With Melbourne is back in Covid-19 lockdown, I have a bit more time than usual on my hands, so I’ve decided to start a project I have been meaning to undertake for a while now – to watch and review all the screen adaptations of Richard Stark aka Donald Westlake’s crime fiction character, the master thief known as Parker.
Regular readers of this site will be well versed in my adoration for Westlake in general and his character, Parker, in particular. I wrote about what it was that so fascinated me about Parker in some detail on Pulp Curry back in 2014. And my second novel Gunshine State is an Australian homage of to the Parker series.
A few ground rules for what I intend to be an occasional series. I’ll tackle every film, except for John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), which I have already written about in some detail here. This means: Made in U.S.A (1966), Mise a Sac (1967), The Split (1968), The Outfit (1973), Slayground (1983), Payback (the director’s cut – 1999), and Parker (2013). That said, I will not do them in the order they appeared. While Made in U.S.A is the first film to be based on a Westlake book (although the adaptation is very tenuous), I’ve had issues getting a copy to watch, so I’ll tackle Mise a Sac first. While I will obviously reference the particular Parker novel each film is based on, I am not interested in doing a detailed compare and contrast between the book and film. Lastly, for those who might not caught particular films or read the book it is based on, be warned that there will be spoilers galore.
So, let’s kick off with the French film, Mise a Sac, which translates as ‘Put in a Bag’ in English. Released in 1967, the film must have also appeared in English language markets under as I’ve seen English language promotional material for film under the titles Pillaged and Midnight Raid.
Mise a Sac is based on the fifth Parker novel, The Score, published in 1964 (also published as under the title, Killstown). The book involves Parker being recruited by a man named Edgars to rob a small mining town in North Dakota called Copper Canyon. There is one road in and out of town and Edgar’s wants Parker to head up a group of men who will go in, capture the town’s police and telephone exchange, then systematically loot its banks, the mining company’s payroll, and its jewellery store.
Despite being hinky on Edgars, Parker agrees to undertake the job because the reward is worth the risk. The story details the process of putting the team and planning and executing the job. It is a complex operation with a lot of moving parts. Despite this, everything seems to go to plan until Edgar’s reveals his hand in a most spectacular way as someone with a massive grudge against the town. He doesn’t just want to rob the inhabitants; he literally wants to burn the place to the ground.
Mis a Sac opens with the Parker character, called Georges in the film (Michel Constantin), arriving in France’s third largest city, Lyon. He cuts a fairly determined figure, tall, silent, granite faced, dressed in a black suit which he does not seem to take off for the entire film. His first encounter with the Edgars (Daniel Ivernal) gets off to a bad start and Georges almost pulls the plug on the entire job because Edgars was stupid enough to have him followed to the meet up. But Edgars, who comes across as a harmless petti-bourgeois businessman, overcomes Georges doubts by admitting up front that he has zero criminal experience and allowing the professional thief to take command of the job. Much like in the book, this involves putting together a group of men to rob a small factory town called Servage, surrounded by mountains, with one highway in and one way in or out, about 100 km from Lyon.
Roughly the second quarter of the film involves Georges putting together the twelve-man criminal team to hit the town. They go in at night with military precision, split into teams, staying in contact via walkie talkies, taking over the police station and the telephone exchange. Then they proceed to knock off the lot, the banks, factory payroll, post office, and the jewellery store.
The film takes its time showing the teams undertaking their various missions, including some wonderfully filmed simultaneous safe cracking. Some people may find this a bit slow, but I loved the painstaking detail with which the men undertake their various missions. Meanwhile, one of the gang, Maurice (Franco Interlenghi) – based, for those that are familiar with the source novel, on the Alan Grofield character – has the job of sitting in the telephone exchange and making sure one of the operators, Marie-Ange (Irene Tunc) cooperates with the gang by monitoring phone traffic in and out of Servage.
Although the job seems to be going like clockwork, complications are signalled when Edgars breaks away from the group to go and case out the wealthiest house in town. It becomes apparent that he has a grudge to settle to with its occupants when he proceeds to set the house on fire. This results in him being shot by the owner, which blows the whole job and brings the police to the town in force.
The gang has to abandon their tasks half-way, get out of Servage and break into small groups to evade police capture. Some get caught. Georges and one other man manage to make to make it onto a bus departing from a nearby town and. As it pulls away, they watch several members of the gang being taken into police custody in a nearby field. The manhunt is a one of the most fascinating sequences in the film, partly because it is so low key and there is this wonderful philosophical sense on the part of the gang members that getting pursued and potentially arrested by the cops is just part of the life. This no fuss hard boiled tone infuses the entire film. There is nothing spectacular about what these criminals do, their trade just happens to be stealing and they approach it in the same non nonsense way that any professional approaches his or her profession. The closest equivalents I can think of are some of the crime films that appeared in the early 1970s, like The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and The Nickel Ride (1974).
But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Mise a Sac is that it was obviously part of a significant eco-system of French crime film in the 1960s and 1970s, which has only limited crossover with audiences in Australia or America and, hence, that many of us know very little about it.
Ivernal had some roles in English films, most notably in the 1954 film, Ulysses. Ditto, French actor Constantin, who makes a great Parker, had a lengthy acting career, 64 films spanning the late 1950s to the late 1980s, only a smattering of which I have seen: the marvellous prison break film, Le Trou (1960), Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (1970), and another Charles Bronson vehicle, Cold Sweat (1970), directed by Terence Young. The rest of his output, including what appear to include some great crime and espionage films, I know zero about. The film was directed by Alain Cavalier, who has a number of pictures to his name which, likewise I do not know anything about. Cavalier co-wrote the adapted screenplay Claude Sautet, who I am a little more familiar with as the writer of the great French gangster film Classe Tous Risques (1960) and the body horror, Eyes Without a Face (1960).