Friday, July 31, 2009

The Hunter and Point Blank

Donald E. Westlake was an extremely prolific writer; he wrote something like eighty-eight books, not counting juvenilia and "paperback original trash" like Campus Doll. There have been many writers more proficient than Westlake - Georges Simenon, for example, wrote two hundred books and had time to sleep with Josephine Baker (amongst dozens of other women). What's notable about Westlake is that, like Simenon, he was actually a very good writer. Though he could be very funny, many Westlake fans say his best books are the Parker novels, which he wrote under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Parker is a criminal, thief, murderer, and possibly sociopath. He's very good at what he does, but what he does is rarely good. In The Hunter, the first Parker book, our protagonist is out for revenge against his wife and her lover, who stole his (ill-gotten) money and left him for dead in a burning house. Parker, despite killing one cop, an innocent woman, and a few mob types, somehow manages to get his revenge and get away. He never gets caught for long, and since Westlake died on the last day of last year, he'll never stay caught.

The Hunter has been in the news again lately. The University of Chicago Press has begun to reissue the Parker novels; they're up to book nine (The Rare Coin Score) as I write. Slightly more high-profile, acclaimed comics writer and illustrator Darwyn Cooke has released a graphic adaptation of The Hunter; he plans to adapt three more Parker stories. I have not read Cooke's Hunter yet - it came out jut a few days back - but it is apparently fantastic. A longish preview (twenty pages) is available online. Cooke is a very talented man, and the Parker novels offer so much noirish atmosphere and violence that I can't imagine Cooke's adaptation being anything short of great. Still, The Hunter graphic novel is hardly the first adaptation of the original Parker novel, which has been filmed twice, once with Lee Marvin as Point Blank and once with Mel Gibson as Payback. The latter film shows up on cable all the time, but it's the first movie I want to talk about here. It's a minor masterpiece of crime cinema.

Aside from introducing a love interest and adding an ambiguous ending, Point Blank follows The Hunter's plot fairly closely, yet the film and the book have entirely different styles. The New York of The Hunter could be the city in any decade from the forties to the early sixties (when the book was written). The film relocates the action to Los Angeles and has a very sixties look, with psychedelic night clubs, kitschy billboards, and all the era's signature couture. And where The Hunter is fast-paced, Point Blank often seems meditative - there are lots of very short flashbacks in the film, such that one gunshot will be followed by a shot of an earlier gunshot or one woman lying in bed will lead to another (this time dead) woman lying in bed. There are also a few touches of surrealism, especially near the beginning of the film. The DVD case mentions the movie's "New Wave" technique, but for all its technical finesse and directorial oddities, Point Blank doesn't share the New Wave interest in subverting its genre. Point Blank, for all its affectations, remains a crime film, not a parody of one. The movie's title might sound a trifle cliche and generic, but the finale of the film fully justifies the title. What seems lazy at the beginning of the movie seems brilliant at the end.

Lee Marvin is perfect as Parker, though he's actually called Walker in the film, as Westlake would only let a filmmaker use the Parker name if they planned to make a series. Marvin doesn't talk much, though his silence can - and does - speak volumes. Walker is not a good person by any stretch of the imagination, but the film cuts some of his more brutal crimes, most notably the murder of a policeman and the inadvertent killing of a sickly hostage. And while the book has a few morbidly funny moments, Point Blank thrives on understated black humor - Walker's foes tend to die in embarrassing ways, not that our (anti)hero ever laughs. He's too much of a professional to do that, the bastard.

I mentioned Point Blank's surrealism earlier; I think it's 0ne of the films strongest points. In an early scene, Walker has a fistfight behind the scenes at a jazz club. There's a singer, but the song he sings doesn't have much in the way of lyrics. In fact, it's almost all screams. In another scene, Walker throws several bottles of perfumes, oils, and soaps into a bathtub. The camera lingers on the shattered glass and the mixing red and green fluids. Shortly thereafter, Walker leaves the room and enters a living room from which all the furniture (which we have seen earlier) has vanished. Walker, the hard man, sits down in the corner of the room and holds his head. It's a small moment that says a great deal about our protagonist's mental state - Whether or not the furniture has really vanished from the room, Walker is desolated by (small spoiler) the death of his wife, who lived in the apartment. He is a bad man and a cold one, but he's still (mostly) human.

My friends know I generally prefer books to films, but in the case of Parker, I think the movie is better than the book. The book may be more hardboiled and brutal, but it (intentionally) lacks the style and humor of Point Blank. If you can, read the book, then watch the movie. You'll get two very different, if complementary, takes on the same story. The Hunter is short and action-packed; it will take you about two hours to read it - you could easily read the book and watch the film in the same day. I'm not sure I would recommend that particular course of action, but if you have any interest in stories of crime, you should really experience both Point Blank and The Hunter. Hell, if you find you really like Parker, you could even watch the Mel Gibson version. It has its moments.

And now I discuss the most important difference between Point Blank and The Hunter. Major spoilers ahead.

The Hunter ends with Parker escaping from the police and the mob and New York; the book ends with Parker taking part in a new heist. Point Blank ends where it began, on Alcatraz Island, site of Walker's betrayal by his wife. Everything has come full circle; Walker has returned with a coerced and threatened mob leader, who guides Walker to the money he is owed. There's some violence, but Walker escapes. The camera then pans up from Alcatraz and in the distance we see... Alcatraz. The implication is (as Walker's girlfriend puts it after an especially cold act) "You really did die on Alcatraz!" If the entire movie is just Walker's wish-fulfillment dream of revenge, all those surrealistic touches and flashbacks make sense: we are watching the hallucinations of a dying man. We no longer have to suspend our disbelief that Walker, shot multiple times, could swim away from Alcatraz. It's a pretty neat ending, and one that was probably more original in 1967.

On the other hand, there are quite a few problems with this ending. For one thing, it rather rules out a sequel. This is a shame, as Marvin does a wonderful job with his character, and we'd like to see further adventures. Furthermore, there are several parts in the movie where the point of view doesn't belong to Parker. It already stretches belief that Walker would have such a detailed and coherent dream; belief breaks when you begin to consider all the scenes where Walker is not present. If I were dying on Alcatraz, I don't think I would dream of long meetings between mobsters. The ending of Point Blank, in short, is really cool until you begin to think about it. It's a shame the film stumbles at the end, because most of it is so good.

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