For Bill Ryan.
One of my greatest regrets, both personal and professional, is that I didn't schedule my phone interview with Donald E. Westlake a few days earlier. The occasion was the official revival of Jean-Luc Godard's 1966 Made In USA, the North American distribution rights to which had been held by Westlake for many years after the producer Georges de Beauregard had failed to pay Westlake for the movie rights to The Jugger, a book Westlake had written under the pen name Richard Stark, the sixth novel to feature Westlake/Stark's sharklike professional crook Parker.
If you look at it one way, Made In USA is the first Parker movie; it predates by a year or so Point Blank, adapted by John Boorman from The Hunter, the first Parker novel, which features Lee Marvin (below) as the revenging, money-chasing lead criminal. Marvin, is, of course, a close-to-ideal incarnation of Parker (the actor Westlake had mentioned envisioning when contemplating film adaptations of his Stark novels was Jack Palance, but Parker as described in the books is if anything a bit bigger and rangier than Palance, something like a truck in human form really), and Robert Duvall doesn't do a bad job with the character in the later The Outfit, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. As it happens, Made In USA isn't really a Parker movie at all. The resemblance it bears to the novel The Jugger is almost entirely incidental. It's an adaptation more likely based on a plot description on the back cover of a paperback, and I sincerely doubt that Godard ever dipped into the book beyond that. And Godard himself speaks of the film in terms of homage to Hawks' The Big Sleep, to the extent of putting his heroine Paula Nelson (portrayed by his estranged wife Anna Karina) in a Bogie-like trench coat throughout (see above). In both The Jugger and Made In USA the lead character comes to a small town to investigate the mysterious death of a friend. And the resemblance ends there. The Jugger is titled for the profession of the dead man in the book; Parker's contact man, a retired safecracker. Made In USA contains no such French equivalent of criminal jargon and the mysterious circumstances of the dead man's end are kinda/sorta tied into such world-historical events as the Ben Barka case. Also, Marianne Faithfull turns up to sing "As Tears Go By," a cappella.
In short, it's a Godard film, and, by Westlake's lights, a "rotten" one, or at least that's how he characterized it in a 1990 interview with Patrick McGilligan reprinted in the fourth volume of the invaluable Backstory series of talks with screenwriters. Westlake states that in the years since he sued for the aforementioned rights, those rights had been worth "exactly nothing," but as of the time of the interview (which may well have been updated by McGilligan and Westlake for the 2006 book), "a distributor is planning a new release of a whole ton of Godard, and they want Made in USA, and they're going to pay me."
Had I interviewed Westlake, I might have asked him if he'd revised his opinion of the film, but it really doesn't worry me. As a film critic and a Godard fan, I certainly don't think Made In USA is rotten, but I'm also not stupid, and it's hardly a functional genre film, or any kind of what-you'd-call-an-"entertainment," which is why I have to say "hold your horses" on the rare occasions when anyone of my acquaintance says "Really? Godard made a Parker film?"
In any event, I did not get to interview Westlake, because the man died on December 31, 2008, about a week before my phoner had been scheduled. I gather he had been paid sufficiently to warrant participating in the publicity campaign for the arthouse re-release of the Godard film (which, to tell you the truth, one WAS able to see at the likes of N.Y.C.'s Thalia in the days of its ostensible embargo, via some kind of bootlegged print), and while I hadn't looked into Westlake's work in years, was looking forward to having the chat. Now that I'm a little over halfway through a fresh reading of Westlake/Stark's Parker novels (I had seen a few as cheap paperbacks back in my youth, and I was as impressed as a preadolescent aspiring snob was apt to be, alas; now, fantastically, they're being reissued in snazzy trade paperbacks by the University of Chicago Press, no less), I'm even sorrier that he's not alive today, if only because I'd like to kiss him full on the mouth.
The great Lawrence Block contributed a lovely guest post to this blog earlier in the year, which opened: "Over a good many years, my friend Donald E. Westlake wrote two dozen books about a career criminal named Parker. Because his agent had the good sense to retain rights in the character, many film deals were signed over the years, and quite a few pictures actually got made. One time or another, and under one name or another, Parker was brought to varying degrees of life on the screen by Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Robert Duvall, Peter Coyote, Mel Gibson, and Anna Karina.
"Don, pondering all this, said he had to conclude that the character lacked definition."
That's a great, funny story, and exemplifies the wry humor that was so intrinsic to the caper novels Westlake wrote under his own name. What makes it funnier is that Parker is, in fact, so well-defined that it's scary, and that filmmakers have largely lacked the intestinal fortitude to bring the original conception of Parker to the screen.
The two films that come closest are Point Blank, and John Flynn's The Outfit, which I wrote about here and here. The ways that Point Blank diverges from a Parker novel is in boiling down the plot just a little bit, and in rather self-consciously mythologizing the Parker character a bit. Interestingly enough, Westlake/Stark's The Hunter differs from the novels to come, in that the money aspect of it happens to be an afterthought; the novel begins with Parker having nothing on his mind but settling scores with the people who left him for dead after a job; recouping his share (and more) of the heist is something of an afterthought. In Point Blank it's the whole raison d'etre for Walker, whose "I want my money" is repeated by Marvin to the extent that it almost becomes a mantra. Which is pretty awesome in and of itself, admittedly. Westlake himself called The Outfit "the one movie made from a Stark book that got the feeling right [...] [i]t was done flat, just like the books." Indeed, although Robert Duvall's Parker is a little more prone to jocularity than the Parker of the books, but not that much. One thing The Outfit really gets into is the mechanics of criminality: how, when doing a job, the perps go about gathering all the necessary equipment, from weapons to souped-up cars with "clean" plates and so on. But even director John Flynn's exemplary treatment Hollywoods things up as it were; in the book, the auto-bootlegger's wife who throws an offer of sexual services to Parker is an obese bovine creature, while in the film she's, well, Sheree North. (And she throws the offer to Parker's buddy.) Westlake said of Flynn, "early in his career, I thought he was going to be a world-beater," but that The Outfit turned out to be "about the only thing he's done that shows what he can do."
It's worth seeing, and you can do so via a DVD from the Warner Archive. But more importantly, the Parker books are worth reading. While the likes of Mel Gibson and poor Brian Helgeland's Payback have whiffed on both the Parker character AND his actions, filmmakers have been picking from the Parker novels piecemeal for YEARS with at least a certain perspicacity. In one of the new forewords to the Parker novels, Dennis Lehane details some of the lifts Michael Mann has made, but doesn't mention that the uneasy cop/criminal acknowledgement bit in Heat that everyone swoons over is a treacly, sentimentalized mutation of a TRULY amazing Parker-and-detective confrontation (followed by cat-and-mouse pursuit) in The Seventh, the novel immediately following The Jugger. In The Rare Coin Score, Parker asks one of his men to set up an office fire and not make it detactable as arson; "Easiest thing in the world," the guy says, setting up not just a future George V. Higgins title but a future Coen brothers line. The line from Stark/Westlake to Willeford to Elmore Leonard to Tarantino gets clearer the more you read, and I admire Tarantino's cleverness in adapting situations that could have come straight out of a Parker novel to, I dunno, a World War II film, e.g., the tavern basement standoff in Inglourious Basterds, the playing out of which is predicated on the observation (ostensibly) of certain criminal rules of engagement; a staple of the sticky situations Parker often finds himself in.
Aside form their amazing entertainment value, these are great books for any, and I shudder to use the term, aspiring screenwriter. They're invariably perfectly structured, in a way that demonstrate's there's actually nothing wrong with "formula" if you've got the elements and the smarts to make you actually good at it. They're also object lessons in the truth that exposition is nothing to be afraid of, once you know the right way to put it across. They're also brilliant at mixing authentic, or seemingly authentic,. detail and jargon with imaginative flourishes, so the whole thing feels as real as if it's happening right in front of you. All done in the seemingly plainest of prose (so perfectly plain that on those rare occasions that Stark feels the temptation to get Westlake-smart-alecky, as in the first line of The Rare Coin Score, which is in every other respect perfect—you'll see what I mean—it really glares). Check 'em out.