1/4/09

Donald Westlake (1933-2008)



It came to my attention yesterday that one of my favorite authors, Donald Westlake, passed away on New Years Eve. I am deeply saddened by is passing and I will always be a devoted fan of his works. He was the author of a hundred books ranging from science fiction (the excellent book Smoke is a great example), hard boiled crime (The Hunter), thrillers (The Axe) comic capers (the Dortmunder series as well as one of my favorites Help, I'm Being Held Prisoner). He was a great influence on anyone who wrote crime fiction, and I truly believe that authors like Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasan, and Tim Dorsey owe him a great deal.

 I've fairly recently had a chance to review one of the films based on his work. The classic thriller Point Blank. It was one of best adaptations of the hard boiled style of Westlake's alter ego, Richard Stark. If you haven't read my review check it out.
Westlake's work has been adapted a few other times to middling success. Several attempts have been made to bring his series of books about John Dortmunder, an unlucky criminal and the most hangdog man you'd ever want to know, to the screen.

First was the best working of the story with The Hot Rock (1972). Unfortunately Robert Redford didn't really come off as a down on his luck criminal. The rest of the cast including George Segal and Ron Leibman are perfectly cast as the gang.
Next came 1974's Bank Shot. This film starred George C Scott as Dortmunder (although his name had been changed to Ballentine), and while it maintained the farcical nature of the Westlake story, the film itself was not very well made. Only the performance by Scott, who definitely looked the part, saves the film.
There were a few more stabs at the series along the way, but I haven't been able to see them yet. However the year 2001 gave us the most unfortunate version of the character. "What's the worst that could happen?" you might ask. Well you're exactly right with Martin Laurence stepping into the criminal's shoes (again with a name change) in What's The Worst That Could Happen? The answer to that, this flick could get made.


In the end, while a few of the films are entertaining, no one has managed to really capture the subtle humor of Westlake's caper books, and perhaps they never will. That's why my recommendation for today is to go out and pick up one of Westlake's tales. He was a great writer and someone who will continue to inspire me to write. 

Sorry; I have no space left for advice. Just do it. -Donald Westlake

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