Jim Thompson on Film

Jim Thompson pumped out pulp novels in the 50s and 60s, gaining some acclaim during his lifetime [especially from The New Yorker’s Anthony Boucher], but never receiving the appreciation he deserved until the 80s, when his work was republished in the Black Lizard series. What sets Thompson’s work apart is the unusually psychological nature of his characters, the richly shaded moral quandaries he creates, and the incredibly violent scenes he sprinkles throughout his novels. When you read Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, you sense them being confined by the strictures against clearly expressing violence. By the time Thompson came around, those strictures were largely removed, but he didn’t go overboard: his violence is measured, short, and brutal. The new freedom he did take advantage of to the hilt, however, was the ability to go wild in exploring his characters murderous, unreliable and sometimes psychotic mental states.

Much of Thompson’s own life was processed in his fiction. And since many themes and stories get repeated in his work, it’s helpful to know certain biographical facts. His father was sheriff of Caddo County, Oklahoma. He was defeated in his bid for state legislature, and soon after resigned in disgrace under charges of embezzlement. Numerous of Thomspon’s characters, such as those in The Killer Inside Me and its near-rewrite, Pop. 1280, faced vastly curtailed life options after their father's fortunes suddenly fell.

Another huge influence on Thompson’s life were his years working as a bellhop at a Texas hotel during prohibition. He procured bootleg liquor, heroin, marijuana, prostitutes and more for his patrons. More importantly, he earned the trust of the grifters and criminals who passed through the hotel, and absorbed the tricks of their trade, as well as soaking up notable stories that had happened to their criminal friends.

Thompson struggled with alcoholism his entire life, and worked as a reporter while also writing novels until the publication of his breakthrough, The Killer Inside Me in 1952. He pumped out novels—sometimes five a year—throughout the fifties and sixties. His work barely sustained him and his family, and he died of a series of strokes—exacerbated by his lifelong drinking—at 71.

One of the best Thompson films is not an adaptation of his work, but written by him. Stanley Kubrick hired him to write the screenplay for The Killing, an adaptation of Clean Break by Lionel White. Kubrick and Thompson comprise somewhat of a match made in heaven, as Kubrick's stark, subtly abstract and off-kilter editing and compositions lend itself beautifully to Thompson's harsh, intelligent dialogue, both of them working together to convey the tough, hard-boiled world the story is taking place in. The story is that Kubrick shafted Thompson on the screenplay, relegating him to a vague "dialogue by" credit, and taking screenplay credit for himself. Nevertheless, the film is a great, hard-boiled noir, and for whatever reason--perhaps because Thompson was continually struggling for money--he agreed to write for Kubrick again, on Paths of Glory.

One of Thompson's best and most well-known novels, The Killer Inside Me, is also one of the hardest to adapt--and it shows in the two films made from it. The novel is densely psychological, told first-person from within a psychotic mind, which allows us to flash back to reveal character history, hear the main character's thoughts throughout, leisure to explain his plans and the several ironies of his speech. This was made into a film in 1976, starring Stacey Keach and Susan Tyrell. This first version is a huge disappointment to the Thompson fan, as it gets the casting, the setting, the characters and the look exactly right. Keach perfectly captures the smiling menace of the lead character, Lou Ford, a dangerous, sadistic small-town sheriff. Unfortunately, the screenplay massively screws the story, extending the first half, and chopping the complex second half down to virtually nothing. What you end up with is a tragic miss of what could have been one of the best Thompson adaptations of all, and ends up being one of the worst.

Hopes were raised by the prospect of the modern remake by Michael Winterbottom, especially when it started generating controversy for its violence toward women. Not because one wants to see violence toward women--but because one wants to see Thompson's extremely harsh, sadistic vision REALLY adapted. Thompson's version has Ford violently killing women with his bare hands, but the idea in the novel is that the women are shocked by his violence, and come to hate him for it. The script here makes a slight but crucially important change, which takes the the misogyny of the character and makes it the misogyny of the MOVIE. In this version, the women still love Ford, and even tell him so, AS he is brutally murdering them! This small change makes a huge impact on the film, fatally warping what had been special about the book, and unfortunately not finding much to replace it with. It makes the movie eminently skippable.

A number of Thompson's books featured characters and plots that were quite similar [but hey, so did Jane Austen's], and one that is quite similar to The Killer Inside Me is Pop. 1280, which features a character and plot not unlike the earlier novel. Here its lead character is also a Sheriff, and also hides his devious brilliance behind a front of apparent stupidity. This was adapted into a French film called Coup de Torchon, or Clean Slate. The action is transferred from the American West to 1938 Senegal, then a French colony, and by God, it works! Its lead character, Lucien, is the laughing stock of the town, but uses his hidden wiles to get revenge on his enemies, all of whom, believing him too dumb to have arranged it all, fall right into his traps. It's a satisfying film, and one of the better adaptations.

Another French film that did right by Thompson is Serie Noire, adapted from his novel A Hell of a Woman. A desperate salesman, verging on psychosis, falls in love with a fourteen year old prostitute, and vows to save her from her life of misery. This draws him into a crime, which gains him some money, after which he spends the rest of the film trying to protect his money from the many dubious characters around him, in the meanwhile losing track of exactly what he's doing all this for. This is one of Thomspon's darker, less likable works, with a loose structure and little concern with providing a satisfying ending. The movie is quite good, and features an excellent, edge-of-sanity performance by Patrick Dewaere, but like the novel, it is as irritating as it is brilliant, and it may be better for you than it is fun to sit through.

A Hell of a Woman shares numerous similarities with A Swell-Looking Babe, in entering on a man of shaky mental stature being drawn into a crime involving many dubious characters, all for the love of an extremely dubious woman. This was made into the film Hit Me, the first film by Steven Shainberg, who went on to do Secretary and the less-acclaimed Fur. This film features a showy role for Elias Koteas, who gets to display his chops as a pathetic, low-class bellhop being slowly driven mad by his circumstances. The bellhop role can be seen as drawing on what we know about Thompson's own experience, but unfortunately Shainberg is a bit overindulgent, and what would have been a tight little film at 90 minutes ends up being a bit of a bloated drag at nearly two hours, and ultimately ends up only for the hardcore Thompson fan--who, even so, is unlikely to be pleased.

Also on the low-budget indie end of the Thompson adaptations is This World, Then the Fireworks, drawn from one of Thompson's better-known short stories. It has a lot going for it, including juicy roles for Billy Zane, Gina Gershon, the incomparable Sheryl Lee, too little-seen after her role as Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks, and, believe it or not, Rue McClanahan! Unfortunately, what's a little vague and unfocused in the novel remains vague and unfocused in the film, and while it contains a lot of intriguing characters and dynamics, one can see why it was never blown out into a novel. Not to mention that the ending is fairly opaque on paper, and remains so in the film. I'm still not completely sure I understand what happened. Close, but ultimately there's just not enough there.

Which brings us to the two different versions of The Getaway. The first, from 1972, stars Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw and is directed by Sam Peckinpah. The marriage of Peckinpah and Thompson proves to be a good one, as Peckinpah isn’t afraid to go for the visceral violence Thompson traffics in and bring it powerfully to the screen, and he’s got the intelligence to visually bring out some of the difficult emotions of the novel, such as his opening, which does a great job of visually expressing the lead character’s slowly-creeping insanity as he rots in prison. This movie gets some guff for changing the ending of the novel [which was itself a bit of a crib from the ending of the novel of Double Indemnity], but the truth is: it found a good ending that would work in a film. The ending of the original is more an existential nightmare, which rarely makes for compelling cinema.

The remake of The Getaway with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger is great for the Jim Thompson fan who wants a good laugh. Much as I admire Baldwin, even before his recent resurgence, he just isn’t a Jim Thompson antihero. And Basinger really… I think the less said about her in any context, the better. The movie seems far more concerned with providing awesome action than really delving into the deep psychological nastiness of the novel [a fate the Peckinpah version avoids], which has the result of rendering some of the nastier elements just ugly and sadistic. The greatest amount of effort put into the film seems to have gone toward making sure the leads’ hair looks FANTASTIC, even after having been compressed in with the garbage! The astonishingly clean, dry paper-only garbage! No one who is expecting to see an even halfway decent movie should watch this. In fact—no one should watch this.

Two Thompson adaptations that got as close to perfect as may be possible are After Dark, My Sweet and The Grifters. The first is by James Foley and is from one of Thompson's tightest and most entertaining novels. A huckster and a floozy pick up a man they believe to be a simpleton and draw him into a kidnapping plot, expecting to pin it on him and pocket the reward. What they don't know is that he's a lot smarter than they think he is, and he's also an escaped mental patient who can easily kill with his bare hands. Add the elements, then watch them explode! This film has a smart script that handles the challenge of taking a first-person narration, letting the reader in on all the mental patient's thoughts, and turning it into a third-person film--though it must be said that approach necessarily loses a few of the most delicious scenes from the novel. It also has excellent casting in scoring Jason Patric as the smolderingly sexy dangerous near-psychotic, and an excellent Bruce Dern as the sleazeball who tries to have one over on him. This one's a killer and even if you're not a Thompson fan, you're safe in watching it--although you should also read the book, which is quick, sleazy, brutal--and tons of fun.

Which brings at last us to The Grifters, by Stephen Frears, best known for Dangerous Liasons. This one can definitely make a good claim to be the best all-round Thompson adaptation, as while the others may get this or that aspect exactly right, this one gets most of them mostly right. It benefits from an excellent script—truly a shining example of adaptation for film—by acclaimed crime writer Donald Westlake, and a knockout, Oscar-nominated performance by Anjelica Houston. This novel—definitely worth the read—is also more film-ready than some of Thompson’s others, as it tells a straightforward, linear story of a manageable size, and doesn’t attempt any first-person psychotic stream-of-consciousness!

More than most writers, Thompson is a good one to follow on film. There is the wish to see how these complex books and richly-shaded have been adapted, there are a number of his books that have been adapted, and these, for the most part, promise to be fun adaptations with lots of action and crime and violence and sex. If you’ve never read his novels, they are very much worth perusal, and once you read them, you’ll be dying to see what kind of movies they made.


Start with:
After Dark, My Sweet
The Grifters
Pop. 1280

Classic works:
The Killer Inside Me
The Getaway


The Killing
The Getaway (1973)

A Great Night at the Movies:
The Grifters
After Dark, My Sweet
Coup de Torchon

For Thompson Fans:
Serie Noire
The Killer Inside Me (1976)

For Hardcore Thompson Fans:
Hit Me
The Killer Inside Me (2010)
This World, Then the Fireworks

For Hardcore Thompson Fans Who Are Also Masochists:
The Getaway (1994)