SLAYGROUND (1971) by Richard Stark

Stark_Slayground_coronetOne of the very last of the original run of novels featuring ultra-hardboiled, single moniker criminal Parker, it begins with a getaway that goes awry. He and his occasional colleague, Grofield, soon part company. To find out what happens to Grofield you need to read another book, The Blackbird, which shares the opening chapter with this one in fact. But here’s what happens to Parker when he reaches Fun Land, an out of season amusement park with the mob and corrupt cops on his heels …

I submit this book/movie review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Movie meme over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

“Somewhere in Fun Island he had to find other weapons, other ways to defend himself and disable them”

As Charles Ardai points out in his typically knowledgeable and authoritative preface to the University Of Chicago Press reprint from 2010, the Parker character had been slightly softened of late by Stark (aka Donald Westlake) in the preceding ‘Score’ quartet of books by the introduction of regular girlfriend Claire Carroll, the couple setting up a permanent home in New Jersey. Stark now sought to then bring the character right back on track with a quartet of novels (Deadly Edge, Slayground, Plunder Squad and Butcher’s Moon) that closed out the initial run of the series and returned it to tough, dark, no frills, no-nonsense sensibility. Indeed, the premise of Slayground couldn’t be more basic: Parker is literally boxed in and we spend the novel following what he has to do to get out and get away from those who want to kill him and steal his loot.

“He knew it was all up, he knew he was going to die in here and his thought was, What a waste.

The book is divided into four parts (like any square). In the first we follow Parker’s failed getaway after knocking off an armored car. The driver is a poor one and crashes almost as soon as they take off. Parker leaves him and Grofield in the wreckage and takes the $73,000 with him but there is only one place he can hide – the nearby amusement part, which is closed for the winter. He is seen going in there by two cops speaking to another pair of men. As he trapes though the snow and looks the place over, Parker discovers it is a perfect square and inside are a series of rides and enclosures themes after pirates adventures, old New York, Hawaii, the future, etc  (imagine a minor-league Disneyland and you’re there). Why didn’t the cops come straight after him – what were they doing with the other men? Ultimately Parker decides he will have to stick it out and wait for them.

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For part two we switch to the POV of the two cops, who were collecting a payoff from a pair of mobsters. The cops are sent off to investigate the robbery but make plans to return – and with the mobsters they plan to flush Parker out and take the money. At the end of this section the cops, and the mobsters (who have called in reinforcements), head in and Parker is the first to draw blood. The next section details the game of cat and mouse as Parker leads them through the various traps he set up while they waited outside to avoid being seen. Part four sees the stakes raised much higher as another dozen men are brought in when Lonzini, the head of the mob, takes over the hunt for Parker after the bodies start to mount up. Stark does a really expert job of taking such a simple premise and running with it to produce an exciting and engaging thriller, managing to make the most of the self-imposed limitations of the narrative. When the film rights were snapped up however, several changes were deemed necessary …

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I previously profiled Parker’s slight ‘sui generis’ series of appearances on the silver screen and while Godard’s Made in USA (1965) probably trumps them all by casting Anna Karine in the role of Parker (!), the second oddest may very well be the 1983 version of Slayground, which was financed by British company EMI and was, as a result, almost entirely filmed in England with a local cast. However, the lean and lupine New York thespian Peter Coyote plays Parker (here re-named ‘Stone’) and is pretty good casting, if maybe lacking that intensity that Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Robert Duvall and Mel Gibson so memorably brought to the role. Unlike the Mike Hammer film The Girl Hunters (1963), in which the lead was played by none other than the character’s creator, Mickey Spillane, the film may have been largely shot in the UK but doesn’t pretend to be set entirely in the US.

“This guy kills people and enjoys it. I’m just a thief. What can I do?”

The very experienced screenwriter Trevor Preston, a veteran of such British cop shows as The Sweeney, forced a formidable challenge in adapting the novel to the screen. Much that makes the book so appealing – its stripped down bareness, simple setup and small cast of characters – works well as a variant in a long-established series, but in truth barely has enough plot for an hour of TV. For a feature things would have to be expanded – plus, most of the filming would have to be relocated to the UK for financing reasons, necessitating many additional changes.

Stone (no first name – natch) is a softer, nicer character than Parker, a thief but not a killer, who says he ‘died inside’ when he learned that a girl died in the car crash due to their driver’s negligence. He even has a wife (a new character, Joni, not cased on Claire). And now it’s not about getting the mob wanting his money but rather the fact that in the getaway the crew crashed into a car and killed the passengers, which unfortunately included the young daughter of Danard (played by Michael Ryan but voiced by Shame Rimmer), a shady plutocrat who hires a hitman in a wide-brimmed hat to hunt down the men who killed his daughter. We now get several set-pieces, shot in typically flashy 1980s fashion with tons of long lenses and reflected light to give that soft look associated with TV adverts, in which Stone’s friends and associates get knocked off by a hitman who seems to like nothing better than the sound of his own voice. By doing all of this Preston can expand the opening heist section so that it takes up almost half of the film and personalises the conflict. The hitman even hurls a grenade at Stone and shoots him in the back. This convinces our anti-hero to send his wife off to Mexico while he heads off to England and his old friend Terry (Mel Smith doing well in a non comedic role) to draw off the heat.

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Terry has faked his own death and now runs an amusement park in Blackpool, living with Madge (the amazing Billie Whitelaw, an actress so versatile that she could have been brilliant as Parker – really). But Terry has trouble with a local villain and Stone decides to do one more job to finance his new life with his wife and finally get away from the hitman. But the latter arrives, kidnaps Terry and this sets up the showdown in the amusement park

“I’m the shadow man, Mr Stone. I am all around you”

The English section, until the climax, is all the creation of Preston and has no basis in the Stark novel – it works perfectly well in context, though it’s a shame Stone isn’t more sympathetic because with so many people getting killed in the wake of his escapades, it’s hard to have any sympathy for him – plus, he just isn’t very compelling and it’s hard to feel that his survival at the expense much nicer ancillary characters is particularly worth your time. One senses that Preston would much rather just be making a movie about Terry and Madge in Blackpool. Throughout Preston uses elements from the novel, including some dialogue and many character names but often re-assigns them – thus Joe Sheer, dead and only mentioned in passing in the book, becomes Stone’s current partner-in-crime; Laufman, instead of being the getaway driver who screws up, is now the original driver, who dies in a random killing when he picks up a hitchhiker (and which, oddly, leads nowhere in the film); and Lonzini, instead of being the big boss, is now Stone’s new driver. So, a game of two halves – both work well though they don’t gel especially well together.

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DVD Availability: Available in a very nice and clean edition from Network DVD in the UK.

Director: Terry Bedford
Producer: John Dark
Screenplay: Trevor Preston
Cinematography: Stephen Smith, Herb Wagreich (US unit only)
Art Direction: Keith Wilson
Music: Colin Towns
Cast: Peter Coyote, Mel Smith, Billie Whitelaw, Kelli Maroney, Philip Sayer, Bill Luhrs, Marie Masters, Ned Eisenberg, Stephen Yardley

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘made into a movie’ category:

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***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Blackpool, Donald Westlake, Film Noir, New York, Parker, Richard Stark and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to SLAYGROUND (1971) by Richard Stark

  1. Colin says:

    Never seen the movie and didn’t realize it was adapted from Westlake either – but the Parker character has been toyed around with so much on film that it’s not entirely surprising, I suppose.

    • I actually did enjoy the movie fpr its very 80s glossy look and feel (the DVD offers a terrific transfer by the way) – the book is of course very gritty and 70s- The two don’t gel, which is a shame, but they both have merit. The book inspired Stephen King’s Joyland, which he dedicated to Westlake, and which I’ll be reviewing next month

      • Colin says:

        Joyland immediately popped into my head when I started reading your piece. I’ve not read it but I was browsing a copy in a bookstore quite recently.

        • I hope to have the review up in early May – I think it is one of his better books. King is a certainly a Stark / Westlake fan – his THE DARK HALF was directly inspired by his use of the nome de plume

          • Colin says:

            I’m interested to hear your opinion of it. Generally, I’m not into King’s stories but I was curious due to its being published as part of the Hard Case line.

          • Certainly better than his first book for them, THE COLORADO KID, which to me was mostly interesting as a stylistic exercise.

          • Todd Mason says:

            King by me the master of underachievement and lack of follow-through (in self-editing at very least). And as such, clearly my much wealthier literary model.

          • I have friends who adore his work and others who would never come near him – I am somewhere in between I think I’ve read about 10 of his and liked some a lot (parts of Diff’rent Seasons and 4 After Midnight), really like Mysery, liked (uncut version) of The Stand until the ending and in my youth read Danse Macabre many, many times. I know what you mean – most are too long and the endings are usually the bits that satisfy the least. But …

      • jenio says:

        The movie is by no means “glossy” — the production values were more reminiscent of a stripped-down late 70s thriller than a Mid-80s movie. The only exception being the music. Other than that, point well taken…

  2. That is an interesting and unusual film approach to adapting the book, Sergio. And how especially unusual the differences between the two halves of the film. Still. I’m glad you found aspects to like in it.

    • Thanks Margot – a peculiar take, without doubt, and Parker devotees will be disappointed at the lack of fidelity, but interesting noine the less. And the book is wonderfully stripped down to essentials

  3. Excellent review Sergio — I’m well familiar with the novel but was unaware that there was a film version.

  4. tracybham says:

    I want to read at least some of the Parker books. I did not realize there were so many. I would at least read the first one first, but where to go after that? Do you have favorites?

  5. Patti Abbott says:

    I wonder if many characters are softened for the screen? Have never seen this or even knew about it. Read the book though. Westlake is a true master.

  6. Todd Mason says:

    The many faces of Parker…no one’s played him twice at this point, have they? Anna Karina the first, no less…

  7. Sergio, I’m out of the loop here, I’m afraid. I haven’t read Westlake/Stark yet but I recently bought a couple of novels by DEW one of which I’ll be reading as soon as I can. I do remember seeing PAYBACK with Mel Gibson in it. I looked up the Gibson film and his character is called Porter and not Parker. I’ll have to check out the ones with the fine cast of Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, and Robert Duvall.

    • I hope you enjoy the Westlake books. He retained the Parker name when the film rights were bought, so they were always changed when adapted (Walker, Porter etc). It was only after Westlake died that the name got used in, appropriately enough, Parker, starring Jason Statham (which I posted about here)

  8. Pingback: JOYLAND by Stephen King | Tipping My Fedora

  9. Pingback: Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) – Slayground (1971) | ishouldbereading

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