So I have been essentially obsessed with the writing of Jim Thompson, have read four of his novels in the past three weeks, and have five more ordered and on the way. This has also led me to check out other noir writers Raymond Chandler [fine], Dashiell Hammett [incredible!] and James M. Cain [powerhouse!], and this promises much book-to-movie comparison fun as many of them have been adapted into films —and many into justified classics. So you can expect to see a lot more Noir in your Merde in the weeks to come.
Anyway, this is an adaptation of one of Thompson’s earliest and best-regarded, and although it was rumored not to be that great, I was still possessed to see it. Plus it’s from the 70s, like all good things in this world.
We open with some shots setting the scene in Central City, Missouri. We have Stacy Keach’s voice-over as sheriff Lou Ford, describing the town and his place in it in his sweet, gentle voice. And during the credits we see that this will also star Susan Tyrell, popular character actor Keenan Wynn, John Carradine, and Don Stroud.
So Central City’s main business is mining, an interest often at odds with the town’s arrogant millionaire, Chester Conway. Lou’s sympathies lie with the miners, but his whole MO is to be as genial and friendly to everyone as possible, so he calms the furious miners and placates the imperious Conway. Because Lou is the guy everyone in town thinks is just the greatest guy.
Lou also introduces us to his childhood sweetheart, Amy Stanton, now a schoolteacher. In a diner one day Lou sees his dead father and hears some voices, our first hint that he may have a few issues, but that’s all we know. He is soon telling us in voice-over “I really wanted to share my problems with Amy, but didn’t know how.” The problem is that, so far, WE don’t know what his problems are.
SPOILERS, OF MOVIE AND NOVEL > > >
So Lou learns that a prostitute has moved into town, Joyce Lakeland. He is sent out there to run her out of town. She is all nice till she finds out that he’s a cop, then she turns mean, and he beats her fairly badly. Then they have sex, and immediately afterward, she wants to run away with him. She has been seeing Elmer Conway, the no-account moron who is bailed out of all his troubles by daddy Chester Conway, and says she has agreed to marry him in order to get money.
So Joyce goes to Chester and tells him that Elmer beat her, and she wants $50,000. Meanwhile, Amy has smelled Joyce on Lou, and didn’t believe that they just had a friendly chat about how Central City doesn’t have room for prostitutes. She soon tells Lou that she can’t go on like this, if he isn’t able to open up to her. Meanwhile, Lou is haunted by images of leaky faucets and a couple getting romantic across the way, all leading up to what we know will be the big reveal of his childhood trauma. The movie is trying to generate some frisson between his great-guy image and the fact that he’s about to start a’killin’, but the TV-movie melodrama tone and music is quite at odds with that.
So Lou is to preside over the transfer of the 50 thou and to coerce Joyce and Elmer into marriage. He tells Joyce that she’d be better marrying Elmer, and she is none too pleased. She threatens “Joyce or Jail,” i.e. Lou marries her or she tells the cops HE beat her, and then she physically attacks him. He puts her down with one punch. Then Elmer arrives, and Lou takes some of the money, then shoots him. Lou calls Chester and says he just got there, and found that the couple had killed each other. This is one hour into the movie, with only forty minutes to go.
I mention that, because all of the above takes place in the first few chapters of the novel, and is merely the set-up for everything that follows. Which means that the movie is going to compress the entire novel into the last forty minutes. But there are other, hugely significant differences. The first is that, in the novel, Lou planned this not because he was threatened with jail, but as a way of getting back at arrogant Chester Conway, by making it look as though his son beat a whore, thus besmirching the family name. But even more chilling, that was just the most ostensible reason—it was really just kind of a whim. Lou has an affair of a few months with Joyce before all this happens. He isn't threatened or attacked, he beats the shit out of her out of cold-blooded sadism, and it doesn't happen with just one quickly-over punch, either; he wipes up the room with her. When Elmer shows up, his murder is just pure sadism, and Lou enjoys the hell out of it. And that's what sets up the book: we find out that Lou is a brutal killer FIRST, then continue and see how everyone in town thinks he's a great guy, which adds a lot of tension. Furthermore, in the book, people know that there's something not quite right about Lou, but no one can put their finger on it. In this movie, your only clue that Lou is a killer is the title, everyone in town thinks he's awesome, and you have to slog through almost an hour of melodrama before you suspect that anything is up with him.
Now we have forty minutes left in which to wrap up the entirety of the novel, meaning that for the most part we just see events and lose much of the meaning and resonance behind them. We finally see Lou's flashback: he caught mom in bed with another man. She beat him, then turned seductive with him. Then Dad came in, and beat the shit out of young Lou. In the book, Lou was sexually diddled at a young age by the housekeeper, and the whole thing was treated as a unbleachable stain on him, in addition to his father punishing him for being intelligent, which grows into Lou's character of pretending to be a simple-minded great guy, while secretly he despises everyone. But no, in the movie it's the old faithful primal scene. Lou gave this kid Johnny a $20 from the money he got from Elmer, which turns out to be marked bills, making it look like Johnny killed Elmer and Joyce. Lou likes Johnny a lot, he's Johnny's only friend in town, which is what makes it more shocking when he brutally kills Johnny [again with one punch], because Johnny could now implicate him. A lot more shocking and resonant in the book, however.
A scene in the book in which a stranger comes by to purchase Lou's house is included in the film, but without the context of Lou's history, it makes no sense whatsoever. Then suddenly we are told that Lou and Amy are to be married, although the last thing we heard, she was breaking it off with him. Lou has a vision of himself kissing his mother. Then Amy comes over, and Lou kills her, again with one punch. There is unforgivably schmaltzy music as Lou carries Amy upstairs, then he comes out, where the cops are now arrayed—although we have received NO indication whatsoever that their suspicions had turned to him. In the film, Lou brandishes an unloaded gun and commits suicide by cop.
As you've no doubt put together, that first hour of melodrama shifts the entire balance of the original story. I was prepared to go with it, thinking it might be interesting to set up Lou as a great guy, then slowly discover that he's a killer. But the thing is, it doesn't leave space for the actual content from the book to be anything more than an empty series of events. The whim-like nature of the original killing sets up Lou's character as someone we find reprehensible, yet are awed and fascinated by. The rest of the novel becomes a chain of events that Lou has to improvise his way through in order to maintain his innocence, and they display his ruthlessness and cunning—especially as he executes it all with a smile and his gosh-darn sincerity. One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is how Thompson lets us know that people in town are slowly beginning to suspect Lou, even when Lou himself doesn't know it. There's a very moving thread in which Lou's older boss, who always encouraged and believed in him, has to face that Lou is a killer.
Furthermore, in the novel, Lou never has any intention of marrying Amy, and doesn't even love her—or even know what love is. He always plans to murder her, just has to spend some time thinking about how to do it. And one last thing that has a huge effect on weakening the film, is that in the book, Lou beats the living shit out of both Joyce and Amy, and worse yet, enjoys the hell out of it. Obviously the film has to retreat quite far from showing Lou as a sadistic beater of women, so what they do is make him kill everyone with one clean punch, and in the case of Joyce, frame it as a response to her attack. It's not that I'm dying to see two women beaten to death, but this pure sadism IS what makes Lou's character so perversely fascinating, and when you lose that, you've lost a lot.
< < < SPOILERS END
All that said, it wouldn't be such a shame—to the point of tragedy—if they hadn't gotten so many other elements of the book exactly right. Stacy Keach is almost supernaturally PERFECT as Lou Ford—a HARD role to cast. Keach is handsome, is completely credible in his Midwest lawman garb, is large and intimidating, his soothing voice can convey tones of menace, and his big solid smile and that slightly blank look in his eyes can very effectively convey the creepy violence behind Lou's friendly gestures. What's more, he's got the acting chops. Susan Tyrell is also PRECISELY the mixture of unpleasant sexuality and hard viciousness I pictured as Joyce Lakeland, Keenan Wynn is perfectly right for the role of Chester Conway, and Don Stroud does an excellent job bringing Elmer to life. Furthermore, the 1960s Missouri setting [filmed in Montana] is precisely what I imagined from the novel; vaguely Western, vaguely modern but still very old-fashioned and without updated law-enforcement technology. A city in town, vast spaces of empty land all around. It seems to me that these characters, this setting, and this story would be extremely difficult to bring off the page, but this movie is cast and located so perfectly, it makes it even more of a shame that the screenplay butchered the content of the novel so badly.
Ultimately, the only reason to watch this is if you've read the novel and are curious. If you haven't read the novel—you should read the novel. If you like things dark and dirty and pulpy and nasty and psychologically fascinating, you'll probably like it. I see there is a remake scheduled for 2010—we'll see how they do. I don't have high hopes.
If you've read the book, but even then, it's strictly inessential.