Richard Stark and the Movies
by Gus Edwards
If you’re a fan of ‘rough noir” as I am and you like that kind of action in your crime novels then you can’t help but love the ones by Donald E. Westlake’s writing alter ego Richard Stark. I’m talking about the Parker books about a professional thief known by only that name who gets guys together and pulls off ingenious heists in all kinds of difficult places (banks, museums, military instillations etc.) only to have things fall apart when thieves fall out or the Mob somehow gets into the mix. The plots are always compelling and the Westlake/Stark writing style is muscular and sinewy. But the real driving force of the narratives is the main character Parker. He is tough, pragmatic, unsentimental and thoroughly professional all the way. He kills with impunity but it is never gratuitous or sadistic. It is always because it couldn’t be helped.
The books came out as paperback originals and found a faithful following almost immediately. I was among that number. And although Westlake / Stark hadn’t originally intended to write a series of these books the fan base virtually demanded it after the first one came out. He acquiesced and wound up writing 22 books about our man Parker.
The stories and the character right at the start seemed a natural for the movies. And to date there have been six films adapted from the novels. The first Made in USA (1966) (from the novel “The Jugger”) was filmed by Jean Luc Godard apparently without the author’s permission. A lawsuit followed and Westlake won. The end result being that the film was never released in the US. But in a way that one doesn’t really count because Godard doesn’t exactly adapt the novel but uses it as a point of departure to do his own thing…The best reviewed and best known adaptation came one year later with Point Blank (1967) starring Lee Marvin as “Walker” as sort of a “walking dead” avenger. The film received high critical praise as an “existential “gangster riff. And when I first saw it I went along with that assessment. But looking at the film several times in the intervening years it now strikes me as being directorially self-indulgent and over mannered. A kind of artsy mainstream filmmaking whose techniques have dated badly… In the next Hollywood adaptation (The Split – 1968) Parker is transformed into an African American named McLain played by football player turned actor Jim Brown. It wasn’t anything to write home about.
A side note about the name change.
Apparently there was something in Westlake’s contract stipulating that in movie adaptations the Parker name had to be changed to something else in order to separate the films from the novels. It turned out to be a smart move because all the novels are superior to the movies that were made from them.
The best film adaptation as far as I’m concerned is The Outfit (1973) starring Robert Duval in the Parker role now called Macklin. And one of the real pleasures of this film is the killer of a supporting cast they assembled for it. Included are such noir favorites as: Robert Ryan (this was his last film), Marie Windsor, Richard Jaeckel, Jane Greer, Elisha Cook Jr., Emile Meyer, Sheree North, Henry Jones and Timothy Carey. The other leads are Joe Don Baker and Karen Black. All provide sharp, knowing performances. But Duval stands out. For my money he is the best incarnation of the Parker character on film. Marvin was good but I prefer Duval’s take on the character as a sort of working class blue collar criminal. He also teamed up well with Joe Don Baker…I also like John Flynn’s no frills direction. He’s just telling a gangster story in a simple, straight forward manner without any extra moves or flourishes. And best of all he doesn’t seem to be trying to “elevate” the genre into being something else. It’s a crime story and that’s all it needs to be.
In 1999 Mel Gibson produced and starred in what I can only call a variation on The Hunter, the novel from which Point Blank was also adapted. That too is a miss fire although I’ve heard that it has its fans. Gibson seems miscast in the role to me and the film is way too violent without much good reason for it. And by the way, in this one Parker is called Porter…Before that the British slipped in their Parker adaptation of Slayground (1983) starring Peter Coyote as Stone. It wasn’t much either. So the definitive Parker film or better yet, series of films is still waiting to be made.
I think that the key to success for this series besides good scripts and good direction lies in the casting of the right actor as Parker or whatever they want to call him. Years ago when he was young and very much in the mix of things I thought that Roy Scheider (1932-2008) would’ve been perfect. But now I don’t have any idea as to who would fit. Still I’m sure that there’s someone out there who can fill the bill and give this character the celluloid life he so richly deserves. Only time will tell, I guess. But until then we have the novels to read and savor and then reread again.
So “Thank you, Mr. Westlake”, or should I say “Richard Stark”.