Sunday, May 4, 2014

Picture Books: Jim Thompson

Today's entry in the Picture Books series (where we look at films made from works by a particular author) is from from Eryk Pruitt, the author of Dirtbags, and he's chosen a dangerous target, none other than Big Jim Thompson himself. 

Hard to imagine a more beloved figure among readers of this blog and certainly monkeying with such a revered artist's vision in pictures is going to cause a panic every time out. Thompson's had his share of shitty adaptations, but I know I'm not alone in believing some movies bearing his name are masterpieces. Still, which go in which camp is always a lively conversation. 

So, bold move, bold opinions... Take it away, Eryk - 

Fuck Ernest Hemingway.

For all his grand settings, for all his worldly travels and legendary machismo... for all the bluster, his books were little more than love stories. You can argue that they are elegant love stories, or even love stories for the tough guy in all of us, but let's not kid ourselves. They are love stories all the same.

No better light shines on this than through the lens of cinema. What better place to expose Papa's flaws than overblown productions, expensive stars and starlets, and inflated egos?

No, if a reader wants a true glimpse of the human condition, they need look no further than a Jim Thompson novel. Those booze-soaked pages full of paranoid plot twists and dangerous, depraved protagonists put Hemingway out the back door to sulk a bit.

And, in the right hands, cinema helps bolster Thompson's bleak, dour outlook.

Thompson himself was no stranger to Hollywood. Before the adaptations, before he achieved the cult status his name now enjoys, he was a screenwriter. Celebrated director Stanley Kubrick employed him to pen his first two films, although Thompson fell victim to the abominable practice of being credited only with "additional dialogue" for his work on The Killing, and second-banana to Kubrick for screenwriting credit on Paths of Glory.

But Thompson's voice shines through all the same on the adaptations of his novels. Stronger in some works than others, and each to varied critical and commercial success. However, one thing is for sure: if Jim Thompson's name is in the credits, fans of crime fiction may as well lift high the hems of their britches because they are about to step in it.

The Getaway (1972)

In another classic tale of Hollywood heartbreak, Thompson's vision couldn't be further from this Sam Peckinpah helmed classic tale of crime and betrayal. If the film can be described as more Peckinpah than Thompson, then it's fair to say it's more McQueen than it is Peckinpah.

What's not to love about The Getaway? You couldn't create a better tough-guy line-up if you had a lab full of testosterone soaked in napalm. Steve McQueen was in the height of his McCool. Ali McGraw was hot enough to cook chicken and fresh off the hit Love Story. Nobody does gritty the way Peckinpah does gritty and they even had Solozzo from The Godfather and Sally Struthers before she went to shit.

But is isn't a Jim Thompson movie. No, Thompson's source material (and rejected screenplay) included the Mexican border town of El Rey, home to outlaws, killers, and bandits and a metaphysical, existential exploration of sin and crime. No, McQueen kicked that out of bed in favor of a sluttier, happier ending and a lot more action. And not only was Thompson's vision let out the back door, but Peckinpah's as well, since McQueen's contractual final edit provision leaned toward more "pretty-boy shots" and "safe choices."

Great action movie? Sure. Thompson film? Not entirely.

Coup de Torchon (1981)

I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but thank God for the French. When Jim Thompson died drunk and destitute in 1977, his books were no longer in print in the United States. Lucky for us, the French taste for sociopathic existentialism never tired and they kept his novels alive. Because of this, they offer two films that stay spiritually close to Thompson's twisted vision. Série Noire and Coup de Torchon.

If I were teaching an Intro to Jim Thompson class or lecturing on noir novels of the 50s, Pop. 1280 would be required reading. There is no better example of the Jim Thompson style: the unreliable psychopathic narrator, the man caught between two women (most often a blonde and a brunette), and a man beset by violent fits of rage. Pop. 1280 and, by extension, Coup de Torchon hits all those notes and more.

The movie changes setting (West Africa for West Texas), changes languages (French), but very little is lost in the translation. Philippe Noiret hits all the marks of the Nick Corey character, both bumbling and calculating, and director Bertrand Tavernier plates up a taut, well-paced flick full of sociopathic fun.

The Grifters (1990)

The Nineties were especially sweet on Jim Thompson, offering up a total of six adaptations, following closely on the heels of 1989's The Kill-OffThe Grifters is among the slickest. I mean, how much better does it get when you have Donald E. Westlake translating Jim Thompson to the screen? However, this one is odd in the sense that I feel John Cusack is one of the weaker casting choices in a JT flick. Bear with me, he's good, but I don't feel the darkness in him that others like Elias Koteas and Jason Patric brings. He's too affable.

That being said, the two female leads bring more than any other JT cinematic femmes. Anjelica Huston as an aging employee of a brutal bookmaker, Lilly Dillon, and Annette Bening plays Myra Langtry with psychotic abandon. You can't take your eyes off either woman and apparently I'm not the only one to think so as they both (as well as Westlake) were nominated for Academy Awards.

Like classic JT, we've got a love triangle but this one is twisted as all get-out because it gets... er, Oedipal.

After Dark My Sweet (1990)

This one is a doozy. Anyone reading Thompson novels is very familiar with that sick, sinking feeling that sets in usually about the fourth or fifth chapter. That feeling that the fella we're rooting for has absolutely no hope. The unreliable narrator that becomes the prototypical voice of Jim Thompson's lost and dirty style. Oh, there are always surprises. Just when you think you know the character, Thompson manages to pull a fast one, especially near the end. The second you think our hero can't sink any further, guess what...

After Dark, My Sweet is no exception. Jason Patric pulls off that hopeless, sweaty style that is the hallmark of Jim Thompson hardboiled. We're dealing with a schizophrenic, a casualty of electroshock or whatever the hell goes on in the shadows of the psych ward. And just when you think you got a handle on this guy, you find out you don't and that ride keeps on chugging until the last five minutes leaves you right where Thompson wants you: breathless and mouth agape.

The Getaway (1994)

The only thing remotely redeemable about this film is Michael Madsen and Meg Tilly. Everything else can go straight to hell. I mean, why did they even remake it? Like the 1972 version, the existential nightmare El Rey ending has been removed, but so has anything else making this film remotely cool. It's a slick caper film and all shades of Jim Thompson have been removed. Watch it if you want, but you've been warned.

Hit Me (1996)

Elias Koteas was built for this role. This is his revenge for missing out on Taxi Driver. He takes Travis Bickle to task as the twisted bellman at a hotel on the decline with a guest list of gangsters, losers, and whores. But he's got a soft spot. And just like all classic Thompson plots, there are plenty of folks around to exploit a loser with a soft spot.

But other than the acting and the boozy cinematography, the story seems to wander. Screenwriter Denis Johnson perhaps stuck a little too close to the source material instead of tightening up the areas where Thompson tends to wander. A Swell-Looking Babe was written after Thompson had turned heavily to drink and some of the outings of this period get a touch lazy and, in my opinion, this is one of them. Still, Elias Koteas is a tour de force here and you can't take your eyes off him.

This World, Then the Fireworks (1997)

One of the best film adaptations is based on a well-known novella written by JT. This one is near pitch-perfect. Billy Zane is premium when it comes to JT anti-hero. Smarmy, smug and prone to fits of rage and man, when he loses it, it's awesome and fun to watch.

Talk about sexy, too. Gina Gershon plays his sister and, much like The Grifters, this ain't no Hemingway love story, no sir. Of course, there's another woman competing for the protagonist's twisted heart and she is none other than Sheryl Lee. And the acting heavyweights don't stop there! Rue McClanahan as the mother! Seymour Cassel and Will Patton as cops!

The story drops into a sweaty maelstrom of classic JT tropes and man, I have to admit it's a hell of a lot of fun getting lost in this depraved mess. JT's penchant for internal monologue is perfect here, with such witty bon mots as:

"You may be wrong and exist comfortably in a world of righteousness, but you may not be right and live in a world of error."

Or how about:

"It was all written down more than a million years ago by a very funny god. You know, in the beginning there was nothing. Then He spoke and that's when all the shit started."

It's a fragile thing separating sanity from the other, and director Michael Oblowitz and screenwriter Larry Gross do JT perfect justice with this winding, troubled and labyrinthine adaptation.

The Killer Inside Me (2010)

But one movie reigns supreme when it comes to JT adaptation. One movie more than any other manages to pull off on screen what Thompson sought to do on a page. One movie and that movie is The Killer Inside Me.

I know there was an earlier version with Stacy Keach as the sadistic Lou Ford, but I don't want to see it. No, I'd rather watch the 2010 version again, which would be the tenth or eleventh time. Casey Affleck's dead stare and tired cadence summon forth the sick, depraved nature of JT's deputy Lou Ford. The girls are sexy and vulnerable. The dialogue is white hot. Everybody except the protagonist is a sucker... until they aren't.

This movie is perfect.

The rage comes early, not six minutes in. When Lou Ford puts his cigar into the panhandler's palm, we see it. That smile, that psychotic glee... I asked seven people to watch the scene where Jessica Alba's character is punched repeatedly in the face, then dared each of them not to look away. No one was able to do so. I even paused the film and read the corresponding passage aloud. Both are designed to fuck you up.

No, of all the adaptations, I think this one is the most Thompson-esque. When reading JT, you are supposed to be disturbed, and this film does it for you. You are supposed to root for a loser who has no chance of succeeding, and Casey Affleck tricks us into doing so. You are supposed to get lost into the mind of a psychopath, and this adaptation allows it to happen.

You just don't find that kind of ass-kicking in an Ernest Hemingway movie, man.

Eryk Pruitt is the author of Dirtbags which has been described as the result of a fornication betwixt Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men and Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho


David Cranmer said...

Bravo! And damn if I didn't miss a few titles you brought to my attention.

K. A. Laity said...

I hadn't heard of This World so it must have really tanked out of the gate. Must find it. I admit to loathing Casey Affleck's round head so much that I haven't been able to watch the latest version of Killer. The Keach version pulls too many punches.

Paul D Brazill said...

Great stuff. I've seen them all apart from Hit Me so I'll have to check that out.Ta.

A pity to gloss over The Kill-Off, though. A top film with a great opening.

jedidiah ayres said...

Casey Affleck's round head has become one of my favorite things at the movies ever since The Assassination of Jesse James. I really loved his Lou Ford too - very dark, but bleakly funny and oddly touching too.

Barry Graham said...

I couldn't disagree more strongly about The Killer Inside Me. Here's my review:

jedidiah ayres said...

I remember seeing Winterbottom's Killer in a sparsely populated theater with a friend and we both were laughing pretty hard at humor in the performance... we were also laughing alone.

scott adlerberg said...

Good look at the films! Still have never seen Hit Me myself, so that's one to catch up on. I wasn't crazy about The Killer Inside Me overall, but Casey Affleck as Lou Ford? Yes, perfect.

AC said...

Wow, a couple I didn't know about. I've always thought Jim Thompson was a lot like Lovecraft in that many have tried to adapt his writing for the screen and for some reason it doesn't always work out. I have to admit something about the 2010 Killer Inside Me bugged me. I might have to give it another day in court.

jurinummelin said...

Yeah, THE KILL-OFF is a pretty good film.

GB said...

I liked Killer Inside Me but I agree with Barry's review that the adaptation is somewhat lacking the novel's humor.

Mike Dennis said...

THIS WORLD, THEN THE FIREWORKS is an outstanding film in every respect, and I still have no idea why it wasn't better-received when it was released. Or for that matter, why it hasn't been rediscovered through its rare appearances on HBO-type channels.

It's Jim Thompson in spades, faithful to the book, and brimming with hopelessness. And oh, that Gina Gershon!

Tom Wickersham said...

Great post. I agree that the 2010 "Killer Inside Me" was well done, but as much as I like Casey Affleck (and I do) he was nothing like my imagined Lou Ford. Maybe I'm blending together "Killer Inside Me" and "Pop 1280," but isn't Lou Ford supposed to be a huge good ol' boy who eats six eggs and three pork chops for breakfast? Just not seeing it in Affleck...

Unknown said...

Man, not only am I woefully behind in reading Thompson's work, but also watching the adaptations.

I saw The Grifters at way too young an age to properly appreciate it.