Playbook

I read all Richard Stark’s Parker novels a couple of years back, all except The Hunter, AKA Point Blank AKA Payback, because I know the John Boorman film of it quite well and didn’t want deja vu. But I’m on a Donald Westlake kick at the moment and momentarily ran out of paperbacks, and so started on this one at long last — because Richard Stark was Donald Westlake’s other nom de plume, used for most of his more hardboiled stuff.

Comparing book to film is pretty interesting — a lot of the more Westlake-like “break into a fortress” plotting proves to be original to the movie, which suggests to me that one of other of screenwriters Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse and Rafe Newhouse had read some later Stark.

The book is fascinating because you can feel Stark and Parker becoming themselves as it goes on. To begin with, Parker is over-described with an eagerness to impress that is a little embarrassing compared to the laconic style so effective in the later works. (Although this is great: “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.”) And he’s not too professional: he gets drunk, and he goes on a mission of vengeance. It’s only in part 5 of 5 that he decides what he really wants is the return of the money he stole and that was stolen from him. This means the book lacks the singular drive that Brian DePalma admires so much in Boorman’s film: “This whole film is GIVE ME BACK MY MONEY!”

It’s fascinating how the movie develops intriguing suggestions from the novel. There are various lines about Parker’s having come back from the dead — Boorman, something of a mystic, seizes on this to take the story partway into Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge — Boorman told Michel Ciment that both his Lee Marvin movies might be happening in the lead character’s mind as he experiences his own death. And the impression that Parker/Walker (as he’s named in the film, a suggestive, supernaturally-resonant name) brings death to those around him by his mere presence — this springs from the first casualty of the novel, Parker’s wife, who he doesn’t kill but who dies because of him. Subsequently everyone thinks he killed her and he doesn’t bother to disabuse them of the notion. The movie seems to take all this into consideration and folds it together with old Michael Curtiz/Boris Karloff gangster/horror flick THE WALKING DEAD, in which Boris literally does rise from the dead and cause his enemies to perish without laying a finger on them.

“She’s dead. So is your fat pansy. You can be dead too, if you want.”

Stegman licked his lips. He turned his head and nodded at the small stone buildings out at the end of the pier. “There’s people there,” he said. “All I got to do is holler.”

“You’d never get it out. Take a deep breath and you’re dead. Open your mouth wide and you’re dead.”

Stegman looked back at him. “I don’t see no gun,” he said. “I don’t see no weapon.”

Parker held up his hands. “”You see two of them,” he said. “They’re all I need.”

“You’re out of your mind. It’s broad daylight. We’re in the front seat of a car. People see us scuffling -“

“There wouldn’t be any scuffle, Stegman. I’d touch you once, and you’d be dead. Look at me. You know this isn’t a bluff.”

The Boorman movie also enhances the whole Tarzan-Versus-IBM thing, with Parker as a primitive, out of step with modern, corporate crime. The stone age hero squaring off against decadent moderns also animated Boorman’s loony ZARDOZ. Lee Marvin’s man of violence is both a pitiable anachronism and, in Boorman’s eyes, infinitely purer (like the xenomorph in ALIEN) and more admirable than the blustering suits he braces.

Westlake/Stark’s indication that mob boss Carter looks like Ambassador Trentino, the walking fontanelle — “His resemblance to Louis Calhern was startling.” — is amusing, but was not picked up by the movie, which cast Lloyd Bochner.

Of course, the movie invents subsidiary characters as foils and expositional devices — Angie Dickinson is the Girl in the Picture, someone Walker can explain his plans to. Keenan “Bat Guano” Wynn as the Deep Throat figure who sets Walker in motion has a similar expository role, only he dispenses info rather than receiving it. These add-ons don’t do any harm, because none of them sentimentalize Walker or turn him into a chivalric outlaw with a code, as in the Jason Statham outing.

Oddly enough, once Westlake/Stark realized what he had in Parker, it wasn’t about violence at all — it was about a professional doing a job. Parker is a problem-solver, and what he does is not different than what his novelist did, only in Parker’s world the problems are solved physically, whereas for his author it was all a mental exercise. Good thing for us.

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6 Responses to “Playbook”

  1. I notice you didn’t mention the version starring Mel Gibson. Was this inspired by consideration for our sensitivity or ignorance?

  2. I’m actually half-way through looking at it. A comparison MAY inspire a future post. In most respects it’s actually a lot more faithful to the book, but less faithful to the spirit of Stark/Parker…

  3. “Point Blank” is ideally double-featured with Godard’s “Made in USA”

  4. I remember Soderbergh describing The Limey in an interview as Get Carter by way of Last Year at Marienbad. I remember thinking, “Didn’t Boorman get there thirty years ago?”

  5. chris schneider Says:

    I always thought that POINT BLANK should be placed on a double-bill with that other Alcatraz picture, PETULIA.

  6. Soderbergh references Point Blank on other occasions. The big difference is he decided he wasn’t good at “cold” material so it had to have heart. I’m not sure that worked.

    “Alcatraz proved that human beings can escape from anything if they want to badly enough.”
    “We know, Dad.”

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