Robert Polito’s SAVAGE ART is one of the best literary biographies I’ve ever read, although it’s fair to say that Jim Thompson (right) gave Polito plenty of material to work with. Below is a very brief overview of Thompson’s career, which was published last Friday in the Irish Times in advance of the release of Michael Winterbottom’s reboot of THE KILLER INSIDE ME. To wit:
Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me had a torrid time at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. Based on a novel by Jim Thompson, the film sharply divided critics, being booed for its portrayal of excessive violence against women and praised for its fidelity to its source material. In this much at least, the film is true to Jim Thompson form. Thompson has always divided people, and never more so than when creating his grotesque characters.
Played by Casey Affleck in the movie, Sheriff Lou Ford is a split-personality psychotic. Amiable and soft-spoken in public, he is privately a monster. In the 1952 novel, Ford is the prototype for what would become the archetypal Thompson creation, being a nihilistic and violent loner with a perverse philosophy which is accessed in frightening detail via a first-person narrative. But Thompson wasn’t simply writing schlock-horror. His peer Geoffrey O’Brien dubbed him ‘the dime-store Dostoevsky’ for his fascination with the Russian author, while Stephen Frears, who directed The Grifters in 1990, claimed that Thompson’s work had uncanny parallels with Greek tragedy.
Born in 1906 in Oklahoma into a well-to-do family which subsequently fell from grace, Thompson spent his formative years drifting through middle America taking on a variety of jobs that exposed him to the sordid underbelly of the American Dream. He finally settled in California, and in the 1940s published two literary novels that were critically well-received but sold little. A graduate of the lurid pulp magazines, Thompson turned his hand to the more lucrative crime fiction market when he published Nothing More Than Murder in 1949. Then, in 1952, The Killer Inside Me appeared.
Hard-boiled crime writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain had by then long since taken murder out of the drawing room, as Chandler said of Hammett, and dropped it in the alleyway, where it belonged. What Thompson achieved was to personalise the criminal mind to an unprecedented degree, not simply offering a first-person take on the kind of deranged mind that kills for fun, but exploring in the process the existential extremes to which an unhinged imagination can run. Lou Ford was the precursor to Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley and Robert Harris’s Hannibal Lecter. If good crime writing offers an analysis of a nation’s mental health, Jim Thompson was crime fiction’s Sigmund Freud, contributing a fevered, overwrought and compelling account of the killer inside us all.
The quality of Thompson’s output was uneven, which isn’t surprising given that he wrote in a furious outpouring. Between 1952 and 1954, for example, he penned four to five novels per year. Bedevilled by demons, not least of them a life-time’s alcoholism, his novels were often sloppily written. His best work, however - Savage Night, The Getaway, The Grifters, Pop. 1280 - are among the finest and most disturbing crime novels ever written.
Hollywood picked up on Thompson’s skewed vision, with the author first working with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay for The Killing (1956). Thompson got minimal credit from Kubrick, although that didn’t prevent him from writing the screenplay for Paths of Glory (1957), when Kubrick again denied Thompson his full credit. Disillusioned, Thompson eventually drifted into writing for TV, although by the late 1960s he was virtually destitute and unemployable as a result of his heavy drinking.
Sam Peckinpah adapted Thompson’s The Getaway (1972) in a film starring Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. The tale of a heist gone wrong, the movie is hailed as a classic example of minimalist crime cinema. Yet the film, and the 1994 remake starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, ended where Thompson’s novel started to get truly interesting, when the pair of mutually suspicious runaways fetch up in a surreal Mexican bolt-hole, doomed to watch their swag dwindle and suffer through Sartre’s version of hell in a microcosm.
Thompson died in 1977 after a series of strokes, a few short years before he was discovered by French filmmakers. In 1979, Alain Corneau adapted A Hell of a Woman to make Série Noire, which was followed in 1981 by Bernard Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, adapted from Pop. 1280. Thompson again found favour in Hollywood, with the pick of a slew of adaptations being Stephen Frears’ The Grifters (1990). The film starred John Cusack and Angelica Huston and garnered four Academy nominations.
Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, which was first made by Burt Kennedy in 1976 and starred Stacy Keach as a lacklustre Lou Ford, might yet find Thompson the subject of a long overdue reappraisal. Be warned, however - you may require a strong stomach. And a pair of earplugs to drown out the boos might be advisable. - Declan Burke
Jim Thompson on Celluloid
The Killing (1956)
A seminal film noir about a racetrack heist doomed to failure, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Sterling Hayden and noir stalwart Elisha Cook Jnr. Clocking in at 85 minutes, there literally isn’t a wasted second.
The Getaway (1976)
Sam Peckinpah directed Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw in a doomed bank heist. McQueen rejected Thompson’s script as dialogue-heavy, and had the film rewritten to include a happy ending.
Série Noire (1979)
Franck Poupart plays a door-to-door salesman drawn into murder by a teenager prostituted by her aunt. The mood of bleak existential gloom degenerates into utter despair.
Coup de Torchon (1981)
Bernard Tavernier relocated Thompson’s small-town 1950’s America setting to a French African colony in 1938. Racism, simmering tension and psychotic impulses make for a modern classic.
The Grifters (1990)
John Cusack and Angelica Huston play a couple of con artists who just so happen to be incestuous lovers. The final scene is a bleakly harrowing as anything mainstream Hollywood has ever produced.
Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me is released on June 4.
This feature first appeared in the Irish Times.
Praise for Declan Burke: “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – The Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “A hardboiled delight.” – The Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review). “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre, was ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.” – Sunday Times. “The writing is a joy.” – Ken Bruen. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.