The Golden Age of American mystery writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett was well served by Hollywood in pictures like The Thin Man (1934), The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946). But the next generation was not. Apart from Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer – renamed for Hollywood purposes – in Harper (1966) and to a lesser extent The Drowning Pool, a whole generation of fictional detectives came unstuck in the movies, among them John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee (Darker Than Amber, 1970) and Ed McBain’s Steve Carella (Fuzz, 1972) while Robert B. Parker’s Spenser only got as far as television. Richard Stark did better than most, but only courtesy of Point Blank (1967) with Lee Marvin – renamed Walker – as series character Parker.
Parker was an unusual character for a long-running crime series in that he was a hard-boiled thief rather than a private eye or cop. He was exceptionally ruthless and women only featured in his life once the job was done so a difficult character around whom to spin a tale. And he was not a man who needed to show how tough he was, reputation and physique already did that, so Jim Brown having to throw his weight around in the film to intimidate this fellow criminals was not necessary and not in the book and was only added to the movie to explain Brown’s leadership credentials.
The book was called The Seventh – Parker’s share of the split, everyone getting an equal share which was always the tradition in Parker’s world. Since the author refused to sign away the rights of his character when he sold his books to Hollywood, the movies always featured a lead called something other than Parker. In The Split Jim Brown played a guy called McClain. The books often followed a chronology so McClain being broke at the start of The Split was a consequence of the previous book in the series Jugger.
The film has a completely different structure to the book. The Split follows the usual heist dynamic – planning, robbery, consequence. The book starts at the opposite end and begins with the robbery proceeds already stolen and Parker having to investigate his partners to find out who did it or alternatively how and why the deed was accomplished. In the book his girlfriend Ellie (Diahann Carroll in the film) is a temporary hook-up and since she is dead at the outset, there’s no element of romance. But since a movie needs more than that, Ellie is given a different backstory, the much stronger one of his estranged wife.
There are wholesale name changes from book to film. The book’s Harry Kifka is changed to Dan Kifka (Jack Klugman), Bert Clinger becomes Abe Clinger (Ernest Borgnine), Bob Negli is transformed into Dave Negli (Donald Sutherland). Arnie Feccio becomes Marty Gough (Warren Oates). The cop is Dougherty not Brill (Gene Hackman). There are other changes. Clinger doesn’t own a gym; he did own a movie theatre but ended up in jail for trying to burn it down for the insurance. You couldn’t get a greater difference between the Negli in the book and Donald Sutherland, the original character being under five-feet tall, over a foot shorter than Sutherland, and he’s the one – not Gladys (Julie Harris) – who came up with the idea of robbing the football stadium and although cocky he’s not a cold-blooded assassin.
The book basically follows Parker tracking down his fellow criminals one by one at the same time as keeping one step ahead of the investigating detective which is effectively the third act of the movie. The heist is told in flashback, but with less specialization required from the personalities involved. In some respects book and film arrive at the same conclusion but by different means. The movie has to flesh out characters but in devoting so much time to the planning and execution of the robbery, not sufficient time is left for the subsequent hunt for the man who has stolen their loot which goes some way to explain why the ending appears so rushed.
Several of Richard Stark’s “Parker” books have been filmed beginning with Point Blank (1967) based on The Hunter and remade as Payback (1999) with Mel Gibson. Others are: French Mise a Sac (1967) based on The Score, The Outfit (1973) with Robert Duvall, Slayground (1983) starring Peter Coyote and Parker (2013) from the novel Flashfire and starring Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez. Richard Stark was the pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake whose other filmed novels included The Hot Rock (1972) with Robert Redford and George Segal, The Bank Shot (1974) starring George C. Scott and What’s the Worst That Could Happen (2001) with Martin Lawrence.
I can highly recommend the Parker series. The stories are taut and the quality of writing on a par with Chandler and Hammett. Stark expends much detail on weaponry and the details of planning the heists. Sometimes Parker gets away with the robbery, sometimes he does not, and there are always unexpected developments.
The Seventh is very hard to get hold of. Most of the copies available even on ebay are expensive so your best bet, if you are interested, is this omnibus edition of five books.