Friday, September 23, 2016

Parker Watch: The Split (1968)

I'd been wanting to see The Split (1968) for a while.  Based upon one of my favorite Parker novels, The Seventh, it also starred Jim Brown, pro-football superstar turned movie star (and a generally much better presence on the big screen than you generally get out of other former athletes*).  I wasn't aware of the pedigree of the cast for this movie which is all but forgotten.  But when you have a movie with Jim Brown, Donald Sutherland, Julie Harris, Jack Klugman, Warren Oates, Gene Hackman, Diahann Carroll... and people don't remember it?

Well, it's not a great sign.

As this is my fifth Parker adaptation to view, I'm well over expecting any of these films to hew close to the source material, and in some ways this one does as well or better than others.  Like most of these films, it tosses Parker as he works on the page right out the window (I'd argue that Lee Marvin's cut-from-granite take on the idea in Point Blank came closest with Mel Gibson coming in second - and would have done better if not for the BS last 30-45 minutes of Payback, but none have been Parker.  Especially, ironically, when the Westlake estate let them name the movie Parker and then cast Jason Statham.).

What the movie does sort-of-well is show Parker assembling the team with their specialties, the planning and set-up with the execution.  That formula is at the core of many Parker novels, but it was The Seventh - the book upon which they based this movie - that used your knowledge of that formula to fill in a lot of gaps and start after the heist, the details of the heist told in a relatively brief portion of the book.  The movie inverts the proportions, treating the main portion of the book's narrative as a sort of messy and unexpected entanglement after the success of the heist, leaving the movie a lopsided mess and suggesting someone didn't quite get what made the Parker novels work, or what made The Seventh work, in particular.

Jim Brown plays "Mac", our Parker stand-in (Stark wouldn't sell the rights to the Parker books along with Parker's name, weirdly preserving the integrity of Parker), who returns to LA for one big last heist.  He meets up with Gladys, a sort of planner and financier for the heist, and an old friend (played by Julie Harris in a sort of near-camp level of energy).  He reunites with his ex-wife, the terribly attractive Diahann Caroll, who isn't part of any of this, but Mac realizes is a good post-robbery cover for him.

What gets weird and what deviates completely from the Parker formula is that Mac then goes about recruiting his squad, which is usually a lot of letter-writing, phone-calls and shady communication (depending on what decade you're talking), Parker seems to know who to recruit, their specialty, etc... but they don't know him.  So he provides a surprise test for each of them to pass, and instead of them murdering him, they all agree to join in on the heist.  It's truly some bad, motivation-free writing, taking my favorite concept of "show, don't tell" and making it something terrible.

The heist itself isn't much different from the book - they cleverly rip off an NFL game - which was told in flashback in the novel.  The book starts at about the hour-and-ten minute or so of the movie, when Mac walks in the door to find the woman he was shacked up with is dead, the money is gone, and so are the weapons.  In the book, it's a hell of a set-up.

The movie sort of just waves all of this away, making it a weird inconvenience that winds up feeling like padding on an unearned run-time.  They add a cop to the story - and while I'm always happy to see Gene Hackman, even a pre-French Connection Hackman, the movie goes nowhere with the idea, and it just feels like a series of events occurring, nothing really tracking to anything that occurred before.

In the novel Parker isn't hunting the guy who killed the girl because they were in love (she's a random hooker he's staying with and hadn't quite hit that point in their relationship), he's looking for the money and guns so the heist squad won't kill him.  Which happens here.  But our cop just captures the murderer off screen, and it just confuses the entire situation.  Moreover, the brutal ending of the novel doesn't even come close to occurring.

It's a wasted opportunity on so many levels.  The cast is trying - and it's funny to see all theseactors in a film as supporting characters at various points in their careers - but there's not much of a story happening.  They're all actually fine in their parts and I don't mind that Jim Brown's "Mac" is more of a gallows-humored sort of guy willing to crack a joke - that's a fine change.  And I like seeing the actual heist in action, even if the direction felt almost TV-ready rather than that of a film.  But Mac's motivations and what drives the story forward just gets buried under re-writes, direction and editing.

In short, I can't recommend the movie.  But i can recommend the first seven Parker novels.  So there you go.

*one day I will watch Howie Long's star turn in Firestorm

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