Donald Westlake in May 2001. (Louis Lanzano / For The Times )
Donald E. Westlake's greatest literary creation, Parker, was first played on-screen by Lee Marvin in "Point Blank" (1967). Marvin's collaboration with first-time feature director John Boorman was wonderfully fertile, giving birth to some indelible cinematic moments. Boorman encouraged Marvin to remain so silent, to suppress his intentions so deeply, that costar Angie Dickinson became totally frustrated in their scenes. Finally, Boorman encouraged Dickinson to unleash her anger by physically attacking Marvin.
The resulting scene is legendary: Dickinson (as the criminal's sister-in-law) slaps Marvin's face over and over, but Marvin won't respond. She then pounds on his chest until all her energy gives out. Finally, an exhausted Dickinson collapses on the floor. The moment is stunningly real and surprisingly sexy. Without a word, Marvin maintains total control, embodying the hard-boiled intensity that Westlake chiseled into the title character of his 24 Parker novels (all published under his pseudonym, Richard Stark — more on that later).
FOR THE RECORD:
Donald E. Westlake: An article in the Jan. 20 Calendar section about bringing author Donald E. Westlake's character Parker to the big screen said that Westlake had been voted Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and that it was an award given to only three writers. It should have said that Westlake was one of the few writers to have won Edgar awards in three different categories. The Grand Master honor itself has been given to more than 50 people. —
Marvin's performance — perhaps the best of his career — set a high standard for the many future Parkers on-screen: Robert Duvall ("The Outfit"), Jim Brown ("The Split"), Peter Coyote ("Slayground"), Mel Gibson ("Payback") and even a woman, Anna Karina ("Made in the USA").
None were called Parker.
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Likewise, many filmmakers in addition to Boorman and Godard have been seduced by Westlake's cinematic style: Peter Yates, Gower Champion, John Flynn, Brian Helgaland, Steven Soderbergh and Costa-Gavras to name just a few. Twenty of his more than 100 novels have been adapted for the big and small screens.
This week, my film "Parker" joins that long line of Westlake adaptations, the first time any film has been allowed to use this famous literary character's name. When I read John McLaughlin's screenplay adaptation of Westlake/Stark's "Flashfire," I was mightily impressed. Regardless of how "cinematic" a novel may be, it needs to be artfully adapted to the screen, and happily, John had been inspired by Westlake's style, not slavishly bound to it.
His creative additions stirred my interest, but there still remained a thorny problem: Who could play the lead role? There are many wonderfully talented actors, but not many are able to embody Parker's unique, quiet, cunning persona.
Fortuitously, I heard that Jason Statham had read the script and had expressed guarded interest. Of course, Jason is English, while Parker is American, but that didn't bother me. I was looking for an actor who naturally possessed many of the indelible qualities that Westlake had imbued into his hard-boiled criminal protagonist. I had seen Jason's early work in "Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels," and I'd also heard that he'd hustled card games on the streets of London, so he was no stranger to society's underbelly. Finally, I knew that he had been an Olympic diver, which told me volumes. Divers are notorious perfectionists.
When I met with Jason, I discovered he is more than just a "hard man." Like his literary counterpart, he possesses a subtle wit that can be disarming. Most importantly, Jason carries himself in life with the same quiet authority that Westlake wrote into the Parker character. He's a real bloke.
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Master in the making
So having made a commitment to begin a new Parker adaptation, I started thinking seriously about Westlake's brilliant but underappreciated literary character. To start with, the Mystery Writers of America' voted him their highest honor: Grand Master, awarded to only three writers.
Like any "Master," his style didn't spring from the cradle; it evolved from hard work and experimentation. Raised in Albany, N.Y, he started writing at 11 and continued to struggle to find his voice while attending three universities (he never graduated) and a stint in the Air Force. His first professional job was working for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. Meredith championed pulp fiction; Westlake decided to focus on crime fiction and made it his life's work.