Tag Archives: Jim Thompson

Addendum: The Reading List

Charles_Willeford

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.

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Mr. Westlake and Mr. Marlowe

As I mentioned when I started this blog, I’m a relative newcomer to crime/mystery fiction.  Sure, I encountered the usual stuff growing up, Poe, Doyle, Christie, a bunch of short story anthologies.  A little Hammett.  Lots of old movies.  But several years ago, more or less on a whim, I started reading the Parker novels, and when I ran out of those, I started on the Tobins, and when I ran out of those, I moved on to the books Westlake wrote under his real name.

And I began to be curious about his influences, and his contemporaries–about writers who were like him in some ways, who shared certain affinities, who covered some of the same ground.  If he mentioned an author favorably, I tried to read works by that author.  I also reasoned that if I really liked these particular books about a tough enigmatic armed robber, I might like other books about similar characters written by different authors.  Sometimes I did.  More often I didn’t.  But I learned things, either way.

Thanks to bloggers like Trent at Violent World of Parker and Nick Jones at Existential Ennui, who were similarly interested, I began to selectively explore the rest of the crime/mystery field, a fathomless genre, most of which remains a cipher to me, and quite honestly much of which doesn’t seem worth the deciphering (as Sturgeon’s Law helpfully informs us, 90% of everything is crap).  Ray Garraty, who has often posted here, was perhaps more helpful than anyone–as I helped him with his voracious book-collecting habit, often reading the books I ordered on his behalf, before dispatching them off to the general vicinity of the Urals.  We helped each other, as fellow enthusiasts so often do.

I’m still very far from being any kind of expert on the mystery genre, and doubt I ever shall be.  But I can honestly say I know more than most, for what that’s worth.  And coming at the field from a somewhat unusual perspective, I may have sometimes picked up on things that more experienced eyes missed.

One of the crime authors I became interested in for a time was Dan J. Marlowe.   And he is nothing if not interesting.

Marlowe was well into his 40’s when he became a professional writer, a very late start for anyone.  His wife had died, and after living a seemingly staid Middle American lifestyle for most of his life, full of grey flannel suits and offices, he just decided to pursue his long-suppressed creative ambitions full tilt.   He did not produce that many books, and most of his books are not that impressive–but a few of them became minor classics, and one achieved legendary cult status (though never a film adaptation, and at this point I doubt it ever will, unless Tarantino wants to do it).

Marlowe worked a lot with collaborators–two of whom were ex-military men, and those books mainly didn’t hold up that well.  Another was Al Nussbaum, formerly one of the most notorious bank robbers of all time–that collaboration worked out somewhat better, turned into a decidedly odd friendship that has inspired a lot of head scratching in various quarters.

Still, his best books were invariably written solo.  It seems a fairly safe bet to say that he didn’t have many good books in him, that his inspiration didn’t hold up over time, that his very late start negatively impacted his development as a writer.  But he enjoyed the authorial life, and wanted to go on producing crime/espionage paperbacks (mainly for Gold Medal) and getting paid for it.   The lifestyle agreed with him.  And who can argue with that?

Then he developed amnesia in the Mid-70’s–no, seriously, I didn’t crib this from a daytime drama!  He didn’t even remember writing his best book–he read it for the first time a second time, and didn’t remember a word of it.  Unless he was faking it.  Nobody knows for sure.  For all we know, he somehow got hold of an unpublished manuscript by Donald Westlake, about an actor with amnesia, and decided to see how that would work in real life.  I don’t believe that for one minute, of course.  But it’s just one of a slew of odd coincidences we’ll be looking at here.

In spite of being anything but a handsome man, he reportedly had many passionate affairs with a variety of women, but again, it’s hard to know where reality ends and fiction begins.  He also seems to have had a serious spanking fetish (giving, not receiving), that keeps turning up in his novels.  Hey, as long as it’s consensual…

He was politically conservative, as were most crime fiction authors of the time (Westlake was, in the main, an exception to that rule), but never predictably so. The small town he was living in when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated was somewhat shocked when he contributed an Op Ed to the local paper, in which he compared the late civil rights leader to Hitler, and said King, who he believed had started out fighting for a just cause, had brought his murder on himself by resorting to extremist methods and radical politics.  He meant this to be sympathetic, folks.   And let’s not get too superior about past racial attitudes, given who one of our Presidential nominees is now.

Honestly, the most interesting book connected to him may not be The Name of the Game is Death–it may well be Charles Kelly’s Gunshots In Another Room, a recently released unauthorized biography of Marlowe (there was nobody left to authorize it).  In spite of his relatively low status in the ranks of English letters, he’s a biographer’s wet dream.  His life is a better story than most of his stories.

As I see it, he wrote exactly four books worth reading (unless you’re one of those people who just have to read everything, and I can certainly respect that).

The Name of the Game is Death (1962)

Never Live Twice (1964)

Four For The Money (1966)

The Vengeance Man (1966)

And if you want to get pure about it, just the first. He basically said all he had to say with that one.  At his best, he had a weird sort of intensely detached immediacy that stands out from the crowd.   Most of his writing is derivative hackwork–written purely to the market.  But when he was fully engaged, he rose above the material he worked with.

Some would include Strongarm  on that list I just typed.  I found it mediocre.  Tastes vary.   One Endless Hour, the very belated sequel to The Name of the Game is Death, I don’t really consider to be a Marlowe novel.  According to Kelly, Al Nussbaum, the aforementioned bank robber, came up with most of the story ideas for that book, probably helped quite a bit in writing it, and although it’s a gripping suspenseful read–that feels like it should have been a film by Russ Meyer, or possibly John Waters, with maybe a pinch of Edward D. Wood Jr.–it comes nowhere near the level of the first book.  It’s mainly a Marlowe pastiche, even if Marlowe did all the actual writing.

Strange man.  Strange life.  And now I’m about to tell a strange story.  That may just be in my head.  It involves Donald Westlake.  And, not coincidentally, the next Westlake novel I have to review here.  So that’s why I’m doing this piece now, after putting it off for some time.  I still don’t really know what to make of it.  So I’ll put it out there, and you can decide for yourselves.

I don’t know if Westlake and Marlowe ever met, or even corresponded.  Al Nussbaum and Westlake corresponded briefly while Nussbaum was in prison (part of their exchange can be read in The Getaway Car).  He and Marlowe had other mutual acquaintances.  And they were most definitely aware of each other.

Marlowe’s first five books were about a supremely rugged and muscular hotel bell captain named Johnny Killain, who doubled as a two-fisted private investigator, working out of New York.  I’d call them more enjoyably terrible than terribly enjoying.  Every hardboiled trope you can think of, and a few you haven’t (because nobody dares use them anymore).  In spite of his modest station in life, Killain can beat any man in a fight, take any woman he wants to bed.  I’m not saying I don’t enjoy that (Marlowe had a genuine knack for fight scenes and sex scenes), but reading the last Killain, Shake A Crooked Town (1961), I found my eyes rolling with some frequency.

I also found myself wondering at an odd coincidence–1961 was the year Donald Westlake’s Killing Time came out.  That, you may remember, is about a private detective working in a small town in upstate New York, where Westlake grew up.  The protagonist is short, chunky–physically a lot less impressive than Johnny Killain, and is in fact rather reminiscent of Hammett’s Continental Op–an everyman type.

The book is basically a variation on Red Harvest.  It makes no pretense of being anything else.  But Westlake has his own take on the idea.  Very different from Hammett’s.  It’s not his best work (it’s only his second novel under his own name), but it’s a far better book than Shake A Crooked Town–which is also set in a small corrupt town.  In upstate New York.  Where Marlowe never lived.

And even though both books are about the hero getting caught in the middle between rival factions vying for control of a small town (with radically different outcomes), it’s hard to see how one could have influenced the other.  Marlowe’s novel was released very early that year,  Westlake’s just months later.  Westlake had far more direct experience with the setting than Marlowe (and boy does it show).  They were both clearly reacting to Red Harvest.  The stories aren’t really that similar, and the heroes aren’t similar at all.

(I rather suspect Marlowe got the idea for making his hero a bell captain from Jim Thompson, who had in 1956 published a short story entitled Bellhop, based on his colorful experiences working hotels in wild corrupt boom towns out west.  Two-fisted bell captains were not something Marlowe just dreamed up out of thin air, and I suppose he might have met a few, but he was definitely reading a lot of Thompson, and probably everybody else writing this kind of crime fiction.)

Okay, so that’s a big bag of nothing.  But then, of course, we move to 1962.  When another strange coincidence occurs.  Both men published paperback novels about an amoral armed robber going on a bloody campaign of vengeance against someone who heisted his heist and killed his comrades in crime.  Both books are vivid gripping reads.  The Hunter is unquestionably the superior book overall, more disciplined, better written, with a protagonist who has far more potential than Marlowe’s–but this was the one time in their overlapping careers that Marlowe could be said to have given Westlake a run for his money.   He put everything he had into that one.

Both protagonists had an oddly irregular sex drive.  Marlowe’s (who I won’t refer to as Earl Drake, because that name never appears in the first book, and I just don’t want to acknowledge the others as being about the same guy) can only seem to get it up right after he’s engaged in violence of some kind.  This problem just went away completely in the later books, with no explanation.

Westlake’s heister (or rather, Stark’s) has no interest in sex while he’s working, then a very intense interest after the job is done, which lasts a few months, then fades away entirely until after his next job. I’ve explained in an earlier piece where I think Westlake got the idea for that (see Genealogy of a Hunter).

Marlowe’s idea, according to Kelly, may have come from the fact that he had a problem with his foreskin that sometimes made intercourse very painful for him (you know, there are downsides to having a biographer, even one as capable and devoted as Mr. Kelly, but thankfully the dead don’t embarrass easily).

Really, the crucial difference is that Marlowe’s guy has a sort of resigned tolerance to what he regards as a problem he and the women in his life have to put up with.  While Parker doesn’t give a damn, has no problem at all with his cyclical drives.  Everybody else has a problem, not him.  It’s not a disability.  It’s how he is.  If you don’t feel like having sex, why should that bother you?  When his cycle changes, later in the series, we’re given believable explanations for that.  Marlowe wasn’t that good at developing his characters over a series of books.  Westlake was as good at writing series fiction as anyone ever has been, or ever will be.

But yet again–hard to see how either of these books could have influenced the other.  They came out too close together, and they were being written right around the same time.  So again.  Coincidence.  But starting to get weird.  And you know what Freud said.

And one thing I’d like to know–Westlake wrote The Hunter specifically for the Gold Medal imprint–where The Name of the Game is Death was published.  Gold Medal rejected Westlake’s novel.  Because it was too hardcore for them?   Much as I think The Hunter is a better book, Marlowe’s protagonist (who calls himself Chet Arnold for most of the book, though we’re quite sure that’s not his real name), makes even Parker seem gentlemanly by comparison.

Parker mutilates his dead wife’s corpse after she kills herself (at his urging), so she won’t be identified right away (this being the same wife that shot him earlier in the book, but who claims to still love him).  Marlowe’s Chet rapes a woman more or less to see that look on her face (no erectile dysfunction there), then later shoots her several times in a rage. He has his reasons, she’s not a good person, she did terrible things, but you see what I mean about a movie adaptation being a challenge.

No, in all probability, they rejected Westlake’s novel because they already had their sociopathic armed robber book for the year, and didn’t feel like the market needed another one.  There were never a whole lot of books in this vein, even at the peak of the era of lurid paperbacks–it was a very specialized sub-genre, and the bad guys almost always died in the end.  Westlake seems to have gone to Dell after that, and they also turned him down.  And then to Pocket Books, where Bucklin Moon told him to rewrite the ending so Parker got away with everything, and then write a bunch more books about him.

Gold Medal might have asked for more books about Marlowe’s robber (who didn’t get away with anything, but was still alive at the end, if not very happy)–except Marlowe’s book was apparently was too hardcore for even the Gold Medal readership.  Not a big seller for them.  The Hunter seems to have done much better for Pocket.  As it well deserved to, but that’s got nothing to do with book sales, as anyone who has perused the best seller lists knows full well.

Skipping ahead to 1969, Marlowe, who had hit a bit of a slump, had been persuaded by Nussbaum and others to do a sequel to The Name of the Game is Death, and as already mentioned, it’s at least as much Nussbaum’s book as Marlowe’s, and it’s not nearly as good (though it sure ain’t dull).   Reception to this one was apparently more enthusiastic, though–the first book had acquired a reputation by then, and the market was more permissive (thanks in part to the Parker novels).

So Gold Medal wanted a third book, stat–it was published the same year as the second, 1969.  But they wanted the protagonist, now calling himself Earl Drake (a name Nussbaum came up with) to stop robbing banks.  They asked Marlowe to change the genre–from hardboiled crime fiction to spy thriller.

According to Joseph Hoffmann’s well-known article on Marlowe,  Gold Medal made this request because they were now publishing the Parker novels, and once again, they felt like one ultra-violent armed robber was enough, and this time Marlowe was the odd man out.  Irony abounds in this story, as you see.

However, Marlowe never said anything about this (if he had, I would have at least one instance of him referring directly to Donald Westlake).  His story was that they wanted Drake to get dragooned into secret agent work because they were publishing John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee private eye series, which had started in 1964.

Charles Kelly found this very hard to swallow, and so do I.  Drake and McGee have nothing in common except a propensity for gunplay, and gunplay was the raison d’etre of every other book Gold Medal ever published.  Drake became more like McGee by turning secret agent, not less.   So why didn’t Marlowe just say they didn’t want another heister on the payroll?   What’s going on here?

The story is even more confusing when you consider that The Sour Lemon Score, the last Gold Medal Parker, came out that same year, 1969.  But negotiations probably took place the year before that.  Gold Medal was never on the best of terms with Westlake, though he gave them four great books.  If Marlowe had held out a little longer, maybe his criminal protagonist could have remained his old independent sociopathic self (not that he was ever what you’d call a goody-goody).

But my own feeling is that Marlowe didn’t have another book like Name of the Game in him by then, and it was probably easier for him to just crank out a bunch of formulaic espionage potboilers–not to mention more lucrative.  But again–coincidence?   And again–I don’t know.  Wherever one writer was, the other seemingly had to be somewhere else.   And if either of them ever said one word about this parallel track they were on for around a decade, I’m not aware of it.

I should also mention that One Endless Hour, the long-delayed sequel to The Name of the Game is Death (a book that Marlowe never originally intended to have a sequel) begins with the protagonist getting plastic surgery to change his appearance after he was badly burned in the previous book.  The Man With the Getaway Face, the brilliant and quickly penned sequel to The Hunter (a book that Westlake never originally intended to have a sequel) had, six years previously, begun with Parker getting plastic surgery to alter his appearance, so that he could avoid the retribution of his enemies from the first book.  Though that’s not so much a coincidence as a necessary development stemming from the endings of the two earlier books, and of course David Goodis had beaten both of them to the punch there with Dark Passage.

When Gold Medal turned Chet Arnold into Earl Drake, and made him the improbable hero of a long-running spy series, they promoted him as “Drake–The Man With Nobody’s Face.”  Which probably isn’t coincidental (or terribly coherent), but I don’t think Marlowe came up with that ad copy, any more than he came up with the name Earl Drake.

Now let me go back a bit, to 1963, when Westlake published The Score, one of the best of the Parker novels (honestly, one of the best novels I’ve ever read–I try to avoid fanboy gushing here, but it’s an amazing little book).  The premise is that a disgraced police captain of a small western mining town, who was fired for corruption, has proposed to Parker and some of his associates that they plunder all of the town’s assets in one night.  He doesn’t share his motives with them.

The premise of Marlowe’s Shake A Crooked Town is that Carl Thompson, the disgraced police chief of a small upstate New York burg who was fired for corruption (by equally corrupt cronies) comes to Killain, knowing his reputation for toughness, asking Killain to help him get his job back and throw these other bums in that sewn-up town out (for a fee, naturally).  There’s no heist, Thompson is murdered before they ever get back to his hometown, no indication he wanted to burn the whole place to the ground–his wife and kid are there.

Oh, and I should mention Killain is clearly about to take Thompson’s attractive French widow to bed as the story ends.  He knew her as an attractive tomboy (I believe the French would say ‘gamine’) when they fought together in the French Resistance many years before.  This is after he repeatedly beds the luscious town librarian, having previously bedded his longtime steady girlfriend in Manhattan. Plus a cute redheaded sixteen year old at the boarding house he’s staying at throws herself at him, but he turns her down flat, telling her to come back and see him in two years.  You see what I mean about the rolling eyes thing.

And this is a minor minor thing, but the big fight scene in Marlowe’s book comes when Killain tangles with a hulking brute named Jigger Kratz (and pulverizes him, I shouldn’t need to mention).  I would hope no parent would ever willingly name a child Jigger–maybe it’s a nickname.   I’ve only come across the name Jigger in one other book–Who Stole Sasson Manoon?, by Donald E. Westlake.  And in that book it’s the name of a cute young redhead who wants to be an actress.  You may remember I wondered in my review of that book where the hell Westlake got that name from.

Okay, I don’t believe these similarities are coincidence.   I think Westlake read Marlowe’s book, saw a useful plot component in a very bad novel, lifted it, remodeled it, and vastly improved upon it.

And one more thing–Westlake’s book ends with Parker going to bed with a woman who was sleeping with the disgraced police chief who lied to him and tried to use him, and ended up dead.  It does add a nice little ring of masculine triumph to the ending, doesn’t it?   But it’s so damned well written, my eyes never rolled even once.

Moving on to 1966, Marlowe produced Four For The Money, a sort of anti-heist novel.  The narrator/protagonist is Slick, a young hustler, not the violent type, who has just been released from jail.  While there, he got roped into a scheme concocted by Blackie, a hardened repeat offender, who is in the heavy, as Alan Grofield might put it.  There’s two other members of the string Blackie recruited in prison.  They’re all due to be released, and since Slick gets out first, he’s got to go to Desert City Nevada, a fictional gambling town, midway between Vegas and Reno in size.

His job is to set things up so that the gang can blend in once everybody else arrives, and look around for an easy target to hit.  When they do that, it quickly becomes apparent there are no easy targets to hit.  But Blackie, who spends a lot of time cleaning his little Mauser handgun, is obsessed with this job, and makes it clear that if his increasingly cold-footed colleagues pull out on him, he’ll just pull jobs on his own.  They know he’ll get caught and lead the law right to them. They’re all ex-cons, and they roomed together in the joint.  If Blackie goes down, they all do.

Here’s the kicker–they don’t really want to pull the job anymore.  Slick managed to buy a motel in town, to serve as a front for their operation, and it turned out to be a very lucrative business.  He met a nice girl (really nice, a short stacked brunette, who sounds an awful lot like the girls Jim Thompson protagonists keep getting hung up on, only not crazy).

Slick wants to settle down with this girl.  They’re all enjoying the straight life now, him and the other two guys in the string–they never want to go back to prison, and they don’t need one last big score.   But they have to pull the job so Blackie will go away and leave them alone.  Then they pull the job, and turns out Blackie always intended to kill them and take it all for himself.   You want to know what happens then, read the book.  One of Marlowe’s best, as I said.

It’s a bit reminiscent of The Score–gang tries to plunder a town out in the desert–but not very.  I’ve no doubt Marlowe read Westlake’s book, but he’d have also read Lionel White’s The Big Caper, published in 1955.  That’s probably an influence on both of the later books, but much more on Marlowe’s than Westlake’s (White’s book has the same idea of a scary master criminal forcing people who want to go straight to pull a job with him, and there’s a romantic subplot, and etc).   I’ve read all three, and White’s is the weakest of the bunch. Having an idea first is not the same thing as doing it best.

So I would hope those of you who have read the next book in the queue, which is Drowned Hopes, already know what I’m getting at here.  There’s a character in that book named Tom Jimson.  People have assumed that’s an homage to Jim Thompson (as well as a certain noxious weed).  Westlake was adapting a Jim Thompson novel to the screen right around the same time he was working on that book, so no doubt it is a humorous anagrammatic tip of the hat.  But I also think it’s a cunning head fake.  He points in one direction while his eyes go another.  Tom Jimson was inspired in part by Blackie from Four For The Money.  

See, there’s no Jim Thompson novel that ends that way.   Thompson didn’t really write much about heisters–not his area.  Yeah, The Getaway, but it’s not very similar at all.  And honestly, Tom Jimson is a much better scarier funnier character than Marlowe’s Blackie, but he’s got that same dogged single-mindedness, the same touching devotion to guns,  the same general lack of regard for human life, that same nasty little one-track mind (and Westlake knew all about one-track minds, well before he ever read Marlowe’s book, so I’m not saying Tom is all Blackie–there’s lots more there, and we’ll talk about it).

Westlake once again seeing a good idea (this time in a pretty decent book) and making away with it.  I can’t know this, but I see what I see.  I just don’t know what it means.  I don’t know what any of this means.  I can just sort of fumble around in the dark, with insufficient information to go on, knowing there’s something there, but unable to make any kind of sense out of it.

Westlake and Marlowe had to be aware of each other, from the early 60’s onwards.  They undoubtedly kept up with each others’ work to some extent.  They knew their paths kept crossing and recrossing in the incestuous little branch of the mystery genre each was so well known for.  Many of the coincidences I’ve listed here are coincidences, nothing more–but they’re coincidences Westlake in particular would have noted with interest. Because Westlake didn’t believe in coincidences any more than Freud did.  “A realist is someone who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood.  It isn’t.”

So they borrowed ideas from each other, and from other writers, and they each did their own thing with them, and they co-existed, occupying the same space, without ever directly encountering each other, or perhaps understanding each other.  Such different men, writing such similar stories, in such variant ways.  If Westlake had started writing in his 40’s, and Marlowe in his 20’s, maybe their positions in the genre would be reversed.  Again–I don’t know.  I do know Marlowe died a few years before Westlake started work on Drowned Hopes.

Anyway, I thought it was worth mentioning.  What do you think?

I think I’m going to take a break for the holiday weekend, and then tackle one of Westlake’s longest novels–definitely his longest series novel.  The Dortmunder Epic par excellence.  Very long, and very densely packed with both story and trenchant social observation.  I swore I would not make this a four-parter.  And I won’t.  I’m a man of my word.  But you know me.  I’m sneaky.  I find loopholes.  I make mental reservations.

See, my feeling is that this book is actually four books in one volume.  So I’m going to write four separate book reviews.  That’s not at all the same thing as writing a four part review of one book.  Oh look, now you’re rolling your eyes.  Well, go ahead and roll ’em.

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

Review: The Grifters

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

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

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

Donald E. Westlake, talking to Patrick McGilligan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Screenplays by Donald E. Westlake