Payback: The 70s American Noir Starring Mel Gibson

This post is part of the excellent “It Takes a Thief” blogathon, hosted by Moon in Gemini.

mel gibson in payback

The heist-gone-inevitably-wrong story on which “Payback” is based, The Hunter (1962), written by Donald E. Westlake under the pseudonym Richard Stark, became a fascinating, existential meditation on the nature of money in its first film adaptation, John Boorman’s 1967 “Point Blank.” It’s a great film, starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson.

“Payback” is writer/director Brian Helgeland’s homage to American crime films of the 70s: “Dirty Harry” (1971), “The Getaway” (1972), and the fine “Charley Varrick” (1973). “Payback” is perhaps not a great film, but it is a very good film. It’s particularly gratifying if you’re a fan of noir or 1970s American cinema, of which it is a sort of mash-up.

The Noir

Porter, our thief anti-hero, is gruff to the point of surliness. He steals from those apparently worse off than he is, which is saying something, since, when we meet him, Porter is having some seriously unsanitary-looking surgery to remove the bullets his wife put in his back. To be fair, though, the begging cripple from whom Porter steals, once he’s back on his own feet, leaps up in a rage to get his money back. It’s not a world in which kindness thrives.

porter in paybackThere’s a bit of voice-over narration by the anti-hero. (“Crooked cops. [Beat] Do they come any other way?”) Porter is nearly always smoking, holding a pack of cigarettes, offering someone else a cigarette, or stealing  cigarettes.

The film has a bleached out, blue-ish hue—apparently a compromise between the studio’s desire for color and Helgeland’s hankering for black and white. The washed-out blue sets off the walnut browns of old-fashioned carved wood doors and cavernous executive suites.

Porter goes through those doors to get his money back. He and his colleague, Val Resnick (a fantastic and under-appreciated turn by Gregg Henry), rip off a Chinese gang. The plan, as far as Porter knows, is to split the take evenly. Unfortunately, Val essentially needs the whole amount ($130,000 of the $140,000) to buy his way back into “The Outfit,” a criminal organization Porter stubbornly refers to by its old name, “The Syndicate.” Persuaded by Val to betray her husband, Porter’s wife shoots him in the back, and Val absconds with the money.

Hence, the title “Payback” is a noirish/B-movie title with a double meaning. Porter wants to get his money back, but there is also the “payback” he owes Val, for stealing from him and leaving him for dead.

In “Point Blank,” the running joke is that the Parker character, Walker (Marvin), keeps demanding his half of the money back in cash from entities—multi-national corporations—that no longer deal in cash. If I remember correctly, Carroll O’Connor’s character offers him a check.

In “Payback,” the running joke is that no one Porter demands his money from can believe all he wants is $70,000. Every mobster he encounters assumes he wants the whole $130,000. And they can’t even believe he’s going to all this trouble for that piddling sum.

The 70s

The story doesn’t take place in an identifiable year, or even decade, but it definitely isn’t the now of the film’s release in 1999. It isn’t necessarily the 70s, either, but it kinda smells that way.

While the voice-over may be a hat-tip to the noir tradition, a lot of the language is pretty 70s. Porter refers to Rosie’s profession as “hooking.” A delightful (and delightfully toothy) William Devane tells his head henchman, John Glover, to “Stitch this mutt up.”

All phones are rotary—there’s even a rotary car phone.

All the cars appear to be models from the 60s or 70s.

The shitty hotel room Porter holes up in with his paramour, Rosie, sports a black velvet “painting” of a naked woman.

When Val clarifies that he wants to be put in touch with Stegman (a delightful David Paymer, who has had a run-in with the surprisingly not-dead Porter), he shouts, “Yes, who do you think, President Nixon?!”

Like “Chinatown” (1974), “Payback” has an early, off-color joke involving the Chinese. (“The problem with kicking a Chow’s ass is, an hour later you want to do it again.” Less off-color. Still racist.)

kristofferson as bronsonSeventies stars James Coburn as the Outfit’s Justin Fairfax and Kris Kristofferson as the Big Bad, Bronson. Bronson was originally just a voice on the phone (Angie Dickinson’s, in a nod to “Point Blank”). When Helgeland’s noir-ish ending was too unhappy for the studio, a new director was brought on and a third of the movie was re-shot. Kristofferson was brought in during the reshoot.

Coburn has one of the best scenes in the movie. (The only version available on YouTube is from Helgeland’s 2006 version of the film, so no blueish hue and Dickinson rather than Kristofferson on speaker phone.)

The overlap

Lucy Liu plays Pearl, an underworld dominatrix making time with Val. The part has Dragon Lady echoes, but Liu’s clearly having a lot of fun. Pearl and Val are both sadists, and when Porter comes to pressure Val into getting his money back from the Outfit, Pearl offers to rough him up on Porter’s behalf.

The name “Porter” is an adaptation of Westlake’s original creation, Parker. It’s a change that makes sense, as one of the things we see Porter do most often—besides take a savage beating—is walk through doorways.

Speaking of those savage beatings. In retrospect, the masochism displayed by Mel Gibson’s character is in keeping with the violence he has routinely subjected himself to in films like “Lethal Weapon” and “Braveheart.” But it is also reminiscent of the violent turn in 70s American cinema, ushered in by Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” and Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” Both of those are late 60s films, but what followed was the decade of Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs,” Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II,” and Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.”

Porter starts out being left for dead, so I suppose everything after that is technically an improvement. The climax of the violence is a torture scene towards the end of the film, during which Porter is beaten about the face and torso and then has his toes smashed by a hammer.

And while the Philip Marlowe films of the 40s aren’t especially violent, Raymond Chandler’s original novels have Marlowe getting pummeled so routinely that it’s a topic of conversation.

The less happy ending of Helgeland’s original version is likewise a nod to both eras, when the good guy was often an anti-hero and the story frequently culminated in his destruction, whether literal or merely psychological.

Helgeland pieced together a version of his original in 2006, although much of the original footage he’d shot was no longer available. You can rent “Payback: Straight Up” on Amazon, but start with the original release.

Don’t forget to check out all the other robbery-related posts of the blogathon!

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