There was a moment, about halfway through Lou Ford's beating of the masochistic prostitute Joyce Lakeland, when I started to feel squirmy, and I am not often put off by violence in films. When Lou later beats to death his fiance Amy Stanton, it wasn't quite as queaze-inducing, though it was perhaps uglier, because Amy's submission to Lou up to then has been mental, not physical, and Amy has twice nearly extracted herself from it.
Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me is arguably the most faithful adaptation of Jim Thompson yet, if anything bringing Thompson's soiopathic killer into sharper focus and catching the strange hallucinatory character of Thompson's manic depressive prose very well. Winterbottom has ridden out the inevitable furore over the film's graphic violence, eventually coming to the public position that his aim was to make it so unpleasant that the audience couldn't get a cathartic lift from it (assuming no one in the audience is another Lou Ford). However, the difference between the violence against the women and the less graphic deaths of men in the film leads one to suspect that Winterbottom saw the misogynist streak in Thompson, the sexual nature of the violence, as an area he wished to explore in greater detail. It's also noteworthy that much of the worst of the violence is done with sound effects, and while the camera focuses on Casey Affleck's Ford, registering the deep coldness behind the character.
Ford is not only a sociopath, but he's a cop, and he is played brilliantly by Affleck. As we saw in The Assassination Of Jesse James (where he played Bob Ford, presumably no relation) and in Gone Baby Gone, he is a master of keeping internal turmoil under wraps, leaving the audience to work out the character along the way. Lou Ford gives him the perfect role to do that, and he makes the best of it; the bland faces of his life in public and his life in the privacy of his own house contrasting with the forces inside him which, we are led to believe, are released by the pleasure in violent sex that Joyce (played by Jessica Alba) opens up to him. In the film, it is as if this sex triggers him, reminding him of who he really is, and everything else flows from that, a flow Affleck keeps tightly under control. I can't think of a star with the same qualities; the actors Affleck most reminds me of are Hurd Hatfield (an easy parallel exists between Affleck's Bob Ford and Hatfield in The Left Handed Gun) and, as we shall see below, Timothy Carey.
Winterbottom remains very faithful to the novel, to the point where Thompson's almost fever-dream recollection of Lou's childhood, looking for the 'explanation' of why he is the way he is, remains difficult to figure out. In the novel it's clear; Lou's father is a doctor, who indulges in sado-masochistic sex with his housekeeper Helene; when he discovers she has initiated Lou, he receives the first and only beating of his life. Lou consults his father's books on aberrant psychology, as if trying to discover for himself what he really is. Because he is aware that he does not fit in. It's what makes his scenes with Amy (Kate Hudson) so unpleasant, because she exists only to the extent she can make him fit in, yet he's resisted any chance to make their relationship one that would fit into society; that the society accepts their affair is one of the small indicators that appearance isn't reality in Thompson's world.
The Killer Inside Me was the first of Thompson's novels for Lion Books, and probably the most autobiographical of any of his books after his first two, more mainstream novels. His father was a disgraced sheriff, who treated young Jim with violent cruelty, and Thompson's family was supposedly the basis for the criminal and incestuous Fargos in his second book, Heed The Thunder. This is 1950s America, in West Texas, and Winterbottom and DP Marcel Zyskind capture the hot dusty simmering beneath the pleasant surface; once or twice they refer a little too explicitly to Edward Hopper; people often link Hopper and Noir, not always successfully, at least in part because the images are so well known, and in part because they don't necessarily convey a sense of violence lurking underneath.
The connection that usually gets overlooked, because of the emphasis on Lou's violent sexuality, is that all the killings in the film grow out of simple corruption, the kind of small town small-scale venality that lies at the heart of much neo-noir (big cities seem to present a bigger challenge to noirists in our era than they did in the 40s and 50s). But when you think about the other great film adaptations of Thompson's work, you see the links running through.
The best is Bertrand Tavernier's Coup De Torchon (1981) based on Thompson's novel Pop. 1280, which was published twelve years after The Killer Inside Me, in 1964. Tavenier (see the IT interview with him here) relocated the story from Texas to French colonial Africa, which makes the racial undercurrents of the novel even more telling. Sheriff Nick Corey in that book is the only lawman in a small town; it's set earlier than The Killer Inside Me and it doesn't have the undertones of 1950s conformity that Winterbottom draws out nicely. By now, Thompson was much more pessimistic and nihilistic than he'd been in 1952, and had drunk a hell of a lot more too. In fact, one of the films it recalls (see the publicity still with the front-lit Affleck and Hudson in a car) is the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, in the sense that Lou Ford is acting out the life of a normal American in the 50s, while a so-called 'alien' lurks underneath. The Coens made a whole movie, The Man Who Wasn't There, just to examine that link between Fifties sf and noir.
In the novel, Thompson makes a point of the 'welcome to Central City' signs on the highway in an out of town. One points out that the population has grown tenfold, the other warns against picking up hitchhikers because they might be escaped lunatics. I think the connection is clear, and re-emphasised 12 years later in the title of Pop. 1280.
Thompson's books lend themselves to exploitation; it's a temptation for film makers to simply jump on the salacious elements and run with them, while simultaneously making the 'heroes; more appealing characters. It's almost painful to watch Stacey Keach trying to work against that in the original version of The Killer Inside Me; as if only he among the film's makers understood what was going on. In that context it's interesting that three of the four most faithful versions of Thompson novels have been made by non-American directors, as if Thompson's point, made in his pulp writer stream of subsconscious, were more obvious to outsiders, or perhaps less unsettling to them. My other two contenders were both made in 1990, Stephen Frears' The Grifters (though its screenplay is by the American Donald Westlake), and James Foley's much-underrated After Dark, My Sweet, where even the naming of the characters, 'Kid' Collins and 'Uncle Bob' suggests Thompson's obsession with incest and abuse. (Another notable foreign adaptation, Alain Corneau's Serie Noir (1979), I haven't seen). The runners-up would include Maggie Greenwald's The Kill-Off (1989—it was a bumper time for Thompsons) an off-beat take on neo-noir that doesn't quite catch Thompson's essence, while Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway (1972) is more interesting as classic Peckinpah than neo-Thompson. What's interesting too is the way in which elements recur in all the novels and films, and the ways they are turned around.
In The Getaway (recall that Peckinpah worked on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers for Don Siegel) Doc McCoy is less of a psychopath than in the book; Steve McQueen wasn't going to play evil, and Al Lettieri's Rudy is around to bear that burden. And the ending, which in its own way works, is not as apocalyptic as the novel. In contrast to Peckinpah, Winterbottom's ending is, if anything, even more apocalyptic than Thompson's, an explosion that recalls Aldrich's version of Kiss Me Deadly. And, in the end Peckinpah is more concerned with reaffirming his angel/whore view of women than integrating them; of course when they're integrated in Thompson's fashion, they die.
The Grifters incest theme is reflected slightly in the Helene character, whose role is far more ambiguous in the film; it would be easy to mistake her for Lou's mother. What is consistent is the way Winterbottom's film attempts to put the blame on mother, more than the novel did, for Lou's inhumanity, just as the film of The Grifters can make Angelica Huston take the blame for John Cusack's character, while at the same time toning down his pathology.
Thompson did two screenplays for Stanley Kubrick; both times Kubrick tried to snatch screen credit away from him. On The Killing (1956), his original credit was for dialogue, but arbitration from the Writer's Guild got it changed; certainly there is a lot of Thompson, beyond Lionel White's novel, in that book—the loser characters played by Jay C Flippen, Elisha Cook, and Timothy Carey have elements of Thompson's alcoholic fatalism, while Carey's encounter with James Edwards' black car park attendant was taken farther in Thompson's late novel Child Of Rage. And the ending smacks of Thompson, though endings are usually problematic for him—because his heroes are doomed to lose, he often writes them into corners and needs to go apocalyptic in order to get them out. Then again, it may be the only way they (and he) can face this world.
Kubrick brought Thompson back to write the screenplay of Paths Of Glory (1957), though Calder Willingham was then hired and star Kirk Douglas preferred his version. Thompson wound up listed third, behind Willingham and Kubrick in the credits, though, according to Thompson's biographer Robert Polito, much of Thompson's original survives intact. Douglas obviously would not have wanted his character's heroism reduced, but the corruption among the top officers, and the fatalistic attitudes of the ordinary soldiers (again Timothy Carey, and though he's far more over the top, I still see him in Carey Affleck). Despite the problems with credits, Kubrick commissioned two more screenplays from Thompson, including Lunatic At Large, which was rediscovered in Kubrick's papers after he died, which has raised the possibility of a new Thompson film. It's currently in development, with Sam Rockwell and Scarlet Johannson attached, as they say. Around that time Thompson had his first heart attack, Kubrick moved on to Spartacus and then Lolita; he never returned to cheap noir. Thompson's books would continue to be optioned on the cheap, or he would be commissioned to write screenplays for chump change (he had to sue Sal Mineo to get paid the bare minimum for one); among those who mooted projects with him were Orson Welles and Sam Fuller, each suited in his own way to Thompson's material—after all how far is Hank Quinlan from a Thompson character? He also was hired to write a script called Bo about hoboes, for Robert Redford, a mix that seems somewhat less likely. Thompson wrote scripts for a couple of TV shows I have a dim but respectful memory of—a cavalry western called McKenzie's Raiders which starred Richard Carlson (no relation) and a mob thriller called Cain's Hundred--and did lots of hackwork. He died not long after the release of the first film of Killer Inside Me, for which he also received very little.
I go into his biography because where Winterbottom's Killer differs from the usual take on Thompson, is a recognition of exactly why the novel itself holds up so well; that's why I think it is the best Thompson adaptation yet. The modern audience is enthralled by Thompson's gutter world; they love the tales of the sad-sack alcoholic navigating his way around Hollywood, they love the darkness as if it were an antidote to the anodyne pre-packaged world around them; the era of the 90s onward could be seen as a rebirth (or repacking with better technology) of the 1950s. But where The Killer Inside Me stands apart is precisely the manner in which Lou Ford is not only indistinguishable from his fellow humans, but works at making it that way. He is not Phillipe Noiret's louche sheriff, nor is he a crook or gambler or sad sack worker who we know from the start is born to lose. Lou Ford works at being a perfectly normal American, and this is what Jim Thompson seemed to find the most horrific of all. He didn't believe in the American Way—any hitchhiker might be an escaped lunatic, any pleasant cop a Lou Ford. In his world it usually took a woman to set the fuse burning, and that's what makes the violence so upsetting, because it is rage against the self, the self that recognises it is different and punishes those who don't.
NOTE: This essay will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)