I Want My Films To Get Audiences (Stephen Frears)

Stephen Frears, the British film director, served his apprenticeship in cinema at a time when London was swinging & homegrown cultural talents were finding an international audience. In 1966, when he was 25, Frears was assistant to director Karel Reisz (“Saturday Night Sunday Morning”, “Who’ll Stop the Rain”) on “Morgan:A Suitable Case for Treatment”, a brash comedy where David Warner’s Marxism switches from Karl to Harpo. He was P.A. to director/star Albert Finney for “Charlie Bubbles” (1967), a return to Manchester for the international star, Liza Minnelli’s film debut, the wonderful Billie Whitelaw & a script by Shelagh (“A Taste of Honey”) Delaney. As straight outta Salford as the Smiths. Frears was also an assistant to Lindsay Anderson for “If…” (1968), the best British film of the decade, a satire on a public school system that was anachronistic then (we all thought/hoped it would really be shot to hell) & still is now. The British Film Industry…remember that ? Blimey !

 

It was Albert Finney’s company that gave Stephen Frears his break as a director. “Gumshoe” (1971) stars Finney as Liverpudlian bingo caller Eddie Ginley whose Sam Spade/Bogart fantasies lead him up unlikely mean streets. It’s a smart spoof detective story, Ms Whitelaw & an outstanding cast of British character actors add value. The opportunities to make films were fewer & for the next decade Frears became established as a leading director of prestigious, quality one-off dramas made by both (!) TV companies which were as good as TV got in the 1970s. There were memorable collaborations with writer Alan Bennett. “Bloody Kids” (1980), a script by young gun Stephen Poliakoff, explores youth alienation, social discord, voyeurism & surveillance, the dark side of a society taking a wrong turn, it’s brilliant. In 1982 “Walter”, a moving story of a man with learning disabilities & his grim life in a psychiatric institution with a great performance by a young Gandalf, attracted much attention when it was the centrepiece of the opening night of Channel 4, a whole new TV channel.

 

 

In 1984 Frears returned to the big screen with “The Hit”. It’s an existential gangster road movie…triple whammy ! Of course I love it. Hit man Braddock (John Hurt) & his apprentice Myron (Tim Roth) are sent to Spain to sort out supergrass Parker (Terence Stamp), that’s quite a cast. Stamp, a major star in the 1960s, had a quiet 1970s (apart from being General Zod in 2 Superman movies). Here he’s not as volatile as he was in Soderbergh’s “The Limey” (1999). He’s accepting of & resigned to his fate & he’s up to something. John Hurt is vicious while Tim Roth, in his film debut as Myron, the YTS assassin (a part offered to Joe Strummer off of the Clash), is perfect as the young Brit abroad. Laura del Sol is a hostage in a very tight dress while the great Fernando Rey follows the trail of blood & bodies. The 1980s saw a revival of the British gangster film (those not featuring members of Spandau Ballet), “The Hit”, tense & tough, is one of the best.

 

There followed a run of Brit flicks. 1985’s “My Beautiful Laundrette” was a breakthrough role for Daniel Day-Lewis as a gay skinhead. Hanif Kureishi’s South London story of Johnny’s relationship with his childhood friend Omar was sensitively & effectively told & gained an international audience. “Prick Up Your Ears” (1987) is the singular story of Joe Orton, playwright, a working class hero contemporaneous with John Lennon & his tragic relationship with Kenneth Halliwell. Gary Oldman & Alfred Molina are outstanding in the lead roles, Alan Bennett’s script is faultless. It’s my favourite of this phase of Frears’ career & it’s on the Y-tube, watching it again is time well spent. “Sammy & Rosie Get Laid” (1987) is another hook-up with Kureishi, another slice of urban life in Thatcher’s Britain.

 

 

These opening credits of “The Grifters” (1990), Los Angeles in black & white, Elmer Bernstein theme, signpost that there’s a film noir ahead. There’s some heavy hitters involved, produced by Scorsese, a screenplay by Donald E Westlake from a novel by pulp great Jim Thompson. Frears had directed the film of Christopher Hampton’s play “Dangerous Liaisons”, a large-scale European production with major Hollywood stars but this was his first American movie. The triangle of confidence persons is well cast. Young Roy Dillon (John Cusack) is still learning, painfully, the small-time scams. Myra (Annette Bening) offers more than the chance to score big while his mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) has been working the angles longer than both of them. Any unflinching attempt to transfer Thompson’s dark spirit to celluloid would inevitably alienate a mass audience. “The Grifters” is tough & violent while diluting themes of incest & violent misogyny. It’s a glossy modern noir, no-one can be trusted & it’s bound to end badly for Roy. It became Frears’ first Academy Award nomination for best director.

 

That’s 7 feature films “directed by Stephen Frears” then & it’s not easy to pin him down to any individual style. His films effectively capture the often hermetic world of his characters, a car in Spain, a Vauxhall laundrette, an Islington bed-sit. Certainly his screenplay choices are impeccable & his skill is in delivering that quality to the screen. He is more than a safe pair of hands, able to adroitly blend drama & comedy. In the 1990s he returned from Hollywood to make parts 2 & 3 of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy. They lacked the musical attraction of part 1 “The Commitments” but both “The Van” & “The Snapper” certainly retained the sweet soul. “Mary Reilly” (1996), another Hampton script starring Julia Roberts & John Malkovich with a $47 million budget was Frears’ first real stutter.

 

 

Like many European directors who make it to Hollywood Frears made his crime movie & then his western. “The Hi-Lo Country” (1998) is set in a post-World War 2 West so cannot be anything but elegiac. Woody H, Billy Crudup & Katy Jurado, a link to the great cowboy films. It’s been a while since I saw it but it has moved to near the top of the list. “High Fidelity” (2000) transposes Nick Hornby’s novel from North London to Chicago. “Fever Pitch” had dealt with the football & Hi-Fi covers those other 2 lynchpins of a boy’s life, music & women. All of us music obsessives have spent just enough time in record shops & too much time compiling Top 5 lists. No-one minded the transatlantic shift because if anyone is going to represent us then let it be John Cusack, by now a film star & he seems to be a nice guy. We don’t, perhaps, have Catherine Zeta Jones, Lisa Bonet or Iben Hjejle in our pasts but we’ve had our moments. Not sure we would contact our exes to ask about a break up, pretty sure we wouldn’t want to hear some of the answers. It’s only a movie & one that gets the tone right from Jack Black’s Monday morning tape to Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe” playing over the credits.

 

The later films of Stephen Frears have been mostly British or European productions. He has continued to work with talented writers, Steven Knight’s 1st screenplay “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002), Steve Coogan “Philomena” (2013). He has also returned to directing event TV dramas in Britain & the US. I’m not too interested in the Queen so Helen Mirren as “The Queen” (2006) passed me by. There was great interest though, Ms Mirren scored an Oscar & Frears a nomination for best director. This film & “Philomena” made serious money from relatively low budgets, the kind of numbers that will keep a now veteran director in work. His latest film “The Program”, a dramatisation about the delusional, drug cheat bike rider Lance Armstrong, does not match the comprehensive documentaries on the same subject. Any road up, there’s another movie in post-production, Meryl Streep in “Florence Foster Jenkins”, & a body of work, spanning 45 years, of such variety & quality that his reputation as an outstanding director is secure. Oh, I forgot to mention “Mr Jolly Lives Next Door” (1987), the funniest non-Python related thing ever shown on British TV !

 

 

 

I Sat Up And The Room Was Full Of A Man With A Gun (Donald E Westlake)

Donald E Westlake, a very prolific writer of crime fiction, moved to New York in 1959 & immediately found that he could give up his day job in a literary agency & turn pro. By the end of the following year there were 9 published titles written by Westlake but not under his name. This soft-porn pulp used the pseudonym Alan Marshall, an umbrella apparently for a number of contributing authors. I have not read “Man Hungry”, “All the Girls Are Willing” or even “Passion’s Plaything”, maybe I should check them out…maybe. His fecundity, his range & eagerness to see his work in print meant that he employed many nom-de-plumes in his career. It hasn’t helped his reputation as a top gun in American crime fiction. You could have read one of his books & not known that it was by Westlake.

The first of his books to make an impression had the name Richard Stark on the cover. “The Hunter”, published in 1962, It is the debut of Stark & of the master thief Parker whose life in larceny would be developed over the next 45 years. As was the case with many of the writers of hard-boiled fiction Westlake attracted the attention of European film directors. In 1966 Jean-Luc Godard played fast & loose with “The Jugger” for “Made in the USA” without acquiring the book rights. The next year English filmmaker John Boorman adapted “The Hunter” changing Lee Marvin’s character from Parker to Walker for “Point Blank”. The film, one of the greatest of the 1960’s (OK, my favourite movie, like ever !) mixed the nouvelle vague with film noir. The existentialism & the brutality were Boorman/Marvin’s, the skeleton, the classic revenge thriller was Stark/Westlake’s.

Westlake became established enough to use just the 2 names (with a diversion for the Mitchell Tobin books written a Tucker J Coe). His books are about scores, capers & heists.They are set mostly in New York & the characters more sophisticated than classic 1950′[s pulp. The plots are tight, amusing & involving, the cracking-wise excellent. Parker, the pro, is cynical & suspicious, unsurprised by any twist & turn because everything is just business. In 1970 a Parker novel kept taking a lighter, more comic turn & it became the first book to feature John Dortmunder, another long-running criminal character. “The Hot Rock” was quickly picked up by Hollywood.

In “The Hot Rock” (1972) Robert Redford plays Dortmunder, George Segal his main partner-in-crime. There’s a good supporting cast, Moses Gunn & especially Zero Mostel always add value. English director Peter Yates (“Bullitt”) & master screenwriter William Goldman, fresh off “Butch Cassidy…” & a Westlake fan, were involved too. The movie, titled “How to Steal a Diamond (In 4 Uneasy Lessons)” in the UK, is a quality comedy-caper film shot in Manhattan with a cool Quincy Jones soundtrack. It’s not “Dog Day Afternoon” but then few films are that good.

It wasn’t until 1975 that Westlake slowed a little. There was a novel a year under his own name, some developing the Dortmunder character. In 1986 he couldn’t resist introducing the Sam Holt novels written by Samuel Holt ! In 1997, after a break of 23 years, Parker returned in the aptly named “Comeback”. He seemed no older & no better at life & crime but the world had changed. This time around Parker had a great plan to rip off a tele-evangelist. Man plans, God laughs.

Hollywood kept calling & his novels were regularly adapted. Mel Gibson starred in “Payback”, a remake of “The Hunter” with the Parker name changed again (this time it was Porter). Westlake insisted that the name could only be used if all the novels were optioned. It was only after his death in 2008 that a “Parker” film was made but if you think I am going to watch a Jason Statham movie, even in the interests of research, then think on. None of these films were better than “The Outfit” (1973)  from a 1963 novel with a very similar revenge plotline to “The Hunter”. Written & directed by John Flynn, who went on to make the excellent “Rolling Thunder” (1977), it’s a direct, tense thriller. Robert Duvall  (Macklin) is out of jail & pissed. He wants the money he is owed by the Mob & revenge for his brother’s death & single mindedly pursues the Boss (Robert Ryan) with Joe Don Baker & Karen Black for company. “The Outfit” is a proper film, I met Mr Baker once in London & spoke about “Junior Bonner”, the film he made with Peckinpah. I should have complimented him on this movie too. This great clip highlights Jerry Fielding’s cool score.

It’s tough to recommend particular books by Donald E Westlake, there are over 100. The early ones are now from a world that has changed, they belong with the classic 1950’s hardboiled fiction of David Goodis & Jim Thompson. Westlake wrote the screenplay for “The Grifters” (1990), an ideal choice to update the master. His later books reflect these changes, the effect of 9/11 on New York, Google…”some other nosey parker way to mind everybody else’s business.” In the final Dortmunder novel “Get Real” our anti-hero commits a crime for the convenience of reality TV. In this just as it always was the humour, the satire & the plot development is sharp & hits the mark. The cynicism too, nothing is what it seems. Donald E Westlake’s closest literary contemporary is Elmore Leonard, a writer held, I think, in higher regard. For myself Westlake’s cast of characters, his sophistication & even his dialogue outdoes Leonard & he deserves a place at the top table of American crime fiction.

,