By Scott Ross
Under the nom de plume “Richard Stark,” Donald Westlake wrote a string of crime novels featuring a truly vicious thug called Parker that are as tough and un-apologetically amoral as it’s possible to get without actually celebrating violence. The term “hard-boiled” gets bandied about a lot; the Parkers remind me of Jan Sterling’s remark anent Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole: “I’ve met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you — you’re twenty minutes!”
This is the first, the most well-known, and the finest, of the Parker movies. Lee Marvin plays “Walker,” who has just gotten out of prison and wants the money the Syndicate has promised him. When he doesn’t get it, he wreaks his vengeance, and it’s not for the faint of heart; at one point, as Ethan Mordden observed in his book on 1960s American cinema, Walker just plain murders the bed in which his wife has been unfaithful.
Marvin is superb; his Walker has not a hint of sentiment or softness, and that’s what makes him so goddamned compelling. Angie Dickinson is on hand (as Walker’s sister-in-law) and so are Keenan Wynn, James Sikking, Kathleen Freeman and the then-unknown Caroll O’Connor, as the cowardly Syndicate boss.
What really puts this taut little thriller above the general run of caper flicks, however, is the stylized direction of John Boorman. The movie is almost a time-capsule of late 1960s American cinematic techniques, and, surprisingly, none of them have dated, from Philip H. Lathrop’s stylish photography to Henry Berman’s hyper-kinetic editing. The taut screenplay is by Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse and Rafe Newhouse. Johnny Mandel wrote the terrific score.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross