Jim Thompson: Pulp friction

They're criticised for being violent and misogynistic, but Jim Thompson's Fifties novels make for compelling cinema, as a new version of The Killer Inside Me proves

When The Killer Inside Me screened at the Sundance Festival in January, the first question the British director Michael Winterbottom was asked was: "How dare you?" A few days later, at the Berlin Festival, people walked out during the press screening. What outraged some viewers was the violence in the film directed against women. That violence was there in spades in Jim Thompson's 1952 novel of the same name. "Probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered," Stanley Kubrick said of what is generally reckoned to be Thompson's greatest work.

Set in Fifties small-town Texas, the book is told in the first person by the friendly, folksy young deputy sheriff, Lou Ford, who speaks in Forrest Gump-like aphorisms. The twist is that he is a schizophrenic killer who invariably turns against those closest to him. He describes his own psychopathic actions in matter-of-fact fashion. "I backed her against the wall, slugging, and it was like pounding a pumpkin," is his description of one brutal assault.

The charge of misogyny is often levelled at Thompson. However, his champions point out that it's not just women who suffer in his novels: "Many people think Jim Thompson was a misogynist. I don't. I don't think he liked anyone, male or female," Maggie Greenwald commented after directing an adaptation of Thompson's 1957 novel The Kill-Off in 1989.

There is something paradoxical about Thompson's life and career. This "dime-store Dostoevsky," as he has been called, was a pulp writer. His best fiction was written in a two-year burst in the early Fifties – a period in which he completed 12 novels. When he died in 1977, none of his work was in print. He was best known in Hollywood for his collaborations with Stanley Kubrick: he wrote the dialogue for The Killing and co-scripted Paths of Glory. In 1972, Sam Peckinpah made a big-budget screen version of his 1959 novel The Getaway, but the script wasn't by Thompson. Even the presence of Steve McQueen, arguably the world's biggest movie star at the time, didn't do much for Thompson, who was reduced to making money late in his career by writing "novelisations" of TV shows.

The author had reportedly been deeply disappointed by Burt Kennedy's 1975 version of The Killer Inside Me, starring Stacy Keach as the homicidal lawman. It was only after Thompson died that Hollywood and European film- makers discovered his work in earnest.

Alain Corneau started the revival with Serie Nore, his version of Thompson's A Hell of a Woman (1979.) Fellow French director Bertrand Tavernier adapted Thompson's Pop. 1280 as Coup de Torchon (1981), relocating the action from small-town America to a French colony in 1930s Senegal. "It was the first African film noir, mixing the farcical with the dramatic and even the metaphysical," Tavernier boasted of his film, which featured Philippe Noiret as a crumpled cop with murderous tendencies.

Stephen Frears made a well-received version of Thompson's The Grifters (1990.) This was produced by Martin Scorsese and scripted by another cime writer, Donald Westlake, who called Thompson "the most nihilistic writer ever produced in America". Frears was especially drawn to a quote he had read about Thompson, saying that he had "given Greek tragedy to the masses."

The mini-Thompson boom continued with James Foley's After Dark, My Sweet (1990), Steven Shainberg's Hit Me (1996), adapted from Thompson's 1954 book A Swell-Looking Babe, and Michael Oblowitz's This World, Then the Fireworks (1997).

Thompson may have been a pulp writer, but screen adaptations of his books are never straightforward exploitation movies. Film-makers are drawn to the layers of irony and complexity they find in his work. They also warm to the satirical elements, portraying small-town, picket-fence America in a very barbed fashion.

"He was a thoroughgoing original, a kind of Okie version of Graham Greene, all shifting ironic morality and honky-tonk remorse," the author Ed Gorman said of him.

Thompson's family background provided him with plenty of raw material for his fiction. He was born in 1906 in Oklahoma, the son of the local sheriff. His father, "Big Jim", was a heroic but shady figure whose law-keeping days were cut short by gambling and embezzlement; his later business ventures soon led him to bankruptcy.

Thompson, who wrote his first published stories as a teenager, dreamed of being another Steinbeck or Hemingway. It was his misfortune to come of age in the Depression era, when he had to work in dead-end jobs just to stay alive.

There was also something self-destructive about him. His career was blighted by alcoholism and by bad luck, which he often seemed to bring upon himself.

"He was this lost figure – which is what his characters are. But he was writing from the guts. Because of the Depression, because of his personality, his drinking, his family, he [had to] keep slogging away," Donald Westlake said of him at the time of The Grifters.

Thompson had influential admirers, most notably Kubrick, but was never able to take advantage of the breaks they tried to provide for him. "He could write a novel in 10 days. He couldn't write a screenplay in 10 years," his agent later said of him.

What makes The Killer Inside Me such a disconcerting book is how ingratiating and likeable its first-person narrator seems to be: "What a good man is Deputy Lou Ford," his fellow townsfolk say in an early chapter . A few pages later, he is thrashing a suspected prostitute with a belt and grinding a lit cigar butt into the palm of a hobo.

Savage Night is equally warped. Its first-person protagonist is a diminutive, short-sighted consumptive with terrible teeth. Carl is a hired killer. He speaks in the hardboiled language of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but Thompson goes out of his way to accentuate the character's freakishness. In the book's strangest scene, Carl has sex with a one-legged housemaid. Almost equally bizarre is a chapter that begins with a graphic description of Carl throwing up in the toilet bowl and then, a few paragraphs later, has him kissing his femme fatale landlady open-mouthed.

Film noir is now one of the most self-conscious and cliché-ridden of genres. The idea of the gallant, wisecracking Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade-like detective seems quaint and archaic. Thompson stories turn noir conventions on their head. In his stories, the killers are often the protagonists. The violence may be casual, but it is also often horrifying. He plays with realist conventions but enjoys undermining them with wild lurches into melodrama. There are also frequent Freudian undertones. Thus in The Killer Inside Me Lou Ford's behaviour is rooted in childhood incidents and in his odd relationship with his doctor father, who seems to have shared his taste for flagellation.

"A lot of noir books and films show violence as something entertaining. Part of the enjoyment of reading it or watching it is the violence. What I liked about Jim Thompson's books is that he doesn't use the violence as entertainment," Michael Winterbottom said in Berlin.

The Killer Inside Me is one of Winterbottom's best films. He somehow persuaded an A-list cast led by Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson to appear in what, on the face of it, is a lurid pulp movie. You can't help noticing that Lou Ford's misogynistic violence is shown far more graphically than his assaults on men. Yet the film, like the novel on which it is based, is in its own warped way a love story. In hurting those he most cherishes, he is ultimately hurting himself. "One of the great things about the book is that even the people he kills are capable of loving him even when they mistrust him," Winterbottom commented.

The Killer Inside Me is bound to have a vexed ride in cinemas when it opens here on Friday. Then again, Jim Thompson's work has always elicited as much disgust as it has admiration. He, for one, couldn't see what the fuss was about. As his editor and publisher, Arnold Hamo, put it: "He read classics and was always surprised when people complained about violence in his work when Oedipus tore his own eyes out on a stage. Jim comes out of Sophocles via Freud."

'The Killer Inside Me' opens on 4 June

For further reading: 'Savage Art: a Biography of Jim Thompson' by R Polito (Serpent's Tail)

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