The Devil Inside

Filming Jim Thompson’s first-person pulp psychosis
by Mark Asch and Cullen Gallagher  posted August 11, 2008
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In Jim Thompson’s America, men are born killers—they don’t have killing thrust upon them. The major forebears of Thompson’s pulp fiction, written primarily for the paperback market beginning in the 1940s and continuing until the early 1970s, were the small-town narratives of James M. Cain. But in Cain, everymen are turned into murderers by circumstance, for the sake of money or a girl; Thompson’s innovation was to turn circumstance into a psychological state. It’s not the lure of temptation or the crush of necessity that drives his protagonists to crime, but the perception of its requirement, for self-preservation or out of moral obligation. Thompson’s focus is less on the act itself than on its justification: motivations and excuses shift incessantly, with any single truth remaining forever elusive. That murder, by firearm or bare fist or object at hand, can be and is made logical implies psychosis; indeed, Thompson’s protagonists are prone to self-deception and fits of irrationality incoherent even to themselves.

Practically every book he wrote could be called The Killer Inside Me: depravity is innate, character is defined by thought more than action, and narration is generally first-person. Like most hard-boiled heavyweights, Thompson has frequently been adapted to the screen—and he wrote for it, penning The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957) for Stanley Kubrick and cashing TV paychecks throughout the '60s—but his notes from the underground present unique challenges. The cynical voices of Marlowe and Spade made it in pictures, all that crackerjack banter, but Thompson’s characters mask their depths in social interactions. His unreliable narration grants us access to the subjective paranoia of his killers: the lens of their gaze blurs together the contortions of a diseased mind and the twists of a pulp plot, and we come to empathize with their nihilism. The problem of adapting this most interior of voices is the problem of all page-to-screen adaptations, writ monstrously large: how to flip them inside-out?

As The Killer Inside Me is quintessential Thompson, its “me,” small-town Texas sheriff Lou Ford, is the quintessential Thompson killer. That is, he’s essentially a duality: “I was just old dumb Lou from Kalamazoo,” he says of his cornball front, but he does calculus problems for kicks; he’s virile (most Thompson men are conspicuously strapping) but sick. (His hometown, too, is split between a respectable public face and behind-closed doors seediness: his schoolteacher girlfriend relishes his penchant for rough sex.) Lou’s decision to murder his prostitute mistress and the son of a respected family is less one of incentive than resolution. He plans his killings with the precision of a (pulp) novelist, scripting his actions, thinking ahead of his pursuers, and scratching out and rewriting motivations with equal parts conviction and compulsion.

Burt Kennedy’s 1976 adaptation of the book exposes Hollywood as completely unprepared for the challenge. Thompson’s narrators are both gods and monsters, and as a karmic misstep threatens to turn his perfect planning against him, we sympathize with Lou as we do with a Hitchcock villain—say, Bruno Anthony—caught in the cogs of his own exquisite plot. But Kennedy’s Lou is an ant, at the mercy of his illness whenever it’s triggered by a dripping faucet. As in Spellbound (1945), traumatic memory triggers psychosis; for Thompson, paranoid schizophrenia is just how Lou’s wired. (Anyway, Wrong Man Hitchcock is the wrong Hitchcock for Thompson: The Killer Inside Me is almost Shadow of a Doubt (1943) from Uncle Charlie’s perspective.) Further flattening Thompson’s conception is the casting of Stacy Keach—charmless as old dumb Lou from Kalamazoo, wooden as the cunning sadist inside, tone-deaf when calibrating different elements within the same scene.

The Killer Inside Me was cinema’s first attempt at Thompson on his own terms—Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 adaptation of The Getaway is a New Hollywood carryover from the Golden Age treatment of paperback publishing as an assembly line for rough outlines and character names. “We’re not doing War and Peace… We’re making a genre movie,” Peckinpah said of Walter Hill’s script. Produced by star Steve McQueen, Peckinpah’s Getaway cashes in on the young-in-love-kill-people genre, only this time the King of Cool and his on-set fling Ali MacGraw actually… get away. But Thompson’s Getaway denies outlaw romance with its Dantean trajectory. The spiritual decay of married bank-jobbers Doc and Carol McCoy, fleeing a botched robbery, becomes manifest in their safehouses: hollowed-out piles of manure, tomb-like underwater caves, and finally the luxurious criminal hideout El Rey, both paradise and purgatory, with its flesh factory that recycles the deceased. Given the physical and financial demands of survival, intimacy is impossible, suspicion inevitable. Ironically, Roger Donaldson’s 1994 remake, much-maligned for the softcore antics of then-coupled Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, actually restores some of Thompson’s mistrust, but its blockbuster budget and B-movie sentimentality win out. In both versions, Doc and Carol drive off into the sunset, differences reconciled—truer-to-the-book endings came in 1978 and 2001, when McQueen-MacGraw and Baldwin-Basinger filed for divorce.

The second Getaway came at the peak of renewed interest in Thompson, sparked in large part by reprints of his books beginning in the late ’80s. In 1989, making the first American adaptation of Thompson since Killer, Maggie Greenwald took as her subject The Kill-Off, a cacophony of deflated desires, petty vice and pathetic murder in an East Coast ghost town, with each chapter narrated by a different character. A chorus of self-serving and blind-spotted voices, The Kill-Off is ambiguous (and universally mean) enough to posit an alternate solution to the central crime in its dying sentences. Greenwald's low-budget production takes on the god's-eye-view afforded to the reader in retrospect, rather than inhabiting successive hosts, but the vibe of dead-end Americana is captured in the malnourished microindie mise-en-scène. There's even something of Thompson's fleabag pathos in the dimestore flavor of the acting.

The next attempt, James Foley's After Dark, My Sweet (1990) is a more polished version of a more prototypical Thompson novel. "Kid" Collins is an ex-boxer, called "Collie," and like a dog he's instinctive and indecisive. Sprung from a mental institution, he's drawn into a kidnapping plot—"it was either this or nothing, the way things looked to me," he explains, eliding the sexual allure of Fay, his partner in crime, and perhaps also the appeal of crime itself. His mind laps itself racing to keep up with anticipated double-crosses. When he and Fay sleep together, the connection dissolves in the space of a paragraph. Even the intricate plot isn't entirely objective: more potential twists are streamed at us through his consciousness than are actually enacted. The book takes place in Collie's head—how to spill its contents out onto the screen?

A voice-over, that eternal noir fallback, is no good: Collie changes his mind all the time, and the atmosphere of instability and impending violence comes from an accumulation of his double- and-triple jointed logic. Jason Patric is ideal as Collie, sexy and seething. But Foley's direction is distancing, burying Patric in over-the-shoulder two-shots during dialogue scenes: he, and the whirring gears inside his head, remain remote. To the extent that Foley's After Dark retains the paranoid fatalism of Thompson's, it's due to the audience's preexisting awareness of noir as a moral wasteland—we're outside, looking in.

The Grifters (also 1990), adapted by Stephen Frears, is faced not just with the challenge of interiority but with characters who betray readable black-and-white binaries. Insisting on purity of character spoils the amoral limbo—both Getaways tweak a merciless story into a “bad things happen to (mostly) good people” scenario, preserving the sanctity and sanitation of “the star.” Grifters retains all of the two-facedness of its source novel—with the exception of its ending. An Oedipal story of three L.A. con artists—mom, son, and girlfriend—it relies less on a dynamic plot than on covert betrayals and subtle manipulations, culminating in a bloody mess. Frears’s sunny compositions match the trio’s charming facade, making revelations all the more disturbing. Thompson’s problematic ending—mother killing son to save herself—is compromised in the film, which allows for the possibility of accident (though intent is, as ever, tough to pin down onscreen, absent Thompson’s flood-of-consciousness). Mother isn’t absolved, yet the distinction suggests the limitations of what an audience can morally accept as “entertainment,” and questions the extent to which Thompson’s novels were even intended to provide it.

No such problem troubled Showtime’s series Fallen Angels when, in 1993, it appropriated Thompson’s story “The Frightening Frammis” for its noir dress-up pageant. Pure pastiche, with its jazz soundtrack and luscious black-and-white opening credits rifling through signifiers from the collective late-movie unconscious, the series let A-listers romp over resurrected pulp fictions—such was Thompson’s reputation that he was included despite a connection to vintage film noir not extending past The Killing. The Tom Cruise-directed "Frammis" turns Thompson's caper into an instructive fable about marriage and forgiveness, enjoyable as much for its early ’90s time-capsule cast as for its fedora fetish and overheated voice-over. (Thompson's story is narrated in the third person.)

Thompson's A Swell-Looking Babe is third-person, too, but keeps close in on bellhop Dusty Rhodes. Seemingly admirable and put-upon, he's perhaps more ruthless than his conscious thoughts let on. In flashbacks, we come to learn about his sociopathic tendencies: he's another Thompson Oedipus case, manipulating his feeble father. Enlisted as an inside man in a safety deposit box heist, he's tied up in a job that's only the beginning of an excruciating process of evasion and extraction.

Doubly bound up in Steven Shainberg's adaptation Hit Me (1996) is middle-aged Elias Koteas, playing Sonny (as he's called here) with hip-thrusting spastic abandon. Prone to tourettic outbursts at the unfairness of his job and his life, Sonny is naïve, angry, and horny, and his deadweight family member is an obese, retarded brother, rather than a mistreated father. Where Dusty's cohorts see an entitled kid ready to play ball, Sonny's see an abject fall guy desperate for a solution. Denis Johnson's pungent script limns a world of top-down corruption and blinkered opportunity, despite a tone veering perilously close to parody. But the diversion from Thompson is crucial: as in After Dark, evil is systemic rather than internal.

Based on a short story never published in Thompson’s lifetime, Michael Oblowitz’s This World, Then the Fireworks (1997) is Thompson-concentrate. Incest, matricide, betrayal, and layers of deception overlay a relatively simple, adaptable narrative: abandoning wife and children, Marty Lakewood reunites with his prostitute sister, lover, and fellow con artist Carol. Marty views his acts of incest and murder as remnants of purity and superiority in a compromised world. Billy Zane’s over-emphatic speeches convey Marty's zealotry, even if the film’s rendering of light and darkness is cartoonish. (Cinematographer Tom Priestly Jr. alternates heavy gold and blue filters; Laura Palmer herself, Sheryl Lee, is typecast as a kinky cop, a good girl gone wild.)

More than other Thompson narrators, Marty is not out to deceive. His reflections are stunningly coherent: “You may be wrong, and exist comfortably in a world of righteousness. But you may not live right in a world of error…. The growing weight of injustice becomes impossible to bear.” He expresses what most Thompson protagonists cannot: their insight into the dark heart of society—themselves included—is their cross. Their delusions only postpone, or advance, their own demise.

It’s this sense of himself as God’s lonely man that makes Pop. 1280’s Nick Corey one of Thompson’s most slippery narrators. A lazy, ineffective hick sheriff, Corey plays the simpleton to both the reader and his community, feigning idiocy while committing murders for personal benefit, and perhaps out of a belief (certainly expressed and uncertainly committed to) in himself as both bearing and correcting the sins of the world.

The specificity of time and place—a lawless wild West, Prohibition’s uninhibited shockwaves, the death of American idealism after World War II—make Thompson a quintessentially 20th century American author, and all the more difficult to update. Perhaps inspired by the endemic racism of 1280’s deep southern milieu, Bertrand Tavernier's 1981 adaptation, Coup de torchon (screening August 25 at Film Forum's French Crime Wave series), transplants the setting to pre-WWII French West Africa, with Philippe Noiret playing Lucien Cordier, a colonial police chief in the last days of a collapsing empire. In the mistreatment and poverty of the colonized, Tavernier finds an external correlative to Cordier's internal conflict: colonialism's raging id and guilty conscience are everywhere in evidence. It's the Heart of Darkness trap, looking at Africa and seeing the soul of the white man, but it's an inspired way of dramatizing Corey/Cordier's shape-shifting moral conundrum.

Though out of style in America at the time, Thompson was en vogue in France —the title of Alain Corneau’s Série noire (1979), screening August 11 at Film Forum, nods cheekily at Gallimard’s très hip, Nouvelle Vague-devoured line of American pulp. But where Tavernier visualized Thompson’s innerspace, Corneau and screenwriter Georges Perec’s version of A Hell of a Woman is the only Thompson adaptation to truly express the author’s deeply personal darkness, from its opening shot of Patrick Dewaere shadowboxing and miming a sax solo against an overcast sky to the final image of a desperate embrace swallowed up by the void of nightfall. Dewaere is Franck Poupart, a sleaze selling overpriced junk to the under-privileged; after a shrewish recluse offers her daughter, Mona (Marie Trintignant), as payment for silverware, Poupart and Mona plan “the perfect murder” and, in seeking an escape from their dreary surroundings, find themselves more entrapped than before.

Corneau trains his camera on his star, and Dewaere’s highly physical performance turns Thompson’s neurotic narration into a hurricane of volatile gesture. Improvising songs, dancing about with an air freshener and conversing with himself, Dewaere is the most kinetically unstable actor to have attempted a Thompson schizo. Poupart’s body is the manifestation of his psychosis—of an unspoken paranoia in conflict with the external forces of work, money, sex, home. Even his actions reveal this duality: as he honks his car horn to attract the attention of his customer (whom he is about to frame for murder), he prays out loud for his customer not to respond. It’s as if he is questioning fate, scared as he is about his newly found command over life and death. And he should be scared—like his brethren-in-despair in The Grifters and This World, Then the Fireworks, Pourpart’s final realization is that he isn’t the only crooked soul in town—crystallized in the unforgettable image of a murderer with his hands afire, and a young girl holding an armful of francs.

"Perhaps the power to rationalize is the power to remain the same. Perhaps the insane are so because they cannot escape the truth,” says Marty Lakewood. Thompson’s distorted, venal worlds are rendered by utter nutters, constantly telling themselves stories in order to live—and eventually the order they create descends into chaos. Dewaere’s body, like Thompson’s first-person narration, is never at rest, constantly reestablishing its relationship to the world in the hope of shaping it to his liking. Inevitably, the center cannot hold—three years later, at age 35, Dewaere shot himself dead with a rifle in a Paris hotel room. 


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Courtesy Studio Canal
Patrick Dewaere in Alain Corneau's Série noire
Photo Gallery: The Devil Inside


August 8-September 4, 2008 The French Crime Wave Series


Jim Thompson  |  adaptation  |  Hollywood  |  film noir  |  Retrospective  |  pulp fiction


Mark Asch is the Film Editor at The L Magazine and a contributor to Stop Smiling, Fanzine, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.

More articles by Mark Asch

Cullen Gallagher is a film critic who contributes regularly to The L Magazine and Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

More articles by Cullen Gallagher