“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Flick Lit # 43: The Getaway

In Jim Thompson’s novels, no one gets away. Not even, as in the case of Doc and Carol McCoy, when they manage to escape the forces of law and order and their double-crossed partners to fetch up rich and free in Mexico. “Before Kerouac,” wrote Steven King on Thompson’s legacy, “before Ginsberg, before Marlon Brando in The Wild One or Yossarian in Catch 22, this anonymous and little-read Oklahoma novelist captured the spirit of his age, and the spirit of the twentieth century’s latter half: emptiness, a feeling of loss in a land of plenty, of unease amid conformity, of alienation in what was meant, in the wake of World War II, to be a generation of brotherhood.” Thompson wrote 29 novels, including The Killer Inside Me, Nothing More Than Murder, The Nothing Man and The Rip Off. The fatalistic titles say it all: Thompson was the poet laureate of the long-term loser and the short-con grifter. In The Getaway, Thompson got inside the mind of the amoral psychotic, the charming killer who is as much a product of his society as he is a threat to its illusions of normality. It is the relationship between Doc and Carol, however, that lifts it into the realms of the contemporary classics. “They are terrifying,” wrote psychiatrist Tim Willocks. “As Doc and Carol find themselves pitching their reptilian self-interest – an interest, a commitment, so profound and unquestioned as to approach the force of a biological imperative – against each other, Jim Thompson unfolds one of the most perverse love affairs in fiction.” While the cast of characters ranged against Doc and Carol are lurid contortions of humanity, none are quite so vividly repulsive as the main protagonists. And so it seems quite appropriate that, when Doc and Carol finally make it to Mexico, it is to the living death of having their fortune milked away until they are left with nothing but their own mutually destructive mistrust. Sam Peckinpah was not a director renowned for restraint, as he displayed in the callous blood baths of (among others) The Wild Bunch and Cross of Iron. So it is curious that the director shied away from the more graphic episodes of Thompson’s novel when filming Walter Hill’s screenplay. Indeed, the tone of the 1972 version of The Getaway, starring Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, is notable for its downbeat treatment of a quintessential Hollywood staple, the bungled heist. McQueen, never the most lively of actors, plays Doc with a stilted intensity, even when he’s threatening to break a kid’s arm, rabbit-punching a blonde floozy, or slapping around McGraw, then America’s sweetheart. McGraw, meanwhile, appears to be taking her cue from McQueen, and remains virtually comatose throughout (a deliberate attempt, perhaps, to quell rumour of their illicit off-screen affair). Indeed, Peckinpah renders the couple far more conventional than the pairing in Thompson’s novel. Given that the movie starred box office luminaries McQueen and McGraw, and was released in 1972, when the iconoclastic loner ruled Hollywood, it is unrealistic to expect them to suffer in the way the McCoys of Thompson’s novel did: while the traditional Peckinpah conflagration engulfs all the minor parties in a brutal shoot-out, Doc and Carol make good their escape in a patently false feel-good ending with the aid of a chirpy ex-con truck driver. Perhaps that was Peckinpah’s final irony. “The McCoys are natural born killers who do not waste time worrying about their haircuts and tattoos,” wrote Willocks. “They are far too busy charming those who will become their victims should the latter take a single – often innocently aware – step that might jeopardise their goal.” Had Thompson’s Doc and Carol been aided by a chirpy trucker in their bid for freedom, his impulsive generosity would have ensured that he too would have joined the long list of corpses that littered the McCoys’ eternal getaway to nowhere.– Michael McGowan

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