Category Archives: Parker Novels

Nitpick: Mr. Parker and ‘Poetry in Steel’

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Parker is the classic antihero, with lots of free-floating hostility and, of course, fulfilling male fantasies, all the “dames” in the novel are crazy about him on sight.

But to clear up a few facts: There isn’t a spot at the approaches to the tollbooths where any kind of hero, anti or otherwise, can be offered a ride; only a world-class spitter could possibly hit a rapidly moving hubcap; and the Hudson, at the point where Parker throws his cigarette into it, is a tidal estuary, not the ocean. Also, there are those of us who take issue with the suggestion that anyone heading for New Jersey is a “nobody.” However, none of this stopped Hollywood from twice making films inspired by The Hunter: Point Blank (1967), starring Lee Marvin, and Payback (1999), starring Mel Gibson.

From The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel, by Michael Aaron Rockland (Rutgers University Press)

We went up the Henry Hudson Parkway and over the George Washington Bridge. We took the lower level and Dad said “This is new.”

“This part of the bridge?  It looks nutty.”

We went up 9 to 17,and then west on 17 toward Binghamton

From 361, By Donald E. Westlake.

I’ve got about a hundred articles I’m thinking about writing.  Thinking about writing isn’t writing.  (Barely qualifies as thinking.)  I’ve even started a few.  Then I get sidetracked.  Bogged down.  Or there’s too many books crossing my desk at the library. Enterprise of great pith and moment, currents turned awry, you know the drill.

But this past week, a book crossed my desk at the library.  The one quoted up top.  Which was published in 2008 (a few months before Mr. Westlake went out of print), but for whatever reason, we got it in 2020.

It’s supposed to be the first book ever written specifically about The World’s Busiest Bridge, which Prof. Rockland justly feels is unjustly slighted in favor of the one in Brooklyn–but in fact another one came out in 2006, probably after he started writing his.  Not evailable, that one.  I ordered a used copy, just to be thorough.  And because I love that damn bridge.  Not quite as much as I love a certain story that begins there.

Now you know me, pals.  You know exactly what I did.  Same thing you’d do in my place.  Flipped forward to the index, headed over to the ‘w’s, and there it was.  ‘Westlake, Donald.’  That’s right.

But when I flipped back to Chapter 8, ‘The George Washington Bridge in Literature,’ what I found was not an enconium to epic pulp writing, but a curt backhanded diss.  Prof. Rockland was not impressed with Richard Stark’s–starkness.

Parker, the protagonist, has been double-crossed by his partner, shot by his wife, and left for dead in a burning building. The novel begins on the New Jersey side of the bridge with a tone more than a little reminiscent of Mickey Spillane’s unremitting, often misogynistic, malice:

Followed by a truncated quote from the book’s opening.  Followed by the jaundiced offhanded critique you can read up top.  And that’s it.  He gives The Hunter a lot less ink than several other novels referenced in the chapter on literary references to the GWB.  Even though, as he somewhat begrudgingly concedes, it’s the only one that inspired two major motion pictures, that people actually still watch, unlike Up the Sandbox, based on an out-of-print novel by Anne Roiphe, a film even a Streisand fan couldn’t love.  (That movie doesn’t feature the bridge, and neither do the two based on The Hunter, which is what Rockland ought to be mad about–I sure am.)

But you know, he’s got a right to his opinion. He likewise gives short shrift to Howard Fast’s Redemption, and James Baldwin’s Another Country–he thinks they’re good books, but they aren’t bridgey enough.  Other than the out-of-print Up the Sandbox, (included because of a fantasy sequence where the heroine helps blow up his favorite bridge) you can get most of the novels he references for Kindle–some for free, if you have Kindle Unlimited.   The Hunter you’re going to have to shell out for.  People actually still want to read that.

Ah, but here’s the rub.  At the time Rockland must have submitted his manuscript, The Hunter was also out of print, at least in America.  The University of Chicago Press edition came out the same year as Poetry in Steel.  So cut him some slack.  He thought he was writing about some Spillane wannabe who had been lucky enough to sell a few books to Hollywood.  He didn’t know he was writing at the dawn of  The Starkian Renaissance, courtesy of Levi Stahl.

Neither does he seem to have known that Mr. Westlake was, like him, a New Yorker born, who lived a fair bit of his life in New Jersey.  No indication he knows Westlake set many a brilliant novel there; nor does he seem to have twigged to the fact that Parker spends most of the series holed up in Passaic County with Claire. If he had known all that, I think he might have been a mite less jaundiced about the eight best paragraphs of prose ever set on that most complex of edifices spanning the majestic Hudson.

Prof. Rockland is a noted Jersey Chauvinist (he helped popularize the term ‘Jerseyana’), and speaking as one myself, I’ve no problem with this.  Most of the bad attitude that reeks from his brush-off stems from what he mistakenly reads as a typical Jersey Slur from a Manhattanite.  Stark is saying the traffic going into New Jersey on a weekday morning is light, which is correct–not that the people going there are nobodies.  (It’s the people heading into Manhattan who are subjected to Stark’s sardonic scrutiny, and Parker barely even knows they’re alive.)

Parker’s alienation from humankind as a whole likewise gets written off as sexist machismo (Rockland’s not the only one making that mistake).  I’m scratching my head a bit about his air-quoting “dames”, since that word appears not even once in the book (in fairness, Darwyn Cooke has Parker call Lynn a slut in his graphic novel adaptation of The Hunter, and that’s not in the book either–there’s always a lot of projection going on with these books, somehow–your reaction to them probably says more about you than the author).

But pretty clear that many other books he writes about more favorably have that problem as well–he dismisses one of them as ‘chick-lit’ (that’s a bit misogynist, wouldn’t you say?) but still gives it a lot more attention.  So it’s the Jersey thing. And the general ignorance of who Donald E. Westlake is thing.  Hey, he’s not the only one who can get his back up over a slight.  (And not even posthumous–barely possible Westlake could have seen Rockland’s book before he headed off to Mexico one last time.)

But let’s cut to the reveal.  Even if this book came out after the U. of Chicago edition, I’d know which one he read–Pocket Books.  1962.  Has to be.  Because of the throwing the cigarette butt at the ocean thing.

I had never noticed this before–Westlake changed something.  I have both the Pocket Book PBO and Gold Medal reprint published as Point Blank! to go with the film release.  In the latter, Parker throws his cigarette butt at the river.  That’s the only change I can see, at least in the opening chapter.  So Rockland’s only relevant complaint was corrected four decades before he got around to making it.  (Not that the phrase ‘tidal estuary’  would have any place in the passage we’re dissecting here.)

Possible somebody mentioned it to Westlake, maybe there were letters from distressed limnologists, perhaps an editor at Fawcett suggested the tweak.  But my guess is that while reading over the book prior to republication, Westlake the word nerd decided that while to Parker it’s the ocean, to Stark it’s the river.  Stark cares about getting that kind of thing right, Parker doesn’t give a damn.  It’s salty, there’s fish, it’s the ocean.

The first edition is channeling Parker more directly;  in the reprint, Stark translates for us. The narrator voice in that series was a lot more focused and fine-tuned by the Mid-60s.  And so was the man behind it.  Who always knew the Hudson was a river.  He grew up alongside that river, near Albany.  He wrote one hell of a good Parker novel set on and around it, if Rockland had only thought to check.

But try telling that to the distressed Jerseyanist, who can’t stop himself from going back there later in the chapter, when in the midst of analyzing a poetic paeon to The George by a Lithuanian immigrant named Israel Newman, feels obliged to state–

The line “Here where the Hudson feels the sea” is beautifully suggestive of the G.W.B.’ s site, not to mention a welcome corrective to Donald Westlake’s confusing the Hudson with the ocean.

It’s saying the same exact thing, in more flowery language, but the poem doesn’t disrespect New Jersey, or even mention it, so no umbrage is taken.

(How did he come to read the first edition paperback?  Hardly to be found at your local used book shop in the early 21st. Borrowed from a friend?  Interlibrary Loan?  Amazon Marketplace?  [That’s how I got it.]  Rutgers library doesn’t seem to have The Hunter in its collection, though they’ve got Comeback. Did he realize The Hunter had been reprinted scores of times over the course of half a century, all over the planet, in English, French, Russian, German, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese?–no doubt Lithuanian as well.

And what would he say were he to learn not one of those books featured the George Washington Bridge on its cover?  Don’t even ask.  I get the distinct impression he didn’t even know there were 23 more Parker novels after this one, and of course the first edition wouldn’t inform him of that.  No “Other books by” page in there.)

So that leaves the very first nitpick–that nobody could have offered Parker a ride before the tollbooths.  Now in this very book I’m nitpicking, there are a whole lot of stories about things happening on the GWB that are not supposed to happpen. Like did you know a small plane once crash-landed there?

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Much of Rockland’s book, in point of fact, devotes itself to such anomalies, like a herd of goats escaped from an overturned truck, a man stopping his car in mid-bridge to jump off it, an elderly cyclist who found the pedestrian walkway closed, so she rode across the bridge with the cars and trucks, and didn’t ask if that was okay, because if you ask they’ll probably say no.  Probably not a day passes without something happening on that bridge that isn’t supposed to happen.

I’ve actually caught a ride from the Bridge Plaza, not far from the toll booths–turns out drivers who want to be charged the much lower carpool toll will look around for passengers in Fort Lee–they’ve been ticketed for that (even though it isn’t technically illegal), but they keep right on doing it, whenever and wherever they can get away with it.

But agreed, it would probably be pretty hard to openly hitchhike right in front of the toll booths–except, first of all, Parker isn’t hitchhiking.  He’s just walking across the bridge.  And, as I am suddenly realizing, he’s not using the pedestrian walkway.  He’s walking with the cars and trucks.  Heavy morning traffic.  Slow moving vehicles.  And this explains so much else (like how hard is it to spit on the hubcap of a vehicle stalled in traffic that you’re walking right through, like some implacable unstoppable force of criminal retribution?)

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(Darwyn Cooke figured all this shit out a long long time before me.)

But wait–there’s more!  Because the book is set in 1962–and Westlake’s own fateful walk back from New Jersey, that inspired the opening scene, was a few years before that.  And let’s just say the toll plaza looked a bit different then. Wanna see how different? YouTube, do your stuff.

There’s a few cops, yeah–because they’re sending a film truck through.  Putting up a front.  But every morning?  Early in the morning?  Heavy commuter traffic? Cops there all the time?  I don’t think so.  And there’s scads of room for cars to pull over, offer someone a ride.

So why did the fresh-faced guy in a Chevy stop and ask Parker if he wanted a lift? Because Parker isn’t on the pedestrian walkway.  Maybe it isn’t open yet.  Maybe Parker just doesn’t give a damn.  He’s going to walk right through the traffic, right past those women getting vibrations above the nylons, and the guys remembering when they didn’t have a car and thinking they’re empathizing with him–and who’s going to tell him he can’t?  You’ve read the description of how he looks that morning.  Would you?

And if a tollboth worker called the law, by the time they got there, he’d be long across and down into the subway hole.  (It looked really different on the other side as well back then, as you can see up top).  A long time before 9/11, and stuff still happens on that bridge now that nobody wants to know about.

But it was changing, very quickly, right around the time Westlake was writing. They were putting in the lower deck, referenced in both The Hunter and 361, but it didn’t open until August of 1962.  We’re told how Parker is irritated by the way the bridge surface ‘trembles and sways in the wind’–the wind effect used to be a lot more pronounced, before the extra weight of the lower deck (charmingly referred to as ‘The Martha’ by many–hey I learned some things from Rockland’s book) stabilized it.  The amazing Othmar Ammann, Switzerland’s gift to American bridge design, had worked it all out decades before.

When Westlake took his own walk across the bridge, in a troubled state of mind, the lower deck wasn’t in place yet.  The Cross Bronx Expressway, the GWB Bus Station–still in the works.  By the time his mirror twin noirs, published under two very different names, came out, he knew people would have come to terms with the Martha beneath the George, so he must have written that in.  But the George Parker is stalking across early one morning is somehow still a bachelor, so still swaying madly in the wind, signifying Parker’s chaotic unsettled state of mind, that he can only fix by killing Mal Resnick and getting his money.

It all makes perfect sense.  If you take the time to understand it.  If you realize this isn’t some two-bit hack, writing trash for a living.  This is Richard Fucking Stark, bitch.  And you missed every last thing he was trying to tell you.  Yeah, I’m mad.  Apparently that’s what it takes to get me to finish an article these days.  I’ll feel better after I hit the button that says ‘Publish.’

Oh there’s a trashy aura to it–part of its charm, as Rockland should know, since he once penned a scholarly work called Popular Culture: Or Why Study Trash? that my workplace doesn’t have and Amazon doesn’t seem to know exists.

(I forgot to mention that he’s a Professor of ‘American Studies’ at Rutgers.  Is that what Charles Kuralt majored in?  Aren’t we all of us here technically studying America, all the time?  Not carefully enough, it seems.  Now Donald Westlake–there was a veritable polymath of American Studies. For all anyone noticed.)

Now I’m being mean.  I am aware of this.  Writing even a short mass market book about such a storied bridge (even if it is a bit too full of folksy asides and personal anecdotes to be a serious history, and I’m hoping something better comes along for the 100th Anniversary)–that’s a lot of research.  A lot of moving parts.  Just the two chapters on books, stories, poems, artwork, and films featuring the GWB would have been time-consuming.  It’s not reasonable to expect he’d drop everything to become a Westlake expert (and online resources were scarcer then, though they existed).

He somehow found out The Hunter begins on the George, he read it, and he didn’t have the context to appreciate it–but so many people have read that book with zero context, and loved it.   (Westlake probably got at least as much fan mail from black men for the early Parker novels as James Baldwin got for Another Country).  We love what we love, we hate what we hate, and there’s room for all kinds.

The bridge book was worth reading.  But few will ever read it twice.  And far fewer who read The Hunter stop at just once.

Now I said that not one edition of The Hunter (or 361) that I can find features an image of the George Washington Bridge or any aspect of that opening scene on its cover.  And that is true.  But there’s a caveat.

That is, without question, the most engrossing visual of the entire book, Parker walking through that traffic, the wind blowing his hair like a bad toupee, his face like chipped granite, his onyx eyes set on the city before him in a ten thousand yard stare, his big gnarly hands swinging at his sides and the ocean (yeah, I said it, Rockland!) down below him, cold and dark and hungry, waiting for bodies to drop, and they will.

It’s one hell of a visual, and no artist worth his salt would have missed it.  Here’s to you, Darwyn Cooke.  You got it.  (But Parker doesn’t say ‘slut’–not his style.)

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Well damn–I’m done.  PUBLISH.  (or perish)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Fair Play: Mr. Block and The Snatch.

“I wanted to read it again. I wanted to see if maybe Kelp had a good idea after all.”

Kelp with a good idea.” He finished his Jell-O and reached for his coffee.

“Well, he was smart to bring it around to you,” she said. “He wouldn’t be able to do it right without you.”

Kelp brings a plan to me.”

“To make it work,” she said. “Don’t you see? There’s a plan there, but you have to convert it to the real world, to the people you’ve got and the places you’ll be and all the rest of it. You’d be the aw-tour.”

He cocked his head and studied her. “I’d be the what?”

“I read an article in a magazine,” she said. “It was about a theory about movies.”

“A theory about movies.”

“It’s called the aw-tour theory. That’s French, it means writer.”

He spread his hands. “What the hell have I got to do with the movies?”

“Don’t shout at me, John, I’m trying to tell you. The idea is—”

“I’m not shouting,” he said. He was getting grumpy.

“All right, you’re not shouting. Anyway, the idea is, in movies the writer isn’t really the writer. The real writer is the director, because he takes what the writer did and he puts it together with the actors and the places where they make the movie and all the things like that.”

“The writer isn’t the writer,” Dortmunder said.

“That’s the theory.”

“Some theory.”

“So they call the director the aw-tour,” she explained, “because that’s French for writer.”

“I don’t know what we’re talking about,” Dortmunder said, “but I think I’m getting caught up in it.

“Hey,” she said, “where am I?”

She could have answered the question herself.  She was, to judge from appearances, in an especially squalid shack.  The shack itself was fairly close to a highway, judging from the traffic noises.  If she had to guess, she would place the location somewhere below the southern edge of the city, probably a few hundred yards off Highway 130 near the river.  There were plenty of empty fishing shacks there, she remembered, and it was a fair bet this was one of them.

“Now just take it easy, Carole,” the thin man said.  “You take it easy and nothing’s going to happen to you.”

“You kidnapped me!”

“You just take it easy and–”

She squealed with joy.  “This is too much!  You’ve actually kidnapped me.  Oh, this is wild!  Did you call my old man yet?”

“No.”

“Will you let me listen when you do?”  She started to giggle.  “I’d give anything to see his face when you tell him.  He’ll split. He’ll just fall apart.”

They were both staring at her, open-mouthed.  The younger man said, “You sound happy about it.”

“Happy?  Of course I’m happy.  This is the most exciting thing that ever happened to me!”

“But your father–”

“I hope you soak him good,” she went on.  “He’s the cheapest old man on earth.  He wouldn’t pay a nickel to see a man go over the Falls.  How much are you going to ask?”

“Never mind,” the thin man said.

“I just hope it’s enough.  He can afford plenty.”

I should probably explain.

Not long ago, a book crossed my desk at the library.  Portraits of Murder, a hardcover collection of short stories from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (still very much an extant publication) which debuted in 1956, and provided many a much-needed check for Donald Westlake and his partners in crime fiction.  Many of the stories in Westlake anthologies first saw print there, and of course I checked to see if his name featured in the table of contents.  No dice.  Possibly because Mr. Westlake’s best stuff for AHMM was already spoken for, or didn’t fit the profile for whatever the editors were looking for.

But two stories by Lawrence Block, the first of which was quite near the front of the book, and was about a kidnapped child.  Well, minor.  Well, she’s seventeen.  And precocious.  And sexy.   And not to be underestimated.  It’s Block.

This brief exercise in sardonic suspense (less than ten full pages in the book) entitled The Most Unusual Snatch, appeared in the April 1967 issue.  That’s the cover up top. Next to a French edition of a 1974 Westlake novel, the identity of which my most irregular regulars shall no doubt deduce without any difficulty.  That is also about a kidnapped minor, but younger, and male, and not at all sexy, but still–precocious.  And a bane to all would-be abductors.  Well, they both read O. Henry, right?

Man, been so long since I did a synopsis here:

Carole Butler, pretty teenaged daughter of a wealthy doctor, is kidnapped by two men.  One tall skinny sourpuss named Howie who fully intends to kill her once they get the money, more or less just because he thinks that’s what you do when you kidnap somebody.  One younger (and to Carole’s eyes, not unattractive) thug named Ray, who is on the fence about killing her, and whose physical description matches up pretty well with Block’s.  (One of the most attractive things to her about him is that he’s not terribly bright, at least where females are concerned, as if any male ever has been, but there are degrees.)

As you can see up top, she’s delighted at first.  She had fantasized about faking her own kidnapping, and now it’s happened.  She hates her father (who seems besotted with her, no mother in sight, perhaps best not to inquire further), would love to see him lose his shirt getting her back.

She’s full of helpful suggestions for her not over-competent captors, even tells them dad’s got a hundred grand stashed in a safe in the basement at all times, and that he wouldn’t want the IRS to ever get wind of that, probably wouldn’t even call the cops if he got her back in one piece.  Maybe even if he didn’t, but she doesn’t intend to let it come to that.

Howie is the main problem.  Her charms won’t work on him.  But Ray’s an easy touch, wants to touch her, so they enjoy a quick canoodle while Howie’s away.  She’s scared, obviously–but enjoying the danger.  And the sex.  And calculating her odds all the while. She’s a bit crestfallen when he ties her up again afterwards (Shades of Mavis in The Rare Coin Score, published in ’67 as well–but Carole is no Mavis, and Ray’s sure as hell no Parker.)

Here’s where it gets interesting–well, it’s Block, so interesting all the way through, but I mean for my purposes, since I’m no less conniving than Carole in my own way.   The thing that worries Howie is the pick-up.  Carole doesn’t think her old man will call the cops, but if he does, they’ll be waiting to grab him when he goes to get the cash (and then what might happen to her?)  She has anticipated this wrinkle–and has the answer.  She pretends not to know where the hideout is, but says she knows the perfect spot for the transfer, if they just happen to be near the south end of town.

She told him about it–the overpass on Route 130 at the approach to the turnpike.  They could have her father drive onto the pike, toss the money over the side of the overpass when he reached it, and they could be waiting down below to pick it up.  Any cops who were with him would be stuck up there on the turnpike and they could get away clean.

“It’s not bad,” Ray said.

“It’s perfect,” Howie added.  “You thought that up all by yourself?”

“Well, I got the idea from a really super-duper movie.”

Howie is so struck with admiration for her devious criminal mind, he makes a little slip, saying it’s a shame and all, then pretends he didn’t say what they all know he just said.  She knows there’s no way she’s getting out of this thrill ride alive–Howie’s dead set on tying off loose ends. Ray’s too weak to stand up to him.

She does a brilliant job terrifying her father over the phone, making up two additional gang members, then explaining to the puzzled crooks that she’s laying a false trail for the cops.  While Howie’s off getting the cash, she talks Ray into letting her go–the idea is, they’ll make it look like she hit him from behind with the revolver butt, and got away. She’ll give phony descriptions, the police will be looking for three men and a woman, everybody wins.  Ray, possibly thinking they can meet up for more nookie later on, hands her the automatic and tells her where to hit him, make it look good.

She promptly shoots him dead with the business end.  Then the astonished Howie, returning with the loot, so elated about what he thinks is the biggest score of his career, but he was sadly mistaken there.  Then she cleans up the crime scene a bit, so nobody can connect her to it.

She hikes to a payphone (remember them?), calls dad, tells him a story about inter-gang violence, and somehow the two survivors left her alive, taking the money with them.  He comes to pick her up, sees the bodies.  He says it’s best they not call the police, too many questions.  He only gave them ten thousand (he says)–it’s just money.  All that matters is her.  She smiles, hugs him, and laughs to herself, thinking what she’s going to do with the hundred thousand she buried near the shack.

I don’t think Patricia Highsmith would have been ashamed to call this one her own.  Only  she never wrote for the pulps (got her start in comic books),  her Carole would have pretended to enjoy sex with Ray, and the father would have probably died too.  We all have our quirks.  In short, it’s a cracking good yarn in this vein, and no doubt Mr. Westlake thought so too.

So when I wrote my review of Jimmy the Kid, I didn’t know about this story, so I talked about the influence that was obvious to everyone (The Ransom of Red Chief), and the one Westlake himself wryly referenced in a piece he wrote for a 1978 anthology Brian Garfield put together; namely the kidnapping of French automotive heir Eric Peugeot, where the kidnappers used a Lionel White crime novel called The Snatchers as their blueprint, and it all worked out fine until they got their money, and started spending it.  The book hadn’t told them what to do after you get the money, since the kidnappers in the novel never reached that point.

As I observed then, Westlake’s novel ended up being about the dysfunctionally symbiotic relationship between fiction and reality; how each inspires the other, but they never do quite connect.  The kidnap victim was somewhere between the quietly fascinated (and very young) Master Peugeot, who had never really spent time with grown men before, and the western-crazed red-headed hooligan from O. Henry’s story, who made two grown men cry uncle.

It was also one of the funniest things he ever wrote, and having now reread it yet again, I’m even more inclined to think it’s a high-water mark for the Dortmunder series.

But see, I assumed the notion that the ‘victim’ would be not merely enjoying the experience but using it to his own coldly calculated advantage was Westlake’s contribution–as you can see, not necessarily so.

That Westlake read his close friend and sometimes collaborator’s story, in a magazine he himself contributed to multiple times, cannot be reasonably questioned.  Nor can the multiple confluences between the two, up to and including the means whereby the kidnappers arrange the ransom drop-off via a highway overpass, that Carole says she got from a movie, but damned if I can figure out which flick that might have been, and that reference strikes me as a bit of a wink from Mr. Block–only I don’t have the context to know who he’s winking at, or why.  (Definitely not The Master of Suspense.)

But in the story, it doesn’t quite work, does it?  If Carole’s old man knows in advance that’s the plan, and he has gone to the law, there’ll be cops lying in wait beneath the highway, as well as above.  Now as it happens, for purely self-centered reasons Carole herself foresaw, her father never did call the cops, so it all worked out fine (for her), and maybe it’s just her way of lulling her captors off guard, or she’s actually having fun planning her own kidnap, as she used to fantasize doing–but either way, it’s a plot hole, since Howie at least should spot the logical flaw that they’d have to tell Dr. Butler where to drop the money before he left the house with it.  No mention of any phone in his car.

Phones in private limos began to become a thing in the 50’s, but only the very rich had them.  Carole’s dad isn’t that flush (no chauffeur), and is clearly a bit of a skinflint anyway.  By the 70’s, they were less of a big deal, service was pretty good, and a partner in a big law firm might have one just to do business while being driven around.  Still rare enough that even the FBI didn’t have much expertise in putting a trace on one (though they would have other ways of tracing where the money went).

And so the Richard Stark of Dortmunder’s universe writes a novel called Child Heist, that Andy Kelp discovers doing a short stretch in a county lock-up.   In this ersatz escapade, Parker and his cohorts figure out how to make the highway drop work for them–find a vantage point where they can watch for limos entering Manhattan, scope out one that is regularly transporting a rich kid in and out of the city, that also has a mobile phone line. Then tell whoever’s coughing up the ransom to use that car when setting out with the money.  They’ll get in touch along the way.

(It’s never explained how they got the number, since that chapter of the nonexistent novel isn’t included in Jimmy the Kid) but given the relatively small number of mobile lines in a given area, probably not that hard, and why quibble if you’re having fun?)

The cops won’t have enough time to get their Duckbundys lined up (if you read the book, you’ll see what I did there), and by the time they figure out what’s happening, the gang will have the money, and return the kid unharmed, because that way the law doesn’t come after them as hard and parents don’t write angry letters to ‘Richard Stark.’  Another perfect score by Parker!

(Except I have to wonder why the fictional Parker of Dortmunder’s dimension doesn’t have problems with double-dealing accomplices, lousy drivers, unstable significant others, unforeseeable snafus, etc.  Nothing goes wrong, everybody does his job right.  It sounds kind of humdrum and routine, just another day at the office, a clockwork kidnap, but that’s what Kelp loves about it.  And Westlake loves sending up his own alter-ego.)

So this fixes the problem in Block’s story, while creating many more to throw in the path of Dortmunder & Co. Whatever seems straighforward in Parker’s world is fraught with frustration in Dortmunder’s.  Like what if the frightened father is also a confirmed workaholic, and you didn’t tell him to keep the line free?

At the Burger King, Murch’s Mom dialled the operator, and yelled, “I want to call a mobile unit in a private car!”

“Well, you don’t have to yell about it,” the operator said.

“What?”

“You have trouble on your line,” the operator said. “Hang up and dial again.”

“What? I can’t hear you with all these motorcycles!”

“Oh,” said the operator. “You want to call a mobile unit?”

“What?”

“Do you want to call a mobile unit?”

“Why do you think I’m putting up with all this?”

“Do you have the number?”

“Yes!”

Harrington was saying. “Now in the matter of that prospectus. I think our posture before the SEC is that while the prospectus did speak of home sites, it does not at any point say anything about a community. A community would necessarily imply the existence of available water. A home site would not. Country retreat, weekend cottage, that sort of thing. Have Bill Timmins see what he can root up by way of precedents.”

“Yes, sir,” said the secretary.

“Then call Danforth in Oklahoma and tell him that Marseilles crowd just will not budge on the three-for-two stock swap. Tell him my suggestion is that we threaten to simply bow out on the railroad end. of it and carry our venture capital elsewhere. If he approves, try and arrange a phone conference with Grandin for nine-thirty tomorrow morning, New York time. If Danforth has a problem, give him my home number, and tell him I should be there in, oh, two hours at the very most.”

“Yes, sir,” said the secretary.

“But the line’s busy!” the operator said.

“Well, try again!” Murch’s Mom said.

(I half-suspect Mr. Westlake scanned some of the Get Smart novels produced in the 60’s by William Johnston, which at times were even funnier than the TV show, featured as a recurring character the snarky operator Max had to deal with whenever he made a call via footwear, and demonstrated how a phone that traveled around with you might not always be an unqualified asset to your endeavors.  But you know, great minds.)

And as is the case with any tightly plotted scheme, even the slightest deviation leads to chaos.   (Also the case with tightly plotted train schedules, as I learned during a trip to Germany.)  A comedy of errors ensues, but I’ve written about that already.

I think the money transfer is Westlake’s way of crediting Block, since nobody who had read both stories could easily miss the parallel there–a sort of backhanded credit, inadmissible in a court of law (since Block probably got the idea from somewhere else also).

But the primary point of influence is between Carole Butler and Jimmy Harrington, who are not at all similar in age, gender, or characterization, but who share nonetheless several key attributes, not least of which a desire to not merely escape their abductors, but to profit from their credulity.  (And of course, each ends up with the ransom money from daddy, though Jimmy by somewhat more honorable means, and at least he left a tip.)

It all plays out very differently, since Westlake’s novel isn’t written for a magazine that specializes in grisly twists, and he will have need of Dortmunder & Co. in future; and it should go without saying nobody in the Dortmunder Gang is having sex with a twelve year old (or anyone, at this stage of the series.)

But for all the cunning variations on a theme, the influence simply can’t be denied.  It is, as they say in over-formulaic British crime fiction, a fair cop.  Westlake borrowed directly from Block.

So.  Did Block know about it?  Did Westlake ask him if it was okay?  Did these men who used to write pseudo-porn together, taking turns writing chapters, routinely steal from each other, and wait gleefully to see if the pilfery was detected?  Remember, these guys both wrote so much, it would be easy for either to forget a story tossed off in a hurry to pay for a kid’s braces or whatever.  But that seems a mite unprofessional for these two.  Is there some other explanation?

I have one–see that little exchange between Dortmunder and May up top?  The first big gag of the novel is that Kelp not only brings an idea for a heist to Dortmunder, but that this time he’s brought a plan to go with it–which is supposed to be Dortmunder’s purview.  Dortmunder is most disgruntled over this.  “Kelp brings a plan to me.”

So suppose Mr. Westlake was grousing over a few bourbons at some disreputable bar & grill (maybe there was a back room) that he was having story problems with this new Dortmunder, having already had the idea of a comic kidnapping inspired in equal part by O. Henry and the Peugeot case, but that’s just an idea for a caper, not the caper itself.  He’s got the premise. Not the plan. Where’s the hook?

And Mr. Block, ever a generous colleague, as well as a competitive one, brought up his own humble effort in this sub-sub-genre (since his kidnapping was also comedic, however dark).  I have speculated that the Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic is at least partly based on the long informal partnership of Westlake and Block. And while there is some of Kelp in Westlake, far more of him is Dortmunder.  So did his Kelp bring a plan to him?   Hmm.

Reading both Block and Westlake, one must always be aware that each scribe read the other’s output assiduously, as did others in their circle.  Westlake penciled in many a gag aimed not at the funny bones of his readership, but those of his poker-faced poker buddies.  See if he could get a rise out of them.  I’m guessing he did pretty well.  And they got a few chuckles in return.

But in this case, being first doesn’t count for much.  The Most Unusual Snatch is a nifty little short that got anthologized a few times.  Jimmy the Kid turned out to be a bit of a phenom, much like its title character.  DonaldWestlake.com lists no fewer than eighteen editions in seven languages (good bet that’s not all).  And there were three film adaptations–Italian, German, and the one with the kid from Diff’rent Strokes.  (Probably they’re all terrible, but it’s the check that counts.)  Not for nothing did Westlake dedicate this one to his agent Henry Morrison, who probably badgered him into doing more Dortmunder books.

I wanted to write this as a companion piece to my previous article, about how Suzuki & Co. stole from Westlake (and a fair few other pulpish writers, no doubt) to make a surrealistic crime movie.  Much as I don’t think Westlake would have been offended, it was still unacknowledged borrowing (had to be, since there was no money in the budget to buy up the adaptation rights, or even time to negotiate for them across an ocean and a language barrier).  And of course these two masters of noir never met, so there was no winking going on in either direction.

But the reason I’m sure Westlake would have given Suzuki a pass had he known was that he knew all good storytellers steal.  It’s how you do it that matters; whether you add something of yourself to the mix.  Suzuki and his collaborators did that, and so did Westlake here (rather better, I think).  Stolen plot elements can become remarkably personal expressions, so long as you don’t get all your loot from the same bank.  Ideas are just building blocks.  Put them together in your own way, and see what happens.  Make it an unusual snatch.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, Jimmy The Kid, Parker Novels

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

Review: The Duplicate Keys, Part 4: The Crafty Coens Try the Hat On for Size

millerscrossing-wallpaper

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Tom Reagan: Don’t think so hard, Eddie. You might sprain something.

Eddie Dane: Except you ain’t. I get you, smart guy. I know what you are. Straight as a corkscrew. Mr. Inside-Outski, like some goddamn Bolshevik picking up his orders from Yegg Central. You think you’re so goddamn smart. You join up with Johnny Caspar, you bump Bernie Bernbaum. Up is down. Black is white. Well, I think you’re half smart. I think you were straight with your frail, I think you were queer with Johnny Caspar… and I think you’d sooner join a ladies’ league than gun a guy down. Then I hear from these two geniuses they never even saw this rub-out take place.

Frankie: Boss said to have him do it. He didn’t say nothing about…

Eddie Dane: Shut up! Or maybe you still got too many teeth. Everyone is so goddamn smart. Well, we’ll go out to Miller’s Crossing… and we’ll see who’s smart.

Ned Beaumont leaned forward. Muscles tightened in his lean face. The wrapper of his cigar broke between his fingers with a thin crackling sound. He asked irritably: “Did you understood what I said?”

Madvig nodded slowly.

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“He was killed.”

“All right,” Madvig said. “Do you want me to get hysterical about it?”

Ned Beaumont sat up straight in his chair and asked: “Shall I call the police?”

Madvig raised his eyebrows a little. “Don’t they know it?”

Ned Beaumont was looking steadily at the blond man. He replied: “There was nobody around when I saw him. I wanted to see you before I did anything. Is it all right for me to say I found him?”

Madvig’s eyebrows came down. “Why not?” he asked blankly.

Ned Beaumont rose, took two steps towards the telephone, halted, and faced the blond man again. He spoke with slow emphasis: “His hat wasn’t there.”

“He won’t need it now.” Then Madvig scowled and said: “You’re a God-damned fool, Ned.”

Ned Beaumont said, “One of us is,” and went to the telephone.

‘We weren’t thinking so much of gangster pictures, just novels,’ Joel says of the influences on Miller’s Crossing.  The prime influence was Dashiell Hammett, whose work Joel says uses the gangster genre as a vehicle to talk about people.  ‘In Hammett, the plot is like  big jigsaw puzzle that can be seen in the background.  It may make some internal sense, but the momentum of the characters is more important.’  The production notes for Miller’s Crossing acknowledge the influence of Hammett’s 1929 noel Red Harvest (the one that gave Blood Simple its title) on the Coen’s script.  However, there is no mention of another Hammett novel, 1931’s The Glass Key, whose central character, Ned Beaumont, is the right-hand man of Paul Madvig, the boss of a corrupt city….The similarities between The Glass Key and Miller’s Crossing have sometimes been overstated: some have suggested that the Hammett estate could have sued for plagiarism.  It isn’t the same story, but a number of similar characters are present and the relationship between Ned Beaumont and Paul Madvig is very similar to that between Tom and Leo.

From Coen Brothers, by Eddie Robson.  (Emphasis added.)

Tom: Friendship’s got nothing to do with it.

Leo: The hell you say. You do anything to help your
friends. Just like you do anything to kick your
enemies.

Tom: Wrong, Leo. You do things for a reason.

Caspar: We all know you you can be useful to us, a smart kid such as yaself, the man who walks behind the man, who whispers in his ear.

…Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.

So what’s the rumpus?

After I got interested in Westlake through the Parker novels, I read The Mercenaries. I knew it wasn’t close to his best work, nor was it typical of most of his output, which could be attributed to it being his first real attempt at a book he’d want his name on. Killing Time, his second crime novel, was likewise a bit of an outlier, but I knew why that was. He was rewriting Red Harvest, making a new story out of it, with a different point. I’d read that, so wasn’t hard to spot.  I’ll be rereading it pretty soon.  Still seeking the screenplay adaptation Westlake did of it years later.  I think of funny things to do.

As I read my way through other crime fictioneers (Parker proved to be a bit of a gateway thug), I would stumble across some earlier book that told the same basic story as The Mercenaries.  “Ah-hah!” says I, “I’ve found his influence!”

But then I’d find another.  And yet another.  Ranging from 1949 through 1960.  Mob novels about a fixer and his boss, usually tragic in nature.  And with the exception of Rabe, from authors who didn’t write much about organized crime. Was this some kind of nervous condition they went through?  St. Valentine’s Day Dance?

I read The Glass Key recently, because I got interested in exploring Hammett as a way of understanding his aptest pupil.  And it worked–because that was the influence, on Westlake and all the others who wrote some version of this story.  (Hammett being the ultimate gateway thug.)

But while registering its influence on all these other mystery writers I liked, I didn’t think The Glass Key was all that good.  Except for the parts that are great, naturally.  Great dialogue, great atmosphere, great premise–it pulls you in–then pushes you away.  Too many red herrings.  Too many dead end plot threads.  Too much that doesn’t work, obscuring all the things that do.  And, as I said a while ago, the female characters in particular are weak.  Contrary to what some critics have said, Hammett could write great women.  This time, he didn’t.

My significant other just read it herself, after recently devouring the Op stories and novels, the way she once devoured the Parker novels, and with the same enthusiasm.  I never told her my reaction, she didn’t read my review, and she came to the same conclusion.  Without the need to bloviate incessantly about it. Her talents lie elsewhere.

All the pieces are there for a great novel, maybe Hammett’s best, as he sometimes claimed it was–but it doesn’t hang together right. Hammett had found something new, something important, but for whatever reason,  he never had a firm grip on the material.  It got away from him, like a fedora blown into the woods.  It’s his worst novel.  And perhaps his most surreptitiously imitated. Why is that?

Funny thing–Ned Beaumont, going by the book, sounds a lot like Hammett  himself in his 30’s, when he was working as a private cop.  Tall, dark, thin, mustached, physically a bit frail, temperamentally a bit fey, but still tough, determined, relentless, sardonic–and observant–about clues, and about people.  Loyal to the crew he worked for, yet troubled about it, finally walking away from it, never to return.

Hammett looked nothing at all like The Continental Op or Sam Spade, superior protagonists in superior novels.  Nick Charles does resemble Hammett a bit, but an older sadder wiser Hammett (married to an urbane young heiress he based on Lillian Hellman), who has lost his life’s work, and can’t get over it.  And Hammett created nothing of note after he wrote The Thin Man. Life tragically imitating art.

I got the notion lodged in my noggin that there had to be a reason there were all these books that were based on The Glass Key, yet diverging from it on crucial points.  And my answer to this mystery was that these writers liked the story, and its confusing criminal combatant, but saw problems with both, and as a creative (and commercial) exercise, set about trying to make them come out right.  To fix the fixer.  (Implicit puns are such a joy; why do I keep spoiling the fun by making them explicit?)

So having worked my way through all the duplicate keys I knew of in book form, I knew it was time to get to the one that wasn’t a book.  The one that some of  my comments sections regulars have been raving about for years, and when I made faintly unenthused remarks, based on bits and pieces I’d seen while channel-flipping, demanded I give it a fair trial before I hung it.

I watched the DVD.  Jury’s in.  I was wrong.  Miller’s Crossing is a great film, that richly deserves its avid cult following.

But you don’t need me to tell you that.  That isn’t the mission statement here. I could probably grow old(er) and gray(er) pouring over books and online articles about Miller’s Crossing.  It’s that kind of movie.  But this is not a blog about movies, unless they in some way impinge on Westlake.  The Coens are over-analyzed.  He isn’t.

I’m am neither going to review Miller’s Crossing, nor synopsize it.  It’s been done.  To death, even.  (There will, needless to say, be major plot spoilers because that’s how Freddie rolls.)

But I am interested in comparing and contrasting it to all the duplicate keys that came before, and most of all the Master Key.  Because make no mistake, this is a movie that is, in every sense–in the very best sense–a remix of a book.  Hammett’s book.  Just that book.  No other.  Oh there’s a few other tips of the hat to other things Hammett wrote, but The Glass Key is the only source worth mentioning.  Chopped up into pieces,  rearranged, retooled, remastered, and edited down into a story that works far better than Hammett’s.  You heard me.  They fixed the fixer.

That opening scene everybody thinks is a reference to the opening of The Godfather?  It’s a reference to the scene where Madvig and Shad O’Rory face off, disguised as a reference to The Godfather.  Later in the film, Tom talks to a guy named Shad on the phone, and says about Leo’s hitting Caspar’s club “It’ll mean killing” just like Shad says at the meeting, only it’s bunched in with a lot of other words.  (But still spoken in a deadly soft lilting brogue–that interestingly, the Coens didn’t want Byrne to use, but he talked them into it.)

That closing scene everybody thinks is an  homage to the The Third Man?  That’s a deliberate inversion of the concluding scene from The Glass Key, and I’m not convinced Joel Coen even thought about Carol Reed when shooting it.  (Possible Reed was thinking of Hammett while making The Third Man.  That film does, after all, have a quixotic American pulp fiction author as its detective/hero, and is about a doomed friendship.)

Obviously the Coen style, the Coen ethos, is different, and any Prohibition-era gangster story told decades after Prohibition is going to be a lot more self-conscious and artsy, the tropes all fossilized, exaggerated (that was my main beef with the film before, but in retrospect, I must admit–they make it work for them.)

Like all the keymakers before them, they’re out to improve, not imitate.  I don’t claim it’s the same story.  Even deliberate plagiarists never write the same exact story.  That’s not how plagiarism works.  That being said, if the Coens ever had been dumb enough to say “Yeah, we got a lot of ideas from The Glass Key, what of it?” they would have been leaving themselves open to a lawsuit from Hammett’s heirs, whoever they were in 1990.  It’s that close.  It’s that blatant.  It’s that unapologetic.

It’s that respectful–they didn’t have to name Bernie Bernbaum after Bernie Despain, to name just one example out of seeming hundreds.  They didn’t have to keep referring to hats (the word hat appears at least 70 times in Hammett’s book, and in the title of a key chapter).

It’s an honest caper they’re pulling here.  Barely a scene passes without some reference to the source material.  They want you to know.  They want you to know they want you to know.  But they know that cineastes, amateur and pro alike, will assume they’re doing movie homages, even when they say they’re basing this entirely on novels. And will take them at their word when they say the Hammett novel they drew on was Red Harvest.  

The way plagiarism law works, you almost need a written confession to get a conviction.  Why else would Westlake call Dig My Grave Deep ‘a second rate gloss’ of The Glass Key, but never once mention his first novel, The Mercenaries, was glossy and glassy itself?  Because nobody could sue Peter Rabe on the basis of another man’s opinion, however well-informed.  It has to come from the horse’s mouth.  Far as I know, that’s the only time Westlake ever mentioned The Glass Key.  I’d say there was some encoded self-criticism there.  His hand points one way, his eyes another.

Far as those production notes mentioned up top go, Red Harvest is a red herring.  That’s a movie homage, all right–to Kurosawa, avowing with a straight face (I can’t very well say inscrutable) that he didn’t base Yojimbo on Red Harvest, but was somewhat drawing upon a different Hammett novel.  One guess which Hammett novel he said that was. (And somewhere, Sergio Leone grinned to himself, and maybe said something about sauces, geese, and ganders, only in Italian.)

Those cute Coen bastards.  They inverted that too.  They think they’re so damn smart.  Well, I guess they are at that.  But let’s to go out to Miller’s Crossing and find out why they’re so smart.

Miller’s Crossing, like The Glass Key, is mainly about a friendship between two men that irreparably breaks down, but for better-defined reasons, and in a larger social context.  Tom Reagan has been working for Leo O’Bannon for an undefined period of time, during Prohibition, and as in Hammett’s book, what they do straddles the line between corrupt politics and outright gangsterism (which wasn’t so uncommon during Prohibition–at one point Tom makes the toast “To Volstead.”)  Ned Beaumont has only known and worked with Paul Madvig a year.  Which simultaneously makes the depth of the relationship less believable, and its ending less tragic.

There’s no sweet silver-haired mother for Leo.  There’s no vengeful suicidal daughter.  There’s no pretense he could have been what he is so long without having anyone killed, though he only does it as a last resort, mainly in self-defense.  There’s a murder mystery, but Leo’s not a suspect, and it’s peripheral–a small detail in the larger mosaic, that gets solved (by Tom) almost as an afterthought, and nobody really cares.  There’s no upcoming election to worry about, and all of these absences take a lot of unneeded stress off the narrative, free it up, give it more focus, though it does ramble some.

There is a subordinate gangster looking to move up at Leo’s expense, but he’s Italian, and isn’t improbably knocked off by one of his own flunkies (the flunkies had better watch out for him).  And that works better than the subplot involving the upstart Shad O’Rory challenging Madvig (who is no Irishman, but succeeded one, his mentor).

See, Prohibition gangsterism was a true multi-cultural endeavor–everybody was in on it.  But the Italians were the ones moving in, and up.  Taking over.  Creating a national organization, where only Italians were welcome at the very top.

The Irish, independents to the core, were mainly just holding on in various local redoubts, with that stubborn streak for which we are so justly noted–a prolonged rearguard action that went on for generations (reportedly still going on in Boston).

So it works better that you’ve got two Irishmen–one either American-born or got off the boat a long ways back–and another who was raised in the sod (I tell a lie, Byrne’s no culchie and neither’s Tom).  Tom showed up just in time to see the end of Irish dominance in the rackets.  He can’t stop it, but he can slow it down some.  Leo is his friend, but even more, his chieftain, and when an Irishman gives you that kind of loyalty, it’s to the death.  Of somebody.  Possibly a lot of somebodies.

This is key to the story–and the answer to the mystery of what Hammett was getting at to begin with.  Friendships, and most of all deep friendships, are breakable, because they’re based on the compatibility of two personalities, and personalities, most of all complex ones, never stop evolving.  If one friend changes too much, the friendship ends.  But loyalty–that runs deeper.  In some people.

Leo’s in love all right, but not with the silly swooning scion of some sappy supercilious Senator–no social climber Leo.  No, his cap is set for Verna, a delectable dark-haired adventuress, played by a young Marcia Gay Harden, and while she’s the only female character of note in the piece, let me just say–that’s some piece. “Drop dead” is her leitmotif, and she plays it to perfection.  If you don’t like her, you can lump her.  (Or she you, watch the right hook.)

She’s in love with Tom, which matches up nicely with Hammett, but she’s willing to settle for Leo, and the security he can give her.  Tom’s in love with her, but what’s that got to do with the price of hooch?  Trouble is, she comes with heavy baggage, namely her brother.

Bernie Bernbaum is the most important character in the film, other than Tom–much more significant than his bookie namesake in The Glass Key (who vanishes from the plot early on).  Infinitely more twisted and treacherous.  Also Jewish (maybe even practicing, since there’s a rabbi at the end).  Honestly, if two Jews hadn’t made this movie, I’d call Bernie a stereotype, though a damned complex one (and you know, stereotypes are usually dumbed-down, for the benefit of those that go for them).  Played by an Italian, but you know, Brooklyn’s an ethnicity all to itself, and Turturro speaks the lingo like a native, because he is.

But pivotal though he is, you don’t see much of him, and you never see him at all when Tom’s not around.  Do we see him with his sister, who loves and protects him?  With any of his co-conspirators/lovers?  Schmoozing any of the local power-brokers?  Enjoying the local nightlife?  Nyet.

With one brief exception (just so we’ll know he’s not a figment), we only see him alone with Tom, exchanging sardonicisms, matching wits.  A secret sharer, except Bernie’s not much for sharing (though he will tell you things you didn’t need to know, like the time his sister taught him about sex).

Begging for his life in the film’s most famous scene, he makes a lot of the affinities between them.  Both gamblers, though only Bernie makes a living at it.  Neither is a natural-born killer, a tough guy.  There’s different kinds of toughness, we should remember–it’s not always about how hard you hit.  The other hoods in the film are all masters of violence, Leo, Caspar, The Dane.  Tom can’t dish it out for beans, but boy can he take it.  Bernie’s not tough at all, but chutzpah like you wouldn’t believe.

Point is, he and Tom make their living by brains alone.  By manipulating others, by bending the truth, seeing the angles, spotting opportunities, exploiting weaknesses.  The difference–and it’s crucial–is that Bernie’s only loyal to himself.  And he assumes Tom’s the same way.  People without loyalty figure it’s only for rubes, and he knows Tom’s no rube. So it makes sense the final confrontation is between Tom and Bernie, and their parallel yet diverging outlooks.  And ends with a twist even the most twisted guy in the movie can’t see coming.

What makes sense to me is that Bernie is Tom’s doppelganger–a repository of fascinating yet repellent qualities in Ned Beaumont, that the Cohens wanted to make use of, but couldn’t put in a guy who is, after all, the hero of a major motion picture.  That’s why Verna is drawn to Tom, as she has been in the past to her brother–that’s why she can’t kill Tom, even when she thinks Tom killed Bernie.  That’s equally why Tom is drawn to and yet wary of Verna.  She’s more dangerous to him than any of the tough guys, because she’s the ultimate temptation.

By killing Bernie (you remember I warned you about the spoilers) Tom’s not committing murder, but killing the dark half of his own soul.  Winning the battle to be himself without all the moral compromises.  He loses Verna, but that’s a price he’s ready to pay.  At the end, he’s walking away from this poisoned town (yeah, there’s some Red Harvest there) clean and unencumbered–free at last.

Ned Beaumont is a very twisted person, for all his loyalty and guts.  One problem with The Glass Key is that the book can’t seem to make up its mind about him.  He does some despicable things in the course of his story, and they don’t seem to bother him that much.    Not that he’d admit it if they did.

Yeah, that’s true of the Op, and Sam Spade, maybe even Nick Charles, but Ned’s a different order of heel–and yet he’s the hero.  It’s a norm-shattering conception–the genesis of the modern crime novel, one might argue, with its frequently amoral protagonists, its jarring twists and turns–but Hammett couldn’t commit to it enough to make it work.  Because, we may suppose, he was getting so close to his own demons there that he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger on his own doppelganger.  (Or, if you want to go full Dorian Gray, slash the picture.)

I reread The Glass Key this past week, and I liked it a bit more, understood it better, having worked my way through all these variations on its themes. But I still ended up feeling that Hammett never achieved anywhere near the full potential latent there.

I’d suspect the Cohens could have easily enough gotten the rights to do another film based directly on it–why didn’t they?  I mean, they remade The Ladykillers as a southern gothic, and True Grit as a somewhat more faithful adaptation of the original novel (that somehow doesn’t work for me like the original).  They’ve never been afraid to do that kind of thing.  (In the case of The Ladykillers, they should have been, as some things simply can’t be improved upon.)

Why not here?  Because the original couldn’t be fixed.  Not in its original form. But it could be remixed.  Broken into its component elements, melted down, recast into a new form, where the same basic points could be made more cleanly, without all the irrelevant detritus of a daring concept gone wrong.  The key didn’t break in the lock this time.

I’d say Westlake reworked Hammett even better across his career (much better), but not in The Mercenaries, which was his first attempt, and maybe a bit too concerned with rejecting the very idea of Ned Beaumont–reminding us that the guys who fix things for criminal bosses (the Cohens and the Kellys, if you know what I mean) aren’t people we need waste many tears on, and don’t think I’m not seeing the stark truth in that lately.

It was impossible for Westlake, the Poet of the Independents, to identify with an organization man–however, even the most independent filmmakers have to be organization men and women to some extent–they all have studio bosses who sign their checks, and they can’t do their work without a whole lot of collaboration, often with people they don’t like or even trust much (and for good reason).  So makes sense they’d bond more with the story, have a better sense of how to get it across.

And as happens far too rarely in the movies (and Hollywood movies at that), all the pieces came together–as much by happenstance as by design.  The perfect casting picks just happened, even when they weren’t the original picks.  Little flaws in the early screenplay drafts were ironed out.  Everybody helped everybody else.  Nothing was left in the end but what needed to be there. Nothing was explained too much.  Leaving us to find our own explanations, which is what I’m doing here, and I think I’ve done it enough now.  You don’t need me for that.  Explain it yourself.

A story that had been told and retold, never quite achieving its ideal form, was finally told right.  And could blow away into the woods, its purpose achieved.  No more about it. (Except maybe in the comments section.)

51dbc-cryyy2bmiller

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake short stories, Parker Novels

Addendum: The Mystery of Joseph Albert

“I’ll carry the message,” Meany said.

“Yes, you will,” Parker agreed.  “On the floor.”

“I’ll carry it now!  I’ll make a phone call!”

“Who to?

Meany licked his lips.  His elbows were twitching back and forth from the strain of holding his hands together on top of his head.  “One of the owners,” he said. “A guy that can make the offer.”

“What’s his name?”

Meany didn’t like doing this, but he knew he had no choice.  “Joseph Albert.”

Parker looked at Arthur.  “Do you know that name?”

From Firebreak, by Richard Stark.

“You look more like your mother than your father,” he said.

Then I got it.  “You’re a lying son of a bitch,” I said.

“You look a lot more like her. I know.  I see your father in the mirror every morning.”

I laughed at him.  “You’re crazy, or you think we are.  Or are you just wisecracking again?”

“It’s true,” he said.

Bill said, “What the hell’s going on?”

From 361, by Donald E. Westlake.

I’ve written my last Stark review.  (Unless there’s some unpublished manuscript out there, awaiting rediscovery.  I think we’d know by now.)  Not my last Stark analysis by a long shot.  There will always be more to say about an author that interesting, even if he was just one voice within the convoluted cranium of Donald Edwin Westlake.

But I did think, after typing out three part reviews of  Firebreak and Dirty Money, that I had at least covered the bases for both those books, plumbed their essential mysteries  Again, I’m forced to say–I was wrong.  I missed the most tantalizing mystery of all.

Throughout the series, starting with The Hunter, Parker had come up against arrogant mob bosses.  Taking money from them, waging wars of attrition upon them, forming alliances of convenience with them, and, more than once, murdering them when they became sufficiently irksome.

Arthur Bronson.  Walter Karns.  Adolf Lozini.  Louis Buenadella.  The excellent character guide for these books maintained at the University of Chicago Press website, glosses over the details a bit when it refers to them all as members of ‘The Outfit.’  Lozini and Buenadella are midwestern mafiosi, aware of The Outfit (still headed by Karns at the time of Butcher’s Moon), loosely affiliated with it perhaps, but not under its sway. Only Bronson, Karns and their various subordinates referred to in the first sixteen novels would count as members of that national syndicate, peddling vice to the masses.

To Parker, I should add, the differences between various criminal organizations are meaningless, semantic–their names are just words these people play with to pretend they’re something more than thieves, like him.  He recognizes them as part of his world, on the same general side of the law as him, and sometimes he has to deal with them. Thorough-going independent that he is, he can never identify with any such group.  His ethos and theirs are diametrically opposed.  In this, Parker represents his creator’s own deep feelings about authority, and more specifically, corporations, legal and otherwise.

The final such enterprise Parker encountered, first in Firebreak, then again in Dirty Money, was Cosmopolitan Beverages, an ‘import/export’ business (another fancy name, this time for smuggling), headquartered in Bayonne NJ, run day to day by Frank Meany, described as a semi-reformed thug wearing expensive suits.

But The Big Boss (one of five, we’re told), is named Joseph Albert.  We never see him,  Parker only talks to him on speakerphone.  We’re told his voice is heavy, guarded.  He sounds educated–doesn’t talk like a thug, reformed or otherwise (we’ll assume his suits are even nicer than Meany’s).  A CEO of crime.  If that’s not too redundant a term.

By the end of Dirty Money, by default the end of his story, Parker has formed yet another alliance of convenience, this time with Cosmopolitan.  He’ll sell them the roughly two million dollars from the bank in Massachusetts,  for 200k in untraceable cash–they can launder the bills overseas.  Gives him money to live on, gives them a little more liquidity.

He attaches one more condition to the deal–they put him on their employment rolls, vouch for him with the straight world, so he can create a new identity for himself, have a driver’s license and passport that will hold up to all but the most intense scrutiny.  A strictly no-show job (mob guys know all about those).  Meany and Albert will be only his nominal bosses–but still–it’s a compromise.  The biggest he’s ever made.

The Information Age is becoming a problem. Forcing him to make difficult choices.  But he never flinches from those.  Without good ID, he’s not going to stay free much longer.  But it suddenly occurs to me–what he’s doing here is not entirely unlike what Mal Resnick did–for very different motives–when he gave all the money he and Parker had stolen together to The Outfit, to regain his position there.

Joseph Albert is briefly referenced in Dirty Money–Meany clears the exchange with him, and reports to Parker that Mr. Albert said that if Meany wanted to cut a deal with a son of a bitch like that, it’s up to him.  In Firebreak, remember, Parker had more than hinted that if Albert didn’t call off the hit on him they’d ordered as a favor to Paul Brock, he’d be putting one out on Albert, after he killed Meany.  And carrying out the contract in person, as usual.  Difficult to say how personally Albert took that threat.  On the phone, he sounded very cold and businesslike.  More of a Karns than a Bronson.

So what would have happened if there had been more novels?  Would this arrangement have held?  There are reasons to doubt it.  Parker has effectively shared his score with them.  Suppose they decide they want a share of subsequent heists?  Suppose they decide he really is their employee?  Suppose they have little errands for him to run?  How much can he say no to, before they tell him play ball or his cover’s blown?  He and Claire can walk away from the house in New Jersey, but it would be harder for him to walk away from his new name (whatever it is).

You have to figure there would be some kind of showdown.  Perhaps not as sanguinary as the previous wars.  But when Parker has a problem with middle management, he always wants to go straight to the top.  And that’s not Meany.  That’s Albert.  Interesting name, that.  Joseph Albert. Is that the whole moniker, or just first and middle?  You know, like Sinatra was sometimes called Francis Albert.

I don’t know how I missed this for so long.  Granted, when I started reading these books, I  had almost no background info on their author.  But it’s been a few years since I learned the name of Westlake’s father.  Albert Joseph Westlake. That’s right.

And I also learned that after Albert Joseph’s death, Westlake discovered his father knew people in organized crime, back during the Prohibition era. He may, in fact, have done accounting work for bootleggers.  You know.  People who smuggle alcoholic beverages, among other things.  Import/Export.  A very cosmopolitan trade, I’ve heard.

So shall we chalk this up to coincidence, or a private joke?  I don’t think so.  He’s telling us something.  He knows most of his readers won’t twig to it, but he thinks some of us will (I doubt I’m the first).  The Parker novels aren’t whodunnit mysteries (The Jugger being a partial exception), but mysteries they are, all the same.  Mystery writers give you clues.  It’s up to you to put the pieces together.  To look underneath the surface of things.  These books were never just about stealing and killing.

But what is this about?  Was Parker headed for an “I am your father” moment?  Pretty sure he turned to the dark side a long time ago.  The supreme mystery of the series–the one we never got close to solving–was where did someone as strange as Parker come from in the first place?

We know he served in the army during WWII in his early teens, going by his age when we meet him (and this is something that happened a lot more than people think).  We know he got dishonorably discharged after getting involved in the black market, and that it didn’t bother him one bit.

We know he lived in cities when he was younger, never felt at home there.  We know he got involved with armed robbery somehow, after the war.  We know he got married, that he was in love with his wife, but that he lost all interest in sex a few months after he pulled a job, only to have his libido ramp back up again after he pulled another.  That’s it.  He is never seen to think about anybody he knew before all that.  He doesn’t have any tattoos (unless you count bullet wounds), but if he did, you can bet none of them would say “Mother.”

His alternate universe mirror twin, John Dortmunder, was found abandoned at the door of a convent, when only a few minutes old.  Raised by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery.  So did something comparable (but utterly devoid of comic overtones) happen to Parker?  Only without the nuns, or a long stretch in prison?  Is that why he had to grow up so fast? Or was he ever really a kid at all?  Who–or what–could have given birth to such an unaccountable creature?  Who could have fathered him? Being a foundling doesn’t explain him in the least. Maybe nothing could.

The Hunter was written more or less in tandem with 361, the best of Westlake’s early crime novels, before he became known more for comic capers under his own name.  (Both books feature the George Washington Bridge in their opening chapters.)  It’s a taut little noir masterpiece, about a young man named Ray Kelly, just out of the army, who finds out the man he sees as his father wasn’t always an honest lawyer–he used to work for a mob boss.  The mob boss, named Kapp, is Ray’s biological father.  Who tries to make the protagonist accept him as his true father.  Doesn’t go well.

Ray’s mother killed herself, when he was very young.  The mobster tells him she was–different.  She married Ray’s foster father first, had a son with him.  Motherhood brought something out of her, something Kapp couldn’t quite describe, something that attracted him, so he took her, and she went, willingly.  Ray looks like her, he’s told–and he’s like her in less obvious ways.  He has his father’s brains, drive, genius for criminal intrigue, and violence comes naturally to him–but he’s not a joiner.  Not an organization man.  Independent to the core.

And he wants the truth, at all costs.  He wants to know about himself, even if it means destroying every last vestige of his old identity.  He’s telling us all this in first person narrator form.  And we still feel like he’s not really sharing with us.  Always holding back.  A stranger on this earth, as much as anyone Camus (or Dinah Washington) ever imagined.

It’s not hard to divine that 361 was part of how Westlake dealt with mixed feelings about his family.  The man who raised Ray Kelly clearly loved him, was loved in return.  As Westlake was loved by the man who got him out of trouble, when he was caught stealing equipment from a college laboratory for pocket change.  Then apologized to his son for not being able to give him everything he needed in life. But is that all there was to the relationship?  Gratitude and guilt?

Albert Joseph Westlake worked very hard, kept his own counsel.  On the road for business, he felt a heart attack coming on, checked into a hotel, drank cheap liquor until it had passed.  When he lost his job, he went out day after day, as if he was still employed, keeping it from his wife and children for months.  Because that’s what he thought a man does.  Whatever he may or may not have done for bootleggers–that wasn’t something he ever shared with his son, and his wife didn’t know much about it either–just that a well-known gangster once approached him, addressed him as Al.

Westlake had his doubts about this way of living, but he could respect it.  What he couldn’t do was accept the life his father had chosen–whether it was working for a company or a mob.  He was going to work for himself, hew to a different path.  His father never lived to see him succeed on that path.  Is it likely the father had nothing to say about the pragmatic drawbacks of the career choice his son had made?

With rare exceptions (Up Your Banners comes to mind) Westlake never wrote too much about parent/child relationships.  He came at them obliquely, for the most part.  So yes, I think this is another case of that sideways glance at his own childhood–feeling his father never was honest and open with him.  Feeling abandoned at times by a mother who worked constantly herself.  Feeling like a cuckoo in the nest. Different. Odd.

But at the end of the day–and Dirty Money was written at the very end–hadn’t Westlake ultimately spent his life working for corporations?  Literary agencies, publishers, film studios.  Yes, freelance work.  What’s the difference?  It still amounts to giving the bosses what they want in exchange for the money to support yourself and your loved ones.  He was more creative than his father, sure.  More independent.  Lots richer. But in his mind, Albert Joseph Westlake still loomed over him.  As fathers tend to do, all the more in death.

What was going to happen? Is Joseph Albert literally Parker’s long lost sire, or just a sly subtextual metaphor for Donald Edwin’s conflicted emotions regarding Albert Joseph?  Could be both.  Not neither.

Would Parker have been forced to go to war with Albert, to kill him, or be killed by him?  Would he declare independence once more, or would he be drawn further in for a time, as Ray Kelly was?  Would we at least find out who his mother was?

Remember Quittner, from Butcher’s Moon?  Somebody like Parker, it’s implied–who had joined a criminal syndicate, surrendered his independence.  And over time, this compromise had eaten away at his sense of self.  Made him a shadow of the wolf he was born to be.  Unable to cope with the wilder freer version of himself he was confronted by in Tyler.  If it could happen to him, it could happen to Parker too.  But would Stark allow that?  Could he prevent it?  The romanticism of the earlier books was, as I’ve already mentioned, starting to wear thin in the latter ones.

I think no matter how many more Parker novels Westlake had written, we’d never have gotten all the answers.  But as matters worked out, we got none.  Just a question that was never asked out loud.  Who is Joseph Albert?  And why, when Meany comes to him with Parker’s offer, does he say (according to Meany), “If you want to deal with a son of a bitch like him, it’s okay with me”?

Technically any male wolf–well, I’m reading too much into it.  I do that sometimes.  But the mystery remains.  Everyone in this world faces the same mystery.   Who was my father?  Who was my mother?  That relationship can span most of our lives.  We can love them, hate them, condemn them, forgive them, ignore them.  Do we ever know them?  And if not, do we ever really know ourselves?

Search your feelings.  You know it to be true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

I guess because of scenes like this–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WILLIAM-SMITH-8

WILLIAM-SMITH-2

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

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

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

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

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

That’s right.

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

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

Mr. Parker and The Casting Call

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s run them down, one by one.

LEE MARVIN AS WALKER IN POINT BLANK (1967):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JIM BROWN AS McCLAIN IN THE SPLIT (1968):

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

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

I mean, was this really necessary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROBERT DUVALL AS MACKLIN IN THE OUTFIT (1973):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Marvin,–

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

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

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

MEL GIBSON AS PORTER IN PAYBACK (1999)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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