The cast of grotesques that populate the noir novels of Jim Thompson can both repulse and reveal much about the US underbelly, writes DECLAN BURKE
MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM’S The Killer Inside Me had a torrid time at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. Based on a novel by Jim Thompson, the film sharply divided critics, being booed for its portrayal of excessive violence against women and praised for its fidelity to its source material. In this much at least, the film is true to Jim Thompson form. Thompson has always divided people, and never more so than when creating his grotesque characters.
Played by Casey Affleck in the movie, Sheriff Lou Fordis a split-personality psychotic. Amiable and soft-spoken in public, he is privately a monster. In the 1952 novel, Ford is the prototype for what would become the archetypal Thompson creation, a nihilistic and violent loner with a perverse philosophy that is accessed in frightening detail via a first-person narrative. But Thompson wasn't simply writing schlock-horror. His peer Geoffrey O'Brien dubbed him "the dime-store Dostoevsky" for his fascination with the Russian author, while Stephen Frears, who directed The Griftersin 1990, said Thompson's work had uncanny parallels with Greek tragedy.
Born in 1906 in Oklahoma into a well-to-do family which subsequently fell from grace, Thompson spent his formative years drifting through middle America taking on a variety of jobs that exposed him to the underbelly of the American Dream. He finally settled in California, and in the 1940s published two literary novels that were critically acclaimed but sold badly. A graduate of the lurid pulp magazines, Thompson turned to the more lucrative crime fiction market with Nothing More Than Murder in 1949. Then, in 1952, The Killer Inside Me appeared.
Hard-boiled crime writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M Cain had by then long since taken murder out of the drawing room, as Chandler said of Hammett, and dropped it in the alleyway, where it belonged. What Thompson achieved was to personalise the criminal mind to an unprecedented degree, not simply offering a first-person take on the kind of deranged mind that kills for fun, but exploring too the extremes of the unhinged imagination. Lou Ford was the precursor to Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley and Robert Harris’s Hannibal Lecter. If good crime-writing offers an analysis of a nation’s mental health, Jim Thompson was crime fiction’s Sigmund Freud, contributing a fevered, over- wrought and compelling account of the killer inside us all.
The quality of Thompson's output was uneven, which isn't surprising given that he wrote in a furious outpouring. Between 1952 and 1954, for example, he penned four to five novels per year. Bedevilled by demons, not least of them a life-time's alcoholism, his novels were often sloppily written. His best work, however – Savage Night, The Getaway, The Grifters, Pop. 1280– are among the finest and most disturbing crime novels ever written.
Hollywood picked up on Thompson's skewed vision, with the author first working with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay for The Killing(1956). Thompson got minimal credit from Kubrick, although that didn't prevent him from writing the screenplay for Paths of Glory (1957), when Kubrick again denied Thompson his full credit. Disillusioned, Thompson eventually drifted into writing for TV. By the late 1960s he was virtually destitute and unemployable as a result of his heavy drinking.
Sam Peckinpah adapted Thompson's The Getaway(1972) in a film starring Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. The tale of a heist gone wrong, the movie is hailed as a classic example of minimalist crime cinema. Yet the film, and the 1994 remake starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, ended where Thompson's novel started to get truly interesting.
Thompson died in 1977, before he was discovered by French film-makers. In 1979, Alain Corneau adapted A Hell of a Womanto make Série Noire, which was followed in 1981 by Bernard Tavernier's Coup de Torchon, adapted from Pop. 1280. Thompson again found favour in Holly- wood, with the pick of a slew of adaptations being Stephen Frears's The Grifters(1990). The film starred John Cusack and Angelica Huston and took four Academy nominations.
Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Memight yet find Thompson a long overdue reappraisal. Be warned, however – you could require a strong stomach. And a pair of earplugs to drown out the boos.
The Killer Inside Me is released on June 4