Friday, February 17, 2012

Donald Westlake Week: FFB/Overlooked Films: ENOUGH (Evans, 1977): ORDO (the film, 2004) among other Westlake films

Donald Westlake is one of those writers I've been reading all my literate first experience of his work was almost certainly in reading "The Winner," his heavily metaphorical sf story (first published in Harry Harrison's anthology of new science fiction, Nova 1 [Delacorte, 1970]), in which a dissident poet named Revell refuses to knuckle under to his imprisonment, to the mild befuddlement of his prison warden, Wordman. (Even at a young age, I noted that Westlake could get a bit cute with character names.) It's the kind of story that has a wide appeal, and it's well-done, and it kept popping up in odd places, including classroom-use magazines, over the next decade. I'd find Westlake stories in Alfred Hitchcock Presents: anthologies, in the old back issues of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and newer issues of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and I'd come across the likes of "Curt Clark"'s "Nackles" (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1964) a story about an anti-Santa Clause who is not quite but not dissimilar to Krampus, in anthologies such as Terry Carr's New Worlds of Fantasy..."Curt Clark," as in "rude clerk" (perhaps one who'd Prefer Not To) being the name Westlake signed to some of his sf and fantasy after making a big noisy deal about quitting the fantastic-fiction field, in favor of crime fiction, in the early '60s. Of course, he did no such thing, but did publish his worst work I've read, by far, in Anarchaos (1967) as by Clark, a rather routine sf adventure novel that takes as its premise that a bunch of cutthroats supposedly inspired by a range of anarchists and not quite anarchists including among unlikely others Pyotr Kropotkin, the pacifist (very influential on Gandhi and MLK, Jr.) and biologist who was among the first to trace the importance of symbiosis and mutual aid in human and non-human matters, and who died under house arrest under Lenin, have set up a society on a planet they've dubbed Anarchaos, and engage in behaviors the most berserk of Ayn Rand's followers might find a bit sociopathic. Westlake could be snotty.

But he was also, almost invariably, acute and clever and inventive. In 1989, having just read in quick succession Elmore Leonard's Freaky Deaky, Westlake's Trust Me on This, and an Algis Budrys critique which in passing noted that Leonard's fiction was a bit less cartoonish than Westlake's, this last struck me on the fresh evidence to be exactly reversed (though Leonard's work was as charming and engaging), that Westlake's work could incorporate satiric elements without having to employ so "colorful" a cast of characters as Leonard seemed to prefer at all times; Westlake's work could offer more nuanced characterization, but perhaps was less consistently popular than Leonard's and some other writers of similar industry and talent because relatively few of Westlake's characters were sympathetically-drawn in the usual manner...they tended to be coolly-observed and deeply flawed, self-centered or -deluded, corruptible. And without much if any redemption from these flaws by the end of their stories, and sometimes without comeuppance, and frequently without becoming cartoons of evil ("Hello, Clarice"). This not the usual means of entering the bestseller lists.

By the '70s, though, Westlake was actively engaged in film work, with several adaptations of his novels by others already released and his own film work proceeding apace, and sometimes a treatment still being shopped or a script in turnaround would apparently find its way, transmogrified, into prose fiction, as apparently was his "Call Me a Cab," and "Ordo," the shorter of the two fictions in the 1977 book I've read for this week's FFB, Enough (M. Evans, paperbacked as above by Fawcett). "Ordo" the novella (83pp), along with A Travesty the short novel (184pp) collected in this volume, both deal with the periphery of the film industry: A Travesty, more of a conventional if "open" mystery than Westlake usually wrote, involves a self-centered, but not altogether unlikable, film reviewer who accidentally kills one of his girlfriends just before page one, and spends the rest of the novel dancing as fast as he can (and not always in self-preserving ways) to avoid, once cleared in the early going, becoming the obvious suspect again, in part through buddying up with one of the investigating detectives and helping him and his partner with several other murder cases, as a vaguely Holmesian consultant (albeit at least one of the critic's observations in that regard will almost certainly occur to most readers, and should've to any competent detective). In the course of this, critic Thorpe has plenty of time to share acidic observation not only of film culture but of our lives generally, engage in a bit of Dortmundering, and to anticipate such later Westlake sociopaths as those who inhabit The Ax or The Hook or such brilliant screenplays as the original of The Stepfather; the novel might eventually put you in mind of the O. J. Simpson/Brown and Goldberg matter, as well, some years before those ridiculously horrible events, the LAPD's actions as well as Simpson's.

"Ordo" is a somewhat more subdued effort, involving a Greek-named poly-ethnic American sailor, Ordo Tupikos, who learns from his shipmates that the teen bride he knew as a very young groom, their several-months marriage successfully annulled through the eventual intercession of his mother-in-law because the runaway girl was not yet at age of consent (she had lied to Ordo and the authorities), has now become, under another name and looking much different in full adulthood, a major Hollywood actress. Ordo has some difficulty reconciling the latter-day sex-symbol with his doting, insecure wife of sixteen years previously, as he's had no contact with her since the annulment (and shipping out to avoid legal complications) and decides to take leave and see if his ex will meet with him for a reunion. As it turns out, she will, but Ordo, a rather uncomplicated man, finds unsurprisingly that although they are, if anything, more sexually compatible (and, obviously, more experienced) than they were during their marriage, they are not as suited to each other...much is made of how little Ordo has changed, and how much Estelle Anlic has sought to reinvent herself, from bullied and insecure teen who found a refuge from her unpleasant family life with Ordo, only to have that taken from her, and then to make her current life for herself. After an utterly unpleasant reunion with Mother Anlic which takes its toll particularly on his ex-wife, Ordo realizes that their interrupted life together is now a thing of the past, even as the former Estelle realizes that she is still not over the early damage, and her new persona is too fragile for Ordo to be her mate again.

That this was a story aimed at filming is all but proven by the extremely faithful film adaptation, released in 2004, of Ordo, only (since it is a Canadian/French/Portuguese co-production) with the story relocated to France, and Estelle Anlic now a star of Francophone cinema, Ordo a French marine rather than a US sailor (the ethnicity of various characters adjusted to close analogs, accordingly). Ordo in the film (Roschdy Zem) is a bit more dense and impulsive than Ordo in the story, but only very slightly so; Marie-Josée Croze is excellent as the affectionate but brittle and moody Estelle/now "Louise Sandoli" (in the novella, "Dawn Devayne"). The script was adapted by (Ms.) Laurence Ferreira Barbosa and Nathalie Najem (I suspect Westlake provided a treatment or a draft, or could've, along with the novella), the film directed by Barbosa, and the home video release is from the Canadian titan Alliance Atlantis (CSI, etc.)...and yet this remains an even more overlooked film than I realized, with almost no theatrical arthouse play in the US and that dvd apparently out of print and with highish to ridiculous asking prices on Amazon (at least), and only one review on IMDb, where one Brit? "rowmorg" seems ready to go out of his? way to dismiss this film, noting it "suffers from having a phony story contrived from a Yankee pulp novel" (thus making, to paraphrase James Blish, four major errors in twelve words, and only two of those matters of subjectivity), but, then, he? also cleverly notes "There's plenty of Marie Josee Croze in the buff, if you like chilly 30-something blondes, swimming around her millionaire swim-pool and making out with hunky Ordo for old times' sake." Heaven forfend, that a 30-something should be engaging in such behavior, so old and all...and the Canadian Croze, lost to shame, going on to swim nude yet again in Tell No One. All in all, a film that is quiet and engaging, and worth the effort to see it, if not Too strenuous.

As noted, Westlake has been responsible for a number of excellent scripts during his career, most famously the adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Grifters, but his original script for The Stepfather, very deftly filmed and very poorly sequeled and remade with no input from Westlake, was even better yet. Another film, reviewed by Paul Brazill some time back for the weekly Overlooked Films exercise many FFBers also do, Grace of My Heart, the engaging fictionalized biopic not quite about the life and career of Carole King, carries a Thanks credit to Westlake...whether because he provided script assistance or advice or production funds or some combination is not spelled out. But an unexpected grace note to pop up after finally seeing that film in its entirety the other month.

For more of this week's Westlake and other books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Lovely, lovely essay, Todd. It deserves a wider audience.

WV yurall excretions-a warning to me perhaps.

Richard Moore said...

What a fine essay, Todd. I have been a fan and avid reader of Westlake since the early 1960s but I learned a great deal from this piece. I also had the pleasure to meet Westlake several times through the years and he was funny, friendly and just such a nice guy. What a wonderful writer!

Jerry House said...

Great post, Todd. If I remember correctly, "A Travesty" achieved a somewhat separate book publication in one of the Detective Book Clubs three-in-one volumes. When I came acroos it a number of years ago I did not recognize the title and thought I had found an "unknown" Westlake until I realized that it was one half of ENOUGH.

George said...

Once again, you've hit it out of the park, Todd! I only met Donald E. Westlake once after he gave a speech at the Buffalo-Erie County Library. He was gracious and witty. Westlake also agreed to sign books after his talk and I got to exchange a few words with him while he signed CAMPUS DOLL and COMFORT STATAION. A gentleman and a consummate professional.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, folks! Too kind. And I envy you folks the opportunity to meet Westlake, though I might've asked him what the hell he was up to with the first few pages of ANARCHAOS. I did meet Abby Adams/Westlake and Lawrence Block simultaneously while buying the late Westlake's stash of fiction magazines last year, and they were very gracious...Jerry, I think I saw that DBC volume, as well (I don't think I bought a copy, but I might've, if it was inexpensive enough, but if so, it's in a storage box).

Now, if it's true, there might be the One More novel floating somewhere, the longer version of CALL ME A CAB...