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
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable