It’s always fun–and interesting–to find someone in cyberspace who shares one of your private enthusiasms. OGIC and I, for instance, are great fans of the Parker novels, a hugely diverting series of sixty-minute eggs written by crime novelist Donald E. Westlake under the pen name of “Richard Stark,” but I don’t have any other friends who read them, so I wrongly take it for granted that nobody else knows about them. Hence it was a surprise to skim through the blogroll this morning and discover that Forager 23 has been holding forth on the subject of what Hollywood actor might make a convincing Parker on screen.
I’ve never written anything extended on the subject of Stark, but I did review Payback, an awful movie of a few years back in which Mel Gibson played Parker:
“Payback” was adapted from Donald E. Westlake’s tough-minded 1962 novel “The Hunter” (published under the pen name “Richard Stark”) which was also the source of John Boorman’s “Point Blank,” one of the most impressive crime films of the ’60s. “The Hunter” was the first in a series of novels featuring Parker (he has no first name), a no-nonsense career criminal who specializes in shrewdly planned heists. Largely forgotten save by connoisseurs of crime fiction, these novels are striking for the way in which the reader is made to sympathize with Parker, a thoroughly unappetizing near-psychopath whose only virtue is his professionalism. The plot of “Payback” is drawn directly from the first part of “The Hunter”–the film’s advertising slogan is “Get ready to root for the bad guy”–and so it is surprising to see how completely [director Brian] Helgeland has failed to catch the tone of the book. In “The Hunter,” Parker is a truly hard man, as amoral as a loaded shotgun; in “Payback,” he is a coarsely drawn caricature who has a soft spot for pit bulls and prostitutes but blows away anybody else who crosses his path.
Mel Gibson is a very good actor, but he’s all wrong as Parker, and not just because he’s too handsome. Lee Marvin, who played the same part in “Point Blank,” was anvil-hard, with a bass-baritone voice that sounded like large rocks falling from a great height. Not so Gibson: you keep expecting him to say something amusing. One wonders, then, what could have possessed so talented a performer to waste his time on so witless a project. No doubt money is the answer–as I write these words, “Payback” is the most popular movie in America–but given the fact that Gibson is also said to be both a devoted father and a good Catholic, one further wonders what possessed him to make a film that is morally and aesthetically odious. Money, they say, has no smell, but I can’t say the same for “Payback”: it stinks of the cheapest kind of cynicism.
Now over to Forager 23:
Parker is an affectless heavy, who’s always a couple of steps ahead of the law and a couple of crosses ahead of his fellow crooks. He’s a professional criminal, a mechanic–not a thug, but not Raffles, either. Both my friend and I thought that Mel Gibson, who played Parker in the relatively recent film version of the first novel, Payback, was completely wrong for the part. Gibson is all bug eyes, all acting, and, quite frankly, not very scary….
Lee Marvin is, not surprisingly, just about perfect as Parker. Now here’s the problem: actors like Lee Marvin just don’t seem to exist anymore. Tough guy stars are a thing of the past: no more John Waynes, Charles Bronsons, or Clint Eastwoods. What happened to the heavy?
1). Audiences today are younger than ever, while guys like Lee Marvin and John Wayne appealed to more mature moviegoers. They often played world-weary characters who resorted to violence only reluctantly. If Rio Bravo were made today, Ricky Nelson would’ve gotten top billing and John Wayne would’ve just had a supporting role.
2). Action movies have become more about effects than about action. You only have to go back about ten years to find stuff like Steven Seagal’s Hard to Kill and Under Siege, which were genuine action movies, that is, they focused on the actions the main character had to take to get revenge/get justice/save the day, etc. For better or for worse, these movies center on Seagal. Compare this with the Vin Diesel pictures The Fast and the Furious and XXX. Diesel’s role in these movies is to act as if he is ironically amused by all the spectacular effects going on around him. I think he does a pretty good job, but I never get a sense of his characters accomplishing anything–doing anything–taking action.
So what does that leave us when we try to cast our hypothetical hard-boiled action flick? Not too much. The straightforward, low-frills action feature–the kind that Don Siegel used to make–is a thing of the past. These movies are still made, but they’re either direct-to-video or from Hong Kong. Big screen action movies have been emasculated. Casting Parker has become impossible.
I agree, reluctantly. Read the whole thing here.
If any of this piques your interest, the latest Parker novel is Breakout, published last year. (Go here
to check on the current availability of other novels in the series.) The unofficial Parker Web site is here. And Donald Westlake talks about Parker (among other things) here.
It’s a puzzlement, by the way, that Westlake, a writer who is now best known for his charming comic crime novels, should also have dreamed up so comprehensively unfunny a character as Parker, which presumably tells us something interesting about human dualism, the subject matter of all film noir and noir fiction. See today’s almanac entry for further details….
P.S. Speaking of noir, everyone’s favorite hieratical sourpuss has posted a very knowing Raymond Chandler parody. (I’m jealous–I’d kill to be able to write parodies, which I regard as the most subtle form of literary criticism.)