Friday, August 7, 2015

FFB redux: ENOUGH by Donald Westlake (Evans, 1977)...and some Westlake films, etc.

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.

Overlooked Films and A/V: CRACKERS (1984) and...

Crackers (1984) is a decidedly odd film, less for its intrinsic content, a not completely humorous heist film, as for its obvious relation to the fiction of the late Donald Westlake, particularly the Dortmunder stories, the relatively lighthearted series Westlake spun off from the relentlessly grim Parker series, when a Parker plot he was developing kept wanting to be written about reasonably sensible, professional crooks who kept being foiled by circumstance, rather than ruthlessly and efficiently succeeding (as Parker does in his stories). The novel that introduced Dortmunder and his crew, The Hot Rock, was famously filmed featuring Robert Redford as Dortmunder.

Crackers, written by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin and directed by the hardly obscure Louis Malle, features the even less obscure Donald Sutherland as the Dortmunder-like character who can't seem to catch a break, named, cheekily, "Westlake." The crew of safecrackers and supporting staff is masterminded by "Westlake," who has a Dortmunderesquely complicated plan to steal a thug's safe with some inside help. Nothing goes completely right.

The film has a pretty impressive cast, many of whom had and/or would again work with Malle, such as Sean Penn (not good, but not the hambone he has since become), Jack Warren, Wallace Shawn, and Christine Baranski, and introduced Tasia Valenza, who has mostly done animation voice-actor work in the last couple of decades (though a lot of it), and was an early credit for Trinidad Silva, who would make more of name for himself with his recurring role on Hill Street Blues. As a semi-comedic heist film, it almost succeeds, with a lot of failed jokes mixed in with decent ones, and some dramatic gambits which simply don't pay off (such as the young woman who wants to become a prostitute persuaded not to by the goodnatured pimp, koff, who has grown fond of her).

But what's strange is just how much this film echoes an already-established literary and to some extent cinematic franchise, with a wink and a nod and no claims of parody, just attempts at pastiche. As one writer put it, having heard the description of the film, "sounds actionable."

This film is not currently available on dvd, and I don't think it was ever issued on disc, though a VHS release some time back was available. Amazon and perhaps others will stream it for you...Hulu was offering it for free at one time, but no longer. I caught it, rather randomly, on a pay movie channel some months ago.


Graham Powell said...

I believe "Ordo" was inspired by Marilyn Monroe's real first marriage, to a sailor, although I don't believe they ever got back together again, even for a weekend. A good story, though as I recall the ending was rather anticlimactic.

Yvette said...

Did you notice how the lead actor in ORDO looks like Tom Cruise? At first I thought it was Cruise, except taller. :) I've never read any Westlake, Todd - I group him with a bunch of writers who everyone seems to like but whose work has never attracted me. Ed McBain and Lawrence Block are two others. I would have added Lawrence Sanders except that almost by accident I did read a few of his Archie McNally books many years ago and liked them.

Still, I enjoyed reading your review even if I had to enlarge my page because your type is SO tiny.

Todd Mason said...

Quite likely, Graham--though I'd say the ending is also pretty true to both life and art, if not to melodrama.

Yvette--I had not noted that so much...this actor has somewhat more chin, but I must admit I wasn't studying him too closely.. I don't like McBain/Hunter's work much, either--there's been something obviously stupid about literally everything I've read of his fiction, though I agree with his preference, in a PARIS REVIEW "Como Conversation" piece, for Hammett over Chandler. Westlake can be snide, and Block will infrequently go for an easy resolution in his minor work, but I can generally recommend their work to you along with the rest of the throng...

I've been meaning to upgrade some typefaces around here...thanks for letting me know.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Very cool! Once got to suit in on a panel (circa 1996) when Westlake was discussing his work on the upcoming Bond movie, TOMORROW NEVER DIES. I have no idea how much of his work survived (Nick Meyer and Dan Petrie Jr also worked on it, also without credit) but I love his stuff, though the print titles you mention here are one I have not read - as i say, cool, new stuff to look forward to - thanks Todd.

Elgin Bleecker said...

Comic caper films can fall flat. Despite its cast, the movie THE HOT ROCK left me cold. Few of these flicks can measure up to their Grandpappy, TOPKAPI … I will BOLO Ordo, story & film. Thanks.