Le Mot Juste: Discussing Point Blank prose with Lucy Sante

Lee Marvin in Point Blank (1967).

Lucy Sante, Lawrence Block and Abby Westlake are gathered at the Museum of the Moving Image to talk about, respectively, a hero, a friend and a husband. Donald E. Westlake was all that and more to the public, not only because he wrote under a series of different names. He came from a different, more excitingly quaint time when the fiction author, the pulp novelist, was nearly a man of action. Westlake was absurdly prolific, but that was what was expected of you. All this about Westlake and his most famous fictional character not only appealed to Sante when she was young, it seemed to have, through osmosis, coincidence and acknowledged affection, transformed her into one of the finest writers alive. It was that Westlake directness. His widow, in good spirits in a room full of people here to celebrate her husband’s legacy on film, says outright that Westlake wasn’t sentimental: “When he was done with a book, that was it. He didn’t think about it.”

That regimented lifestyle and prose are what fuel the Parker novels written under Westlake’s Richard Stark nom-de-plume. Parker was a crook with…well, if not exactly a clear cut code than at the very least, and incredibly specific approach to his craft. “Parker shaves his personality down to just what’s needed so that he can live this sybaritic life in palm springs, but when he’s on the job, he’s nothing else.” Says Sante during the post-film Q and A. That’s also true of Sante. Sante has a long history with Parker, and the movie Point Blank, to date the best film made of the Parker novels, directed by John Boorman. The story, about a man named Walker (changed from Parker in the source novel The Hunter), who has to shoot his way through the LA criminal underground after he’s double-crossed by his best friend and wife.

You find the same directness in Sante’s short pieces of criticism and biography. In and out, like a one-man bank heist, the best of the subject tucked into her prose like lined bills in a briefcase. Her collection Kill All Your Darlings runs for a hundred breathless pages, covering subjects as diverse as American blues music and Tintin comics, before we get something resembling a Rosetta Stone. A story about working in a plastics factory, following in her father’s footsteps. She tries to find something to read between stints at the molds, something short enough that she can get pleasure and meaning from a few sentences without losing the thread of the writing everytime she has to take a break. She discovers Louis Ferdinand Celine’s work is the only thing for the job. And Sante is always the right woman for her subjects, knowing precisely how much or how little to say on any given topic. Her short passages hit exactly the highlights necessary to walk away with a complete understanding of a thing from three pages of text, and her epic tomes have enough information to make you feel as though you’d lived in New York in the 19th century.

I wanted to talk with her for a thousand reasons, but she was in town to talk about Point Blank and so that was our subject. We had the length of one beer before we were due at MoMi for the start of the film:

Do you think anyone has ever directed like Westlake wrote? Does anybody capture the stark prose, the directness, in film?

“Johnny To, the most efficient and ruthless. One of the Chinese filmmakers. My first thought went to Melville, but Melville’s a romantic.”

He has the same precision, for sure, the interest in the work, but he has to kill everyone at the end of the movie. When did you discover Stark/Westlake?

“It’s a funny thing, my aunt and uncle were news agents in a small town in Belgium and they’d send us crates with books and magazines, just random things, and my Father hated crime novels and he’d toss them all to me. This was maybe 1969, I was 15 and I’d just become obsessed with Jean-Luc Godard, whose movies I’d never seen because you know they weren’t easily available. But I’d read everything I could about Godard and noticed he based a lot of his work around American crime novels and that this one Made In USA (1966) was based on this book by Richard Stark. And here I had this Serie noir novel by Richard Stark. I had it in a French translation but I knew it was really cool but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I went out and read Parker books in English. I’m not sure when that happened, sometime in college, but then I bought all of them. The language was one thing, it was simplified and direct. In a way that’s not so different from Mickey Spillane, except that Stark put on no airs and Spillane was all about putting on airs.”

Right, Mike Hammer’s basically a theatre actor.

“I really thought this was the opening to a great field of literature, but it’s really just this. The other thing that should be mentioned is the other Westlake novels that aren’t funny, that aren’t comedies, are just as incredible. This one called Memory, it was published posthumously, it’s not a crime novel it’s about amnesia and it’s like a hard boiled Kafka novel, it’s incredible. It’s also about 2 or 3 times as long as a Parker novel. French crime novels are closer to what I got from Stark than American crime novels.”

It’s a kind of alien style, with regard to what American novelists were focusing on at the time. Is Point Blank the film that best captures Parker’s writing, of the adaptations?

“Oh yeah. I like The Outfit but it’s a much lesser film. Made In USA is just on a different planet. Westlake hated it.”

[Abby Westlake about three hours later: Basically Godard stole it.]

You ever hear the story of Richard Lester and John Boorman running into each other in San Francisco? They were making Petulia and Point Blank at the same time and when they told each other what they were doing grammatically with their movies they both panicked that they were making the same movie

“That’s great. Point Blank is far and away the best movie Boorman ever made. Did he make Exorcist Part 2? That’s a crazy movie.”

Isn’t it? It’s almost the closest he got to making Point Blank again. He’s more willing to cut in that film, less sunk into the images. But Point Blank has confidence.

“It’s very psychedelic. The way Boorman uses those flashbacks and flash-forwards. That’s completely pop art. The courtship scene between Walker and Lynne, it looks like an Irish spring commercial for heaven’s sake! And the reunion with Mal looks like a beer commercial or cigarette commercial. There’s really something kind of brilliant that happens when European artists try to recreate American art. Everyone from Brecht to Kafka. Kafka’s America is one of my favourite books! Sergio Leone, the Mekons when they tried country music…”

It’s interesting that it starts out with this hard charging momentum but slows down around Mal in the hotel room. Is there an analog for the tonal/rhythmic shift in the writing?

“Not really. I just reread the book and it’s interesting how different it is. He really got the essence of the book while throwing away 80% of the story. The interesting then is he only becomes Parker by degrees during the course of the book. At first he’s this rough neck, he hasn’t really developed as a character yet. It’s interesting that clearly Boorman has watched the Don Siegel movie of The Killers, because the films are almost twins, and not just because of Lee Marvin.”

As someone fascinated by cities and the way they function (his book Low Life is the definitive history of New York City), can you talk about its depiction of LA?

“It’s funny I never visited LA until twenty years ago. By the time I got to LA I’d already seen Point Blank ten times, so I didn’t really realize that it begins in San Francisco and ends up in LA and then goes back to San Francisco. One thing I want to mention is that seeing it again lately, and I’ve seen it dozens of times, but I could have sworn that the footsteps recur, but they don’t. They keep going past the shot, but they only shown the one time. The third time I saw Point Blank I was tripping, it was the last LSD trip I ever saw. It was perfect. The perfect LSD movie. The cutting made every kinda sense. I remember being disappointed when it slows down, like you said.”

What do you think of the rest of the performances?

“Well… Angie Dickinson [reels]… And what’s his name? Lloyd Bochner, classic sixties sleaze ball. Caroll O’Connor. He brings a completely different tone into the movie, it’s a good thing he only comes into the end of the movie. Lotta Irish Blarney. I remember when Hill Street Blues was on TV and I recognized James B. Sikking! The hired gun! He has a major role in that. Conceivably he could be playing the same guy. And of course Keenan Wynn, the ultimate professional in everything he ever did.”

He always seemed a little too smart for most of the movies he was in, like he was out the door during most conversations, a step ahead. What keeps you rooted in Stark’s world?

“The business-like details. The hotels. The bit in this I’m rereading where he’s trying to gain access to an office building and his ploy is to go to a coffee shop and order 8 coffees. Five of them light and sweet, two black, one with milk only. That level. That kind of “you’ve been there” details. So much is rooted in the experience of daily life, even if Parker lives a life we can barely imagine. I’m a sucker for flowing prose, and if I say “flowing prose” with regard to Richard Stark, most pikers won’t know what the fuck I’m talking about but it really does. It ripples. I had this three hour bus ride. I started this book more than an hour into my ride and I’m almost finished. You swallow them like pills. It has to do with the seamlessness of his plotting and the way the prose flows. So few crime writers have that. I’m frankly ignorant about who the crime writers are these days. Dennis Lehane? It’s the same fucking story everytime and it’s so sentimental.”

There’s something about Parker and your writing that to me is intrinsically linked, this idea of the perfect amount of words, the perfect hands for the job. (I tell her my affection for the Céline anecdote in Kill All Your Darlings)

“It’s funny because my father worked in factories all his life, quit school at 14 to work in factories and stayed there ’til he retired. He was an avid reader and he was the one who got Le Mot Juste into my head. I don’t think he ever read Flaubert, but he was the inventor of that whole concept. I got that from him. But I guess manual labor and the right words somehow got twinned in my mind. My father tried to be a writer, he wrote one sketch that was published before I was born and he named me after his pseudonym. There’s a sketch in an obscure Belgian newspaper with my name on it from before I was born. He had a friend who quit his job to become a pulp writer and wrote a book a month, which is what people did then. He didn’t make a much better living than he would have at the factory but he didn’t have to clock in every morning. That stuck in my head. Hell, I still work on deadlines, been doing it for 35 years, it’s crazy. I was a movie critic and a book critic and a crime critic and a photography critic, and I got bored of all those before I was fired.”

Lucy Sante tosses off her past lives, her insanely eloquent work, with such confidence. How do you not sit in awe of a gal whose work was transformative to you, who will just meet up with you for a beer to discuss a mutual favourite movie? Like Parker and Westlake, no airs, no pretension. Just a gal getting a job done.

This Interviews article was published in January 2018