DONALD WESTLAKE DOUBLE FEATURE:
THE HOT ROCK and THE STEPFATHER
Most of you fuckers probaly think Donald E. Westlake is just the creator of your precious Father Dowling Mysteries*, but actually he’s got a whole big resume behind him. In fact, in these parts he’s more famous as Richard Stark. I’m not sure which one is the real guy and which one is the alter ego but Richard Stark is the hard motherfucker who wrote the Parker books I love so much. Twenty Parker novels so far and also four about Parker’s part-time actor, part-time thief associate Grofield. Stark’s books inspired POINT BLANK, PAYBACK and several not as memorable but pretty good movies.
[*I’m just jerkin your chain there bud, I never watched that show either]
And then Donald E. Westlake writes funnier ones, they say. Richard Stark is his dark side, they say. (Stephen King even named the dark half character in The Dark Half George Stark.) But I am here to tell you that Westlake has two sides to him regardless of Stark. And the proof is right here with THE HOT ROCK, a goofy light-hearted heist comedy based on one of his books, and THE STEPFATHER, a fucked up horror/suspense/family values satire that he actually wrote the script for.
THE HOT ROCK is from one of the Dortmunder novels, I never read em but judging from this movie he’s the opposite of Parker: a thief with a sense of humor that has fun with what he’s doing. Robert Redford plays John Dortmunder. Fresh out of the joint and George Segal (his brother in law, no relation to Steven Seagal) already has him on a job trying to steal a jewel from some museum.
Basically the plot is they gotta steal this rock, but every time they do they fuck up and then have to go steal it from somewhere else. Like the first time they almost get away except the guy with the stone gets caught. So he runs around the corner and swallows it first. Then Dortmunder and the gang gotta break him out – not sure if it’s for his sake, or for the rock only. Anyway it turns out he doesn’t have it anymore, he hid it in a cell at the police station before he got transferred. So now they gotta break into the police station. Etc.
Most of the fun of the movie is with the ridiculously ambitious schemes they come up with for the attempted scores. Like their first plan involves a stunt driver flipping a car and catching on fire in order to distract the guards. A fake doctor is also involved. When they gotta break into the police station they actually wear uniforms and land a police helicopter on the roof of the headquarters. (first they land on the wrong building and have to ask directions.) Once they’re there they start tossing bombs everywhere and the captain actually thinks it’s the start of the revolution and announces he’ll be damned if his is the first American police station to go down. That part was almost worthy of Dr. Strangelove.
The character “Policeman” – the cop that first sees the bombs going off – is played by Christopher Guest, director of Best In Show and all those ones. I believe he is playing the same character as in Death Wish where he is called “Patrolman Reilly.” In that one he’s the cop who identifies Charles Bronson as the vigilante killer and tells his superior, who decides to let Bronson go. In the early seventies, if shit was goin down in New York, Patrolman Reilly was gonna be there.
This is a crime picture but it’s not a badass picture at all. It’s all about comedy. Lots of goofy shit happens, like they surreptitiously meet with their connection in a park, sitting on separate benches and not looking at each other. All the sudden an old lady sits on the bench between them and they don’t know what to do. That kind of thing. I mean, you got George Segal and Zero Mostel in the cast, obviously we’re not talking Point Blank here. The tone is so light you even see the World Trade Center towers under construction during the helicopter scene. Because this is before 9-11 changed everything and made the eagle cry. When movies didn’t have to bum you out.
What this movie reminded me of is why everybody used to love Robert Redford so much. He’s just a real likable dude. For you young folks, he’s got George Clooney’s charm but with Brad Pitt’s blonde pretty boy looks. He’s a one man Ocean’s 11. This was a fun light-hearted movie sort of in that vein, but maybe a little cornier.
THE STEPFATHER is not in that vein at all. If this is a crime movie it’s because killing your wife and daughter is a crime. Or if it’s not then it should be, in my opinion. Well yeah, actually come to think of it it is a crime I believe so scratch that last sentence. Anyway what I’m trying to say is this is an ’80s horror/suspense thriller, kind of feels like one of those Psycho sequels they made back then. At first I thought it would be cheesy because it has one of those ’80s scores that wants to sound like a whole orchestra but who are they foolin, we all know it’s just one measly keyboard. Sounds like the Full Moon Videos they used to have, about all those little fuckers running around on the ground with knives and crap. Haunted puppets and killer ghoulies and shit.
But this one’s not like that, it’s smart and disturbing and maybe even classy. According to an interview I read, Donald Westlake was hired to write a script based on a one line treatment, which was itself based on an actual case. Some nutbag somewhere killed his own family and disappeared, and they found out that three weeks before he killed them he had quit his job, and every day pretended he was going in to work. The idea of the movie is, what the fuck was this guy doing from nine to five during those three weeks? And the movie’s answer is he was setting up a replacement family across town.
The killer stepfather is played by Terry O’Quinn, who now is known for playing tough bald cops and FBI agents and individuals of that nature. Back then he was skinnier, looked just like fuckin Ted Bundy which I bet is why they hired him. Opening scene he has just killed his family, and he calmly shaves his beard, changes his appearance. As he’s leaving, he puts away a couple of his daughter’s toys that are laying on the floor. A nice touch. Then walks past her bloody mutilated corpse. Strolls away whistling “Camptown Races.” This scene takes place in Bellevue which is exactly where this type of shit would happen, the rich people city east of Seattle, across the bridge.
Next thing you know he’s remarried, working real estate, making speeches to his neighbors about how he hopes he’s selling them more than a house, he’s selling them a lifestyle. He acts like a nice guy but his step-daughter knows what time it is. Actually, she doesn’t have any reason to suspect him at first, but because she hates seeing her mom with this fucker she catches on to him quick. So it catches that feeling of how people feel when their mom his a new boyfriend. But in this case they are completely right about the boyfriend.
This was 1987, there really were people like this, wanted all that Leave It to Beaver crap to be true. (In fact, they got a scene where he watches Mr. Ed and gets nostalgic for his childhood.) Alot of this ’50s sitcom family stuff was satirized to death right around this time, it became pretty cliche. But this is a good serious treatment of the stuff. It’s satire but it’s not at all a comedy. It’s not Serial Mom or something. But it’s there – the guy is killing his family when they “disappoint” him. He also kills a guy he thinks is on to him but you can tell what really gets his goat is when the guy claims to be “a confirmed bachelor” and talks shit about the idea of marriage and kids.
So in alot of ways unfortunately this movie is getting more relevant again today.
I think Westlake’s script is good but it’s Terry O’Quinn that’s gonna make or break the movie, and what he does is, the first one. He makes it. There’s one scene that’s actually pretty fuckin scary where the step-daughter gets sent to the cellar to grab some ice cream for the neighborhood picnic and sees O’Quinn flippin out, yellin gibberish to himself. Then he realizes she’s there and has to explain it, saying he’s a salesman, he has to smile all day, he needs to let things out sometimes. “You know how it is.” He seems so authentically nuts in the scene though, it’s pretty spectacular. Good one, Terry O’Quinn.
Director Joseph Ruben also did some movie called THE SISTER-IN-LAW about a fucked up sister-in-law. So the moral is, don’t marry into this guy’s family. You’re not welcome there.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.