Category Archives: Screenplays by Donald E. Westlake

First Read: Forever And A Death

The last Donald E. Westlake novel ever published.  Is what this is going down as.  Whatever its merits as a book may be, that one quality eclipses all others.  If you, like me, have developed a habit, worked your way through everything else on the list, once you’ve read this one, it’s over.  No more Westlake.  Okay, there’s sleaze paperbacks of variously dubious provenance, there’s uncollected short stories, there’s nonfiction articles, and there’s an archive in Boston you could visit under close guard, or possibly break into late at night; rather fitting, when you think about it.   But really.  This is it.

So is it any good?  To the true completist, this question can seem fairly inconsequential.  Mr. Westlake wrote far too many books for all of them to be polished gems, and he knew that better than anyone.  That so many of them are good, and often much more than that,  attests to his abilities, but I’d say an even more telling testimonial is how avidly many of us read even his less distinguished work, because on his very worst day he was capable of producing unique thought-provoking stories, and the more we read, the better we understand him.  His failures often tell us more than his successes.  But this, I would say, is neither.   Or maybe it’s both.  Somewhere in between.

I’m not here to review it this time, because first of all, I never review a Westlake novel I haven’t read at least twice.  The way I review these books is to take them apart, piece by piece, looking in depth at the story and characters, typing out quote after quote, so that (I like to think) if all copies of that book were to disappear, you could get a pretty good feeling for it just from my review.

I have said in the past that nobody should come here and read my reviews if they haven’t read the books first.  Well, hardly anyone has read this one, because it isn’t on sale until June.  I got an advance reviewer’s copy from Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime.  I will not abuse that confidence.  Not until several months after the book comes out.  Not until you at least have been given the option of reading it.  I mean, it’s not going to be much of a discussion if it’s just me and Greg Tulonen, and Greg hasn’t read the edited for publication version yet, I don’t think.

The sole point of getting an advance copy (other than impatience) is to write a review, so that people can decide whether or not they want to read the book.  That’s never really been what TWR is about, since if you’re here, you’re already hooked.  You don’t need me to tell you a new Westlake is a big deal.  You don’t need me to decide what books you want to buy.  But you might still be interested in what I think.  God knows why.

Let me talk first about the actual physical volume, which is what I read.  A glossy paperback, eight inches high, five across, and one thick.  463 pages, but just 435 of those are the book itself, so it’s not his longest novel by any means.  Westlake’s original 610 page manuscript has been trimmed down by about 10%, according to Ardai–mainly repetitive material, descriptions of restaurants, some local history relating to the various settings.  Things that needed to be more fully digested into the narrative as a whole, and probably could have been if Westlake hadn’t been discouraged from doing any more work on the book, and if he’d had a sympathetic editor to work with.

There is a substantial and fascinating afterward from Jeff Kleeman, the producer who hired Westlake to write several story treatments for the project that eventually became Tomorrow Never Dies.  Because, as he tells us right upfront, he was as avid a fan of Westlake novels as he was of 007 yarns as a kid.  He wanted to see how the two would go together.  Better than one might think, not as well as one might hope, is the short answer.

I’d have bought this book just for his description of Westlake’s creative process, and this I absolutely must quote from.  If he ever gives up on this major motion picture producing gig, Mr. Kleeman would make a passing good book blogger.

I’m fascinated by how ideas take shape and how writers write.  Some writers outline extensively, some start with an ending and work backward, some write a bunch of scenes in no particular order and with no obvious connection and then eventually pick a few of the best and build a story around them.  None of these were Don’s method  He relied on what he called “narrative push.”

Don would get an idea, usually for a beginning, an opening scene, something like, “What if there’s a bank robbery in progress and the getaway car can’t find a parking space in front of the bank? (This was the idea Don said was the spark for writing the first of his Dortmunder novels.)  Don would start from a premise like that and just write, without any plan for where he was going, trusting that eventually he’d end up with a story.  He told me there was only one story he ever started that he couldn’t puzzle out a way to finish.  It involved insurance fraud and after six weeks Don realized he’d written his characters into such a tight corner he was unable to keep them moving all the way to a resolution.  I hope one day Hard Case Crime will unearth the manuscript and we’ll get to see Don’s version of an impossible story.

Pretty sure Mr. Westlake was referring to The Scared Stiff, which he started writing after he finished The Ax, put aside, then published under a pseudonym in 2002, and I’ll be unearthing my copy soon enough so I can review it.  That’s about insurance fraud, and it’s another one of his books he was sort of cordially advised not to proceed with by people he trusted, because it wasn’t what people expected of him.   Maybe he was talking about an earlier attempt in this vein, but the dates match up pretty well, and how many insurance fraud novels was he going to write?

So as Kleeman explains, he loved the ideas Westlake came up with, and some were used in the finished film.  Most significantly, Pierce Brosnan owed Mr. Westlake a drink for getting to work with Michelle Yeoh, because it was Westlake’s idea that Bond partner with a female Chinese agent, work with her and then play of course, because Bond James Bond and Westlake Donald Westlake.

But once it became clear that Goldeneye, Mr. Kleeman’s first Bond, was a hit that had given new life to the franchise, and the studio wanted to move ahead fast with the next one, the scheduling got tight, and Westlake’s process didn’t work so well when you didn’t already know in advance exactly what the story would be (like an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel). Kleeman also mentions Westlake’s well known aversion to adapting his own work, which I think was not because he lacked objectivity, but because he didn’t want to mutilate his own children at the passing whims of some suits in Burbank.

They couldn’t know how well his Bond concepts would work until he’d turned them into a script using narrative push, and if the script didn’t work, it’d be too late to try again, and pre-production costs would keep accumulating.  So that’s why Westlake didn’t write the screenplay for Tomorrow Never Dies, and if you look closely at what we’re being told here, you can see why he never really clicked as a screenwriter, except on very specific types of projects, where his process could be made to work.  A writer on a studio picture is not a freelance artist for hire.  He’s a (very well paid) cog in a machine.  Ask Faulkner and Fitzgerald, neither of whom ever wrote a decent script in their lives.  (Ever see Land of the Pharaohs?) 

So there’s plenty more from Kleeman, and it’s all worth reading, but that’s just the dessert.  The book is the main course, and the book came about because Westlake had developed this idea that he knew the producers wouldn’t use, and he felt like it had potential.  There was no script, but there was a treatment he could turn into a novel.

He’d done something like this before, twice.  First time with Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, where the film had never been made, and he’d retained the rights.  That was probably his weakest novel–I think there actually was a finished script there, and he’d been taking a lot of notes from the producers no doubt, and trying to tailor it to the rather puerile standards of Mid-60’s light comedy.   It was probably not a strong script to begin with, and he struggled getting it to work as a book, but good bet it was better than the movie would have been.

Second time, he wrote the original screenplay for Cops and Robbers, which was turned into a modestly decent 70’s comedy/thriller, but he thought the director, a former film editor, just didn’t know how to be the boss of everybody, and the many good scenes in it just kind of lie there, instead of jumping off the screen at you.

He’d retained the rights to novelize his screenplay, and he did, and the result was one of his best and most original heist books, very focused and unconventional in its approach.  Much better than the film, which thankfully flopped, so that people who read the book wouldn’t have the masterful plot twists spoiled for them.  You do see a certain incompatibility of interests between Mr. Westlake and Hollywood at times, but they both got something out of the relationship, which is why it never really ended.

So this was his third attempt to turn a film into a book, but unlike the previous two, it wasn’t in the heist genre.  And he was told, respectfully but firmly, by people whose input he valued, that it just wouldn’t sell–which might have been true–and that it didn’t have the patented Westlake touch with regards to character and story–a reaction I can understand, while still not agreeing with it.

It has most of what we read him for, other than his humor, which is on the down low here, and for good reason. But at many points, and particularly in the early chapters, it feels like a preliminary sketch that needs to be filled in.  Well, a preliminary sketch by a famous artist can sell for millions at auction.  Isn’t Donald E. Westlake a famous artist?  And what’s the one thing all famous artists have in common?  Their work gets more valuable after they die.

Honestly, if he had filled it in, he still might not have gotten to publish it.  He’d already had his shot at making this general type of book work, several times. One was Ex Officio, a political thriller, longer and much less action-packed than this, written under the pseudonym Timothy J. Culver (the only one of Westlake’s pseudonyms he publicly killed off, in a mock panel discussion between his most famous literary personas).   I assume that did decent sales, since it was reprinted in paperback–but under the title Power Play, so probably nothing stellar.  It’s also a better book than this–a finished work.  He had good editorial relationships at M. Evans & Co., where many of his best books under his own name would later be published.

He wrote Kahawa under his own name, but I rather suspect Culver had a hand in it, the rumors of his death being much exaggerated.  That was for Viking, where he had terrible editorial relationships, and very little support.  That was at least outwardly a heist story, close enough to his usual fictive haunts that he could get away with making most of it about Africa, about Africans of all races, about various merry wars between the sexes, about brutal venal dictators and those who serve them, about the way we in the west look the other way when it comes to human rights abuses in the third world, because there’s so much money to be made there.  And about identity, because everything he wrote was about that.   It was a book he could be justly proud of.  And it sold like purest shit.

When you write the kind of book that’s supposed to be a best seller, at least close to it–and it isn’t–you are damaging your own professional profile.  As true in publishing as in the movies–you’re only as good as your last project.  Perhaps feeling encouraged by the extraordinary success of The Ax, he wanted to try once more to break out of the confines of what people thought he was.

He’d tried that back in the 80’s with the book that became The Comedy is Finished (again about a celebrity kidnapping, but no comic capering this time), and that became the second novel of his to be published after his death.

Though many disagree, I think it’s one of the best books he ever wrote, a searing look at the political and generational divide in America that existed a long time before the internet and social media, and not just at Woodstock.  And I don’t know it would have done any better than Kahawa if it had been published back when it was written.  Westlake in this vein has a problem–he’s too commercial for the intellectuals, and too damn smart for the people who just want a good read.  (Honestly, sometimes I think he’s too smart for the intellectuals as well.  They’re like “Who does this guy  think he is?”  Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?)

Memory, written in the early 60’s, was his one attempt at a book that didn’t fit any commercial cubbyhole at all, and it’s a dark brooding masterpiece that can haunt you for weeks after reading it, and we’ll never know how many more like that he might have had in him, or whether it would have been worth losing all the books we know him for to find out.   But knowing he had the potential to write that, we can’t help but wonder.

Writers build their own ghettos and live in them.  Westlake wrote genre books, books with a defined audience, never a very large one, but never too small either.  He couldn’t try to write The Great American Novel, as Philip Roth literally did, and it turned out to be about baseball, and it’s not that great, but it’s American.  And a novel.  If Westlake had his agent submit something different to some highbrow publisher like Knopf or FarrarStraussGiroux, what reaction would he get?  “Oh yes, the Dortmunder fellow, very droll, did this get into the wrong envelope somehow?”  Far easier for the highbrow author to explore the genre slums, and so many have, but it rarely works out.  Grass is always greener.

He doesn’t want to let this Bond story he slaved over, did more than his usual amount of research on, go to waste.  And there’s a larger problem he has been trying to crack for ages now, how to write an interesting long novel that isn’t a mystery, and will sell.  This is a story he wrote for James Freakin’ Bond, which should make it commercially viable.  But it can’t be about James Freakin’ Bond.  For obvious legal considerations, but also personal ones.  If you want my honest opinion, Westlake never believed in Bond.  He enjoyed the movies, maybe even some of the novels (I’m guessing there was a lot of tongue-clucking and eye-rolling when he read Fleming), but he never believed in any of it.

Not because of the gadgets, or the glamor, or the girls, or the utter disregard for gravity, but because Bond is an Organization Man.  He’s the Organization Man.  He can twit his superiors from now ’til Doomsday (which in his world comes every other week).   Doesn’t mean a thing.  He puts on a suit, and he goes to the office, and he flirts with the secretary, and he does what he’s told.  He kills on command.  He’s not a Westlake hero.  He never could be.  Doesn’t mean he’s not interesting.  He’s interesting the way Batman is interesting (and Westlake liked Batman too, almost wrote for the comic once).  But you know who’d be much more interesting to Donald E. Westlake than Bond himself?  Bond villains.

The thing about Westlake heroes is that none of them are, really.  Heroes.  Oh there are exceptions, but always very qualified and somewhat self-conscious ones, and even in those stories, the bad guys are usually a lot more interesting.  The characters we remember Westlake for are thieves, killers, cads, rogues, rascals.  Plus the occasional befuddled naif, picaresquely stumbling into adulthood.  Hard Cases, for the most part (hey, bloggers can do product placement too).

So when these villainous heroes (heroic villains?), who know themselves, come up against out-and-out villains who don’t, the result is predictable.  But suppose ordinary decent people, with considerable courage and some applicable skills, but absolutely no experience with the cloak and dagger shtik, came up against someone who is, for want of a better word, evil–and brilliant–and filthy rich.  And he’s got a plan.  That will make him still richer, and a whole lot of people dead.  A Bond story with a Bond villain–but no Bond.

No SMERSH or SPECTRE either, because Westlake would feel, and rightly so I think, that the most interesting Bond villains in the best stories all worked for themselves.  Auric Goldfinger.  Hugo Drax.  Francisco Scaramanga.  Blofeld was more interesting as a figure lurking Sauron-like in the shadows than as an active antagonist.  Who is this guy?  What’s his motivation?  World domination?  Pfaugh.  No evil scheme Blofeld irrationally blabbed to 007 before once again failing to kill him ever resonated half so well as Goldfinger’s epic rant–

(I can imagine Westlake standing up and applauding, which might have gotten him some odd looks in the theater, but he’d be used to that.)

Shakespeare knew the virtues of a great villain, and so did Lorenzo Da Ponte, and so did John Milton.   A villain of this type is a rebel, after all.  Somebody who refuses to bow to the established order of things.    It may be necessary to thwart him or her, but we can still appreciate the ingenuity of the scheme, the audacity of ambition that inspired it.

Of all Bond villains, Goldfinger is the only one 007 personally compliments.  He’s as delighted with the genius on display as any of us are.  As we are delighted by the fictional Richard III, or Iago.  While still knowing they must, in the end, be done to death.  Though Westlake was notorious for having his villainous protagonists get away with all kinds of things, up to and including the social destruction of an entire anti-social planet.  (See, not even going to give you that much of a spoiler.)

Anarchaos may well be the book most similar to this one in the Westlake canon, and that’s no accident.  Curt Clark is very much in the mix here as well, though this one doesn’t have the noir atmosphere, the hard-bitten first person narrator, ala Hammett.  The name of the villain here is Richard Curtis.  Richard, for Richard Stark.  Curtis, for Curt Clark.  And just as Rolf Malone used carefully placed explosive charges to put an end to the world that murdered his brother–well, that would be telling.

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

So Richard Stark is here, and Timothy J. Culver, and Curt Clark.  I can’t for the life of me detect any Tucker Coe.  The whimsy of Westlake is mainly missing, and I think that’s perhaps at least partly why people who read the manuscript complained that it wasn’t like him.  Of course, he wasn’t planning to publish it as a Westlake.  Knox Burger, his agent of the time, said in a letter Greg Tulonen read, that he was confounded by the pseudonym Westlake had suggested using.  I find myself wondering if the pseudonym might have been Richard Curtis.  Same way the Samuel Holt novels are accredited to Samuel Holt.  The fact that Curtis isn’t the narrator argues against that.  But somehow, one would like to know.

He wanted so much to not have to be Westlake all the time.  To get away from the established perceptions of him as a writer, to be free of that burden of expectations.  The publishing industry simply couldn’t accommodate him in this way any more.  So he put the book aside, and while it’s a finished work, I think we have to say that it’s also an unpolished one.  But in many ways, that just makes it more interesting, to those of us who want to better understand his creative process, and how he was able to write so much, so well, and so multifariously.

I read the early chapters with a slight sense of disappointment.   Then the pace began to build.  I found myself turning the pages faster, needing to know the outcome.  I felt the book was out of balance in some ways, but I wondered if maybe that was the point.  There are many protagonists here, some more interesting than others, none entirely good or evil, all imperfectly knowing themselves, though the two most clearly heroic characters both end up knowing themselves better as the story goes on.  Two of the protagonists are gay, and a couple–and two of the most serious obstacles to Curtis’s plans.  Not comic relief this time.  Well, there is no comic relief this time.

There is an Oddjob, though.  That was maybe the thing I found most fascinating.  We spend quite a lot of time in his head. Westlake must have really liked Goldfinger (he probably got the idea for The Green Eagle Score from it, and greatly improved on it).   Essentially, the improbable and largely mindless henchmen one finds in a Bond story are rationalized here, given souls and motivations and inner lives, comprehensible pragmatic reasons for their loyalty to the main villain (who feels no loyalty to anyone but himself).  But nobody gets to decapitate anybody else with a bowler hat.  Oh well.  Can’t have everything.

Anything else I might say?  Not yet.  Let me read it again, and a while after you’ve all had the opportunity to appreciate what this book has to offer, we’ll come back to it.  And decide how high to rank it.  I honestly don’t think I’ll place it as high as the other two unpublished works we’ve seen since Westlake’s death.  But I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if it outsells both of them.  We’ll see.

And there is a message to it, I think.  Aside from the identity puzzles one always finds in Westlake.  It would read something along the lines of “There are real Bond villains in this ever-changing world in which we live in.  But there is no James Bond.  It’s up to us to stop them.  Or join them.  Or be destroyed and/or ruled by them.  There are no other choices.”


Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark, Screenplays by Donald E. Westlake, Timothy J. Culver

Review: The Grifters

The difference between a movie and a novel is that a movie is just the surface of things, and the meanings and emotions can only be implicit.  Even if somebody stands on screen and says, “I’m in terrible pain at the moment,” you’re simply seeing someone who says “I’m in terrible pain at the moment,” whereas a novel can convince you that you’re really in the presence of someone feeling terrible pain at this moment.  It’s a different intensity, a novel.  Even a shallow novel is “inside” somewhere.

Since a movie is dealing with the surface of things, it’s easiest to start scripts in the instruction manual mode, as if you are doing an instruction manual from which somebody is making a film.  Start with basics–like in painting, where you put the colors on a canvas to convince somebody to get an emotional response–that’s what a basic script is.  You then put on top of that as much meaning and emotion and reality as you can, but what a script really is basically is a set of instructions.  I would never do a novel the same way.

One thing Stephen and I agreed on right away was updating the book.  A story shouldn’t be done “period” unless it is about the period.  There’s no problem with updating Thompson because his people only live in a very narrow world, with each other.  Their whole interest is the emotional struggle between them.  To update it, all you have to do is take their hats off.

Donald E. Westlake, talking to Patrick McGilligan

Donald E. Westlake, as I’ve mentioned many times before, had a long love/hate relationship with Hollywood, and with its primary product.  He’d grown up with movies, he loved movies, he freely admitted to being influenced by many of them.  But the thing about film making is, it’s an inherently collaborative artform, as well as an artform controlled by the people who finance it.  The more stubbornly independent you are, the less you’re going to get done, no matter how much of a genius you are  (Orson Welles alone is proof of that).

Westlake, an independent to his core, aspired to be in total control of his creative output.  That’s an ideal perhaps no successful artist ever fully attains in reality, but you come a whole lot closer with the printed word or the painted canvas than you do with the exposed negative or massed arrays of pixels.  He also aspired to financial solvency.   So what drew him to Hollywood was perhaps in part his fascination with filmmakers and actors, but it was much more the innate economic consequences of three marriages and four sons.

He spent a lot more time writing story treatments, screenplays, teleplays, than was widely known when he was alive.  Many of the projects he worked on never made it to the large or small screen (and in some cases, he ended up wishing they  hadn’t).  But it was mainly work-for-hire, not passion projects.  He was very much a gun for sale, and it often seems to me that he sold out as a screenwriter so he didn’t have to as a novelist.  The novels were what mattered to him.  He might compromise to some extent there as well–writing to the market–but writing on his own terms.  Not what someone else told him to write.

He always stayed aloof from the world of movies, even while observing it and the people who make it work (or fail to work) with rapt fascination, basing many a story on those observations, and above all filling his depleted coffers with its filthy lucre, so he could go back to writing the books he wanted to write, without having to worry so much about whether they’d be bestsellers (as apparently none of them ever were).

Westlake’s financial condition was so tied to the film industry that when a slump in that industry stalled development on a host of projects, he very nearly had to take that dreaded day job he’d been running away from for most of his adult life.  Like teach writing at a university.  Many eminent writers have enjoyed doing this, but to him it meant being an organization man, a mere employee, as opposed doing freelance work for publishers and studios.  Hollywood’s primary purpose, as he saw it, was to keep him solvent so  he could write more novels, and retain his treasured independence.  Thankfully, the crunch didn’t last long, and he was able to remain blissfully jobless to the very end.

But to Westlake, being a professional meant a whole lot more than just doing work for hire.  It meant doing the work, taking pride in your craft.  Whenever he took a job writing a script, he gave it his all –a task complicated by things like incompetent producers, directors who didn’t know how to get the best out of the cast and crew, miscast actors, etc.  And by the fact that (as is true of most screenwriters) the script he wrote was very rarely the script that got filmed.

The one major exception up to this time had been The Stepfather, a very rare instance of a writer who is not also the director having script control on a film–and the results had been impressive.  But still, hardly what you’d call great cinematic art.  Just good original storytelling (which is a rare and precious enough thing in itself).  Westlake was a skeptic about the Cult of the Auteur in movies, but he couldn’t deny that directors are the ones who make movies, even if they need a script to do it.  And I’ve seen no evidence he ever wanted to direct.

I just finished rewatching The Grifters, after also rereading the Jim Thompson novel.  I’ve never seen it in a theater.  This is a movie I remember hearing about when it was released, and when it got four Oscar nominations later on.  As usual for me back then, I paid no attention to who wrote it.  I had seen Stephen Frears’ Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.  But I was by no means a particular fan of Frears.  And I’d never heard of Donald Westlake.  Or Jim Thompson.   I’m pretty damned interested in both of them now.   Frears is a gifted filmmaker, but I’m not all that interested in him.  Well, you can’t be interested in everybody, can you now?   Apart from The Stepfather, the only  Westlake-related flick I have ever seen in a theater remains Mise à sac, the one hardly anybody outside of France has seen.  I like to be different.

It’s a very fine film, The Grifters.  On balance, I can’t call it a masterpiece.  Having now read Thompson’s novel twice, I don’t quite consider that a masterpiece  either, though I’d call it one of his five best books, the others being The Killer Inside Me, The Getaway, Pop. 1280, and South of Heaven (and yeah that last one isn’t on the lists of most other Thompson fans, but most other Thompson fans are wrong)

Thompson didn’t write polished literary gems.  He wrote strange genre-bending books, seething with dark emotions, that you can’t ever fully categorize, or put down until you’ve finished them (he also wrote some real clunkers, very hit or miss).  I feel about him roughly the way Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.) felt about Philip Kindred Dick, a writer to whom Thompson is often compared (because it’s hard to find anybody else to compare to either of them, I guess).  “I don’t know if he’s a great writer or not.  All I know is don’t try to take it away from me.”   

Westlake knew Thompson’s work very well, liked it a lot, saw its very serious shortcomings.  Thompson, he was wont to say, wrote too fast, so that he could hand in a book and get paid (and he knew that kind of writing very well).  It’s one thing to write quickly, but when he came to a problem that needed to be fixed, he wouldn’t rewrite what he’d already written.  He’d just stick in some jury rigged solution and keep going, because that’s how he worked.

Today, that makes him seem very ‘modern.’  His best stuff has dated beautifully, precisely because it’s so rough hewn, unpolished, full of odd unpredictable stylistic stunts (like three word final chapters–“He smelled good.”) that make him seem almost like the Beat Poet of Noir sometimes.  The very fact that he was virtually ignored by the literary establishment for his entire life merely adds to his luster now.  He’s here to stay, like him or not.

And he translates horribly to film–partly because the movies just can’t take him straight-up (neither can most film-goers, which is the problem in a nutshell).   Westlake must have known going in that there are things in Thompson you can’t put on film, not ever.  But he did walk away from this particular project feeling atypically pleased with the work, believing they’d gotten Thompson’s soul on celluloid for the first (and thus far only) time.

What do I believe?   That this film is a powerful flawed attempt to reinvent a powerful flawed book for a very different era than the one it’s set in, and a very different audience than the one it was written for.  And as such, I deeply respect it.  But I like the book much better, in spite of its flaws, and I think Westlake did too.

I believe that was one of the things that pleased him about this movie–perhaps more pleased than he’d ever been with any film he’d been connected with, before or since.  They’d gotten enough of the book in there to bring Thompson to a wider audience, retaining its fundamental meaning, without subsuming the book into the movie, as so often happens.  So he’d done genuinely good work with a talented collective of artists, without betraying (as he’d see it) a fellow wordsmith who hadn’t lived to see his name become a sort of hipster household word.  To him, that was the best possible result of adapting a book into a film.  The book should always take precedence.  Unless it stinks, in which case why are you adapting it?

As so often happens, a failed project led to a successful one (two, in this case).  He’d been working on a screenplay for Volker Schlöndorff, based on Passage of Arms, an Eric Ambler novel.  Schlöndorff enjoyed working with Westlake, but the studio kept sticking its oar in, and he decided to abandon the project, make The Handmaid’s Tale instead.  Not Westlake’s kind of story, so they parted amicably.  But he happened to tell Frears how much fun he’d been having with Westlake on the earlier project, and Frears reportedly said “Well, I’d love to have fun!”  He did.

Frears had some familiarity with the Stark novels, which he thought were very much in line with what he was aiming at for this film (he probably never saw Westlake’s early 60’s work under his own name).  He was under the impression Westlake didn’t write that kind of story anymore–just comic capers.  He screened The Stepfather, and came away thinking that Stark had written that script, not Westlake.  He offered Westlake the job, but wanted the screenplay credited to Stark.  Westlake pointed out that Stark was not a member of the Writer’s Guild, and he was not going to let his alter-ego be a scab.  It must have been a very interesting conversation.

What unites Stark and Thompson is that neither pulls his punches much (there are some lines neither will cross, like harming a small child).  What separates them is that Stark is a romantic, Thompson a fatalist.  Stark wastes a lot fewer words.  Parker would never be a protagonist in Thompson’s world–he’d just walk right out of the book, shaking his head.  If Thompson wrote about someone that amoral, he’d write him in the first person, make him talk to us, tell us what he’s thinking, bring us into his confidence, like Shakespeare’s Richard III.  And the ending would always be tragic.

Stark doesn’t really get tragedy.  See, to be a tragedian, you need to have believed happy endings were possible in the first place.  Westlake put that part of himself on mute when he wrote as Stark.   Stark is much less emotional, though no less bleak.  Also much more disciplined, precise, effective.  Thompson is wilder, more expressionistic, more atavistic, more–literary?  Nobody ever called Stark the ‘Dimestore Dostoevsky.’  I don’t know who’s better, just don’t try to take either of them away from me.

Point is, Frears thought Stark was the man to translate Thompson.  But Westlake hadn’t been able to write as Stark for about fifteen years.  Problematic.

Westlake himself had doubts about whether he was the one to write this, under any name–the book seemingly hit some exposed nerve endings inside him, though much less than The Killer Inside Me, his least favorite of the Thompsons, probably because of what its ‘hero’ does to the women in his life (another dividing line between Stark and Thompson–Parker might kill a woman, but he wouldn’t enjoy it).

Westlake never really wrote much about mothers and sons, and it’s exactly such a relationship which is the emotional center of The Grifters.   Frears told him to not think of the mother as the main character, just write it as a story of survival–one lives, one dies.  It’s still tragic, but it’s about choices.  Westlake could understand that (I’m not so sure I do, since clearly the mother is the main character in that film).  So he took the job.

He took Frears, who had never made a film in America before, on a tour of Los Angeles, a town he’d come to know well over the years.  He showed him Raymond Chandler’s house, in spite of his own well-known distaste for Chandler, knowing that English hardboiled fans really dig the guy–Frears loved that.  They got along swimmingly.

And Frears surprised the hell out of Westlake when he remarked in passing that he always liked to have the writer on set, in case the script needed last-minute tweaking (and it would).  This was going to be a collaboration, not just work for hire.  As Westlake put it later, talking to Patrick McGilligan–

I had kind of an astonishing experience with Stephen and The Grifters, and it clearly has ruined me for the movie business for the rest of my life.  Stephen behaved as if we were partners making a movie.  He was the partner who stood out front, like in a store, and dealt with everybody, but when we went inside the office we were partners.  I’ve never had that.

Westlake was on set for about half of shooting, along with Abby Westlake.  He also spent some time working with Frears during post-production.  He talked to the actors, rewrote their lines so that they were easier to read, wrote new dialogue, took out pages of existing dialogue.  He well and truly earned those two nominations for best adapted screenplay he got from the Oscars and the WGA.  Both of which he lost out on to the guy who wrote Dances With Wolves.  I bet Stark never stopped kidding him about that.   And I bet you think I’ll never get around to reviewing the movie.

No synopsis needed, Wikipedia has seen to that.  An awful lot of story from the book was cut out of the film.  But much of that cut material was in the original script, as this early draft available online tells us.   Westlake at long last knew what William Goldman had gone through when adapting The Hot Rock.  He and Frears were much more simpatico than had been the case with Goldman and Peter Yates, and the producers on The Grifters were not the hapless hacks The Hot Rock was saddled with.  Chief among them was Martin Scorsese, who had originally been attached to direct, and was very interested in how the movie turned out, had a lot of valuable input to contribute.

So he was in a much better situation than Goldman had been in.  But it’s the same basic problem, whenever you’re making a book into a film.  A novel is a complex piece of machinery, with lots of moving parts–how many can you take out, and still have the machine run the way it’s supposed to?   And sometimes new components have to be added as well.  I often think the better the book is, the harder the job becomes.  Plenty of great movies have been made from forgettable novels.  And no end of duds have been made from timeless classics.

So most of the backstory between Lilly and Roy Dillon, the reasons for their dysfunctional relationship, was cut. There were flashbacks in the the script that never made it into the film (and flashbacks in the film that aren’t remotely in the book, but those deal with another character).  Westlake had to find ways to imply what they didn’t have time to show.  To hint at the larger outlines of a long sad story of two people who wanted to love each other but never figured out how.  Lilly’s devastating final line in the novel doesn’t seem to have ever been in the script–but the lines that set it up it were, and Westlake sliced them out.  With regrets, I’m sure.

The rather important subplot involving Carol Roberg, a beautiful young Holocaust survivor, Roy’s nurse, who Lilly clumsily tries to push Roy into marrying–a POV character in one chapter–that gets reduced to a mere squiggle.  The nurse in the film is a silly wan figure, who Roy is never seriously interested in, no competition at all for Bening’s Myra.  It’s too much of a sidebar, that subplot.  Westlake and Frears, as noted up top, didn’t want to do a period piece (another way in which their interests converged).  The movie is set in the time period it was filmed in.  So the girl would have to be a survivor of some later mass atrocity (Cambodia, maybe?), which would feel a mite contrived.  And they’d need to tack at least another 20 minutes or so onto the running time, to do her justice.

And it’s a damned shame, because Thompson put some of his best writing into that subplot, and if it’s a sidebar, it’s a crucial one.  She’s there to remind us not everyone is on the grift, some people really are on the up and up.  She’s there to show us you can have a horrendous childhood, far worse than Roy’s, and still be a good person.  She’s there, perhaps most of all, to keep us from feeling too sorry for Roy.  His choices were his, no matter who his mother was.  I do think her loss is felt in the movie–that Roy’s character suffers in particular from her absence, the things his brief relationship with her tells us about him, the good and bad of him–she was his chance at something real, and he failed to grab it.  It’s one reason I prefer the book.  But it’s something a novel can do much more easily than a film (then again, I can think of many similar characters in classic noir movies–the girl the hero should have gone for, but the bad girl hypnotized him).

I think Westlake wrote the scenes with the movie Carol almost cynically–thinking “This is all we could show of that character in this format.”  If he was never as good a screenwriter as he was a novelist, I think this is why–he never fully believed in the medium.  Of course movies could depict a Holocaust survivor, many have, but the way Thompson believably shoehorns her into a cheap little crime paperback that has nothing to do with the Holocaust–and aims a withering sideways glance at the casual anti-semitism he quite certainly grew up around as a boy in the southwest–no equivalent film could do that.  And few novelists besides Thompson.  Many of his most interesting characters and storylines are entirely incidental to the main plot.  He went off on tangents.  I can relate.

The film focuses pretty much exclusively on the titular grifters, played by its astoundingly well-cast stars.  Huston, Cusack, and Bening were all roughly the same age as their characters, and understood them very well. Each of them gave the performance of a career in this film.  Perfect casting?  Probably no such thing.  But they got close to it here.

It must have been a trip for Westlake–not only was he working with the daughter of John Huston, one of the few living filmmakers he’d have been in awe of–she was, at the same time, the former longtime companion of Jack Nicholson, who must have been at least one of the models for Jack Pine, the protagonist of Sacred Monster (which was published around the same time Westlake started work on the film).  Bening would shortly be marrying yet another sacred monster, named Beatty, a relationship that started the same year The Grifters was released.  I said Sacred Monster was what got Hollywood out of Westlake’s system, but it might just as easily have been making this film.  His curiosity was satisfied on many levels here.

However, much as it was Huston and Bening who got the well-deserved Oscar nods, I’d personally say Cusack gives the best performance overall–closest to the book, in many respects.  Only Cusack really resembles his character, as Thompson described him.  In the novel, all three have dark hair.  But for reasons I couldn’t tell you, it was decided that Lilly and Myra (Moira in the book) would be blondes, though Lilly is clearly of the bottle variety.  They had to have similar hair for plot-based reasons–maybe they just decided Bening looked best as a blonde, so Huston had to follow suit.

Again, I think Thompson’s approach is better–Lilly’s fatal attraction to her son seems based on him being a younger less damaged male version of herself.   Two sides of the same coin.  The actors do manage to convey a familial resemblance somehow, but not as well as if they were more similar in appearance.

(Bening and Huston are not Thompson girls in terms of their figures–he liked his women short and stacked.  But that’s a really inside baseball nitpick, isn’t it?)

In the novel, Roy’s got a real shot at becoming a decent person, breaking out of the grifting world for keeps.  A job he took as a cover for his short cons turns into a real gig, almost against his will and he starts to like the straight life–at least part of his fateful refusal to help Lilly at the end is based on him feeling like she needs to go straight as well–as well as a rather petty sense of satisfaction that he did what she told him to do, and now she’s complaining about it (and in the novel, Thompson makes it clear that he also wants to keep Lilly available to him, sexually).

But without the groundwork Thompson did to make Roy’s reformation convincing, you just don’t get the same effect.  Some of that groundwork was in the original script–had to go.  Again, this weakens the impact of the ending–remember what I said about tragedy?  In the novel, you can believe Roy wasn’t too far gone, he just needed a bit more time–Lilly saved him from himself, then dragged him down with her.  But you never really believe it about Cusack’s Roy, hard as Cusack works to convince us.  Maybe in that sense at least, Stark had something to do with the script.

Bening’s Myra is a very edited verson of the more complex character in the book. Most of her best scenes are still in there, but somehow–different.  Moira Langtry isn’t all bad, you  feel–like Lilly, she appreciates decency in others, even if she doesn’t have it herself (she and Lilly are, like Lilly and Roy, and Roy and Moira, all mirror images of each other, working different parts of the same big game). You get into her head, and you find yourself sympathizing.  She’s doing what she has to in order to survive, just like Lilly.

But Myra Langtry, the movie character, seems more more empty inside.  Bening plays her as a sociopath.  It’s a compelling edgy sexy performance, that rightly got the critic’s attention, helped put her on the map as an actress.  Her first really bad woman (and lots of nudity, which didn’t hurt with the male critics).  At times she seems to be dancing her part as much as acting it, selling her main commodity for all it’s worth–always selling, with everyone.  That’s not untrue to the book character, it’s just a stripped down take on the more complex Moira.

One of the real departures from the book Westlake did was to do an extended flashback about Myra’s time as a ‘roper’ for a long con master–that seems to owe a lot to some of the long con episodes from The Rockford Files.  Westlake uses this interlude to make some rather pointed observations about the stupidity and greed of rich people.  He wants to show that not only working folks can be marks. Which is fine, except it’s supposed to establish Myra’s character, explain how she came to be this way, and it doesn’t.  Myra is beautifully acted in the film, but she never becomes as complete a character as Lilly or Roy.

In the novel, Moira tells Roy she does long cons, wants him to join her, but she doesn’t really go into detail, and her apprenticeship with Cole ‘The Farmer’ Langley seemed more in the short con line.  Basically, all The Farmer was selling was charm.  There’s a classic Thompson character, a figure seen again and again in his books, the older worldly-wise smooth talking country boy, folksy and quaint on the outside, all hard-eyed calculation on the inside.   But this version has been running from latent madness, and it finally catches him.  And Moira has to leave him, confronting her own basic selfishness.

Westlake can’t really make that transition work for the younger more sophisticated Langley in his flashback.  He goes nutty because that’s what he has to do.  I didn’t find that flashback sequence at all believable, but it’s entertaining. And like so much of the film, even though it’s set in the modern era, it has this archaic feel, like something out of a much earlier time.

Westlake said all you had to do to modernize Thompson’s characters is to take their hats off.  Well aside from the fact that some of them are still wearing hats, I don’t quite agree.  Yes, he’s right, they’re wrapped up in their own worlds, not interested in the grander events of their day.  But basically most if not all of Thompson’s great characters are, to a greater or lesser extent, children of The Depression, and of the Dust Bowl.  As Thompson himself was.

That experience shaped him, scarred him, and it informs all of his characters, even from his 60’s novels (some of which were set well back in time from when they were published–Pop. 1280 is set around the turn of the century).  He doesn’t have to say that, it’s just naturally implied.  Much of his audience had been through the same thing.  But two women in their late 30’s and a man in his mid-20’s–in the late 80’s–they never went through anything like that.  They grew up in relatively easy times.  Again, something is lost in translation.  Another reason most of the flashbacks from the book had to go.  They wouldn’t match up with the time period.

They had to strip everything down to the essentials–and even so, the characters still feel anachronistic.  Well, it’s the nature of some people to be anachronisms. I’d say everybody in this film is an anachronism to some extent.  Mintz, the old school grifter Roy learns his trade from, played by Eddie Jones in a Fedora (they didn’t take that hat off).  Bobo Justus, the syndicate boss, played by Pat Hingle in a three piece suit.  Henry Jones does a small splendid turn as the crusty manager of Roy’s hotel.

All wonderful casting picks, and all feeling like they’d been plucked from a much older film.  Basically, the only thing about this supposedly non-period movie that doesn’t feel period is the cars.  And since they’re mainly boxy-looking Cadillacs and Lincolns, they don’t feel so very 90’s either.  The film doesn’t really have a time period.   It’s set outside the time it’s set in.  Which is oddly effective in some ways.

Fact is, Thompson’s work always feels anachronistic as well.  Because, again, he’s really setting it in the Depression, no matter what year he says it is.   Just like Parker seems to have stepped out of the Dillinger era–but Westlake always gives you the feeling of the exact time he’s writing in.  Thompson doesn’t really see the era he’s writing in.  All he can see is the grim world of his youth that he somehow escaped–but never completely.  Always there in the background, haunting him.

Frears used Westlake’s guided tour of L.A. to grand effect, and the city he wants to show us is old L.A.   No shiny glass towers for him.  He wanted the seedy faded glamour of an earlier time.  He wanted Raymond Chandler’s L.A., mingled with Jim Thompson’s.  He wanted an Elmer Bernstein score (and he got it, which must have also thrilled Westlake).  He wanted old Hollywood (just like his fellow Brit, John Boorman did, when he made his first Hollywood film, based on a Richard Stark novel).  It makes for a weird disconnect, like the characters are stepping back and forth between the decades, unmoored in time.  I’m not complaining–visually, it works out just fine.  I just happen to be one of those people who doesn’t like seeing Shakespeare done in modern dress.  But the play is the thing, after all.

Even though I think Cusack gave the best overall performance, Bening the sexiest and most out there interpretation of her character, the emotional center of the film is Huston’s Lilly.  Always trying to hold herself in check, keep everything under control, measuring every move she makes, knowing her world can collapse around her at any time.  It was, to all accounts, a physically and psychologically draining role for her to play.  She never really equalled it again.

And her greatest moment comes at the end, when Lilly is forced to make a horrific choice.  Not Shakespearean–Sophoclean.  Crouching over Roy’s dead body, she keens like a banshee, giving birth to him in reverse.  Her survival instinct has triumphed over her maternal instinct, and she can’t accept it’s come to that.  But then she just goes into autopilot.  What’s done is done.  No use crying over spilt blood.

The elevator scene–the ‘descent into hell.’  Brilliant.  Evocative.  Hair-raising. But not from the book.  The book is much colder.  See, one thing both the book and the film tell us is that the supreme achievement for any grifter is not to take some poor fool–it’s to take another professional.  Somebody who was wise, somebody who knew the score.  As Lilly took Roy.  And if you’ve read the novel, you know Lilly is feeling that sense of triumph, as she delivers that line I mentioned further up–the one that wasn’t even in the early draft of Westlake’s script.

I don’t think Huston could have made that transition–from primal grief to cold contempt.  Actors are human, have limits.  It took her days to fully recover from filming that scene.  I don’t think it was in her, that transition, Lilly’s final reversion to form.  But I’m not so sure it was in Westlake either.  Maybe some of Richard Stark came back to him here–I certainly think doing this movie got some wheels turning inside of him, moved him in a direction that eventually got him back to writing Parker novels.  But it’s still a Westlake script.   And he just couldn’t go there.   But also, maybe he and Frears both felt the audience couldn’t go there either.  They could take a mother trying to seduce her son. But not a mother calling her dead son a sucker after she killed him.

A movie is not a book.  Westlake said that, over and over again.  It’s a different animal, and   as long as you’re true to the spirit of the book being adapted, you don’t have to follow it to the letter, and you probably shouldn’t.  For all its departures from what I feel are the best moments in Thompson’s novel, most of it is still there on the screen.  The best lines, delivered with style and verve.  The most viscerally unnerving moments of sudden violence–and sex used as the deadliest weapon of all.   And if I’d seen it when it first came out, the way it was meant to be seen, in a theater (preferably an old one, that had seen better days)–I might be a lot less objective.

And if I hadn’t read Thompson’s novel–but I have.  Twice.  First a vintage copy of the original paperback (with one of the best covers of any crime novel ever), courtesy of a collector friend of mine.  Then the ebook, for this review.  And just like I can’t help but find The Hunter superior to any movie they could ever make of it, I can’t in all conscience say anything but this–Jim Thompson was a better Jim Thompson than Donald E. Westlake.

And Westlake’s ghost would haunt me to the grave if I said anything else.

And we’re out of the 80’s, guys!  So up next an essay on the 90’s.  When Donald Westlake proved that he could be as hard as Thompson, writing under his own name or Stark’s.  As hard as Thompson and then some.


Filed under Screenplays by Donald E. Westlake