Reading the Screen: Jim Thompson in Pictures
Posted by: David Pitt
The Killer Inside Me, the new movie with Casey Affleck and Jessica Alba, is based on the 1952 novel by Jim Thompson (1906 – 1977). I was going to say he was the best of the 1940s and ’50s pulp novelists, but maybe that’s not true. It’s one of those subjective things: he’s my favorite, but maybe he’s not yours.
Anyway, Killer isn’t the first movie based on a Thompson novel. In fact this isn’t even the first version of Killer: Stacey Keach starred as murderous sheriff Lou Ford in a 1976 movie. It’s not hard to imagine Keach in the role, but his performance, like the movie itself, misses the subtleties of Thompson’s profile of psychosis. (Probably why, when it came time to re-do the book, they looked to Affleck, a subtle and graceful actor.)
The Getaway, Thompson’s 1959 novel, has been made into two movies. The great Sam Peckinpah directed the first one, in 1972, with Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw as the ex-con bank robber and his ruthless wife. The movie is good, but Peckinpah (whose greatness was, unfortunately, pretty much behind him at this point) doesn’t capture the texture of Thompson’s deliciously vicious novel. If you’ve seen the movie, but you haven’t read the book, you’ve really missed out.
If you’ve only seen the 1994 movie, with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, well, I’m sorry to hear that. It’s pretty bad, and even worse: it’s an insult to Thompson, who was a unique and compelling writer. If you’re going turn one of his triumphantly twisted stories into a movie, at least pretend you’re trying to do it right.
Coup de Torchon is a 1981 French adaptation of Pop. 1280, Thompson’s 1964 novel. I haven’t seen the movie, which uproots Thompson’s story of a ruthless Texas sheriff and moves it to a French colony in Africa, but it’s highly respected, and was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film.
A Swell-Looking Babe (1954) became the 1996 movie Hit Me, a squalid thriller that, I think, Thompson would have enjoyed, even if it isn’t quite the story he wrote. Elias Koteas is, as always, hypnotically compelling.
In 1989 and 1990 three of Thompson’s novels got the big-screen treatment. In ascending order they are:
The Kill-Off. Based on the 1957 novel, it’s a seamy, steamy story of lust, ambition, and violence — typical Thompson themes — that, even though it has a solid script and good performances, feels flat. At least compared to Thompson’s nasty, delightfully perverse novel. I’m not sure if it’s too faithful to the novel, or not faithful or not, or what. Check it out, compare it to the book, see what you think.
After Dark, My Sweet. Like the 1955 novel, the movie focuses on its characters, especially the escaped mental patient, the seductive widow and the manipulative schemer . It’s a very good movie, well written and well filmed, and, it’s almost the best of the Thompson adaptations.
Except…The Grifters. Thompson’s 1963 novel was one of his last great books (the other was Pop. 1280, the following year), and the movie, with an Academy Award-nominated screenplay by Donald E. Westlake, does him proud. The story, which involves a trio of con artists, is complex and surprising — Thompson really was one of the great plotters — and Westlake, no shock here, nicely captures not just the details of the story, but its flavor, too. (Put your hands together, too, for the director, Stephen Frears, who makes the movie look exactly like what you see in your head when you read the book.)
Most of these movies — well, all of them except the ’94 Getaway — are definitely worth a look. But please, and I know I say this all the time, please read the books. Read everything by Jim Thompson you can get your hands on (even his 1967 novelization of the TV series Ironside). See the excellent Kubrick movies he worked on, 1956′s The Killing and ’57′s Paths of Glory. Read Savage Art, Robert Polito’s excellent 1995 biography of Thompson.
I’ll wait here.