Archive for Richard Stark

Ugh, Mr. Porter

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2017 by dcairns

OK, so I looked at PAYBACK, Brian Helgeland’s 1996 version of Richard Stark/Donald Westlake’s The Hunter. I even looked at the director’s cut as well as the original release. I’ll do it the courtesy of not calling it a remake of John Boorman’s ice-cool 1968 version, POINT BLANK, because it does go back to the book.

Superficially the film is a lot closer to the novel than Boorman’s take, beginning with our protagonist — Parker in the book, Walker in the Boorman, and the softer-sound Porter in this version — walking across the George Washington Bridge. I’ll say up front that in terms of quality, there’s not much to choose between the two edits of this one. Helgeland compromised Stark’s version of Parker, just as he understandably had to compromise James Ellroy’s characters and ending in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, so the thing would get made. Mel Gibson’s version of his film compromises a bit more, is all.

The film looks gritty — while Boorman colour-coded like crazy, Antonioni-style, Helgeland simply spray-paints the sets, locations, costumes and actors an even gun-metal hue. This might be called ONE SHADE OF GRAY. It makes for a distinctive, consistent but ultimately rather claustrophobic look. Nothing is the colour of nature. Ideally, Helgeland would probably have liked to make his modern noir in b&w, but desaturated digital dye-jobs like this do tend to make us feel “starved of Technicolor” as Marius Goring once put it.

The really pathetic material is the sadomasochistic mucking about between baddie Gregg Henry (Stark’s Mal Resnick, renamed Val Resnick — how to explain this scattershot renaming?) and Lucy Liu. Stark makes his villain truly hateful via his mistreatment of his junky girlfriend/hooker/victim. Here we get a farrago of BDSM with the petite LL exchanging passionate punches with the overblown GH. It has nothing to do with real kink, and it makes an already rather weak villain seem silly.

Gregg H.’s bosses turn out to be a starry bunch, escalating from William Devane to Kris Kristofferson all the way to an uncredited James Coburn. Pat Garrett AND Billy the Kid. (The ’96 release also has an uncredited Elizabeth Berridge — remember her from AMADEUS?)

The original release gives Deborah Kara Unger almost nothing to do and the director’s cut reinstates her key scene, which is nevertheless not as effective as the version in the book or the Boorman — because the filmmakers are determined to soften the hero, even though his ruthlessness is in fact his U.S.P. for anyone who’s read the Parker books. Then Maria Bello turns up, looking too much like Unger, and softens things further by becoming romantic interest.

The 2006 director’s cut has a more downbeat end, where maybe Porter isn’t looking so good, while the Gibson version keeps him healthy-ish but subjects him to some protracted torture because Mel is into that, at least cinematically. Making the villain in the picture a masochist seems like Gibson projecting his own cravings into another figure in order to achieve some distance from them, whereas the hammer to the toes sequence seems like Gibson wallowing in tendencies which have achieved ample expression in the LETHAL WEAPON series, BRAVEHEART, and of course THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST…

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Playbook

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2017 by dcairns

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.

Stark Truths

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2014 by dcairns

westlake

I’m nearly finished reading Donald Westlake’s Richard Stark Parker books (that’s the books written by Westlake using the name Stark about a heister named Parker). When I’m done I may celebrate by rewatching POINT BLANK (the best film adaptation) or THE GRIFTERS (scripted by Westlake) or by watching THE STEPFATHER, which I’ve never seen. At present, since I’ve been reading the books in the order I could get them, I have The Seventh and Butcher’s Moon left to go. The last-named was the climax of the first phase of Stark’s work, after which he disappeared for twenty-three years, unbidden, leaving Westlake to subsist on the less lucrative novels published under his own name.

So this was a near-perfect time for The Getaway Car to turn up. This is a collection of Westlake’s non-fiction work — interviews, introduction, essays and letters — collated by my online friend, regular Shadowplayer Levi Stahl, who blogs at I’ve Been Reading Lately. Despite having never met face to face, we’re perhaps chummy enough to make this not so much a review as just an appreciation. I was never comfortable with the consumer guide aspect of criticism anyway, so please just regard this as an enumeration of some of the things in this tome, and make your own decisions.

Westlake had a brilliant criminal mind (after reading some of his stuff, the problem-solving part of his skillset becomes very noticeable in John Boorman’s adaptation, POINT BLANK), and if there’s any disappointment to be had from the collection it’s that he isn’t able to pass the gift on to the rest of us. He writes about writing a bit, but it’s not a book of tips — except you will get some good hints about other crime writers worth checking out. You learn about Westlake’s influences and who he rated, and it’s a surprise to find a passing swipe at PG Wodehouse since Westlake from Plum the notion of characters being referred to by beverage (from Wodehouse’s Mulliner stories —> Westlake’s Dortmunder novels). But there are great appreciations of Hammett and Poe and Willeford and someone I didn’t know called Peter Rabe, and some fascinating insights into Westlake’s screenwriting career. He credits Stephen Frears’ persuading him to adapt Jim Thompson for THE GRIFTERS as triggering the reemergence of hardboiled Stark, for which we can all be grateful.

And we can be grateful for Westlake’s perfect summation of Dortmunder as “a capable and workmanlike professional criminal who lives under a black cloud (me).”

We also learn the complicated and amusing circumstances under which Jean-Luc Godard’s MADE IN USA, an adaptation of Stark’s The Jugger (which he dismisses as his worst book — I liked it fine) wound up with its US rights owned by Westlake. A story which might be salutary and helpful to movie producers, somehow.

My copy of the book is an uncorrected proof. My favourite typo = a reference to something called “Cayenne paper.” The kind of hot, strongly flavoured, spicy paper Westlake/Stark typed on, no doubt.

The typo will be corrected by the time you go here and buy: The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany