Tag Archives: The Hunter

Nitpick: Mr. Parker and ‘Poetry in Steel’

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Parker is the classic antihero, with lots of free-floating hostility and, of course, fulfilling male fantasies, all the “dames” in the novel are crazy about him on sight.

But to clear up a few facts: There isn’t a spot at the approaches to the tollbooths where any kind of hero, anti or otherwise, can be offered a ride; only a world-class spitter could possibly hit a rapidly moving hubcap; and the Hudson, at the point where Parker throws his cigarette into it, is a tidal estuary, not the ocean. Also, there are those of us who take issue with the suggestion that anyone heading for New Jersey is a “nobody.” However, none of this stopped Hollywood from twice making films inspired by The Hunter: Point Blank (1967), starring Lee Marvin, and Payback (1999), starring Mel Gibson.

From The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel, by Michael Aaron Rockland (Rutgers University Press)

We went up the Henry Hudson Parkway and over the George Washington Bridge. We took the lower level and Dad said “This is new.”

“This part of the bridge?  It looks nutty.”

We went up 9 to 17,and then west on 17 toward Binghamton

From 361, By Donald E. Westlake.

I’ve got about a hundred articles I’m thinking about writing.  Thinking about writing isn’t writing.  (Barely qualifies as thinking.)  I’ve even started a few.  Then I get sidetracked.  Bogged down.  Or there’s too many books crossing my desk at the library. Enterprise of great pith and moment, currents turned awry, you know the drill.

But this past week, a book crossed my desk at the library.  The one quoted up top.  Which was published in 2008 (a few months before Mr. Westlake went out of print), but for whatever reason, we got it in 2020.

It’s supposed to be the first book ever written specifically about The World’s Busiest Bridge, which Prof. Rockland justly feels is unjustly slighted in favor of the one in Brooklyn–but in fact another one came out in 2006, probably after he started writing his.  Not evailable, that one.  I ordered a used copy, just to be thorough.  And because I love that damn bridge.  Not quite as much as I love a certain story that begins there.

Now you know me, pals.  You know exactly what I did.  Same thing you’d do in my place.  Flipped forward to the index, headed over to the ‘w’s, and there it was.  ‘Westlake, Donald.’  That’s right.

But when I flipped back to Chapter 8, ‘The George Washington Bridge in Literature,’ what I found was not an enconium to epic pulp writing, but a curt backhanded diss.  Prof. Rockland was not impressed with Richard Stark’s–starkness.

Parker, the protagonist, has been double-crossed by his partner, shot by his wife, and left for dead in a burning building. The novel begins on the New Jersey side of the bridge with a tone more than a little reminiscent of Mickey Spillane’s unremitting, often misogynistic, malice:

Followed by a truncated quote from the book’s opening.  Followed by the jaundiced offhanded critique you can read up top.  And that’s it.  He gives The Hunter a lot less ink than several other novels referenced in the chapter on literary references to the GWB.  Even though, as he somewhat begrudgingly concedes, it’s the only one that inspired two major motion pictures, that people actually still watch, unlike Up the Sandbox, based on an out-of-print novel by Anne Roiphe, a film even a Streisand fan couldn’t love.  (That movie doesn’t feature the bridge, and neither do the two based on The Hunter, which is what Rockland ought to be mad about–I sure am.)

But you know, he’s got a right to his opinion. He likewise gives short shrift to Howard Fast’s Redemption, and James Baldwin’s Another Country–he thinks they’re good books, but they aren’t bridgey enough.  Other than the out-of-print Up the Sandbox, (included because of a fantasy sequence where the heroine helps blow up his favorite bridge) you can get most of the novels he references for Kindle–some for free, if you have Kindle Unlimited.   The Hunter you’re going to have to shell out for.  People actually still want to read that.

Ah, but here’s the rub.  At the time Rockland must have submitted his manuscript, The Hunter was also out of print, at least in America.  The University of Chicago Press edition came out the same year as Poetry in Steel.  So cut him some slack.  He thought he was writing about some Spillane wannabe who had been lucky enough to sell a few books to Hollywood.  He didn’t know he was writing at the dawn of  The Starkian Renaissance, courtesy of Levi Stahl.

Neither does he seem to have known that Mr. Westlake was, like him, a New Yorker born, who lived a fair bit of his life in New Jersey.  No indication he knows Westlake set many a brilliant novel there; nor does he seem to have twigged to the fact that Parker spends most of the series holed up in Passaic County with Claire. If he had known all that, I think he might have been a mite less jaundiced about the eight best paragraphs of prose ever set on that most complex of edifices spanning the majestic Hudson.

Prof. Rockland is a noted Jersey Chauvinist (he helped popularize the term ‘Jerseyana’), and speaking as one myself, I’ve no problem with this.  Most of the bad attitude that reeks from his brush-off stems from what he mistakenly reads as a typical Jersey Slur from a Manhattanite.  Stark is saying the traffic going into New Jersey on a weekday morning is light, which is correct–not that the people going there are nobodies.  (It’s the people heading into Manhattan who are subjected to Stark’s sardonic scrutiny, and Parker barely even knows they’re alive.)

Parker’s alienation from humankind as a whole likewise gets written off as sexist machismo (Rockland’s not the only one making that mistake).  I’m scratching my head a bit about his air-quoting “dames”, since that word appears not even once in the book (in fairness, Darwyn Cooke has Parker call Lynn a slut in his graphic novel adaptation of The Hunter, and that’s not in the book either–there’s always a lot of projection going on with these books, somehow–your reaction to them probably says more about you than the author).

But pretty clear that many other books he writes about more favorably have that problem as well–he dismisses one of them as ‘chick-lit’ (that’s a bit misogynist, wouldn’t you say?) but still gives it a lot more attention.  So it’s the Jersey thing. And the general ignorance of who Donald E. Westlake is thing.  Hey, he’s not the only one who can get his back up over a slight.  (And not even posthumous–barely possible Westlake could have seen Rockland’s book before he headed off to Mexico one last time.)

But let’s cut to the reveal.  Even if this book came out after the U. of Chicago edition, I’d know which one he read–Pocket Books.  1962.  Has to be.  Because of the throwing the cigarette butt at the ocean thing.

I had never noticed this before–Westlake changed something.  I have both the Pocket Book PBO and Gold Medal reprint published as Point Blank! to go with the film release.  In the latter, Parker throws his cigarette butt at the river.  That’s the only change I can see, at least in the opening chapter.  So Rockland’s only relevant complaint was corrected four decades before he got around to making it.  (Not that the phrase ‘tidal estuary’  would have any place in the passage we’re dissecting here.)

Possible somebody mentioned it to Westlake, maybe there were letters from distressed limnologists, perhaps an editor at Fawcett suggested the tweak.  But my guess is that while reading over the book prior to republication, Westlake the word nerd decided that while to Parker it’s the ocean, to Stark it’s the river.  Stark cares about getting that kind of thing right, Parker doesn’t give a damn.  It’s salty, there’s fish, it’s the ocean.

The first edition is channeling Parker more directly;  in the reprint, Stark translates for us. The narrator voice in that series was a lot more focused and fine-tuned by the Mid-60s.  And so was the man behind it.  Who always knew the Hudson was a river.  He grew up alongside that river, near Albany.  He wrote one hell of a good Parker novel set on and around it, if Rockland had only thought to check.

But try telling that to the distressed Jerseyanist, who can’t stop himself from going back there later in the chapter, when in the midst of analyzing a poetic paeon to The George by a Lithuanian immigrant named Israel Newman, feels obliged to state–

The line “Here where the Hudson feels the sea” is beautifully suggestive of the G.W.B.’ s site, not to mention a welcome corrective to Donald Westlake’s confusing the Hudson with the ocean.

It’s saying the same exact thing, in more flowery language, but the poem doesn’t disrespect New Jersey, or even mention it, so no umbrage is taken.

(How did he come to read the first edition paperback?  Hardly to be found at your local used book shop in the early 21st. Borrowed from a friend?  Interlibrary Loan?  Amazon Marketplace?  [That’s how I got it.]  Rutgers library doesn’t seem to have The Hunter in its collection, though they’ve got Comeback. Did he realize The Hunter had been reprinted scores of times over the course of half a century, all over the planet, in English, French, Russian, German, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese?–no doubt Lithuanian as well.

And what would he say were he to learn not one of those books featured the George Washington Bridge on its cover?  Don’t even ask.  I get the distinct impression he didn’t even know there were 23 more Parker novels after this one, and of course the first edition wouldn’t inform him of that.  No “Other books by” page in there.)

So that leaves the very first nitpick–that nobody could have offered Parker a ride before the tollbooths.  Now in this very book I’m nitpicking, there are a whole lot of stories about things happening on the GWB that are not supposed to happpen. Like did you know a small plane once crash-landed there?

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Much of Rockland’s book, in point of fact, devotes itself to such anomalies, like a herd of goats escaped from an overturned truck, a man stopping his car in mid-bridge to jump off it, an elderly cyclist who found the pedestrian walkway closed, so she rode across the bridge with the cars and trucks, and didn’t ask if that was okay, because if you ask they’ll probably say no.  Probably not a day passes without something happening on that bridge that isn’t supposed to happen.

I’ve actually caught a ride from the Bridge Plaza, not far from the toll booths–turns out drivers who want to be charged the much lower carpool toll will look around for passengers in Fort Lee–they’ve been ticketed for that (even though it isn’t technically illegal), but they keep right on doing it, whenever and wherever they can get away with it.

But agreed, it would probably be pretty hard to openly hitchhike right in front of the toll booths–except, first of all, Parker isn’t hitchhiking.  He’s just walking across the bridge.  And, as I am suddenly realizing, he’s not using the pedestrian walkway.  He’s walking with the cars and trucks.  Heavy morning traffic.  Slow moving vehicles.  And this explains so much else (like how hard is it to spit on the hubcap of a vehicle stalled in traffic that you’re walking right through, like some implacable unstoppable force of criminal retribution?)

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(Darwyn Cooke figured all this shit out a long long time before me.)

But wait–there’s more!  Because the book is set in 1962–and Westlake’s own fateful walk back from New Jersey, that inspired the opening scene, was a few years before that.  And let’s just say the toll plaza looked a bit different then. Wanna see how different? YouTube, do your stuff.

There’s a few cops, yeah–because they’re sending a film truck through.  Putting up a front.  But every morning?  Early in the morning?  Heavy commuter traffic? Cops there all the time?  I don’t think so.  And there’s scads of room for cars to pull over, offer someone a ride.

So why did the fresh-faced guy in a Chevy stop and ask Parker if he wanted a lift? Because Parker isn’t on the pedestrian walkway.  Maybe it isn’t open yet.  Maybe Parker just doesn’t give a damn.  He’s going to walk right through the traffic, right past those women getting vibrations above the nylons, and the guys remembering when they didn’t have a car and thinking they’re empathizing with him–and who’s going to tell him he can’t?  You’ve read the description of how he looks that morning.  Would you?

And if a tollboth worker called the law, by the time they got there, he’d be long across and down into the subway hole.  (It looked really different on the other side as well back then, as you can see up top).  A long time before 9/11, and stuff still happens on that bridge now that nobody wants to know about.

But it was changing, very quickly, right around the time Westlake was writing. They were putting in the lower deck, referenced in both The Hunter and 361, but it didn’t open until August of 1962.  We’re told how Parker is irritated by the way the bridge surface ‘trembles and sways in the wind’–the wind effect used to be a lot more pronounced, before the extra weight of the lower deck (charmingly referred to as ‘The Martha’ by many–hey I learned some things from Rockland’s book) stabilized it.  The amazing Othmar Ammann, Switzerland’s gift to American bridge design, had worked it all out decades before.

When Westlake took his own walk across the bridge, in a troubled state of mind, the lower deck wasn’t in place yet.  The Cross Bronx Expressway, the GWB Bus Station–still in the works.  By the time his mirror twin noirs, published under two very different names, came out, he knew people would have come to terms with the Martha beneath the George, so he must have written that in.  But the George Parker is stalking across early one morning is somehow still a bachelor, so still swaying madly in the wind, signifying Parker’s chaotic unsettled state of mind, that he can only fix by killing Mal Resnick and getting his money.

It all makes perfect sense.  If you take the time to understand it.  If you realize this isn’t some two-bit hack, writing trash for a living.  This is Richard Fucking Stark, bitch.  And you missed every last thing he was trying to tell you.  Yeah, I’m mad.  Apparently that’s what it takes to get me to finish an article these days.  I’ll feel better after I hit the button that says ‘Publish.’

Oh there’s a trashy aura to it–part of its charm, as Rockland should know, since he once penned a scholarly work called Popular Culture: Or Why Study Trash? that my workplace doesn’t have and Amazon doesn’t seem to know exists.

(I forgot to mention that he’s a Professor of ‘American Studies’ at Rutgers.  Is that what Charles Kuralt majored in?  Aren’t we all of us here technically studying America, all the time?  Not carefully enough, it seems.  Now Donald Westlake–there was a veritable polymath of American Studies. For all anyone noticed.)

Now I’m being mean.  I am aware of this.  Writing even a short mass market book about such a storied bridge (even if it is a bit too full of folksy asides and personal anecdotes to be a serious history, and I’m hoping something better comes along for the 100th Anniversary)–that’s a lot of research.  A lot of moving parts.  Just the two chapters on books, stories, poems, artwork, and films featuring the GWB would have been time-consuming.  It’s not reasonable to expect he’d drop everything to become a Westlake expert (and online resources were scarcer then, though they existed).

He somehow found out The Hunter begins on the George, he read it, and he didn’t have the context to appreciate it–but so many people have read that book with zero context, and loved it.   (Westlake probably got at least as much fan mail from black men for the early Parker novels as James Baldwin got for Another Country).  We love what we love, we hate what we hate, and there’s room for all kinds.

The bridge book was worth reading.  But few will ever read it twice.  And far fewer who read The Hunter stop at just once.

Now I said that not one edition of The Hunter (or 361) that I can find features an image of the George Washington Bridge or any aspect of that opening scene on its cover.  And that is true.  But there’s a caveat.

That is, without question, the most engrossing visual of the entire book, Parker walking through that traffic, the wind blowing his hair like a bad toupee, his face like chipped granite, his onyx eyes set on the city before him in a ten thousand yard stare, his big gnarly hands swinging at his sides and the ocean (yeah, I said it, Rockland!) down below him, cold and dark and hungry, waiting for bodies to drop, and they will.

It’s one hell of a visual, and no artist worth his salt would have missed it.  Here’s to you, Darwyn Cooke.  You got it.  (But Parker doesn’t say ‘slut’–not his style.)

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Well damn–I’m done.  PUBLISH.  (or perish)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Parker at the Movies, Part 4: Mr Suzuki and The Stark Homage.

His hand on the knob, she called his name.  He turned around, questioning, irritated, and saw the Police Positive in her hand.  He just had time to remember that it had to be either Chester or Mal–the two who’d been given the revolvers–when she pulled the trigger and a heavy punch in his stomach drove the breath and the consciousness out of him.

It was his belt buckle that saved him.  Her first shot had hit the buckle, mashing it into his flesh.  The gun had jumped in her hand, the next five shots all going over his falling body and into the wood of the door.  But she’d fired six shots at him, and she’d seen him fall, and she couldn’t believe that he was anything but dead.

He awoke to heat and suffocation.  They’d set fire to the house.

I shouldn’t need to tell you.

Rojini has offered cease-fire agreement in Paakaa. However the truce was broken by the traitor of the organization. But the son of man aiming secretly position of boss took the gold, Paakaa you charge the brunt of the attack, increase the fire, strikes back to unscrupulous traitor! Villain Paakaa and his friends, Ru Osoikaka mighty criminal organization. Premier epic yelling prime all the charm of the series.

Promotional text from the first Japanese edition of Butcher’s Moon, run through an online software, which only goes to show that some things are gained in translation.

Japanese film is yet another thing I loved a long time before I ever heard of Donald Westlake. And as I now discover, much to my delight, I can conclusively link up the two.  (This will be a short piece.  Hopefully get the motor running again.)

Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Kobayashi–I’ll admit I tended to favor the Jidaigeki, or period costume dramas, often dealing with the heavily mythologized samurai class, and creatively rebelling against those myths.  My first love was the Kaiju Eiga , naturally–what other Japanese flicks is an American kid going to know in the 60’s and 70’s?  Crush the grown-ups, Godzilla!)  I know many other names besides those three above. But I was never enough of a maven to know them all.  Too rich a vein to ever fully mine out, unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, which I am decidedly not.

You branch out over time–I’ve gotten a fair few kicks from Takashi Miike, ‘J-Horror’ being something many in the west have learned to warily love (and assiduously copy) in the 21st, and the variety of stuff available on cable and Region 1 DVD has kept expanding.  Japanese film isn’t what it once was, of course, but what is?

Miike also did Yakuza films, of which I’ve only seen the intentionally over the top and confusing Ichi the Killer, which being a David Lynch fan, I had no trouble following.  Well, maybe a little, but it didn’t bother me.  You’re either along for the ride or not, right?  Last chance to leap out of the getaway car.  Here we go…..

So TCM has recently been showing a lot of Japanese crime films (you can call them noir if you like, everybody else does) from the late 50’s and 60’s, usually in the wee hours of the night, but that’s what DVR is for.  Many of these were produced not by Toho or Toei, but by what you might call in Hollywood terms, a poverty row studio, Nikkatsu.  Founded in 1912, it opted in the post-war era to make the Yakuza thriller and the police drama its twin wheelhouse, because they couldn’t afford to hire the best samurai stars, and didn’t really know how to make good monster suits and tiny model cities for them to stomp on.  If you can’t afford the top names, make your own, right?  That’s what they did.  Worked for Warner Bros in the early 30’s (didn’t work out quite as well for Nikkatsu).

One of their top stars made himself, you might say–Joe Shishido, sometimes called Joe the Ace, though I struggle not to refer to him as Gerbiljaw.   A conventionally handsome man with both talent and ambition, he decided he needed something to make him stand out from the farflung field of fashion plates (and didn’t want to play cheesy romantic leads), so he had plastic surgery to enlarge his cheekbones, leading to a face looking like– well……a chipped chunk of concrete with eyes of flawed onyx? At some angles, chipmunk would be more like it, but he usually had directors who knew how to point their cameras.

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Regardless of whether the new look caused vibrations above the nylons among female filmgoers (definitely had that effect on women in his films), Shishido became the definitive star of the Yakuza Eiga.  And he frequently worked with a creative young director named Seijun Suzuki, who just recently passed away at the age of 93.

At times, the studio heads wanted Suzuki to be less creative.  He would actually trim his budgets, just to get them to leave him alone to do what he wanted, and as so often happens with geniuses, this made the films even more creative (and therefore, more problematic for the studio).  He claimed it was never his conscious intent to be surrealistic.  It just came out that way.

He’s been written about a lot.  Many a cult western filmmaker has waxed elegaic.  I’m not a film critic, and I haven’t seen most of his movies (and I have to admit, sometimes I fast-forward the ones I record off TCM, when he’s wanking around too much).  So let’s cut to the chase, since this blog ain’t The Suzuki Scenario. Came a point when Suzuki souped up the motorcycle too much for his own good.

It was when he got brought onto a project about a steely-eyed assassin working for the Yakuza, with Shishido playing the surly strong-willed hitter, like he’d already done a few times before.  Joe had the right face (paid well for it).

According to the Wikipedia article for Branded to Kill, the studio hated the original script, brought Suzuki in to rewrite it, then told him they couldn’t understand the script he handed in (a not-uncommon complaint), but there was no time for a do-over, because release schedules. They told him to go ahead and film it.  Even though the auteur theory was by this time a thing, Suzuki had no such pretensions, and was simply following orders–he just followed them his own way.  A true rebel doesn’t have to say no–he just does it.

Suzuki didn’t believe in storyboarding.  He wrote and directed by what I think could be justly called The Push Method, which is probably harder than it looks, and in his line of business, there wasn’t much time for rewrites.

He would often come up with ideas for a scene the day before shooting it, or while shooting it.  He did as few takes as possible, exposing the bare minimum of celluloid, which he said was a habit he picked up in the days after the war, when film stock was hard to come by, but maybe also because he didn’t want the studio to recut the film in a way he didn’t like (is any of this sounding eerily familiar to long-time readers here?)  25 days allotted for shooting, three for post-production, but he finished editing the sucker in one.  (Now don’t talk about efficiency, that’s racist.)

It was released on June 15th, 1967.  Just shy of nine weeks before John Boorman’s Point Blank premiered in San Francisco.  There is not the slightest chance either film impacted the other.  And yet, they somehow share a subplot and a scene. As well as the distinction of being revered visionary cult films that bombed to hell at the box office because audiences couldn’t figure out what the fuck was going on in them, but that’s just something that happened a lot with studio films in the 60’s and 70’s.   The subplot and the scene–that’s a bit different.

See, in Branded to Kill, Goro Hanada, #3 hitman in Japan, has a wife named Mami, who likes to talk about how terrifying her husband is, then have wild sex with him after he smells pots of cooking rice (don’t ask).  A conniving Yakuza boss starts chatting her up, and she is aware that Goro has been lustfully eyeing another woman (played by half-Indian actress, Annu Mari, and I for one don’t blame him), and she’s particularly concerned when he blows a major job because a butterfly landed on his rifle barrel (lousy special effect, but that’s hardly the point of anything).

Goro is planning to leave the country, while Mami lies in bed, holding a gun, looking scared.  To save her own lovely skin (of which we see a lot in the movie, which broke new ground in onscreen nudity), she shoots Goro in the stomach (just once, with an automatic) and flees in a panic, while he lies on the floor, seemingly dead.  For no rationally comprehensible reason, we see flames spring up outside the window immediately after her naked form scampers out the door. Well, the film isn’t trying to be rational.

Goro isn’t dead, though.  The bullet glanced off his belt buckle (Suzuki does a close up of the bullet hitting it, just so we’ll know).  He’s hurt, but alive–and enraged.  Off-kilter.  Bad stuff ensues.

Yeah.

Maybe this is a good time to mention that The Hunter (aka Human Hunting Parker/ Villain) was published by Hayakawa in 1966?  You can see the cover up top, along with a written dedication from the translator, Nobumitsu Kodaka, who seems to have sent Westlake a copy in 1975.  (These images courtesy of the Official Westlake Blog.)

So you know, just because you’re a brilliant artist doesn’t mean you don’t steal from other artists sometimes.  As Akira Kurosawa might have said to Sergio Leone if they ever met.  I don’t see anything else in the film specifically from the work of Richard Stark (who doesn’t make organization men his heroes, however surly they might be). I don’t think Westlake would have blamed Suzuki at all–he was known to lift the odd few things himself, though he was rarely this obvious about it.  (Godard would be another matter, since that involved welshing on a debt.)

What’s interesting is how both Suzuki and Boorman independently decided they had to justify the wife’s treacherous behavior, and have her be attracted to a criminal colleague of his  (who isn’t all that attractive), be dissatisfied with her marriage–she couldn’t just shoot her heinous hubby because she panicked under pressure, saw no other way out.  (Played out about the same way in Payback).

She has to be a willing pawn, I suppose, to justify what’s coming later, so the anti-hero doesn’t seem too anti-heroic for taking revenge (and of course, nobody ever goes with the face mutilation thing from the novel).  But Suzuki, who was never much inclined to pull his punches, doesn’t make his two-timing missus take the coward’s way out–hey, remember the floating hair thingy at the end of the climactic sword fight in Kill Bill Vol I?

(Mami saying they’re beasts, as she does earlier in the film, is also interesting, as if Suzuki is picking up on Parker’s lupine nature, but if so, he’s not seeing it as a positive.)

But understand, it’s not just one scene–there’s a build-up to that moment where the film goes full DaDa on us (because Goro is going mad), and it all clearly stems from the twisted relationship between Parker and Lynn in Westlake’s novel, that moment of betrayal that first introduces us to that strange mental state Parker goes into when someone betrays his trust.

Only Goro, while genuinely dangerous, is in a very different type of story, and doesn’t know himself the way Parker does, which is Suzuki’s point, fair play to him.  And the intent, as with Point Blank, is to send up the whole genre, deconstruct it (I doubt Suzuki used that term).  And, in many ways, to make a fool of the rugged hitman, cut him down to size, even while mythologizing him. As Westlake in a sense tried to do with Parker when he wrote what became The Hot Rock–only to realize it wouldn’t work.

Do I agree this is a work of visual genius, that influenced generations of filmmakers?  It’s every bit of that, whether I think so or not.  Do I think it’s a great film?  Ehhhh…..remind me what I said about Point Blank when I wrote about it?  Only that had Lee Marvin, and he didn’t need any surgical enhancements, did he?

There are some pretty serious second act problems.  I feel that Suzuki missed a great opportunity with the Annu Mari character, a female assassin, ice cold, deadly, and oddly vulnerable at the same time, who is written out far too quickly, and replaced by a less interesting (and far less alluring) male counterpart to Goro whose primary claim to fame is that he never uses the toilet when he has to go, because that would be unprofessional.

The film is not long, but seems endless, as bad dreams invariably do.  There’s a bit too much self-conscious posing for the camera, a bit too little attempt to make the nonsense make sense (as the best work of David Lynch does, for example).   It’s got the makings of a masterpiece, and in a certain limited sense it is (as is Point Blank), but not in the sense I’m looking for when I decide whether to call a film that or not.

Because a movie theater isn’t an art gallery.  In a movie theater, story matters, and stories have messages, however nuanced and ambiguous–and as with Point Blank, which I also admire from a visual standpoint, I am not at all sure this film has any message to convey other than “Isn’t this cool?”  It definitely is, but I need more.

Suzuki was on the cusp of a new style, but he hadn’t quite figured it out, and because of a famous legal battle with Nikkatsu that put his career on hold, he never really got the chance until much later, by which time his meandering muse had largely deserted him (studio suits can be annoying, but for some artists, they can be a necessary irritant).  It’s never easy to be in the vanguard, and I will say, I want to see more of his early work; what he constructed before he started with the deconstruction.  I don’t begrudge him one bit of his belated recognition as a cinematic trailblazer.

But remember, they just handed him this project, he shot it in 25 days, edited it in one, got paid a whole lot less than Boorman, and film buffs are still studying it. Maybe someday they’ll find a plot in there somewhere (and be shot for their pains).

Nobody has to look for the plot in Westlake’s novel–it comes hunting for you, and good luck trying to escape it.  It’s been hunting us down since 1962.

Cutting to the proverbial chase, Branded to Kill is not an uncredited  adaptation of The Hunter, but was sure as bloody hell directly consciously influenced by it.  Coincidence my Aunt Fumiko.  An unquestionable match.  Still and all, if anybody wants to question it, here I am, waiting.  There’s no butterfly on my rifle barrel.  Sayonara for now, suckers.

 

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

Addendum: Genealogy of a Hunter

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Generally speaking, I don’t think writers know who they are; it’s a disability–and an advantage–they share with actors. And it’s probably just as well, really. Self-knowledge can lead to self-consciousness, and in a writer self-consciousness can only lead to self-parody. Or silence.

Whereas actors receive an endless supply of surrogate identities in the roles they’re given to play, writers tend to begin their search for identity in their predecessors. Every one of us began by imitating the writers we loved to read. Those writers had made their worlds so real and appealing for us that we tried to move in and live there.

Donald E. Westlake, from the Introduction to the Gregg Press edition of The Hunter

I’ve had this article in mind for quite a while now, and I’ve put off writing it for a reason. I didn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle. And I still don’t, and it’s increasingly clear to me that I may never have them all.   I keep coming across another piece, then still another, and they’ve started to accumulate.  I’ve got a pile of books on my desk to prepare for writing this, and I just realized, the morning I started writing this, that there’s another book I have to read, and thankfully it’s on Kindle, so I can download it, finish it in a day or two, and see if it’s worth adding to the pile.  But the pile will probably never stop growing.  So maybe I better start writing.

The Hunter is a deceptively simple book, much like Parker is a deceptively simple character.  There are hidden depths under all that bare bones language, those emotionless onyx eyes.   It runs 155 tersely worded pages in the original paperback edition–a book that was specifically designed to fit any decent-sized pocket, which is why the publisher called itself Pocket Books.  I’ve often taken that quite literally, when in the process of reading one in the course of a workday.   That image of the book up top is substantially larger than the book itself, at least on my computer screen.   Your device may differ.   But the book itself, in any edition, never changes, never dates, never needs an upgrade.

You can get lost in those 155 pages.  I’ve no idea how many online reviews there are (in all languages?  hundreds, at least), but a while back, somebody actually started a blog devoted to nothing more than analyzing the entire book, chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence.  And I thought that a worthy endeavor, and also thought maybe he didn’t have quite enough context to pull it off yet, but look who’s talking.  He stopped updating, and now I can’t find it anymore.

Those who try to bring this story to life in another medium invariably founder on the rocks of its seemingly simple narrative, adding bells and whistles, subtracting sense–of all its adapters, the late Darwyn Cooke (sad to type ‘the late’ before his name, but everybody’s elevens come up sometime) got closest, by sticking closest.   Still far from a match.  I doubt anybody will ever really capture it.  Like its ‘hero,’ it just can’t adjust to life in captivity.  It always breaks out–slips through the cracks, and it’s gone.

I’m not a deconstructionist–I don’t really want to take it apart like a watch to find out how it works–I can’t do that with a real watch, not that I wear one anymore (even they’ve become obsolescent, except as status symbols).  Westlake often admitted he never fully understood what makes Parker tick.  But he wasn’t averse to explaining what made him, personally, tick–as a writer. What, and whom.  If he liked another writer, learned something from that writer, somewhere or other, he talked about that writer, made his admiration known.  Some he liked much better than others, but a useful lesson–positive or negative–might come from anywhere.

So before I get lost in prologue, let me state the point of this article–I’m looking for all the stories that went into the making of this particular story, and the intimidating figure at its center.  In that introduction I quoted up top, Westlake made it clear there were many.  I’ve made it clear I may never know how many.  Westlake was a voracious and omnivorous reader, who also cheerfully admitted to borrowing heavily from the movies (or had Stark admit it for him).   Maybe you’ve seen some things I’ve missed.  Maybe that’s what the comments section is for.

When I first discovered the Parker novels, only a few years back, I saw people speculating on their influences.  They would mention books, and I’d read them.  I usually ended up feeling that yes, there were parallels, but not very close ones.  Then I’d read something I didn’t connect at all with Parker, more or less by chance, and I’d find something that seemed very direct and obvious to me.  Like this book.

That’s the first edition to the left, from 1936, but I read the 1955 Bantam Books reprint edition to the right, with the title changed to match the Alan Ladd film–and not nearly so pristine a copy as you see above, either.  Picked it up vacationing in Colorado–one of those tiny paperback exchange shops you sometimes find in aging strip malls.  There’s a lot of Greene I’ve yet to get to, and this was one of those.

Believing then, as I do now, that Parker is a wolf in human form, and that Westlake at least sometimes wrote him that way on purpose,  I couldn’t help starting when I saw how Raven, the titular gun of the story, was described as a ‘mangy wolf in a cage.’  That probably helped me to notice that the entire story of his single-minded vendetta against the men who had double-crossed him –that’s Parker’s story in The Hunter.  Very freely adapted.  Raven is an assassin, not a thief.  He was hired to kill an idealistic politician on the continent, who was proving an impediment to a British industrialist who hopes to get another big war going –good for business.

Raven’s employers had betrayed him to the cops after he’d done the job.  They wanted to cover their tracks–he’d resist arrest, get shot down, loose ends all tied up.  In retrospect, this seems like a bit of a plot hole.  Why would they risk him being captured alive, talking to the law?  It’s a fine book, but it has quite a few weak spots, that Westlake would have noted as aptly as its strengths.

The point is, Raven’s hunting the rich man’s paymaster, Cholmondeley, following him to a little industrial town–Raven knows his number is nearly up, and he just wants to take the guys who screwed him over down with him. A compulsion he can’t shake, a driving obsession–maybe even an instinct–he can seem very human and vulnerable at times, but at others he really does seem like some kind of predatory automaton–a killing machine who finally gets pointed in the right direction.

Cholmondeley, a fat frightened flunky, has delusions of being an impresario, uses his money to fund cheap music hall entertainments, and sleep with the showgirls.  That’s how Raven gets him–through that weakness.  Then from Cholmondeley to Sir Marcus, the rich man, a sort of legitimate mobster.  Then the cops kill Raven.  Because he’s still a villain, a murderer, and he’s got to be punished.  Even though technically he just averted, or at least delayed, a second world war (in The Assassination Bureau, Oliver Reed is decorated as a hero, and gets to screw Diana Rigg–unfair!).

It’s more complicated than that, as well as a bit preachy and Little Englander at points, and though Greene was certainly right about a war coming (not so hard to spot on the horizon from Britain in the mid-30’s), it’s rather unfortunate that his rich warmonger is Jewish–that book has actually dated a lot in some respects, but it’s still Graham Greene, and Westlake couldn’t have thought he was going to improve on it–just streamline and repurpose it–get rid of all the excess baggage.

There’s a nice girl caught up in the story, just to remind us what nice people look like, provide a moral underpinning, a witness to Raven’s partial redemption (and someone to point him, like the gun he is, at the real villain of the piece).  But that’s basically the whole story.  Raven’s quest for retribution, which indirectly makes the world safe for Democracy, or whatever.

He’d never had a chance, being raised the way he was, in the class he was born into, with a nasty birth defect (harelip–they never put that in the movies, somehow), but God, Greene quietly implies, was using him for a higher purpose.  And part of me thinks that purpose was to give Donald Westlake the bare bones idea for a book that wouldn’t be even the least bit preachy, about a wolf without a trace of mange in his coat.   Better in every way?  Of course not.  But The Hunter holds together as a narrative in ways A Gun For Sale does not.

Westlake referred to this book more than once (as in the Samuel Holt novel What I Tell You Three Times Is False).   He didn’t come close to plagiarizing Greene’s very different story and protagonist, but he still wanted to quietly admit the debt.

He was never going to come out and say “I got part of the idea for Parker’s hunt for Mal Resnick in The Hunter leading him to (eventually) kill Arthur Bronson in The Outfit from Graham Greene, and that’s why Parker finds Mal with a high class call girl, and Parker is, in some ways, an idealized version of Raven, translated into a Gold Medal style crime fiction paperback.” I mean, just reading that over, you’d see why no professional writer would ever say something like that, unless it was about something long in the public domain.  (Anyway, that probably wasn’t even his only influence for that part of the plot, but another template I’ve since located will have to wait a bit.)

He just saw a fascinating but imperfectly motivated story and protagonist that he thought he could improve on.  And on reflection, I’d say that’s exactly what he did.  It’s not one of Greene’s more highly regarded books (one of his ‘entertainments’, as he called them), and I doubt Greene would have minded that much had he ever noticed, but better safe than sorry.

And I talked about some of this already, in my review of The Hunter, but see, I didn’t stop reading books not written by Westlake after that, so these things keep jumping out at me.  Even just rereading Greene’s book a bit today, I came across a section relating to Anne, the young woman who Raven abducts to keep her from going to the cops, and then her kindness brings out something resembling a conscience in him.

Some other minor villain has bound and gagged Anne, and when Raven finds her that way, unconscious, he’s terrified she’s dead–then she wakes up, and their adventure continues. His emotions on finding her like that are wild, contradictory, confused.  He’s swearing to avenge her before he revives her.

In The Hunter, Parker needs a place to scope out the mob hotel Mal has taken refuge in, and towards that end he knocks out a woman in a beauty shop, binds and gags her, and when he returns, he finds out she’s asphyxiated–she had asthma.  He didn’t mean to kill her, as there was no reason to do so, but feels no remorse, just irritation at the pointlessness of it.  This marks the only time in the twenty-four Parker novels that he causes the death of a (presumably) innocent person.  It sticks out a bit–the shop could just as easily have been deserted, or the woman could have lived. Why put that in there at all?   Aside from the fact that something similar happens in Greene’s book?

Westlake, intrigued by that moment in Greene’s book, wants to test his protagonist’s reaction to having caused the death of someone he had no quarrel with.  He intends for Parker to die at the end, just as Raven did–though he wrote later that this seemed wrong to him at the time, false.  Is life really fair like that?  Death isn’t a moral ending slapped on by the Hayes Office.  Everybody dies, often sooner than they expected.

Westlake’s point is to prove to himself that this character isn’t Raven, who is still very much a human being under all his bloody-minded cynicism.  Parker isn’t eaten alive with resentment and guilt.  We’re not going to hear about his unhappy childhood.  He has no class consciousness, because he’s in a class by himself.  There are certain things he’s got to do, and he does them.  There’s no moral other than “Know yourself, know your capabilities, know what has to be done.”  Someone like Anne might be safe from him, but she’d never get to him.   She wouldn’t be able to appeal to his conscience, use him like a weapon.

That’s the first major influence I found–the most recent relates to Rose (aka Wanda), a bright enticing redhead working for The Outfit as a call girl, who knew Parker in the past, and self-evidently has been carrying a torch for him.  He goes to her hoping she can help him find Mal.  She does, eventually.  It doesn’t work out very well for her.  Parker is carrying no reciprocal torch.

That’s another odd little episode that somehow fits into the book, yet sticks out.  The point of all these encounters is to tell us who Parker is, how he’s different–but in this case, different from whom?  Well, in this case, from Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.

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I’ve read very little Chandler.  I’ve long known Westlake wasn’t his biggest fan (as has been multiply attested to, by Lawrence Block and others), but I didn’t really know why. In hardboiled detective fiction, there’s the Hammett School, and there’s the Chandler School, and Westlake was firmly in the first column.  But sometimes he took a little from Column B, just to see how it tasted.

Chandler is basically the guy who invented the popular and deeply stereotyped image of the private detective–yes, Hammett and many others got there first, and Hammett was much better, but Chandler really created most of what we now would call the romantic clichés surrounding private detectives in hardboiled crime fiction.  “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.”  Really?  Then how far do you suppose that man’s going to get down those streets?   Is what Westlake was thinking.

Anyway, I’m as much of a sucker for those clichés as anyone, and I had a chance to read a vintage first edition of Farewell My Lovely a short while back, so I took it.  I get why people liked him so much, and still do.  He had some serious skills.  Crafting a solid believable story featuring properly motivated characters was not one of them.  Westlake was on the money, as usual.  But he still would have read quite a bit of Chandler before reaching that conclusion.

No, there’s nothing I can find in the second Marlowe novel (Chandler’s favorite among his books) that reminds me of The Hunter.  Though Moose Malloy reminded me of a less hulking more dimwitted version of Tiny Bulcher.   Different franchise.

Reading the novel put me in mind of the short-lived 1980’s cable series, Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.  Not a creative high point for HBO, but also not without its pleasures, not least of which was Kathryn Leigh Scott’s take on Anne Riordan, a bright enticing redhead who Marlowe first met in Farewell My Lovely (she’s not the title character).  Anne didn’t appear in any subsequent Marlowe novels, but after many years, she made her second and final appearance in 1959, when Chandler published the very last Marlowe story, The Pencil.  He died that same year.

The relationship between Marlowe and Riordan is frustrating.  I mean really frustrating.  They meet cute at a murder scene, and she spends the rest of that book and the subsequent short story throwing herself at him, and he likes her as much as he’s liked any woman.  She is, when you get right down to it, the girl of his dreams, and he keeps giving her the brush-off.  She’s basically too perfect–she likes solving mysteries, she can match Marlowe wisecrack for wisecrack, she doesn’t scare easy, she’s smart as a whip–she’s a dead cop’s daughter.  She knows the score.

And in The Pencil, taking place years after their first encounter (which ended with her asking to be kissed), she lets it drop that she’s still a virgin at 28, and none too pleased about it, and not asking for any jewelry, and they should just adjourn to her nearby bedroom right now.  He doesn’t want to ruin her.  Whatever that means.  So he keeps giving her the brush, and she keeps taking it, and running whatever errands he has for her.  And this is generally regarded as the most convincingly three-dimensional female character Chandler ever created, folks.  I mean, she’s not his long-suffering gal friday, like Sam Spade’s Effie–he’s not even pretending to pay for her services.

Now I head-cast Marlowe as Robert Mitchum a few pages into Farewell My Lovely (Mitchum in the 40’s, I mean–how it took until 1975 for Hollywood to get around to that, I’ll never know–would you believe they wanted Richard Burton for that movie?).  In the books, he’s frequently described as a very attractive man, and he leads an exciting life, and he’s good with the banter. So bearing all that in mind, it’s not implausible Miss Riordan would hold onto a wee torch.  But she’s toting a torch that would snap the Statue of Liberty in half.  (See, you get into the habit of making colorful expressions like that when you read Chandler).

So anyway, why is Anne Riordan in The Pencil, if Marlowe isn’t going to make a dishonest woman of her at last (and didn’t he get married to some simpering heiress in the last novel, that Robert B. Parker finished)?    Because he needs a favor.  He’s got a client who’s had a hit put on him by the syndicate.  Or, as it is known in that 1959 story, The Outfit.

Yeah.  That got your attention.  You thought Westlake was doing research on the Chicago mob for a story set mainly in New York?  Westlake never cared about getting the fine details right when he was writing about organized crime–to him, that’s just a metaphor for corporate culture, organization men.  He got The Outfit from Chandler, or at least the name for it.  But again, what he does with it–entirely different.

Marlowe needs to find out who the hitters the Outfit is sending are, where they’re staying.  So he sends Anne to the airport to spot them, and report back to him.  He’s worried about the risk to her (bizarrely, he’s less worried about this than his mobbed up client, who hasn’t even met Anne), and it seems a bit perverse to use her that way when he could just as easily hire some stringer, but it gets her into the story.

He can talk to her about the wrap-up to the case at the end of the story, when they have dinner at the famous Romanoff’s in L.A., with champagne and everything, and this is the last we see of Philip Marlowe and Anne Riordan, and once Chandler wasn’t around anymore to hold them back, I say they tore each others clothes off right there in the fancy restaurant and did it on the table, while the waiter looked on with a mixture of disapproval and arousal.   Try and stop me, copper!

So again–the same story, turned on its head.  Parker goes to Wanda’s apartment seeking help, appealing to ‘the loyalty of friendship’ as she puts it, somewhat sarcastically.  She’s throwing passes the whole time and he’s not catching any, because he’s Parker.  It’s been explained to us.  No sex while he’s working.  He sort of hints maybe they could get together after he’s done, but only because he needs her help.   If she happened to be there when he was done, he’d give her all she could handle and more, but Parker couldn’t carry a torch if you welded it to one of those big veiny hands of his.

He’s just using her.  And he’s not pretending otherwise, at least not to himself.   Not the way Marlowe uses Anne, while never quite admitting that he’s doing that.  Marlowe has a tendency to say things like “If I wasn’t hard, I wouldn’t be alive.  If I couldn’t ever be gentle, I wouldn’t deserve to be alive.”  I can appreciate the sentiment, and still think to myself that’s a big stack of baloney, and so’s Marlowe, most of the time.

When Parker thinks Wanda’s betrayed him (like Lynn), tipped Mal off, he’s in a rage–much less in control of himself than in the later books.   But she hasn’t, and now fearing for her life, she gets the information he needs, but by a less discreet method, that leads back to her. When Parker leaves, she’s getting ready to pack up and run, before her employers get wise.  He should be guilty about this.  He’s not.   No champagne at Romanoff’s for Parker and Rose/Wanda.  She’s never heard from again.  And the point is that Parker, unlike Marlowe, is an honest bastard.  He’s not dishing out any baloney.

So is that it?  Not even close.  But I think I’m going to need a Part 2 to deal with it all.  And by all, I mean all I’ve found up to now.   There’ll be more, I’ve no doubt.  But let me get something out of the way here–all the books people might think were an influence, but aren’t.  Why?  Because I say so.  But I’ll say why I say so, because that’s what I do here.

People often point to a book written by a different Marlowe, name of Daniel J.   You know the name of that game.  And there’s another book Westlake made no secret of his admiration for (and therefore, a book he’d be damned cautious about taking anything too obvious from).  You may note my title is itself an homage.  And finally, Parker’s one true rival in the field of cold blooded crime fiction bastardry.  Who beat him to the bookstands by seven years.

I’ve read Dan J. Marlowe’s bloody masterpiece maybe three times now–I have a British reprint of the Gold Medal original paperback I cherish like it was made of real gold.  In many ways, it’s the best novel ever written about a bank robber (much more specialized than Parker).  But it’s in the first person, multiple chapters are devoted to telling us where this guy came from and why he is the way he is (short version–it’s always somebody else’s fault), and even though there’s a revenge subplot, it’s got nothing in common with Parker’s.  Telling a story about a thief and killer who has no guilt over being a thief and killer isn’t a plot idea, it’s just a concept that could occur independently to many people. Westlake took nothing from this book.

And that’s not just my opinion.  Because he couldn’t have taken anything from it if he’d wanted to.  Because as we now know, those two books were in the gestation stage about the same time.  (So was I, actually.   Must have been something in the air.)  Westlake showed Lawrence Block the manuscript of the book he was planning to submit to Gold Medal sometime around the end of 1960 or the start of 1961.   And thanks to Charles Kelly’s brilliant biography of Marlowe, we know that at that same time, he was living with a couple in Florida, working on his book.  No way of knowing who finished first, but we can be quite sure there was zero influence on either end–which is not to say they never influenced each other.  That’s an entirely different article I keep putting off writing.

Anatomy of a Killer is clearly a book that influenced Westlake in many ways (he drops little references to it here and there), and elements of it may have gone into the creation of Parker–it came out in 1960, so there was time.  But since that book is itself clearly following in the wake of A Gun For Sale, I’d call it a secondary influence.  Rabe’s assassin is a rather pitiable, almost adolescent figure, who switches off his humanity to do his job.  Rabe usually made his hit men menacing supporting characters, with little in the way of an inner life, but here he wanted to delve deeper into what might make a man choose that job.  Basically the job chose him, and he went along with it.  Then he  meets a pretty girl, and gets confused. Confusion is almost invariably deadly in a Rabe novel (in a Stark novel as well).

Some of how Rabe gets into his characters’ heads, describes their emotions, certainly impacted Westlake.  But that would be just as true of Rabe’s other books, some of which Westlake liked even more.  Point is, it’s mainly a stylistic influence, the way the story is told, much more than the story itself–I’ve read pretty nearly all of Rabe’s books, and I didn’t see much in the way of direct influence–except maybe Westlake was trying to improve on one of Rabe’s weakest books, The Out is Death, when he wrote The Jugger, and as I mentioned in my review of that book, Westlake ended up thinking he’d failed in that attempt (I disagreed, and you can read that review to find out why).

So that leaves Mr. Ripley.  I don’t doubt Westlake read the book within a few years of its publication.  He probably read most of Highsmith, adapted her once (it didn’t work out), admitted to finding her both fascinating and repellent, which was a common enough reaction.  Perhaps he had some problems with Highsmith’s intriguingly convoluted writing style that sometimes makes even her most ardent admirers throw up their hands in despair, but he would have appreciated her gift for looking below the surface of things.  It’s one of the most original pieces of work in all of crime fiction–I’m not sure the qualifier is even needed.  It would be difficult to find a previous story in the annals of popular storytelling where somebody who committed cold blooded murder–not of some stranger, but a friend!–was not punished in some way.

But Ripley and Parker have little else in common.   Ripley feels guilt all the time–it just doesn’t stop him from doing what he feels he has to do. He sees himself as a force for evil.  He doesn’t live in the present like Parker does–the past is always haunting him, often in physical form.  We’re told in almost excruciating detail what he’s thinking and experiencing at all times.  That’s the point, from Highsmith’s POV–to get all the way into  his head, which I’d argue is actually her head–an aspect of her own personality, that she both dislikes and wishes she could give freer rein to.  Ripley is a sociopath, not a wolf in human form.  He’s very much a human being, but with some crucial parts left out, which makes him at the same time more and less free than the rest of us.

And most importantly, Ripley is a dabbler in crime, a dilettante–the ultimate amateur.  Parker is the ultimate professional.  He’s not playing games.  Ripley never does anything else.  Nor does Ripley have that weird trigger in his head like Parker, that when pushed, leads him to incessantly hunt down those who have offended him in some way.

But what both books have in common, of course, is their lack of moral pretense, embodied by a ‘hero’ who defies all social norms, and somehow never pays the price.  So I could see Westlake reading that and wondering if he could get away with it–but he wasn’t in Highsmith’s position.  She wasn’t a huge bestselling author, but she had a certain prestige most crime writers never had, partly because of her association with Hitchcock via Strangers on a Train.  Partly because she became a sort of protege of Graham Greene’s, who rather oddly found her a kindred spirit.  But mainly because most of her books were published in hardcover.  She didn’t do series fiction until the 70’s, and she never did much of it.

She was in a somewhat more refined area of publishing, and she was writing about more refined sorts of characters, and the rules were different.  She was pushing the envelope pretty hard, but she had that option open to her.   Westlake didn’t think he did.  He didn’t even think he could let Parker live past the end of The Hunter, until Bucklin Moon told him that would be the condition for Pocket Books picking up the option Gold Medal had passed on.  Which those who have read my earlier review of The Hunter will know I think was an offer Mr. Moon made for reasons as much personal as professional.

Bad guys are supposed to die, no matter how much you like them.  It’s a fictional convention that stretches far beyond the confines of genre.  You can find it in Tolstoy.  You can find it in ancient mythology.  You can find it in the goddam bible.  Exceptions are rare.  Dan J. Marlowe’s protagonist was only a half-exception, since at the end of his first book he’s alive, unrepentant, but in a sort of living hell.  Ripley is still looking nervously over his shoulder for the cops at the end of his book.   That final shoe doesn’t drop for him until the last novel.

And by the time Ripley came back for another go, Parker had already appeared in a dozen outings.  He, more than than any character in fiction that I know of, would define what it meant to be a really bad guy and get away with it–over and over and over again, with a lot less excess verbiage along the way.   And what makes him so different from any of the other literary badmen I’ve compared him to here is that he keeps his secrets a lot better.   He’s a protagonist treated almost like an enigmatic supporting character.  Because that is, in many ways, how Westlake conceived him.

And when I get back to this–this week, next week, not sure yet–I’ll delve deeper into his consciousness–and his antecedents–without the slightest hope of ever fully comprehending either.  Because Parker always gets away.  The Hunter is never successfully hunted.  But I’ll do my best to stay on the scent.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

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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