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)

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

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.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea