Archive for Donald Westlake

Grift to the Scaffold

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2019 by dcairns

Yes — THE GRIFTERS stands up well. I was maybe a little underwhelmed in 1990, though I saw Stephen Frears do a Q&A on it and that was fun. In fact, it’s excellent. Stylistically, Frears was probably at his most assured — the opening split screen should go further, I feel, and the magnificent blocking in the hospital waiting room confrontation isn’t quite as dazzling as the way the characters prowl around each other in DANGEROUS LIAISONS, but it’s still hugely effective, and the three stars are tops.

I was very slightly sceptical of David E.’s assertion that the film presciently captures the state of America now — but I immediately noticed that, while the film opens with a quotation designed to acquaint its audience with the outdated term in the title, that term is now being slung around by both US political parties. Though I think the word GRIFT may soon be replaced by the word GRAFT, which seems really useful in today’s emulumental world.

Frears, as I recall, affected a complete disinterest in John Cusack’s previous career — “I gather he was in some sort of teenage things” — THE SURE THING, for one, is excellent, as I recall — Cusack has got IT, in the best Elinor Glyn sense of the word. Frears talked about auditioning various people for the role of Lilly, and sensing how the film would be good, but entirely different, depending on who he chose. With Sissy Spacek it would have been about class, and white trash aspiration, but with Anjelica Huston it was going to be Greek tragedy. Complete with descent into the Underworld.

He acknowledged that the last but one scene — AH descends in a Fatal Elevator — was a hommage to her recently-departed father and THE MALTESE FALCON. I can’t understand, watching it now, why the film doesn’t end on this sensational pair of shots, instead of frittering out into a routine car on road fade-out.

He talked about the horrifying oranges scene, with Pat Hingle, and how watching Huston’s devastatingly convincing pain was “one of those days when you wonder why you do this job,” because it was so distressing to watch.

Annette Bening is interesting — I think she can seem kind of phony-saccharine, but here she’s phony-sexy and it’s perfect. Fiona did question why she had to be naked so much and was the only one doing it, but I guess she’s the one who uses sex as a weapon so there’s SOME justification.

I can’t, damnit, remember any discussion of screenwriter Donald Westlake.

Cute in-joke in the signage, which references two of Westlake’s many nommes des plumes. He does quite a bit of this winking in his pseudonymous novels.

There was some chat about OA Jim Thompson and how, though he wrote about low-lifes, he was very happy to see big movie stars cast in his stuff.

Delirious from his stomach injury, Cusack hallucinates a see-through mentor — like Obi-Wan? Or maybe the reference is to the tormentingly translucent Julie London in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, whose co-star Henry Jones appears in this movie.

I think maybe I expected more twists, but I was glad it didn’t try to fool us too much. I always thought HOUSE OF GAMES was an awful piece of junk, depending for its success on the audience, and the lead character, never suspecting that the con artist characters might be orchestrating a con. So really THE GRIFTERS is about character, not convoluted tricks of narrative or “big store” schemes.

I also really like the way it’s set in a contemporary 1990 world with chunky computers and everything, but manages to feel much older, 1940s maybe, without this coming across as affectation or anachronism. Very hard to do. Neo-noir is nearly impossible to do, I think, without coming off all arch. Elmer Bernstein’s score is a big part of it, as are the costumes, the dialogue, the performances…

THE GRIFTERS stars Morticia Addams; Martin Q. Blank; Supreme Intelligence; Mousie; Commissioner Gordon; Baxter Wolfe; John Ehrlichman AND Bob Woodward; Mr. Pink (uncredited); and the voice of Vincent Van Gogh.

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Film Directors with Their Shirts Off: #165 John Boorman

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2018 by dcairns

The latest in our occasional series on underdressed film directors. Because YOU demanded it! A fully nude John Boorman, appearing in his daughter’s documentary, ME AND MY DAD. Well, he got her to disrobe for EXCALIBUR, so it only seems fair for him to return the favour.

I was initially a bit frustrated with this film. Katrine Boorman starts out knowing nothing about filmmaking, it seems, not even how to set up a tripod straight. The entertainment comes from grumpy Dad’s irritation at her amateurishness, and his inability to stop directing his director. Also, she’s one of those people whose words don’t actually make any sense, but you know what they mean. So, as a storyteller she has a double handicap, but she certainly has access. And some great characters, with her mother, Boorman’s German ex-wife, high on that list. She’s a very sympathetic interviewee, solo, but then a family gathering is staged and the dynamics get really weird… It turns into a mini-version of FESTEN.

But, to my surprise, as the film went on I got over my own pedantic objections and warmed to Katrine’s approach. Her very inexperience works as a brilliant provocation to bring out all her dad’s worst qualities. Though he gets more and more likable too. You wouldn’t always know the man had a very strong sense of humour from his films — EXCALIBUR, in particular, seems to have no notion that any of this sex-in-plate-armour stuff could be perceived as comical. And then there’s ZARDOZ, which is only funny when it’s trying to be serious, and as for  EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC…

(But POINT BLANK still contains some trace of original author Donald Westlake’s sensibility, which finds amusement in everything — his Richard Stark books just conceal the comic plotting with hardboiled deadpan. Curiously, many of the movie’s most Westlakian aspects owe nothing to the source novel. But I think the screenplay, and Boorman’s approach, somehow picked up a little of Westlake’s literary DNA. Plus, I just watched Boorman’s THE GENERAL, which is maybe TOO funny. More on that soon.)

Boorman’s a pretty funny guy, Why haven’t I read his autobio?

The Haul

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on June 16, 2018 by dcairns

My support of Leith’s charity shops may be getting out of hand. This is the result of a single traipse up Leith Walk, stopping in at eight or so shops. I don’t think anything cost over a pound. Still, if I added up my month’s outgoings I might get a shock.

The stack of Hitchcock paperbacks, many of them stamped with the marks of defunct second-hand bookshops I frequented in my youth, contain stories by favourites Gerald Kersh, Donald Westlake, Frederic Brown and others. I only bought a third of the stock. I may have to go back for the others, though, if they’re still there.

I won’t keep everything here — I can imagine myself watching WALL STREET — morbid curiosity, I’ve never seen it — and then giving it away. But then, I can imagine myself never watching it, which would mean I’d be stuck with it, eating up shelf space.

I’d been looking for copies of THE GODFATHER films for ages, and they turn up fairly frequently, but always scratched. These ones seem to be in good nick, so I now have the complete set — I and II.

The other day I went out specially for a copy of Nic Roeg’s THE WITCHES because I’d realised I didn’t own it and The Shadow Trap podcast made me want to revisit it, or at least the opening scenes. I came back with nine films.