need help with calculations for the much more powerful soliton he’s planning for Hong Kong.  This is plausible–barely.  And no Bond story is ever complete without the hero being brought to the villain’s lair as a guest/prisoner.

So George and Kim get a bit of breathing space, while Curtis’s men look for them. There’s a cute angle to their first sexual encounter, in that Kim’s ribs are still badly bruised, and George, always the engineer, has to figure out a position they can comfortably connect in.  I’m going to guess female-superior, but for the life of me I don’t know why Westlake makes us guess, after all the raunchy scenes he wrote for Kahawa.

(It’s not just the leering lecher in me that thinks Westlake made a mistake here–a good healthy sex scene or three between these two would have been a way to demonstrate the growing connection between them without investing a lot of time he doesn’t have to make that relationship feel genuine.  Wouldn’t have hurt book sales any either.  Westlake never fully recovered from having to write endless bouts of intercourse for the sleaze paperback market, before he got established in the mystery genre.  Anything but prudish, he still tended to write around the sex in most of his subsequent books, though the exceptions were worth the wait.  And that mainly worked for him, but here it’s a problem.)

George, still being cautious, meets a high-powered Brisbane attorney that a mutual friend put him in touch with–Andre Brevizin.  He tells him the whole story, and Brevizin, a sophisticated man who has heard some rumors that Curtis’s financial situation is shaky, half-believes him.  By this time, Curtis has connived with a fellow billionaire to frame Manville, make it look like he was engaged in industrial espionage, and the story has gotten some coverage.  So Brevizin can’t be sure Manville isn’t just blowing smoke to cover himself.

In the meantime, Pallifer’s men find Kim at a Brisbane cafe, waiting for George to come back (it’s not explained how, they’re supposed to be searching the nearby resort town).  Her injuries mainly healed, she manages to lose them in the crowd, and here’s where we run into another problem–she and George ought to have picked up cheap cellphones by now, to stay in touch when separated.  They’d have stores for that in a major tourist trap like Gold Coast.

What time period is this book set in?  We know it was written in the mid-to-late 90’s.  Westlake showed it to his agent in 1998.  The word cellphone occurs twice in the entire novel–both times in relation to secondary characters.   No mention of Curtis having one, though he uses an in-flight phone on an airliner, and he’s got some kind of ship-to-shore phone on his yacht.

Westlake’s techno-phobia was more than mere conservatism–there are all kinds of plot complications, a certain approach to depicting daily existence that a writer gets used to,  that hinge upon his characters not being in constant touch with each other.  Of course he could have Kim dropping her purse that had the phone in it, forgetting George’s temporary cell number, etc.  Too busy.  How are his people supposed to act as free agents if they’re never actually on their own, unless he arbitrarily confiscates their gizmos?  (And let it be said, for a story adapted from a Bond film treatment, this novel is almost entirely bereft of gizmos–there was supposedly going to be an exploding boomerang in the Australian section of the film, which sounds to me like Westlake poking sly fun at that entire convention).

So when George comes back to the cafe, he finds Kim gone.  And he finds Curtis’s goons waiting for him.  They say they have Kim, and he has no reason to doubt them.  They say innocent people will get hurt if they have to start shooting, and he believes that too.  And Westlake reworked this scene for Flashfire, as Greg Tulonen pointed out some time back in the comments section here–Parker getting forced into a car by two men hired to kill him.  No hostages, no threats to innocent passersby–that wouldn’t work where Parker is concerned.  But it’s the same scene, under all the variations.   Manville goes quietly, just as Parker does–and all the while, he’s waiting, watching for an opportunity to turn the tables.  (Big difference is, he’s in a Bond story, so these guys aren’t here to kill him–yet.)

And this tells us something–Manville is, on the surface, a polite peaceable man, who has never been involved in any kind of violence before.  And now that he’s suddenly up to his well-tanned neck in violence, he’s learned he has a natural talent for it–that he keeps his cool under pressure, as he did on the yacht.  Pallifer complains, first to  Manville and then to Curtis, that Manville isn’t what he was told he’d be.  Curtis, always discomfited when people surprise him, says maybe George has some kind of Green Beret training he didn’t know about.  No, that’s not it.  Curtis and his men have awakened a sleeping wolf.  Less ruthless, but much smarter.

So he goes with them for a very long drive, to Curtis’s station (Australian for ranch), way out in the Outback, in cattle country,  not too far from some hamlet called Murra Murra.  (The second image up top is purportedly from there–KeepGuard is some kind of remote viewing system, so you can watch your cows grazing from the comfort of home–hey, beats network primetime).

Curtis is waiting for him there.  Well, of course he is.  This is the portion of the story where Bond is an unwilling guest of his nemesis.  In Goldfinger, he’s also on a farm, this one in Kentucky, while Goldfinger tries to figure out how much Bond knows about Operation Grandslam–absolutely nothing but its name–by the time he leaves he knows everything and has Pussy Galore working for his side.

You see how problematic this part of the formula is, and yet how useful to struggling screenwriters.  Goldfinger has every intention of killing his guest, but has to bask on the glow of Bond’s admiration for his brilliant plan first.  In the words of the immortal Ernst Stavro Blofeld–

But then he most frustratingly fails to follow his own advice later in the picture, once Bond is his guest. The latest Blofeld fared no better.  My only explanation is that these people all went to elite finishing schools, where host etiquette was strongly emphasized.  You can kill your guest, but you must serve dinner and cocktails first.  Curtis never went to any finishing schools, but he’s still somehow absorbed a portion of this ethos.

Curtis went so far as to make introductions: “George Manville, may I introduce Albert and Helen Farrelly, they run Kennison for me, and Cindy Peters, an old friend visiting for the weekend. George,” he told the others, “is a brilliant engineer, absolutely brilliant. We’ve been working together for a year and a half now, haven’t we, George?”

“About that,” Manville agreed. Not so long ago, he wanted to say, while everybody exchanged friendly greetings, you were sending people to kill me, then to kidnap me, imprison me. Has one of us lost his mind? But dinner party politeness was just too strong a force; he couldn’t say a word.

Curtis even rubbed it in, saying, “It’s too bad your friend Kim couldn’t be with you, George, we’d make an even number. Well, we’ll do what we can. I’ll be father at the head of the table here, George, you take that place there on the right, Helen, you between George and me, Cindy, you on my left, and Albert, if you’d sit across from George?”

Everybody did, and Manville saw Curtis extend his foot toward what must be a call button in the floor, because almost immediately two servers in the tan pantsuits came out with plates of crisp green salad.

Manville said to Helen, on his left, “Kennison?” Surprised, she said, “The station. This place, you’d call it a ranch. And the house. This is Kennison. You didn’t know that?”

“I came here unexpectedly,” Manville said.

Wine was being poured. Around the server’s arm, Curtis said to Manville, “Kennison’s a great place, George, I wish I could be here more often myself. I’ll show you around, I think you’ll be surprised and pleased.”

“I’m already surprised,” Manville told him, and Curtis laughed.

When the five glasses had been filled with an Australian white wine, a chardonnay, Curtis proposed a toast. “To the good life, in a good place, to getting it and keeping it.”

They all drank to Curtis’s toast, Manville last and only a sip. It was a good clean wine, nicely cold. He would have to be alert not to drink too much of it.

So how to rationalize this?  First of all, Curtis’s station is very isolated, well out in the bush.  It covers thousands of acres, and the road leading out is poorly marked, and constantly blocked by cattle.  Manville would have to trek many long dusty miles to get anywhere. They’d track him down and finish him before he could do anything meaningful.

Curtis has this nice older couple running the place for him, extremely loyal to him, willfully in the dark about the man who has given them an idyllic lifestyle.  They wouldn’t kill for him, and he’d never ask them to, but neither will they take the word of a man who has been written up in the papers as having spied on their employer, and Manville wouldn’t ask them to do that either (because he can see it’s pointless).  Pallifer would snuff Manville out like a disposable lighter, and not even ask for a bonus.  So there’s that.

Secondly, Curtis promises Manville that if he’ll cooperate and stay put for the moment, give his parole, as they used to say,  Curtis will squash the whole thing about his being a corporate spy, all a big misunderstanding–he actually does this (for his own purposes).

He also says he’ll call off the hit on Kim Baldur.  That he doesn’t do, but what neither of them knows yet is that not long after she escaped Curtis’s goons, Kim ran into Jerry Diedrich and Luther Rickendorf (Jerry suspected Kim might be alive, but he still fainted when he saw her–excitable sort).

They’ve gone to the Australian police, who are skeptical, but interested.  They’ve also talked to Captain Zhang, who subsequently committed suicide, unable to reconcile his conflicting loyalties–to his employer, to his family, and to common decency.  His suicide note to his wife was on the brief and perfunctory side.  So was his subplot.

And the moral, wasted on Curtis, is that people don’t necessarily stay the way they were when you last saw them. He keeps making this mistake over and over. Can’t seem to fathom that people don’t just freeze in place when he walks out of the room, only to come back to life when he walks back in.

So contrived as this all may be, it’s contrived in character, which is what Westlake is going for here.  This way, Curtis figures he can just keep Manville quiet, make use of his technical expertise, hedge his bets in case the authorities come calling, and let Pallifer and Manville work out their differences once the Hong Kong business is attended to. As far as he’s concerned, Manville was dead the moment he told Curtis he wouldn’t help cover up Kim’s murder, just as Kim was dead the moment he decided her murder would be useful to him.   That both of them are still alive for the moment is a minor detail.  He’s already proven he can discredit anything they say about him by manipulating the press, making counter-allegations.

(Also, Curtis doesn’t have a tank full of pet piranhas to feed unwanted guests to.  Though I suppose crocodiles could have worked.  Or Platypuses.  [Platypi?]  There is, incidentally, no reference at all to exotic wildlife in this part of the book, not even one kangaroo hopping by.  I don’t know if this is because Westlake never saw much in the way of wildlife when he was there, or learned that there wasn’t much wildlife in that part of the country, or decided it was too much of a cliche, or he wasn’t there at all and didn’t want to risk mentioning the wrong critters.)

This part of the book is where Manville gets to really size Curtis up.  On his home turf, Curtis lets his guard down a bit, talks about his first marriage–the only one that mattered to him–and how his wife Isabel, who came from the family who started the company he took over, died of cancer as soon as they’d taken control.  The woman Curtis is sleeping with at the present time expresses sympathy–she’d never known.

Manville noticed, but thought that Cindy did not, that his smile to her was patronizing, that it said, thank you for your sympathy, but you’re too shallow to know what I really went through. He holds himself aloof from the human race, Manville thought, and that’s why he can be so dangerous.

(What was it Stalin reportedly said, about his first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze?–“This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.”  None too warm to start with, one suspects.  He had several of her close relations killed during a purge later on.  Well, that’s one way to deal with in-laws.)

Something else we learn in this brief episode, before Curtis heads back to Singapore–the name of the company he and his first wife took over from her family.  It had been started by her grandfather, a hundred years earlier, and given a somewhat odd name–

Manville said, “She was Chinese?”

“No, a Brit,” Curtis said. “Her background was. Her grandfather came out, started a construction company on the island, over a hundred years ago. Called it Hoklo Construction, which was a joke, because the Hoklo were 17th-century pirates from China that settled in Hong Kong and then assimilated and disappeared, so anybody could be Hoklo. Anybody could be a pirate, you see?”

Manville said, “It’s an interesting point.”

“One Isabel’s grandfather always kept in mind,” Curtis said, “as should have his successors. Anyway, the grandfather built the business, and went back to England to marry, and had children, and his first two sons took over the business, and Isabel was a daughter of the second son. I was just a roustabout from Oklahoma, my father was in construction but in a small way, little tract houses in developments in the dirt around Tulsa, not like Hoklo. They were big, always, from the beginning, building the big godowns the Chinese used for waterfront warehouses, putting up office buildings, apartment houses. I was always interested in travel, seeing something other than the tan dirt of Tulsa, and when I got to Hong Kong I took a job for a while with Hoklo, and met Isabel, and that’s where it all started.”

Manville said, “You went into the firm.”

“I became the firm,” Curtis said, and his voice was harsh again, but then it softened as he said, “The difference between the first generation and the third, you see, the first generation has to work for it, and the second generation at least gets to see their parents work for it, but the third generation gets it handed to them on a plate, with no idea there’s any work involved. Isabel’s brother and two of her cousins were supposed to take over the company, and it would have been like having the company taken over by the Pillsbury Doughboy.”

“You took it away from them.”

Curtis smiled. If tigers smiled, it would look like that. “I showed them what it was like to be in a fight,” he said.

Manville thinks to himself, around this time, that Richard Curtis is at his most dangerous when he seems to be most sane.  He is under no illusions about his chances of longterm survival, nor does he necessarily believe Curtis’s assurances about not going after Kim.  He knows that his soliton technique might be used to do something horrible.  But he agrees to stay put for the next two weeks.  And he watches.  And waits.  And nothing more of consequence happens with him until Part Three.

Curtis has to deal with official questions about Kim’s accusations, and to explain away Captain Zhang’s suicide–but now he can say that Manville is working with him again, that the charges of corporate espionage were just a misunderstanding, and would that be happening if he’d tried to have him and Ms. Baldur killed?  Without the slightest trace of remorse, he suggests the late Captain Zhang was using Curtis’s yacht to smuggle drugs, possibly people.

He talks to Brevizin, and to Australian police inspector, Tony Fairchild, playing both men like a harp–neither needs to believe him a saint, and he makes no pretense of being one.  He pulls a little dodge with the latter, where Pallifer pretends to be Manville, talking to Fairchild from Singapore (his secretary there patches Pallifer in from Australia).  Fairchild finds him rather unpleasant, hearing the unmistakable note of caustic misogyny when ‘Manville’ refers to Kim (who now doesn’t know what to believe about her newly-minted lover, suddenly gone over to the other side again–and of course Fairchild doesn’t think of having her listen in to confirm if this really is Manville).

Fairchild is another of Westlake’s professional, smart, decent, but somehow unprepossessing police officers (there’s three of them in this one book alone).   He can tell something’s wrong, he’s got no love for the moneyed classes, but he lets himself be gulled by Curtis, as does Brevizin, who is certainly no fool, and who has heard rumors of Curtis’s financial difficulties.  Curtis gives them an alternative explanation for his behavior, and they buy into it.  Because the alternative, you see, would be to believe one of the richest men on earth is a supervillain who would stop at nothing to pull off some evil plan.  I mean, what is this, a James Bond story?

Safely on his way back to Singapore, to start putting the finishing touches on his evil plan, Curtis (who gave up his private jet to economize, first class is more than cushy enough for him), realizes he’s on the same plane as his crazed nemesis Jerry Diedrich, Diedrich’s faithful Teutonic companion, Luther Rickendorf, and the seemingly unkillable Kim Baldur.  They don’t see him.  But he sees trouble.  He’s got to do something about them.

Pallifer is busy keeping watch on Manville.  He needs a man in Singapore.  Someone who couldn’t easily be connected to him. Someone desperate enough to carry out dubiously legal orders.  Someone he can trust to do an odd job or three.  He consults his mental rolodex.  He picks up the in-flight phone.  End Part Two.

There’s an arguable plot hole here, that only gets partly addressed.  Curtis now knows Kim Baldur isn’t in Australia anymore.  Curtis knows that as far as Pallifer is concerned, he’s still supposed to locate and dispatch her at the earliest opportunity (without letting Manville know about it).  Pallifer is one of the two characters I mentioned who has a cellphone, and he’s mainly going to be at Curtis’s ranch.

At no time does Curtis think it might be a good idea to tell Pallifer to forget about Kim Baldur, focus on George Manville entirely.  And this is going to turn out to be the opening Manville has been watching for, which Curtis will have cause to rue.  Leaving all that aside, it’s damned sloppy–like forgetting to call your dogs off when the day’s hunt is over.

But, you could argue, it’s just exactly the kind of sloppiness a man like Curtis would often be guilty of.  That he keeps forgetting that people don’t just stay where you left them, frozen in place, waiting for you to walk back into the room.  Having, in his mind, dealt with his problems in Australia, he puts them out of his mind entirely, and focuses on his problems in the Chinese-speaking world.

The problem with somebody to whom other people aren’t quite real is that he’s never really going to understand other people–particularly the ones who can’t be bought, or intimidated.  It causes him to make all kinds of jaw-dropping errors in judgment.  But it’s also what makes him so dangerous.  When he seems most sane.

Anyway, we can talk more about this next time.  About my opening quote up top–that’s another little oddity–and another hint as to who really wrote this novel that was going to be published under a pseudonym.

There is, you should know, no Australian crime novel called Payback, nor is there an author of such novels going by the name Gary Driver.  There is, as you already know, a 1999 American crime movie called Payback (in production when Westlake would have written this), starring a certain slightly deranged Australian actor, based on a 1962 novel credited to Richard Stark.

So best explanation I can think of (see the comments section for a better one) is that Stark put that reference in there, so we should know who’s instructing Manville how to survive what’s coming.   And Manville better pay close attention to Stark’s tutelage.  Wouldn’t hurt us any, either.  I’m just saying.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake screenplays, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

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–


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…..)


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

Mr. Westlake and the Fender-Bonder



Dear Jeff,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, fine, I’ll get back to work.



Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake screenplays, Uncategorized

Review: The Stepfather

Stepfather_1987JOHN LIST MONSTER

The story goes like this:  John Emil List, born 1925, raised a devout Lutheran, served in WWII, saw combat, spent some time in the military post-war, honorably discharged.  In 1971, he was living in a big rambling old house in New Jersey with his wife, three children, and elderly mother.  An accountant, he had been fired from his job as vice-president of a Jersey City bank a few years back, and had lost a number of less prestigious jobs since.  He even tried selling insurance, with little success.  His ambitions tended to outstrip his abilities.

He did not tell his family he was unemployed.  Instead, he left every morning as if he was going to work, often sitting at the local train station the entire day, reading the Wall Street Journal. He was mired in debt.  His marriage was deeply unhappy.  At some point in time, he decided there was no other option but to erase his existing life and begin a new one.

When he was ready, he murdered his family, one by one, laying all the bodies out in sleeping bags downstairs (except for his mother, who he said was too heavy to move from her upstairs room).  He used two guns, including one German-made pistol he’d brought home as a souvenir from the war (hmm–that rings a bell). He left various explanatory letters, including one to his minister, where he claimed he was doing this to save their souls–it particularly bothered him his daughter was planning to become an actress.   The text of this letter was not available to to the public until 1990.

He destroyed every photo of himself in the house, so the police couldn’t use them in wanted posters.  He arranged for the neighbors (with whom he and his family had little interaction) to think they were going on a trip together.  Weeks passed before the police were called and the bodies were found.  By that time,  nobody could find John List.  By that time, John List did not exist.  But the man who had been John List was still alive, and free, and remained so for many years to come. Most people figured he’d either killed himself out of remorse for his bloody deeds, or left the country.   They figured wrong either way.

Carol Lefcourt, editor at a publishing house, brought this story to Brian Garfield.  Some months back I reviewed his book Hopscotch.  That’s about a man who employs non-murderous methods to create a new life and identity for himself after spending many years as a CIA Agent.  That book’s protagonist also destroyed all photos of himself in his CIA file prior to going on the run–an idea Garfield might well have gotten from the List story.  Lefcourt thought he might be interested in basing a novel on the story of John List, as Robert Bloch had based Psycho on the all-too-real story of Ed Gein.

The difference being, of course, that by the time Bloch started writing that book, people knew what had happened to Ed Gein–he’d been caught.  Nobody knew what had happened to John List.  Because of the timing of his disappearance, some people even thought he’d been D.B. Cooper (I thought that was Don Draper, I mean Dick Whitman, oh never mind).

Garfield considered the story, decided he was never going to write a book about it, but he was starting to produce movies (I would imagine the huge success of the film based on his novel Death Wish had something to do with that), and he was, of course, a close friend and admirer of Donald Westlake, with whom he had collaborated on a comic western novel that I have also reviewed here.  Small world.

He gave the story to Westlake, and said if he wanted to write a screenplay about it–not a factual rendering of the little that was known about John List (quite a few well-researched books about him now, none at the time), but a fictional story inspired by it.  Garfield’s production company would pay him for it, possibly make a movie of it, and whatever happened, he’d have a lot of say over the finished product.

Garfield and Lefcourt would both get story credit–their precise contributions are difficult to determine, based on available information.  There wouldn’t have been any movie without them, but Westlake was, as he himself put it, ‘the main writer.’  Very rare for there to be just one writer working on any film–this film came closer than most.

The idea of creative control was probably what most piqued Westlake’s interest. Nobody could change the script without his approval.  Talk about an offer you can’t refuse.  Joseph Ruben, later known for Sleeping With the Enemy, would be the director, but this, for the first (and last) time in Westlake’s now twenty-year old relationship with Hollywood, would be a movie where the writer was holding the reins, at least as far as the story was concerned.

But there would have been other things that attracted him to this project.  The murders had, after all, taken place in Union County, Northern New Jersey, not far from where Westlake himself lived with his family for a number of years. Also not far from where a certain fictional heist man lived for a number of years. And the name of the town List had lived in?  Westfield.  Cue theme from The Twilight Zone.

So Westlake started work on the screenplay sometime in the mid-70’s–right around Watergate–and the industry being what it is, the actual movie wasn’t shot until the Mid-80’s.  Many studios passed on it until finally Jay Benson, a producer at ITC, decided he wanted to make it, partly on the strength of Westlake’s involvement.  He was a fan of Westlake’s mystery  novels.  I mentioned it’s a small world, right?

It was shot in 1985, released in 1987.  It got solid critical notices for this kind of film, particularly for the acting.  It got a tiny release and did miniscule box office. Biggest name in the cast was Shelley Hack, former Charlie’s Angel, who had just proven she could act in The King of Comedy, the film that more or less blocked publication of Westlake’s novel The Comedy Is Finished until after his death (man, it really is a small world–entertainment, I mean).

But over time The Stepfather became a cult classic, and had a vigorous post box office life on home video (just then becoming a thing).  Nobody lost money on it. It had been shot very cheaply in Vancouver, where making Hollywood-funded movies and TV shows was also just then becoming a thing.

So there were several sequels, that neither Westlake nor anybody else from the first picture worked on, other than the brilliant Terry O’Quinn, unknown before now, TV stardom still in his future–they even replaced him for the third film.  The sequels really made no sense on any level, given the way the first movie ended for the title character. He’s a scary guy and all, but he doesn’t wear a William Shatner mask.

But you see, the rule in Hollywood is that if you are a creepy psycho who cuts people up with various sharp implements (the real John List had used guns, because this is America), you will come back in movie after movie, they don’t care if the original writing and production talent is involved, and they did this to Alfred Freakin’ Hitchcock, so of course they’d do it to Donald Everlovin’ Westlake.

And when the sequels are done, almost as a matter of protocol, they’ll remake the original movie, most often with absolutely nobody from the original film (even actors!), and it will stink to high heaven, and that remake was released the year after Westlake died (to general mourning), and then the remake died at the box office (to no discernible mourning at all).   It did not become a cult classic, or any other kind of classic.  Didn’t even get a Razzie nomination.   It opened in 2,734 theaters, to the original’s 148.

But in anticipation of the remake’s release, the original movie was re-released on home video, and the DVD has a nice making-of featurette with interview clips from Brian Garfield, Joe Ruben, and cinematographer John W. Lindley. Westlake could not participate, being deceased and all.   Interesting as that making-of featurette is, it does not contain any insights from the man everybody (except maybe Joe Ruben) agrees was the dominant creative voice on that project.

But Westlake had been interviewed, years before, by a man named Patrick McGilligan, for a book about screenwriters of the 70’s and 80’s.  This was one of the films they discussed.  And so he did get to share with us some of the ideas and influences that went into his screenplay for this film that was being made before anybody other than John List knew what happened to John List after he erased his family and vanished from the face of the earth.

And as he told McGilligan, he was drawing (not for the first time, or the last) upon his often painful memories of his parents, and especially his father, Albert.  A man he loved very deeply, but not always an easy man to understand.  A man who kept secrets, some of them to his grave.

The story did connect with me in a very strange way.  At one point during the Depression, my father lost his job and didn’t tell my mother that he had lost his job, and spent several weeks leaving the house every day as though going to work–but actually looking for work and not finding any.  On Fridays he would take money out of his savings account and bring it home as though it were his salary.  One day a woman friend of my mother’s blew his cover.  My mother and father always had trouble comprehending each other.  As far as my mother was concerned, the marriage was a partnership and she had been frozen out.

This guy in the clipping had done the same thing: either quit, or been fired from, his Wall Street job, and then for the next several weeks, he did the same thing my father did, except in his case it led to murder.  I found that a little spooky.  I decided not to turn away from that idea, but to take a look at how people had different viewpoints of what their communal experiences are.

As we’ve seen before, Westlake tended to focus on the underlying essentials of a story when doing research, and often botched the details of real life events that inspired his stories, because they weren’t significant for his purposes–and to be fair, the available newspaper accounts of List’s crime when he was writing had botched quite a few details as well.  List does not seem to have worked on Wall Street, and if he did, it wasn’t for very long.

Westlake probably did little more than read existing newspaper accounts about the murder.  It’s not ‘True Crime’ he’s writing here.  It’s a psychological thriller with a bit of a horror hook–a kind of story he’d done once before–Pity Him Afterwards.  About an escaped mental patient who steals the identity of a young actor he murdered, and keeps right on murdering.

Westlake’s characterization of the story he told doesn’t sound very scary, does it?  The movie most certainly is–still, it’s very different from what came before it, or afterwards, in this specific sub-genre.

Norman Bates, in Hitchcock’s 1960 film (faithful to Robert Bloch’s novel in most important respects),  is so attached to his identity as mama’s boy/motel proprietor/taxidermist, so rooted to the scene of his original crime, he can’t leave it for any reason, or admit that he’s killed his mother and stuffed her (spoiler alert).  He can’t stop being Norman Bates, wouldn’t even know how.  But finally his other identity, created to protect his original identity from the truth, kills him to protect itself.

The Honeymoon Killers, a decade later, was a more or less accurate account of a real life pair of multiple murderers, moved forward considerably in time, and told as a tragic love story, which is what the two real-life Lonely Hearts Killers had insisted it was all the way to the electric chair, so maybe they’d have liked it.   (The French absolutely loved it.)

About a year before The Stepfather, Michael Mann’s Manhunter,  the first film to feature Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector, was more of a procedural story about a cop trying to catch a killer while dealing with his own inner demons, but did spend some time getting into the head of the killer himself.  It didn’t really succeed very well.  Who is this guy?  What’s his motivation?  All the psycho-babble in the world won’t make him anything more than an oddly sympathetic Frankenstein’s monster without the neck bolts.  Personally, I think Karloff’s take was better, but it’s not a bad movie.  Lector’s barely even in it.

And a few years after The Stepfather, Jonathan Demme made The Silence of the Lambs, and the All Powerful and Oddly Urbane Serial Killer was well and truly a thing in our popular culture, and still is, and personally I think Freddy Krueger is more fun, at least when Robert Englund is playing him.  But a nice gig for Sir Anthony.  I do not acknowledge any other actor in that role.  (I also prefer Julianne Moore’s Clarice to Jodie Foster’s, sue me.)

So now we have movies like this all the time, but back then they were far and few between, and they didn’t tend to get us into the pattern killer’s head very much, or very well.  The story may acknowledge, at times, that the killer is human, has feelings–but not like us.   The killer must be some kind of social misfit, unable to have long-term relationships, live a normal life.  Not a family man, a scout troop leader, a regular church-goer. Certainly not vice-president of a bank.  But John List had been all of these things.   If he was putting up a front, it was a damned convincing one.  You had to look very closely to see the cracks in the picture.

So as he burrowed into the head of this monster, while creating his own somewhat different monster, Westlake had to ask himself the obvious question–“If I had done what John List did, what would I do next?”  And the answer, to him (and perhaps to Garfield before him) was obvious.  “I’d pick up right where I left off.”   Create a new identity.  Change his appearance. Find work.  Find a woman.   Make a new family.  Make a new life.  Fresh start.  It’ll work out better this time.

There are no second acts in American lives, Mr. Fitzgerald?   Says you.  American life is nothing but second acts, and third acts, and there’d be fourth and fifth acts if we took better care of ourselves.   The play may not be much, but we don’t ring down the curtain just because the first act was a dud.  The show must go on.

List would never kill himself, because he wouldn’t really believe he’d done anything wrong (he would later say it was because he was afraid of going to hell for the sin of suicide, and I can imagine a dark chuckle emanating from Mr. Westlake when he read that).  He wouldn’t leave the country, because there’s no better country to reinvent yourself in. That’s the jumping off point for the script. And gee, maybe a good jumping off point for me to review the movie, huh?   Since there’s a perfectly good synopsis on Wikipedia, I can mainly skip that part of it.

The Stepfather opens with a man standing in his bathroom, covered in blood.  He’s cutting his hair, shaving off his beard, shedding  his eyeglasses in favor of contacts, putting on a nicer suit of clothes.  When it’s done, he looks at himself in the mirror, well-pleased with his new appearance.  He walks calmly downstairs, past the butchered bodies of several people, some of them small children.  His family.  Or they used to be.  He seems completely unaffected by this.  He takes a ferry to a new city, smiling happily to himself.  Whatever just happened did not happen to him.

Next we meet Susan (Shelley Hack), married to Jerry Blake–the man we saw take shape in the bathroom mirror.  About a year has passed.   Susan is a widow, with a beautiful 16 year old daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen), who has predictably failed to accept her new stepfather.  He gives her a sweet little dog, who she instantly adores.  But nothing can change her mind about Jerry.  Something’s not right about him.  Kids, huh?

Westlake didn’t mention this to Patrick McGilligan, but in fact he was having problems with his own stepdaughter, as Brian Garfield mentions on the DVD.  Being a father of four boys with two previous wives, who had married a woman with three children of her own, he’d been variously successful in establishing relationships with her kids, and as someone who had  problems connecting with his own father, this clearly bothered him a great deal.

We saw some indications of this in A Likely Story, the protagonist of which is guilty that he did such a lousy job connecting with his girlfriend’s very young and insecure daughter.  But that relationship ends before the book does.  Westlake’s relationship with Abby Adams would last the rest of his life, and therefore, so did his relationship with her daughter, Katharine.  Whose name came up on some Westlake-related blogs, some time back, in relation to her thankfully brief disappearance.

The stepdaughter in the film actually rather strikingly resembles the description of Tom Diskant’s own daughter by his first wife in A Likely Story.  Dark-haired, feisty, competitive. And the story of this film rather strikingly resembles Hitchcock’s favorite of his own movies, Shadow of a Doubt, except that Jerry’s not Stephanie’s favorite uncle, or her favorite anybody.  All the same.  The film is much more about her relationship with Jerry than it is about anything else.  She’s the one he’s trying to convince here, and she’s the one sniffing out clues, smelling a rat.

His interest in her isn’t precisely sexual–he mainly seems to have very little interest in sex, except as a means of convincing single women with young children to marry him.  He wants Stephanie to remain pre-sexual, basically forever–like any father, really, but much much worse.  He’s infuriated to the brink of violence by her innocently kissing a friend from school, a young man named Paul (a name Westlake often used for male protagonists –the author is present in more than one form here).

Not sure how much Westlake knew about John List’s troubled relationship with his own daughter, about the same age as Stephanie when she died, and to all accounts a very attractive and somewhat flirtatious young woman–who confided to a teacher that she was afraid her father would murder her.

Stephanie is seeing a psychiatrist in the film, due to some behavioral problems in school.   She confides her own suspicions about her stepfather to him, and he arranges to meet Jerry, posing as a potential client.   This goes about as well for the psychiatrist as it does for Martin Balsalm in Psycho.   There are just some professions you do not want to be working in when Donald Westlake is writing the story.

Perhaps the least successful subplot in the film–but also one of the most necessary in terms of establishing a backstory–involves Jim Ogilvie, the brother of the woman Jerry murdered just before the film’s opening, along with everyone else in the house at the time.  Jim had been away in Europe when the killings occurred, and has become obsessed with finding his sister’s murderer.

He has a theory that ‘Henry Morrison’ (Westlake’s homage to his literary agent) didn’t move very far away when he disappeared, and is living a perfectly normal life with another woman, probably one with children.  And he’s supported in this theory by what the detective on the case tells him–that Henry Morrison didn’t exist.  That this was just another manufactured alias–there’s no telling how many identities this man has had, or how many families he’s destroyed along the way.  The detective also says that if it was his sister, he’d kill the guy himself–if he could find him.

Stephen Shellen, who plays Jim, does a perfectly creditable job in the role, but just isn’t that compelling–his obsession feels like a youthful whim.  Maybe that’s intended–Jim seems not to know himself or his capabilities very well, often a fatal flaw in a Westlake character.  He’s there to fill in details about the killer’s past, his m.o., to represent Jerry’s past catching up with him.  He plays a fairly important role in the finale, though not at all the one he’d hoped for.   Much like the role Scatman Crothers played in The Shining.   He provides what you might call the machina ex deus.  Bit thankless, but such is the life of a supporting character in this type of film.

But there’s no point taking issue with Shellen’s performance, or anyone else’s in this film–how many actors would ever look good compared to Terry O’Quinn?  Westlake was absolutely taken aback at how stunningly perfect O’Quinn was in the role of Jerry–this kind of casting magic had never really happened with anything he’d been involved with before (that it was a fellow Irish American bringing his creature to life was a nice bit of lagniappe).

O’Quinn somehow makes you like Jerry, even after you know what he’s done, and to whom.  He makes you believe he could just walk into the lives of these (invariably attractive) women, and yet never quite fit in there, always some part of his unfinished personality sticking out, making him dissatisfied, until he has to pull out the eraser, start from a blank slate again.

And the true climax of the film isn’t when he turns violent again–it’s just before–when he makes a critical error, forgets who he’s pretending to be for just a heartbeat–O’Quinn captures that moment of identity confusion in a way that’s both chilling and heart-rending.  “Wait a minute–who am I here?”  Well, we all ask that question of ourselves sometimes.  But we don’t usually follow it up with murder.

Shelley Hack does her job exactly right, not a false note in her performance, but Susan is mainly there to be conned, then terrorized.  Not much depth to the character.  No, the only two performances really worth talking about are O’Quinn’s and Schoelen’s–a few years older than her character at the time, she found something in herself I’m not sure she found again in any other role–a mixture of toughness, intelligence, humor and sensitivity that makes you root hard for Stephanie–not exactly the ‘final girl’ of your typical slasher (which this was never meant to be).

Rather more, as I said, a modern take on Teresa Wright’s Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt.  Not that good, of course, but amazingly close for someone working on a low-budget horror film shot over 40 days in Vancouver.   (Though the shower scene she does is more out of Psycho, and probably not strictly necessary to the story.  Appreciated nonetheless, Ms. Schoelen–gratuitous female nudity in films is one of the very few things about the 1980’s I remember fondly).

This is not, as the cinematographer mentions in the DVD, a dialogue-driven film.  There are a number of nicely rendered lines, but Westlake was much more interested in just telling the story visually, with the utmost of economy, and he had all the allies he needed for that–and he proved to be a willing collaborator on set.  Ruben suggested to him that the character’s backstory of parental abuse as a boy be eliminated–he readily agreed–maybe that was in the story treatment he’d been given, and he never liked it to start with.  John List had a somewhat troubled childhood, with a very strict father, but there was nothing there that really explained what he became.

Westlake didn’t write a lot about the childhoods of his characters.  We never found out anything about Parker’s early life, only slightly more about Dortmunder’s.  We find out who we are not in our earliest experiences, but in how we responded to them.  Two different people with the same precise background could be poles apart.  Personality–or in some cases, the lack thereof–is a mystery that no one has ever been able to solve.

A nice little story on that making-of featurette gives you an idea of what a good working experience this was for Westlake–the producer, Jay Benson, relates how Westlake wasn’t happy with the scene where Jerry corners Stephanie in the bathroom–she’s trapped in there, and the locked door won’t keep him out long–so she’s dead.   How can she credibly escape?  Benson had a rather neat solution to the problem, and instead of bristling at someone impinging on his script control, sticking his oar in, Westlake accepted the suggestion happily, wrote it in, and it still works.  Well, probably didn’t hurt that Benson had presumably already mentioned to him several times how much he loved Westlake’s novels.   There were many difficulties involved in making this film (mainly weather-related), but serious professional conflicts or misunderstandings–apparently not among them.

Another detail I didn’t get from the featurette–the images below are from the storyboards for the movie.  Snipped them from a site hawking an original copy of the script.  (Six hundred bucks is way out of my price range–I’m not that interested.  It’s not like Westlake drew the pictures.)

Probably my main nitpick is the score, composed by Patrick Moraz–which isn’t bad.  But it’s a synthesizer score, and while I suppose that does kind of fit the artificiality of Jerry Blake and the world he’s constructed for himself, that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to listen to.   At least John Carpenter would stick a little piano in here and there, some throbby bass lines.  You were expecting maybe Bernard Herrmann conducting a studio string ensemble?    Psycho was considered a very low-budget film for its time, but times had changed, the studio system was dead, standards had fallen.   The score doesn’t quite work, but it’s not a major problem.

(Reportedly, Jerry was supposed to whistle The Way We Were at key moments, but they couldn’t afford the rights–they had to substitute Camptown Races.  That works just fine.  Somehow I don’t see Jerry as a Streisand fan, though his ability to selectively suppress memories is precisely the point of the character–maybe a bit too on the nose?)

I guess my only remaining observation would be Westlake’s treatment of the dog–here’s the thing.  During the course of that one bloody day in his life, John List seems to have killed the family dog, Tinkerbelle.  Westlake doubtless read about that in the papers.  Nobody really knows why.  Did List think the dog was also on the path to a sinful life, and had to be killed to avoid the flames of dog hell?   Unlikely.  Nor could the dog ever bear witness against him.

Not sure anybody ever asked List why he did that (there were so many other questions to ask by then), but I suppose he might have said that Tinkerbelle would have starved to death by herself, and he was sparing her that–more pragmatically, if he’d let her go, neighbors might have brought her back, and discovered the murder scene before he’d completed his disappearing act.  That’s what he might have said, but I’d say the real reason was that he wanted to destroy every last vestige of his old life.   His family, wife, mother, children, pets–merely extensions of his public persona, with no right to exist apart from him.  I wish this kind of attitude, and the behavior that ensued from it, was unique to John List, but we all know that isn’t true.

There’s a scene where Jerry Blake looks up and sees the dog he gave Stephanie, an appealing little terrier mix, looking at him–he’s just beaten his wife unconscious and left her in the basement.   He’s picking out a knife to butcher her and Stephanie with, and his thoughts are accordingly dark.  The dog is scared.   Jerry speaks reassuringly, beckons the dog to him, knife in one hand–it comes to him, whimpering softly, uncertain. He caresses it gently, comfortingly, still holding the knife.  Then he lets it go.

Contrary to popular opinion, dogs really don’t know or care who’s good or evil–that isn’t relevant to them.  They sense emotions, positive or negative, nurturing or potentially dangerous–not character.  The dog comes because right at that moment, Jerry’s completely forgotten about what he just did, and is giving off genuinely affectionate vibes.   And feeling that way, he has no desire to hurt the dog, so the dog isn’t scared of him, does not perceive him as a threat, licks his face, scampers off to greet Stephanie at the door, not sensing any danger now. Jerry returns to the job at hand.

Aside from cunningly defeating the audience’s expectations here, Westlake is obeying certain  rules of popular storytelling–he knows damned well you don’t kill a cute little dog in a movie unless it’s a really important plot point (like motivating Spencer Tracy to wreak terrible vengeance in Fury).   He’s had his little joke.  He’s also conveyed something about the deeply compartmentalized nature of his killer. His emotions towards canine-kind remain mixed.   I note with some disquiet that the dog does not seem to be present in the final scene, where Susan and Stephanie get rid of the bird house Jerry built for the back yard.  It’s not only dangerous psychotics who might want to get rid of anything that brings up unpleasant memories.

The Stepfather opened in January of 1987, and as I mentioned already, very few people went to see it in a theater.  One of those who did was myself.   Plenty of seats in the auditorium, as I recall.  I didn’t know any of the actors in the cast other  than Shelley Hack, and I wasn’t particularly a fan of hers, though I thought she was good in The King of Comedy.  I didn’t know from Joseph Ruben, had never heard of John List (and the film wasn’t promoted as being inspired by that then-forgotten story, anyway). I’d read some favorable reviews, was in the mood for a good bit of horror, and I went.  I thought it was a pretty decent film at the time.  I never watched it again until I got the DVD so I could write this review.

I didn’t notice Donald Westlake’s name in the credits while sitting there in the dark, and would not have experienced even the slightest tingle of recognition if I had noticed the writer’s name.  It would be nearly a quarter-century later that I would first pick up a book of his and read it.  This was my first encounter with him, and as is so often the case with first encounters that ultimately prove fateful, I failed to perceive any significance in it.  Like pretty nearly everyone else who has seen that film, I wouldn’t have been able to pick up on enduring themes and interests of its screenwriter, even if I’d tried.   And now I can, or so I flatter myself.  You learn as you go.

Unless, of course, your life is devoted to not learning as you go.  Unless you’re stuck in the same place, living out variations of the same sad story, over and over, forever, and no matter how many times you leave your old life behind, it keeps coming back for you.

John List was found and arrested less than two years after The Stepfather came out.  I don’t know if he also went to see it during its brief run, but I rather think not.   He had relocated several times since then, married a woman he met through his church, and according to Brian Garfield, might have been having financial and relationship problems once more–Garfield implies he might have actually started fresh again, maybe even killing his second wife as well, if he hadn’t been found.  I don’t know if that’s true.  I think probably everybody reaches a point in life where he or she decides it’s too late to start over.  Even mad killers.

The point of Westlake’s story wasn’t to say “This might be what happened to John List,” even though some of it actually did.  It was Westlake’s take on what might drive a man to do something like that–the conflict that exists in most people between the lives they imagined for themselves and the lives they have.

‘Jerry Blake’ is putting up a front, always, trying to embody the American Dream he was raised with (though he hints his childhood was anything but perfect)–he seems considerably more successful in his work life than John List was, effortlessly excelling at any field that requires some level of salesmanship (and as we know, for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life–I would certainly know, since that’s what my father was, but thankfully, that was never all he was).

It isn’t financial failure, or personal unhappiness that drives Jerry to murder.  It’s that he can’t accept anything less than perfection, and perfection always remains somewhere just out of reach, as it does for everyone else, but he can’t see that–he can only see the surface of things, envying the happy families he sells houses to, wanting to somehow Stepford-ize himself and each new family, always falling short.

Since he doesn’t know himself, he can’t know anyone else, can’t empathize with the failings of his adopted family members, extend them forgiveness for having (as he sees it) failed him.   How did he start down this path?  How do most of us, subject to the same social pressures, the same mass-manufactured media imagery, avoid it?   Do we really want to know the answer?   Who do we see in the mirror every morning?  Who are we here?

It’s a good story, and a good film.  It makes a solid point without belaboring it nearly as much as I have.   Of all the screenplays Westlake worked on that became movies, it’s second only to one, and serves in some ways as a prototype for it–but I think its significance goes well beyond that.

Because here and there we can see hints of the old Westlake coming back to the surface.  The more focused, less playful writer who gave us Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, 361, Killy.  Since there’s no narrator here, and dialogue isn’t the point, he’s free to focus entirely on story and character, and perhaps begin to rediscover parts of himself he’d put aside for a while in the comfortable middle part of his life.  Parts that would be useful to him in future projects.  Parts that might, in time, lead him back to the best of his old work, and forward to the dark masterpiece only he could have written.

And since I miss that kind of Westlake book as much as anyone, I’m going to put off reviewing the rather neat little exercise in farce that would technically come next in our queue, in favor of an article delving back into the origins of an earlier criminal protagonist of Westlake’s who would have made very short work of Jerry Blake and all his Rockwell-esque aliases, had they ever been unfortunate enough to cross him in some way.  You know who I mean.  But do you know how many cunningly scavenged bits and pieces went into the making of him?  I think I’m just starting to get an idea.

I almost forgot to mention–John List died in prison in March of 2008–about nine months before Westlake died in Mexico. Just another strange little detail that makes you wonder who writes this stuff.  Just FYI, I didn’t plan to finish this one on Friday the 13th.  I mean, that’s not even the right franchise.

It can be strange, doing this blog–disorienting, because from week to week, I’m constantly forced to shift gears, as Westlake himself so often did, changing styles, subjects, emphases, the basic tonal quality of his work–while still somehow maintaining an underlying unity to it all.  It’s certainly been a challenge to convey all this, in the midst of living my own life, with its own confusions and cross-currents.

Anyway I certainly hope to see you all at the dog run clean-up next week–what?  What did I say?  Who am I here?  Fred?  Fred Fitch.  That’s right.  Care for a song?  They probably couldn’t have gotten the rights to this one for the movie either–hard to whistle, anyway.


Filed under Donald Westlake screenplays

Review: Hot Stuff


The original story of Hot Stuff was about a sting operation in Washington, D.C., that had been written up in Time Magazine.  But the producers got hung up negotiating the rights with the cops, so we moved it to “Anytown, U.S.A.,” which never works.  I finished up the script, and four years went by.  All of a sudden the movie was being made, and when I got the proposed credits there were a total of six writers, including [Dom] DeLuise [who was starring as well as directing].  A maximum of two could get credit.  I would get a production bonus if I got a credit, so I applied, and wrote a four-page letter describing my contributions.  Dom DeLuise also applied, sending in a script where he underlined all the lines he claimed.  Some of them I’d written, and some of them were old before DeLuise’s grandfather was born, like “Do you know what burns my ass?”  “What?”  “A flame this high.”  I became one of the two credited writers.  DeLuise did not.  I got my bonus.  The movie has the same basic thread to it as my script…and there are some bits in it that are very very funny. But it’s a funnyman’s movie, not a writer’s movie.

Donald E. Westlake, talking to Patrick McGilligan

This will be a very short review for a movie I just finished watching for the first time.  Hot Stuff is now available on DVD (but is not available on Netflix at the moment).   It will undoubtedly turn up on cable at some point.  And if you never see it, don’t feel like you missed anything.   But as insubstantial 70’s cop comedies go, it’s not bad.  And here and there, you can see Westlake’s mark on it.   It’s not a complete waste of 91 minutes (less if you skip the credits).  I’ve enjoyed worse movies than this, and so have you.

From about the Mid-70’s to the Mid-80’s, films like this were all the rage.  Freebie and the Bean Mother, Juggs and Speed.  Used Cars.  Night Shift.   This is roughly in that zip code (and definitely a cut above Police Academy, which marked the start of an even worse era of low-budget comedy).

See if this sounds familiar–a very contrived set-up, involving an unconventional partnership of oddballs.  Lots of ethnic humor.  At least one sassy sexy broad who pretends not to like the male lead, even though she does.  Over the top physical comedy.   Racially mixed cast (but white people in the foreground, unless they have a really big star who isn’t white).  Funky background music. Disrespect for authority.  A big loud climax, followed by a happy ending, and a quick wrap-up.  Roll credits.

I don’t know how Westlake’s original treatment would have gone if they’d filmed his script as written, but he said they stuck to the main thread of his story–and he knew what general kind of movie he was writing.  I don’t think he was that disappointed, but this was the first original script of his that ever got filmed, and one can imagine him heaving the occasional exasperated sigh in the theater.  Hang in there, Mr. Westlake.  It gets better.  Eventually.

What he couldn’t know when he wrote it was who’d be in it–writers don’t drive the way movies are made–stars and directors do, and in this case the star was the director.  I have never been a huge Dom DeLuise fan, but he’s not too annoying here.  He knew he was making an ensemble piece, and he lets it be that.   There’s just a few moments where he overindulges his more irritating predilections– like this one routine where he has to smoke a joint undercover, and he gets all goofy.  And really, he has to do that kind of thing–his fans would expect it of him.  He’s from the Curly Howard school, for better or worse.

(And this would be one of the few bits of the movie that made it to YouTube).

The movie is not, in fact, set in Anytown USA–it’s set in Miami, not D.C., which means all the Florida-related humor isn’t from Westlake.   Can we tell what’s from his original script?

The main premise, for sure–cops posing as fences, in order to arrest purveyors of stolen goods.   Though as you can see up top, he was basically assigned that premise, which was based on a real-life sting operation (and as we know from Jimmy The Kid, there’s no such thing as plagiarism when you’re using real-life events).

Ernie (DeLuise) and Doug (Jerry Reed) play partners working in a task force tasked with catching people who make off with other people’s property, but the courts keeping throwing their cases out, and their funding is about to be cut–they’ll end up in narcotics, which is a much more dangerous area.

Doug has a brainstorm–take over a pawn shop whose owner they just arrested, and receive stolen goods directly, paying for them with what’s left of their budget–Louise (Suzanne Pleshette, professional and pulchritudinous as always), who just joined their unit because they need a love interest for Reed (c’mon, you know that’s the real reason), suggests they videotape each transaction through a one-way mirror.

I definitely see Westlake’s input in the way the technology is all glitchy and problematic at first.  Louise has to keep bugging her colleagues to make sure they stand on their marks, so the audio will be clear.   The perps aren’t looking at the camera enough, so they stick pictures from nudie magazines around the one-way glass.  They’re producing their own reality show, for an audience composed of a judge and grand jury.  Westlake was already well-experienced in writing funny scenes involving thieves and the people they sell to, particularly in the Dortmunder books.  There are a lot of good moments, and probably none as good as the scenes he wrote, but he’s in there.

This is a cop comedy, and Westlake has never really been known for police procedurals–but these are maverick cops, outsiders in their own system, and lots of cop movies are like this (and still are) so it’s not a huge problem.  Even so, there’s huge sympathy for the crooks, who actually end up saving the heroes from angry mobsters at the end (it would take too long to explain).   The last character we see onscreen is a thief making off with Ernie’s TV set.   Westlake is for the independents, whatever profession they might be in.  The gang actually catches a corrupt cop on camera, trolling for bribes, and are going to get him busted.   I have to think that’s from the original script.

There’s a dog in it.  A big hairy soulful mutt named Jaws (played by canine thespian Scratch).   I’m tempted to say the dog is an addition to the script, except for some telltale hints of Westlake’s lifelong cynophobia.  The pawn shop gets robbed, and since they can’t arrest robbers without blowing cover, Ernie decides they need a dog for protection.   Cut to an outfit that sells big scary Dobermans and German Shepherds, only the purebreds cost too much, so they end up with Jaws.  Who at no point in the narrative ever attacks anybody but the good guys, fond though he becomes of them.  I think they probably softened him up a bit for the movie, and he’s definitely one of the gang, but he’s a Westlake dog, bet on it.

Somehow or other, Westlake managed to stick little references to his own work in there.  Like the guy who comes into the pawnshop with a bunch of stoles–stolen stoles--I Gave At The Office.  The pun is implicit this time. There’s a roguish married couple of elderly British criminals with upper class affectations–much like the felonious ffork-Lintons from Who Stole Sassi Manoon?   They don’t really fit the setting, but of course Westlake didn’t know the setting when he wrote them in.

And there’s even a poster in a store window advertising something called ‘Kidd Stuff’–Kid Stuff was the name of the movie Jimmy Harrington wrote and directed after the Dortmunder gang kidnapped him, in Jimmy The Kid–and it’s clearly a sly reference to this script, which wouldn’t be made into a movie for a few more years.   Somehow a reference to that novel Westlake was writing around the same time ended up in the film, unless it’s a coincidence, which I doubt.

Weird that the movie is set in Florida, as Westlake could not possibly have known it would be–because there’s a gun-running subplot, rather reminiscent of the one in I Gave At The Office–these crooks want to sell the pawnshop a truckload of Korean-made submachine guns, and Ernie jokingly asks them if they realize they’re the third most powerful nation in the world.  He was recycling a lot of ideas and research from his less well-known books (that were never going to get a film adaptation of their own, so what the hell).  Probably a lot of other sly self-referential gags were cut to make room for various–how shall I put it?–Deluise-isms.

Ossie Davis plays the captain who is theoretically in charge of this chicken outfit (they literally get a bunch of stolen chickens one day), and I’m not sure the black police captain who has to keep these wild maverick cops in line was a well-established movie/TV cliche by then, but Ossie gets to have some fun himself at the end, and the character isn’t too marginalized.   Cuban actor Luis Avalos gets a lot more scenes, but a lot of them involve him getting chased by the dog.  And this is, according to Wikipedia, his most important film role ever.  Oh well, at least he had The Electric Company.

I doubt much of Westlake’s dialogue made it in.   I could go over the movie again, and try to fish out a few possible snatches of original Westlake snark, but frankly, nothing really jumped out at me.  If they hardly ever used the dialogue from his best novels when they made them into movies, why would they use it in a script that got rewritten by a bunch of kibbitzers over the course of several years?

Taken on its own slight merits, this is an okay example of a low budget 70’s comedy.   If they’d thought to bring Westlake in for rewrites, they might have really had something, because the cast chemistry is good, and DeLuise’s direction–not terrible.  Believe it or not.

No sex scene between Reed and Pleshette, which I guess means that somehow they thought they had a family comedy here, in spite of the drug references, and the nude pictures on the one way glass.  Or maybe Pleshette just didn’t feel like it, and they needed her name in the credits.   It really does not matter, either way.

If we ever get a sequel to The Getaway Car, is it too much to hope for that we could get at least a few selections from Westlake’s original script?  Got to be a copy somewhere.

Westlake’s attitude towards Hollywood was always a mix of affection and cynicism.  He understood most movies are entertainment made by committee, and that given the money spent on them, that is to some extent unavoidable.  He needed some of that money to stay afloat financially, and so he not only agreed to attach his name to this rather threadbare effort–he insisted on it.  Because to him this wasn’t really something that mattered.   You go to the movies, most of the time, to see stars go through their paces.  They used his work, and he got paid for it.  No harm, no foul.

I think he probably laughed here and there.

I didn’t, but I was watching it at work, because my DVD player is busted.   Anyway, the dog is cool, and Pleshette is hot.  You could do worse.  You have done worse.

But next time, we’ll be doing a lot better, because we’ll be looking at a novel that has been twice made into a film–and I suspect both films make this one look pretty good by comparison.  But the novel itself is an acidic gem.  Did you ever hear the one about the guy who pretended to be his own twin brother so he could take twin sisters to bed?   And having become two people, he ended up–well, that would be telling.  Trust me.  It’s very hot stuff indeed.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.  Even though it isn’t.  A book, I mean.)


Filed under Donald Westlake screenplays, Hot Stuff