Friday, March 22, 2013

The Problem with Parker

By Russel D McLean

“When a fresh-faced guy in a chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.”*

That’s how readers met professional criminal Parker in 1962.  Parker strode across the Brooklyn bridge, after escaping near death and deciding to get the money he was owed by his double crossing accomplices. Donald E Westlake had imagined this character on just such a stroll (except Westlake wasn’t out for revenge, just fresh air), the professional thief springing almost fully formed into the writer’s mind.

“His hands, swinging curve-fingered at his sides, looked like they were moulded of brown clay by a sculptor  who thought big and liked veins… the office women looked at him and shivered. They knew he was a bastard, they knew his big hands were born to slap with, they knew his face would never break into a smile when he looked at a woman. They knew what he was, they thanked God for their husbands and still they shivered. Because they knew how he would fall on a woman in the night. Like a tree.”**

There is no questioning the danger that Parker represents within the first page of The Hunter. We don’t know who he is and what he wants, but we know he’s dangerous and he doesn’t give a damn for anyone. And we know that while men don’t want to be him and women don’t want to be with him, that he’s still someone we can’t help but watch, can’t help but be fascinated by. He’s beyond the “bad boy” that we’re used to. He’s a whole different beast. He’s terrifying and alluring; utterly amoral in the truest sense. And he’s a dream to Hollywood; a guy who has no qualms about getting physical, who will single mindedly and ruthlessly pursue his goal.

So why can’t anyone get him right when they try and bring him to the silver screen?

Eight times, movie-makers have tried to get to grips with this force of nature posing as a criminal. And six times so far, they have failed. Even the first time out, when Jean Luc Goddard turned Parker into a woman for Made in the USA, the medium of film utterly failed to understand what made Parker, well, Parker. Nothing to do with the sex changes, but a lot to do with the attitude. As with many film makers who would follow, Goddard would fail to understand the essence of Parker.

“Usually I don’t put an actor’s face to the character, though with Parker, in the early days, I did think he probably looked something like Jack Palance. That may be partly because you knew Palance wasn’t faking it, and Parker wasn’t faking it either. Never once have I caught him winking at the reader.”***

Maybe Westlake never got his wish, but Hollywood almost got it right in 1967. Lee Marvin – using the name Walker – appeared on screen in a character-defining performance for the movie Point Blank. Sure, Marvin talked a little more than the Parker in the books and there’s a little scene where we see him woo his wife that feels slightly off base, but never once does Marvin wink at the camera. He doesn’t even have to hurt someone to scare the hell out of them. All it takes is a look and you see a man who doesn’t care who he has to walk through to get his money back. This version of Parker is completely stripped back. He has one goal. He wants the money he’s owed. And he’ll do anything to get it back. Even when he’s told the money is gone, he acts like he doesn’t understand. Economics of crime be damned, Parker’s owed money and once he’s got it, that’s him done.

Parker is a man defined by what he does. And what he does is steal. He doesn’t do it for kicks so much as he does it because, well, what the hell else is going to do? His amorality makes him the most moral man in his world. Parker won’t kill you unless he has to****. He won’t get in your way unless you have something he wants. And he won’t wisecrack. He doesn’t know how.

All of this (and the on-screen winking) is why Mel Gibson was among the worst choices to remake the by-then classic movie under the title Payback in ’99. Every time I catch this movie I think about Raymond Chandler on Allan Ladd:

“A small boy’s idea of a tough guy.”

That’s Mel all over in Payback. Parker/Porter smirks and gurns his way through the movie, with this kind of ironic smugness that belies everything about the character. Marvin, unlike Gibson, had an instinctual understanding of the essence of Parker: he’s a professional. He is, in Donald E Westlake’s own words, a “man at work.”

Which is why, when the appalling Slayground (with Peter Coyote as “Stone”) came out in ‘83, the film failed even before they deviated so far from the plot that it became a bizarre London-based slasher film with Mel Smith popping up in a bizarre guest appearance.

Stone emotes. All the time. Talks about his feelings. Shows concern for characters that Parker would consider to be idiots best left to their own fate. It’s hard to see how he has the reputation he does, given how appalling his planning of the initial robbery is, and then his plan to deal with the fallout… well I’m not sure what the plan was exactly, but somehow it involves a plane to London just one step ahead of a killer who’s modelled after the then-popular psycho killers of straight to video nasties. It’s a bad film, and a truly terrible approach to the character.

The French had another stab at Parker in 1967 with Mise A Sac (based on the novel, The Seventh). I’ve heard good things about the movie but have never run across a print. It was never, to my knowledge, released with English subtitles. And lots of people have good memories of Robert Duvall in The Outfit. And I’ve never see the Chow Yun Fat starring Full Contact, which again is allegedly based upon the Hunter.

Marvin remains the touchstone. For me, and so many others. He doesn’t have to say anything to creep us out. Check the scene where he threatens the secretary by simply whispering something to her we can’t hear, and tell me you don’t get chills.

Will Jason Statham be able to match Marvin?

On the plus side of the column, they could have chosen Danny Dyer for the role. And Statham has a line in tough nut action. But it doesn’t look like it’ll be enough.

Statham’s persona tends to wink too much at the camera, exude a false machismo that’s designed for a specific kind of action fan. To work as Parker, Statham would need to dial back his blokey bonhomie and find a real sense of driving purpose that isn’t merely misplaced anger. Parker is about attitude. He’s not a man who cares about other people or about justice (even his own misplaced sense of it). He’s a man who cares about what is owed him, about the job and little else. He has no family, he has no love interest (other than Claire, who appears in the later novels, but even then there is the sense that if push came to shove he could still walk away from that relationship).

Admittedly, a brit has already played Parker in all but name. Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey was a Parker homage, with the lead played by Terrence Stamp. Admittedly, Stamp’s character was searching for his daughter’s killer – Parker doesn’t have family, or if he does he doesn’t care to mention them – but that single minded ruthlessness was all Parker and Soderbergh even admits the massive influence of the 1967 Point Blank on his style. Even screenwriter Lem Dobbs admitted to Parker fansite, The Violent World of Parker, that the original title of the screenplay (and name of the character) was “Stark” in clear homage to the pseudonymous creator of Parker.

Statham will have to pull something really special out of the bag to match Stamp and, of course, Marvin. He will need to give Parker more depth than his usual style allows for, let us see a man of massive intelligence. Parker may use violence, but it’s not always his end-game. He is, after all, an intelligent man. He’s cunning. Ruthless. Deadly. And unlike Statham, he never winks.

After all, he’s eluded Hollywood and the silver screen all these years, leaving onscreen only shadows and hints of his presence as though he was never really there to begin with. But then, that’s the way Parker likes it. He’s not in it to be famous. He’s in it for the job. There is no ego. Only money. That’s all he wants. The money he’s owed.

Maybe when Hollywood understands that, maybe then we’ll once more get the Parker we deserve.

*The Hunter by Donald E Westlake
***An interview with Donald Westlake at the University of Chicago Press:
****Look, let’s not mention the “rules” that Statham’s Parker waffles on about in the trailers; Parker never explicitly states his mortality, but we as readers merely understand it from observing him.


Dana King said...

Marvin was the goods. It's a credit to him, the director, and the screenwriter.

I think Hollywood's problem with a character like Parker (and many of those written by Elmore Leonard, as well), is the filmmakers don't trust the audience to get him. Films tend to be made for the lowest common denominator, and characters and plots devised for a level everyone will understand. Parker doesn't work that way, certainly not in the current context, where wisecracking tough guys are expected. So they have to "explain" him, and explaining someone like Parker is the flip side of explaining why things are funny: it can't be done.

Pete Barnstrom said...

It's funny that you say 6 out of 8 fail, but only mention one that did not. The other? I'm guessing Jim Brown in "The Split." Or maybe a typo.

Anonymous said...

Why I Won’t See Parker, and Why Donald Westlake Is Spinning in His Grave:

Russel said...

Pete - good catch. My initial plan had been to imply that while I still haven't seen it, people only ever have good words for THE OUTFIT. However, obviously I missed the edit to make that clearer! I was so intent on cracking on to what was wrong with Slayground and Payback, I guess (Slayground is the biggest missed opportunity ever - its one location, its filled with action, its a great premise, and they really, truly, horribly, inconceivably screwed it up from start to finish...)... If I get the chance I might make some minor edits to make things clearer.

Russel said...

Dana - you've hit the problem on the head. Parker's not a multiplex hero. He can't be. He's more complex than that. He does some pretty damn bad things to get what he wants and what makes us go along for the ride is not that we sympathise but that we see the necessity for Parker to reach his goal. Unfortunately most audiences need to directly sympathise with the character hence why we'll pretty always see him with a "mentor" or "kid" or general "love interest" so that we can say, "hey, he's not all bad."...

Simon Dyda said...

Parker (the movie) isn't Parker, it's just a toned-down Transporter.

Apart from Statham being nothing like Parker, the movie introduces plot holes which the novel didn't possess, and decides to make Handy McKay Claire's father (WTF? Why?).

More importantly, Westlake's Parker is an American, not a Brit. If this was a British adaption set in Europe, having a Brit play Parker might make sense. But it isn't. It's set in America.

I'm not saying that Parker shouldn't be played by a Brit - there are plenty of Brits who are so good at playing Yanks that even the Yanks can't tell the difference - but Jason Statham is not one of them.

Westlake's Parker is a role that can only be pulled off by an actor of quality with a decent script to work from.

Jack Badelaire said...

After reading this article, I went out and bought/read the first Parker novel. Very impressive, but I can certainly see why Parker is so difficult to bring to the screen accurately - simply put, he's just a completely unlikable bastard. We the reader can applaud his determination and skill, but I can't possibly imagine anyone in Hollywood green-lighting a movie featuring a main character this hardcore. And, if you were going to see such a character, it would have been back in the 70's, when you could get away with real bastards in your leading roles. Today? I wonder if you could even find someone who'd want to play that part.

I think the best hope for a Parker film that stuck true to The Hunter would be to make it as an independent film, free of studio puppet-stringing. Even translated to 2013, the overal scope of the story is narrow enough that nothing here screams "big budget" - with the right crew, this could be a low cost, high-intensity film.

Russel said...

Simon - watch SAFE to see Statham try a US accent and you'll get why they made him a brit here (its quite an accent he gets, good revenge for Dick Van Dyke). I think that this point wouldn't matter for me if Parker were the bastard he is in the books, but its very clear they want to make him a Robin Hood type and that just isn't as interesting. But then its a big budget hollywood movie, and they want to play it as safe as they can while using the name of a pre-existing property to pull in those who liked that property...

Jack - oh, yes. An indy film or an "actor's" film, something like what they did with the brilliant Killing Them Softly. Parker is not "big budget" -- he's low key, intense, smart and brutal.