The name is Parker …

9675404_soldi-sporchi-richard-stark-alias-donald-westlake-2Who is Parker? Well, he is the elusive protagonist of a series of crime novels by ‘Richard Stark’ (aka Donald Westlake) – we never learn his first name but then Parker is not his real surname anyway. In the second book he even undergoes plastic surgery to change his appearance. On screen you would think it might be easier to builder a stronger sense of identification – however, things haven’t turned out that way in an often bewildering filmography – as Westlake once put it:

“A friend of mine said, ‘So far, Parker’s been played by a white guy, a black guy and a woman. I think the character lacks definition’”

After re-reading the first book in the series, The Hunter, and comparing the various screen versions adapted from it (including two starring Mel Gibson), I thought it might be worth investigating the other titles in the series and their various movie adaptations … Which has certainly been varied! In chronological order, here a mad dash to the finish ans the appearance, after nearly 50 years, of the ‘real’ Parker …

Made-in-USA-Karina

Made in the USA (1965)
Alias: ‘Paula Nelson’
The first on-screen Parker becomes … ‘Paula Nelson’ and is played by Anna Karina no less in Jean-Luc Godard’s typically eccentric Made in USA, admittedly an unauthorised adaptation of The Jugger. It is an ultra typical work of this auteur, reflecting his red white and blue engagement with American cinema from this period (it is dedicated to Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller). For all its quirkiness, it is only occasionally faithful to its source so doesn’t add much to the definition of Parker. So, next up …

Mise à sac (1967)
Alias: ‘Georges Parker’
We get a bit closer now with another French adaptation (well, an Italian co-production) and this time Parker becomes ‘Georges’ in this adaptation of Killtown (aka The Score), one of my favourites in the series. He is played by Michel Constantin and is all by all accounts fairly faithful to the source – annoyingly, an English-language versions seems a but hard to come by just at the moment.

Dickinson-Marvin-Point-Blank

Point Blank (1967)
Alias: ‘Walker’
Now this is more like it – the first American adaptation, though still highly European. Lee Marvin takes the role in the first of three films made by MGM in fairly quick succession. British director John Boorman’s film is a superb neo-noir, a classic of 60s cinema and probably the best-known and best-regarded adaptation of a Westlake book (taken from The Hunter, which I reviewed here). Though the premise is the same as the book – Parker is betrayed by his wife and a confederate and left for dead and he turns the underworld inside out to get revenge and his money back – the plot gets altered a lot towards the end as the story becomes more existential inthe style of New Wave French cinema. A fine if cold movie, wonderful played (especially by the always underrated Angie Dickinson), beautifully shot and brilliantly directed. One for connoisseurs of non-linear 60s cinema.

Jim-Brown-The-Split

The Split (1968)
Alias: ‘McClain’
Jim Brown takes over the mantle for MGM in this otherwise much more straightforward adaptation, this time of the novel The Seventh (because it was not meant to be published eighth in the series …) – this time the film comes courtesy of another British director (Gordon Flemyng). Brown presumably got cast because of the football background to this particular heist but makes for a highly impressive presence though its Gene Hackman as the bent cop who gets the best role here

The Outfit (1973)
Alias: ‘Earl Macklin’
Robert Duvall may very well be the closest the screen has coming to capturing the character from the novel in this very effective adaptation for MGM by writer-director John Flynn of the eponymous novel, with Joe Don Baker particularly good in a supporting role and Karen Black also notable. The Parker character here gets a brother but not for long, so once again ends up on the revenge trail

Duvall-The-Outfit

Slayground (1983).
Alias: ‘Stone’
This is a bit of an oddity – shot in the UK but with American thespian Peter Coyote imported for one of the last books in the classic series. The tone is all wrong and yet in its own context, actually works quite well as a small and efficient thriller, thanks to a decent script by Trevor Preston, who knows a thing or three about how to craft a thriller.

Gibson-Payback

Payback (1999) + Payback – Straight Up: The Director’s Cut (2006)
Alias: ‘Porter’
I’ve discussed this one at length elsewhere but it ended up being released in two very different cuts with radically different third acts. The director’s cut is the one that is much more faithful to the original novel, The Hunter. This has a reverential and self-referential tone, creating an ersatz 70s vibe – not perfect, but a fascinating and dynamic interpretation none the less.

Parker
Based on Flashfire (2000), they finally get the name right in this one but he’s played by Englishman Jason Statham (though he does affect a Yankee accent, none too convincingly unfortunately). This didn’t do well enough to start a new series – but then perhaps Parker’s time has finally passed …

parker-17258-1366x768

The complete list of the Stark / Parker novels is as follows. The original series ended in 1974 with Butcher’s Moon, with the character returning over twenty years later for 8 more up-to-date capers starting in 1997 with Comeback (appropriately enough) :

  1. The Hunter (aka Point Blank) – 1962
  2. The Man With the Getaway Face (aka The Steel Hit) – 1963
  3. The Outfit – 1963
  4. The Mourner – 1963
  5. The Score (aka Killtown) – 1964
  6. The Jugger – 1965
  7. The Seventh (aka The Split) – 1965
  8. The Handle (aka Run Lethal) – 1966Stark-The-Hunter-cover-Cooke
  9. The Rare Coin Score - 1967
  10. The Green Eagle Score – 1967
  11. The Black Ice Score – 1968)
  12. The Sour Lemon Score – 1969
  13. Deadly Edge - 1971
  14. Slayground – 1971
  15. Plunder Squad – 1972
  16. Butcher’s Moon – 1974
  17. Comeback – 1997
  18. Backflash – 1998
  19. Flashfire – 2000
  20. Firebreak – 2001
  21. Breakout – 2002
  22. Nobody Runs Forever – 2004
  23. Ask the Parrot – 2006
  24. Dirty Money – 2008

Due to an error when Westlake switched publishers from Pocket to Fawcett, the seventh book in the series, entitled in point of fact The Seventh, was published eighth but I have corrected this anomaly above. The first chapter of Slayground is shared with another Stark novel The Blackbird, but this follows what happens to Parker’s sometime confederate Alan Grofield when their paths separate. Grofield appeared solo in four Stark books:

  1. The Damsel (1967)
  2. The Dame (1969)
  3. The Blackbird (1970)
  4. Lemons Never Lie (1971)

Jimmy the Kid (1974)
There is an amusing bit of intertextual post-modern jiggery pokery with regards to Child Heist (1974), a book by Stark that exists only in the pages of Westlake’s comic caper Jimmy the Kid, in which the author’s accident prone criminal Dortmunder uses the Stark novel as a guide for a job they are trying to pull off, alternating Parker’s progress in the ‘Stark’ book with that of the hapless gang in Westlake’s. The book has been adapted three times and in all of them Parker has been removed – the three versions are: Come To Rapisco Il Pupo (1976), made in Italy; then came the 1982 version starring the late Gary Coleman; and finally a German version from 1992 with Herbert Knaup as Dortmunder.

Those looking to find out more about Stark and Parker should first of all visit The Violent World of Parker (http://violentworldofparker.com/) but also check The Thrilling Detective site (www.thrillingdetective.com/parker2.html) as well as this amusing link to the opening lines to all the novels (www.miskatonic.org/parker-first-lines.html. You should also visit the detailed and handsomely illustrated Existential Ennui blog (thanks Nick).


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26 Responses to The name is Parker …

  1. Sergio – Thanks as ever for such a thorough look at the ‘Parker’ movies (whatever they’ve been called…). I find it absolutely fascinating that Parker has been conceptualised in so many different ways. Yes of course little is said about the character in the novels, but I think it’s interesting that there hasn’t been a common perception of the character. Of course that does give film-makers a bit more leeway, so plenty of room for experimentation. It does make one think about the implications of having a very well-defined and distinctive character (honestly, I don’t see Sherlock Holmes being played by a woman – he’s too distinctively male) vs having a character who’s a little less rigidly defined.

    • Thanks very much for the great feedback Margot – I think you are right about Holmes, though having him played by a woman might, arguably, be a great new way to explore just what that essential ‘maleness’ really amounts to. Jim Brown probably comes the closest to presenting the towering physical quality while the taciturnity of Marvin is pretty hard to beat in my view. Duvall however is easily the best actor to have played the role, hands down!

  2. le0pard13 says:

    Great work on this subject, Sergio. Parker has been one of the marvelous characters in literature (genre or not). Same could be said of the author.

  3. TracyK says:

    Sergio, what a wonderful resource on the Parker books and movie adaptations. I will be coming back to this in the future.

  4. Colin says:

    Great work there Sergio. If noting else, it serves to show how free cinema tens to be in its attitude to adapting literature, not necessarily always a bad thing it has to be said.
    I’m a little ashamed at this point of how few of those movies I’m familiar with.

    • Cheers mate – Mise à sac seems to be available for purchase as a stream or download but my primary school French really isn’t good enough. In the case of the Stark books, their status as pulpy paperback originals would tend to probably encourage people to treat them with a certain degree of disdain. The one time I saw Westlake in the flesh (so to speak) was in the mid 90s when he was working on an early draft of the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Lies (as it then was) and he was very funny about his various misadventures in trying to adapt Hammett’s Red Harvest in collaboration with Bertolucci (what I would give to have seen that collaboration) for a producer who talked big but was not really going to back their project.

      • Colin says:

        While I do understand it, I think people can sometimes become a little too precious with regard to demanding faithful adaptations of books. They are two different media as far as I’m concerned and I like to think of them complementing each other as much as anything.

        • I only get annoyed when I think adaptations make changes for the wrong reason (as with the cuts to Primary Colours and Spy Whp Came in from the Cold for instance) – but one need only look at Hitchcock to appreciate how good a film can be irrespective of fidelity (Psycho is very faithful, Vertigo really isn’ t – both great movies and enjoyable books)

          • Colin says:

            I only get annoyed when I think adaptations make changes for the wrong reason

            That’s fair enough. I think most changes are made for artistic reasons though – to cut out dull exposition, tighten the pacing, compress an unworkable narrative etc. Yet you hear fans scream bloody murder when any change is made – I really can’t be doing with that kind of thing.

          • Exactly – it’s infuriating when people just want everything to be included, which is clearly impractical (even in such reverential treatments as Jackson’s Tolkien epics for instance) – it is a different medium after all! But the removal of the antisemitic element from Spy and the one night stand with the hero journalist from Primary were acts of timidity that I found disappointing.

  5. Patrick says:

    And it once again seems like I’m the only person in the world who thought Jason Statham’s Parker was actually pretty good. And Sergio, although Statham pretends to be a Texan at one point, the movie gave him a really weird, complicated fake identity at that point which made the unconvincing accent a bit more palatable. Still, I must admit I was happier when Statham dropped the accent.

    • Thanks for all that Patrick – well, it could have been worse, they could have got Van Damme! Just kidding, I know you’re a fan (and in fairness, Timecop was great and JCVD really a bit special). More than anything I’m just fascinated by the many faces the character has had …

  6. Yvette says:

    I like your friend’s comment, Sergio. It seems especially apropos regarding Parker who apparently is not well enough defined in the books. You know Hollywood – everything has to be spelled out chapter and verse and even then they get it all wrong. i.e. Jack Reacher. (Enough said about that one.) It doesn’t really matter what the author intends – unless he is in control of the screenplay it’s all in the hands of the bankers. That’s why when an adaptation works, I am usually astounded. Another great post, kiddo.

    • Thanks very much Yvette – to a degree I think we can project onto Parker much of ourselves as he is so loosely described, a bit like Perry Mason (weird link, I realise) – as for Reacher, actually, despite the casting, I was a bit curious to see the movie – I take it I shouldn’t bother?

  7. Donna says:

    The only incarnation of this story I’ve read/saw is the graphic novel version. I didn’t even know all of this material existed. Thanks for this post.

    • Thanks Donna – actually, the graphic novel is probably the only iteration I am not familiar with – the same artist, Darwyn Cooke, is going to be illustrating hardback reissues of the series (as announced here)

      • TracyK says:

        Sergio, I am not sure that I can afford deluxe hardback versions of these books, but those covers sound cool.

        • Well, there is somethign a bit perverse about taking what were only ever intended to be cheap but slick paperback originals and giving them the de-luxe treatment – but luckily the paperbacks are plentiful and cheap and should definitely be enjoyed that way (at least, at first …)

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