Death becomes him
The pulp writer Jim Thompson died penniless and all but forgotten. Now Hollywood producers can't get enough of his `sour, dead-end view of the world'. Poetic justice...
Monday 19 May 1997
And now the second - or is it the fifth? - Thompson wave is coming. The actual source, though, is drying up. Because, where Steven Halnberg's current production of A Swell-looking Babe (retitled Hit Me) is being taken from a classic Thompson novel, the other upcoming movie from the "dime-store Dostoyevsky" had to lift its script from a 50-page novella that Thompson cranked out over a slack weekend in 1957. Even so, This World, Then the Fireworks contains the essential crotch-kick Thompson ingredients of sex (within the family), corrupt cops, murder, blackmail and betrayal.
Yet, in spite of all this posthumous attention, when he died in 1977, Jim Thompson was nearly broke. Not one of his 29 novels was in print and he was an all but forgotten figure. So who was this overlooked and under- filmed writer? And why are movie producers now so desperate to film his words, even if they come from the bottom of his wastepaper basket? Apart from the intriguing Freudian fact that Thompson's own father was a corrupt cop, the same answer fits both questions. Donald Westlake, who was drafted in to adapt The Grifters for the Frears film, thinks that Thompson's books, with their "sour, dead-end view of the world", came out of "his hard-scrabble roots" in Anadarko, Oklahoma.
"Thompson was a seriously intentioned novelist who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Depression robbed him of the college education that he needed." Instead, the future Prince of Pulp became an oil rigger, a lumberjack, also, ironically, a movie-house manager and even, in a fit of desperation, trod the boards of burlesque. "He always knew," says Westlake, "that he was better than the world he found himself in and that's what gave him that bitter power he had."
After wandering through the drought-ravaged south-west, where he acquired a taste for cocaine as well as "the grift" - the art of the confidence trick - Thompson drifted back up north. There, in Oklahoma, he joined the radical Federal Writers Project and, with more Marxist hope than material conviction, wrote his first crime novel in 1949. His instincts were correct. The dialogue was too raw, his imagination too overripe and his plots too tragically real for the film noir Forties of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Their anti-heroes won, whatever the odds, while Thompson's barely made it to the last page; and, if they did, by then a femme fatale would invariably have embedded her hooks into them.
And that's why Jim Thompson is so popular with film-makers today. He offers directors the possibility of making present-day film noir. Westlake has a succinct explanation for this: "To update it, all you have to do is take their hats off." Thompson's recent biographer, Robert Polito, however, zeroes in on the underlying attraction. "Hammett and Chandler," he says, "focused on detectives, Thompson focused on the criminal. His first-person heroes are more menacing, more malevolent and more explicitly psychotic. Also," he adds, "directors are fascinated by that sense, which Thompson gives you, that you're never quite sure of what's going on, that the world you're seeing already comes to you deflected and bent by the people telling you the stories."
Certainly, this off-kilter angle on the bottomed-out world of the criminal pulled in Larry Gross who adapted This World, Then the Fireworks for the screen. "Yes, the characters are extreme but what made me think This World would make a good film is that those extremes of behaviour emanate from something that is logical. In other words," he explains, "there is an emotional justification for their behaviour and, because his characters are driven to such an extreme place, it compels an audience to watch the film."
The critic Alexander Walker has already exclaimed that This World, Then the Fireworks is "one of the most perverse films noirs ever made from a Jim Thompson story" and he could have a point. To begin with, the movie, like the book, starts out with an off-screen, narrated flashback to childhood. Alongside his twin sister Carol, our narrator - and psychotic hero - follows the sound of shotgun blasts to a neighbour's house: "The man on the floor didn't have a head, hardly any head at all. And that was funny, wasn't it? ... But the funniest thing, we laughed loudest about was Dad and the woman. The woman who was the wife of the man without any head. The wife of the man Dad had killed to keep from getting killed. Dad and the woman. Dad who went to the electric chair, and the woman who committed suicide. Standing there naked."
Aside, though, from this primal lift-off into subsequent matricide, sex, more sex and more murder, Larry Gross had one other advantage over fellow Thompson adaptors. As Robert Polito reveals in his informative biography, This World, with its "stripped-down style", was probably intended to be a film treatment rather than a literary work. None the less, due to its brevity, Gross had "to scour every shred of the story we could use". Also, he had to add some "details". "There are no police investigations," he points out, "of the crimes in the book. Now, whether Thompson was being lazy or indifferent, I don't know; but I thought that the audience would feel nagged by this, so I filled in those sort of holes."
For his part, Donald Westlake, who also used to be a pulp writer, has an explanation for any dramatic or literary shortfalls from Thompson. "What flaws a lot of his work is that he was writing too fast, for too little money, for unimportant markets. And he knew it. But he didn't have the time or impetus to go back and smooth things out and get it right. He had to get it down, send it in, get his $2000 and pay the rent. I did some of that in my early days," remembers Westlake, "so I know what you tend to do. You're going along until you get to the point where you say, `Oh, my gosh, this story isn't going to work unless she was married before...' You can go back to where you should have done it in the first place. Or you can just stick it in with: `She was married before...' and keep going. And that's what Thompson does. So what I did with The Grifters was to give it that one more draft that he couldn't afford to give it."
Alternatively, Larry Gross believes that "the badness that comes from writing too quickly is also part of Thompson's greatness" because it provides "a certain kind of psychological urgency. It's bad writing," he says, "that achieves a good effect." Here, however, Westlake agrees, because he suddenly interrupts his own evaluation of Thompson's use of "demented logic" with a story remembered from Maigret's creator, Georges Simenon. "He said that 19th-century writers presented their characters walking towards a cliff, and 20th-century writers had those same characters teetering on the edge. But Jim Thompson showed no mercy: he shoved them off."
As for Thompson himself, he was aware of his own cinematic and commercial value. Just before he died - having smoked his last pack of Pall Malls - he advised his wife to guard his copyrights. "Just you wait," he promised her, "I'll be famous after I'm dead about 10 years." Almost spot on. And, as for that belated recognition, Westlake believes that Thompson would have appreciated its dark side. "It's perfectly appropriate that his fame should come 15 to 20 years after his death. That's a Jim Thompson thing."
A preview showing of `This World, Then the Fireworks' is at the NFT, SBC, London SE1, 23 May at 6.15pm. It is followed by a discussion with Robert Polito. Polito's `The Savage Art' is published by Serpent's Tail at pounds 15. `This World, Then the Fireworks' goes on general release in November
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