Category Archives: Uncategorized

Sidebar: A Memo from Joseph Breen

A (possibly apocryphal) story I’ve heard about Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was that Huston was going on vacation before beginning work on the script. Before he left, he asked his secretary to transcribe the book’s dialogue into script form so he’d have something to work with when he got back. While he was gone, his secretary’s transcription was accidentally sent to studio head Jack L. Warner, who loved the “script” and directed a very surprised Huston to begin filming immediately.

A confidential informant (see Greg, I protected your identity!)  

Greg and I were batting this around in the comments section earlier today, and it got my juices flowing, to the extent they can flow nowadays.  Is it possible that maybe the most famous and revered crime movie of all time resulted from a director being forced to film his secretary’s transcription of a novel’s dialogue? No it is not, but could some version of this story be true?  How much do we know about what went on over at the Warner’s lot back then?

I’d hate to have to tell you who I had to kill to get what I’m about to share with you all now.  Mainly because I’d hate for you all to know what a humdrum existence I lead.

I pulled down this venerable dusty tome (paperback, I’m not made of money) that I recently obtained for research purposes, entitled Discovering The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade, by one Richard Layman.  (Clearly an alias.  Perhaps a defrocked clergyman.)

I found this.  You tell me whether it supports our source’s secondhand allegation–or dismantles it.  I honestly don’t know.

(Please note, the original memo, which the so-called Layman reproduces in photostatic form, was not in block format, but I just can’t be bothered to hit the tab key that many times.  Old war injury, carpal in nature; I was in the 69th Typist’s Brigade, the Fighting Hunt&Peckers.  Otherwise, I have endeavored to reproduce it faithfully.  Please note, this memo in its original form took up three entire sheets of typing paper, which I shall infer was foolscap.  Single spaced.)

May 27, 1941


Mr. Jack L. Warner
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Burbank, California


Dear Mr. Warner:


We have read the final script, dated May 24, 1941, for your proposed production titled THE MALTESE FALCON, and regret to advise that while the basic story is acceptable, a picture based upon this script could not be approved under the provisions of the Code because of several important objectionable details, namely:


(1)    it is indicated that Spade and Brigid have had an illicit sex affair and that the relationship between Spade and Iva has been illicit.


(2)    Cairo seems to be characterized as a pansy.


(3)    There is a great deal of unnecessary drinking.


It will be necessary to overcome these objections before the finished picture could be approved.


Going through the script in detail, we call your attention to the following points:


Page 13:    Spade’s line, “Damn her !” is unacceptable.


Page 14:    In accordance with the Association’s policy re drinking, some other business besides drinking in Spade’s apartment must be substituted on Pages 14 sqq. 19, 50 sqq. and 65 sqq.


Page 21:    Any flavor that Spade and Iva have been illicitly intimate must be eliminated from this scene if it is to be approved in the finished picture. Accordingly, it is essential that there be no physical contact between Iva and Spade, other than that of decent sympathy.  In this connection, see Page 80, where the physical contact is unacceptable.  The entire conversation between Iva and Spade will have to be rewritten to get away from this flavor.


Page 35:    We cannot approve the characterization of Cairo as a pansy, as indicated by the lavender perfume, high-pitched voice, and other accouterments. In this connection, we refer you to scenes 21, and 115, where Cairo should not appear effeminate while rubbing the boy’s temple.


Page 54:    Gruesomeness must be avoided in this shot where Cairo is shown bleeding.


Page 67:    This fade-out of Spade and Brigid is unacceptable because of the definite indication of an illicit sex affair.  There must be no indication that Brigid and Spade are spending the night together in Spade’s apartment. Otherwise it cannot be approved in the finished picture.  In this connection, please see Page 75.


Page 70:    The Boy’s line, “–you !” and his soundless repetition of the same words will be unacceptable if curse words.


Page 81:    While the drinking in these scenes is necessary as a story point, in order to prepare for later scenes where Spade is drugged, we must insist that the actual drinking be kept to the absolute minimum necessary to the development of the plot.  It seems that audiences are offended not so much by the presence of liquor as by the actual drinking.


Page 84:    Gutman’s use of the interjection “by Gad”, here and on pages 92, 117, 121, 125, 126, and 128, seems to be offensive if only by the number of times he uses it.  We suggest you use some other interjection at times.


There should be no gruesomeness in Scenes 71, 81, 88 and 89.


Pages 118 and 119:    Spade’s speech about the District Attorneys should be rewritten to get away from characterizing most District Attorneys as men who will do anything to further their careers.  This is important.


Page 141:    Brigid’s line to Spade, “Not after what we’ve been to each other  ” is unacceptable as pointing up the previous sex affair.


Page 143:    There must be nothing sex suggestive in Spade’s eyeing of Brigid.


Page 144:    The underlined words in Spade’s speech are unacceptable, “I won’t because all of me wants to —  wants to say to hell with consequences and do it.”   Likewise, in this conversation between Spade and Brigid, there should be no flavor of a previous sex affair underlying the conversation.


Page 147:    The action of Spade putting his hand on Effie’s hip must not be offensive.


You understand, of course, that our final judgment must be based upon the finished picture.


Cordially yours,


Joseph I. Breen.




Many clues.  I shall look forward to seeing your deductions in the comments section.  But please, no offensive language, unnecessary drinking, or intimations of previous sex affairs.  If any.  I’d say no pansies, but that is now unacceptable, and anyway, some of my favorite people…..

Cordially yours,

Frederick Effing Fitch.





Filed under Uncategorized

Pastiche: Mysterious Ways, Part 2

(Disclaimer: Whatever the hell I said last time, sincerest form of flattery and all that, plus you can’t really know how a magician does a trick until you try doing it yourself.

You know, I’ve been thinking, most people who post this kind of thing online come up with odd romantic pairings that could never happen in the real stories, though with these pay-per-view services, maybe that will change.  It’s almost a requirement of the form.  I’ve been a mite curious about what Tiny and J.C. get up to in the sack.  They can’t possibly do the missionary, right?  Leaving aside that she’s the dominant partner, she’d need some kind of body armor designed by NASA, just to survive the T-forces.  A body like that you don’t want to damage.  I guess it could be kinky if she had a thing on the side with Judson, but maybe she did, Tiny found out, and that’s why Judson’s not heard from in this story.  An eloquent silence, let’s call it.

Kelp and Anne Marie might have some wicked make-up sex after their argument in Part 1–that could almost be considered story-related, not that anyone cares. Their sex life’s been pretty well been covered in the books; we can imagine the fine details ourselves.  Dortmunder and May want their intimate moments to stay intimate.

As for the slashfic contingent, there’s always Herman X–the possibilities there are endless. But none shall be explored by me.  I find that I am constitutionally incapable of going where no fan has gone before, nor will I ever write another Dortmunder story of any type. Once was enough. I am, however, thinking about doing an F-Troop fic where Sarge gets it on with the Wrangler. You all know the legend of Forrest Tucker, right?  Just FYI, there are actual F-Troop fics online. You can’t make this shit up.  But we still try.)


Dortmunder stared at the author of his very being with a mixture of stunned amazement and keen resentment.  God was not, it turned out, an imperious-looking old man with a beard, up in the clouds, waited on by harp-strumming cherubs, engraving stern commandments on tablets in-between plagues of locusts.  He was an unprepossessing balding bespectacled schmo in the backroom of a bar, cleanshaven (maybe the beard was itchy), surrounded by cartons of liquor, pouring himself a glass of corn whiskey.  But yeah, old.  Him and the whiskey both.

The Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery had failed (miserably) in their attempt to instill any form of religiosity in the foundling left at their doorstep long ago, but they left their mark on him, all the same. Growing up as a most unwilling Catholic, Dortmunder had somehow always sensed God was out there, had some latent pre-conscious sense of what He looked like (and that He laughed a lot), and here He was, big as life, twice as crafty.

Having just called The Supreme Being an s.o.b., Dortmunder braced himself for thunderbolts, but none issued forth.  The good Lord merely pulled out a chair, and gestured for Dortmunder to sit.  He reached for a second glass on the table.


“No.  Thank you.”

“I’ll pour you one anyway.  You’re going to want it.” He filled the other glass with a generous portion of amber liquid, and nudged it over by the waiting chair.

“Since when have you ever cared what I wanted?”  Dortmunder sat down, rage swelling within him.  If this bastard was expecting any show of reverence from him, He’d be waiting a long time.  Of course, He had eternity.

God’s face got serious.  “That’s all I’ve ever cared about, John.  Understanding you, and the others.  What you wanted, what you needed, the line between the two.  It was never easy.  I got it wrong sometimes.  But I did the best I could, to listen to all of you.  To hear your prayers.  I didn’t always say no, but that was the right answer, more often than not.”  His contrition seemed sincere enough, if not what you’d call abject.

Dortmunder noted the past tense.  “You retiring or something?”

“After a fashion.  I won’t be telling any more stories.  You’ll continue, in one form or another, but I won’t.  Moving on.”

“To what?”

God spread His hands.  “I’m not that omniscient.  It is what it is.  I’ve got an author too.  Maybe He’s got one as well.  Or She.  I’d prefer a She.  Though She would probably insist I do a stretch in purgatory for all that smut I used to crank out.”

This was going nowhere.  “Okay, fine, you did your best, your time is up, I’m on my own.  Best as I can tell, I always was.  I’ve been a Jonah all my life, and now I’m remembering why people call guys with luck like mine by that name.”

“Different storyteller, but there are parallels, I’ll admit.  Call it an homage.”

“I can think of a lot of things to call it.”

“I’m sure you can.  Though I never did give you much of a vocabulary.  You or the Other Guy.  Words were never going to be your thing.”

“Other guy?” Dortmunder inquired, an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“The one I made damn sure you never met.  Don’t say I never did anything for you.  I protected you more than I ever did him.  I gave you better scores.  A lot fewer bloody-minded enemies.  A more reliable string.  You did fine. Better than I’d hoped. I was always proud of you, John.  You surprised me.  That’s the best thing a creator can hope for.  C’mon, take a sip, it’s really good stuff.”

Dortmunder lifted the glass and drank.  It was good.  Even better than the bourbon he got from Chauncey.  That lousy job, that ended with him chasing Kelp over the Scottish hillside in a suit of armor.

“Remember that, do you?  Not one of my better efforts.”  Lips pursed, in self-disapproval.  “I was going for Tom and Jerry, and it turned out more Heckle and Jeckle.  Probably some Bob Hope in the mix…..”

“Get out of my head!”

“You’re always in mine.  You and a host of others.  Tormenting me with all your potential.  That most of you never came close to using.  But that’s free will for you.  I gave you a set of options, and it was up to you to choose–to be true to your natures, or not.  You chose better than most of them, but that’s not saying much.”

Dortmunder glared at this, but God was on a roll, and paid him no mind.

“The best stories usually came from those who chose wrong, at least at first. The important thing is they had a choice. The one thing I can’t forgive myself for is Paul Cole.  How could he ever have known what his choices were, with that handicap I laid on him?  But I had to look into that abyss…..”

God was starting to ramble.  An occupational hazard, perhaps.

“So you don’t feel bad about anything you did to me.”  Dortmunder didn’t want to let go of his anger, which was paradoxically increased by the growing sympathy he was feeling for his maker.

“Be a little more specific.  I mean, there was so much…..”

“After the Balabomo Emerald thing ended, I was dead broke…”

“Because you blew all your money from the Akinzi at the racetrack.”

You invented parimutuel betting!”

“That was Joe Oller.  A higher deity than myself.  Anyway, it was always going to be something.  You had fun spending it, right?”

“I was running this lousy door to door encyclopedia scam, and there would always be dogs.  I had to steal from supermarkets just to eat.  This one time I got caught at the Bohack, with cans falling out of my sleeves…”

“Yeah?  Meet anybody that day?”  Looking much too pleased with Himself.

A confused look appeared in Dortmunder’s eyes.  The aroma of Tuna Casserole fresh out of the oven was suddenly redolent in the air around them.

“You’re welcome.  See?  Give and take.  Can’t have one without the other.  If for no other reason than that it would be boring, like everywhere in the universe life, with all its conundrums and contradictions, doesn’t exist.  It’s not a mathematical formula, it’s a jam session.  Though most of you are not exactly Bird or Pres.” The Almighty rolled his eyes a bit.

“There’s so much bad stuff happening.”

“Something a crook like you would know all about, and a crook like me can appreciate.  What’s a story without plot complications? It’s not like I gave any of my people wasting diseases, crushed them in earthquakes, or drowned them with tsunamis.  You’d have to take that kind of thing up with a different department.  But I’m sure there’s reasons for all that as well. I’m just as sure nobody could ever explain it all. A world that is simple enough to be fully understood, all the rules cut and dried, isn’t much of a world, from where I stand.  Might as well be playing a video game.”

“So you’re saying I was lucky.”

“I’m saying it could have been worse.  You had friends.  You had work you liked doing, that you were good at, but never so good that you didn’t need to do it anymore–a dead end for someone like you.  You had a roof over your head and someone to come home to. And you had some moments of true greatness.  They usually involved getting even with someone, but I’ve never thought a bit of creative vengeance was a sin.  So long as you don’t make it your whole life.”

“Max Fairbanks.”

“Yeah.  Him.”  A sour note crept into the voice of the divine presence.


“That’s not on me.  I told you, most people make bad choices.  They had all the information they needed to make good ones.  I can’t do everything for you people.  You need to take responsibility for your mistakes.  But I have to say–that was a doozy.”

“I didn’t vote for him.”

“You never vote.”

“Nobody I know voted for him.”

“Most of them don’t vote either.  Though you might be surprised by which of them did, and how.”

“You made Max Fairbanks!”

“I made a lot of people.  If I just decided which of them end up in charge, make sure that the worst never happens, what would that make me?”


God was pissed now.  He proceeded to wax wroth.

You want life to be fair?  You’ve committed even I don’t know how many felonies since you last got out of stir.  I aided and abetted you, repeatedly obstructed justice on your behalf.  If life were fair, we’d be having this debate in Dannemora!”

“Yeah, like you ever served a day in stir.”

“I served five.  You’ll remember, I’m supposed to have created the whole world in six.  It felt like a lifetime.  I was lucky, but I imagined you as what I might have become if I hadn’t been–if I’d been in that place a long time.  But because I wanted to see what you could do out here in the world, I sprung you, and kept you free–with a leash on you, but a damn long one.”

“I felt it anyway.  You kept letting me think I’d won the game, and then you’d yank the leash–I’d have to start all over again.  You kept changing the rules.  It wasn’t fair.”

“Nothing ever is, and you should be grateful.  Nobody who takes a good long honest look at himself ever wants life to be fair. You all just want it to be fair for others, for the ones you don’t like, but it ends up only being fair for rich bastards, because they fix the game.  While the rest of you whine about it, then knuckle under to them. If you want it fair, make it fair, damn you!”

He pounded the table for emphasis, and the bourbon leaped up in the glasses.

“You’re not supposed to swear.”  Dortmunder looked more subdued now.

“I didn’t take my own name in vain.”  God looked embarrassed at having lost his temper.  “I hear what you’re saying, but I abide by the choices you all make. And I give you the opportunities to make up for them.”

“What’s that mean?”

“If you’re so bothered by Max Fairbanks, do something about it. You’ve taken him down before.  You could do it again.  I gave you the skill set. I gave him no end of weak spots.”

All of a sudden, Dortmunder felt suspicious. “Is this another mission, like with that nun?”

“I seem to recall that assignment worked out for you.  But no.  If you just want to do your own thing, cultivate your garden, that’s fine.  That’s really all anyone should have to do.  That’s all I did, most of the time.  I never let myself lose touch with what was going on around me, though.  Which I’m sorry to say is a failing many share with you. But you know,  à chacun son goût.  

(Dortmunder wanted to ask what the hell that meant–checking one’s goo?  But if he asked, who knew how long this would go?)

God seemed to be wrapping up now.  “I enjoyed watching you all go through your paces, even when you stumbled.  But it’s time I was out of here.  Really should have been gone before now. I was waiting for the right opportunity to spring it on you.  You know, nobody else is getting an exit interview.  You should be proud.”

“I’m overcome by the honor.”  Dortmunder’s voice was very dry.

God was delighted.  “Sarcasm!  See, I never could manage that with the Other Guy!  Irony he could sort of manage, but it was like pulling teeth.

“What did he have to say when you braced him?”

“What did I just tell you? I didn’t.  I mean, I thought about it, but he’s hard to find. And sometimes, he even scares me a bit.  Suppose he decided to take ‘Gott ist tot‘ literally?  He knows me by a different name.  I’ve got a lot of them.  You might say my name is Legion.”

God (or was He?) chuckled at His little joke.

“Hey–wait a minute,” Dortmunder interjected.  “If you’re the one telling the stories, and you’ve retired, who’s telling this one?”

The Creator’s eyes took on a baffled look.  “Say–that’s right!  I’m not supposed to be a protagonist in these things.  I’m the narrator.  Nothing gets narrated without me!  What gives?  Stop, thief!  I still have copyright!”

He looked around wildly for a moment, seeking a target to blast with his wrathful gaze–then shrugged, laughed to himself.  “Oh well, some joker fiddling around in his spare time.  All the hallmarks of an amateur.  I just hope it’s not a script treatment.  Too wordy.”

“A what?”

“Trust me, you don’t want to know.  They never work out well for you and yours, my son.”

What did you call me?”

“Who do you think wove that basket you came in?  Just know that even though I’m going, I am with you always–to the end of the world.”

Dortmunder did not like the sound of that.  “Listen, you could maybe, I dunno, stick around a while.  Meet the gang.”

“I made the gang.  But you were always my fair-haired boy.  Metaphorically speaking. I figured dark hair would match your mood.  But lighten up a bit sometimes, why don’t you? Enjoy the bourbon.  My Own Brand, you know.”


He was gone.


Dortmunder blinked.  He looked at the bottle.  Still there.  Still more than half full.  He sipped.  Still much too good to be from the OJ.  Something had happened.  But the memory was already starting to recede, back into some Marianas Trench of the mind, where his innate knowledge of his maker resided.

He hadn’t been hearing anything outside the backroom during the conversation, but now there was sound again, emanating from the bar.  He could hear a voice that sounded like a gravel pit with anger issues, saying “My mother always told me you take off your hat in a polite drinking establishment!” followed by explanatory expostulations, followed by a fist the size of a canned ham colliding with a bearded face, which then collided with the floor, along with a toppling barstool and a glass of over-hopped ale.  That’s what it sounded like, anyway.

Cries of “DUDE!  Harsh!” were then heard, followed by thunderous approaching footfalls, and in through the door of the backroom, filling it to capacity, stepped the harshest of all dudes, Tiny Bulcher, followed by Andy Kelp and Stan Murch.  (Nobody thought to mention that Tiny was still wearing his own hat, but nobody should ever bring that up with a guy who sports a Homburg.)

And, interestingly, there also appeared the fetching figure of Josephine Carol Taylor, Tiny’s beloved, who did not usually venture to the OJ, her interests lying elsewhere. Maybe a little more cynical and world-weary than usual, but as always, it looked good on her.

“John, you started without us?” Kelp inquired, his eyes noting two glasses that had already been imbibed from.  He was holding a tray with more glasses.

“There was somebody else here.  Old friend, you could maybe say–had to step out.  He left us some good stuff.  Tiny, Stan, maybe you could put aside your usual drinks, join me and Andy?   You too, J.C.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” J.C. said, reaching for the bottle, as she took the seat facing the door.  “The day I’ve had, I could use it.  So many second-rate hucksters out there now, it’s screwing up my rackets.  Would you believe some Russian clown called the UN Ambassador and convinced her he was representing a made-up country?  That guy owes me money!  Who else wants some of this?”

Tiny was not going to drink red wine and vodka, his usual beverage of choice, when his woman was having straight bourbon, so he held out his glass for a pour.

“I’m not driving, so fill ‘er up,” Stan moodily responded.  “You can’t navigate this city in daylight anymore.  I might as well indulge.  Doc says I need to cut down on salt, anyway.”  (It being his normal habit to nurse along a glass of beer by sprinkling salt in it to restore the head, which I only mention because it’s traditional to do so for those who came in late, and one likes to observe the formalities.)

“To crime,” said Kelp, and they all clinked glasses.

They drank–and after a momentary look of astounded euphoria had passed over everyone’s face but Dortmunder’s, Kelp got down to business.  “There’s two things to discuss.  First, the Going Out of Business store on Seventh.  John and me had a look, seems like a possible.  Shouldn’t need more than the four of us–I can handle the alarm system myself.”

“Don’t mind me, boys,” J.C. smiled, knowing full well the boys never could help minding her.

“It’s always good when you kibitz, J.C.,” Andy riposted gallantly.  “Anyway, the other potential thing is from my nephew Victor.”

“This is the G-Man?” Tiny rumbled, not saying it in a pleasant way, though it would have been noteworthy if he had.

“Yeah, but he says no cause for worry on that score.  He’s got this job; we go into this office, we take this dossier he needs for this investigation, we get a flat fee in cash.  Discretionary funds, for informants, which is what we’d technically be.

“Quid lucrum istic mihi est?”

Not a lot, John–two g’s a head–sounds like an easy grab.  The kind of thing they wouldn’t be able to do themselves, so they subcontract, off the books.  This is maybe a bit further off the books than usual, but that’s Victor”  Kelp didn’t sound enthused about it, but family is family.

“They always sound easy,” Dortmunder mused.  “What did he say about this information he wants us to get?  It’s about the election?”

“Connected with that, yeah.  Thing is, the people who have this aren’t supposed to have it.  They came by it in an illicit manner themselves, so they can’t make a stink if it goes missing.  It’s just for Victor and his buddies to eyeball, so they can know what questions to ask when they’re having a friendly chat with some of these people, maybe under a  strong lightbulb, I wouldn’t know.”

“Pass,” Tiny decided.

“Doesn’t sound like there’s any driving in it,” Murch opined.

“John?” Kelp inquired.

“Let’s see how the other thing works out,” Dortmunder concluded.

As they filed out past the bar, a bearded youngster with a swollen jaw whipped off his knit hat with alacrity.  “Better late than never,” Tiny said, his ill humor having subsided under the influence of fine liquor.  “Rollo, set this fella up with whatever it was he was drinking before I chastised him.”

Gazing at the outgoing assembly, Rollo looked perplexed.  “Where’d The Good Bourbon go?”

“Out the back door,” Dortmunder responded.

“We don’t have a back door.”

“He made one.”

As Rollo pondered this imponderable, Dortmunder and the others headed out to the sidewalk.

“John, you want to share a ride?” Kelp asked.

“I’ll walk.  Need to clear my head.”


“Josie and me got that hired stretch limo.”

“Stan?  You got a car nearby?”

“Took the subway,” Murch said with distaste.  “Sure, why not?  Just drop me at the A train.”

“Great, I’ll get an Uber.  Bad time of night to find anything with MD plates.”

Uber?  Dortmunder started to ask what was wrong with a cab, but he caught himself just in time to avoid inviting an explanation.  Andy started cheerfully fiddling with his phone, and in no time at all, a black sedan came rolling up to the curb.  A familiar face stuck itself out the driver’s side window.”

“You all know about congestion pricing, right?”  It was Gladys Murch.

“Mom!  Not you too?!  This is why I can’t drive in the city anymore!”

“Got to get with the times, Stanley.  Cash or credit?  It’s going to be forty dollars upfront.”

Dortmunder just did not want to know what any of that was about.


He walked slowly back to May’s apartment, looking up at what little could be seen of the stars in the night sky, trying to make sense of it all.  What was he supposed to do?  Was it coincidence he’d just been told he could do something about Max Fairbanks, and now all of a sudden there was something he could do about Max Fairbanks?  Not likely.

But Dortmunder had no real beef with Fairbanks.  That had all been settled in Vegas.  If the poor stiff wanted to play at being Leader of the Free World a while, and the Americans were dumb enough to let him, that was their mutual misfortune.  Nothing to do with him.

He figured he’d walk by the Going Out Of Business store on Seventh, give it another looksee.  That was a real job, stealing real things, getting real cash in exchange, that would not remotely savor of work for hire.

He got to the shop.   He stopped.  His jaw dropped.

It was boarded up.  Covered by a wood scaffolding.  Along with everything else on the block.  They were out of business.  For real.  Looking through the gaps, he could see all the merchandise was gone.  No more store.  No more score.

He looked about for some explanation of this impossibility.  Tacked to the wooden shell was a notice of foreclosure.  Something about how the landlord had taken possession of the premises.  Some mention of Trans-Global Universal Industries.  Oh shit.

Over to one side, he saw a poster bearing the image of an impossibly gaudy tasteless egocentric structure–and the words SOON TO BE THE SITE OF FAIRBANKS TIMES SQUARE.  

Dortmunder could feel the chain reaction starting up inside his head, unstoppable as a landslide, inexorable as a typhoon, implacable as an erupting volcano.

He knew it was a set-up. He knew who was really behind it. Didn’t matter. Dortmunder was very very very very angry now.  And there was only one outlet for his rage to expend itself upon.  Because its author had left the building.  By the back door.  That sly bastard.

“Okay, fine, you want to see my paces?” he snarled, hackles raised, eyes turned heavenward.  “Just lay your bets and watch me run!”

And over in DC, as he slept the fitful sleep of aspiring despots, President Fairbanks shivered, clutched his smartphone reflexively.  Later, there would be confused tweets in the wee hours before dawn.  Something else Dortmunder wouldn’t care to know about.

A few days later, a secretary working at Fairbanks Tower found an envelope in the box for items to be sent to the boss by special courier.  She dutifully relayed it onwards.  It contained a cheaply made ring with strange symbols on it.  And a note saying only “You win.”

Max was enraptured when he got it.  Slipped the ring on, laughing softly to himself.  It fit like it was made to order.  This really was going to be his year.

And as Samuel Fuller concluded one of his westerns–“THE END OF THIS STORY CAN ONLY BE WRITTEN BY  YOU.”  Happy New Year.  I mean, why not, right?


Filed under John Dortmunder, Uncategorized

Pastiche: Mysterious Ways


(Disclaimer: John Archibald Dortmunder and most other people who appear in this story are creations of the late Donald E. Westlake, and have appeared under the auspices of numerous publishers.  They are currently under the control of his estate.  Donald E. Westlake himself was a real person, far as I know, but so were Jesus and Buddha.  Max Fairbanks is real, all too real.  I am not profiting in any material sense from writing and self-publishing this, nor would I have any idea how to do that.  I present this travesty as an homage, as well as an act of hubris, but mainly as an expression of latent OCD, because I know he would have written a lot of the same gags for this crew, if he’d stuck around a bit longer.  It is, of course, possible he did write some of them already, and I’m just regurgitating them without realizing it. C’est la mort.)


John Dortmunder, a man chosen by fate to march resolutely against the currents of his times, was now marching disconsolately against the currents of midday traffic in Times Square, which didn’t look anything like it did when he first came to New York, though this would have been true even if he’d arrived last year.

There is some obscure and ancient city edict that militates unceasing change for Manhattan’s palpitating heart, and insists furthermore that the changes lean towards ever-increasing displays of commercialism, not that it was the Piazza San Marco to start with.  The pigeons inhabiting both spaces don’t seem to care much either way, being the Philistines of the bird world.  One supposes this would make Peregrine Falcons and Red-tailed Hawks the Davids, but the Gotham branch of Columba Livia bears their slings and arrows with equanimity, so long as the bread crumbs keep coming.

Pausing beneath a billboard devoted to the boxer-clad crotch of a model who may have eaten at some point in life, Dortmunder’s eye was drawn to a massive video screen ahead of him, now displaying the bloated features of his old nemesis Max Fairbanks, three stories high, in glorious HD, which stood for Hellfire and Damnation, going by the expression in Max’s glazed baby blues.

The world was wrong, Max Fairbanks was right, and the world had better just grow up and accept this, was the general gist of his remarks, as spelled out in the word crawl beneath the screen (the ‘or else’ was only implied).  If it were possible for a human face to look triumphant, mocking, gleeful, embittered, enraged, and terrified, all at the same time, that would be a fair description of his expression, assuming you wanted to call that a human face.

Dortmunder, who paid about as much attention to current events as he did to modern dance, had been forced, much against his will, to note the meteoric rise of his former foe, and deemed it irritating.  “You are vanquished,” he muttered at the looming screen.  “I vanquished you.”  Max didn’t look vanquished. Dyspeptic, maybe.  The scowling visage was then replaced by a Tums ad, which seemed synergistic, somehow.

Dortmunder stalked onwards, feeling the need for some digestive relief of his own, but he had an appointment to keep, which was all that had brought him through the world’s neon-crusted navel to begin with.  (Nor would it have comforted him to know neon itself was a relic of the past, much as he was.)


GOING OUT OF BUSINESS read the banner over the store on Seventh, which had hung there since time immemorial, whatever that means.  The display windows were a cornucupia of overpriced electronic devices, varied optical equipment, and garish objets d’art with a decided oriental twist, including what appeared to be ornately carved elephant tusks (strangely, no animal rights picketers; well the store was going out of business, right?)

Times Square is the Mecca of rubes.  Suckers from all over the planet descend upon it, wallets bulging, and they don’t know that the store has been going out of business since the Carter administration.  They assume they’re getting a deal.  If the merchandise turns out to be defective, they don’t even try to bring it back, since that’s the chance you take when you participate in a going out of business sale.

(This visionary business plan has since been adopted by many modern mall chains, for which its originators, whoever they may be, have received neither credit nor compensation, an injustice they have accepted philosophically, since everybody’s got to make a dishonest living.)

It was Kelp’s latest idea that they should plunder this treasure cave, thus putting the store out of business for real.  Dortmunder had voiced an objection to the effect that Times Square is also a Mecca for cops, not to mention surveillance cameras.  It had been decided they would meet there, and determine whether Kelp’s idea was workable, as if any of them ever had been.

Approaching the store on Seventh, Dortmunder saw the familiar sharp-eyed narrow-nosed visage, out on the sidewalk.  Kelp was already deep in conversation, with an invisible companion.  He gesticulated with both hands in an agitated manner, pacing back and forth, as he expressed sundry emotional grievances to the world at large, in an unnecessarily loud voice.  The passersby ignored all this, walked a little faster perhaps, praying there were no sharp objects concealed in the madman’s many-pocketed coat.

Approaching, Dortmunder picked up from context that Kelp was arguing with Anne Marie Carpinow, the woman he had lived with for some time, who was of course nowhere to be seen.  The litany of past injustices flowed unstinting from Kelp’s agitated lips, as he laid bare to the world at large the most intimate disquiets of his private life, and then paused, as if listening to a voice in his head with many similar accusations to levy at him.

Dortmunder surveyed his colleague with bemused sympathy.  He’d always known it would come to this.  The slender thread that was Andy Kelp’s sanity had finally snapped.  He even had some kind of strange earring on.  Dortmunder had noticed these adornments on other street corner shouters.  Some kind of cult?

Andy looked up from his curbside tirade and saw Dortmunder.  His face brightened, and he said “Anne Marie, John’s here, gotta go.  We’ll talk later, okay?  Bye.”  He reached down to his belt and pushed a button on the phone hanging there.  “Hey John, what’s up?”  He took the earring off, and shoved it into one of his waiting pockets.

Dortmunder, just then grasping that the world was not, in fact, experiencing a mass outbreak of schizophrenia, tried to conceal his relief, mingled with a certain thwarted feeling.  Still just a matter of time.

“Harya,” John responded, and headed over the store window without further commentary, hoping Andy wouldn’t feel the need to share any further details regarding his domestic troubles.  If May ever burned the tuna casserole (which she never did), it’s not as if Kelp would ever hear about it from him.

The ruse succeeded, Kelp snapping right into business mode.  “So what do you think?  Doable?”

“Probably alarmed.  They don’t take those down until they really are out of business.”

“Yeah, but my feeling is response time would be slow.  I’ve seen cops shopping here.  Fresh out of Long Island, don’t know the score yet.  When they find out, they get sore.  They hate being taken for suckers, even when they are.”

“They’d always rather nab crooks like us than crooks like them,” Dortmunder observed mordantly.

“Yeah, there’s that.  But anyway, I bet these guys did their alarm on the cheap.  Fits the profile.  And they’re middle eastern, so no dogs.”

“We could maybe get in and back out again.  How much you figure all this stuff is worth?”

“Some gray-market goods, nothing first-rate, but I could unload it easy with MyNephew.  Just opened a new store in Gowanus.”

“I thought Victor was back with the Feds?”

“Not that Nephew.  And yeah, happy as a clam, my sister says.  The job is finally what he always dreamed it would be.  He landed a spot on that squad investigating the election.  I guess some cops go in for the other kind of crook, after all.”

“Seems only fair,” Dortmunder said, not wanting to hear anything more about it.


But just in case someone does, let’s take a quick hop over to 26 Federal Plaza, and check in on our old friend Victor, happier at present than any bivalve mollusc born since the Cambrian Explosion.  (Those were the good old days.)

Much has changed at the Bureau since last we saw him, and from his perspective, all for the better.  For one thing, nobody there thinks he’s paranoid anymore.  For another, the secret FBI handshake he once got in trouble for advocating is being discussed at a policy level.  The true visionary always senses when his moment has arrived.

It had long been Victor’s dilemma that he identified with lawmen and outlaws at the same time, and now to his amazed delight he was both.  The better he and his fellow G-Men and G-Women did their dreary fact-finding jobs relating to the last election, the more roundly excoriated they were by The Powers That Be, while the underground counterculture spoke of them as brothers in arms.

Everyone talked about shadowy government conspiracies now, without the slightest sense of self-consciousness, or in most cases, evidence.  It was the fashionable thing to do.  He tried very hard not to look smug, having been so far ahead of the curve.

Cable news (one channel in particular), had become a guilty pleasure.  Special Agents had never heretofore been so special.  To be an FBI employee now was to have all the notoriety of a bank robber, a guerilla leader, or a Colombian Drug Lord,  without the need to maintain a hideout in the mountains (though Victor had one anyway).  It was like being in a gang, only with health benefits and a pension.  He had to hug himself sometimes, to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. So far, he hadn’t woken up. So far, neither had anyone else.

But enough of selfish personal pleasures–there was work to be done.  Victor had been tasked with obtaining information about a business associate of the President, the President being Max Fairbanks, which to a less febrile intellect than Victor’s might have seemed in itself so astonishing a thing as to render him jaded, innured, cynical, incapable of being surprised by anything, whereas in fact he was surprised by everything.  And never unpleasantly.

Certain colleagues of Victor’s on the team had expressed faint qualms about his enthusiasm, infectious though it was, and inquiries had been made about his social media habits, only to learn he had none.  Friends, love life–ditto.  Not even porn.  He still collected old pulp magazines and Big Little Books.

Family might have been a red flag, but the one black sheep in Victor’s fold had evaded the law dogs too well, and seemed to be some kind of secret NYPD informant on the side, for a detective who had once investigated their primary target, so bringing all that up would be a delicate matter, stones best left unturned.

A file containing a deranged-sounding letter from a police captain (retired) named Deemer, regarding a stolen bank (that can’t be right) had been mislabeled, and would not see the light of day again for many years, or the bank ever.

Might as well try to find dirt on one of those monks over on Park.  Who Victor had joined for a spell, but he loved Travel, so it didn’t work out.  He still sent them a card every Christmas, receiving an oaken keg of frothy brown ale in return, which always went down well at the office New Year’s party.  It was concluded that if Victor was strange, the times were stranger, and the beer was fucking great, so let it go.

The information he was supposed to get would, Victor reasoned, never actually need to be presented as evidence in a court of law.  It was more like information you needed in order to know where to look for information you could present. For this job, you would require people who knew how to get into a place and back out again without being detected.  He reached for his trusty rolodex (try hacking that, why don’t you?) and leafed through to the K’s.  If you can’t trust family……


When Dortmunder walked into the OJ Bar and Grill, Rollo the Bartender was writing the specials on the blackboard.  There was blackened this, smoked that, and pulled whatever.  The beer list was written in an obscure pidgin dialect, where every other word began with “Hop.” Hopalonius, Hopasaurus Rex, Hoparific, Hopfrog The Jester, Hop-ity Hipster, Hop Springs Eternal, The Hop Diamond, Hop Is the Thing With Feathers, Hoppy Ever After, Cross My Heart and Hop To Die, Hopalong Cask-o-Rye.  (At least some of those really exist, but who has time to check?)

The OJ regulars had refused to leave when the new crowd showed up, reasoning that if anybody ever had squatter’s rights, it was they. Rollo, always the peacemaker, had made room for extra barstools, so the learned colloquy might continue apace.

“I hear we get a tax cut,” one of the old regulars said.

“Yeah?  I hear the only ones getting a cut of anything are the fat cats,” retorted one of the new regulars, sporting a festive knit hat, though it was quite warm inside.

“That’s a sexist term,” complained a member of the ladies auxiliary, with a pleasingly plump posterior.

“Only sexy if it’s firm,” said a roguish regular, who got summarily slapped for his nit-witticism.

The first regular said “Way I figure it, the more they cut taxes, the faster they grow.  It’s like grass.  Or hair.”

Another regular, whose follicles had gone the way of all things said gloomily, “I wish it worked like that with hair.”

“Have you tried Rogaine?”

“I tried capital gains, but my accountant told me I had to get some capital first.”

“No pain, no gain.”

“They stole that from Nietzsche,” a spirited young regular with a hat and a soul patch insisted.  “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.”

“So Nietzsche never had a colonoscopy, I’m guessing.”

“Wasn’t he the joker who said God was dead?”

“God’s just playing dead.”

“So am I.  Went out for Chinese eight years ago, never came back.”



“Don’t tell mom!” they said at the same time, and after that there was a debate over who had to buy whom a rum and coke.


Dortmunder asked Rollo, “Anybody else here yet?”

“Just The Good Bourbon.”

“The who?”

“Beats me.  He showed up acting like he owned the place, though last I heard Otto’s still with us.  Silent partner, maybe.  Said you’d know him when you saw him.  He brought his own booze, real top-shelf merchandise, and something told me I better not say anything about us not being BYOB.  He’s in the back room.”

Dortmunder didn’t know what to make of this, but then again, how often did he get a chance to drink good liquor?  He walked back, past the doors marked POINTERS and SETTERS, until he reached the door to the backroom.  He opened it.

God was sitting there at the table, pouring Himself a drink from what looked to be the most expensive bottle in all creation.

“Hello, John,” The Author Of All Things said, in a vaguely apologetic tone.  “Thought it was time we had a talk.”

“You son of a bitch,” Dortmunder said.



Filed under John Dortmunder, Uncategorized

Addendum: The Reading List


Okay.  Here’s the deal.

I have had a project in my mind for some time now.  Supplemental, though not subsidiary, to the one I’ve just completed.

When I started reading and then reviewing Westlake, I got interested in writers Westlake referred to, directly or indirectly.  One of the books that came my way was the Library Of America anthology entitled American Noir of the 1950’s.  One novel apiece, by Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Willeford, David Goodis, and Chester Himes.

The best anthology of its type ever compiled (I have a few quibbles about the way it’s organized, but I’m a born quibbler), and the most puzzling–some of these writers had just gotten started in the 50’s. Willeford wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen by then, nobody had heard of him.  But retrospectively, right on the money.   Five powerful voices, five unique individuals, five novels that had been published, more or less, as trashy entertainment–then turned out to be a whole lot more than met the eye.  Because their authors were precisely that.

One way or another, Westlake made his appreciation of them known–and in some cases, his debt to them.  As I’ve said, if you wrote anything in the mystery field, and you really could write, he noticed you.  He marked you down as the competition–but also as allies.  To the extent prose authors can be allies.  And I think they can.

Because, you see, in any publishing niche, there’s a push towards uniformity, towards dumbing it down, not confusing the readers with unneeded complexity and (in the case of these five) downright perversity.  Towards formula.  They all worked within formulas, within molds–and they all shattered the molds they worked within.  Too large to be contained by them.  And yet, somehow, needing them as a starting point.  An incubator.

Of the five, only two could be said to have started out as genre authors–Goodis and Highsmith (Goodis in the pulps, Highsmith in classy hardcover mysteries, though she would go slumming now and again).

Thompson and Himes began as ‘serious’ novelists–Willeford started out as a sort of beat poet, though no bohemian he.  They washed out in that tonier arena, deservedly or not–many called, few chosen.  And they needed to write.  They needed people to read what they’d written.  So they found a second home in mystery, in crime, in ‘noir’–and somehow they found in the conventions of that genre the distancing mechanism that had eluded them in their more mainstream efforts.  And thus they made high art out of low.

If the price of great art is suffering, they can all be said to have paid their dues with compound interest.  I hope to never say of any friend of mine that his or her life is a biographer’s wet dream, but that could be said for all of these people.

Thompson was a child of the dust bowl, marked by the poverty and ignorance of his youth that he’d painfully risen above, that never stopped trying to pull him back down again.  An alcoholic okie; mystery’s answer to Philip K. Dick, some have called him.  I just call him a mystery, period, full-stop.  One that may not have a solution.

Himes bore the wounds of racism–and prison–and most of all, of being smarter, more perceptive, than everyone around him.  Loving his people, seeing their beauty and their flaws, knowing that White America never would give them an honest break, even while he yearned for some kind of rapprochement between the races, living in self-imposed exile in Europe.  One would like to say he was over-pessimistic about his native land, but evidence of that is thin on the ground at present.

Highsmith was rejected by her mother in a way that left her with permanent emotional scars, and although her sexual orientation was towards other women, she always preferred being around men.  Which didn’t make her any less of a misanthrope, and at times, a bigot.  People found her difficult to like–presumably because she never much liked herself.  She was at least an honest hater, and there is value in that.

Goodis, son of Philadelphia, had a comfortable enough lower middle class Jewish upbringing, made a decent living as a writer, left a substantial fortune when he died, but was a mass of neuroses, hopelessly divided between the life he wanted and the life that was expected of him.  The lyrics for I Can’t Get Started might as well have been written by him instead of Ira Gershwin, and well he knew it.  The Poet of the Losers, he would be called, but what better subject exists for poetry?

Willeford spent his adolescence as a Depression-era hobo, then had a long career as an NCO in the small peacetime army of the 30’s, leading to highly distinguished service in WWII–that he only dealt with in his poetry, because what really happened in that war was too painful for him to approach by any other route.  (It seems safe to say that Charles Willeford was one of the few great mystery authors who was a killer in other than the fictional sense, and many times over at that).  More than any of the others, he surprises, because even when he’s writing pure formula fiction, he can’t help doing the precise opposite of what you’d expect.  He wanted success on his own terms, or not at all.  And only achieved that success when he had just a few years left to enjoy it.  And he tried his best to sabotage it.  A real Willeford twist, that was.

Five edgy iconoclastic irritating underappreciated American geniuses–underappreciated to this day–and the thing about genius is, it’s always sui generis.  No two exactly alike, yet each will have points in common with the others.  To talk about who is the greatest genius is missing the point of genius.

(The other thing about literary geniuses is they don’t tend to play well with others.  Several of these five knew each other, at least in passing.  None were friends.)

Still, underappreciated though they be, rather less so than Westlake.  There are multiple scholarly biographies for Thompson, Himes, and Highsmith.  Goodis and Willeford have both had more idiosyncratic tomes devoted to them, and Westlake has yet to appear in any LOA collection.  They at least have attained the beginnings of critical respect.  I rather suspect part of the problem for Westlake, aside from the lack of a colorful biography (or, to date, any) is that he wrote too damn much.

To say Westlake was more prolific than any of them is understating the point–he was roughly as prolific as all of them combined.  That, in itself, proves nothing.  You judge writers by their best work.  The work in which they come closest to telling us who they really were.  And by that yardstick, I would say that if he ever had somehow spent an evening with the five of them, that would have been an assembly of equals.  An encounter that never happened, alas.

Or did it?

I could maybe arrange for that to happen here.

Thing is, who’s going to read it?  My reviews have been geared to people who read Westlake.  How many people out there have substantially read all these five?

And even though I have spent quality time with all of them, know the better part of their work (pretty much all of Willeford), does that qualify me to write about them?  I need more context.  Which means I’m going to have to read some of those biographies, and other things–flesh out my mental maps of each.  I figure I’ll be ready late next year.  Which is going to work out for me in terms of the pop cultural metaphor I’ve come up with to group these five together.

So in the meantime–if you’re interested–if you’ve got the time–here’s the beer.

David Goodis:

A lot of Goodis is e-vailable now, but not nearly enough.  Even reprints of some of his rarer novels can be pricey.  You can’t go wrong with the five-book Library of America collection, which covers the bases pretty well–one of his signature pieces, Down There, is in the 1950’s anthology I mentioned further back.  There’s an ebook for Cassidy’s Girl, one of his biggest sellers, and a pivot for him–the beginning of his mature style–also something of a confessional piece, with regards to his personal life.  For most of the rest, it’s up to you how many raggedy old paperbacks you want to spend too much money on.

His short stories are a very mixed bag, and I doubt anybody’s ever read them all. The collection Black Friday and Selected Stories is well worth obtaining. There’s a new e-collection, Caravan to Tarim, and I loved the title piece.  As for the rest, well if you dig WWII fables where the gutsy American fighter pilot says things like “Die, you Nazi rat!” you’re in for a treat.

Jim Thompson:

People can get into fights over which Thompsons are the best.  Or the worst.  I tend to prefer his western yarns to his eastern idylls, though Savage Night certainly is one of his classics.  His novels are never long, they’re always readable (if at times nigh-incoherent), and you’re pretty much on your own figuring out which to get.  Most are e-vailable (and not cheap, he’s got a serious following now, pity it didn’t come along sooner).

The Killer Inside Me, of course.  That’s the one the LOA put in that 50’s collection, and you’re never quite the same again after reading it.  Not for the squeamish.   The first real Thompson machine gun.

Other than the two I’ve mentioned, I’d focus in (a bit predictably, perhaps) on A Hell of a Woman, The Getaway, The Grifters, and Pop. 1280.  But if you’d like to look past all the savage nights, sweeten the mix just a bit, glimpse the man behind the mayhem–can I strongly recommend South of Heaven?  Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah, and he’s worth knowing.  Only a good man needs to know how much evil there is inside him.

Chester Himes:

One of the things I’ll be doing in the coming year is reading his ‘serious’ novels, as well as his autobiographical work.  I look forward to both.  Now let’s get really serious.  If you love American crime fiction, and you haven’t read the Harlem Detective novels, you are missing out on the ride of your life, in a little beat-up black Plymouth sedan that moves faster than you’d imagine possible, takes corners like nobody’s business.

There is nothing in all of world fiction (please note the lack of qualifiers) that can surpass the investigations of Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, and the many-hued denizens of Himes’ Harlem Of The Mind that he conjured up in France.  Yeah, I said it.  So read it.

I haven’t read the last one.  The one he didn’t publish.  I guess I’ll have to now.  I will never accept the ending I’ve read about.  I want to believe he didn’t either. But maybe it’ll look different when I get there.

Patricia Highsmith:

She’s not likable.  That doesn’t mean you can’t love her.  My significant other, a gentle soul, goes nuts over everything she writes.  I see the value in all of it, but at times it does seem a chore, slogging your way through her densely worded over-analytic prose, her needlessly repetitive plotting, to the nigh-inevitable downfall. And the evil mothers. Oy, so many evil mothers. Being a misogynistic lesbian must have been very painful. But of such dichotomies is great literature often born.

As a devotee of the Parker novels, I’m more into the Ripliad, her most optimistic work (probably not the best adjective), and the major point of connection between her and that side of Westlake that was Richard Stark.  That will be my primary focus.  I will, however, devote some time to some non-series novels and to her short stories, a form I suspect she was better at than any of the others on this list.

The thing about Highsmith is–she’s best in small doses, particularly at first.  Like a poison you build up a gradual resistance to.  Perhaps no other writer better exemplified what W.H. Auden wrote about in that section of A Shropshire Lad that begins “Terence this is stupid stuff.”  Though to be sure, she didn’t die that old.  Just a bit younger than Westlake.

As with Thompson, you might want something to leaven the dough.  In her case, that would be The Price of Salt–and perhaps also The Tremor of Forgery. There’s a dog in it.  She’s always a bit gentler with animals.  Which does, in fact, make me love her.

Charles Willeford:

It would take very little time, really, to read his entire body of work.  He didn’t produce that much.  It’s all extremely readable.  The trick is to obtain it.  The Hoke Moseley books are easy to get–maybe too easy.  I admire them, but don’t agree with Westlake that they constitute his best work (if that is in fact what Westlake thought they were).  They’re his most commercial work.  Once you have read them, you’ll recognize what a bizarre thing that is to say.

Cockfighter is e-vailable.  You have to read that, but it can make The Killer Inside Me seem humane.  He is not gentler with animals.  He’s not gentle with anybody.  His favorite among his books, and I’ll tell you why someday.

The Burnt Orange Heresy has no ebook, but isn’t hard to find.  Many think it’s his best–I would neither agree nor argue.  It’s the most perfectly balanced thing he wrote, which isn’t quite the same.   The ideal gift for the art-lover in your life. Tell him/her I recommended it.

His two volume memoirs are e-vailable, and unforgettable, and let’s just call them extra credit.  His metier was fiction.  It was good of him to leave some clues as to what inspired it.

If you can get his short western novel, The Difference (aka The Hombre From Sonora), then do.  The Black Mass of Brother Springer is essential Willeford, and that’s e-vailable (and I yearn to know what my friends who happen to be black would think about it, but I have so few friends of any color–don’t want to scare any of them away).

The Woman Chaser has maybe the worst title of any of his novels (a large statement), but it’s one of his best.  Pick-Up is in the LOA 50’s collection.  That is a problematic book to talk about.  On many levels.  But by all means, pick it up. An early gem, that shows the influence of Goodis, I think.  Willeford also noticed anybody who could write.  And often improved upon them.  Knowing, of course, that nobody would notice he’d done so.

His story collection The Machine In Ward Eleven is a collectible.  I collected it. You don’t have to.  I’m just now reading a collection of stories, articles and poems by him, entitled The Second Half of the Double Feature.  I would rank him higher than Westlake with regards to the short form–not by much.  He also needed more room to run.  But when he got a piece of that ball, he’d knock the stuffings out of it.  The more you read him, the better you know him, but that’s true of anybody worth reading.

With Willeford, all I can really say is, if you’re one of the people I’m hoping to reach with these articles I’m hoping to write, once you start reading him–you’ll keep going.  All the way to his meandering misbegotten monstrosity, The Shark-Infested Custard.  Which gets more socially relevant–and less socially acceptable–with every passing moment.

So maybe a year from now, we can talk.  Or, if you’ve read some of this already, we could talk here.  Or maybe I’m just kidding myself.  Anyway.  I’ve got a present for you guys.  I’m just starting to write it.  It won’t be ready for Christmas, but I’ll try to get it to you by New Year’s.  Many happy returns.


Filed under Uncategorized

And In Review……


A realist is somebody who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood. It isn’t.

Donald  Edwin Westlake. Speaking to Timothy J. Culver, Richard Stark, and Tucker Coe.  All of whom were also Donald Edwin Westlake.

“The direction of escape is towards freedom.  So what is ‘escapism’ an accusation of?”

Ursula K. Le Guin.

It all really began with Trent Reynolds, and The Violent World of Parker.

I’d started reading the Parker novels because I’d enjoyed two different films based on The Hunter.  I wanted to know more about what I was reading, and Wikipedia wasn’t that informative.  There was only one website on the internet devoted to Parker, at least in English.  It was there I began to acquire context.  Without which, nothing ever makes much sense.  Without which, you can’t fully understand what you read.  Not that anything worth reading is ever simple enough to be understood completely.

There was an official Westlake site, but it wasn’t getting updated much ( has steadily improved as a resource all the time I’ve been doing this blog, and there were times when I didn’t know what I’d do without it).

VWOP was more than a database–it was a community, relating to not only the Parker novels, but many other things relating to Westlake.  Engaging in its format, giving you the sense there was this world of limitless adventure and intrigue waiting for you between the covers of these books.  As a tribute site to a great genre author, I cannot say I  have ever encountered its better.

I’ve told some of this story before, no need to repeat it all, but I did what I’ve usually done since the Mid-90’s, when I find myself obsessed with a given set of fictions–I looked for people I could discuss them with online.  Because preferable as conversations in three dimensions may be, it’s not that easy to find somebody in your non-virtual life who is conversant in everything you want to talk about.

I love talking about books so much, that recently, when a lawyer friend mentioned at another friend’s birthday party that she’d read something called The Essex Serpent, and had been captivated by it, I downloaded the ebook post-haste, polished it off in a sconce, and the very next time I saw her, attempted to engage her in a far-ranging literary debate on the deeper implications of Sarah Perry’s Neo-Victorian venture into the Gothic Realm.  Which lasted maybe ten minutes. Shortly after, she moved upstate.  (That’s one way to get out of having me talk your ear off about books.)

The novel had enraptured her, but to her it was a great love story with a sort of pseudo-paranormal slant–and it’s all of that and much more (Sarah Perry bears watching, is all I’ll say for now).  But that’s all she, with her busy life, full of dogs, horses, and The Law, had time for.  We can’t all be book nerds, nor should we.  For many a book is just something to savor, then put aside.

You can read many thousands of books in a lifetime.  You don’t get a friend for each.  Book clubs are–how shall I put this?–clubbish.  Oprah, for all her powers, can only accomplish so much in one lifetime.  Even if you could afford to go back to school, where it’s normal to want to talk a novel to death, there are no courses devoted to Parker or Dortmunder (plenty for Buffy the Vampire Slayer).  And who has the tuition money?

Somewhere out there in cyberspace, there are people reading the same things you are.  The  internet does have its uses, after all.  (So does a life partner–mine loves both Parker novels and The Essex Serpent, but she’s never really gotten into the rest of Westlake, as I did when I ran out of Starks).

Trent had a comments section for each of his blog articles (some of them written by Nick Jones, polymath proprietor of the more free-ranging Existential Ennui, who Trent had developed a creative partnership with).  I began to comment.  First on Nick’s site, then on Trent’s (there was also a Yahoo!Group thingy, never did much care for that format).

I had a lot to say.  I had too damn much to say, much of it snarky in nature.  I never could bear fools gladly, and where there’s an internet, there be fools, myself not least among them, but false modesty does not become a lit-nerd. How shall I put this?

There were problems, for which I shall accept my rightful share of the blame, no more.  But the real problem, as Nick deduced, was that I needed my own space, where I could set the parameters of discussion myself.  As narrow or wide-ranging as I needed them to be.  People would dig it or not, but you can’t get thrown out of your own place.  (Well, maybe you can, but I’m not that obnoxious.)

And here we are.  And here we’ve been, for over four years now.  First me, then Ray, then Greg, Mike, jalp5dai, Anthony, Rinaldo, Phil, Adi, J. Goodman, many a kibbitzer passing on through (if I missed your name, doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the input).

It never felt like a book club–more like a loose-knit free-form crew of planners, locksmiths, drivers, assorted specialists and utility infielders, swapping insights, pulling heist after heist together–and the score was enhanced understanding of an author we all loved.  And this blog was the O.J. (sorry I never could figure out how to distill my own brand of virtual bourbon).

And because you were here, egging me on, making this exponentially more than I ever could have achieved in my own, I have finished what I set out to accomplish.  (If you knew me in real life, you’d know how remarkable that is.)  I’ve substantively and in some cases perhaps even authoritatively reviewed each and every Donald E. Westlake novel that isn’t a sleaze paperback.  Plus short story collections.  Plus a few of the less objectionable film adaptations (and one of the most objectionable).

I review by the ‘push’ method, much as Westlake wrote his fiction.  No outlines, just ideas that took shape as I worried at them, making use of various found objects as I went, and at some point I stopped wondering at how the right object was always found just when I needed it.  (Like I’m still pinching myself over the Adrian Benepe quote from 2006 that I used in my review of Comfort Station.  I bet Westlake was too.)

OR the spooky coincidences–getting to my review of Brothers Keepers right around St. Crispin’s Day, or posting Part One of my Good Behavior review around the Feast of St. Dismas, which fell on Good Friday that year.  And then there was my review of Adios Scheherazade, that I got in on April Fool’s Day. (Thanks again to Mr. Westlake for answering my celestial correspondence in time for that to happen.  Sorry, I still can’t tell you what happened to Ambrose Bierce.)

Sure, if I noticed the temporal convergence, I’d work a bit faster so as to have that date stamp–but if you think I planned that out more than a day or two in advance, you really do not know who you’re dealing with here. I can’t even plan where I go to lunch more than a minute before I head out the door, and sometimes it’s a minute after.  I do my taxes online, right after I get my W2–in about 45 minutes (I’ve spent my refund before you’ve finished itemizing deductions).  I live by the ‘push’ method.  Doesn’t everyone?  Don’t answer that.

My reviews kept getting longer as I went, more complicated, more spoiler-laden, and sometimes less readable, but it seemed like the more I said, the more I had to say, and the deeper into the weeds I had to get.  To some extent, that was true of Westlake as well, so it wasn’t all my fault.  The more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know.  You know?

Many of my favorite reviews are one-parters, but I hold some of my three-parters in high regard, and as for four-parters, let’s just be grateful I didn’t do a Tolstoy blog.  (Never read Proust; maybe I’ll have the time now.)

As we create our own identities, we create our own realities.  I came to feel that Westlake had been waiting for me.  While I was gestating, getting born, learning how to walk, experiencing my first conscious memories, he was writing his first novels under his own name, and Stark’s, and Coe’s, and etc. We shared two states and a lot of years, as our lives moved on parallel lines, never meeting once.  I could have met him, quite easily, as I’ve met other writers I admired.  He was notoriously friendly and helpful to readers who got in touch with him.  I never even read him until he was gone.  Freddie-come-lately.

And the more I read of him, the more I knew I’d found a mind that worked very much like mine.  Only tougher.  Fiercer.  More disciplined.  I began to perceive that I would never be the smartest person in any room Donald E. Westlake was in.  And by figuring him out, I might figure myself into the bargain.  (Thus answering the Dortmunderian query, Quid lucrum istic mihi est?)

I feel like everything in my life prepared me, in one way or another, to grasp him.  Too much familiarity might have gotten in the way, somehow.  Many knew him up close–I scanned him from afar.  In the best way anyone can scan a writer.  Through what he or she wrote.  Because it is through art, not conversation, or correspondence, that we humans tell the unvarnished truth about ourselves.  What cannot be said can be sung.

And how he sang to us all, of darkness and light, of laughter and pain, of criminals, clowns, calamities and capers, and always, in every word that came out of his Smith Coronas, of self.  Of identity.  Who are you?  What are you doing?  Where are you going? How will you get there?  Will you get there in one piece?  Will you let this world break you down to nothing, or will you stand up, fight back, get away clean?

Sometimes you fight best on your own.  Sometimes you need a string.  But either way, the fight is to be yourself.  The hardest thing in this world to be.  And the only thing in this world that matters a damn.

He hid his theme well, but it was always there, for those who were willing to see that this most diverting and versatile of storytellers was never content with mere diversion, and his experiments with style and form were merely conduits for a vision that went far beyond the normal parameters of his chosen genre.  His hideout, if you will.  Where he could plan his heists without the law catching wise.

His goal was never escapism.  Escape, sure.  We all need a getaway car, now and then.  But escapism, to me (pace Dame Ursula), means wanting to forget the real world entirely.  To lose yourself in stories, when you should be finding yourself there.  To never learn, never confront your problems, never grow up, never become anything. To never be real.  Because it hurts so damn much.  It’s easier to be a phoney all your life.  To never look past the surface of things.  To skate on through, sweating the small stuff, missing the big picture.

If that’s what you want, you are in the wrong fucking place when you open a Donald Westlake novel.  You picked the wrong getaway car (and with no MD plates; I can hear Kelp tsking).  There’s a reason he never had a best-seller in his life, in spite of being one of the best-liked most-admired writers of his generation.  Escapism sells because most people don’t have the guts to stare the world as it is right in the face, stare it down.  He did.

But he did it without pretense, without affectation, without hubris.  Without roaring in the jungles of high culture, like some literary lion, fighting the other lions over prizes and plaudits (and occasionally, plagiarism).

He much preferred to prowl the fringes, like a grinning coyote.  Leaner. Meaner. More cunning. More adaptable.  Built to last.  Always finding a crack to slip through, a score to tide him over. A survivor, as much at home on a city sidewalk as a primeval wilderness. The equivalent of a coyote in Africa is a jackal, and guess who’s going to eat the last lion? The trickster always wins in the end.

It’s a funny old world, isn’t it?  And much too complicated to be fully understood by any one storyteller.  Brilliant as Westlake was, I was never out to say he was the be-all and end-all, that there were not many wordsmiths who could best him in this or that arena of their shared profession, or that perceptive as he was, he was never wrong.

He would have known too well the universal truth of Charles Willeford’s dictum,  “My work is one long triumph over my limitations.”  But I knew that he merited a bit more attention from the opinion-makers of the book world.  That he was being taken too lightly, and he still is, and will be for some time to come.  So if I overcompensated, let’s at least acknowledge I had something to overcompensate for, and someone worth doing it for.

When I named this blog, I was making an implicit pun.  Yes, it’s The Westlake Review because I’m reviewing everything Westlake.  But it’s also my understaffed attempt at a sort of literary journal.  The kind that many other great writers have been honored with after their deaths (I think they’d have mainly preferred cash, but never mind).

The point of my reviews was never “This book is great, this one’s pretty decent, this one’s okay, this one’s kind of meh”–not to evaluate them as works of entertainment, as ‘reads,’ because others had already done that.  I wanted to evaluate them as expressions of a man’s soul, commentaries on the world he saw around him, the worlds he saw inside himself, and inside all of us.

I wanted, more than anything else, to convince people that he was and is a Great Writer–he may never have won a literary prize more prestigious than the Edgar, but remind me how many prizes Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Dickens ever won?  Is he that immortal? No, and neither are most of the dead writers who actually have their own scholarly journals, where every word is parsed, every sentence deconstructed, every meaning hidden, and only other scholars give a shit.

This is a journal for scholars of the road.  Scholars without portfolio.  The best scholars for a meat and potatoes guy like him, though really, the tenured set might try a bit harder.  We here are looking for a different kind of tenure.

I saw too few highbrows out there even trying to understand him at more than a superficial level–not just because he was genre, but because he was funny. And because he wrote so much, in so many different voices, he was too hard to get a handle on. The blind men never did get their act together with regards to this elephant, but maybe they’ll compare notes someday.  Don’t hold your breath.

There was also a lowbrow section of  his readership I ran into online–mainly Stark readers, and you know the type.  They likewise couldn’t see past the outward trappings of genre, the macho wish-fulfillment angle, which has its place in crime fiction, just as it does in Homeric poetry, but the difference was, they didn’t want to see anything else.  I’m pleased to say I saw very little of that type here–I probably bored them.  The feeling is mutual.

I guess that makes me midbrow?  Do people still use that term?  However elevated my brow may be, it was frequently knit when trying to pierce Mr. Westlake’s mysteries.  (Which I will say one last time were never about whodunnit.)  He put me through my paces, slow dance to foxtrot.  And the dance floor is barely scratched.  I got a small piece of what’s in there.  Waiting now in joyful hope for a greater detective than myself, whose gumshoes I am not fit to shine.

I’ll never say all there is to say about him, but that would hold true for any subject of note. My problem is, I have not yet said all I have to say about him. I’m not done yet.  There are short stories I haven’t read. Nonfiction articles I could look at.  There are sleazy paperbacks he wrote to pay bills, and I can’t give them the same treatment his real work got, but they might be worth a quick pass through (if I can afford to buy enough of them–very collectible). There’s an archive in Boston I could mine for gold, as Greg did before me.  And there are things about books I’ve already reviewed that I just didn’t have enough context to pick up on the first time through.

And there are a few other crime writers I want to talk about–each of whom has some kind of oddball connection to Westlake.   Each of whom had his attention, and they have mine too.  I need more context there as well.  Which means I need time to read up on them.  Which means I may not be posting so often for a while.  It’s going to depend on what found objects surface in the coming year.

But to go back to where I started, this all began with The Violent World of Parker.  Which showed me what could be done with an internet connection, a bit of spare time, and a lot of passion.  It convinced me that you could create an online community devoted to a writer who isn’t yet counted among the immortals, and it also proved that running out of books doesn’t mean you’ve run out of things to talk about.  That was my first model for what I’ve done here. Showed me the ropes.

It also warned me this is an ephemeral medium.  Back in 2015, VWOP vanished from the internet.  There had been outages here and there in the past, but they never lasted long.  This one dragged on for seeming eons.  Nobody knew the story.  I’d have emailed him, but the only addy I had was from VWOP.   Going by the metaphor of somebody’s blog as his or her getaway car, it began to seem like we’d seen Trent’s last mace.  Oh please, you knew that was coming.

Then, days ago, I got an email from him.  Asking if I’d update the link to VWOP in my Known Associates sidebar–which I never had the heart to get rid of, even though it now leads to a site hawking hair products to Japanese men. Don’t ask–well, if you must.

If I hadn’t read so many Westlake farces, I’d call that outlandish yarn of VWOP‘s foreign abduction a bald-faced fib. (You knew that was coming too.)  A Likely Story indeed!

On a purely selfish level, I’m relieved I don’t have to go back and update all those links to sections of his site that I put in my reviews.  What’s that, you say?  Now that the addy for VWOP has changed, however slightly, I still have to do that?  That should keep me busy a spell.  Anybody remember which reviews those were in?

But here we are again with the freaky coincidences.  VWOP was a long time dead.  Nick Jones had pretty much stopped writing about Westlake, before I ever got started.  All that while, I was holding forth here, on my long slog through the canon. What were the odds VWOP would come back–with Nick Jones once more contributing–just as I was writing my last review?  And that, at the very same time, a new voice was heard singing in the marshes?  (Can’t wait for him to get to The Blackbird.) The world is not simple enough to understand.  Neither is the internet.

Ethan Iverson’s vitally important summation, with its unique insights, never left.  David Bratman’s pioneering compendium of pocket reviews not only survives, but has been updated recently.  The Official Site continues to expand, and I think you might say we’ve got a quorum here.  Always room for one more.

Timing is everything.  I came along at just the right time to have a level of access to Westlake’s work that earlier enthusiasts could only dream of.  The last unpublished novel (they’re pretty sure) came out this year.  The Getaway Car came out just as I was starting.  This is, in fact, a golden age for Westlake scholarship and general appreciation.  The only thing we don’t have is–well……

I think sometimes about his very last day on earth.  In a country he loved.  As the country where he lived embarked on a new era, his opinions of which I could not comment on, except to say he’d have preferred it to the one we’re in now. (He really did try to warn us, you know.  We really should have listened, you know.  But hey, what’s the worst that could happen, huh?)

Details are sketchy about his demise.  He took a trip to Mexico, and never came back.  (He and Bierce must have had a good laugh about that).  Seems that he who lives by the ‘push’ method may also die by it.  Were there last words?   I’ve long heard that the famous last words of famous authors are generally more like the last reasonably coherent things they said–penultimate words.  So what were they?  Somebody knows.

I respect his family’s privacy.  In this and many other things.  But there should be a biography of him, and not that far into the future.  I heard somebody was working on one.  That was years ago.  Don’t look at me.  You don’t write scholarly tomes by the ‘push’ method.  And I suppose I’d end up preferring the man I imagined.  The face I could see as I read his work.

At the risk of repeating myself (And don’t I always?  Hasn’t killed me yet.) I shall close this section of The Westlake Review with the same words I finished my review of Kahawa with–the finishing lines of George Orwell’s essay on Charles Dickens, one of the writers Westlake most identified with.  They work oddly well for him too.  A man born out of his time, who nonetheless chose to live and write in the present, because that’s where the fight is.

He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.



Filed under Uncategorized

Mr. Reese and the Candids


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

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

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

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


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

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

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





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

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

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




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



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

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

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

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




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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.


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–


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.


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?


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.

Personally, I think Jim Brown always saw himself as Jim Brown first, everything else second.  Part of equal rights is the right to be yourself.  Not saying he didn’t or doesn’t care about civil rights, that he didn’t identify with the people he came from–he did, and does, he’s still a leader in that area today, in his 80’s–but he’s not so easily pigeonholed, and he always goes his own way.  Doesn’t give a damn what people think.

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.


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–


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, far as I’m concerned, 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.


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