Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Westlake the wonderful

I've just taken a busman's holiday with two classics of American crime writing. One has some tantalizing parallels with a politically edged European author I've discussed here, and I may expound further in a future post. The other offers no such connection, but it's so good that I have to share its opening:
"I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent. That’s always been my problem, eloquence, though some might claim my problem was something else again. But life’s a gamble, is what I say, and not all the eloquent people in this world are in Congress."
The narrator is a New York cabbie and man, can't you just hear him talking?

That's the beginning of Donald Westlake's Somebody Owes Me Money, and you can read the rest of its first chapter on Hard Case Crime's Web site.

The passage exemplifies a definition I once read of the difference between a comic and a comedian. A comic, a schlepper who stands up and mugs for laughs, says funny things, but a comedian, that acute observer of humanity, says things funny. Westlake was a comedian.

What other crime wrters say things funny rather than just saying funny things?

(Here are some of my posts upon Westlake's death in 2008.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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56 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Funny, I was just thinking about Westlake and his multiple psuedonyms. Despite that, I still haven't gotten around to reading any of them.

I don't quite agree with that definition of the difference between the comic and the comedian, though. There are muggers and there are those who get up on stage and describe the world the way they see it. I'd say Gracie Allen was in the latter category, for example.

August 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

First of all, I confess that part of that definition was my own exegesis, the bits about the muggers and the acute observers of humanity, though they reflect the original commentator's intent, I think, which was to convey the superiority of comedians to mere comics (I knew what he was getting at, even though comedians and comics will be synonymous to many people).

One might argue that George Carlin, too, had moments when he transcended comicdom and attained comedianhood.

As always, Westlake wrote much worth reading. One the obituaries I read praised his intelligence, which did my heart good. He deserved it, and I have often remarked on his acute observation about all sorts of subjects.

August 05, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Its also the difference between someone who takes comedy seriously and someone who doesnt. Making people laugh is a high art.

August 05, 2010  
Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

I am a big Westlake fan as well. The first CH of SOMEBODY OWES ME MONEY was awesome, and I want to to read the rest.

August 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, that seems like another way of complimenting comedians' intelligence. Westlake had brains. Alfred Hitchcock had a sharp intelligence. Wodehouse was a keen social analyst.

But even comedians have brain cramps. Remember Woody Allen's disparaging remarks about comedy?

August 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sean, among other things, Hard Case deserves a high five for putting "Somoebody Owes Me Money" back in print. I can't think of opening lines I like better this side of James Thurber and Jane Austen.

August 05, 2010  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Just read (listened to) my first Dortmunder book and it was hilarious. Be back for more. I love crime fiction that manages to be funny in a completely off the wall way like the Hoke Mosley novels.

August 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Which book did you listen to? And who read it?

August 05, 2010  
Blogger michael said...

"What other crime writers say things funny..."

Ross Thomas, Elmore Leonard, Norbert Davis, Craig Rice, Vince Kohler, Gregory Mcdonald, Robert B. Parker, Jasper Fforde, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Harlan Halsey, to name just a few.

August 05, 2010  
Blogger Dorie said...

Another writer, who was a friend of Donald Westlake, and is still alive wrote a series called The Bernie Rhodenbarr series which to my mind was very Westlake-ish. One of the books in the series is absolutely as funny as Westlake's Dortmunder series. The author is Lawrence Block, and the book is The Burglar in the Library.
I am a big fan of Donald Westlake going back close to 40 years. He wrote many non-series books which also display that same brilliant sense of humor, and wonderful use of dialogue.

August 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, thanks for adding Vince Kohler and Harlan Halsey to my list. I've read a least a bit of the other authors you named, and Jasper Fforde probably comes closest to what struck me about the Westlake passage -- funny less for what is said than how it is said. Of course, his subject matter means every word in every book is a potential joke. And Taibo is right up there in the deadpan-wit-in-grim-circumstances department.

August 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorie, Somebody Owes Me Money is probably my favorite of the non-series Westlake novels I've read. I also liked Fugitive Pigeon; Baby, Would I Lie?; and Cops and Robbers.

I lked the Bernie Rhodenbarr short stories better than I did the one novel that I tried. I don't remember which it was, but I think I found too insistently jokey. Maybe I'll seek out The Burglar in the Library.

August 05, 2010  
Anonymous Linda said...

Mixing media, I submit Alfred Hitchcock for his sense of humor, especially in Foreign Correspondent. Robert Benchley had a part in that.

August 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linda, Alfred Hitchcock is always welcome here. In fact, I cited him a few comments above this.

But he didn't need Benchley. Think of "Rear Window" -- a comedy in the Shakesperian sense, with the right man and the right woman pairing off in the end, an element absent from the Cornell Woolrich story on which the movie is based. If you ever get the chance to see a long trailer Hitchcock did for "Psycho," you'll see what a gifted standup comedian he was.

I've seen "Foreigh Correspondent," but I remember the Dutch scenes and Joel McCrea's frenzied airplane speech more than I do any humor. But there was always humor in Hitchcock, except maybe in a ew of the later movies.

August 05, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

They also always seem to have an unfortunate self loathing. Woody Allen's career error, it seems to me, was dismissing comedy as a low genre and trying to make serious pictures. Its a few years since I read Westlake but I remember laughing out loud at his observations. The same with Wodehouse.

I understand what you're saying about Rear Window and it's very close to being a perfect film save for the fact that every time Grace Kelly is in close up in that dress or speaking in that ridiculous rolled elocution accent I find that I am head over heels in love with her and unable to concentrate on the wonderful dialogue. The scenes with Jimmy Stewart and the masseusse work better for me.

August 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Funny thing is that Woody Allen's declaration about comedy did not alter his acting a whit.

You must have loved the most recent rerelease but one of "Rear Window," which restored the Grace Kelly-Jimmy Stewart kiss in screen-filling, slow-motion glory.

I like the Kelly character unpacking her overnight bag as she recites her name:

"Lisa (remove item) Carol (remove) Fremont (remove)."

The masseuse, another Hitchcock addition. Just tell me that man was not a comedian.

August 05, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, I think you might be experiencing the same "problem" Adrian has with Grace Kelly, i.e. her disorienting impact on the male observer. She recites the three parts of her name at the beginning of the film while turning on 3 lamps in Stewart's apartment. The sexy scene where she removes her negligee, nightgown, and slippers from her product-placement Mark Cross overnight case--proving to Stewart that she, too, can live out of one bag--takes place later in the film.

August 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're right, though in my case the disorientation may simply be temporal: It has been a few years (though not many) since I've seen "Rear Window."

Hey, I almost caught you saying the disorienting effect of the male gaze. Gender studies! Gender studies!

August 05, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Well, I used "disorienting impact" as a sort of euphemism for the well-known hormone-stimulating, blood-stirring, endorphin-releasing power that blondes such as Kelly have induced in the male of the species. Witness Clark Gable in "Mogambo." That he briefly strays from the brave, beautiful, voluptuous, and lusty Ava Gardner for a bit of illicit nookie with the tepid, vaporish, slightly hysterical Grace Kelly is nearly beyond comprehension. I guess she brought out the manly protector element in Gable. Gardner could take care of herself just fine.

Re "The masseuse, another Hitchcock addition. Just tell me that man was not a comedian." You're not making fun of Thelma Ritter, the comic relief masseuse in RW, are you?

And if you ever catch me using the word "gaze" you have my permission to smack me, figuratively speaking.

August 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, ma'am, I've never smacked a dame, and I don't aim to start now.

I'm not making fun of Thelma Ritter, I'm paying tribute to Hitchcock's comic addition of her character. I was surprised when I read "It Had to Be Murder" to find that Grace Kelly's and Thelma Ritter's characters have no place in the story. They were entirely Hitchcock's additions, and brilliant ones they were, too.

Have you read Somebody Owes Me Money? Several times when he is in a pickle, the protagonist tries to imagine how a particular Hollywood star would act in that situation. Can you guess who that star is?

August 05, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Oh, I get it (remember how slow I am on the ol' uptake). By "man" you meant Hitchcock, not Ritter's character.

I have not read SOMM. Sounds Ed McBain-ish (or vice versa). DBB-wise, I am currently luxuriating in the first Ed Loy novel, "The Wrong Kind of Blood."

I'm guessing the star is Bogart (although naturally I think the protagonist would be better off imagining Mitchum, who actually found himself in real-life crime fiction-type situations from time to time).

August 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You got it in two. His model for the man who acts decisively and does what he has to do is Robert Mitchum.

August 05, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

The really incomprehensible moment occurs in High Noon when both of Gary Cooper's women Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado are leaving on the train and he rejects the two of them to stay and fight Frank Miller. What an eejit.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, "High Noon" is overrated.

August 06, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"His model for the man who acts decisively and does what he has to do is Robert Mitchum." And a real man could ask for no worthier model. I'm on my way to place a hold on this book at the LAPL! Westlake is clearly my kinda man!

Gary Cooper. How that wooden character ever had a Hollywood career is also beyond my comprehension. And a Best Actor for "High Noon" no less! "High Noon" is definitely overrated. Of course its fame rests not so much on its screenplay, direction, or acting but on its allegorical reference to the Blacklist.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I told you Westlake had brains.

I agree with you about Gary Cooper. That said, I once caught a chunk of "Sergeant York" on television and was surprised how good it was. Of course, it had Howard Hawks as director.

August 06, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Yes, that first chapter of SOMM leaves me wanting more. That business about how playing the stock market is the same as playing the races (yes, it is) was right up my alley. I'll go to the Big A with Chet any time!

August 06, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I liked Gary Cooper in The Pride of the Yankees. Of course, I think I was about nine when I saw it.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I figured Chet was your kind of guy both when I read about the track and about Robert Mitchum.

I'm telling you, this Westlake guy was good.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I've never seen "Pride of the Yankees." Maybe Adrian, in his later-life conversion to Yankee-loving, has.

I've seen little of Gary Cooper's work, but he always looked to me as if he was suffering heartburn. When it comes to actors of that approximate era, I'll take Jimmy Stewart.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

For some reason, I've never liked Jimmy Stewart all that much. His frequent haplessness and American everymanness seems somewhat fake to me. Cooper seems more of a natural.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

For some reason, I found Jimmy Stewart's transparent aw, shucksiness likeable. But I had my Jimmy Stewart conversion the fourth or fifth time I saw "Rear Window," and I realized he done a real acting job while spending the entire movie in a wheelchair of flat on his stomach. That can't be easy.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Of course, it also showed that Hitchcock knew what to do with actors.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I believe Hitchcock figured out the harder, somewhat darker side of Stewart's film persona, which was all to the good.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He got him to look scared and trapped, all right. He knew how to get Stewart to give a convincing portrayal of what it would feel like to be trapped that way. How he managed to work in the romance and comic relief so seamlessly is a wonder.

August 06, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Pride of the Yankees is a fine film.

Elisabeth, certainly criticise the acting in High Noon or even the direction but the screenplay?

High Noon is one of the best written screenplays of all time. It takes Hollywood screenwriting of that or any other era into the realms of greatness.

Every time I've seen that picture I admire the elegance of the clockwork in High Noon, the beauty of the language, the pitch perfect dialogue and those scenes fitting together like a Chinese puzzle.

Morgan Farley's speech as the minister might be the high point of American cinema, subverting every notion of patriotism, idealism and even friendship. This is what fascism will look like in America, Carl Foreman is saying. It'll be smiling, wrapped in religion and the flag.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Actors who amaze with their talent and skill: Audrey Hepburn in "Wait Until Dark," then "Breakfast at Tiffany's," and then the film version of "My Fair Lady." Three highly distinctive women, three very different characters, all wonderfully portrayed.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, what can I tell you except that I was a callow youth when i saw "High Noon"?

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember seeing Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and Sabrina and not much liking either movie. Perhaps her perkiness didn't help.

August 06, 2010  
Anonymous Linda said...

Audrey Hepburn absolutely is my favorite actress, and I wonder why I almost never hear anyone mention The Nun's Story. Also I enjoy the way this blog wends from crime fiction to wherever :)

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the gratifying compliment. I am pleased that commenters feel free to check their attention spans at the door.

August 06, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

I am pleased that commenters feel free to check their attention spans at the door

No, no, Peter, it's more like freeform Jazz improvisation where, after the main theme has been set, various soloists provide riffs on the main theme or something close to it.

That's my excuse, anyway.

John Michael Hayes wrote the screenplay for Rear Window. Hitchcock obviously valued his work because he brought him back to write his next three pictures. Unfortunately, they all had a little too much Hayes in them and not enough Hitchcock.

Hayes' wife was a fashion model and the Grace Kelly character was probably based on her and the character of the humourous sage, played by Thelma Ritter in the movie, was a type that appeared in many of Hayes' screenplays.

Although he came up with general story ideas, Hitchcock never wrote any screenplays himself but because he was a great director and a master of self-promotion, he gets the credit for most of the good things that appear in his movies. Such unfairness is one of the adverse consequences of the cult of the director.

Anybody who misspent their youth watching old movies, would know that it was the westerns of Anthony Mann that took the Jimmy Stewart persona and turned it into something darker and more complex.

Elisabeth doesn't like Gary Cooper? I'm amazed. After all, he's so tall. And it hardly seems fair to call Cooper wooden when one is a Robert Mitchum fan. Some of Mitchum's performances are not so much wooden as set in concrete. Yes, Peter, I know them's fightin' words and I take the full consequences.

This post is about Westlake? One of the things Westlake did before he died was to allow Made in the USA, a Jean-Luc Godard movie, to be shown in the USA. Supposedly, the movie was based on a Parker novel, The Jugger, and it couldn't be released in America because Westlake had successfully sued Godard.

All rather bizarre, because Godard's movie has practically nothing of Westlake in it. Like most Godard movies it helps remind one what the term solipsism means. It is also tangentially about the rather intriguing Ben Barka affair. And like most Godard movies it's a wonderful soporific.

August 06, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Adrian, I do think I understand what you see in HN’s screenplay. Perhaps we can agree to disagree on its greatness? Its somewhat corny one-man-against-evil plot and thinly-cloaked references to the totalitarian, antidemocratic investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee, for me, pale in comparison to the more head-on confrontational approach taken by 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate.” The specter of the as-American-as-apple-pie Angela Lansbury who subverts “every notion of patriotism, idealism…friendship” and even motherhood remains, for me, the indelible cinematic face of totalitarianism wrapped in the American flag. Close behind is the great scene-chewing scene between career soldiers Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in 1964’s “Seven Days in May.”

After this discussion I do plan on reading the screenplay for “High Noon”. Perhaps I’ll feel differently about it as a text rather than a film.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, you're more up on your Hitchcock screenplays than I am, so I won't argue with you. But I will add that bold additions to the source material were a Hitchcock hallmark at least as far back as The Thirty-Nine Steps, well before Hayes came on the scene. But thanks for bringing his name up; I'll keep an eye out for it. Screenwriters notoriously get too little credit.

I haven't seen lots of Mitchum movies, but I'd call him relaxed rather than wooden.

Filmmakers have notoriously done odd things to movies based on Westlake novels, and the changes, unlike those that Hitchcock made, were not generally to the good. That's why the New York Times obituary's assertion that Westlake's work translated well to the screen was so weird. But Westlake displayed good humor about the choice of Robert Redford to play John Dortmunder in The Hot Rock, so I think he took a relaxed, philosophical attitude to movies and the folks who make them.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And after this discussion, I should plan to see The Manchurian Candidate. But Elisabeth, if you're wound up over Adrian's assessment of High Noon, wait til you read what Solo wrote about Robert Mitchum.

August 06, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Oh, gosh, solo, what can I say that I haven’t already said before on the subject of that fine, underrated actor Robert Mitchum? As I’m recuperating from a bacterial infection, I will use that as an excuse to try to keep my comments brief. He is, as Peter said, relaxed, not wooden. Recently watched (again) 1946’s “Undercurrent” with (a completely miscast) Katherine Hepburn and two Roberts, Taylor and Mitchum. The two Bobs have one scene together; fast-forward to the scene if you can’t stand the rather overblown Gothic storyline. Taylor, old Hollywood; Mitchum, the up-and-comer. Taylor rolls his eyes, delivers his lines like he’s projecting to the theater balcony. Mitchum, low-key, assured, natural pauses in his speech (golly, just like real people talk!). Mitchum is Method minus all its hand-wringing and wall-climbing.

Oh, but don’t fast-forward all the way to that scene. There is a wonderful rare-books-and-prints store early on, ostensibly set in Washington DC. It looks so delightful a shop I wish it were real.

If I had to pick a film that I really do like Gary Cooper in, I'd probably pick 1941's "Ball of Fire" and his Prof. Bertram Potts ("Pottsie") as foil to Barbara Stanwyck's Sugarpuss O'Shea. But that's another Howard Hawks film...

And, Peter, I'm not "wound up" over Adrian's assessment of "High Noon"; I just disagree with it. I don't do wound up much anymore.

August 06, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, you might enjoy reading Raymond Chandler’s thoughts on Hitchcock’s “bold additions to the source material” in his letters written while he was working on the screenplay for “Strangers on a Train.” Chandler vents his spleen in a 1950 (unsent) letter to Hitchcock. Excerpt: “What I cannot understand is your permitting a script which after all had some life and vitality to be reduced to such a flabby mass of clichés, a group of faceless characters, and the kind of dialogue every screen writer is taught not to write—the kind that says everything twice and leaves nothing to be implied by the actor or the camera…Regardless of whether or no my name appears on the screen among the credits, I’m not afraid that anybody will think I wrote this stuff. They’ll know damn well I didn’t. I shouldn’t have minded in the least if you had produced a better script—believe me, I shouldn’t. But if you wanted something written in skim milk, why on earth did you bother to come to me in the first place? What a waste of money! What a waste of time! It’s no answer to say that I was well paid. Nobody can be adequately paid for wasting his time.”

August 06, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Elisabeth

You dont need to read the entire screenplay, the minister's speech alone should convince you.

I have mixed feelings about The Manchurian Candidate. I find Laurence Harvey completely unconvincing. Sinatra's good though and yes Angela Lansbury gives the performance of her life: complex, twisted, evil and strangely erotic.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, get well soon. Recuperate with a good book or, failing that, a movie.

I most recently saw Mitchum in "His Kind of Woman," which I enjoyed. I liked Mitchum, and I liked Vincent Price. (And I have just learned that producer Howard Hughes had the film tinkered with extensively, which may be responsible for the not-always-smooth blend of comedy and adventure. Hughes, in turns, figures prominently in Thursday's post.)

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Peter, you might enjoy reading Raymond Chandler’s thoughts on Hitchcock’s “bold additions to the source material” in his letters written while he was working on the screenplay for “Strangers on a Train.”

Elisabeth, in the proper historical context, that letter would be of great interest. "Strangers on a Train" was released in 1951, and Chandler wrote the letter in 1950. Had he seen the movie? Did he base his complaints on a shooting script? On some intermediate draft?

Writers have always complained about Hollywood's writing by committee, about endless teams of rewriters brought in, and so on. Perhaps this was Chandler's complaint.

In any case, the final result -- the movie, I mean -- was pretty damned good.

August 06, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Adrian, I agree with you on Laurence Harvey being "completely unconvincing." He was that in most films, even in scenes with the lusciously ripe Elizabeth Taylor in "BUtterfield 8" he has a disinterested, mind-elsewhere quality about him. And Frank Sinatra in TMC; yes, a mighty fine performance.

Peter, thanks for the get-well wishes. Yes, new books, old movies, and horse racing TV (even $4000 claimers from Suffolk Downs), and naps are the regimen of the day.

I, too, saw "His Kind of Woman" again recently. Yes, Vincent Price is good in that one. Wouldn't you love to spend some time at that "Mexican resort"? I love that set.

Oh, what happened to the v-word feature? I'm no longer asked to supply one.

August 06, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Chandler's unsent letter was written in response to his receipt/reading of the final script of "Strangers on a Train."

In a letter to librarian/reviewer of crime fiction James Sandoe the day after the unsent one to Hitchcock, Chandler was working himself into a lather: [Ray] Stark [RC's Hollywood agent] seemed to enjoy suggesting that my script was bad. But it wasn't bad. It was far better than what they finished with. It just had too much Chandler in it and not enough Hitchcock....I fell annoyed that the lady who did the rewriting behind my back, and who is probably little more than a note-taker for Hitchcock, should have been supplied by Stark's office. It's bad enough to be stabbed in the back without having your agency supply the knife...

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, once I enabled comment mofidication at all times, the v-word became superfluous. I didn't need two ways of fighting spam.

August 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, it sounds to me as if Chandler was just not cut out for Hollywood and was less able than S.J. Perelman to vent his frustration through humor.

August 06, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I feel awful. Tramping on the memory of the great Robert Mitchum is just inexcusable. I can't apologise enough. Perhaps, I can achieve a small measure of redemption by linking to the astounding musical efforts of the great man himself. Calypso
never sounded so good.

Damn, I thought you got rid of those V-words. Biuslit? Now, that's just vulgar.

August 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I knew he wrote the title song for "Thunder Road"; I didn't know he made records, too.

What can I tell you? On the one hand, I've heard worse. On the other, I'm not sorry the world (or at least I) missed out on Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Sterling Hayden, Robert Ryan or Gary Cooper singing.

August 07, 2010  

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