Donald Westlake: Made in U.S.A.

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01/09/2009 11:30 AM |

Today, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1966 noir-pop fantasia Made in U.S.A. opens at Film Forum for a two-week run. Despite being made at the peak of Godard’s
fame (and, arguably, creativity), this is the film’s first — it’s an unauthorized adaptation of the novel The Jugger, by American crime writer Donald Westlake, who blocked its release here. Westlake died on New Year’s Eve, making this release a rather perfectly ironic tribute. The L’s Cullen Gallagher writes about Westlake’s work, his close ties to the world of film, and Godard’s unfaithful but loving rendition of his book, below. (And here’s Benjamin Strong’s
review of Made in U.S.A., from the current issue of the L.)

On New Year’s Eve, Donald Westlake, alias Richard Stark, went to that big bank heist in the sky – the "one last score" you never return from. The 75-year-old Brooklyn-native and writer of more than 150 books (not to mention numerous short stories and screenplays) died of a heart attack while on vacation in Mexico. Born in 1933, Westlake was one of the last remnants of a bygone literary era. He may have attended several colleges, but he never graduated from any. And he certainly didn’t learn writing from any "creative writing" class. Instead, he threw himself into the thriving pulp paperback market and began churning out novels at a rate that would scare many contemporary writers into an early retirement. He was a professional writer in every sense of the word, but also a master craftsman, and one of the most innovative crime writers of the 20th century.

Beginning in 1959, a steady stream of novels under various names began hitting shelves. The best, and best-known, were under Westlake’s own name (particularly the John Dortmunder novels, beginning with the heist-caper The Hot Rock), and Richard Stark’s, whose moniker was attached to a series of novels centered around a charmingly existential killer named Parker. The frequency with which both Westlake and Stark are adapted to film and television is an on-going testament to the popularity and longevity of the novels.

Since the 1960s, scarcely more than a few years go by without at least one adaptation of a book or story of Westlake’s — many of them are French (no surprise, considering that country’s ardent adoration of American crime fiction, preceding and surpassing our own appreciation for our artists).

Periodically, Westlake has written directly for the screen, either
penning original scripts or adapting source material, most recently
tackling Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground (2005). His rendition
of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters (1990) for director Stephen Frears is a
masterpiece of adaptation. Capturing the sexual tensions and
professional rivalries of a semi-incestuous mother-son-girlfriend trio
of con artists is no easy task — most other attempts at adapting
Thompson either border on parody or compromise his bleak vision. While
many screenwriters and directors have approached Westlake’s work,
regrettably few have been as successfully faithful as Westlake’s
Grifters adaptation. Among the most famous of them is William Goldman
and Peter Yates’ version of The Hot Rock (1972) with Robert Redford,
and while it’s a little heavy on the goofy and light on the hardboiled,
it still holds up.

The first of Stark’s novels, 1962’s The Hunter, was adapted to film twice — first by John Boorman as Point Blank (1967) with a deadpan Lee Marvin in the Parker role, and later by Brian Helgeland as Payback (1999) starring Mel Gibson. While Boorman’s is a great film in its own right, it’s certainly no model of fidelity. Stark’s original story, about a double-crossed bank robber willing to take down "the syndicate" in order to reclaim his share of the loot, emphasizes notions of professionalism in both performance and ethics. Boorman turns the entire scenario into an Antonioni-like abstraction, in which every motivation and gesture is divested of any possible meaning. Payback, on the other hand, is embarrassing. It’s an insult. The film is rife with noir-cliches that make the movie border on unintentional satire, most notably Gibson’s schlocky voice-over and Chris Boardman’s cringe-worthy wannabe-Elmer Bernstein score. Extraneous new plot twists ruin Stark’s sleek, blunt narratives, and as for the attempts to add depth to Parker by making him sensitive, love-starved, and weak… Stark respects Parker, whereas neither Boorman nor Helgeland see him as anything but a mindless action hero.

The most surprising actor to take on Parker, however, is still the first: French New Wave icon Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A. (1966). Made in U.S.A. is notoriously unfaithful to its source novel, but there are actually a surprising number of scenes that come directly from the book, suggesting that Godard actually read the entire thing (more than can been said about his King Lear). In fact, Karina comes closer than either Marvin or Gibson to nailing Parker’s cold professionalism. Don’t be fooled by her mod fashion — behind that block-pattern primary-colored dress is a gat just waiting pop you in the gut. Godard, of course, turns the novel into an abstract mélange of pop culture esoterica and political commentary. It’s not Stark, but it’s a hell of a good movie, nonetheless.

That Westlake/Stark could attract such a wide spectrum of filmmakers and interpretations is proof of their universal appeal. Like luminary crime writers Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Westlake broke down genre barriers and appealed to readers of all persuasions. Recently, Westlake has been in the news as much as ever. As we speak, another adaptation, The Stepfather, is currently in post-production. A new novel, Get Real, is also slated for publication this July. Just this past September, the University of Chicago Press began reprinting the entire Parker series. And that preserver of pulp, Hard Case Crime, has been reprinting several of Westlake’s books: 361, Somebody Owes Me Money, Lemons Never Lie (as Stark), and The Cutie, which is set to come out in March. And then there’s Rialto’s release of Made In U.S.A., which will be on the lam, making its way around the country like so many of Westlake’s criminals. We may have lost a great author, but we certainly haven’t forgotten him — nor will we be likely to anytime soon.

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