“Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy and Raymond Chandler,” American writer Ronald Verlin Cassill once wrote, “none of these men ever wrote a book within miles of Thompson’s.”
Called by poet and editor Geoffrey O’Brien a “Dimestore Dostoevsky”, Jim Thompson certainly led a life that could have easily been the sole subject of this little essay. This comes as no surprise as many elements in his novels were deemed at least semi-autobiographical. Born in Anadarko, Oklahoma Territory, in 1906, Thompson was the son of the local sheriff who left his post under unclear circumstances, but there was some talk about the sheriff’s embezzlement issues. The family moved to Texas, where Jim combined going to school with his nightly shifts as the bellboy at a hotel. Even though his official wage was merely fifteen bucks a week, he made twenty times as much catering to the hotel’s guests’ drugs and liquor needs. A heavy drinker and smoker, Thompson experienced a nervous breakdown at the age of merely 19, soon after which he found work as an oilfield laborer. He chose, however, to return to Fort Worth, Texas, to finish his education and write professionally. By 1931, he dropped out of the University of Nebraska and dedicated more time to writing. His first steps were slightly unusual: he would write about true crimes he read about in the papers, but fictionalized them by using a fresh and clever first-person voice. From 1935 to 1938, he was a member of the Communist Party.
His semi-autobiographical debut novel called Now and on Earth came out in 1942 and was met with a positive critical reception, but it hardly satisfied his financial needs. Thompson realized more money can be earned in the crime fiction genre, a more looked-down-upon field where he would deliver his best work. In the following decades, his novels found their faithful audience both in the States and in Europe – particularly in France – and his dark, pessimistic, hardboiled style continued to attract more and more attention even after his death in 1977. So influential was Thompson’s fiction that it served as a direct inspiration for no less than eleven feature films, and the lines that follow might serve as a useful guide for all those interested in watching these cinematic gems that wouldn’t exist had it not been for one of America’s most distinguishable literary voices.
The Getaway (1972)
Peter Bogdanovich was initially hired to direct The Getaway, Thompson’s 1958 crime novel, with the author joining the project in the screenwriting capacity. However, as creative differences between Thompson and main star Steve McQueen, as well as the director’s scheduling conflicts, proved too much, both Bogdanovich and Thompson left the film. Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill took their respective places. Thompson wrote the script in four months, trying to convey the tone and atmosphere of his novel, but McQueen didn’t quite like the idea of ending The Getaway in a surrealistic and depressing manner. Hill finished his script in six weeks but found Thompson’s source somewhat challenging – he called it strange, paranoid and brutal. “I didn’t believe that if you faithfully adapted the novel the movie would get made,” he later said. Despite the initial bleak critical response, The Getaway today enjoys the reputation of one of the classics of the period.
The Killer Inside Me (1976)
Told through the perspective of a small-town deputy sheriff who successfully hides his sadistic and sociopathic nature, The Killer Inside Me is Thompson’s 1952 novel which Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s described as “one of the most blistering and uncompromising crime novels ever written.” In 1976, Burt Kennedy directed an adaptation written by Edward Mann and Robert Chamblee, starring the likes of Stacy Keach, Susan Tyrrell and Tisha Sterling. This is a capably made psychological thriller that manages to keep you on the edge of the seat, and considering the richness of Thompson’s dark novel, it comes as no surprise that this 1976 version isn’t the only remake we were blessed with.
Série noire (1979)
French filmmaker Alain Corneau’s 1979 Série noire, one of the director’s most praised endeavors, was based on Thompson’s a quarter of a century younger novel called A Hell of a Woman. A door-to-door salesman is persuaded by a young prostitute to rob her rich aunt, only to end up killing the aunt, his accomplice and his wife who unexpectedly returns home. Written by Corneau in a collaboration with Georges Perec trying to adapt Thompson’s material to French culture, Série noire is an excellent crime film with a brilliant performance from Patrick Dewaere in the main role.
Coup de Torchon (1981)
Known to English-speaking audiences as Clean Slate, Coup de Torchon is a 1981 French crime film directed by Bertrand Tavernier on the basis of Thompson’s 1964 novel entitled Pop. 1280. An intriguing story of a small-town policeman who refuses to be pushed around any longer did well at the box office and was met with many positive reviews. Time Out called it an “eccentric, darkly comic look at a series of bizarre murders” that’s “stylishly well-crafted and thoroughly entertaining”. French Syndicate of Cinema Critics, moreover, chose it as the best French film of the year.
The Kill-Off (1990)
In 1957 Thompson published The Kill-Off, a dark novel set in a small resort town where a gruesome murder happens. In 1990, filmmaker Maggie Greenwald wrote and directed an adaptation retaining the same name. Independently produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher, shot by cinematographer Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas) and enriched with Evan Lurie’s music, The Kill-Off was met with some positive reactions from the critics. Peter Travers of Rolling Stones labeled it “a down-and-dirty thriller”, while Marjorie Baumgarten praised Greenwald’s direction, especially appreciating the film’s seedy tone.
After Dark, My Sweet (1990)
“After Dark, My Sweet is the movie that eluded audiences,” Roger Ebert wrote a while back. “It grossed less than $3 million, has been almost forgotten, and remains one of the purest and most uncompromising of modern film noir. It captures above all the lonely, exhausted lives of its characters.” Directed by James Foley based on a script co-written by Foley and Robert Redlin, this neo-noir crime thriller is a great adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel of the same name. With Jason Patric, Rachel Ward and Bruce Dern, After Dark, My Sweet was cited as a near-perfect adaptation of Thompson’s writing.
The Grifters (1990)
It was Martin Scorsese who initiated the idea of turning Thompson’s 1963 novel The Grifters into a movie. Scorsese pitched the idea to Stephen Frears, who liked Thompson’s “tough and very realistic writing”, describing the novel “as if pulp fiction meets Greek tragedy”. Frears talked the initially reluctant writer Donald E. Westlake into penning the script, while John Cusack fought hard to get the lead role, a huge fan of the book himself. With a stellar cast composed of Cusack, Anjelica Houston and Annette Bening, with cinematographer Oliver Stapleton behind the camera and Elmer Bernstein composing the score, The Grifters earned four Academy Award nominations and almost universal admiration from the critics.
The Getaway (1994)
In 1994, director Roger Donaldson helmed another remake of Thompson’s The Getaway. Since Walter Hill allegedly always wanted to shoot the original script he wrote for the 1972 version (that was altered by Sam Peckinpah), he joined forces with Alec Baldwin to do a new version. Baldwin asked his then-wife Kim Basinger to join the cast, but Hill abandoned ship to shoot Geronimo. Even though he initially opposed the idea of directing a remake, Donaldson found the script interesting and believed he could offer something unique to his version of the story. With Michael Madsen, James Woods, David Morse, Jennifer Tilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman added to the mix, The Getaway unfortunately failed to find much commercial or critical success.
Hit Me (1996)
Based on the novel A Swell-Looking Babe written by Jim Thompson back in 1954, Hit Me is a crime film directed by Steven Shainberg with Elias Koteas and Laure Marsac in the lead roles. When a bellhop in a hotel becomes a major pawn in a meticulously planned poker heist, he starts playing a life-threatening game with a trail of dead bodies. Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, Hit Me was adapted into film by screenwriter Denis Johnson, famous for his short story collection Jesus’ Son and his Pulitzer Prize-finalist, novel Tree of Smoke. As a conveyor of Thompson’s loved motif of regular-people grueling desperation, Hit Me is as successful an adaptation as possible.
This World, Then the Fireworks (1997)
With Billy Zane and Gina Gershon under the spotlight, director Michael Oblowitz’ 1997 film This World, Then the Fireworks was based on Thompson’s short story of the same name and introduces us to Marty and Carol, fraternal twins who witness a brutal murder involving their father at a young age and grow up to be criminally-inclined incestuous failures of human beings. Called by Total Film a “sexy, stylized, deliberately overheated slice of noir”, This World, Then the Fireworks was released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber back in 2017, reinforcing its cult reputation.
The Killer Inside Me (2010)
Jim Thompson’s second novel to experience multiple screen adaptations was The Killer Inside Me. In Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 version, the role of the seemingly good-natured local sheriff who goes on a sadistic murder spree was played by Casey Affleck, with Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Bill Pullman, Elias Koteas, Simon Baker and Ned Beatty filling in the missing pieces of this dark puzzle. Attempts to do a new adaptation of the novel regularly appeared in the 1980s and the 1990s, but it was John Curran’s screenplay that eventually made its way to the screen. Gorgeously shot by Marcel Zyskind, Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me premiered at Sundance and polarized the audiences.