Tag Archives: Alain Cavalier

Review: Jimmy The Kid, Part 2

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When Parker got to the intersection he made a U-turn and stopped, facing back th way he had come.  He and Angie waited in the Dodge while Henley took the ROAD CLOSED–DETOUR sign out of the trunk and set it up blocking the numbered country road, with the arrow pointing toward the smaller blacktop road leading off into the woods to the right.

Kelp went over and set up the sign.  It was a three-by-four piece of thin metal that had once advertised 7-Up, and the shape of the bottle could still be seen vaguely through the yellow paint.  Kelp had also thought to bring a triangular arrangement of sticks to lean the sign against, a detail not  mentioned in Child Heist.  He put the sign in place, trotted back to the Caprice and said, “How’s that?”

Dortmunder looked at it.  It said ROAD CLOSED–DETURE.  He said “Jesus H. Goddam Christ.”

“What’s the matter?”  Kelp looked all around the intersection, worried.  “Did I put it in the wrong place?”

“Do you have that goddam book on you? ”

“Sure,” Kelp said.

“Take it out,” Dortmunder said, “and find the page where they set up the sign.”   Turning to May, he said, “I’m following a book he read, and he doesn’t even know how to read!”

Kelp said, “I got it.”

“Look at it.  Now look at the sign.”

Kelp looked at the book.  He looked at the sign.  He said, “Son of a gun.  Detour.  I thought sure you–”

“You can’t even read!”

Between the film adaptations, foreign editions, and reprints, I think this book got as many different covers as anything Westlake ever wrote–more than I feel like featuring here, but I am bemused by how many of the first edition foreign covers prominently featured that well-known rodentine leader of the club that’s made for you and me.  Do I have to spell it out?  The American covers mainly didn’t go there.  And I assume that’s because the Disney legal department has a lot less clout overseas, and couldn’t be bothered to chase down every last little trademark infringement.   Surprised Ballantine Books risked it for the paperback reprint, though it’s pretty clear that’s just a kid in a mask.  The Japanese cover makes it look like Mikki-san is actually in the book.  Nefarious.  And delightful.

But if you want true pop cultural sacrilege–

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Much as I agree Kelp and Dortmunder have a sort of hardboiled Stan & Ollie vibe going on a lot of the time, this is just wrong.  I mean, clearly Dortmunder is the Ollie in that relationship, but he’s the skinny one.  And somehow I just can’t imagine Kelp getting all weepy and squeaky-voiced when Dortmunder admonishes him.  And Stan & Ollie with guns?  Pointed at a child’s back?  It’s very very wrong.  I’m surprised at you, Denmark.  You’re supposed to be setting an example here.

So last time I mentioned Lionel White’s The Snatchers.  His second novel, published by Gold Medal in 1953.  I now have a copy in my possession (they’re thin on the ground these days), and the first thing I have to say is that it sucks as a novel.  As a rough blueprint for a kidnapping executed by two French criminals, it seems to have worked very well.  So the kidnappers in that book get away clean, right?  Of course not.  Every last one of the kidnappers are dead by the end of that book.  I’m not sure any of White’s criminal protagonists are ever alive and free at the end of his stories.  Nobody was doing that in the early 50’s.

Patricia Highsmith didn’t publish The Talented Mr. Ripley until 1955, and that was an extreme outlier in the genre until at least 1962, when The Hunter came out.   Writing in the early 60’s, Westlake originally had Parker cut down by police bullets at the end of The Hunter, and was persuaded to change that ending by Bucklin Moon.  Westlake later said he didn’t want to kill Parker, but that was just how you were supposed to end that kind of story, with that kind of protagonist.  He would have assumed the book wouldn’t sell otherwise.  Highsmith was much better established when she wrote the first Ripley book, having had Strangers On A Train adapted by Hitchcock.  And she still makes you feel at the end like Ripley’s going to get his someday.

I doubt any crime writer of that general period, even Highsmith, would have shown a gang of kidnappers grabbing a small child, getting their money, and walking off into the sunset.  That would be a hard sell today–certainly for anything published as popular entertainment.  Highsmith did write a book about a well-off couple’s little dog being kidnapped and murdered by a low-life sociopath, who pretends the dog is alive to get money out of the couple.  Virtue is rarely rewarded in her books, nor is evil always punished, but Highsmith loved animals (people not so much), and she made damn sure the bastard got what was coming to him.

The kidnapping in White’s book is planned by a cool calculating fellow named Cal Dent, looking to score big and retire.  His gang are a mixed bag of misfits and psychos, he being the only solid pro in the group (a pattern White returned to frequently)–and there’s one really hot blonde who’s along for the ride to provide sexual tension.  It’s told mainly from the POV of the kidnappers, the kidnap victim, and the victim’s lovely young red-headed nursemaid (Irish, of course), who got snatched as well, which leads to more sexual tension, of course.  The kid and the nursemaid both survive in the end, thanks partly to Dent having a change of heart, making a noble sacrifice.  Hey, I didn’t say it was Richard Stark.

Cal Dent is extremely reminiscent of Parker, though–a forerunner, you might say.  This is a Dortmunder review, so I can’t go into much detail about it, but the similarities are striking.  The blonde looks at him and thinks he’s not even human, he’s like a lean tawny cat.  She wants to hook up with him, even though her current boyfriend is another member of the gang, and Dent tells her maybe after the job–no sex while he’s working (but he breaks that rule).

He has a conscience, much as he doesn’t want to admit it–the redhead isn’t like any dame he’s known before, gets under his skin, makes him regret he’s such a bad seed, arouses his bestial lust, and you’ve seen this movie before.

The kidnap plan is clever enough, the people executing it not so much, and there’s some strokes of bad luck nobody could have foreseen.  So the Peugeot kidnappers would have thought “Okay, we’re not crazy like those people, and we were born lucky, so we’ll do it the way it was supposed to be done, get the money, give the kid back, and no blondes or redheads until afterwards.”  It worked fine until, as Westlake said, they ran out of book, and did the usual stupid things people tend to do when they suddenly have a lot of money.  Quite possibly involving blondes and redheads.  I wouldn’t know.

The Snatchers has got some good ideas in it, and a nicely atmospheric Long Island setting.  But that aside, it’s mainly tawdry ‘ripped from the headlines’ melodrama, which makes sense given White’s professional background as a crime reporter (he can’t resist showing off his insider knowledge a bit).

White unquestionably was an important pioneer of the heist novel (once described as ‘The Master of the Big Caper’ in the New York Times, which can be annoyingly inconsistent in its literary standards).  But as anybody knows who has read Carroll John Daly–then compared him to Dashiell Hammett–getting there first isn’t everything.

I could easily see Westlake reading this book and finding Dent’s mindset interesting.  The other members of the gang feel like shopworn stereotypes.  Westlake would look to writers like Hammett, Himes, and Rabe to show him how to craft a good crime story, how to make characters jump off the page at you, how to avoid getting mired in cheap cliches.  That being said, you can get ideas from anywhere.

Westlake later went to some pains to identify White as the indirect inspiration of Jimmy The Kid–if he did draw some inspiration from White’s work when creating Parker, he might have felt a certain sense of indebtedness–and caution, since White was still alive in 1978, when Westlake wrote that piece for Brian Garfield’s anthology in which he told the story of this book’s genesis.  He once said that he didn’t like talking about his influences until the copyrights had expired.  Never give another writer an opening for a lawsuit, particularly if he’s not a buddy of yours, and your career is going better than his.

If White’s work was one inspiration among many leading to the creation of Parker, that means it also led to the creation of Dortmunder, since the latter began as an attempt to write a funny Parker novel.  So in a way, it all ties together in this one book.

One thing I can say with certainty now is that the kidnapping in Jimmy The Kid owes nothing to the one in The Snatchers.  Entirely different plans, entirely different crews.  And as I remarked in Part 1, it doesn’t seem like anything at all goes wrong with the plan in Child Heist, the ‘Richard Stark’ novel Kelp has become obsessed with.   Everything unfolds with clockwork precision in those three chapters we get to read from that book-within-a-book.

Briefly, Parker and his string identify a rich kid being regularly chauffeured to and from the city, and make sure the limo has a phone in it.  They follow the car, scope out the route in advance.  The next time the limo is heading back, they put up a fake detour sign, and lay a rather involved trap involving multiple vehicles (this is the part of the book Murch likes). They wear Mickey Mouse masks so the kid won’t be scared (it’s impossible to imagine Stark ever letting his people look that ridiculous, or for Parker to give a damn whether the kid is scared or not, and I’d be terrified if I saw armed men in Mickey Mouse masks–why not clown masks?).  There are two women in the string to look after the kid, keep him from panicking (and provide a pretext for May and Murch’s mom to be in on the action this time).

They make contact with the father, tell him to get the money, put it in a suitcase, and get on a highway of their choosing, to await further instructions.  They expect the father to have contacted the Feds, and for the Feds to be keeping a close eye on the limo, but they call  the father en route (that’s why they needed the car to have a phone).   They tell him to stop at an designated overpass, heave the suitcase over the guard rail, and leave.  They’re parked down below.  By the time the Feds figure it out, the gang has absconded with the loot.  We never find out how they were going to return the kid, and maybe that’s where something went wrong, and Kelp papered it over in his mind, like the French guys did in real life.

That’s Child Heist, and I don’t think we need mourn the fact that three chapters is all we get.  Westlake wrote it for ironic counterpoint, and that’s all you get from it.  Still better than The Snatchers, though.

And as you may gather from the quote up top, every last little thing that works perfectly in Child Heist falls to pieces in Jimmy The Kid.  But not all for the same reasons.  Kelp misspelling ‘detour’ isn’t a major problem, but it’s a bad omen.  The fact is, life is never as simple and stripped-down as it is in a Parker novel–that’s one of the allures of those books.  Yes, Parker has a lot of bad luck, but he never has any bad luck that makes him look silly.  When you read a Richard Stark novel, you get to watch a perfectly executed plan, then you get to watch some unforeseen complication sour it, then you get to see Parker find some way to salvage something from the wreckage.

But in a Dortmunder, there are no perfect plans, the bad luck never stops coming, and yet there’s always these odd strokes of good luck to counterbalance it, and keep Dortmunder from going back to prison, so we can laugh at him again later on.

Part of the problem is that Dortmunder and his string, while seasoned pros, are still clay-footed bumblers at times, because we all are.  They’re maybe a bit too nice for the business they’re in, a bit too easily distracted, a bit too (for want of a better word) Runyonesque.  Not only could they never harm a kid, no kid in his right mind would ever take a good look at them and think they could.  Another part of the problem is that the kid himself, Jimmy Harrington, is much smarter than any of them, and has his own agenda that they never figure out until it’s too late.   Mainly, the problem is that the God of their universe is Donald E. Westlake.

Right after they grab Jimmy (who is rather insulted they think he’d like something as babyish as Mickey Mouse) the phone in the limo rings–and it turns out a local Sussex County radio station–the exact part of New Jersey Parker and Claire settled down in, and I seem to recall Westlake lived there a while as well–has picked this exact moment in time to call Jimmy, because he wrote  to them about one of those those phone quiz contests radio stations love to do for promotional reasons that have never made any sense to me.

And the gang, caught off guard, can’t think of an excuse for Jimmy to get off the line.  So he sits there inside the limo, which is halfway inside a truck, answering every question perfectly, while the gang of desperate kidnappers waits breathlessly to see if this filthy rich  kid wins 500 bucks worth of prizes.  The last question is in astrology, and Jimmy doesn’t know that subject, but Kelp gives him the correct answer (that he knows, but not how to spell ‘detour’).

Now you can’t call that realism–there’s no way that would ever happen in an actual kidnapping, and they’d just disconnect the call if it did.  But it illustrates the sheer perversity of existence that afflicts us all.   Maybe you’d never get a call like this when you were kidnapping somebody, but if you got a call like this, it would happen at the worst possible time, bet on that.

Parker’s setbacks are usually related to human weakness in some way–that he can’t understand our confused identities, his own being so sure and settled.  But Dortmunder’s problem is that the universe itself conspires to make him look ridiculous–to undermine his self-image, his identity as a tough competent heist planner.  His cohorts will never betray him, as Parker’s routinely do–they’re more of an extended family than a gang, really–but that just makes things harder in many ways.  For one thing, it means he can’t just do what Parker does when his colleagues thwart him in some way–shoot them.  That’s a nice perk, you must admit.

They’re supposed to finish driving the limo into a truck Murch obtained, but the limo doesn’t fit, and the planks they put out to drive it up on won’t hold it, and this is something we’ve seen in so many heist novels and movies, driving one vehicle into another to confuse the law, and it always works flawlessly in stories–Dortmunder says fuck it, it’s too complicated, they’ll just drive to the hideout in their own car–anyway, doesn’t the father have to have the limo with the phone in it in order to carry out the rest of the plan?  What was the point of taking the limo to start with?   (And yes, Dortmunder did plan a job that involved driving a car into a truck in The Hot Rock, but in that case the car was a lot smaller, and the style of the series is changing.)

It took Murch a long time to find an abandoned farmhouse, like the one Parker’s string uses in their book, because they’ve all been converted into country houses by city people with more money than brains, so they can be featured in those hoity-toity magazines you see at your doctor’s office and never bother to read.  He finally found one, with absolutely no amenities of any kind, other than a roof and walls.

It’s really well-hidden.  The cops will never find it.  We know this because Murch himself can’t find it for quite a long time.   They just keep driving up to one converted farmhouse after another, and then get driven off by a seemingly endless succession of Great Danes and German Shepherds, all well aware their job descriptions include keeping the riff raff off the property   You ever think maybe Westlake had mixed emotions about country life?

Jimmy isn’t scared at all, now that he’s had a good look at these clowns, but he is determined to get back to his life as soon as possible (he’s got a film career to pursue), and he quickly escapes the locked room he’s in, finds a handy toolbox in the attic,  and uses it to rig the nails fastening the boards over the window in his room, so he can leave anytime he wants–they won’t even be able to figure out how he did it.  Which seems a mite sadistic.  But I don’t think it’s meant that way.  He’s just acting out a different kind of story, and we all read those stories as kids, right?  “Daring boy adventurer outwits dimwitted criminals using ingenious methods.”   Those were cool.   Now if he was trying to scalp them in their sleep, that would be sadistic.

Now we get to meet Jimmy’s father, Herbert Harrington, and he may be the funniest character in the book.   He is genuinely (if distantly) fond of his son, who he had with his second (now-estranged) wife, relatively late in life, and Jimmy is turning out much better than his older brother, who we’re told is living on some hippie commune or whatever.  But Harrington Sr. is not one for big emotions, you might say.   He’s the rich guy in the book, and we’re well familiar with Westlake’s reaction to that class of human, but he’s not super-rich, and he earned his money doing something he genuinely enjoys (corporate lawyer), and Westlake is a dad himself, so Herbert gets off relatively unscathed.  Accent on relatively.

He’s just gotten off the phone with Murch’s Mom, and the whole thing was taped by the FBI, and they’re playing back the tape–he’s shocked that his voice sounds like that.  Is that really him?  The man has probably taped hundreds of memos for secretaries to type up, and he never listened to one.

He knew Jimmy had been kidnapped, because they let the chauffeur go back with the car.  He’s more confused than worried.  This is all so unexpected.  Anyway, Murch’s Mom tells him not to call the police, and he immediately tells her he already did (because they forgot to tell the chauffeur to tell him that, probably because the book didn’t mention it).   It’s a good thing he’s dealing with nice kidnappers here.

Murch’s Mom is confused as well, because she’s reading from a copy of Child Heist, and it doesn’t match up to the conversation that well, but she adapts the material as best she can.   They want Harrington to get one hundred fifty grand in cash.  He says that will take some time–would eighty-five thousand be okay?  No, it will not (Murch’s Mom is a bit shocked he’d even bring this up).   Afterwards one of the Feds asks him if he was actually haggling over his son’s ransom, like this was an ordinary business deal, and he realizes he was–conditioned reflex.   Man doesn’t know himself at all.

The head FBI man says this is a cunning gang of professionals, and there’s something oddly familiar about their MO, but he can’t quite put his finger on it.   Well, I doubt the Harringtons would have those kinds of books in their library, anyway.  Herbert says it’s interesting that Modus Operandi and Method of Operations have the same initials.   He’s taking all this rather well, you must admit.

That night, Jimmy escapes while the gang watches TV on a battery-operated set.  It’s easy.   Almost too easy.   But then he realizes that it’s cold, and it’s raining, and he can’t see even see the dirt road leading to the main road, and maybe this isn’t such a great idea after all.   Whatever kinds of stories he’s been reading, it seems they have their drawbacks in terms of practical application as well.

So he walks back into the house–he was supposed to be sleeping upstairs–in a locked room.  Everyone is startled, and they start grabbing for their Mickey Mouse masks, because he’s not supposed to see their faces.  Dortmunder is more concerned with how he got out, but when he starts interrogating the kid, May immediately takes Jimmy’s side, starts fussing over him like a mother hen, and the mystery of his Houdini-like escape remains unsolved or the time being.

Their cover has been blown now–the masks were really uncomfortable anyway–but in exchange for getting to stay up and watch a movie, Jimmy promises he’ll never identify them to the police.   It’s The Bride of Frankenstein–when I was twelve, I’d have promised anything to stay up and watch that, though Channel 9 usually showed the Universal horror pics on Saturday mornings, anyway.   Jimmy starts telling them about James Whale’s innovative use of camera angles–I probably wouldn’t have done that at age twelve, but I did know who James Whale was, because I read a lot of monster movie books–it was very sad that he drowned in his pool–the books were a bit vague about that part.  I digress once more.

Kelp, still stuck in his book, keeps his mask on a lot longer than the rest, but finally relents.  This living out a fictional story in reality thing is not as easy as he thought.   But all that’s left is getting the money–that should be a cinch!

So they tell Mr. Harrington to get on the road, with the notion of course being that they’ll call him and have him drop the money the way it happens in the Parker book.   But there’s a small problem.  The limo phone is busy.   For a long time.  Well, he is missing a day at the office for this, you know–there’s a lot of important work he needs to get done, and he brought it with him, and he’s using the phone in the limo to make business calls.  A man is allowed to do that in his own car, surely.  By the time Mrs. Murch finally reaches him, he’s all the way to the Delaware Water Gap.  A scenic wonder, as is well known.  He’d never been there before.  Never had the time.  So it’s not a total waste.

There are other problems–they are using Interstate 80, and according to the book, they have to find an exit that has no people or buildings near it.  There is no such exit on I-80, and Dortmunder thinks darkly to himself that he bets there’s no such exit along the Northern State Parkway on Long Island, which is what’s used in Child Heist“The writer had just been making things easy for himself.”   

Maybe my favorite scene in the book occurs in this chapter–Murch’s Mom, being the one picked to make the ransom calls, is trying to reach Harrington from a pay phone by a Burger King.  She drove there in a Plymouth Roadrunner her son thoughtfully stole for her.  But these bikers are outside the restaurant (technically, that’s what Burger Kings are) eating lunch, revving their engines, and making so much noise she can’t possibly have a civil ransom-related discussion with anyone.   What on earth can this helpless old lady do, faced with such inconsiderate ruffians?

Murch’s Mom, leaving the phone off the hook, stepped out of the booth and went over to the Roadrunner.  She had seen tools on the back seat; yes, there was a nice big monkey wrench.  She picked it up, hefted it, and went over to stand in front of the motorcyclists, who were sitting on their throbbing machines, filling their faces with whoppers.  She didn’t say anything; not that it would have been possible in any event.  She stood looking at them.  She thumped the monkey wrench gently into the palm of her left hand.  She lifted it, thumped it gently again, lifted it, thumped it, lifted it, thumped it.

They became aware of her.  Their eyes followed the small movements of the monkey wrench.  They looked at one another, and they looked at Murch’s Mom’s face.  Methodically, without any appearance of undue haste but nevertheless efficiently, they stuffed their mouths with the rest of their whoppers, packed their pockets with french fries, tied their Cokes to their gas tanks with little leather straps, and drove away.

Nobody fucks with Murch’s Mom.  Not even Murch.  And now I better show a picture of her car, before she gets mad at me.

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(You can think what you like, but I think the Roadrunner is a tip of the hat to Chuck Jones).

So after every last possible thing that could have gone wrong has gone wrong (up to and including the Harrington limo being stopped for speeding by an overzealous state trooper who can’t wrap his mind around the fact that the chauffeur is an undercover FBI agent who likes to drive really fast), they get to the right overpass, and Harrington almost throws his briefcase full of business documents that he shouldn’t have had with him to begin with over the side, but it’s the suitcase of money that goes over–and right onto Dortmunder’s head, knocking him out cold.

But they have the loot!   It worked!   What can possibly go wrong now?   Well, for one thing, the book didn’t mention that the FBI has little tracking devices they can put into things like suitcases, and everyone, Herbert Harrington included, is amazed these people managed to find an actual abandoned farmhouse that has not been turned into a posh country home already, but that’s not important now–a small army of G-Men has surrounded the Dortmunder Gang’s criminal redoubt, and will move in shortly before sunrise, because Feds read books too, and that’s how these things are done.

(Perhaps now is the time to mention that the kidnappers in The Snatchers didn’t find an abandoned farmhouse on Long Island–they rented a summer cottage on the beach in the off-season.  I’ve gone through three Lionel White novels while researching this piece–no expense was spared–not an abandoned farmhouse in sight–it’s more of a David Goodis thing, wouldn’t you say?  Or, for that matter, a Richard Stark thing.  This isn’t a Lionel White parody.  Perhaps in part because there’s not enough of a style there to hang a parody on.  Oh, that was mean).

Jimmy escapes again–he’s grown somewhat fond of these strange people, but the weather has improved, and it’s time to go.  He did get to enjoy watching The Thing (1949, credited to Christian Nyby, probably directed by Howard Hawks) with them, so that’s something.

And as he leaves the house, better prepared for his escape, he hears the FBI men whispering to each other in the dark.  He thinks about it.  He goes back inside to warn the gang.  Dortmunder still wants to know how this damn kid gets out of a locked room so easy, and now he finds out, because that’s the escape route.  They sneak through the enemy lines, and camp out in the woods all night, cold and wet, watching Captain Blood (1935, Michael Curtiz, Jimmy would you please give the screen credits a rest already?).

Jimmy is still lecturing them about camera angles as the sun rises.  It’s time for them to find a car and get back to the city, but Jimmy asks if they can’t please wait until the movie is over?  It’s very well done!  “I’m almost willing,” Dortmunder said.  “I’d like to see something well done.”   He really can be such a Debbie Downer, sometimes.

Kelp, as we know, must always steal the automobiles of doctors, because doctors, being so aware of their own mortality, make sure they have the most comfortable life-enhancing vehicles.  But in this remote area, all he can manage is a van from a local veterinary practice that smells of sick dog.   They’re all ready to throw up by the time they get back to New York.

They drop Jimmy off at Eighth Ave. and 42nd St (we are informed that nobody there pays any mind, because a twelve year old getting out of a veterinarian’s van at 8:30am on a Friday is the most normal thing that’s happened there in years). He can get to his psychiatrist’s office and call his dad from there, then have his appointment, and of course enjoy a good gloat at Dr. Schraubenzieher’s expense, since someone was watching him, ha-ha, Q.E.D.!  He waves goodbye, and tells them not to feel bad.

Uh-oh.

Yeah, he took the ransom money.   Got it out of the suitcase when they weren’t looking, and stuffed it into his cute little Air France bag.  Didn’t think of that angle, did you, Richard Stark?   And just to add insult to injury, as rich people come out of the womb knowing how to do like no one else, he leaves them a goddam tip–a thousand bucks–two hundred apiece.  And that’s how the caper crumbles.

And next chapter jumps ahead about a year.   Richard Stark (the one who lives in Dortmunder’s world) is contacting his attorney.  He wants to sue the makers of a film called Kid Stuff, which is clearly based on his novel Child Heist, and is furthermore an irreverent burlesque of it.   This Dortmunderverse version of Stark is no more indulgent of such frivolities than the one we know.   He demands retribution.

But he shall not get it, because as his lawyer informs him, the director and writer of this film was one James Harrington, thirteen year old Hollywood wunderkind, whose rich father financed his first film to the tune of one hundred fifty thousand smackers (give or take a thousand).  It’s all based on his own real-life kidnapping, and is therefore legally bulletproof.   Because you can’t copyright real-life events.   Remember?

See, when the elder Harrington finally spoke to his son over the phone, prior to his release, he felt a surge of some emotion I suppose one must refer to as love. He’s been very distant and distracted the whole time, but he finally realizes he really did want his son back more than anything, and when the FBI guy asks him if he wants to hear the tape of the conversation played back, he says no–he’s afraid he might start weeping, and he doesn’t want that.

But once his admirably resourceful youngest son and heir presented him with the ransom money–then no doubt innocently raised the notion of making a movie about the whole thing–well, what proud father could say no?  And a father Herbert Harrington is, in his own constipated way.  And Jimmy Harrington achieves his career goal at roughly the same time he achieves puberty (convenient!).  Another identity puzzle solved–kind of.  Some people are born to win.   And others–well…….

The book ends with Dortmunder and Kelp–it’s been a year since they’ve spoken, for obvious reasons–and this time Dortmunder accidentally screws up a heist Kelp is pulling.  And he feels really bad about it.   Maybe he’s been too harsh on Kelp.  Nobody’s perfect, after all.   Perhaps those words will come back to haunt him in the near future, but in the meantime he and Kelp decide to go see a new movie together.   They don’t know anything much about it, but it’s supposed to be really funny.  Care to make a guess?

(I can make a little guess of my own–Westlake was probably writing the original screenplay for a movie called Hot Stuff right around the same time he was working on Jimmy The Kid, and that movie actually got made a few years later, and I’ll be reviewing it next, just to link in with this book.  I got the DVD, so I might as well.  My expectations are suitably low.   They did not shoot the script Westlake sent them.  Well, he wasn’t financing the film, was he?)

We are a race of storytellers, all of us–the only animal on this planet that is obsessed with the unreal (“The Dream Animal,” Loren Eiseley called us, and he got that right).  We don’t all make a living at it, but we all do it.   We tell stories based (often rather loosely) on things that really happened.   Then we start basing things we do in real life on the stories we made up–an endless feedback loop.  And when we run out of things that happened to us, we base new stories on stories somebody else made up, which are based on stories somebody else made up, and we try to add bits and pieces of ourselves to these stories to make them our own, and the result is that our identities are constantly trapped somewhere between reality and fantasy, original and copy.

Professional criminals exist in real life–then people write stories, make movies, based on what they’ve heard about these criminals and their exciting lifestyle.   Then the criminals read/see these stories, and think “Hey, that’s pretty neat!” and start adjusting their real-life behavior and appearance to be more like the fiction.  And then you start losing track of where the story ends and the reality begins.

And some people make obscene amounts of money feeding this hunger we have for stories.   And others use stories to tell us subtle truths about ourselves–and maybe even make us laugh at ourselves now and then.  Because we are one mixed up bunch of monkeys, and we might as well get a few laughs out of it, no?

And that’s all I have to say about Jimmy The Kid.  Except that earlier in the book, when May feeds Dortmunder all his favorite dishes to make him do this kidnapping job, one of the items she prepares is Boysenberry Jell-o.  And it does not seem any such Jell-o flavor ever existed.  

Just my little contribution to distinguishing reality from fantasy.  Feel free to make your own in the comments section.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Jimmy The Kid, John Dortmunder novels

Parker At the Movies: Part 1–The Frenchman Always Shoots First

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NUSSBAUM: Now that you have seen several of your creations transferred to film, do you subscribe to the auteur theory, or are you one of those wise-ass scribblers who refuse to acknowledge the artistic superiority and creative transcendence of the director?  (Answer by mentioning two American and two foreign directors, one of whom must be French; and relate their work to the young Orson Welles and the imitative product of Peter Bogdanovich: Use more than one sentence if necessary.)

WESTLAKE: I love your question.  Remember the scene in The Third Man where Joseph Cotten, the writer of westerns, is posing as a literary-type lecturer?  He’s asked a question about James Joyce.  If you can find a still of Cotten’s face when he’s reacting to the question, you’ll have my answer to you, sir.  But I might have some additional things to say, so why not start a new paragraph and see?

I subscribe basically to the theory that a movie is not the book it came from, and in almost every case it shouldn’t be the book it came from.  I have never adapted one of my own novels to the screen.  Movies are a different form, they require different solutions.

Al Nussbaum interviewing Donald E. Westlake by mail (the entire piece can be found in The Getaway Car).

By the end of 1967, ten Parker novels had been published under the name Richard Stark.   None of them had been best-sellers, but sales had been strong.   The reviews had been glowing, the audience had been growing, and Hollywood was starting to take notice.  But Hollywood has never been the be-all and end-all of film making, much as it might like to think otherwise, and Richard Stark had many ardent fans who could not read English.  Parker translated very well into other languages, it seems.   Translating him into other mediums was going to prove a much more challenging prospect.

One place where the Stark books were developing a following was France, where they were published by Gallimard under the Série Noire imprint, which specialized in French translations of American crime and detective fiction of the hardboiled variety, though it also published some very impressive homegrown literature in the same genres.  Please note–the French Wikipedia article on Serie Noire has a photograph of Westlake–and mentions Killy, under its French title of Un Loup Chasse L’Autre–(‘A wolf hunting another’).

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These books generally had plain black covers with the title in yellow print, and often no cover art–very stark indeed.  Parenthetically, a Jose Giovanni Serie Noire entitled Classe Tous Risques (later made into a superb film, like so many of Giovanni’s novels), features a character named Eric Stark (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in the film).  That book came out in 1958–the first short story Westlake sold under the name Richard Stark was published in a science fiction magazine the following year.  Coincidence?  Yeah, probably.  Lot of that going around in this genre.

Depending on which source you’re reading, Gallimard’s Serie Noire books may have inspired the coining of the phrase Film Noir by the French critic Nino Frank–he was originally referring to American films like Double Indemnity and D.O.A (okay the directors of those two were European, what’s your point?), which had been hugely influential in Europe–but  French readers of policiers and roman noirs were no strangers to ruthless anti-heroes who came back in book after book–they were way ahead of us there.  Back in 1911, the first in a long series of novels about a deadly master criminal named Fantomas appeared–a shadowy figure who evaded definition as easily as he evaded the police–a supervillain you’d probably call him today, but one the reader is invited to admire if not quite identify with.

A later and far less diabolical example would be Géo Paquet, aka The Gorilla, who appeared in a long series of books in the 1950’s–in the first film adaptation in 1958, starring the great Lino Ventura, he breaks out of jail by bending the bars of his cell (he possesses amazing strength, hence the name), and ends up embroiled in a plot involving stolen nuclear secrets.  And I wish I knew more, but all the sources are in French.   I’d watch any Lino Ventura movie, so hopefully it’ll pop up on DVD here in the states.

I wish I could begin to express my stunned admiration for French noir at its best–master film makers like Jacques Becker, Jean Pierre Melville, Henri-Georges Clouzot.   Actors like Gabin, Ventura, Delon, Belmondo, who combined acting ability, star charisma, and often the kind of physical prowess you’d expect from trained stuntmen.   What Warner Brothers started in the 30’s and 40’s, these idiosyncratic artisans took up with a vengeance, focusing and perfecting it to a degree that has never been surpassed.   When it comes to films about  ice cold yet oddly vulnerable gangsters, outlaws, and heisters, with a sang froid you could crack nuts on, there’s the French and then there’s everybody else.

And tragically, none of these masters ever adapted a Stark novel–no, the first Parker adaptation ever was lensed by the one French director who could be guaranteed to have no respect for the form he was dabbling in.   Or any other form.  Or form, period.  Love him, hate him, don’t give a damn about him, you must acknowledge that Jean Luc Godard respected nothing but his own oddball muse, and his main reaction to a well-crafted story with great characters was to turn it upside down and inside out, and unravel every last plot thread onto the cutting room floor.  Character?  Qu’est-ce que c’est?

I’ve already told the story of how Made in USA came to be in my review of The Jugger. I’ve got nothing to add to that. And zero interest in ever seeing that film again. Once was plenty. When I look at film stills online, I can appreciate the imagery, the sense of composition, and of course Anna Karina–her I could look at all day long. And I can appreciate the weird irony that Parker was first portrayed as a woman–not like it would matter to him either way.

There are maybe one or two scenes in the film that seem to bear any relation to the story Westlake told; even there you have to squint hard to see it. The only actor who is remotely well-cast is the one playing Tiftus (Typhus in the film, ha-ha, très très drôle, maestro). I personally don’t think the film even works on its own incoherent terms–it’s a collage of shout-outs to various American writers, directors, and actors Godard seems to have liked, combined with an affectation at contemporary political commentary that I don’t think anybody really understands (though many pretend to).

The haphazard quality of the piece is not wholly by design: the film’s screenplay, such as it is, was cobbled together at the last possible moment, so Godard could use the same equipment he was renting to make Two or Three Things I Know About Her to simultaneously shoot this film, which he finished in less than two weeks. And let me say, it looks it. To paraphrase Moliere’s misanthrope, “I might, by chance, make something just as shoddy–but then I wouldn’t show it to everybody.”

Godard never gave a damn about the downtrodden of the earth, as I see it–he had a vision, and he wanted to express it, and I can respect that, wish him well of it, and mainly avoid his films, because I don’t like them.  This is not aimed at the Nouvelle Vague in general–Truffaut I like, Malle I like, Agnes Varda I adore (and her late husband Jacques Demy); Melville is probably my favorite French filmmaker. We all have our tastes.  There are many ways to tell a story, but my impression of Godard is that he never cared about stories at all.

But for all of that, Made in USA set the pattern for very nearly all the Parker adaptations that followed–the people who wrote and filmed them were not interested in doing a faithful adaptation, even if they said they were (Godard, at least, is guilty of no such double-dealing).   Something about the character of Parker interested them, or the general heisting milieu, or they just wanted to do a crime picture and they could get the rights to a Parker novel cheap enough (always with the proviso that they couldn’t call him Parker), but they were out to tell their own stories, usually very different from the ones Stark had told.

They had their own vision and worldview to get across, which Stark (and Westlake) would generally feel little affinity towards (Westlake had nothing to say about Made In USA, other than it was ‘a rotten movie’, and I think that’s the film buff in him talking, not the writer who got cheated out of his pay).  Also, not surprisingly, none of them had the nerve to show Parker the way he is in the books, because he does horrible things to people, with not so much as the slightest pang of guilt, and gets away clean in the end, usually with a lot of money.   Screen versions of Parker can get away with robbing other crooks–sometimes–somehow, second-hand theft is okay.  Whatever.

Donald Westlake was well aware of the fact that the main point of any film based on a book is not to literally transcribe the printed page into imagery and dialogue.   An excessive concern with fidelity to the source can do more harm than good.  The point is to make a good film–but he also felt strongly that the script should at least attempt to convey some essence of what the original writer had been trying to say.   Godard’s film would have to be considered the worst in this regard–but the other French adaptation of a Parker novel was, by this standard, far and away the best.

And far and away the hardest to see, but I got lucky.   Almost exactly a year ago, I was able to see a pristine print from La Cinémathèque Française unreeled at the Museum of Modern Art–no subtitles, but they had a screen under the screen where titles could be shown.  Packed house that night.   It is apparently possible to download a version screened for television years ago (pan&scan, I assume), but I’ve never done this.   So I’ll be going by memory, and notes I made at the time.

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Information about Mise à sac (often translated as Pillaged) is hard to come by–particularly in English.  It’s a little-known film outside of France, though it seems to have had some kind of release somewhere in the English-speaking world under the title Midnight Raid.  Its director, Alain Cavalier, a protege of Louis Malle, would not generally be considered to occupy the first rank of auteurs, but as one of the few surviving names from an exciting era of filmmaking (he’s eighty-three, and still working), who worked with talents like Catherine Deneuve, Romy Schneider, and Jean-Louis Trintigant at their peak, he’s somebody any serious fan of classic French cinema should be familiar with.

As they should be aware of Claude Sautet, who shared a screenwriting credit with Cavalier on this film–he’s better known for writing and directing that very film adaptation of Classe Tous Risques I mentioned above, where Jean-Paul Belmondo played Eric Stark.  And again, I’m almost sure that’s a coincidence, but they do start to mount up after a while, don’t they?

The way Cavalier and Sautet went about adapting a Stark novel was in total contrast to Godard–first of all, in that there was no legal confusion over the film rights, leading to a lawsuit.   Westlake was properly paid for The Score, and there can be no question at all that the screenwriters studied the book closely–whether it was Cavalier’s idea to make a film of it, I don’t know, but once he was actually doing so, it seems to have been his intention to get as close to the spirit and letter of the novel as possible–within reason, of course.

You can’t very well do a perfectly faithful adaptation of a book that opens in Newark New Jersey, and whose principal action is in a western mining town, if it’s set in France.   Some translation of setting and motivation and general cultural milieu shall be required.  And while French noir tends to be much less inclined to moralize than its Hollywood equivalent, you rarely ever see criminals profit from being criminals in it–usually crooks die or get caught in the end, and when they don’t it’s usually because they didn’t actually commit the crime they intended to commit.  Law & order must prevail in the end–the question is how and to what extent.

And also, I would say, the influence of existentialism, and a general attitude of fatalism that permeated French filmmaking at this time, led to a sense that these individualists, however admirable on some level, will have to pay the price for being individualists–life will always find a way to bring down those who rebel (which does not necessarily make their rebellion less admirable).   The best French noirs tend to be tragic stories–of powerful uncontrollable personalities on collision courses, with each other and with destiny, and the most they can generally hope for is to remain themselves to the (very) bitter end.

But I must say, I don’t quite see that in this film.  I see the general style and mindset of French noir in Mise à sac, but I also see much of the Starkian ethos in it–you will be rewarded or punished not in accordance with whether you toe the line, but rather with how well you know yourself and your profession.  I get the sense that Cavalier left himself open to the material he was adapting more than any other filmmaker, before or since.  He got infected by it, discovered an affinity with it.   And for this we can only commend him, while recognizing that it’s still his vision on the screen, and that he, like everyone else to date, has not given us a true cinematic incarnation of Parker.   Parker remains untranslatable.

What did Westlake think of Mise à sac?   He told Patrick McGilligan that he’d sold the rights via the usual channels, and had never once spoken to anyone who worked on the film.   Some time later–presumably in the VCR era–he saw it at a friend’s apartment in Paris–probably taped off the air, and not letterboxed, so hardly as the filmmakers intended it to be seen.  He did not know French, and there were no subtitles, but “I figured I knew the story.  It looked modest but good.” It looked a whole hell of a lot better than that to me, but modest it is, yes. It just wants to tell you a story.  No pretensions of any kind here.

The film opens with the Parker character, called only Georges here (I think that’s a first name), heading to a meeting about a potential job, in the city of Lyons.   He realizes a man is following him, and he waylays him–and roughs him up–doesn’t have to kill him, as happens in the book.   I guess Cavalier felt like a dead body in Lyons would attract more attention than one in Newark, and he probably had a point.

Georges raises a stink about being tailed when he gets to the meeting, but the mastermind of the heist (with the first name Edgar, instead of the last name Edgars) calms him down and does his presentation–where he proposes to rob an entire factory town in a remote rural area of central France.   Everyone is suitably taken aback by the audacity of this plan; Georges has serious reservations, but it all goes much as it does in the book–the money and the challenge are too good to pass up.

Nobody is named Grofield here, but there’s a Paulus, a Wiss, and a Salsa.   The Grofield character is named Maurice, and he’s not an actor (and frankly, he’s not that interesting).  They’re a merry crew of heisters, joking back and forth, enjoying each other’s company.   The personalities are not as well-defined as in the book–it’s hard to convey in a film what Stark does with his thumbnail portraits–but the actors do a great job making us believe in these  guys–they look like workmen preparing to do a job, and that’s precisely what they are.

The Edgars-Jean-Parker triangle is dispensed with rather quickly–Edgar has hired a callgirl, and Georges, worried about Edgar’s professionalism–sensing something wrong with him–exchanges a few words with her, to see if he can learn anything.  She is not seen again.

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The heist begins 25 minutes into the film, and takes up most of it–unusual for a Parker adaptation, and only slightly less so for a Parker novel, but this is an adaptation of The Score, and that one really is all about the heist.   Just like Copper Canyon, this town basically sleeps at night, and there’s an eerie quiet on the streets.  And then this small caravan of vehicles appears, and the game’s afoot.

And just like Parker, Georges patrols those streets in a commandeered police car, while the police themselves are locked up in their own jail–along with the unfortunate young man who sees a robbery in progress, and tries to call it in–the expression on his face when Georges shows up at the phone booth to ‘arrest’ him is priceless–we get to see him in bed with his very pretty girlfriend shortly before (she’s got lovely breasts–on full display–vive la france!), and we, like he, are wondering why he didn’t just stay in bed.

I actually think this is an improvement on the scene in the novel–the hapless young lover in that one just ends up bound and gagged in an alleyway, catching a bad cold–but that’s because in the novel, the police station is going to get blown up, and Westlake didn’t want to kill the poor kid.   Here, Cavalier takes full advantages of the topsy-turvy scenario of the novel–the way the criminals have become the police, and the law-abiding citizens are tossed behind bars simply for getting in the way of a smooth-running operation.

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In the meantime, Maurice is watching the telephone exchange, and making time with one of the operators, who is of course a lovely young woman named Marie. She’s attracted to him, but she’s not trying to persuade him to take her along.   He’s no Grofield, I think I mentioned.

The middle of the picture, dealing with nothing more than the systematic pillaging of all the major businesses in town, is quite simply a joy to behold.   The most perfect translation of a Stark novel you could imagine.  You’ve still got to stick the landing, and that’s where things get a bit messy.

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Edgar, like Edgars, has a vendetta against the town–only this time it’s much more personal and specific.   He’s not a disgraced police chief here–he was fired from his position at the local plant by the owner and manager, and one gets the feeling he originally just thought he’d get his revenge by stealing everything in town, including the factory payroll–but as he looks at the beautiful house this man lives in, he decides it’s not enough.   He doesn’t want to burn down the entire town–just the man’s house, with him in it.  There’s a woman involved somehow, but I only saw this once, a year ago, so the details are a bit hazy.

Georges realizes something is wrong, and confronts him–and somehow Edgar knocks him down.   Which you know was never going to happen to Parker, but this ain’t Parker.   Coulda been, shoulda been, woulda been, but no cigar.

I should talk about Michel Constantin now.   He was never a big star, or really a star, period–this is probably the most central role he ever played in a film.   He was always the heavy, or the sidekick, though greatly prized in that type of role.  He made his debut in the classic Jacques Becker prison escape picture, Le Trou, and let’s just say his acting skills never really got past the basics–but he exuded a certain authenticity.

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(That’s not from Mise à sac, but you see what I mean, right?)

He was only 6’1, but seems much taller on film.  He tends to loom over the other actors (not a lot of tall people in these movies).  He just looks big–and blocky–and shaggy–and ugly, but somehow you know it’s the kind of ugly that gives at least some women vibrations above their nylons.   He walks in a certain indefinable way, with his big veiny hands swinging at his sides, and you just go “right”.   He’s Parker.   Until he opens his mouth.

See, he has to speak the dialogue he’s been given, and he’s got to react the way the director tells him to, and Cavalier isn’t trying to give us the Parker from the books.   He either doesn’t want that, or doesn’t know how to convey it.  He’s interested in telling a story about a group of thieves pulling a daring robbery–he’s interested in the subversive nature of that robbery, and the interaction of the robbers with the townspeople, and the whole notion of what happens when a little town is asleep.

But he’s not giving us the mythic lethal enforcer, the master planner, the wolf in human form, and certainly not the guy who has no sex drive until after he finishes a job–I’d guess he thought that would detract from the gritty realism he was going for with this scenario–bit late to argue with him now.   To see things from his POV–he doesn’t have a star–none of these actors, talented as they are, were big names.   It’s an ensemble piece, and that is in fact one of its strengths, but there is still a vacuum at the center, where Parker ought to be.  And isn’t.

Georges is a rather polite soft-spoken fellow, who laughs and jokes readily, reacts with horror to Edgar burning down the plant manager’s house, and seems entirely human–nothing terribly enigmatic or unaccountable here.  He conveys Parker’s professionalism, his calm, but the only time he shows us the more frightening side of the character is when he comes up behind a guard at the factory in the darkness, looking like something out of a horror movie (the spare and effective background music sounds like a horror score at points), and takes the man out hard–at which point one of his colleagues exclaims angrily “Oh, so we’re killing people now?”

Actually, it’s a good question–why kill a guard when you don’t have to?   It’s not clear whether the man is actually dead.   But that’s basically the only serious act of violence committed by Georges in the whole movie.   Cavalier didn’t really do violent films–it wasn’t his thing–and this is his only real crime film that I know of.

He obviously loves the material, but he’s a bit restrained about it.   He’s depicting a small French town being despoiled by brigands–not in the past, but in the time period he’s making it in–and he’s worried people might think he’s saying crime pays.   He’s only dabbling in this genre, and the fact is, heist movies in general–regardless of nationality–hardly ever play out the way a Richard Stark novel does.

And it doesn’t–not here.   The job is thoroughly spoiled by Edgar’s vendetta–he ends up dead in his own fire, and the rest of the gang flee with the loot, but they aren’t in the American west–they can’t disappear into a vast uninhabited landscape and hide out until the heat dies down, as happens in the book–there’s farms all around the town.   There’s a lot of cops.   There’s no place they can hide in the country.  Their plan was to get out of town before anybody knew what was happening, and get to Lyons or some other big city where they could blend in.   The plan in the book wouldn’t work here, and Cavalier doesn’t really want it to work.   This money was stolen from honest citizens.   Something must go wrong.

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The truck with the loot gets stuck in the mud of a small access road they’d hoped to avoid the cops on.   Georges and the others make a run for it.   Maurice is hung up on Marie, who he’s taken along as a hostage, and can’t accept the money is lost–it slows him down enough to get caught.  The police close in with tracking dogs (Parker might actually watch this part of the film with interest), and nab most of the crew.  But Georges and one of the other heisters make it to a small village, wait calmly for the bus, and get away clean.   Georges didn’t get the money, but he didn’t forget who he was, and what he was there for, so he lives to steal another day–that, at least, is Starkian morality.   And it’s the end of the film.   Roll credits.

I loved it, but with obvious reservations.   Parker isn’t Parker, which is made all the more frustrating by the fact that they had an actor exceptionally well equipped to play Parker.   The Grofield/Mary subplot is basically gutted of all the things that make it work, and comes across as a petty distraction.   There isn’t really time for the last act, with the heisters hiding out after the job, police helicopters overhead, tensions quietly mounting, Paulus freaking out, and Parker insisting Mary has to die–but it’s sorely missed.   And of course Georges doesn’t go back and have sex with Edgar’s girl, who wasn’t really his girl anyway, but it would have been a nice finishing touch (did Constantin ever get the girl, in any film he ever made?)

I agree with what Westlake told Al Nussbaum in that quote I put up top, but when you start throwing out whole chunks of story in a book this tightly plotted, it’s bound to create problems.   It’s like you’re in a plane, and you’re in a hurry to reach your destination, so you start tossing out bits and pieces of machinery to lighten the load, hoping none of them are essential.   Probably not a good idea. But at least Cavalier mainly refrained from adding entirely new storylines and characters of his own devising, in place of the jettisoned material–which would be a problem with most of the later adaptations.

It’s a terrific little film, but it’s not The Score–and that’s going to be a recurring theme with all these pictures, good and bad.   Most of them have great moments. None of them come close to the books they’re adapting–but overall, I’d have to say this one came the closest.   And naturally, in the perverse universe we live in, this means that it’s the most impossible one to see, and may never get a DVD release, because the rights are reportedly all tangled up, and with no stars in the cast, there might not be enough potential profit involved to get them untangled anytime soon.   C’est la guerre.

But for a good 30-40 minutes, watching this film, I was transfixed–for all that something is lost in the translation, something is gained as well–there are things a novel can do that a film can’t, but the opposite is also true, as Westlake acknowledged.   In terms of story and character, Mise à sac falls quite a bit short of its model, but visually, it has distinct pleasures of its own–what Westlake has to describe, it can simply show us, and it does so with a quiet  efficiency, and just a touch of grim humor.   A great film it’s not, but it doesn’t pretend to be.   It just tells us a story, and since the story is by Richard Stark, it’s well worth hearing–and seeing.

Much as I like the title I came up with for this, I don’t in fact know for sure the order in which the first three Parker adaptations were shot.   Mise à sac got released in France a few months after our next film was released in America, but release dates and production dates are two entirely different things.   Based on what Westlake told Patrick McGilligan, the two films described here were the first to go into production, but if so, the third film was not far behind them.  

And the third film, in terms of sheer visual panache, not to mention star power, is far ahead of all of the Parker films.   It is, in fact, a great film (whatever the hell that means).   But it’s also kind of a shitty adaptation.   And that shall be the point I try to convey next time, assuming I don’t draw a blank.   

PS: Actually none of these films are the first Westlake adaptation–and neither was The Busy Body with Sid Caesar.   The first-ever film adaptation of anything Westlake wrote was Le commissaire mène l’enquêtein 1963.   It’s an anthology film, and one of the episodes is based on Westlake’s short story Lock Your Door, which was first published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 1962.   So any way you look at it, the French shot first, n’est ce pas?

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Review of Mise à sac