Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2013 January 04 • Friday

The other day I went to the movies and saw a preview for a new movie based on Parker, the thief at the center of a number of books written by Donald Westlake using the pseudonym Richard Stark.

The first series of these books, written in the 1960s and early '70s, is really great. After a gap of more than twenty years, Westlake returned to the Stark name and the Parker character in the late '90s, with results that I found to be disappointing. This second series presented a Parker who didn't think anything of putting on a costume and playing a part, who made dumb mistakes and who even had to be rescued at least once. These are characteristics more fitting to Parker's occasional accomplice Grofield, himself the star of a handful of Richard Stark novels.

One example of the problem with the later group of books is that Stark/Westlake at one point tells us that Parker always kept a quarter in his pocket in case he had to make a phone call. This is almost breathtakingly unimpressive. The Parker I remembered would have had a fake or stolen but clean calling card so he could call anywhere in the world from any phone—and he would have had the card number memorized so he didn't need the actual card. (And of course many pay phones cost more than a quarter, especially outside of New York.)

One Parker film adaptation, Godard's Made in USA, was never shown in the United States in Westlake's lifetime, as far as I know. As I recall, Westlake owned the North American distribution rights (in exchange for their adapting his book without having the rights to do so) and, apparently, thought little enough of the movie that he didn't allow it to be screened. It showed up at New York's Film Forum shockingly soon after Westlake's death (about a week!) and is now available on DVD from Criterion. Had Westlake changed his mind about this before he passed away?

It's not important to me. I thought Made in USA was a pretty bad movie, almost unwatchable. I like a lot of Godard but found that one to be something of an endurance test.

But one thing that Made in USA has in common with all other film adaptations of Richard Stark books is that Parker isn't called Parker. This was something Westlake insisted on. I thnk he knew that a movie Parker wouldn't be the real Parker, who would exist only in the books. You could call him anything you want in the movies except Parker. Lee Marvin did him as Walker, Mel Gibson as Porter and so on.

Guess what his name is in the new movie?

Westlake must be rolling in his grave.

Jason Statham isn't a bad choice for Parker. He's not big enough but most actors haven't been. (Jim Brown was the right size but his performance didn't fit the character.) The preview shows him making wisecracks and doing a bunch of goofy things that Parker would never do—except, perhaps, in the second series of Stark/Parker novels—but it looks like it might just possibly be an entertaining movie—if it weren't for the matter of the character's name. This is not Parker. They should have called him something else.