Monday, October 7, 2013

The Hunter (Parker #1)

The Hunter, by Richard Stark
2008, University of Chicago Press
(Original publication 1962)

Several years ago I read two of Richard Stark’s/Donald Westlake’s Parker novels (Slayground and Plunder Squad); I enjoyed them enough that I intended to start reading the series from the start, but back then the books were difficult to come by. Now thanks to the Univeristy of Chicago Press, which began reprinting the series in full in 2008, the Parker series is easily obtained.

The Hunter is the beginning of the saga, and over the years the novel has been reprinted under the titles Point Blank and Payback, to tie in with the film adaptations (more of which below). It came out originally in 1962 as a cheap mass market paperback, and while these University of Chicago trade paperbacks are nice, the Parker books should’ve been reprinted by Hard Case Crime as mass market paperbacks with lurid cover paintings.

The funny thing about The Hunter is how standard it now seems, viewed through the prism of these decades of retreads and ripoffs. But it is a simple revenge story, only notable due to the fact that our “hero” is moreso a villain. Parker would normally be the bad guy in most other pulp tales, and much is made of how amoral and ruthless he is. I always chuckle when I read this; people who say how “ruthless” Parker is have obviously never read Bronson: Blind Rage. Now that is a ruthless protagonist!

We meet Parker as he returns to New York City for revenge against those who stabbed him in the back. We don’t get much backstory on the character, and famously we only get the one name, “Parker.” (I’ve noticed though that no one’s ever wondered if this is his first name!) Parker as everyone knows is a professional criminal, and gradually we learn that he was on an offshore job with his wife and an old business acquaintance named Mal when the latter double-crossed him and, blackmailing Parker’s wife into doing the deed, shot Parker down and left him for dead.

Parker tracks down his wife, Lynn, who now lives in a posh Manhattan apartment, paid for monthly by Mal. The reveal of how she turned on Parker is a little hard to buy. Long story short, Parker, his wife, Mal, and a few goons from the Outfit (as the mob is referred to in this series) pulled a swindle on some South American revolutionaries, stealing their weapons and loot. After the heist Mal forced Parker’s wife into shooting Parker, and she went along with it because she was afraid Mal would kill her. Just seems to me that she could’ve easily whispered Mal’s plot into Parker’s ear, but then I guess this was Stark’s subtle way of letting us know the woman is basically untrustworthy.

Parker’s reunion with his wife is unintentionally hilarious in how emotionless he is about it. Whereas the modern trend would be to sap up this part, probably with soap operatic arguing and fighting between the two, Parker basically makes fun of Lynn’s claim that she’s often tried to kill herself, and tells her to take more sleeping pills next time. And surprisingly enough she does, so that when Parker checks on her in her locked bedroom the next morning, she’s dead. After disposing of the corspe Parker continues tracking down Mal.

The Hunter almost follows the format of a police procedural, as Parker goes through leads and clues in his search for Mal. Occasionally Stark opens up the narrative by cutting over to Mal, and humorously enough the villain sparkles with more life than our “hero.” Mal is a slug of a man who double-crossed Parker so as to pay back the Outfit money he lost them back in the days when he worked for them. All of this was a gambit to be offered a new job with the Outfit, one Mal now has; he lives in a cushy Manhattan hotel which is owned by the mob, and he’s only kept Parker’s wife alive out of some sense of obligation.

The Outfit itself is pretty interesting; Stark presents the mob as basically a corporate enterprise, one whose executives sit around in opulent offices and order murders and other criminal acts with businesslike acumen. Mal is not very high on the totem pole. When he requests assistance from a higher-up, it’s like an employee going to a VP to fund a project. Instead Mal’s kicked out of his hotel and forced to go it alone, but he’s obviously no match for Parker.

Stark writes this sequence of Parker and Mal like a cat and mouse game, leading to its inevitable conclusion. We get a little more of Parker’s background when he meets up with a high-class hooker he was once involved with, one who provides him some help in locating Mal. No doubt due to the era, The Hunter is pretty tame so far as the sex goes, but Stark lets us know that Mal gets his kicks through s&m and is a little too rough with hookers.

It’s only after Mal is dispensed with that The Hunter kicks into gear, at least for me. Parker, still wanting the money owed him, goes to the Outfit to get back the money Mal gave them to pay his debt. This whole sequence is darkly humorous, as Carter, a high-level Outfit executive, informs Parker that no company in the world would do what Parker’s asking them to do. So Parker deals with this turn of events the only way he knows how: threatening and killing until he gets what he wants.

There are a handful of action scenes, but nothing on the level of a men’s adventure novel. Even the finale, in which the Outfit sends a veritable army of gunners after Parker to ambush him at the money pickup in a subway stop, is handled moreso with suspense. Parker easily spots each gunman and takes away his weapon, telling him to get on a departing train. The terseness of the action scenes matches the tone of the prose; Stark’s writing lives up to his name (well, pseudonym, I guess), only giving the most bare of details and rarely if ever getting into the heads of his characters.

What I most enjoyed about The Hunter was the dark comedy that ran throughout. Parker is at times so inhuman that it comes off as hilarious, and while he doesn’t have any one-liners he does have some comments that are pretty funny. But anyway while it didn’t blow me away, it’s easy to see how The Hunter could’ve come off so strong in earlier days, and at the very least it’s compelled me to read the rest of the Parker novels.

Now, as for the two film adaptations -- Point Blank from 1967 is a dreamlike, metaphysical take on The Hunter, very fractured and at times psychedelic. It greatly diverges from the novel.  Parker is “Walker” in this one, and he’s played by Lee Marvin, the perfect Parker if you ask me. Parker is “Walker” because Westlake wouldn’t provide the rights to use the character’s name unless the studio agreed to make a series of films. For whatever stupid reason the studio refused; personally I would’ve signed on the dotted line and hired Marvin to star in a film series that could’ve been the James Bond franchise of crime cinema. Anyway Point Blank is interesting in how it puts such an unusual spin on your typical pulp crime tale, and it's even more interesting that Walker doesn't actually kill anyone in the film -- his enemies die either by accident or due to events Walker sets in motion.  The longstanding theory about this movie is that it's all the dying dream of Walker, who lays half-dead in a prison cell as the film opens.  Director John Boorman adds a sort of psychedelic haze to the look and feel of the film, and it's definitely a movie that rewards multiple viewings, but I wouldn't say it's a satisfying film; it's much too cold and cerebral for that.

Payback is the other adaptation of The Hunter, and it exists in two versions: the theatrical release from 1999 and a Director’s Cut (retitled Payback: Straight Up) from 2006. I’ve never seen the theatrical cut and have no intention to. The Blu Ray for the Director’s Cut features a documentary which compares the two versions, and the theatrical cut looks stupid and dumbed down for modern audiences. The Director’s Cut meanwhile holds its own with early ‘70s crime films, and indeed takes place in the early ‘70s, though director Brian Helgeland doesn’t bang the viewer over the head with this fact. Mel Gibson as “Porter” is nearly as good as Lee Marvin – again, I’m only referring to the Director’s Cut, in which a stone-faced Gibson blitzes his way through the criminal underworld. There’s no cutesy stuff, no mugging for the camera, no “emotional content” bullshit. Hell, they even kill a dog in it. The film is very faithful to the source novel, only changing characters here and there (Lucy Liu’s character, for example) and adding new elements (like the Chinese gang and the crooked cops storyline).  Of the two film adaptations of The Hunter, I prefer Payback: Straight Up.   


Will Errickson said...

Those old paperbacks *are* hard to come by! Couple years back I read THE OUTFIT - itself made into a Duvall movie which I haven't seen - and loved it. Didn't know about the extended version of PAYBACK, so thanks for the heads-up.

Jack Badelaire said...

I read The Hunter maybe a year ago. Pretty much agree with everything you say. I often make the argument that a main character need not be "likable", only "engaging", and use Parker as a perfect example. He's a complete bastard, but a bastard who's been in print and enjoyed for decades precisely because of his nature.

Grant said...

Since I'm always interested in villainess characters and what happens to them, can you tell me what happens with the Lucy Liu character in the "extended cut"? I've only seen the theatrical version once, but (speaking of "mugging at the camera") I think the last you see of her is a sort of semi-comical stand-off between her and Parker, which she survives. Is it any different in this other version?

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks everyone for the comments. Just wanted to give a bit more clarification on the director's cut of Payback -- it's not really extended, and in fact I think it might actually be shorter than the theatrical version. The biggest difference is in the third act, which was refilmed entirely for the theatrical. The director's cut is more faithful to Stark's novel, with Porter going to collect his Outfit payoff in what will most certainly be an ambush.

Grant, as for Lucy Liu, I think there's also less of her in the director's cut. The last you see of her is when she and Porter take turns firing an empty gun at one another; this also happens in the theatrical version, after which some Outfit guys storm in and knock out Porter, and one of them punches Lucy Liu. In the director's cut however Porter promptly turns away after firing his empty gun and walks away from her, getting into a truck and driving off to pick up his Outfit payoff.

Grant said...

Thank you.

That's too bad in a way, though. I know this isn't some "swinging spy" movie or one of those early Destroyer books I mentioned before, but that still seems like a wasted opportunity. Even if it isn't in one of those categories, WHY NOT some romantic stuff between her and Parker / Porter? And considering how awful the early scenes allow him to be with the wife herself, it wouldn't have been unfitting for her to be one of his killings at the end.

(But it seems like movies UNDERUSE villainess characters a whole lot more often than they OVERUSE them, so that usually doesn't surprise me.)

OlmanFeelyus said...

Man, you all need to read the rest of the Parker series, far and away the best crime fiction ever.

Wasting your time talking about the movie, tsk. :)

Unknown said...

I love the Parker series--hated the movies, though. Thanks for the heads-up about the director's cut of Payback.

The only thing that doesn't work in the novels is the middle section where the POV shifts to a cop or another criminal or whoever. In the later novels (from the 2000's), Parker is way too watered down, almost veering into Dortmunder (his comic alter ego) territory.

Brian January

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

This is the only book that had me looking up from the pages and going, 'F**K ** I thought it was stunning