Westlake on Highsmith, in The Getaway Car


NB: A version of this post also appears at Existential Ennui.

Four years ago on Existential Ennui I posted a review of Ripley Under Ground, Roger Spottiswoode’s 2005 film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s second Tom Ripley novel. Much as I love Highsmith’s source text—indeed the Ripliad as a whole—I wasn’t terribly keen on the film; the dreadfully miscast Barry Pepper’s performance as Tom Ripley left a lot to be desired, and the way the filmmakers eviscerated Tom’s character, excising his murderous background, for me fatally undermined the entire enterprise. I didn’t blame anyone in particular for any of this, but I did make note of one of the people at least in part responsible: Donald E. Westlake.

Westlake is credited as co-writer of the screenplay for Ripley Under Ground—with William Blake Herron—but at that point I was only dimly aware of who Westlake was; I hadn’t yet read anything by him, although I was just about to, namely The Hunter, alias Point Blank—the first Parker novel (written, of course, as Richard Stark), and the first of many Westlake books I would read over the ensuing years. One of the most recent being this:


The Getaway Car, the forthcoming (in September) Westlake non-fiction miscellany put together by Levi Stahl of the University of Chicago Press. Levi kindly arranged for me to be sent an uncorrected page proof of the book, which I’ve been dipping in and out of since it arrived the other week; I expect I’ll review it in full nearer the pub date, but I was drawn in particular to a piece to do with Westlake’s experiences on Ripley Under Ground—partly because Patricia Highsmith has been on my mind of late (I reviewed two inscribed copies of her short story collections recently, and have further posts on her planned), but also because it sheds a little light on what may have gone wrong with the film and on what Westlake made of Highsmith—i.e., what one of my favourite authors, responsible for one of the two most brilliant series of novels to feature a conscienceless criminal ever written, made of another of my favourite authors, responsible for the other most brilliant series of novels to feature a conscienceless criminal ever written (IMHO).

It’s part of a longer piece titled “The Worst Happens,” which comprises a selection of Westlake quotes from an interview by Patrick McGilligan (originally published in Sight and Sound in 1990 and then later expanded for Backstory 4: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1970s and 1980s) in which Westlake expatiates on other writers’ adaptations of his own work (The Hot Rock, The Outfit) and his own adaptations of other people’s work (The Grifters). Westlake calls Ripley Under Ground—or rather “Mr. Ripley’s Return” as the film was apparently known to Westlake—”one of the odder episodes,” going on to recount how he “was delighted to take a crack at the book,” and that his “first draft . . . attracted Michael Tolkin to direct . . . [who] had some lovely ideas, details of menace and suspense for the second draft, which I wrote, and then never heard from them again.”

Over a decade later the film was made with no further involvement from Westlake (or indeed Tolkin), who had “no idea what happened to the script over the last eleven years” but who agreed to a shared credit in order to receive, on top of belated payment for his work, “a potential production bonus.” This despite the fact that, as Westlake memorably puts it, “[n]o one [from the production] has contacted me directly. I am merely that truck-stop waitress in Amarillo they fucked in 1992. That’s okay. I think highly of them, too. Someone working on the set of the movie—I think it was shot in France, but don’t know for sure—said it wasn’t coming out well, which could merely be schadenfreude.”


As entertaining as all of this is, however, much more interesting to me are Westlake’s thoughts on the source novel and on Highsmith herself:

I’ve always loved the deadpanness of Highsmith, and I thought it reached a peak in that book. The guy Ripley is tormenting, in his passive-aggressive way, suddenly turns around, smashes Ripley’s head with a shovel, and buries him in Ripley’s own garden. Ripley survives, comes up out of the grave later that night, takes a nice hot tub, patches his cut parts, and then what does he do? Call the cops? No. Shoot the guy? No. He haunts the guy for the next one hundred pages of the book, appearing and disappearing in windows, stuff like that.

I’ve long wondered whether Westlake read Highsmith—I mean beyond Ripley Under Ground, which for obvious reasons I figured he must have read at least—so it’s nice to find that he did and that he loved her “deadpanness.” I’ve yet to discover whether Highsmith read Westlake, but something I did learn was that almost certainly the two never met. Westlake told McGilligan: “I was delighted to take a crack at the book, and I didn’t mind Highsmith’s weirdness and repulsiveness, because I wasn’t going to meet her or deal with her; that was the ground rule.”