Tag Archives: The Split

Mr. Parker and The Casting Call

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s run them down, one by one.

LEE MARVIN AS WALKER IN POINT BLANK (1967):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JIM BROWN AS McCLAIN IN THE SPLIT (1968):

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

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

I mean, was this really necessary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROBERT DUVALL AS MACKLIN IN THE OUTFIT (1973):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Marvin,–

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

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

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

MEL GIBSON AS PORTER IN PAYBACK (1999)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

7 Comments

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

Review: The Seventh, Part 2

seventh_2seventh_4

He lunged forward, and his right arm pushed ahead of him, and he impaled her forever on that red instant of time. The words remained unspoken, would remain unspoken ever after. The world tick-tocked on, and Ellen remained back there in that blood-red second, slowly slumping around the golden hilt.

It was as though he had stabbed her from the rear observation platform of a train that now was rushing away up the track, and he could look out and see her way back there, receding, receding, getting smaller and smaller, less and less important, less and less real. Time was rushing on now, like that rushing train, hurtling him away.

That’s what death is; getting your heel caught in a crack of time.

It was the amateur who had soured the sweet job, bringing in his own extraneous problems, killing for no sensible reason, taking money that should have been safe, running around wild and causing trouble with everybody, attracting the attention of the law.

There was no profit in killing him, but Parker was going to kill him anyway. He was going to kill him because he couldn’t possibly walk away and leave the bastard alive.

But that didn’t mean he had to get like Negli, stupid and careless.

It’s hard to explain to newcomers to the Parker novels that the stories are never about revenge. Or rough justice. Or violence for the sake of violence. Which often seems to be what pretty nearly all popular entertainments are about. Parker isn’t interested in any of that. He kills when he has to. To protect himself. To protect the very few people he gives a damn about (at this point in the series, there is no such person–Ellie Canaday might have filled that niche, had she lived). To get what he needs to survive on his own terms, namely money.

And, now and again, to calm a storm that springs up within him when people behave in ways he doesn’t understand–when they indulge in certain types of cruelty, disrupt his carefully laid plans, or steal from him. This creates an inner turmoil, a contradiction, which he can only ease by making its source stop breathing. The rules are not clearly spelled out, and are sometimes broken, because they aren’t rules at all–this is instinct talking. In one sense, Parker is utterly free–in another, he’s enslaved by his inner drives.

Parker knows himself incredibly well on the instinctive level–but it’s hard for him (and for his interpreter, Stark) to express this in terms of conscious human thought. Something is always lost in translation. Appearances to the contrary, Parker isn’t a human being. His physical shell is human, the outward expressions of his consciousness are human, but lurking under those external realities lies an inner truth that no one else can ever fully grasp (though occasionally, some more perceptive person will catch a glimpse of Parker’s true nature). And nowhere was this ever more clear than in The Seventh.

I know it sounds like science fiction, or maybe horror fiction, but that’s not what it is, somehow. Because it’s never quite made explicit. Westlake knew where to draw the line. As he put it once, “A realist is somebody who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood. It isn’t.” Neither is Parker. We don’t have to understand every aspect of him to enjoy watching him work.

But that’s not all these books are about–most of all, they are about people. Westlake stopped writing science fiction, a genre he’d loved from childhood, and concentrated on the mystery genre because he felt (with some justification at that time) that the latter genre was more about the study of individual human behavior than the former. He didn’t just write the Parker novels as entertainment (after all, science fiction is certainly entertainment, whether it contains fully fleshed out characters or not). He wrote them as comparative behavior studies.

Parker may not be human, but he’s nothing if not an individual–so are the people he works with and against in the course of a given book. Each novel will spend a lot of time in the heads of these other characters, and because Parker is such an anomalous being, his thought processes will shed light on theirs–and vice versa. That’s the whole point of the exercise, at least as far as Westlake is concerned. That’s what he’s most interested in.

Writing as Stark, he can do something quite different from his first person narratives for Random House, which are mainly character studies focused on the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery. Parker may occasionally dabble in self-discovery, but it’s very much a sideline. He knew who he was long before we ever met him. He’s always known. Maybe once in a while, in the grip of that aforementioned mental turmoil, he may partly forget. But his inner compass will always stabilize, eventually.

The pattern here is reminiscent of The Score–we’ll begin with Parker, and finish with him, but in the middle we’ll learn about the men he’s working with (and against), one at a time. The big differences are that the heist itself went off flawlessly, in the course of one brief chapter, and then everything went to hell–and that two of the men in question are Parker’s adversaries. The cop trying to catch Parker. The murderer Parker intends to catch and kill, who is trying to prevent that from happening, by killing Parker first.

As Part Three begins, we find ourselves at last in the head of this deadly cold-blooded killer, The Amateur who has given Parker so much trouble–and find out he’s just a frightened boy in the body of a football player. We never learn his name (it isn’t relevant), and the description of his confused mental processes seems to owe something to Westlake’s Pity Him Afterwards, but he’s not clinically insane, like Robert Ellington–he’s just been driven crazy by a heightened awareness of his own inadequacies. By the contradiction between who he seems to be on the outside, and who he really is.

With a few deft strokes, Stark puts us in the picture–he’s a former college football star at Monequois, who got involved with Ellie Canaday, who was a fan of the football team there. Sexy, self-possessed, experienced, she was his fantasy, but he most decidedly was not hers. We don’t ever get into Ellie’s head (or that of any female character in the book), but it’s interesting to see his recollections of her, and realize how different she was with him than with Parker. She was calm and at ease with Parker–a shrill discontented harridan with The Amateur. She wanted a man, and she got a boy in a man’s body–she was restless, probably all her life, looking for something. She found it with Parker, just before she died.

Ellie mercilessly drove The Amateur out of the apartment they shared–his apartment. She went further than she had to, but then again, maybe he wasn’t one to take subtle diplomatic hints. She made him painfully aware of his inadequacies as a lover–he’s an amateur most of all at amatory exploits. He ran to Mexico, nursing his psychic wounds, and then came back, needing to revenge himself on her. He never planned to kill her, but knowing she’d just spent three days and nights in bed with Parker (who The Amateur feared the moment he first saw him), and knowing she’s about to launch into another verbal assault on his manhood, he grabs a sword off the wall and skewers her with it.

Then he finds the heist money in the closet, and somehow feeling like this is a symbolic reward for what he’s been through, he walks away with it. He calls the cops to try and get Parker on the hook for Ellie’s death. Then he realizes Parker will kill him for doing all this, and starts trying to kill Parker first. He kills a minor character named Morey who helps him find Parker, just for shouting a warning when he tries to shoot him. He’s not remorseful about any of this–he’s completely alienated from his own actions. Stark explains his thought processes to us parenthetically–

(He couldn’t really encompass the concept that he had murdered two people and tried to murder a third. He did these things because in their moments they were the only possible things he could do, but at no time did it seem to him that these actions were a part of the fabric of his personality. He was sure he wasn’t the type; he did these extraordinary things because he had been thrust into extraordinary situations. In the normal course of events he would no more murder anyone than he would spit on the flag. His having killed Ellen, and then Morey, and then having tried to kill the stranger, were all atypical actions which he would not want anyone to have judged him by.)

He doesn’t enjoy the killing. He panics and runs like the proverbial scared rabbit every time somebody shoots back at him. What he wants most of all is to get away from there, go back to Mexico with the money, live easy, forget the past. He can’t. Because he sees Parker from a distance, walking purposefully, huge hands swinging at his sides like lead weights, and he knows Parker would find him someday, wrap those hands around his neck. He’d spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. He’s not a complete idiot. Just mostly.

Hardly one of Parker’s more impressive enemies, but he’s one of the most dangerous–because he’s stupid, terrified, and armed. You only have to read the papers to know there’s nothing more dangerous in this world than a firearm-toting coward and fool, trying desperately to be something he’s not. They’re everywhere, infesting the malls, college campuses, fast food restaurants, the airports, Starbucks. You’d think somebody would invent some kind of spray. Besides pepper, I mean.

From The Amateur, we switch to the perspective of Detective Third Grade William Dougherty. When last we saw him, Parker had invaded his home, made tacit but unmistakable threats against him and his family, and gotten the location of nine potential suspects in Ellie’s murder case out of him–not so much because he was afraid to have it out with Parker as that he was afraid his wife and daughter, whom he’d sent over to the next door neighbors, would hear the shot that killed him. Dougherty is as much a professional on his side of the law as Parker is on the other. He knows Parker isn’t Ellie Canaday’s killer, figures immediately that Parker was in on the stadium heist, and isn’t terribly shocked by Parker’s behavior (other than his casual admission that he and Ellie were ‘screwing’).

But Parker found his weakness, and exploited it, and it’s created a bit of an identity crisis for Dougherty–the ambitious dedicated cop in him, who might have taken a chance and drawn down on Parker, was thwarted by the husband and father who put his family first. He’s angry at Parker for using this fault-line in his nature against him. He’s angry at himself for letting Parker use it.

He’s Parker’s true adversary in The Seventh–his opposite number. Both men are formidable. Neither man is behaving with sound professional good sense here. Parker wants The Amateur and the loot, in that order of importance, no matter what it costs, or who. Dougherty wants Parker just as badly–and a promotion to detective second grade would be nice. They can’t both have everything they want.

From here we go, one by one, to each of Parker’s colleagues, who are helping Parker look for The Amateur and their money (for them, the order of importance is reversed, of course). First we get a little glimpse of Dan Kifka–still naked, still laid up with a bad virus, still having almost non-stop sex with his coed girlfriend Janey, in-between making calls to various mutual acquaintance of his and Ellie’s, much to the insatiable Janey’s disgust. He reminisces about how this unlikely pairing came about–out driving his cab, he’d picked up her and a soon-to-be-ex boyfriend, and then she’d picked him up–like Ellie, looking for a different kind of man, a different kind of life.

He’s happy with her, but she’s a major distraction–and she doesn’t go with the life he’s leading. He hasn’t figured out yet that one of them will have to make a choice. Too caught up in his work-related problems, and not used to thinking longterm. He finally reaches a buddy who also knows The Amateur. He tells Kifka about what happened between The Amateur and Ellie, and that the former just got back from Mexico the other day–he knows this because The Amateur, lonely and restless, called him up and they had a night out on the town. He knows where The Amateur is staying.

Kifka knows he’s got a live one here, but he can’t go check the lead out himself, so he waits for another member of the string to show up, or call in from a payphone, so this suspect can be questioned. No cellphones. No email. No texting. No pagers, even. Hollywood can never faithfully adapt this book without making it a period piece. Today, the story would go very differently. Today, they’d probably find the guy via his Facebook page.

Now we’re out in the field with the extremely reluctant detective agency of Parker, Shelly, Feccio, Negli, Clinger, and Rudd. Feccio, Clinger, and Rudd are pretending to be pollsters inquiring into TV-watching habits (so they can find out if the guy they’re questioning was home when Ellie was killed). If they don’t eliminate the suspect right away, Parker and Shelly show up pretending to be police detectives. They’re trying to stay away from the nine names Parker got from Dougherty, all of whom are likely to be under police surveillance. But as they work down the list, they end up going to some of those names anyway. None of whom are The Amateur, by the way. It’s a terrible plan, made in haste, but for all but one, it shall not be repented at leisure.

Dougherty did something Parker didn’t expect–he put cops inside the apartments. Parker figured he’d have them stationed outside in unmarked cars, waiting for him to lead them back to the rest of the gang. He didn’t think Dougherty would realize it’d be Parker’s colleagues making the calls. He also didn’t make it clear enough to his colleagues that they should stay away from those nine names until they’d exhausted every other lead. He and Dougherty came at the problem from different angles, and the end result is chaos.

First Clinger–a former movie theater owner who hates television for bankrupting his nice little business, making him an embezzler, then a convict, then a heister. He’s been useful because he’s good at masquerading as honest citizens–but he’s never been any good at the heavy stuff. He sees the plainclothesmen waiting for him, remembers the gun in his pocket, panics, and bolts–he tries desperately to ditch the gun while he’s running, and thinking he’s going to point it at them, they gun him down.

Then the same thing happens to Feccio, only this time right in front of his longtime partner, Little Bob Negli (whose name we’ve heard mentioned in an earlier book), a very short (4’11), snarky, ill-tempered pro, who was needed to get over the fence at the stadium. Negli and Feccio are really tight–there’s even a faint implication of something sexual there, perhaps only on Negli’s side. Negli not only isn’t attracted to women, he seems to outright hate them, particularly when Feccio goes off with one. But it’s not really the main issue here.

Negli sees Feccio, the only person he’s ever felt comfortable with in his life, being led away by the cops that were inside the apartment Feccio just went into–he tries his level best to get his partner out of it–and gets him killed instead. Unable to process his grief, he converts it into rage, and directs it against the guy he blames for Feccio’s death. He abandons the car they shared, and goes gunning for Parker. Who is roughly twice Negli’s size, and so’s his gun, but what the heck. The bigger they are, right?

(Brief sidebar–back at the time this book came out, there was one actor who could have played the hell out of Negli–Mickey Rooney–who did a tremendous (no pun intended) bravura turn in Don Siegel’s 1957 gangster biopic, Babyface Nelson. Rooney played the infamous depression-era bank robber as a textbook Napoleon complex–somebody who robs and kills out of sheer anger for the joke the world played on him, making him so small. He’s always got something to prove, and he’s never shy about proving it. That’s Negli, a heavily concentrated mass of sarcasm, intelligence, and aggression, who intentionally goads Parker to violence–gets under his skin more than just about anybody else in the whole series. A dandy in the way he dresses and carries himself, a thoroughly fascinating thumbnail portrait of a pint-sized felon, and quite honestly the most compelling figure in the book who isn’t Parker. No doubt, Rooney would have been the guy to play Negli back then–but now, we’d be thinking of someone else–
esq-06-dinklage-de

Yeah, that’ll happen. Back to the synopsis.)

Pete Rudd, a former cabinet maker, pushed into crime by cheap mass-produced furniture sold at shopping centers (one detects a bit of social commentary here, as with Clinger)–is next. His problem isn’t the cops–it’s that he knocked on The Amateur’s door (having gotten the assignment from Kifka), and it turns out The Amateur wasn’t even on the police department’s radar–they don’t even know he’s in town. So they’re not watching him.

The Amateur, figuring out the pollster scam right off, beats on Rudd until he spills that the gang members–and therefore Parker–are hiding out at an abandoned health spa called ‘Vimorama’, at the edge of town. Rudd, like Clinger, was never supposed to be in this business–neither was tough enough to handle this type of situation. Changes in the world around them forced them into a life neither was suited for. But Rudd will survive–to talk to the cops, and serve a long stretch in prison. Where hopefully at least they’ll have a carpentry shop.

Finally, we see Parker and Ray Shelly doing their cop bit, and having no luck. Shelly, who physically resembles Parker, is much more easy-going, and seems to have just drifted into a life of crime after this major at the army base he was stationed at found him in bed with his wife–and started beating up the wife, because Shelly was too big. Shelly made the mistake of hitting his not-so-superior officer, and got a bad conduct discharge, which really cuts into your employment opportunities.

He and Parker head back to the Vimorama, and as they get there, all hell breaks loose. Negli comes after Parker, and ends up shooting the very confused Shelly dead, when Shelly pulls out his gun to shoot The Amateur, who has just showed up to try and kill Parker. The Amateur thinks Negli is on his side, but Negli, not having been properly briefed, starts shooting at him too. Then Kifka comes running out, stark naked, guns blazing–The Amateur pots him, then runs the hell away. Parker goes after The Amateur. Negli goes after Parker. And Janey, holding her dead lover’s head in her lap, goes out of her mind.

Enter Dougherty–a bit late–and he’s more or less figured out the confusing scenario that greets him there at the Vimorama, though he’ll never know precisely what happened, or why. He realizes Parker and Ellie’s murderer have both hared it into the woods. He could go after them, like Dirty Harry would (not that anybody’s getting that ref for another eight years or so) but instead he suddenly realizes–he’s a cop. There’s a girl here who needs help–no matter what dodgy taste in boyfriends she may have, she’s one of the citizens he gets paid to protect. There’s a crime scene that needs to be investigated. Running into the woods like a crazy man because a crook made him feel small for a moment isn’t going to fix anything. It’s time for him to do his job.

And then he gets his karmic reward for remembering who he really is–a car full of stolen money The Amateur left behind. Detective Second Grade here we come. But he’ll never lay eyes on Parker again–let alone cuffs. Dougherty and the cops are no longer part of this story. And then there were three.

Parker has to think very quickly now. The Amateur tries to get to his car, but a near-miss from Parker’s gun makes him run into the woods instead. He’s a football player, running back maybe, and he can go a bit faster than Parker. Parker realizes the money must be in the car–he could stop, take care of Negli, drive off, take the whole score for himself, forget The Amateur. He never considers doing this for even a fraction of a second.

As they go through the woods, The Amateur, panicked and fighting his way through heavy brush, gets slower and slower, while Parker, following the trail his quarry makes, gets closer and closer. He’s never been more an embodiment of The Hunter than he is right now. The Amateur comes to a clearing created by a construction sight, and tries to make it across–Parker stops, carefully sights his pistol, and drops him. And just like that, a switch flips in his head. Believing The Amateur is dead, he’s his normal self again–well, he’s his usual self again.

Just in time, because a bullet from Negli’s little .25 automatic grazes his ear. Parker doubles back on Negli, hiding in the underbrush, as slow and careful and silent as a wolf“–amazing to me I never noticed that until I reread this book. Meanwhile, Negli, his grief in complete control of his actions now, the professional in him stone cold dead, rants into the empty air about how Feccio is dead, everyone is dead, all because of Parker. Every time he yells out into the woods, Parker moves a bit closer, Negli’s voice covering up the sound of his approach. Negli should know this. He’s not stupid. But he keeps shouting.

What Negli doesn’t know is that until he told Parker everything that happened, Parker was going to try and capture him alive, so he could learn what had been going on in his absence–information he needs to have. But Negli told him–his human rage, his need to assign blame, to try and make Parker understand his crimes, his failures, his inferiority, has negated any possible usefulness he might have to Parker. Parker knows all he needs to know now. The job has been spoiled. His colleagues are all dead or jailed. Negli is as dead as any of them. All that remains now is escape.

Guilt? Parker literally does not know the meaning of the word. He did what he had to do. If any of them had decided to run, instead of staying to help him find the money and The Amateur, he wouldn’t have stopped them. They made their own choices. What’s past is past.

Negli, still raving, calls Parker an animal–he doesn’t know just how right he is. He also doesn’t know Parker is right behind him, his gun pointed at the back of Negli’s head. Negli tells Parker to come out and fight like a man. Bad choice of words.

With Negli finished, Parker buries his guns, and heads back to The Amateur’s car–only to find the cops beat him to it. Nothing to do but work his way back to the construction site–and then he sees The Amateur’s body isn’t there. He isn’t dead yet.

Taking Negli’s tiny gun, with one remaining bullet, he heads for the half-constructed office tower, 20 stories high, looming in the twilight, cranes and pulleys sprouting from the top “looking like unruly hair on the head of a Mongoloid idiot”, and narrowly escapes being cut in half by a sheet of window glass The Amateur tried to drop on him. He knows where the quarry is now.

The chase becomes vertical in nature, each man working his way higher and higher up, in a structure that doesn’t even have walls on the upper floors yet. The Amateur, in a state of absolute terror now, leaves a small pile of cash for Parker, like a propitiatory offering for an angry god–or demon. Parker takes the cash and keeps coming, realizing now that not all the loot has been lost to the law.

He finds The Amateur at the top, his gun (actually Rudd’s) thrown away in surrender to this implacable force of retribution–nowhere else to run. He begs incoherently for his life, telling Parker Ellie had it coming, it was all her fault, he had just tried to give her what she wanted–Parker cuts him short. He doesn’t need any more backstory.

And then it’s time to count the money in the dead man’s pockets–sixteen thousand three hundred dollars. Just a bit less than he’d have gotten anyway, if everything had gone according to plan. And up above the trees, in the darkness of night, with the world spread out beneath him, Parker laughs out loud at the sheer absurdity of it all. There’s that much humanity left in him. Though it must be said–wolves do laugh. My dog does, all the time. Mostly at me.

I’d like to think that he came back into Monequois some night, long after Ellie Canaday was buried, and placed an opened bottle of beer on her grave. But I don’t really believe it.

It’s a unique piece of work–I defy anyone to show me a story anything like it, in the heist genre or anywhere else. What’s most interesting about it is that Parker is not in full control of himself until the very end–the point where he first thinks he’s killed The Amateur. He had temporarily lost a part of himself–the part that’s in control, that weighs the odds–then he gets it back, and that’s when he wins, finishes Negli and The Amateur, gets his rightful share of the loot, gets away clean once again.

He and Dougherty both get rewarded (with cash!) for remembering who they are. The rest are punished, not for their crimes, but for not knowing themselves well enough. It’s a strange morality you find in the world of Richard Stark. Amorality? I wouldn’t call it that. Alternate Morality. It’s not what you do. It’s the way that you do it. And the why.

And in our next book, we’ll see that Westlake feels just the same way about it, differently as he approaches the matter–back to Random House, for another ‘Nephew’ story–this one about a protagonist so different from Parker, they don’t seem to even occupy the same universe, let alone the same head. But in the imagination of Donald E. Westlake, there was room for everyone. Spy you later.

6 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels