Thursday, April 5, 2007

Taking an Ax to Westlake

Donald Westlake’s books don’t even get published by English or Australian publishers these days. Try and find him even at that fountain of US imports Borders and you come up blank, at least at Bondi Junction. Then again for completists he’s a little hard to keep up with. For starters he has a dizzying array of aliases and nom de plumes including, according to the IMDB, Curt Clark , Tucker Coe, Timothy J. Culver, J. Morgan Cunningham, Samuel Holt and Richard Stark. The last of course has achieved fame as the novelist who provided the basis for, among others, Point Blank and its infamously inept remake, Payback. Tracking down the movies based on his work is thus fraught with difficulty. He’s been a favourite of the French and other Europeans for some time and they change the titles and the names of the characters at will. Even Jean-Luc Godard once got hold of him. Made in USA should apparently have a credit to a Westlake/Richard Stark novel as it source material but in the way of the master, the credits on that movie consist of a couple of perfunctory cards with a few people’s initials contained thereon. One novel Two Much was first made into a film in France, titled Le Jumeau before being done again in the USA. One Jimmy the Kid has been filmed in both the USA and Germany. Westlake has also written scripts, most notably that for The Grifters Stephen Frears classy film of the Jim Thompson novel, for which he received an Oscar nomination. Westlake dedicated his novel Don’t Ask to Robert Redford, George C Scott, Paul le Mat and Christopher Lambert “Dortmunders all”. Dortmunder and his crew are almost the essence of Westlake’s attraction. They are a motley crew of street smart criminals who just try and make a modest dishonest living. They don’t kill people but they do think up ingenious ways to rob them. It’s very New York as well. Each of the gang members brings a special expertise in the city to whatever caper they are involved in. Kelp can get through any door. Stan Murch and his mother can drive you from point A to point B anywhere in New York in the quickest possible time. Dortmunder’s wife is a wondrous picture of the light-fingered but eternally optimistic supermarket employee. To those actors names now can be added Martin Lawrence and Herbert Knaup. The former appeared as the Dortmunder character in the travesty What’s The Worst That Could Happen? and the latter starred in a German version of Jimmy the Kid (the book in which the smart kid is asked a quiz question about naming a number of Australian States and includes the Northern Territory without getting gonged!).

Westlake’s expertise lies in deadpan humour, extravagant plots, bizarre crimes and, on occasion, brutal murder. He has satirised a lot of things including country and western music and rampaging Australian journalists. He is also a bit of a lefty which brings me to Le Couperet/The Ax Costa Gavras’s film of one of Westlake’s most recent novels. The subject, or rather the very finely drawn background, is globalisation and its effect on highly educated people in first world countries who lose their jobs to rationalisation, relocation, competition or call it whatever manifestation of maximising shareholder value you care to name. Westlake has invented a serial killer who takes to murder solely for the purpose of getting a job in a time when fifty year old men are being thrown on the scrap heap of the modern post-industrial state. He located his story in the slowly dying manufacturing areas of the US North East. Costa-Gavras has transposed it to the Franco-Belgian border area without missing a beat. The adaptation is so precisely close to Westlake’s that fans might begin to worry about what bits might be left out. Almost nothing. It is, in my view, the best Westlake adaptation put on the screen and makes all those puny attempts to do Dortmunder and others rather weak by comparison. (I make the point that it’s a Westlake adaptation, not a Richard Stark.) Gavras has captured the icy amorality of it all.
What audiences who don’t have any advantage of knowing the sly tricks Westlake gets up to made of it I don’t know. How much of the naturalist look of the film suggests to audiences that this is to be taken for real is not something I can answer. I should mention that the only divergence from Westlake’s narrative seems to be the ending. In my memory Westlake got his man off scot free. Gavras seems to have opted for a bit of enigma and for the life of me I cant work out what’s happening or why. Maybe the director’s well-known conscience got to him and suggested that his hero might have gone too far and we should leave a question mark as to whether he’s been rumbled. Rene Clement did the same thing long ago when he had Ripley caught at the end of Plein Soleil. Patricia Highsmith had let him off in her novel. But all in all, Le Couperet is immensely enjoyable and I cant ask for more than that from a Westlake source. The aforementioned deadpan humour, extravagance, and delight in the mechanics of murder have thus far eluded most of those who have attempted to put his work on the screen. One final curious note, the Dardenne Brothers, hard-edged chroniclers of the Belgian downtrodden, oppressed and petty criminal classes, have a credit among those listed as producers of the film.

1 comment:

whobenefits said...

One of few places I found to celebrate this film; and a nice introduction to the Westlake - which book satirises australian journos?