Cast: Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook, Jr., Marie Windsor
In Stanley Kubrick’s thrilling heist movie The Killing, a charismatic ringleader, a brute of a man, an expert marksman, a crooked cop and three regular, ordinary guys, none of them natural criminals, are brought together for one reason: money. Fresh out of jail, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), with the help of his cohorts, decides, rather than reform his ways, to raise the stakes. Why go to jail for $500 when you can go to jail for a million? So he muses to his devoted childhood sweetheart, Fay (Colleen Gray), who has waited patiently for his return from five years in Alcatraz. His plan: to steal the takings at a racetrack on one of the biggest days of the season, a haul that could net the men a fortune.
Opening with an urgent, unsettling score, all beating drums and screaming horns, the film plunges the audience into the frantic atmosphere at the racetrack where the heist will take place, before introducing us to the ill-fated men and women caught up in the scheme. A narrator guides us through the unconventional chronology, his laconic delivery adding to the tension, as the intricacies of the plot are revealed in the lean, briskly paced film.
Johnny has devised a near-flawless robbery, but with one major weakness: George (Elisha Cook, Jr.), the track’s cashier, a browbeaten shell of a man who landed a gorgeous wife with never-realised promises of wealth. Emotionally manipulative, Sherry is a hard-boiled vamp, who literally flutters her false eyelashes to bend George to her will, only to sell him out for a future with her equally cynical lover. Perfectly played by Marie Windsor, Sherry is a nasty, manipulative piece of work, who can’t wait to be ‘up to her curls in cash’. But any whiff of misogyny is dispelled by the strength and presence of her character; she also gets the best lines in the film, the pitch-perfect dialogue written by the pulp novelist Jim Thompson.
A classic noir, Kubrick’s third feature revels in the genre’s striking aesthetics, with masterful tracking shots and use of lighting. The characters, George in particular, often appear behind bars, with the shadows in some scenes cast by an iron bedstead – what should have been an object of domestic bliss now a stand-in for George’s unhappy fate. The motif is repeated in a fabulously grim scene, where our characters find themselves trapped, enclosed by bars of light and dark, their fate sealed. The allegories – they are all pieces of a puzzle, pawns on a chessboard – are not always subtle, but they are evocative.
Although Johnny’s meticulous planning pays off, Sherry’s intervention means that there is no chance of a ‘happy’ ending, only a senseless, violent outcome. The very human weaknesses of envy and ego play their part in everyone’s downfall, but, Johnny, in the end, is also a victim of sheer bad luck, the unpredictable and unforeseen. As Sherry says, in the moment when her own fate has been decided for her, it’s ‘a bad joke without a punchline’.
The Killing is released in a double feature Blu-ray edition by Arrow Video, together with Kurbrick’s second feature, Killer’s Kiss (1955).
That filmmakers should be drawn again and again to the work of American crime novelist Jim Thompson is not surprising. Thompson’s dark gems are tightly written, brutally compelling and as psychologically complex as they are morally ambivalent. It would be great then if those directors made the effort to read Thompson properly, if they did not oversimplify and often entirely miss the point of the novels. Indeed it is rather frustrating that, with a few exceptions, Thompson’s remarkable body of work should have led to so many disappointing offerings, and Michael Winterbottom’s new adaptation of The Killer inside Me is a particularly deplorable entry into the canon.
The British director’s film, co-scripted by John Curran, is the second screen version of what is often considered one of Thompson’s finest works (the first was Burt Kennedy’s 1976 film, with Stacey Keach in the lead). It stars Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, the outwardly sweet-natured but dim-witted Deputy Sheriff of a small Texas town, who under his Southern good manners hides a frightening intelligence and psychopathic impulses. When naí¯ve rich boy Elmer (Jay R Ferguson) falls for Joyce (Jessica Alba), a prostitute who has set up shop on the edge of town, his father, local big shot Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), asks Lou to move her on. But Lou instead gets involved with Joyce and decides to use the situation to seek revenge for past misdeeds. His plan does not quite work out and Lou increasingly struggles to keep control of events, a situation that is further complicated by his relationship to girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson).
This story of deceit and death is the occasion for scenes of extreme violence, which has already generated heated controversy. There are two particularly grisly murder scenes, in which the women are subjected to extended brutality and degradation. The issue here is not the graphic violence per se, but its presentation and context. There is a tremendous sense of indulgence in the beautifully shot murder scenes, and the copious amount of gratuitous sex adds to the sensational aspect of the film and the objectification of the women. The characterisation of the main female characters is indeed spectacularly reductive: always seen half-naked and in bed, they are both stunningly gorgeous and like rough sex… This, coupled with the fact that they only appear in scenes of sex or violence, gives the film a rather nasty whiff of unredeemed misogyny.
Winterbottom has said in interviews that he wanted to be ‘faithful’ to the source novel, and this has served to justify the violent excesses of the film. He is most probably not misogynistic, but his incredibly unsophisticated literal approach is particularly unsuited to capturing a novel as ambiguous as The Killer inside Me: Winterbottom scrupulously follows to the letter a book that actually requires reading between the lines (could literalness be one of Winterbottom’s defining directorial traits? Real migrants in In This World, real sex in 9 Songs…). Crucially, the film fails to coherently convey the fact that Lou is an unreliable narrator and that what he tells us might not be true, something that would help explain the characterisation of the women and distance the film from his view of them. This is particularly important in the murder of the second woman. In the book, Lou teases the reader, making us wait for the full narrative, possibly because what he has done has triggered strong emotions in him, possibly because he likes to play games, probably for both reasons and more. That section is a key moment in the book: it explores hidden nuances in the main characters, reveals the complexity of Lou’s psychology and of his relationship to Amy, and confirms that the reality described by Lou is a fictional construct. This, if translated into the screen version in some form, would have given a much better understanding of the violence and made it far less dubious.
This is something that Alain Corneau and his co-scriptwriter, Oulipo novelist George Perec, successfully managed to do in Série noire, their adaptation of Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman (1979), which, like The Killer inside Me, features an unreliable, murderous narrator. The brilliant opening sequence shows Patrick Dewaere’s Franck Poupart role-playing in the middle of a wasteland, shadow-boxing in the rain before dancing to Duke Ellington while holding his small radio, entirely in a world of his own creation. This prepares us for Poupart’s endless re-positioning of himself and his constant reconstruction of an unsatisfactory reality, and most disturbingly of all, for his remarkable ability to actually believe in his warped version of events.
Paradoxically, by relocating the story to a drab Parisian suburb, and making Poupart a hopeless door-to-door salesman, Corneau and Perec convey more of Thompson’s spirit than Winterbottom’s ‘faithful’ version. They understood one crucial thing: Thompson’s psychotic men are losers and misfits who are uncomfortable in the confines of their insular, petty-minded surroundings. Winterbottom does not get it: he channels Thompson’s savage view of humanity through memories of glamorous Hollywood noir cinema; the women look like stars, not like provincial beauties; the cars are desirable curvy objects straight out of 50s advertising; the cinematography is as flawless and slick as the women. But his noir pastiche completely misses the seedy side of the evil described by Thompson, the mediocrity of the hypocrisy, decay, immorality and viciousness, the small-town-ness of it all, present even in the most disturbing acts of malevolence.
This profound understanding of Thompson’s world makes Corneau’s Série noire one of the best adaptations of the novelist’s work on screen by far. The other exceptionally good Thompson adaptation happens to be another French film: Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de torchon (1981) takes one of Thompson’s most accomplished novels, Pop. 1280, and transposes it to colonial Africa, a setting that not only perfectly suits, but also intensifies, the climate of corruption of the original novel and its uncompromising vision of the rotting human soul. Clearly, Tavernier and his co-scriptwriter Jean Aurenche, like Corneau and Perec before them, had made the effort to read the book closely. Shame Winterbottom’s literary sensibilities are not quite as developed.
Cast: Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening
At the start of The Grifters, small-time scam artist Roy Dillon (John Cusack) walks into a bar, intending to make some easy money by switching a $20 bill for a $10 spot when ordering a bottle of beer; however, the bartender has seen this trick before, and punishes Roy by punching him in the gut with a baseball bat, causing a near-fatal injury that results in hospitalisation. In most American movies, a swift trip to the emergency room, and the recuperation that follows, would prompt the central protagonist to reconsider his personal and professional values, but The Grifters is an adaptation of a 1963 novel by Jim Thompson, arguably the most nihilistic of the second generation of noir writers, and Roy is a typical Thompson anti-hero, hurriedly checking out of the hospital to get back to his routine. However, the presence in his life of two strong-willed women causes complications; his mother Lilly (Anjelica Houston) works for a powerful bookmaker, placing last-minute bets at the track to lower the odds on long shots while skimming off the top for her retirement plan; his girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening) is a former long-con operator, reduced to paying her rent with sexual favours. Both women fiercely compete for Roy’s loyalty; Lilly offers him the most motherly advice she can muster after a life on the grift, warning her son that ‘you don’t stand still, you go up or down’, while Myra becomes infuriated with his lack of interest in her ideas for relieving big-time tycoons of their immense wealth via stock market fraud. Roy tries to sever ties with both women, a sensible decision that makes him a strangely sympathetic individual amid the author’s rogues’ gallery of morally bankrupt bottom feeders.
As befits someone who is keen to conceal his past but has no specific plans for the future, Roy’s life is a carefully constructed facade; he resides in a low-rent hotel room with ‘cornball clown pictures’ on the wall, engaging in friendly banter with the manager of the establishment and meaningless sex with Myra, while maintaining a legitimate job as a matchbox salesman. His scams are ‘small-time stuff’ and he insists that he can walk away from the life whenever he wants; within the context of the criminal underworld, Roy is something of a working stiff, a competent ‘mechanic’ with a stable life and some superficial human relationships. The character of Roy Dillon is perhaps Thompson’s most semi-autobiographical creation; the summer before he wrote The Grifters, the author was hospitalised with a severe stomach condition and nearly died from bleeding ulcers, and Thompson even used the name ‘Dillon’ as a pseudonym when he joined the communist party. The resentful relationship between Roy and Lilly suggests that their inability to trust others stems from an unpleasant childhood, and was possibly inspired by Thompson’s upbringing; his father was a sheriff, but was forced to leave amid rumours of embezzlement; the Thompson family relocated and he worked as a bellhop in Texas hotels, where he witnessed the petty crime, alcohol abuse and confidence games that would feature in his ‘fiction’, often supplementing his meagre wages by procuring heroin and marijuana for the unsavoury guests.
While Roy is smart enough to take advantage of easy marks such as a group of soldiers on a train, he is not sufficiently ruthless to entirely evade the predatory advances of Lilly or Myra, and Cusack engages in a series of hard-boiled exchanges with his co-stars that are appropriately at odds with the puppy dog features of an actor who had just graduated from such teen movies as The Sure Thing (1985) and Say Anything (1989). Lilly is only 14 years older than her son, and the Oedipal tension between them is palpable, while Myra is also older and more experienced, but her perky ‘good-time girl’ persona belies an extensive working knowledge of the ‘long con’ and a contacts book that includes Lilly’s employer Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle), a suave mobster who dishes out personal concern and professional cruelty in equal measure. For all his insistence on independence, Roy is trapped by the duelling personalities of Lilly and Myra, and this is emphasised in an early sequence that segues into split screen to introduce the three characters, thereby setting up a twisted love triangle that will inevitably end in tragedy.
Screenwriter Donald E Westlake found the source novel ‘too gloomy’ and initially declined the assignment, only for director Stephen Frears to convince him to reconsider by suggesting that they emphasise the survival instincts of Lilly, and pare down Thompson’s already sparse prose by excising a sub-plot concerning Roy’s affair with Carol, the nurse who aids his recovery. Frears also took liberties with the period trappings of the source material, acknowledging both the noir era of Thompson’s fiction and the author’s very modern approach to character and genre; the 1940s dresses, 1950s architecture, 1970s automobiles, 1980s suits serve to create an ambiguous time frame, although one that remains grounded in reality, unlike Michael Oblowitz’s later adaptation of This World, Then the Fireworks (1997), which aimed for pastiche but regrettably lurched into parody. Thompson admitted to being as influenced by the movies as he was by the previous generation of crime writers, and Frears includes numerous nods to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), from the ‘mother complex’ of the male protagonist to the Arizona motel sequence, while the closing elevator descent into ‘hell’ recalls the more overtly satanic noir of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987).
The Grifters was released around the same time as two other Thompson adaptations, Maggie Greenwald’s The Kill Off (1989) and James Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet (1990). However, the marketing muscle of Miramax and the much publicised presence of Martin Scorsese as executive producer and narrator ensured that The Grifters received greater critical attention and achieved modest box office success, also earning four Oscar nominations. Oliver Stapleton’s sun-drenched cinematography, the star casting, and the suggestion that Roy may be redeemable, probably lent this particular Thompson adaptation a degree of mainstream accessibility, but Frears utilises his attractive actors to envision the author’s characters at their most unpleasant and untrustworthy; ‘I was hoping we could play it straight with one another,’ Lilly says to Roy in their penultimate encounter. ‘I guess not,’ replies Roy, although his wavering loyalty from Myra to Lilly suggests that he is looking for an honest relationship. In this respect, he lacks the ruthlessness that Thompson’s world view demands of even those who are ‘strictly short-con’, and Roy’s fate is sealed by such sentimental indecision. In terms of its treatment of Thompson’s man-in-the-middle, The Grifters is a splendidly cynical adaptation of a stone-cold literary classic.
A sun-drenched film noir set in the Palm Springs desert, After Dark, My Sweet drips with tension and a brooding sensuality as two desperate people, a disgraced ex-cop and a struggling widow, ensnare a vulnerable and disturbed drifter in their scheme to kidnap a wealthy family’s son for ransom. Based on the 1955 novel by Jim Thompson and directed by James Foley, the film captures the sinister, yet morally ambiguous tone of the author’s pulp fiction.
Jason Patric, then a teen heartthrob who had last appeared in The Lost Boys, stars alongside 80s pin-up Rachel Ward, who spends much of the film dressed in a pair of cut-off jean shorts, showing off her impossibly long legs. Patric plays ex-boxer ‘Kid’ Collins, who is on the run from a mental institution when he meets Ward’s Fay in an empty bar. Black and white flashbacks to his vicious final bout hint at the reason for his confinement, and it’s easy to assume that too many beatings have made the boxer dim-witted. He even shuffles along as if he’s still in the ring, itching for a fight.
Given a menial job by Fay, and a home in a trailer parked on her land, Kid is soon introduced to Uncle Bud, played by Bruce Dern at his sleaziest, with long white hair and a procession of Hawaii shirts. Blinded by his attraction to Fay, and despite her half-hearted warning to stay away, Kid finds himself entangled in their plot to kidnap the town’s wealthiest son. Kid is soon set up as the kidnapper, and the fall guy.
But Kid Collins has something in common with Thompson’s other leading men: seemingly slow and underestimated by everyone, he’s darkly clever, and deeply disturbed. Kid’s smouldering blue eyes are the only hint that he’s not as slow as he seems, although he does warn Fay and Uncle Bud (to little avail) not to treat him like he’s stupid. It’s only as the film builds to its taut, near-perfect conclusion that he reveals himself for what he truly is - a frighteningly intelligent man who has one last shot at making something of his meaningless life.
It’s an impressive performance by Patric, and the sexual tension between Kid and Fay is certainly palpable (although the sex scenes show little of the violence that marks Thompson’s work - an issue that’s already causing controversy around the release of The Killer inside Me). There’s no denying Rachel Ward’s sex appeal, but it’s a shame that she isn’t a better actress - good at playing drunk, she over-acts in the melodramatic moments when the kidnapping of the young, lonely and neglected boy starts to go horribly wrong.
Despite its minor flaws, Foley’s film is a lean, compelling thriller whose fluid tracking shots and rusty brown and gold hues have aged surprisingly well in the 20 years since its release, while Patric, whose career never quite took off, is still a heartthrob.
Cast: Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, Ben Johnson, Sally Struthers, Al Lettieri
Sam Peckinpah might well have featured in the top 10 list of directors most likely to successfully bring Jim Thompson’s dark misanthropic world view to celluloid - if he hadn’t made The Getaway. Thompson’s 1959 novel was filmed in 1972 as a Steve McQueen star-vehicle, and thus not only is the violence softened, but McQueen’s Doc McCoy - a bank robber who is paroled from prison with the assistance of crime lord Jack Beynon (Ben Johnson) only to escape with the loot - is certainly a more sympathetic character than his literary equivalent. Thompson’s mean-spirited slobbish lowlife (perfectly captured by Philippe Noiret in Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de torchon) becomes that Hollywood stereotype - the charming professional criminal with his own strong moral code. There is no doubting McQueen’s presence and star quality, but he is just too cool and likeable to play a Thompson anti-hero. Peckinpah, who was something of a hired hand at McQueen’s request (in recompense for the brilliant elegiac neo-Western Junior Bonner, a commercial failure but a happy collaboration for Peckinpah and McQueen), might have done better to cast his favourite actor - Warren Oates.
But a McQueen film it is and Jim Thompson’s influence is thus diminished. That is not to say that The Getaway is a bad film, it’s just very different from the book. With Peckinpah at the height of his directorial powers, it’s certainly a cut above the hollow voguish-ness of Bullitt. An incredible wordless title sequence portrays the inhuman mechanistic prison system as Doc is refused parole. The daring non-chronological cutting shows Doc’s dreams of freedom become a reality in the memorable swimming sequence. Making use of his stars’ burgeoning real-life romance (MacGraw left her husband, producer Robert Evans, and married McQueen shortly after), The Getaway becomes an odd blend of matrimonial drama and heist film. McQueen is almost convincing as a cuckolded husband torn apart by his wife’s indiscretion (even she did it to ensure his release from prison). But marriage guidance Sam Peckinpah-style (yes, he even slaps her at one point, despite McQueen’s complaints to his director) proves to be as much a trial as the getaway itself. And what in other hands (Peter Yates take note) could have become a stylish but mindless action thriller becomes a complex drama about relationships and trust issues, complete with narrow escapes and explosive shoot-outs.
The long running time allows for an almost episodic structure with some great set-pieces as various police, gangsters and petty criminals attempt to help themselves to the half a million dollars. The minimal script by Walter Hill (who went on to direct The Driver and The Warriors) is enhanced by some colourful performances by the supporting cast. Al Lettieri’s kidnapping of Sally Struthers and her husband is as disturbing as it is funny and Peckinpah regular Ben Johnson is excellent as the scheming Beynon. Even Ali MacGraw, not always the most skilled actor, does some good work here.
This being a Hollywood movie, the hellish ending of Jim Thompson’s novel has been dropped, but even Peckinpah films never end as bleakly as that. And although the studio system of the 1970s is perhaps what prevented The Getaway from being a more faithful adaptation it seems we are even further away from such a possibility now. That said, maybe Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer inside Me will prove me wrong - after all, in A Cock and Bull Story (2005) he remains true to what was perhaps the most un-filmable of literary voices, that of Lawrence Sterne.