The waitress kept asking him if he wanted anything else.
It distracted him from looking out at the street. She had a band on her finger, so finally he said "What's the matter, don't you get enough from your husband?" So after that she left him alone.
She glared awhile from the other end of the counter, but he could ignore that.
—The Hunter, Richard Stark, 1962
Now the room was comfortable, illuminated in pools of amber. Crossing to sit on the right side of the sofa, he said, "Tell me what you think you've got so far."
"You're a wooden nickel, that's all I know right now," she said. "Linda usually keeps white wine in the refrigerator here. Want some?"
She herself did, of course; keeping the tension held down below the surface was hard work. He said, "If you do."
She smiled. "At last, a human response."
—Flashfire, Richard Stark, 2000
Lee Marvin in Point Blank, John Boorman, 1967
Jason Statham in Parker, Taylor Hackford, 2013
While it is not likely to be remembered as any kind of major cinematic event, Parker was a pretty decent caper/revenge picture that, contrary to many expectations, did not entirely, or even in all that annoyingly substantive a way, piss on its source material, the above-quoted novel Flashfire by Richard Stark. The reason this distinction is more noteworthy than it ordinarily might be is that the Parker novels by Stark (a not-particularly-well-guarded pen name of Donald E. Westlake, who also wrote dozens of highly-regarded crime novels under his actual name) are rightly beloved by genre aficionados, who have long marveled at Hollywood's seeming unwillingness to bring an undiluted version of the character to the screen. This especially given the brisk, deliberately flat storytelling of these procedurals, which play out for the reader as clean vivid amoral word-movies.
The problem a lot of the time, of course, is the amorality. Recently on Twitter, the former comic book writer turned television scripter and producer Gerry Conway, expressing his disappointment at the new Parker film, described Stark's original character as an "autistic bank robber." That's an interesting way of putting it. But it summarizes why a Hollywood story editor might consider such a character difficult to "relate" to. The unforgettable opening of the first Parker novel, The Hunter, published in 1962, establishes Parker as practically a T-101 of 2oth century criminality. After walking across the George Washington Bridge into New York, he creates an identity for himself, ransacks some poor sap's bank account, and "raises" eight hundred 1962 dollars by three in the afternoon—seed money for his mission, to retrieve the tens of thousands that a former partner has stolen from him. He is a man of very few words, not someone eager to start fights, but someone who doesn't care about smashing a face in if that's what it takes to get something done. In short, he is what some might call a complete "badass," and part of the enjoyment of reading the Parker books is in the unhealthy thrill of seeing him get away with all manner of extremely antisocial behavior and even enjoying some of what his ill-gotten gains can by, although it isn't too long into the series that one is given to understand that the professional thief's life can be as much of a workaday drag as that of any office-bound stiff's.
Stark/Westlake admired the first English-language movie made from a Parker novel, 1967's Point Blank, directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin. While Marvin is an exemplary Parker in every respect, Westlake noted in interviews that when he created the character, he had actually pictured Jack Palance. To judge from interviews, Westlake, who died in 2008, was one of those artists who had a pretty thorough understanding of what they were about. Discussing Point Blank with Patrick McGilligan, he calls it "a terrific film" and observes "the film is more stylized than the book, more mannerist, whereas the Richard Stark books are very flat." Whereas the Parker of The Hunter is practically robotic, Lee Marvin's Walker (Westlake had a rule about selling the rights to Parker novels: unless the producer was going to make a series of Parker films, they'd be obliged to change the name of the character), while exceptionally grim and limited in expression, has a touch of atavism to him. Via the smashed-linearity flashbacks of the movie, the viewer's also given the idea that Walker had some feelings to hurt; his relationship to the partner-in-crime who jilts him, Mal Reese (John Vernon) is portrayed far more warmly than in the book, in which Parker proceeds warily and gets burned anyway.
For all that, Point Blank represented a pretty accurate representation of the Parker character in terms of menace and relentlessness. Westlake rated the never-released-in-the-U.S. Mise en sac, made in 1966 and adapted from The Score, as "modest but good." Godard's Made In USA, let's face it, does not really count as a Parker picture. Westlake describes the director of the Jim-Brown-starring The Split (based on The Seventh) as "a lox," and the movie's pretty lousy, although it's got a helluva cast, including Ernest Borgnine and Gene Hackman. 1973's The Outfit, directed by John Flynn, who'd go on to make Rolling Thunder, was highly rated by Westlake: "[It's] the one movie made from the Stark books that got the feeling right. The movie was done flat, just like the books." You can judge this yourself by watching the Warner Archive DVD of the movie, or coming to see it at the Brooklyn Public Library on February 26 when I present it as part of the series "Original Gangsters." However. The movie does, in its final shot. make its main characters rather more ingratiating than they are in the book. And there's one scene that kind of exemplifies just what Hollywood can't help but do with this kind of material. In the 1963 book, also called The Outfit, Parker, now unrecognizable to many of his former associates on account of necessary plastic surgery, needs some automobile service, and he gets into a spot of trouble at a Georgia garage-for-reprobates after a woman of the house, who had come on to him, accuses him of raping her. Here's how she's described in the book: "She was very fat, forty or forty-five, with a fat white face under [...] orange hair. She was wearing a dark blue dress with pink flowers on it." Later, she is depicted as grinning at Parker, "showing spaces where she'd lost teeth."
In the movie she is played by Sheree North, with all her teeth, looking like so.
Anyway, I seem to be straying from what I intended as my point. While the current Parker movie has a little too much Parker-explaining-himself stuff ("I never steal from people who can't afford it") I was mildly surprised, when looking at the book from which the movie was adapted, that this Stark-penned Parker actually IS a more socialized character than the one we meet in The Hunter. In the eight-year run in which Westlake/Stark wrote sixteen Parker novels, he maintained the character's grim pragmatism but added some complicating factors, including a girlfriend and eventual housemate, Claire. Parker had accumulated enough partners who did not burn him that they could be brought together for a relatively epic Parker adventure, the initial finale to the series, Butcher's Moon. One of those partners, a funny, voluble stage actor named Alan Grofield (who I always imagine as being played in a movie by Edward Norton...never gonna happen...), is goofy enough to function as a comic foil to Parker's gruffness, and he's more in line with the characters Westlake created in his novels featuring the relative anti-Parker, John Dortmunder. (The Westlake omniverse is one of the great underappreciated delights of genre literature but too complicated to treat much here.) But the what one realizes at the end of Butcher's Moon is that Parker is in fact, rather fond of the guy, despite the fact that he allows him to be...well, I don't want to spoil it for anyone. If you're reading this you really ought to check out the Parker books, all but four of which are now available from the University of Chicago Press.
The people who made Parker were smart to adapt one of the novels from the post comeback, or post Comeback (for that is indeed the name of the novel in which the ageless Parker returned, after an over twenty-year layoff) run, not just because the old-school crimes that Parker committed in the '60s could largely only be commited in the '60s, but because the Parker who came back IS appreciably different from the guy in the first sixteen. He hasn't become nice, not in the least, but he has acquired not the veneer but the actual cachet of an old pro who knows his dirty business inside and out and whose criminal pragmatism also contains an element of actually conscious restraint. Watching the movie without having looked back at the book first, I tried to recall whether the character of the cop with an eye for Parker's non-criminal helpmate real-estate agent figured in the book at all. (In the movie they're played by Bobby Canavalle and Jennifer Lopez respectively.) He does, and in fact in the book he gets into a bit more of a cat-and-mouse game with Parker, and at the end of the book—this isn't really a spoiler, all things being equal—the two characters practically banter with each other. The Parker of The Hunter did not banter.
This is not to say that Westlake/Stark compromised his creation. He created Parker out of an intuition, and after a spell of writing, realized this was a character/conceit that he could have some fun with. What followed was not a self-conscious stab at "character growth" or anything so boring but rather playing with the parameters of what he was doing so as to continue having fun. That the Parker series of novels is so thoroughly engrossing is a testimony to both his instincts and skill. And the Statham/Hackford cinematic realization of Parker is sufficiently in the spirit of the original that I would not mind seeing another such adaptation from these guys.