Saturday, May 17, 2008

Noir Heart

There are many great novelists whose ragged prose lends itself eagerly to the noir genre. Not only do they create books and short stories that carry a nihilistic point of view of the world, but their characters are fatalistic to a fault. The most exhilarating aspect of the noir world to me is the way it places the viewer/reader into a dark environment with little or no bearings. We're forced to read between the lines, glean understanding of hardboiled-speak, and place our trust, primarily, within the eyes and ears of a single point of view. Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, James Cain and Raymond Chandler were the godfathers. James Elroy, and a writer named Richard Stark helped bridge the gap from classic noir to the modern era, tinging their tough guy novels with humor, pathos and unpredictability... essentially a blueprint for Hollywood to continually update (and profit from) the long standing noir genre.

Now, a secret about Richard Stark. There is no Richard Stark. This is the pseudonym for writer Donald Westlake. If one goes to IMDB and searches for Westlake, they'll come across a treasure trove of 60's/70's/80/s and 90's noirs that all originated from the novels by Westlake. Because of his pseudonym, is he the most under appreciated crime writer we have today? I would say so. From his imagination, the world has been given the framework for classic films such as "Point Blank" and underrated gems such as "The Outfit", "The Hot Rock" and "Hot Stuff" (yes the Dom Deluise pawn shop comedy). Still further, films like "The Split", "The Bank Shot" and Alain Cavalier's "The Score"(all, sadly not available on DVD and barely seen outside of rare TV screenings) were all released between the years of 1967 and 1975. Prolific, certainly. In 1990, Westlake earned an Academy award nomination for writing the screenplay to Stephen Frears' "The Grifters". This wasn't Westlake's first attempt at directly creating words for the screen. In 1987, his penned the screenplay for "The Stepfather", a somewhat surprising choice. And, as a last interesting tidbit, it was Westlake's novel titled "The Jugger" that influenced Jean Luc Godard to film "Made In the USA", even though Westlake's novel was never given lip service.

Westlake's most famous character, the ominously named Parker, makes appearances throughout his work, most prominently in "Point Blank" as well as Mel Gibson's "Payback" (another title attributed to Westlake). Westlake is also fond of a character named Dortmunder, brought to charismatic life by Robert Redford in Peter Yates' 1973 noir-comedy, "The Hot Rock". But even though Westlake's relies on repetition, it's a conceit that never fails. But back to "Point Blank". If there's a more influential new wave noir film in the history of cinema, I've yet to see (or even hear about) it. That film alone is responsible for obliterating the long standing threads of classic noir and ushering in a new sensibility... a type of noir that was not restricted by black and white stock and structured pacing. Like the turbulent culture of the late 60's, "Point Blank" dared to exhibit a fractured sense of time and place, hypnotic cinematography and a 'protagonist' in the barest sense of the word. Lee Marvin and director John Boorman certainly deserve credit for their re imagining of Westlake's novel, but its the underlying ideas of "Point Blank" that propel the film- and the genre- forward. Outside of "Point Blank's" genre defining set up, the other bold characteristic of Westlake is his ability to stage hardboiled noirs within a highly comedic universe. The previously mentioned "The Hot Rock", released in 1973 is a remarkably entertaining comedy heist that posits Redford, George Segal and character actor Paul Sand as a team of thieves chasing down an expensive African diamond. Yet the film is not concerned with the robbery of the diamond itself, which is done before the first 30 minutes have lapsed, but its keeping up with the diamond in acutely constructed set pieces after the robbery. While it's sometimes hard to find that balance between crime and comedy without losing face, Westlake has made a virtual career of it.

So that includes the good stuff. What's most infuriating about Westlake's output is no fault of his own, but the inability to see so many of the 70's films based on his work. Late last year, Turner Classic Movies screened John Flynn's "The Outfit" with Karen Black and Robert Duvall very late at night. I tuned in, but fell asleep before it was finished. That's more of a reflection of watching TV at 3am instead of the film's craftsmanship, though. Checking on VHS copies of the film on Ebay, and the cheapest copy can be yours for only $65. The 1968 heist film, "The Split" starring Jim Brown as the leader of a motley crew of thieves trying to rob the LA Coliseum and a young Gene Hackman as the cop chasing him down, is equally hard to find. Foreign adaptations of his work by directors such as Cavalier and Costa-Gavras, have also yet to see the light of day on American shores. I hate to make this yet another MIA DVD posts, but chalk it up to this ADD saturated world where "i-want-everything-and-i-want-it-now". I'm selfish like that about film. I want my obscure 70's crime films and I want them now.

A secret fantasy of mine has always been to be a crime fiction writer. When I'm immersed in a good crime novel or film, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The way there's a private lingo thrown around, the way the characters nerves seem to be blasted with steel and the intricate plotting of the heist treated like an archealogical excavation... all of these things energize my creative juices. As a crime writer, Westlake seems to understand this is what audiences and readers want from him. God bless him.


Adam Ross said...

I'm way overdue in reading "The Hunter," since "Point Blank" is one of my absolute favorites. I could watch the opening 20 minutes all day. Haven't seen any of the other movies you listed, but just put "The Hot Rock" on my queue.

Joe Baker said...


I don't think you'll be disappointed in "The Hot Rock". It's lightweight, breezy and highly entertaining with great performances by Redford and especially actor Paul Sand.

Ivan said...

Westlake gets meta in his Dortmunder book, "Jimmy the Kid," when Dortmunder and his crew use a Richard Stark book as the template for one of their misbegotten heists. It's a great book, lots of fun to read, and you can tell Westlake is having a blast--especially when "Richard Stark" actually appears. Jimmy the Kid was made into a film twice: once in 1982 with Gary Coleman, and again in 1999 in Germany. I haven't seen either version.

Joe Baker said...


Great thoughts, thanks! Once I knock a few more books off my "to read" shelf in the next couple months, I plan on picking up some Westlake novels. And you know, I watched "Jimmy the Kid" many times on video as a young kid and loved it. Not sure how well it'd hold up now, though.