Anti-heroes of the dark

From film noir to Tarantino pastiche, Hollywood has pilfered a mass of pulp plots. But many of the creators of this black fiction ended their days bitter and broken. By Nick Hasted

Striptease, the new Demi Moore film, isn't about sex at all. It's about strippers and scams and snappy turns of phrase in America's neon under-belly. In a word, it's pulp, from the book by Carl Hiaasen. It isn't alone. In the last year, we've also seen adaptations of Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty, Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress, and James Lee Burke's Heaven's Prisoners. Add to this Tarantino's genre pastiche, Pulp Fiction, and the films that have followed its pilfering of pulp language and plots - Things to do in Denver when You're Dead, The Usual Suspects - and it's a style that seems hard to escape. Its roots go back a long way. From the Thirties to the Fifties, pulp's lean prose and lurid content were always welcome at the movies. Some of its greatest writers ended their days in Hollywood. Most died bitter and broken. Their careers are a tragic thread through the history of the American thriller. Their work is the darkness at its heart.

It's a thread that begins in 1930, when Dashiell Hammett, star writer of the legendary pulp magazine Black Mask and author of The Maltese Falcon, arrived in Hollywood. In town for the money, he quickly discovered that the hard-boiled, amoral characters on which he had made his name were not what the industry required. So he moved to a mansion and hacked, whored and drank the decade away. His influence on Hollywood, when it came, did so by accident. John Huston, pitching an adaptation of The Maltese Falcon to Jack Warner in 1941, got his secretary to block out the shots his movie would use. She used Hammett's novel as a guide, not bothering to change words. Warner loved it. Huston found himself shooting Hammett's tough prose and ending (Sam Spade sending a woman to the chair) with its commas in place. More than a decade late, the brutal, witty style that had electrified Black Mask had made it to the movies. Hammett didn't care. At 48, an exhausted drunk, he left to join the army, hoping to fight fascists. He never wrote again.

Hollywood didn't miss him. It already had Hammett's Black Mask successor: Raymond Chandler. In 1944, Chandler, too, made his mark, working with Billy Wilder on the screenplay to James M Cain's Double Indemnity. Private and nervous, Chandler hated sharing a room with the young, cocky Wilder, threatening to resign within an hour over control of the Venetian blinds. They still turned out a film which combined Cain's sordid content with clipped dialogue and dark direction. That same year, Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely was filmed in flashback with a voice-over to keep the novel's sardonic tone, innovations so brilliant that they would soon become cliches. Between them these films, building on Hammett's example, defined the Forties' most resonant genre: film noir.

Chandler, like Hammett, did not enjoy his success. He told one shocked producer that he could only complete a screenplay by deadline if he was contractually obliged to be drunk round the clock, with a studio car on stand-by at all times in case he died. In 1947, "exhausted by Hollywood rubbish", he gratefully quit. Film noir spun on without him, looking to other writers instead: Daniel Mainwaring (Build My Gallows High), Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window), Mickey Spillane (Kiss Me Deadly), an almost endless list. Until, in 1958, it stopped. Technicolor and rock 'n' roll made noir shrivel in its shadowy lair, just as Hollywood, shrinking from TV, ceased to buy up writers by the dozen. Film noir was finished. Chandler was past caring. That same year, producer Harold Hecht, hoping to persuade the novelist back to Hollywood, was reduced to tears when he found him so drunk he could hardly speak. A year later, Chandler was dead.

The relationship between Hollywood and the pulps that Chandler had helped to consummate seemed just as extinct. A few stray connections lingered. Robert Bloch's Psycho provided Hitchcock with his greatest movie, an adaptation as faithful as Huston's Hammett. Donald Westlake wrote the novel that became Point Blank (1967), a shattering noir footnote set in psychedelic San Francisco. But these were isolated gems. Most of the few pulp writers who remained scraped a living without Hollywood's help. As the Seventies drew in, the party seemed to be over.

The man who would turn things around, to the extent that an unassuming crime writer like Elmore Leonard would become the hottest writer in Hollywood in 1996, was himself dead by the end of the Seventies. Jim Thompson had been one of the greatest pulp talents of all, the writer of bloody, sexual, downbeat novels so unsettling that Fifties Hollywood would not touch them. His link to the movies would still prove profound. As his biographer Robert Polito notes, Thompson, coming after Chandler and Hammett, learnt his craft from the films they had inspired, as much as their original stories. And in 1955, under the wing of Stanley Kubrick, he went to Hollywood himself. Their first collaboration, The Killing, was as great as any of the noirs that inspired it. Its structure, taken from a pulp novel source, followed the participants in a race-track robbery from planning to aftermath, circling back and forth in time as it switched from crook to crook. Into this structure, Thompson poured his own fatalistic obsessions. The Killing was Thompson's screenwriting peak, but Kubrick denied him full credit.

And yet, unlike Chandler and Hammett, Thompson would not leave Hollywood. Abandoned by Kubrick, he hung on for 20 more years. Young Sixties film- makers found the writer holding forth in a Hollywood Boulevard bar once frequented by Hammett, a pulp Canute. His last sniff of success, a screenplay of his novel The Getaway for Sam Peckinpah, was gutted. Thompson died, all but forgotten, in 1977. "Hollywood killed him,'' his sister said.

Hollywood resurrected him, too. In 1990, as the escapist haze that had hung over the industry since Star Wars in the year of Jim Thompson's death began to clear, three of Thompson's novels were unexpectedly filmed. The most successful, The Grifters, held together by a screenplay by Point Blank writer Donald Westlake, brought Thompson's claustrophobic world into the present. Reservoir Dogs (1992) kept it there. Tarantino's structure, circling round a gang of criminals before and after a robbery, was a knowing steal from Thompson's The Killing. Harvey Keitel's Mr White, doomed by a chink of weak love in his crook's code of honour, is a nod to the emotions in Thompson's novels. Pulp Fiction followed, its style a homage to the lurid covers of Thompson paperback originals (as well as the decade, the Fifties, in which those covers were etched). Saturated in pulp history, it drenched its audiences, too.

Films like The Usual Suspects have been one result, rooting through the words and situations of writers like Thompson and Hammett for clues to what a thriller can be. If, as is rumoured, Tarantino turns his hand to a Leonard novel next, it would put a fitting stamp on pulp's resilient appeal. It might even let the ancestors of Leonard, Hiaasen and co, "murdered" at the movies one by one, rest in peace.

n 'Striptease' is on general release from Friday

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'