Tag Archives: Mel Gibson

Mr. Parker and The Casting Call

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s run them down, one by one.

LEE MARVIN AS WALKER IN POINT BLANK (1967):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JIM BROWN AS McCLAIN IN THE SPLIT (1968):

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

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

I mean, was this really necessary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROBERT DUVALL AS MACKLIN IN THE OUTFIT (1973):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Marvin,–

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

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

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

MEL GIBSON AS PORTER IN PAYBACK (1999)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Item: Playback (Mad Magazine does Payback)

As promised, here’s the second (and to date, final) Westlake-related parody in Mad Magazine. Dortmunder fans can take some small satisfaction in the fact that The Hot Rock got seven pages, and Payback only four, though that probably relates more to changes at Mad in the ensuing decades than to the quality of the films being spoofed. And I note with approval that they didn’t even notice Parker. It was out of theaters too fast for them to do anything with it, anyway.

I tend to agree with the artist’s unspoken assertion that the most enjoyable thing about Payback was watching Lucy Liu and Maria Bello strut their considerable stuff. And hey, the movie wasn’t that inconsistent about how much money he’s asking for. Okay, maybe it was a little. Anyway–Playback.

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake film adaptations, Parker film adaptations

Parker at the Movies, Part 2: Blanking on the Point of Payback

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Hollywood started buying my books around 1967, with Point Blank, which is a terrific film.  I did nothing on the film.  They bought the book and went their own way.  That’s usually been the case.

Donald E. Westlake, talking to Patrick McGilligan.

Carter (shouting): Look Walker, I’m a businessman.  Let’s sit down…talk business.

Walker (roaring): Business?  What’s your business?

Carter: My word…my word.

Walker: Redeem it.  Redeem it.

Carter: I’ve got securities.

Walker: Paper.  You’re made of paper.

From a cut scene in the script for Point Blank, written by Alexander Jacobs and John Boorman.

Although the French may have jumped to an early lead in the Parker movie sweepstakes, Hollywood was not far behind.  Two major motion pictures adapting Parker novels came out within a little over a year’s time–the second of them, an adaptation of The Seventh, starring football legend Jim Brown as a heister named McClain, went so far off the rails of the story it was adapting that I don’t much see the point in discussing it.   Unbelievable cast, though.  What a waste of talent–and how they thought the story they told was anywhere near as good as the one they abandoned it in favor of–well, that’s Hollywood.

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It’s fascinating to me that Parker’s first really serious fans (at least going by the mail Westlake received) were black men–he explained that by saying that they liked Parker because instead of society rejecting him, he’d rejected it first.  A serious football fan (baseball metaphors come far and few between in his books), Westlake didn’t think much of Jim Brown’s acting abilities, which to be sure, were never really the point of Jim Brown making movies (I happen to love his films, bad as they often are; just not this one).

The movie bears such a faint resemblance to the book, you can’t really call it an adaptation.   It is the one ‘Parker’ film I can think of where ‘Parker’ steals money directly from honest citizens, and gets away with it–maybe.  If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean.  Honestly, when even Julie Harris isn’t giving a very good performance, you know you’ve got a bad script and a bad director, but at least ‘Parker’ isn’t short and bald and full of odd facial tics.   I’ll talk about that movie next time.

As I said last time, Godard had set the tone for most Parker adaptations with Made in USA–the books were popular enough to be worth buying up the film rights on spec–but not so popular that people would be up in arms over directors and screenwriters doing whatever the hell they wanted with the story and characters.   Westlake himself said a movie based on a book has to be its own thing.   That doesn’t mean he didn’t wince sometimes when he watched the ones based on his books.

But anyway, that was Hollywood’s second try–the first attempt is, to this day (and probably all days), the best film anybody’s ever made from anything Donald Westlake ever wrote, under any name.  Not the best adaptation–the best film, as a film.  It’s a masterpiece–on visual terms alone, a bravura cinematic achievement with few rivals and even fewer superiors.  That sets out to say the exact opposite of what the book it’s adapting was trying to say.  And ends up saying damned little, other than “Doesn’t this look incredibly cool?”   And it really does.   A bit too cool for school, which is maybe one reason why it flopped so badly.  But a damned influential flop it turned out to be in the long run.

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The late 60’s/early 70’s were a unique and tumultous time in the history of Hollywood filmmaking.  The studio system was in the process of breaking down–television was making ever greater inroads.  Big stars were no longer mere salaried vassals to the moguls, but were increasingly in control of their own artistic destinies (whether they knew what to with all this new power is another story).  The only way to beat television, the reasoning went, was to give the people what television couldn’t.   To be different and new, and that meant hiring different and new people to make the movies, and letting them have their way a lot more often.   Let the directors, already powerful, become all-powerful.  It sounded great in principle, and it often was in practice, but as a business plan, it was inherently problematic.   Genius doesn’t give a damn about corporate balance sheets, nor should it.

John Boorman had made a reasonably popular and well-received movie featuring the Dave Clark 5 in England–a half-successful attempt to clone A Hard Days Night–and some MGM executives approached him about directing a movie based on The Hunter, which of course he’d never read (and I can’t for the life of me find out if he ever did sit down and read it cover to cover).   They already had a script, which was to all reports very faithful to the book–which doesn’t necessarily mean it was any good, and frankly I doubt it was all that faithful, since I have read The Hunter.   Intrigued by the prospect of doing a big budget Hollywood film, Boorman discussed the project with Lee Marvin, who was filming in London at the time, and they formed an odd partnership that made them both incredibly powerful for a short time.

After a long career in TV and film, Marvin had, in his early 40’s, suddenly become one of the hottest names in the business–he’d won an Oscar for his comic turn in Cat Ballou, then headed up the all-star cast of The Dirty Dozen (the very film he’d been working on in London), and I don’t need to tell you anything about that, do I?

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Sort of a who’s who of actors who should have played Parker (or one of his associates), and two who actually did.

The director of that film, Robert Aldrich, would probably have been a better pick to adapt a Stark novel (in certain respects, The Dirty Dozen plays like a Stark novel, only with GI’s instead of heisters), even though a decade earlier, when he’d had his turn adapting a hard-boiled two-fisted noir story–Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadlyhe’d turned its hero into an arrogant unethical womanizing bastard who triggers a small scale nuclear holocaust–of course one might argue that actually constituted a spiritually faithful adaptation of a Mike Hammer novel….

But in actual concrete terms Aldrich had said the exact opposite of what the book’s author had set out to say–well really, the screenwriter, A.I. ‘Buzz’ Bezzerides, had done that.   Bezzerides made no bones about the fact that he loathed the book he’d been hired to adapt, and Aldrich seemed to echo that contempt, but the film (made on a low budget with no big stars) did actually make some money, and has a cult following to this day.  Spillane hated the movie, but couldn’t do a thing about it–proving even a writer as rich and popular as Spillane had no real power in the movie biz–no writer ever has, when you get right down to it–not unless he became a producer as well.   You don’t believe me, ask F. Scott Fitzgerald.

So anyway, MGM wanted Lee Marvin for this new project very very badly, and they liked the idea of having this hot young Brit director make it–this being his first big break he should be easy to control, they probably thought–but the problem for them was that these two very different men had become fast friends, and in the studio’s haste to secure Marvin’s much sought after services, they had given him total artistic control over the picture–which he then transferred to Boorman in a studio boardroom scene that if you saw it in a movie you’d say “That could never happen in a million years.”   And Boorman’s first use of his newfound authority was to throw the original script out the window–literally.  Along with any notion of doing an even halfway faithful adaptation of The Hunter.

Even though the studio system was dying, its infrastructure was still largely intact, and the talented but inexperienced Boorman had a vast array of seasoned production talent to help him along, particularly cinematographer Philip A. Lathrop.  The best of the old and new worlds of filmmaking were arrayed here at this transitional moment.   Like many a wunderkind before him, Boorman was not shy about spending the studio’s money, and they were getting more and more nervous (justly so, as it turned out), and he feared they would say the hell with the contractual control Marvin had given him, and insist on taking the film away to recut it–he deliberately shot as little extra footage as he could, so they wouldn’t have much to work with if that happened.

But when it came time for them to make their move, the legendary film editor Margaret Booth, who had gotten her start working for D.W. Griffith in 1915 (before the studio system had even come into being), said they would touch one frame of Boorman’s picture over her dead body.   Seriously, the story of how this film got made is often harder to believe than the story it actually tells, and that’s saying something.

Boorman was in his early 30’s, arrogant as all hell, and almost stereotypically disinclined to stick to the script.   He believed in the brand-new auteur theory absolutely–well, creative egocentric people do tend to respond rather favorably to anything that confirms their suspicion they are the Be-all and End-all of existence, and who can blame them?

Nonetheless, he had a damn good screenwriter in Alexander Jacobs, another Englishman, who went on to write The Seven-Ups, The French Connection II, and other stirring tales of modern mayhem.   Boorman would work with him and Marvin shortly afterwards in the WWII film Hell in the Pacific, which also starred Toshiro Mifune (and which also flopped at the box office).   He and Jacobs basically rewrote the script from scratch, so one would like to think they both carefully read The Hunter, but something tells me Jacobs did more of that than Boorman.

Boorman got a lot of press around this time, and he ran his mouth a bit–said he wanted “to use writers…exploit them, steal their ideas, and then discard them.”   He also said he didn’t like getting a really good script for a movie he was making, because he wouldn’t be able to play with it as much and then he’d just be “making somebody else’s work.”   I’m paraphrasing somebody else’s work right now, by the way–The Cinema of John Boorman, by Brian Hoyle.   But I needed the material, so I stole it and used it for my own ends, which are not at all according to Hoyle.

Marvin didn’t always stick to the script either–for one scene, he refused to speak his dialogue, but stared off into space while Sharon Acker (who played Lynn in the film) asked his questions and then answered them, as if they were communicating telepathically.   In a scene that comes shortly afterwards, the guy playing Stegman’s terrified messenger says his lines, and Marvin just repeats them with the slightest inflection of irony–it’s clever, though probably not the best method of interrogation.   Again, Marvin’s idea.   He was having a really good time making this picture.

A whole lot of the time, Marvin is just looking at nothing at all, while people bustle around him, making noise.   I’m guessing he did read the book–though he didn’t much care for the story in it, he loved the character of Parker, said he’d never seen anything like him before, and like so many before him, identified very strongly with that sense of detachment from the world around him Parker always gives off.   Marvin, like Parker, had served in WWII as a teenager, and it marked him for life, physically and emotionally.  He was a strange guy–a total individualist.   And probably one of of the ten best screen actors who ever lived.   And no, I don’t feel like naming the other nine right now.

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For Lee Marvin, acting means underacting–everything is beneath the surface with him, 99% of the time, an eruption always about to happen, and watch out when it does.   His silences are more profound than what most actors say out loud.  He says as little as he possibly can and still get his points across, and when he talks, everyone listens.   While somebody like Michel Constantin may more closely resemble the man described in the Parker novels, he couldn’t convey the inner dimensions of the character, the enigma of Parker, the sheer mythic unaccountability–how could such a person exist?   Of course, in the adaptation Constantin appeared in, ‘Parker’ isn’t really at the center of what is basically an ensemble piece–in Point Blank, he’s the whole story.   The sun around which the lesser planets revolve.

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The film’s story makes no sense, and doesn’t try to.   Is Marvin’s character (known only as Walker, so they kept the one name thing anyway) a man seeking vengeance for his wife and best friend betraying him, and the money he feels is owed him?  A ghost returned in solid form, who can beat the crap out of hired toughs, punch them in the groin, knock them out cold, but not actually kill them?  Or is this just a dream he has as he lies dying on the floor of a cell in an abandoned penitentiary in San Francisco Bay?

Boorman has always refused to say–and it’s pretty obvious to me that’s because he doesn’t know himself, and he doesn’t want to admit it.  None of these explanations make any sense if you think about them logically, so you don’t think about them logically.   There is no right or wrong answer, but that also means there is no right or wrong interpretation, which means the movie isn’t really saying anything at all.   It’s just one big beautiful Eastmancolor Rorshach Blot.

To me, saying “It’s all a dream” is stupid, because it’s a movie–everything you see in a movie is a dream.  You think Dorothy never went to Oz?   You think Kansas is all monochrome and sepia-tinted in reality?   You think Miss Gulch had an orchestra following her around on her bicycle to play her scary dog-killing theme music?  And anyway, in a dream, Walker would have been able to kill people himself, instead of only causing people to die as an indirect consequence of his actions.  It’s not that uncommon for people to dream about murdering other people.  It’s only your own death you can’t dream about, or so Freud opined.  Everything you see in a movie is somebody’s dream.  A lot of somebody’s, in fact.

If Walker’s story ended with Mal’s death (and let me just say Richard Vernon did a splendid job playing Mal, even though the movie makes him a lot sexier than he was in the book), then sure, it could be a dream.   But then there’s this whole story after that, with the organization, and people Walker has never heard of, and agendas he could not possibly know about, so there goes the dream theory.   And yet as a straightforward gangster story, it makes no sense either.  And if he’s dead, he shouldn’t be able to punch people and have sex with them, though of course Clint Eastwood borrowed that concept for High Plains Drifter.   Like I said, a very influential film.

One thing Boorman and Marvin agreed on was that Parker’s quest for retribution and restitution in the novel was pointless.  They wanted to make it clear in the film that they were not endorsing his vendetta, even while they made it look unbelievably cool and iconic (and really, how you look in a movie means about a million times more than what people say about you in that movie).   Various people in the movie tell Walker he’s really dead (we don’t know if this is a metaphor or a statement of fact).

The Angie Dickinson character (more or less based on Parker’s hooker friend Rosie, but a bit more liberated–also a lot less plausible) tries to slap the revenge out of him, then uses a handy intercom system to mock his single-minded obsession, then hits him over the head with a pool cue–then has sex with him.   It’s kind of hard to buy into the futility of any quest that leads to passionate consensual intercourse with Angie Dickinson.   The film doesn’t even agree with itself.

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This dichotomy stretches across much of Boorman’s later work–he’s drawn to violence, obsessed with it, but feels obliged to condemn it even while he’s glamorizing it.   Well, that’s not just him doing that, of course.  That’s the entire film industry, past, present, and future.  But he’s more ambivalent about it than most.   I’m sure Westlake could commiserate with him about that particular form of identity confusion, but he’d still argue that if you want to actually make the point that violence is bad (as he did in The Spy in the Ointment), you shouldn’t then undermine it by making the most violent character in the story the coolest and most easily identified-with character in the story, and letting him get everything he wants.   Even if he then decides he doesn’t want it–bit late, wouldn’t you say?

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This identity crisis sabotages Point Blank, makes it work against itself, and I suspect that’s why American audiences largely rejected it at the time, feeling like they’d come to see a revenge story, and the director was making fun of them for that, even though that’s exactly what it was sold to them as.  It performed much better in Europe, but European audiences were more used to ambiguous narratives, confused chronology, etc–after all, Boorman’s intent had been to make a Hollywood picture that resembled the best of European cinema–Europeans were also far more inclined to go to see a movie purely as a work of art–and as a work of art, it’s very hard to fault this film.   It’s just one stunning image after another–a rogue’s art gallery, if you will.  A graphic designer’s wet dream, which has inspired many an homage.

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Westlake greatly admired the film–said more than once that it was the best movie ever made from a Parker novel, maybe the best ever made from any of his books–but there was always a certain coolness there.   He was no camp follower. He understood he was being insulted here, belittled.  Neither Boorman nor Marvin ever praised The Hunter as a book, ever recognized what a seminal important work it was, and they seemed to think they had come up with a startling new interpretation of Parker, as Aldrich and Bezzerides had with Mike Hammer–they acted like the alien inhuman quality to the character, his emotional blankness, was something they’d painstakingly extracted from a cliched piece of paperback trash–when in fact it was something Westlake had made ever more abundantly clear in each subsequent book in the series.

They felt superior to the material they were adapting, and that’s deadly.  Unless you are, in fact, superior to the material you are adapting, and that’s decidedly not the case here.   The Hunter knows exactly what it is, and what it has to say.   It’s a tight focused story, making use of certain conventions in the crime genre, but transforming them into something new and startling–to know just how good it really is, you’d have to read a lot of crime fiction.  Boorman’s reading of the book was shallow and self-serving.   And in many ways, so is the movie he made from it.

He thought he was doing what Aldrich had done with Mike Hammer, subverting a brutal sexist revenge narrative, but in fact he never got that Parker’s quest isn’t for vengeance, or money–those are just means to an end, the end being peace of mind.   Parker steals because that’s who he is–he kills when people disrupt his plans, behave in ways that don’t make sense to him, upset his mental balance–which he then rights by erasing them from existence.  The point of the stories isn’t “This is how you should be”–it’s “This is how this particular guy is, and here’s these other people in the same general line of work, and look how different they are.”   The point is that Parker wins because he knows who he is, and the others lose–and die–because they don’t know themselves.

And that point doesn’t exist in Point Blank.   It’s irrelevant to the narrative.   Walker isn’t trying to find out who he is, it’s debatable whether he even wants to know, and you can interpret the story as him looking for justice, or revenge, or $93,000, or the love of a good woman, or just denying his own death.   And those could all be valid points for a story to make, but which is it?   Boorman won’t tell us.   The truth is, Boorman doesn’t care.   He just wants to paint a picture, and he does it really well–with the help of scores of talented fellow professionals.   But Westlake did it better, with nothing more than a typewriter and his imagination, and he actually knew what his story was about.

Westlake would have liked the anti-authoritarian, anti-corporate attitude of the film.  He would have liked the way Walker remains inexplicable, inaccessible, aloof from the world around him.   He would have liked the way Walker refuses to play anybody else’s game–the ending, where he just decides to remove himself from the game altogether, remains powerful, though also a bit of a let-down.  Jacobs actually wanted Walker to kill Yost/Fairfax, the manipulative schemer played to perfection by Keenan Wynn.  Boorman stuck to his guns, and the results remain impressive.  There’s plenty to like about this movie–it’s a great work of art.

But as a story, it’s not all that much, and a movie like this is supposed to tell a story.   It’s not some low budget experimental art film.   And the problem with that is when you have one experimental big budget film after another losing money because the director is seeking his bliss while ignoring the bottom line, you’re sending a message to the money men–you’re telling them to stop investing in experimental movies–to find a more profitable mode of filmmaking.

They found it–with Jaws, and Star Wars, and ‘franchises’, and merchandising, and that great experimental moment in American movie history ended, and will probably never return.    Walker beats the soulless corporate suits in the movie, but in reality, they had it all their own way.   And Boorman’s career ended up being a promise largely unfulfilled, full of odd, over-indulgent, but still fascinating fiascos like Zardoz and Excalibur, though he had a few more high spots.  One in particular is worth noting.

A few years later, Boorman would bring southern poet James Dickey’s first novel Deliverance to the screen.  The movie avoided the more jarring discordant elements of Point Blank, while still being strikingly shocking and original (and in its own way, amoral–the protagonists commit several murders, and get away with it).   And please note–he adapted the book very faithfully indeed–almost page for page.  The result was his most critically acclaimed and financially successful film ever–the film that made his reputation for life.  Writers, it turns out, do have their uses.   Just because you’re “making somebody else’s work” doesn’t mean you can’t make it your own as well.

But rarely has anyone followed that dictum when adapting Donald Westlake’s work.   And he’d be the last to complain about that (maybe a little, well after the film in question had bombed).  He understood, as well as anyone ever has, the need to do your own thing.   Even when what you were doing was actually his thing.   But he did have his own little tradition, that began at this time–he would insist, whenever he sold a Parker novel to the movies, that they could only use the name Parker if they agreed, in advance, to adapt all the existing books in order.  He knew that wasn’t going to happen with Point Blank–Lee Marvin refused to do sequels to any movie he was in, even if the movie was a hit.

The truth is, he must have known he was making an unreasonable demand, one that would never be met.  Parker’s name wasn’t famous enough, valuable enough, distinctive enough (it’s one of the most common names in the English speaking world) to be worth making that kind of commitment for.   Just buy the book and change the name; if the movie’s successful enough for a sequel, that name will work just as well, so why burden yourself with such an obligation?

Westlake knew this–and he never altered the demand, though it could have been profitable for him to do so.   So what was the point?   In practical terms, the point was perhaps that if you were going to do all the books in order, you’d be doing a more honest adaptation by definition–you’d have to, for the plot elements to match up.   And of course you’d have to pay for all the books.  But he obviously never thought they would do that–so in metaphysical terms, it meant he was never really selling Parker.  Just the right to take his stories and mess around with them, which is something any writer dealing with the film industry has to put up with.

In theory, he was willing to sell his brainchild down the river–but this is like the crusty backwoodsman who says he’ll sell his grand old hunting dog–for some utterly ridiculous sum that no one would ever pay.   What he really means is “I wouldn’t part with that fleabitten cur for anything, but I don’t want you to think I’m sentimental.”   Westlake, like Parker, didn’t like getting caught doing things that made no sense.

Point Blank is actually the second ‘Parker’ movie I ever saw, and the second Westlake adaptation, and I saw both of them before I finally was moved to read my first Parker novel.   In all probability, if not for the first Parker adaptation I saw, I would not have read any Donald Westlake novels, let alone all of them, nor would I be doing this blog, so you can blame Payback for that.   Payback, as they say, is a bitch.

Made over three decades later, in a radically different Hollywood, the story of Payback is diametrically opposed to that of Point Blank, and yet a logical consequence to it.  Stars had indeed become a lot more powerful, and the star of this film was (until he went batshit crazy) one of the most powerful of all.

Brian Helgeland, the talented screenwriter who had adapted James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, had decided to try his hand at directing–he wanted that kind of control over his work, but as Westlake put it, “everybody rises to the level of his own incompetence.”   He had started out doing a very direct very faithful adaptation of The Hunter (too faithful, Westlake observed, with typical perversity), which wasn’t going to have a very large budget, or an A-List star–and then Gibson muscled his way in.

I’ve seen both versions of Payback–the one Helgeland originally made (still a lot different from his original conception, and from the book), and the theatrical version that’s been shown shown on television every other day for over ten years now, and is probably the most-watched Parker adaptation ever (when the recent Statham film came out, it seemed like everybody on the internet was calling it a rip-off of Payback–and it kind of was, but more about that next time).

The original version is better looking, with a warmer palette, no offscreen narration by Gibson, and an ending in which it seems like ‘Parker’ (Porter in the movie, but you knew that) is bleeding to death in his getaway car.   Oh, and instead of Kris Kristofferson as Bronson (a great bit of casting, I thought), it has Sally Kellerman’s voice on the phone–and instead of seeming unnerved and offbalance, the way Bronson does in the book, she’s this untouchable force, that may have ultimately succeeded in killing Porter at the end.  I don’t like that.  Nobody would have liked that.

It has a lot of painfully cliched ‘movieisms’ (like Rosie screaming at Porter not to die on her), and quite honestly it doesn’t flow all that well.   It’s also almost as comedy-oriented as the theatrical cut, but keeps trying to undercut the comedy, instead of working with it.   In either version the characters are all well-drawn caricatures, depicted by skilled actors (brilliant casting all around on this one).  In either version, the only performance that isn’t a cartoon, is Maria Bello’s Rosie–and frankly, she’s the best thing in that movie.   And the only image, other than the poster up top, that I’m going to display here.

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Yeah, Helgeland actually stuck a dog in there–for no reason–then killed the dog–for no reason.   That got fixed in the theatrical version.  He grumbled afterwards that the reason his cut tested so badly was that he didn’t realize you can kill all the humans you like in a movie, but you can’t kill a dog.   Tell it to Old Yeller, Brian.

In fact, it’s not an improvement over the version most people saw–in some ways, it’s actually worse.   Like Boorman, Helgeland feels like he can’t just show a successful campaign of bloody retribution and have the antihero walk away happy, healthy, and successful at the end (but that’s what happened in Kill Bill, and that was a hit!).   In both versions, Porter takes a hell of a lot of punishment, but of course part of that is Gibson’s legendary onscreen masochism (that he would later use to project himself into Jesus on the Cross–well, they do say all actors want to direct).

What Gibson did, when he took the picture away from Helgeland (in direct antithesis to Marvin giving control of his picture to Boorman), was to make it jauntier, add the noir-style narration (wrong for a faithful Parker adaptation, but of course this had already ceased to be that),  stick in a few new plotlines, and just go with the fact that this guy loves killing people.  Porter is the most unapologetically vengeful and criminally-minded of the Parker clones, and you kind of have to respect that–other than the Love of a Good Woman thing, no attempt is made to humanize him.  But he’s still very human–not a wolf in human form, but just a mean nasty thug who doesn’t give a damn–except when he does.   It’s not The Hunter, no–it’s sure not Parker–but it’s Porter, it’s Payback, and if you have two hours to kill, it’s not a bad bit of entertainment, which is why it keeps popping back up on TV.

Gibson may be a hypocritical paranoid narcissistic fanatical conspiracy-mongering Jew-hating misogynist drunken piece of shit (or am I being too kind?), but he’s proven over and over that he has sound commercial instincts, and the fact is, Helgeland’s cut would have probably flopped.   Gibson’s version was not a hit by his standards back then, but it did well enough at the time it came out.   It’s a star vehicle, and the star in question is best known for the Lethal Weapon movies, which combine over-the-top violence with slapstick comedy, and suggest their hero may be crazy (but still nicer than all the guys he’s killing).   In this Hollywood, with increasingly rare exceptions, the director is no longer God–he’s God’s publicist.   Assuming the star doesn’t want to direct as well.

Westlake hated the movie, spoke rather contemptuously of it, and yet there is something about Payback that every Westlake fan should love–the dialogue.   Whole chunks of raw vibrant hardbitten dialogue, ripped right out of the book, and plunked onto the screen, and it works beautifully.  Other than Maria Bello (I really really like her), this is what drew me to the movie–I loved the way the characters talked.  It wasn’t until I read The Hunter that I realized Helgeland, too good a writer not to know great writing when he saw it, had been unable to convince himself he could improve on Richard Stark’s way with words.  For that alone, I doff my proverbial cap to him.

For all the changes made, this is the most faithful Hollywood adaptation of a Parker novel–in terms of dialogue, the most faithful ever–and strangely, the most successful in terms of box office.   Much more so than Boorman’s film, for all its undoubted superiority on the visual front.   Writers have their uses.   It sometimes seems like it takes a writer to recognize that.   That or a director who knows his limitations.

And I aspire to know mine, so maybe I better start winding this down.   I agree with Westlake that movies based on books are their own form, that require their own solutions, but I also think, as did he, that you can’t find those solutions if you don’t understand the book you’re basing your movie on.  The reason Kiss Me Deadly worked, in spite of its obvious loathing for the book it’s based on is that the screenwriter adapting it understood the book he was working with very well–possibly better than Spillane did (self-awareness not really being The Mick’s thing).   He understood it, and that’s why he hated it.  But it was honest hate.   That script has a very defined message, which you can agree or disagree with, but you know what you’ve just been shown.

Boorman, attracted to the violence of the story and character he was working with, but also repelled by it, played a sort of clever mindgame with himself, and left the rest of us out.  The result was a beautifully shot glimpse into his soul, but nobody necessarily gave a damn about his soul.   I mean, it was his first big movie–Hitchcock didn’t start making movies about the dubious state of his soul until he’d had quite a few hits under his belt.  And Vertigo flopped too, you know.  Still a great movie.   I do sometimes blank on what the point of it is.

Payback, by contrast, was made in an era where the violence was the point.   Where it had become normal for a brutal thug to be the hero–where we could be encouraged to root for the bad guy–as long as he was up against worse guys.  So in that sense, it came closer to the mark, but still missed the point–Parker only does what’s necessary.   There’s ten times as much violence in the movie as there is in the book.   But the really chilling moments, like him mutilating Lynn’s face so she won’t be identified, aren’t there, because while we’re identifying with the brutal thug, we still want to believe we’re nice people.

Violence is not the point of The Hunter.   The point is identity.   How do you know who you are, where your limits are.   It uses the world of crime, the language of violence, because that makes for a stronger metaphor (you choose wrong, you die), and because there’s a large audience out there for that kind of story.  The story doesn’t have a moral, but it has a point.  Boorman’s story has a moral, and absolutely no point.   Helgeland’s story began as an homage (which are typically pointless), and ended up as a star vehicle (the point of which is to make money).

But here’s what I think the point of those movies is–I followed Payback to Point Blank.   Then I followed Point Blank to this–

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And around a hundred other books, and not all of them are as good or better than these two movies.   But most of them are.   At the end of the day, all movies are made from screenplays, original or adapted.   Screenplays are printed on paper.   Therefore, movies are made of paper.   Then they become celluloid–or pixels.  But paper first.

To be concluded in Part 3–The Bald Parkers.

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