Jim Thompson is a rare literary bird, a genre novelist who’s genuinely transcended his genre (pulp noir) not by subverting it or cross-pollinating it, but by fully assimilating it to his own style. In his greatest works of fiction, like The Getaway, After Dark My Sweet, and Savage Night, Thompson purified the pulp novel of its dependence on pop, its clever twists and moralistic statements. The stories he wrote were meditations, twisted forays into the meaningless order of disturbed psychology, dismantled parables from a noir world where fatalism and betrayal are mechanisms of everyday life.
James Foley directed perhaps the first innately successful adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel. In his film, After Dark, My Sweet (1990), he shows us the naked brutality of Thompson’s vision of the world, where good fortune is so scarce that the characters fight tooth and nail for every scrap of it, and still tend to come up tragically short. It’s a noir universe, parched under the exposure of the Western sun, where the sentimentality is vintage in the way only a shameless storyteller can write it.
In some of his novels, Thompson takes a surrealist route; here, he’s uncompromisingly realist. Both modes work because of the little absurdities and inconsistencies, the gaps in communication and behavior, the general failure of order and explanation, all of which indicate a world that’s not chained to an author’s calculations. Seriously, what was Fay doing when she put Charley out in the woods near her house? Was she trying to kill him, let him escape, or simply find a way to get him out of her house and her disarrayed life? This is plotlessness in the midst of a plot, rough breaks in a smooth stream, and they’re the details that make Thompson’s books so rich in texture and psychology.
Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of The Killer Inside Me (2010) is cinema’s latest attempt to capture Jim Thompson’s spark. Winterbottom’s Lou Ford is a landmark performance of pathological insecurity, played by Casey Affleck, who has a penchant for this sort of thing (as evidenced by The Assassination of Jesse James (2007), another brilliant downbeat piece of cinema). Honestly, I never pictured Lou Ford as a skittish, mousey guy… in his more stable moments, I pictured him as a classic Good Ol’ Boy cop, a la Ron Elard in House of Sand and Fog (2003). Thompson's Lou Ford was a guy the whole town could trust, just because he presented himself as such an upstanding citizen. The only flaw with Casey Affleck, I think, is that his “healthy” state looks too much like his “sickness” state, so it’s hard for me to see him as a cop that people could have mistaken for trustworthy in the first place.
Still, the rural noir tone, the offbeat musical cues and twisted hints of humor, and the wild swings from tenderness to depravity – these all scream Jim Thompson. This is the real shit, the unsettling, uncompromising view of the world that Thompson wrote into so many of his novels, nailed perfectly to the wall by Winterbottom. Perhaps the most compelling reproduction of a moment from the source material comes when we hear Amy’s letter, voiced over a scene from a diner that never happened, where Amy walks to the bathroom to let Lou escape; this scene is paced and rendered and framed in perfect harmony with its counterpart in the novel, so much that it seems to echo Thompson’s words.
You’ve gotta give it to Winterbottom for evoking this moment so perfectly. The rest of the movie does the same, to varying degrees, but this scene is perfect verbal-visual mimesis, and it’s a beautiful moment. The only other perfect reproduction of a “Thompson moment” that I remember is from Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet: that scene at the very end, where Kid Collins masters his innate eccentricity just long enough to proffer a great gesture to Fay, his lover.
The more tone-sensitive adaptations of Thompson’s work also tend to be meticulously faithful. Both After Dark and The Killer Inside Me are almost obsessive about following the sequence of events set forth in the script; Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972) is far less so, and as if by necessity, it seems to lose some of the tone of its source material, as well, sacrificing open-air cross-country paranoia in favor of a lovers-on-the-lam Western feeling.
In the former two films, Jim Thompson’s personality seems to subsume those of the directors. Winterbottom has always been a chameleon, whose only trademark is that there’s something convoluted about his work, whether thematically or structurally. Foley’s own oeuvre fit perfectly with the Thompson novel he directed: his work has always been lurid, paranoid, and violent, and he seemed to sink right into the story he was telling.
Peckinpah’s adaptation, on the other hand, is what you might call “loose.” It excises some significant narrative blocks… the desperate, panic-inducing cowering in the bottom of a well, and the whole cynically offbeat ending, which I won’t deign to spoil here. The rhythm of the story changes, and the atmosphere changes, as well, taking on a much more dust-bowl/Southwest/cowboy flavor. The violence, which Thompson tossed off with a cavalier flourish, feels abrupt and brutal under Peckinpah’s direction. Apparently these departures were good moves: Packinpah’s film was his most successful, and it’s still the most successful of the Thompson adaptations. Even so, it’s a bitter success for fans of Thompson.
Maybe it’s the ending. Thompson’s endings are unapologetically downbeat, and Steve McQueen made sure that shit wasn’t goin’ down on The Getaway, his comeback movie. Even Winterbottom tweaked the ending of The Killer Inside Me a little, placing more focus on the disastrous love between Lou and Joyce… a theme that he emphasizes through the length of the film, which had a noticeable sentimental edge over Thompson’s novel. Only After Dark, My Sweet seemed to hit the ending nail right on the head, with Jason Patric landing Kid Collie’s final deception with perfect, gut-wrenching panache.
It’s worth asking: are these movies misogynistic? Is Thompson himself? This is what’s stirred a lot of the controversy around The Killer Inside Me; as with any story by an intelligent author, it’s not simply a matter of misogynistic-or-not. Thompson’s world is a brutal, paranoid, unforgiving landscape, both socially and psychologically, and it’s dominated by masculine characters wrestling with their manly identities… Lou Ford is a pathological sadist, but it doesn’t make him a happy man. No, indeed, he has the bad habit of killing those he loves (especially his lovers), and we can see that for him, there’s no appreciable boundary between loving them and wanting to damage them. Not only does his psychosexual deviance make him unhappy – it also makes him unstable, and induces him to entangle himself in a situation he can’t resolve. The film is a chronicle of his universe, constructed from sex, violence, insecurity, and self-indulgence, crashing down around him.
Peckinpah’s adaptation is the only adaptation of these three movies that actually crosses the line into misogyny, which isn’t too surprising, considering it’s the product of a pair of manly men par excellence. This patriarchal tendency is partly due to the source material, which, of Thompson’s works, is one of the least sensitive to the female point of view. Throughout the novel, Carol McCoy mostly blunders and frets alongside Doc, who steers their dangerous road trip from the chauvanist driver’s seat. Still, at the very least, there’s a sense of retribution at the end of Thompson’s story, as the characters’ rottenness devours them, figuratively and literally.
However, Peckinpah and McQueen turn this into a cowboy action movie, a long chase with a benign ending, and this actually reverses the implosion that gave the novel its intellectual substance. Instead of a reflection on inner conflict and mutual resentment, the film becomes a justification for all of Doc McCoy’s cavalier womanizing, which even turns violent a couple times. The two female characters are a slimeball (Fran / Sally Struthers) and a loveable, sexually-empowered sidekick (Carol / Ali McGraw), and the hero and the villain are paragons of masculinity, respectively noble and depraved. As the ending affirms, this is the correct way of things in Peckinpah’s world.
It’s borne out by all three films – not just the least faithful, but also the two that adhere slavishly to the novels – that Thompson’s world is difficult to capture, and impossible to improve upon. Whether you’re an iconic director working with a 70’s sex symbol, or an indie crime-drama filmmaker out to shoot something profoundly authentic… or maybe a marginal Hollywood director with the guts to make a provocative film out of hazardous source material… you’re going to be fighting against Thompson’s subversive psychology, which is elusive even to his most discerning readers. His characters are compromised, contemptible, deserving victims of their own sins, and Thompson’s task is to chart their downfalls. It’s all cinema can do to keep up with these stories as they rush into oblivion.