Category Archives: Parker film adaptations

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

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

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

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

I shouldn’t need to tell you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Mr. Reese and the Candids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

I guess because of scenes like this–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WILLIAM-SMITH-8

WILLIAM-SMITH-2

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

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

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

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

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

That’s right.

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

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

Mr. Parker and The Casting Call

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s run them down, one by one.

LEE MARVIN AS WALKER IN POINT BLANK (1967):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JIM BROWN AS McCLAIN IN THE SPLIT (1968):

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

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

I mean, was this really necessary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROBERT DUVALL AS MACKLIN IN THE OUTFIT (1973):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Marvin,–

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

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

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

MEL GIBSON AS PORTER IN PAYBACK (1999)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Flashfire, Part 2

Hammer: Look, in a little while I’m going to hold an auction sale at Cocoanut Manor, the suburb terrible or beautiful. You must come over. There’s going to be entertainment, sandwiches, and the auction. If you don’t like auctions, we can play contract. Here it is – Cocoanut Manor – 42 hours from Times Square by railroad. 1,600 miles as the crow flies and 1,800 as the horse flies. There you are – Cocoanut Manor, glorifying the American sewer and the Florida sucker. It’s the most exclusive residential district in Florida. Nobody lives there. And the climate – ask me about the climate. I dare you.

Mrs. Potter: Very well – how is the…

Hammer: I’m glad you brought it up. Our motto is Cocoanut Beach, no snow, no ice, and no business.

Scene from The Cocoanuts (1929), and Mike must think I’m nuts for even bothering to mention that.  But why a duck?  Answer me that, Mr. Schilling.  I thought I was the one doing the shilling around here.  A fine thing.  

Most people, I believe,” Alice said, “will just go for the baubles, because they won’t want to spend an awful lot of money this late in the season.  Just so they take home some little thing.  But I will bid on this necklace, and I’ll bid low, and because it’s so valuable it won’t come on the block until very late, when everybody else will already have their little something, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I get it for my opening bid.

“How clever you are, Alice,” Jack said, and patted her shoulder before he went back to his seat and his Wall Street Journal.

She continued to smile at the necklace in the photo.  “What a coup,” she said.  “To get that necklace cheap, and to wear it on every occasion.”  Like all very wealthy women, Alice had strange cold pockets of miserliness.  Her eyes shone as she looked across the table at Jack.  “It will be an absolute steal,” she said.

“But you don’t care if I live or die,” she said, “do you?”

“I’d rather you were dead,” he said.

She thought about that.  “Are you going to kill me?”

“No.”

“Because of the bargaining chip.”

“Yes.”

“You’re a little more truthful than I’m ready for,” she said.

He shrugged.

Let me state for the record that I don’t hate this book at all.  I have read it four times, and enjoyed it each time, in spite of all my nitpicking.  Hell, if you can’t enjoy a good bit of nitpicking sometimes, you should stop perusing fiction altogether, and were probably born into the wrong reality altogether.  This is not a world of Platonic Ideals.  I’m far from convinced any such world exists, but this ain’t it, that I know.

But having typed that, I am forced to ponder the unavoidable truth that Parker is, in certain respects, Westlake’s ideal–or rather, Stark’s.  Westlake likes things messy, imperfect, the daily scrum of human existence, with all its inherent absurdity–and the potential for love and laughter and self-realization that lies within all that.  Stark also aspires to self-realization, but he does so by striking a cold clinical contrast between Parker and the rest of us; never fully knowing ourselves, always caught between what we wish we were, and what we really are.

Why is Parker so quietly and implacably enraged when he’s shortchanged by his colleagues at the start of this book?  They’ve promised to pay him back with interest, once the big heist they’re planning is done (having failed to inform him this might happen upfront).  Why go to such extraordinary pains to acquire a small fortune through small thefts, simply in order to create a false identity, so he can go to a place he normally would avoid, risk death and (even worse) imprisonment for the chance to erase the insult by killing these men who mean him no harm, taking their ill-gotten gains for himself as restitution? Why not let it go, for God’s sake?  It’s just 21k–at the dawn of the 21st century.  Claire probably spends more than that per annum on clothes.

Why react this way?  Because in Parker’s mind, this is not how it’s done.  You pull a heist with some people, you share the proceeds in the manner agreed to upfront, you go your separate ways.  No exceptions.  He would have had more respect for them if they’d just tried to kill him to get his share, though the response would be no different. Parker doesn’t know from Platonic Ideals, because that’s an intellectual concept, and he’s about instinct.  He is, in reality, what someone like Plato can only dream about.  Maybe more along the lines of Aristotelian Natural Philosophy than Platonic Ideals, but it’s all Greek to him.

So obviously to me this novel does not properly reflect the Stark Ideal established in my mind by the previous books.  It lacks the proper balance of elements.  It asks questions of Parker that should never be asked; presents answers to those questions that he would never think to himself, let alone utter aloud. This is why I have such a bad reaction to it.  But my response to that is simply to have a good time nitpicking all the inconsistencies and false notes in the book, while acknowledging the many genuinely fine moments within it.  I don’t have to go find Richard Stark and kill him.  I mean, even if I could find him, he’d probably end up killing me.

When last we saw Parker, he was lying face down in a swamp in the Florida Everglades, having been shot in the back with a .30-06 rifle, by one of a pair of killers sent to find and eliminate him, so that he can’t divulge the identity of a man whose identity remains a mystery to him.  One of those guys who makes murder the answer to everything.  One of those pairs of chuckling assassins that used to frequent many a Westlake Nephew book.  And in just a few seconds, they’re going to wish they’d stuck with the Nephews.

But this being Part 3 in a Parker novel, we’re not going to find out what happened right away.  Chapter 1 is from the perspective of Parker’s three former cohorts, Melander, Carlson, and Ross.   They had told Parker to go home and wait for their call, so they’d know he wasn’t after them.  Four days later they call.  Nobody’s home.

What follows is an irritable debate on the admittedly complex ethical strictures of organized armed robbery.  Melander, the mercurial fidgety idea man of the group, feels like they did nothing wrong.  Carlson, the pragmatic veteran, says if they’d done the same thing to him as they did to Parker, he’d say they robbed him–they should have considered the consequences of bringing in a fourth man who might have to be shortchanged, before they went ahead and did it.  Ross, the peacemaker, says maybe they better just go to Parker’s house in New Jersey and check up on him.  And if he’s not there, maybe they can grab his woman and use her as leverage.

Everybody agrees this is a good idea.  Until they get to the house and find it deserted.  They spend days there, waiting for Parker, Claire, somebody, to show up.  All they ever find is places Parker had cached guns to use on anybody who came after him at home.  There’s even one behind a sliding panel by the garage door.  Each is increasingly aware they are dealing with an ice cold methodical planner, and that there’s a target stitched on each of their backs.

They decide to head back to Florida.  It’s really cold in Northwestern New Jersey in winter, even if you’re not right off a lake.  They put everything back the way it’s supposed to be at Claire’s house so nobody will know they were there.  They get back to their Palm Beach house, and everything is the way it’s supposed to be, so they figure Parker wasn’t there.  Not so good at making connections, these guys.

(More fun with nitpicks: Parker is told at the start of the book that the trio needed a fourth man on the Palm Beach job, and if it’s not going to be him, it’ll be somebody else.  Guess what?  There’s nobody else, they just do the job–a really big complicated risky job–with three men.  No explanation of how they were able to rejigger the plan to make that work. Just one mistake among many.  Westlake is rarely this sloppy, and never when he’s working as Stark.  What was going on when he wrote this book?)

Chapter 2 is Leslie Mackenzie musing on her life, the sequence of events that led her to throw in her lot with Parker.  She grew up poor in a place where you’re surrounded by wealth.  She got into a bad marriage with a guy who talked big, but talk was all it was.  Her mother and sister are an embarrassment and a burden to her, and she’d dearly love to get her hands on a lot of cash, so she can leave them behind, start over.

Sex has never been much fun for her, but she is (of course), starting to become attracted to Parker, wondering what he’d be like in bed.  Truthfully, her situation isn’t that desperate. She’s very good at her job, and her job is selling luxury housing to people who can afford it.  She just isn’t happy with where and who she is.  She’d like to be somebody else, somewhere else.  For that she needs a score.  And for a score, she needs somebody like Parker.  And for this subplot to work out satisfactorily, for Leslie and us, Parker needs to be sexually available to her, at least on a temporary basis, but he’s not.  Frustrating.

He is, however, still alive.  You won’t believe how that happens.  Seriously, you won’t.  Chapter 3 is from the perspective of a 23 year old paramilitary grunt named Elvis Clagg.  You know that right-wing militia movement that started getting a lot of attention in the 90’s?  Seems like some people got started much earlier than that.  Warning, racial epithets ahead.  Like you couldn’t hear worse at a meeting of the President’s closest advisors these days.

Captain Bob Hardawl himself had founded the CRDF not long after he’d come back to Florida from Nam and had seen that the niggers and kikes were about to take over everywhere from the forces of God, and that the forces of God could use some help from a fella equipped with infantryman training.

Armageddon hadn’t struck  yet, thank God, but you just knew that sooner or later it would.  You could read all about it on the Internet, you could hear it in the songs of Aryan rock, you could see it in the news all around you, you could read it in all the books and magazines that Captain Bob insisted every member of the CRDF subscribe to and read.

That was an odd thing, too.  Reading had always been tough for Elvis Clagg.  It had been one of the reasons he’d dropped out of school at the very first opportunity and got that job at the sugar mill that paid shit and immediately gave him a bad cough like an old car.  But now that he had stuff he wanted to read, stuff he liked to read, why, turned out, he was a natural at it.

They oughta figure that out in the schools.  Quit giving the kids all that Moby-Dick shit and give them The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and you’re gonna have you some heavy-duty readers.

I’m sure that option is being discussed as we speak, but leaving that aside, Elvis was out on maneuvers in the Everglades, with the rest of the CRDF, and would you believe they just happened to witness Parker being shot?  Why, sure you would.

And while there’s no particular reason for them to get involved, the fact is that you get bored marching around in formation with shiny well-oiled automatic weapons all day, and never having anyone to use them on.  One excuse is pretty much as good as another.  Captain Bob yells something at the thugs.  The thug with the .30-06 rifle panics and shoots two of the uniformed thugs armed with Uzis.  Problem is, there’s twenty-six of them left, and the guy with the rifle didn’t shoot Captain Bob, who starts barking orders, and the end result is that Parker’s abductors end up getting shot 13 times apiece.  Dead and unlucky.

Chapter 4 introduces the 67 year old Alice Prester Young, and her 26 year old husband, Jack.  Alice is rich, and Jack is not.  That didn’t really need explaining.  And I’m not sure this story really needed telling.  Westlake wants to satirize Palm Beach society, and that’s a worthy ambition in itself, but how well does it mesh with the story being told?  Not very. I strongly suspect this is left-over story material from something Westlake started writing that wasn’t originally going to be by Richard Stark.

Alice is reading in the paper at breakfast about how a Daniel Parmitt is in the hospital, in critical condition, after being abducted and shot in the Everglades, and she’s asking Jack if they know any such person.  Jack doesn’t know, doesn’t care.  She goes on from that subject to discussing the upcoming auction of Miriam Hope Clendon’s jewelry, as you can see up top–a certain necklace she’s had her eye on since time immemorial.  Jack’s only interest in that stems from his figuring he’ll inherit it someday.  We shall be hearing from both of them again, so on to Chapter 5.

Chapter 5 introduces pretty nearly the only non-asshole POV character in the book who isn’t Parker or Leslie; Trooper Sergeant Jake Farley of the Snake River County Sheriff’s department, who is working on the strange case of Daniel Parmitt.  He’s irritated on several counts–first of all, those dangerous idiots of the CRDF finally killed somebody, like he always knew they would, but he can’t arrest them, because it was self-defense.

Secondly, he just can’t figure out the angle on this Parmitt.  They have the ID papers Parker bought from the late Mr. Norte, which are holding up to scrutiny so far–unlike the more resourceful Leslie, they haven’t thought to run a credit check, because obviously rich oil men from Texas have great credit.  Point is, why does somebody like this get waylaid by two men who were self-evidently professional killers?   Something’s rotten in the state of Florida (pretty much the default setting there, and not just in crime fiction).

Parmitt was badly shot, and drowned to boot, before the CRDF guys practiced their CPR on him (breaking a few ribs in the process).  And yet, miraculously, it looks like he’s going to recover.  When Farley questions Parmitt, something about the way the man’s eyes focus on  him from his hospital bed makes Farley feel like he’s the one in danger.  Unnerving.  But no question, the man is still very weak.

Leslie has shown up, wanting to see her friend and client, whom she suggestively suggests may be more than just a friend and client.  Leslie quickly figures out Farley, who has a thing for amply proportioned blondes, and is currently married to one, is going to be knocked off balance if she brings sex into the equation, and it works like a charm.  He gives her a few minutes alone with Parker, in Chapter 6.

As soon as she tells Parker that the attack on Parmitt made the papers, he knows the man who sent the first two killers will send more, right to the hospital, and there’s no police guard on his room (nor can he request one without making explanations he’s in no position to make).  And at any time the cops might take his fingerprints–which will lead back to a dead prison camp guard in the 1960’s, among other things. He tells Leslie she needs to get him out of there, without anyone seeing them leave.  She’s taken aback, but tells him she’ll figure something out.

Chapter 7 is set at the site of the auction, the house of Mrs. Helena Stockworth Fritz, who is deeply involved in getting the place ready for the social event that will officially make her the new queen of Palm Beach.  Then all of a sudden these two common workmen we recognize as Melander and Ross show up with some amplifiers they say they were tasked with deliverying there.  Irritating, but just so they’ll go away, she has them let in, and as promised they stick the equipment where it won’t get in anyone’s way.  Until it does.

Chapter 8 is Leslie pressuring her mother and sister into aiding her in springing Parker from the hospital.  Her sister Loretta, as mentioned, is mentally disabled, and her mother’s no bright light either.  They’re both very nervous about participating in this escape plan.  But they buckle when she threatens to move out–her income is all that’s holding them up.  And we know she’s planning to move out as soon as she gets her money.

Chapter 9 is the evening of the heist, and switches around a bit, starting with Alice Prester-Young getting her jewels out of the bank, where the Palm Beach elite keep most of their valuables most of the time.  They have dressing rooms, mirrors with grey tinting to disguise the marks of time on the faces and bodies of those who look in them.  Alice feels she’s earned all of this, even though the entire point of being in Palm Beach society is that you didn’t earn any of it.

Farley is talking about Parmitt with an FBI agent named Mobley, and they agree his story about not remembering anything about how or why he was attacked doesn’t add up, he’s holding something back.  Mobley suggests Farley get Parmitt’s fingerprints to him, and he’ll check them for priors.  Farley agrees.

Leslie is driving to the hospital with her sister, in a Plymouth Voyager (nice little nod to The Ax there).  They pass a fire engine.  Guess who’s riding on it?

Then we get a bit more social satire with Mrs. Fritz, learning that even within the 1% there’s a class system, and she sees herself as being at the very top now–too good to even go to the bank to get her jewels and furs with the rest of the hoi polloi, as she thinks of them.  She uses the panic room her late husband installed for that.  And she doesn’t need any gray-backed mirror.  She likes the person looking back at her just fine the way she is.  She knows herself better than the others.  But she still doesn’t see those amplifiers the grimy workmen delivered, that somehow never got hooked up to the sound system.

Chapter 10 is Leslie and Loretta springing Parker from the hospital by putting him in the wheelchair Loretta was pretending to need.  Loretta’s actually having a fun time with the caper now. Leslie is still worried about getting her money, and starting to feel protective towards ‘Daniel’, in spite of herself.  But when she asks him what he plans to do tomorrow night, his answer is “Kill some people.”

Chapter 11, surprisingly enough, isn’t about Donald Trump’s financial affairs.  It’s another multi-POV chapter, and the only thing of real consequence that happens in it is that the hitman sent to kill Parker in his hospital bed gets there only to find out the bed is empty, and he’s about to be arrested by Deputy Sheriff Farley (showing great presence of mind when he finds the man in Parker’s room, pretending to be a doctor).  Farley is delighted to finally have somebody he can question without a lot of doctors making a fuss.  Less delighted that Daniel Parmitt has disappeared, but he’ll worry about that later.

Chapter 12 is all Leslie and Parker.  He’s recovering from his injuries with astonishing rapidity–not Hugh Jackman with adamantium claws fast, but fast.  He’s staying at a condo she’s already sold, that the new occupants won’t be occupying for weeks yet.  She’s reached the point where she’s actually trying to talk him out of heisting the heist, but of course nobody can ever talk Parker out of anything.  She can’t understand why he’s so much more intent on killing these three guys who never tried to hurt him than he is on dealing with the man who has sent hired killers after him.  Yeah, what’s up with that, Parker?

“The other guy’s gonna self-destruct,” he told her, “He has to, he’s too stupid to last.  He’s somebody used to power, not brains.  But these three are mechanics, we had an understanding, they broke it.  They don’t do that.”  He shrugged.  “It makes sense or it doesn’t.”

Only time I’ve ever felt like arguing with Parker’s logic (not the part about somebody used to power instead of brains; that’s borne out by the headlines we read every morning now).

Actually, only time offhand I can think of Parker arguing for his own logic.  Why does he even care what Leslie thinks?  The mere fact that he’s making an argument means that he knows it doesn’t make sense, which we know from several past books is something that always irritates him.  But in The Seventh, the most noteworthy of those books where he’s knocked off-kilter, he was doing something that didn’t make sense because, in part, a girl he was starting to like had been skewered with a sword by The Amateur.

There was no time to stop and think in that story, everything happened over a very short time frame, which is why that book works so well.  And The Amateur had tried to kill Parker, had tried to frame him with the law, had taken all of his money, and was certainly not promising to pay him back later.  Given all that, it made perfect sense that Parker’s behavior didn’t make sense, least of all to him.

But in this story he’s had weeks to think about what he’s doing, and now he’s clearly in no shape to take on three armed men, or three unarmed men for that matter.  He’s going to do it anyway, because he can’t help himself.  This seems less like a wolf in human form acting on instinct than a really hardcore case of OCD.  The Sheldon Cooper of Crime.

Chapter 13 is the heist.  And a good one, I might add.  The gaudy trio use their favored strategy of pyrotechnic distraction–they should probably quit the heisting game, and try putting together a magic act in Vegas.  The amplifiers contained incendiary rockets.  As anticipated, the rich people forget their innate dignity and stampede like cattle.  The trio appear disguised as firemen, in the stolen fire engine–then depart as frogmen, wetsuits under their slickers, over the sea wall into the sea, with the jewels. Next stop, the safe house.  Which isn’t going to be as safe as advertised.

Meanwhile, back at the Fritz, the whole soap opera subplot of Alice and Jack concludes with her desperately seeking Jack in the smoke and confusion, afraid he’s been killed–then seeing him carrying the luscious young trophy wife of another elderly rich fool out of harm’s way, and realizing in an instant that he’s just been patiently waiting for Alice to die, and entertaining himself with a woman his own age while he waits.  Which Alice probably could have forgiven easily enough, if it wasn’t so blatantly obvious that his first thought when all hell broke loose was to save his lover, not his wife.

He looks back at Alice, the corpus delectable in his arms, and can’t think of a single thing to say.  He’s fond of her and all, he enjoys her company, he didn’t mind servicing her sexagenarian sexual needs, wasn’t bothered by the snickering gossip that inevitably surrounds any such marriage, but in a crisis, his true feelings betrayed him–and her.  And their whole tidy mutually beneficial arrangement is exposed for the tawdry sham it always was (same goes for his lover, whose husband is now processing the same ugly truth as Alice–money can buy you everything but youth, and youth is worth all the rest of it combined, wasted on the young though it may be).

And that’s a perfectly good short story, for Playboy, maybe, but what the hell’s it doing in a Parker novel?  We won’t see any of these people again, and we won’t miss them either.  At times, this book feels like a jumble sale of ideas Westlake wanted to do something with, but never found the proper outlet for.  On to Part 4, eight chapters, just a bit over fifty pages, and blissfully free of any such distractions.  But sadly, not free of some pretty serious problems, and one outright blunder on the part of the author.

Parker has painfully made his way back into Melander & Co’s hideout–last time he was in there, he fixed things so he could get in there without triggering any alarms, or leaving any trace.  But last time he didn’t have a bullet wound and several broken ribs, and wasn’t weak as the proverbial kitten.  Still, this kitten has claws, and a gun stashed under a Parson’s table.  And he’ll have the element of surprise.  Or maybe not.

The trio get back from their heist, laughing over how well it went–one of them even saw a dolphin as they swam back to their private beach.  They’re improvising too much–it only occurred to Ross at the last possible moment that they needed to sweep the sand behind them, to cover up their footprints.  The heat from this heist will be intense, like nothing they ever faced beore.  They never did fully process how intense.  Rich people don’t like getting robbed (They’re supposed to be the robber barons here!  Well, their forebears were, anyway.)  In a closed-off place that is entirely controlled by the rich, the cops will be relentless and methodical in tracking down the thieves–or lose their jobs.

But right away they get distracted–by Leslie.  Parker curses to himself when he hears it happening.  She couldn’t just sit back and wait, she had to come in and look, and they found her.  They assume she’s Claire, looking for Parker.  Well, they’re half-right.  They start interrogating her, slapping her around a little, and then when they lock her in the same room Parker is hiding in, she inadvertently tips them off to his presence.  Parker thinks to himself sourly that she’d been better than most amateurs, until it mattered.

Melander isn’t sure whether he wants Parker dead or not.  Obviously Parker’s not in great shape, and it’s three against one (he’s not counting ‘Claire’).  Parker tells one of his usual lies when he’s faced with guys he wants to kill who are currently in a position to kill him–he was just making sure he’d get his money.  They don’t really believe him, but they can sleep on it.  And while they sleep, Parker keeps getting a bit stronger, every hour.

The plan, not that it matters now, was that he’d kill them in their sleep.  Won’t work now, and far from clear it ever would have worked.  But that plan is dead.  Parker waits to see what new plan can be salvaged from this mess.  And Leslie looks for some way to prove herself to him again.

Next morning, all plans turn to crap.  The cops come calling.  Melander puts on his faux Texas accent, tries to assure them he’s what he pretends to be, but the fact is, in the harsh light of a major manhunt, his act just doesn’t play anymore.  The house is largely unfurnished, in bad shape, there’s a dumpster outside, no contractors at work, and they haven’t even applied for a phone yet.

This isn’t how real rich people live, camped out like squatters in a derelict property–certainly not in Palm Beach.  Parker was right all along about this plan being a disaster waiting to happen.  The cops, who work in Palm Beach every day, can easily sense Melander doesn’t belong here, that something’s very wrong with this picture.  They insist on coming in to look around.

(The absolute worst mistake in this book is something I never noticed before now–see, back in Chapter 1, Part 3, we’re told that when the trio decided to try contacting Parker in New Jersey, they called from the ‘freshly installed phone’ at the mansion in Palm Beach–that very phone the cops now say they never even applied for.  That’s not their mistake, it’s Stark’s.  Stark doesn’t make mistakes like this.  An honest-to-god plothole in a Parker novel.  What the hell was going on with the writing of this book?  What kind of pressure was Westlake under when he produced it?)

Melander can’t very well tell the law to come back with a search warrant–he does that, they’ll have a cordon around the house in five minutes, the warrant in ten, and SWAT teams in place.  He realizes he’s got no choice but to shoot it out–just two of them.  He and his buddies can figure out Plan B once the cops are dead.

But Parker’s advance planning comes into play now.  He disabled all their guns days ago.  Melander pulls the trigger and nothing happens. Except he gets shot to pieces by edgy lawmen, naturally.

Parker and Leslie had been brought downstairs for breakfast.  Leslie is sitting at that very table Parker duct-taped his trusty little Sentinel revolver beneath.  Parker quietly let Leslie know about the gun, hoping she’d get it to him, but Carlson sees her with the gun in her hand, aims his shotgun at her, and of course that doesn’t work either, but Leslie doesn’t know that (Parker understandably didn’t want to trust her with any further information).

In the ensuing shitstorm, Parker hits Ross with a chair, knocking him into view of the cops, who gun him down with alacrity.  Leslie, terrified out of her wits, empties the Sentinel into a confused Carlson.  The trio is gaudy in a different way now.

Parker grabs the bags with the jewelry, and goes out the back, signaling Leslie with his eyes that she should say nothing about his ever having been there.  He’s still in tremendous pain, and can’t go very far, but he manages to get over the fence surrounding the property, and into a decent enough hiding place, assuming there’s no major search of the area.  And then he passes out.

By the time he wakes up, the house is abandoned again.  He goes back inside, helps himself to the food and beer his deceased captors stocked the fridge with.  Cops come in a few times to poke around, but they aren’t looking for anyone, so he just avoids them in the big rambling house.  After a few days of this routine, he’s feeling a lot better–now he just needs to make contact with Leslie one last time.

And here she is–something of a local heroine now.  Reminiscent of Claire at the end of The Rare Coin Score, she told the law a good story, used her feminine wiles on her male interrogators, and not only is she not in any trouble, she’s now got the exclusive right to show the house to potential new buyers.  So her presence there isn’t going to arouse any suspicion.  Parker is pleased with her–she’d never make it long in his business, but in the end, she proved her worth to him.  She can live.  And she is, of course, due a share of the spoils.

She tells him all the accounts he set up as Parmitt have been frozen.  He expected that, isn’t bothered by it.  He tells her he’s going soon, will leave the gems in her keeping.  She’s amazed he’ll trust her that much, but he reminds her, there is no way she could possibly sell them herself without getting caught.  He’ll send a fence to see her, and he figures her end will come to around 400k, give or take.  We were told at the start of the book that it would take three fences to unload all this swag, but even I’m getting bored with the nitpicking now.

In the Pre-Claire era, this would be the part of the book where Parker and Leslie hook up.  But those days are gone, and Parker feels like he somehow has to explain this to Leslie, why he’s not going to take out his post-heist horniness on her, which she would be more than willing to let him do.  For the record, I’m totally fine with the emotions he’s expressing here; not so fine with the fact that he is expressing them.  Hey, if this heist thing ever falls through, he could always take a job with Hallmark.

He said, “You don’t want to know about Claire, Leslie.”

“Of course I do,” she said.

He looked at her, and decided to finish that part once and for all.  “Claire is the only house I ever want to be in,” he said.  “All her doors and windows are open, but only for me.”

A blush climbed Leslie’s cheeks, and she stepped back, looking confused.  “You’re probably anxious to see her again,” she said, mumbling, going through the motions.  “I’ll see you at eight.”

The plan is she comes to pick him up, drive him to Miami, where Claire is waiting.  But plans are always subject to change.  Farley shows up at the house, still trying to figure out what the hell happened.  He never bought Leslie’s story.  He knows Parmitt is tied up in this some way.  Parker avoids Farley easily, but waits for him in his car.  He’s still got some business left to attend to, and Farley could be useful there.

So Farley comes back to the car, sees Parker, and is taken aback by the man’s sheer gall.  They have a little talk, in which Parker admits to no crime, but fills Farley in on why those two hoods tried to kill him in the Everglades.  Tells him about this guy, probably from Latin America, probably a general or a drug lord looking for a cushy safe retirement home in the states, tried to cover his tracks by the most stupid brutal means imaginable, because that’s the only way he ever knew to deal with problems–and in so doing, made himself more vulnerable.  In so doing, he made Parker his enemy.

The deal is, Parker gives Farley enough information so that he can go to his FBI friend, knowing how to prove the papers Norte gave this man are fake, and in a short time, they can take him down for keeps–a big arrest, very nice for everyone’s careers.  If they somehow screw it up, fail to get him, Parker will take the guy out himself.  But he doesn’t think that will be necessary.  He also teases Farley about his obvious attraction to Leslie.  Well, I guess there’s a little matchmaker in everyone.

Farley drops Parker off in Miami.  Even gives him a quarter to call Claire with. He would still like to arrest this Parmitt guy, even though he doesn’t exactly have any concrete charges–he could find something if he wanted.  The bloodhound in him can smell the wolf in Parker, is feeling the pull to do something about it.  Parker reminds him they’re alone.  “I’m armed,” Farley says.  “So am I,” Parker responds.  And flexes his huge hands, which are in easy reach of Farley’s throat.  Farley says he’ll always wonder if he could have taken Parker.  Parker ends the book by saying “Look on the bright side–this way you have an always.”  

Not a bad ending.  Not a bad book.  Unless you compare it to all the others.  Maybe someday we’ll know what happened here, the explanation for all the mistakes and false notes, but I doubt anything will ever explain why Hollywood producers would pick this book to kick off what was supposed to be a long-running franchise, starring a short bald Englishman as Parker (actually named Parker, something Westlake would never have countenanced had he still been around), and a skinny blonde Australian whose name I can never remember as Claire. And Nick Nolte as her dad, who is Parker’s mentor.  Seriously.  This happened.

But Jennifer Lopez wasn’t a bad pick for Leslie.  Even though I know she was only picked because the producers wanted her to do that striptease from Part 1.  She looked right for Florida, and she certainly had the curves to play Leslie.  But they screwed up that subplot as well.  Trying to ‘fix’ the story, they made it ten times worse.

The producers of “Parker” (quotes intentional) were, whether they knew it or not, playing the role of the gaudy trio in this book; so confident of their abilities, so sure they had a perfect score planned, so sure Palm Beach (which they insisted on shooting in, driving up the budget) would be a goldmine for them.  And in the end, it didn’t work out any better for them than it did for the movie stars.  But it worked out fine for the Westlake estate.  So that tracks.  Can’t wait for the sequel.  I really can’t.  Because I’m not going to live that long, and neither is anyone else.

But pretty sure I’ll live long enough to review the next book in our queue, also a Parker, and vastly more satisfactory than this one, in every possible way.  Parker is back in his proper habitat–both of them.  City and wilderness.  And still learning about this brave new world he’s been stuck back into.  Adds another string to his bow, you might say.

Anyway, I’ll try to get Part 1 out next week.  Anyone needs me before then, I’ll be in the garage, killing a man.  Just kidding.  I don’t have a garage.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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

Bonus Item: Playback (Mad Magazine does Payback)

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

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

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

Parker at the Movies, Part 3: The Bald Parkers

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Have you ever noticed how the movies adapting famous book characters tend to pretty them up?   A great example would be Donald Westlake’s own John Dortmunder; tall, angular, stoop-shouldered, dark-haired, and generally unprepossessing in the books–played by Robert Redford in the first Dortmunder movie–and the only one to date that isn’t slow torture to watch–but you still look at Redford, who you know is giving it all he’s got and it’s not his fault he looks like that, and you just kind of roll your eyes a bit.

Another classic case would be Raven, the malnourished hare-lipped hit man of Graham Greene’s A Gun For Sale, who has thus far been played by fashion plates Alan Ladd and Robert Wagner.  Neither of whom had a harelip.  Or was English, but never mind that now.

Point is, when you’re making a movie, you’re investing a lot of money, and you want people to go see it.   That means you cast stars, or people you think are going to become stars.   Stars tend to be good-looking.   So book characters adapted to film will generally be prettier in their screen incarnations.   Not always.  But usually.  What would be really unusual–downright bizarre, you  might say–would be casting leads who are far less attractive and physically impressive than the character in question.   Why on earth would anyone do that?

The very first thing we ever learn about Parker (other than the fact that his manners leave something to be desired), is that he’s tall, powerful-looking, rough-edged but irresistibly attractive to women, and has a full head of hair.   And that he’s got huge vein-covered hands.  That last one is a tough order to fill when you’re casting around for actors to play him, but the rest of it should be no problem.

We’ve already seen that order filled three times, by Michel Constantin, Lee Marvin, and yes, even Jim Brown (though obviously the Parker in the books isn’t black).  The movies they were in all had significant shortcomings (The Split is 90% shortcomings), but casting wasn’t one of them.

All of these portrayals, and Mel Gibson’s as well (I think we can all agree that’s a more predictable Hollywood casting move, though technically Gibson cast himself), lived up to another aspect of the character–that he only seems to have one name–whether it’s Georges, Walker, McClain, or Porter.  Nobody calls them by any other name.  And they don’t call any of them Parker, because Westlake wouldn’t have it.

One other thing–there’s no indication, in any of the books, that Parker has a strongly identifiable regional accent–let alone a foreign one.  We know he grew up in a large eastern city, probably in New York state.  Really though, he could pass for a local almost anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.   It would take a veritable Henry Higgins to draw any conclusions as to his place of origin simply by listening to him.

So how then to account for the fact that each of the two remaining films I’m going to discuss in any detail here feature a ‘Parker’ who is short and balding?   The first of which answers to the rather conventional name of Earl Macklin, and talks like a redneck from Kentucky (which he tells us is where his family came from–he’s got his granddaddy’s pocket watch as a keepsake).

And the second of which, even though he’s arguably further off the mark than any portrayal since Anna Karina’s (possibly worse), actually gets to use the Parker name–though he’s clearly English, and referred to as such in the movie–and this guy was never an A-List star, or a terribly well-regarded actor, though he’s certainly a busy one.  How does he rate the name all the others were denied?

That last question is the easiest to answer–Westlake had died.  His heirs didn’t feel as strongly as he did about not selling the Parker name, and a producer acquaintance of Westlake’s best known for some rather forgettable TV movies for the Lifetime channel, convinced them to sell him and his partners the film rights to possibly the most forgettable of the Parker novels–along with the right to use the name Parker, based on what turned out to be the empty promise of doing more adaptations if the first one worked out, which it did not.   Worth mentioning that this acquaintance had been after Westlake for years to work with him on a project, and Westlake seems to have always put him off.   And I’ll put off further observations regarding that film until later.

The first film, of course, is The Outfit, and was Westlake’s personal favorite among the Parker film adaptations–I would draw a clear distinction between calling a movie your favorite, and calling it the best–two entirely different things.  My favorite movie of all time is probably Lady and the Tramp.  I would not try to convince anybody that’s the greatest movie ever made.    It’s simply very near and dear to my heart.   As The Outfit, in its own way, was to Westlake (though he might have only seen it once or twice).   And to a small devoted coterie of buffs, who have long defended the notion that this is the best Parker adaptation ever.   And I humbly dissent from this view.

The film has many fine qualities, to be sure–rest assured I shall not neglect mentioning a one of them.   It did not deserve to be forgotten, as it was for many years.  It’s an entirely good thing that it’s easily available on DVD now, and online, and is periodically shown on TCM, the way it was meant to be seen (I still have it on my DVR from the last time they showed it).   But there are reasons why when you look up a list of Robert Duvall’s best movies ever, this movie is never listed, unless all his movies are listed, in which case it’s still out of the top 40–well underneath his uncredited 20 second cameo appearance as a (presumably alien) priest on a playground swing in Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Back in the day, I would go see movies simply because Duvall was in them (his performance in Tender Mercies still makes me tear up).   I don’t anymore, because his movies mostly stink now (like everybody else’s), but they didn’t always.   He had one of the great careers in cinema history.  He is one of the most brilliant and original thespians who ever lived.  And he is so tragically miscast here it isn’t even funny.

You don’t hire the best actor–you hire the right actor.   So why hire Duvall?  Well, partly because he’d just become a lot better known, due to his acclaimed performance in The Godfather.   Acclaimed, but not nominated–too small and quiet a role, but basically everybody who went to the movies knew Duvall’s face now, after his reputation had been steadily building over the course of the late 50’s and 60’s.  Could he be a marquee name, the way Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and other short, pug-ugly actors had been in the past?  The way Gene Hackman would be?   Talent can trump looks in the right roles.  Audiences get tired of looking at vapid pretty boys all the time.

So he was a rising talent, but still not a very expensive one.  This was not going to be a big budget picture–the director, John Flynn, hadn’t done much of anything yet (and ultimately never would).   Flynn had wanted to do it period, but the studio said no dice–hard to see how it changed much, since the novel was set only about a decade before the film came out.   I think you have to go back more than ten years to call it period.  Call me old fashioned.

Duvall was semi-famous but affordable–add in a few more semi-famous but affordable actors, along with some formerly big stars from the golden age, and maybe you’ve got a winning formula.   They added Joe Don Baker and Karen Black, and the poster would play them up like this was a contemporary take on Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde.  And boy was that not going to work.

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Baker was cast as Cody–the movie’s equivalent to Handy McKay, and he looks nothing at all like Handy, but he gives an effective performance all the same, and having just appeared as Buford Pusser in Walking Tall, he might well have sold more tickets than Duvall in some parts of the country.   He’s there for sex appeal, something Duvall has never possessed.   By the way, he totally steals this picture from Duvall.  He probably would have been a better Parker.  He’s got a better poker face, he’s 6’2, and he’s got hair.

Karen Black is clearly supposed to be there for sex appeal, but strangely has none (not usually a problem for her).   She plays Bett–the name lifted from the novel, but she couldn’t possibly be any more different from the spoiled sadistic heiress Parker has temporarily hooked up with.  Black’s career had also been gathering steam of late, with appearances in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces.

But there’s nothing easy about watching her performance in this film–it’s excruciating.  Not her fault–she strikes no sparks with Duvall (few actresses ever did), and the role is badly written and conceived–she shouldn’t be along for the ride at all, and it’s never really explained why Macklin wants her there.   And yet there she is, all through the picture.   Like I said, they were hoping to get some of that Bonnie and Clyde vibe, but for that you need onscreen chemistry, and she and Duvall have none.   And I mean zero.

There’s a love scene between them–that takes place right after he slaps her around for touching his gun (really?)–that makes me want to gouge my eyes out. She says “I wish I didn’t love you so much” and he seems good with that.

Point Blank, based on The Hunter, had not been a success in the U.S., partly because of its large production budget (though it did very well in Europe, and probably did turn a small profit eventually).  I don’t know why MGM decided to make an informal sequel six years later, with an entirely new cast and director–maybe they’d picked up the rights to The Outfit, just in case Point Blank hit it big (though Lee Marvin always said he’d never do sequels–they could have recast), and then decided to do one on the cheap?

The Outfit does indirectly follow up on the events of The Hunter, but since this is a completely different (and much less interesting) version of Parker, with a different backstory, and different motivations, there was no attempt to link the two films in the promotion, or in the script.   And the script is the real weakness here.  John Flynn wrote it himself.   John Flynn has exactly two writing credits on IMDb, and this is his first–the second is for a 1983 TV movie.  He was not a writer.  But we’re still in this era where the directors felt like they could do anything, and the studios tended to let them try.

Talking about the movie years later, Westlake expressed his disappointment that Flynn’s career never really went anywhere, but with 20/20 hindsight it’s no surprise at all.   He was an incomplete talent, with a visual style even his admirers had to admit was on the pedestrian side (he came out of television and he ended up there), and he never had the knack of getting the best performances out of his actors.   He also had terrible judgment–he needed an experienced screenwriter to adapt this book for him–arrogant as John Boorman might be, insistent on the supremacy of director over writer as he was, he knew better than to try and do it all himself.

Westlake wouldn’t have written the script (he refused to adapt his own works), but there were many others who could have done a fine job.  Maybe there were reasons why Flynn had to do it, but the only parts of it that work at all are where he more or less copies directly from the book.   When he goes off on his own tangents, it’s a disaster.  And he does that a lot.

What I heard about this film before I saw it was that it makes no attempt to humanize ‘Parker’, lets him just be a predator fighting his way through a human jungle, but that isn’t true.   The movie opens with his brother Eddie (yes, he’s got a brother named Eddie), also a heister, being killed by two hit-men (one of them dressed as a priest, for no comprehensible reason), while Eddie’s dog Soldier, a long-haired German Shepherd, cries miserably, being unable to protect him, since he’s tied up.

Macklin later goes to speak to his brother’s widow (played by Jane Greer–many bit roles in this film are filled by faces out of the past), and knowing the dog did his best, goes over to pat him gently on the head, and throw a stick for him to fetch.  Aww.

The film is full of dogs for some reason–instead of the black and tan cur in the novel that Parker has to kill just to show us he doesn’t give a damn about dogs either, there’s a White German Shepherd named Judge at Chemy’s place (Shepherds are easier to train), who Chemy’s treacherous sister-in-law sics on Cody for rejecting her (because who’d believe she’d throw herself at Macklin?), and does Macklin kill the dog?  Does Cody?  No, Chemy does it, with an axe handle.  Why’d there have to be a dog at all?   You’ll have to be the judge of that.   There’s a bunch of Doberman Pinschers in the film as well, but they just strut around looking cool, and don’t do anything.

This is possibly the best scene in the movie–and the truest to the book, in spite of many changes.  Several lines grabbed directly off the page, mainly spoken by Richard Jaeckel’s (excellent) Chemy–you could imagine him doing a radio show called Criminal Car Talk.   Good stuff.   There’s so much good stuff here.  But it keeps ringing false, because Flynn doesn’t trust the material enough.   You know who he got to play the fat ugly red-headed sister-in-law?

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Sheree North–one of the great blonde sex goddesses of the 50’s (they thought she’d be the next Marilyn Monroe), who turned into quite a decent actress in the 60’s and 70’s, and she does a good job here, but how does it make sense that ‘Parker’ is a short balding flabby slightly pot-bellied yokel, while possibly the least attractive character who ever appeared in a Parker novel is–this?

I understand they needed somebody to be sexy to sell the film–North beats out the much younger Karen Black by a country mile here–but she’s only in the movie for like five minutes.  Did it ever occur to them that she might be a bit more appropriate to play Macklin’s girlfriend, if he absolutely had to have one?   Black is still too green.

The plot of The Outfit echoes that of a far superior crime film, based on the work of a much less distinguished novelist, that also saw release in October of 1973–Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick.  The script, written by two frequent Siegel collaborators (Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman, who did the script for Dirty Harry), came from a now-forgotten book by John H. Reese (who mainly did westerns, but dabbled in crime fiction).

And just to show what a small incestuous world Hollywood filmmaking can be, the film also stars Joe Don Baker as a steely hit man, Sheree North as a slutty photographer who hooks up with Baker, and Point Blank‘s John Vernon as a weak-kneed mob flunky (he was good at those).

Charley Varrick begins with the title character, played by Walter Matthau (one of his greatest roles), robbing a small bank with his gang, that turns out to be a mob bank, so the mob sends men after them.   The Outfit begins the way it does because the Macklin brothers and Cody robbed a bank that turned out to be a mob bank so the mob sends men after them.  Quite the coincidence, huh?   Or maybe not.   Flynn would have been in a position to hear about what Siegel was working on.

Of course, in the story The Outfit is based on, the mob couldn’t give two shits about Parker until he comes after them for the money his former partner gave them–he wants that exact sum, nothing more or less–when they send men after him, he puts pressure on them to stop by getting various heisters across the country to hit their operations randomly, costing them millions of dollars, and creating an opportunity for him to take out the head of The Outfit without any fear of reprisal from its new chief.

Here, Macklin already has the money, but he’s mad about his brother, so he and Cody keep hitting Outfit operations all by themselves, saying it won’t stop until they give him the totally arbitrary sum of $250,000.   To pay for his brother’s life and for Bett getting tortured to try and make her betray him (which by the end of the film, you kind of figure she should have done).

He seems to have completely forgotten about that 250k by the end, and it seems like there’s nobody to take over from the boss he’s killed–because organized crime in California, where this is happening (note the palm trees), is built entirely around one rather passive pussy-whipped horse-breeding semi-retired mobster played by Robert Ryan.   Yeah.  It’s a bit different.

In the best-known scene from this film, Menner, the man who burned Bett with lit cigarettes, is shot in the hand by Macklin for his ungentlemanly behavior (“You shouldn’t use a girl’s arm for an ashtray.”).   Macklin knows this is the guy who put the hit on him and his brother–and he leaves the guy alive.  To try again. For no reason other than that Flynn figures there’s more mileage in the character.   There isn’t.   He’s just annoying.   Played by a unique-looking character actor named Timothy Carey, who has a bit of an online cult these days, but there’s no depth to him at all.   He’s ugly, mean, and stupid–only there to make Macklin look good by comparison–doesn’t quite work.

I mentioned that Joe Don Baker might have been a better ‘Parker’ than Duvall–but there’s one actor in the film who’d have been nearly perfect, if he hadn’t been one of those guys who never gets to play the lead–in this film, he doesn’t even get to have a name–his character is billed as ‘Hit Man’.

His real name was Tom Allen, but he usually got credited as Tom Reese.  He’s the hit-man who killed Macklin’s brother while dressed as a priest for no reason. His partner in one scene is played by Roland La Starza, a former boxer (former light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore also shows up in a brief cameo–why?  I dunno.  Why is Anita O’Day singing in the background at an Outfit bar, and you never even see her?  Why not?).

Can’t find any images of him from The Outfit–here’s what I could find.

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Reese was from Tennessee, but he didn’t have any strong regional accent when he was working–great voice, deep, resounding, and stark.   Powerful yet muted screen presence.  Big.  Blocky.  Six feet three inches tall.   Large veiny hands that swing at his sides when he walks–there’s this one scene where the camera looks down on him while he walks away, and you think there’s been some mistake–THAT’s got to be Parker.  He and Duvall are never in the same scene, though given that he killed Macklin’s brother, and is trying to kill Macklin and Cody, you’d expect some final confrontation, but I guess they figured there wasn’t time.

Keeps popping up through the film, looking all scary and professional, and then fades into the background–he seems to be in the back seat of the car Menner is in when he makes his final stupid attempt on Macklin’s life, but it’s hard to be sure, the way it’s shot.  Sloppy filmmaking, slipshod storytelling, and a waste of a fine actor.   Who realistically couldn’t have played Parker, because the studio would want a bigger name.   But one thing you can be sure of–he would have played the part straight.

And Duvall can’t.   He’s too much of a Method man–studied with Strasberg.   He’s got to know what Macklin is feeling, and find some way to link that up to his own experiences–and since even Richard Stark didn’t always seem to know what Parker was feeling, that approach is never going to work out.   He didn’t understand the character intuitively, the way Lee Marvin did–Marvin sensed there was something alien and unreachable about Parker, something you couldn’t explain or act out–just inhabit.   Marvin had the kind of screen charisma where he could just sit there, his expression blank and vacant, and you could read anything into those eyes.

Duvall, lacking that kind of gift, had to rely on his peerless acting skills, but they’re ill-suited to this role.  He can’t just inhabit Macklin, because he doesn’t get him at all (the script isn’t giving him any help, and neither is the director).

So he grimaces, fidgets, laughs at odd moments, smiles all the time, and in spite of his rather bloody profession, he’s a pretty nice guy to the people he knows and trusts–except Bett, who he abuses, then makes out with–and refuses to just leave behind, even though she’s got absolutely no skills to contribute to the job at hand.  Her main function is to get killed by the bad guys, so Macklin has an excuse to go kill them at the end.   It’s not enough that they owe him money.  Because this is a movie.

He and Cody have a major bromance going on (that’s the real love story in the film, not Macklin and Bett).  They make a half-hearted stab at the scene in the book where Parker doesn’t want Handy to come in with him out of friendship, but it doesn’t work, because they are friends.   They love each other–it oozes out of every scene they’re in.  When a wounded Cody tells Macklin to go on without him, you never for one second believe that’s going to happen.

And at the end, when it all comes out their way (except they got no money at the mansion, and don’t seem to care), Cody yells out the film’s final tagline “The Good Guys Always Win!” and Macklin thinks that’s just hilarious.  Freeze frame, roll credits–on ‘Parker’ laughing like an idiot at a bad joke.  His girl got killed by bullets meant for him a few hours earlier.  You don’t want him to cry about it–though he looked about ready to when it happened.  But that was a few hours ago.

Why’s he doing all this crazy dangerous stuff?  Because the script tells him to.  Why does he keep winning, in spite of being apparently the worst heist planner in the history of the genre?   Ditto.

Why’d it all go so wrong?   Because they had the wrong director (who insisted on also being the wrong writer), the wrong star, the wrong love interest (they were wrong to have a love interest),  and the wrong idea–but they were trying to get it right.   I really believe Flynn was trying to adapt the book, but here’s the problem–when you’re trying to do a Parker novel straight, you can’t do it half-way.   Either do your own thing, like Boorman did, or stick as close as you reasonably can to the structure and spirit of the book, as Cavalier did with Mise à Sac.

Why did Westlake and others (including George Pelecanos, whose work on The Wire I respect the hell out of) think it went so right?   I think mainly because they mentally airbrushed out all the things that didn’t work, because they so loved the things that did.   And a lot of things in this movie work really well.

For the first and thus far only time in a Parker adaptation, you have a community of professional heistmen and their associates–a network of professionals.   You see Macklin and Cody get their guns from a sort of mobile arms dealer working out of his suitcase–not as believable or interesting as the equivalent scene from the book, but still pretty good.

You have Madge and her motel (it’s more of a bar, but never mind), as gossipy and chatty as in the book, though not nearly so perceptive and well-informed.  Marie Windsor is the only older star in the film who seems to be having a good time with her role–of course, she wasn’t that big a star to begin with, so this isn’t such a demotion for her.  Ryan and Greer both seem to be remembering better days (and they were better, but what’s past is past).

You have Chemy and his brother cooking up innovative getaway cars.  You have Cody at his diner (we never actually saw Handy’s diner in the books, but what the hell).  You have some good casual conversations in the periods between the action scenes.   These aren’t icons–they’re people.   Often badly written people, never brilliantly acted people, but sometimes that just makes them seem more real–most of our scenes in real life aren’t Oscar-worthy either.

And as Westlake observed, the film has a certain ‘flat’ matter-of-fact quality to it–a lived-in look.   Like I said, it really didn’t matter whether they made it ‘period’ or not, because the locations they were shooting in looked exactly the way they would have in the early 60’s, and well before that.

Of course, the setting is wrong–it’s not New York, not even northeastern–but none of the films ever get that right.   It’s always France, L.A.,  Chicago.  Nobody ever wants to put Parker in his proper setting, for some reason.   Just like nobody ever sets an adaptation of A Gun for Sale in England–one of them is actually set in Turkey, believe it or not.   Setting matters, and nobody’s ever going to get Parker right until they put him in his natural habitat.  If you adapt Plunder Squad, you can set it in California, okay?

I think Westlake would have loved it just for the fact that it had Robert Ryan as the Bronson character (named Mailer here).   He would have loved seeing so many of his peripheral characters brought to life, even if they are mere shadows of their true selves.   I think the very modest nature of the film would have appealed to him–its lack of pretension–he knew there was no danger of this movie ever overshadowing its source material.   It was safe for him to love it, because so few people ever would.   It did decent drive-in business, maybe–but was probably not even one of the Top 40 grossers for 1973.

Let us not forget, the first adaptation was made without his approval, because he hadn’t been fully paid for it, leading to a lengthy irritating lawsuit.  The second and far better French adaptation he probably hadn’t even seen by the time The Outfit was made.   Point Blank he knew to be a magnificent if somewhat incoherent piece of work, but that was, you might say, his problem with it–that and the fact that the director had been openly dismissive of his profession in general, and his novel in particular.   The Split took one of his best novels and tossed 99% of it in the trash.

Then later there was the movie based on Slayground, the one Parker novel that positively begs to be made into a tightly focused bottle story, and I don’t even want to talk about how far wrong that went–I’m amazed they spelled the title right.

So what was the one ‘Parker’ film that actually tried to do the book some measure of justice?   This one.   It failed.  Badly.  But it tried.

And then it basically disappeared for a long time after it left theaters–surfaced here and there on latenight television, then vanished from there as well, only popping back up on DVD after Westlake had died.   So by the time he was doing interviews about the films based on his work, it had probably been over a decade since he’d last seen it.  In my case, I only saw The Outfit after having read a bunch of enthusiastic fan reviews online–and it did not, for me, live up to the advance publicity.   The books were fresh in my mind.  I was disappointed.  First impressions tend to be lasting ones.

I can think of one more reason why Westlake might have overdone it a bit in his praise of The Outfit–it’s just a guess, but note the ending.   Macklin and Cody have finished off Mailer at his mansion–the cops and EMT workers are coming.  They need to slip away unnoticed, so Macklin puts on a white ambulance driver’s jacket (don’t ask me where he got it), loads the wounded Cody into a waiting ambulance, and drives away.   Sound familiar?   Need a hint?   It’s 1973.  Westlake is writing Butcher’s Moon.

He stole the ending.   I mean, it’s a script based on his book–if Flynn can use Westlake’s ideas as he pleases, why can’t it work in the other direction?   Only fair.  It’s a great idea, rather badly used in the film–they just improvise, the way they’ve been doing all through the picture.   In Butcher’s Moon, the ambulance has been stolen in advance, Parker leaving nothing to chance if he can help it.

It’s a much better idea the way Westlake uses it.  But still–not his idea.   There’s a certain sense of professional obligation there.   He’s going to be a little nicer than he otherwise would have been.   Not feign enthusiasm, but perhaps exaggerate it a little.

Like I said, just a theory–but Westlake lifted that ending.  It’s pretty obvious.  I guess it’s possible Westlake gave the idea to Flynn, but he said they really didn’t communicate any, and Flynn taking his suggestion would have also made him feel more favorably towards the film, so it works either way.   And either way, I think I’ve said all I’ve got to say about The Outfit.   If somebody wants to tell me I’m full of it, I’d be only too pleased.   But let’s get this straight–Parker isn’t short.  Parker isn’t sentimental.   Parker isn’t BALD.   Three strikes yer out, Macklin.

So given that I’ve vowed to never let any of my articles go longer than 6,000 words again, I’ve got less than a thousand words to talk about the other baldie.   Oh no.  How terrible.  And I was so looking forward to discussing Jean-Luc Parker and his bullshit enterprise (yes, I’m very proud of that, thanks for noticing).

This was the film they promised would be like the book–one of the worst books of the series (and the worst possible pick to begin a film franchise with), but still a decent piece of work–and you can vaguely perceive the outlines of its plot here and there in this film, the very first where ‘Parker’ is named Parker, and that’s why it has a special place in my personal movie hell.

I can’t really get that mad at the Godards and Boormans of the world for not doing what they never said they’d do.   But this–thing–truly does mark a new low point in the long strange history of Parker at the movies, and I’d actually prefer not to dwell on it any longer than I have to–also, to properly review it, I’d have to watch it again.  In the words of the immortal Bartleby, I would prefer not to.

Here’s how it begins–I’ll use (NIB) as shorthand for ‘Not In Book.’  Parker and  his associates are robbing a state fair (NIB), with his associates dressed up as clowns (NIB), and Parker dressed as a priest (again with the priestly garb?  in the book, but not during a heist), and actively involved in the heist as opposed to creating a diversion (NIB), never mind that this means that he can be easily described and identified by the guards he helps overcome, not to mention all the people whose attention he attracted earlier by winning a sweet little girl a stuffed animal at a sideshow game (!!!).

He flashes back (in the middle of a job!)  to taking Claire to a barbecue (NIB), at her father’s house (NIB), where he tells her she looks beautiful (!!!), and then she tells him how much she loves that he loves her dad (!!!!).   Then back to the heist, where Parker gives a panicking guard a little heart-to-heart talk about women (NIB), after having already told everyone there that he doesn’t steal from people who can’t afford it,  or hurt people who don’t deserve it.   Which is, by the way, repeatedly contradicted by his behavior throughout the rest of the picture, without any sense of irony that I can detect.   Oh, and (NIB).

Still engaged in the heist, he flashes back to the barbecue again (seems to have some kind of attention deficit thing going on), where Hurley, who is his mentor (NIB), tells him in person (NIB) about the heist he’s going to be pulling with these guys, who are there at the barbecue for no discernible reason (NIB).

Then back to the heist, which nets them a million dollars (NIB), and Parker is asked to kick in his share to pay for a bigger job–a jewel heist–and it slips out they’re paying a million dollars for a house in Palm Beach–it’s a 100k downpayment in the novel, and who buys a million dollar house cash upfront to pull one job?  And instead of an isolated McMansion trashed by a rock star, the house is on a tiny plot of land, surrounded by other houses, and Lord only knows how many potential witnesses.  Why not put out a neon lawn sign with a blinking arrow on it saying “This way to the jewel thieves”?  (NIB)?  You betcha.

They don’t want to tell him anything else about the job they’re pulling (NIB) even though they mean to kill him if he won’t participate (NIB), and then he leaps out the window of a moving car (NIB), and then the punk named Hardwicke whose uncle is a Chicago mobster Parker will later kill (NIB) has to go shoot him, causing life-threatening injuries that Parker somehow recovers from during the ride to the hospital he gets from some kind hearted tomato farmers he will later give a lot of his money to in gratitude (NIB).

Then at this hospital he learns that the fire set by the punk (NIB) as a distraction at the fair (NIB) has killed a man (NIB), to which news he responds with what looks an awful lot like guilt (!!!!!!!!) and then he chokes out a black orderly (NIB) and escapes using a scared cancer patient for cover (NIB), seemingly little the worse for wear (NIB).

And this is just the first 20 minutes of the film.

This film was a critical and commercial flop, and since this time they used Parker’s name, it probably poisons the ‘franchise’ as far as movies are concerned, for at least a generation.  Given the trendlines of this three part overview I’ve just written, that may not be such a bad thing.  The two best films came out almost half a century ago.     Been downhill ever since.

On to cable television?   How the hell would I know?  Enough about ‘Parker.’   In my personal opinion, there may someday be a film/show/whatever that does Parker justice, but there will never come a day when all the Parker adaptations combined are worth the worst Parker novel ever written.

And speaking of which, our next book is The Black Ice Score.  Which I just reread, and I liked it this time.  Maybe it’s the company I’ve been keeping?   Enjoy the turkey–as long as it’s the kind you eat.

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Parker film adaptations