Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Cops and Robbers


Donald Westlake may just be my favorite writer. At least he’s up in the top five. He’s prolific, versatile, and I can always rely on him to entertain me. He writes mostly comic novels under his own name, many of them featuring a hard-luck burglar named John Dortmunder and his motley gang. When I say comic novels, don’t be put off. These are exquisite little gems, with plots that work like … well, broken clockwork, since things always go wrong. Not because Dortmunder is an idiot. He’s not, he’s a great planner, but people will fuck up. A typical Westlake plot (The Hot Rock, an excellent movie with a script by William Goldman) has the gang steal a valuable emerald … four times. Or how about Bank Shot, where a bank has temporary quarters in a big trailer while the main branch is being built. They don’t rob the bank, they steal it. Just back up a big truck, hitch it up, and haul it away, with the guards inside. And where do you hide a stolen bank? Why, where else? In a trailer park. Honestly, there is nobody in the business of fiction writing who plots better than Westlake.

His alter ego, Richard Stark, writes about a very serious fellow named Parker, who is the gritty side of Dortmunder. He’s had several films made about him, starting with Lee Marvin in Point Blank. They remade it, very badly, with Mel Gibson, as Payback.

Westlake has written screenplays, got an Oscar nomination for the amazing The Grifters. Many of his other novels have been made into movies. Mostly badly, I’m sorry to say. Cops and Robbers is one of the good ones. The screen credit is “Written by Donald Westlake,” which usually means an original screenplay, but there is a novel, too. I don’t know which came first, but it doesn’t really matter. Both are excellent. This movie is sort of a middle ground between Dortmunder and Parker. It’s comic at times, and deadly serious at others. It concerns two NYC cops (and Westlake is a New Yorker down to his boots) who are sick and tired of the shitty, low-paid, dangerous job. They realize that as cops they have an inside track on a lot of things, and they set out to steal $10,000,000 in bearer bonds from a Wall Street brokerage. As usual with Westlake, that’s only the beginning of the twists and turns. The two main roles are extremely well done by Joseph Bologna and Cliff Gorman, who played the stand-up comic in All That Jazz. It’s only 89 minutes long, but a lot of good writing and acting is packed into that short time. See it.