Still More Things That Aren’t Films, Again

house-of-cards-trailer

Enjoyed the first season of House of Cards — a box set Christmas gift from our pal Alison. David Fincher is turning into a classicist — he no longer feels compelled to fly his camera through kettle handles, at any rate. Struck by how it is, basically, Richard III done over (already done over for the books and UK TV series), and by how camp Kevin Spacey plays it in his asides to camera. NOT an accident — two-thirds of the way through the series there’s a hint of a male-on-male love affair in his character’s past, so I guess the fey glances have all been plating clues — Francis can be himself when he’s talking to US.

Read the four Grofield novels by Richard Stark, who was Donald Westlake (among others). Grofield is a sometime accomplice to Stark’s main protag anti-hero Parker. The books are The Damsel, The Dame, The Blackbird and Lemons Never Lie. Where Parker is a ruthless professional always motivated by the next score, Grofield is a part-time actor with his own summer stock company who only robs on the side to keep him in production, and he’s more whimsical. In the books he stars in, Stark/Westlake presses him into service as a secret agent, has him turn detective to solve a mystery (a genre Westlake/Stark rarely dabbled in at all), embroils him in a cross-country chase/gauntlet thing, and cobbles together one narrative out of a series of seemingly disconnected elements that keep threatening to come apart altogether, but eventually resolve into a revenge story.

Though quite capable of Parker-like ruthlessness when pressed, Grofield is more whimsical (he’s an actor after all) and prone to a quip. And they’re good quips.

marlirenfro

Marli Renfro, The Girl.

All this amorality had me in the mood for something with a moral compass. The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shower may not quite fit, but it does balance fairly extreme psychopathic evil with the ordinary Hollywood business-as-usual kind, detailing true crime stories that intersect with the life of Janet Leigh’s body double from PSYCHO, Playboy model Marli Renfro. It wraps this blog post up nicely too, since it’s written by Robert Graysmith, played by Robert Downey Jnr in David Fincher’s film ZODIAC. “Who wouldn’t want to read a book written by a guy played by Robert Downey Jnr?” I thought, snatching the paperback up in a charity shop.*

Actually, Graysmith’s prose lacks the gozo suavity you’d want from a RD character, being mostly flat journalese with plunges into school essay plain bad and occasional bobs up into wit. He’s also unreliable on film, cobbling together his PSYCHO making-of stuff from a variety of contradictory sources and blithely declaring that most of the shower scene contains seventy-eight pieces of film, seventy takes of two and three seconds and over ninety splices for a sequence that runs only forty-five seconds.” Do the math. Or arithmetic, anyway. “The was no auto-focus in late 1959,” he explains, later, as if auto-focus was a tool commonly used today on professional shoots. That’s why the streets are full of former camera assistants with cardboard signs reading “Will pull focus for food.”

But the damn thing has me snared. I am a true crime sucker.

*In fact, he’s played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

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31 Responses to “Still More Things That Aren’t Films, Again”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    Well then, pilgrim, steel yourself for a HOUSE OF CARDS, Season II three-way (MMF)!

  2. It had to happen.

    As long as Mara’s involved, I’m in.

  3. Spacey is indeed VERY camp for reasons I’d prefer to discuss offline.

    Meanwhile as to Stark / Westlake. . .

  4. Richard E Grant’s journal of shooting Henry and June recounts the various actors’ attitude to frontal nudity. Fred Ward was No Way, Grant was If I Must, whereas Spacey was practically pulsating to get his bits out. I think he likes playing with his image, including his sexual image.

  5. I think the reason the prose may not sizzle is because Graysmith was played by Gyllenhaal. Downey was ball-of-nerves Paul “I’m not Avery” Avery.

  6. Arrgh! I bought a book by the guy played by the wrong actor! This is just like when I read The Thin Man thinking it was written by the guy played by Jason Robards in Julia, but read a copy written by the guy played by Frederick Forrest in Hammett by mistake.

  7. dcairns: If you want The Spacey Story, write me at cllrdr@ehrensteinland.com It’s a doozey — and what I have to tell you isn’t second hand “gossip,” but First Hand testimony vouchsafed to me by a key party involved.

  8. David Boxwell Says:

    David E: does the Spacey Story involve walking the dog at 4AM? The one-eyed love dog, I mean . . .

  9. Nope. It’s about The Usual Suspects and what went on during production.

  10. I have a story about Ordinary Decent Criminal. Didn’t we already trade these by email? I’m going to check my old messages.

  11. Got you e-mail. Yes I DID talk about that with you. Spacey is a very talented actor but One Hot Mess of An Individual off-screen.

  12. Tsk tsk, I always think that “I’ve got a story for your ears only” comes across as rather rude, redolent as it is of one-upping the other girls in the schoolyard.

  13. Sorry about that. But there will be another story, fit for public consumption, published here tomorrow. Until then, let’s all think clean thoughts.

  14. You say that like it’s easy…

  15. Been in the business for too may years to think clean thoughts, dear.

  16. Westlake/Stark was apparently mellowing with age, and Parker along with him. In a couple of the late-period come-back novels, Parker gets a little softer – there’s even a kind of disconcerting meld of his personality with Grofield’s in a book or two, and a flash now and then of the Grofield insouciance. Right now I can’t name the titles, but I thought that Parker was toughened up somewhat afterwards, so maybe Westlake noticed Parker’s character listing in Grofield’s direction.

    Parker was creature of the noir 40s and 50s ( even though the classic Parkers were written in the 60s); when Westlake brought him back in the late 90s and 00s, he may have day-light balanced him a bit for modern times.

  17. It’s fascinating to see how Starklake balances attraction and repulsion with Parker, horrifying us with his ruthlessness at times, but mostly commanding respect for his professionalism.

  18. I’ve only read LEMONS NEVER LIE, but it’s interesting to see one of Westlake’s more empathetic characters get put through the stuff that Parker normally suffers through.

    I once borrowed a copy of LEMONS NEVER LIE from the library that was missing the last two pages, which really put a button on the whole weaving plot very nicely. I had to buy a used copy just to read that ending.

  19. Just bought a bunch of Parkers. It’s a terrible addiction…

  20. The original Brit version of “House of Cards’ is very, very good. It’s currently being broadcast by PBS. I consumed the entire series in one gulp at the time of its debut via videotape supplied by a friend. It would be interesting to watch the two series together.

    Re Parker and Dortmunder: they crossed paths (though without any interaction) in one of Joe Gores’ books (among the the handful I happened to read ). Not talking about the meeting of Gores’ Kearny with Parker, but a ships’ passing of Parker and Dortmunder himself. I forgot which book it was, and though I tracked it down some years later via correspondence with a mystery blog, I’ve lost the reference again.The Google is silent. Does anyone know what I’m talking about?

  21. Haven’t read any Gores.

    Dortmunder meets a vaguely Parker-like psychopath in Drowned Hopes, and in Jimmy the Kid the gang get their idea for a scheme from reading a (fictional) Parker novel. So for another author to play with the idea of the characters passing in the night seems acceptable and in the spirit of the thing.

  22. levistahl Says:

    The discussion that I’ve found myself having with other Westlake/Stark/Parker fans is who would be suitable to play Grofield in a film version. The best suggestion I’ve heard, which may have been Terry Teachout’s, was Kevin Kline.

    To PJ’s point about Parker getting softer later in the series: I do think there’s a hint of that, most of it associated with the arrival of Claire. But you’re right that by the final three books or so, he’s hard as ever.

    And as for the era, Westlake himself had an interesting comment on that in a 1977 essay for an anthology called Mystery, Ink where his various alter egos participated in a roundtable interview. Stark said, ” Parker is a Depression character, Dillinger mythologized into a machine. During the affluent days of the Sixties he was an interesting fantasy, but now that money’s getting tight again his relationship with banks is suddenly both to the point and old-fashioned. He hasn’t yet figured out how to operate in world where heisting is one of the more rational responses to the situation.”

    David, the Parker-like psychopath in Drowned Hopes, Tom Jimson, is designed to be a Jim Thompson character (hence the name)–and that does make clear the influence of Thompson on Westlake, certainly. Sadly, PJ, I can’t think of which Gores that would be where Parker and Dortmunder cross paths, but I’ll see if there’s any hint in any of my Westlake files.

  23. levistahl Says:

    Also, David: your tease about Spacey is cruel and unusual!

    Finally, on House of Cards: I am still kind of surprised by how I fell for it. Almost nothing on it is the slightest bit convincing, but Spacey is so much fun to watch that I couldn’t resist.

  24. I love it when older blog posts suddenly come to life.

    I’ve heard gossip about Spacey but it’s just gossip and he’s quite entitled to remain private. One would like to think he could enjoy the exact same career if he were gay and came out, but who knows?

    I never quite got anyone in my head to play Grofield. In a way, the character is interesting enough that a bland leading man type could work. Robert Redford would certainly be a better Grofield than he was a Dortmunder.

    On the other hand… Andy Robinson? I just love the idea of an alternative universe where he was a star.

  25. I don’t see Kevin Kline as the ideal Grofield, though he probably would come close. I’ll have to consider this question carefully. I agree with dcairns that Redfield might have done well as Grofield. He did try as Dortmunder but just did not fit the type. ( By the way, see the paperback cover of ‘Jimmy the Kid’ for what I consider a spot-on depiction of Dortmunder. ) Kline is playful but also intense. I think Grofield has intensity in his character, but it’s not overtly displayed. He’s reliable, a craftsman who pays attention to detail ( if it’s worth doing, etc., ) but he’s also a musical comedy guy. I loved the passage, in Lemons Never Lie I think, that expatiates on the way he treats his criminal endeavors like acting roles and unreels dramatic music in his head ( shades of Snoopy and Walter Mitty ).

    I did check with the owner of another noir specialty website whom I had some correspondence with years ago about a possible ships’ passing of Parker and Dortmunder. Apparently my memory played me false and inserted Dortmunder into an entire scenario that involved one of Gores’ characters who saw Parker in passing. I was so sure, though – didn’t want to fold that tent.

  26. Grofield probably offers the widest lattitude in casting — he’s a little mercurial. Needs to be charming. But the four novels occupy four different genres, from espionage to detective story, and the character is multi-functional. I can think of possibilities ranging from Elliott Gould to Richard Gere, but I can’t think of a single definitive choice.

  27. I think Nix on Gould – looks are too emphatic – Grofield would be attractive but not remarkable, certainly not threatening like Parker, and moderate in height and build. In my mind’s eye he has light hair. One strong possibility is Hugh Jackman ( un-pumped). Second thoughts about Redford – had the look but maybe a bit too studied to bring off the customary irreverent humor that always lurked in Grofield when he wasn’t concentrating in serious-work mode – his bewilderment about money matters in the scene at his barn theater with the IRS man cracked me up.

  28. To: Levistahl. I just remembered the book where I thought there was some infusion of Grofield in Parker – ‘Flashfire’, one of the latter-day return-of-Parker books. The early Parker, the ‘Point Blank’ Parker, wouldn’t have been capable of playing the part of a rich, somewhat foppish fellow living off dividends. That kind of role wasn’t in his nature, and anyway would have been untenable because of his tough-guy looks and taciturn personality. That’s definitely Grofield territory.

    I don’t think the temporary personality change is primarily a matter of softness in holding his fire, so to speak, i.e.,that he didn’t kill the real estate woman – after all, he didn’t kill the woman who double-crossed him in ‘The Mourner’, which was early Parker, where he might have had good reason. Normally, he killed as a practical matter to eliminate a clear and present or future threat. As for Clare, he did want her, but she was also well aware at the beginning that her life depended on his whim. He didn’t kill the girl, the risky civilian with whom Grofield hooked up n the Copper Canyon caper, either. Also, in ‘Flashfire’, Parker was uncharacteristically frank and somewhat mellow in his transactions with the law officer – a sheriff? – who rescued him from the survivalist group.

  29. I take back my doubt re Redford’s ability to carry off Grofield’s playfulness. He was a good actor.

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