Things Are Never What They Seem
A Look At Jim Thompson
born September 27, 1906, died April 7, 1977
“The 1930’s generation of American hard-boiled novelists – Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and McCoy – influenced and wrote for the movies. Their laconic prose, colloquial and racy, came to dominate film noir screenwriting. The next generation – including Thompson, Goodis, and Woolrich – cut their individual styles on the great 1940’s noir films, mastering their metier as much in the plush dark of a cinema as at their desks pouring over stories and books.” Robert Polito, Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson (Knopf, 1995)
For Jim Thompson, there was only one story to tell — things are never what they seem. It was a parable he would repeat many times in his novels and stories, including The Killer Inside Me, After Dark My Sweet, The Getaway, The Grifters and Pop.1280. Each of these books was eventually made into a film, but Thompson only lived to see two of them, The Getaway and The Killer Inside Me, and he hated them both.
There was something in Thompson’s writing that was very hard to capture on film. Perhaps it’s the fact that most of his characters have such savage and intense internal lives that what we see on the surface is only a small part of who they are. And, of course, nothing is as it seems.
“I had a funny dream that night, a damned bothersome one, I should say. One of those dreams in which everything turns out to be just the opposite of what you thought it was.” After Dark, My Sweet
Thompson’s “nothing is as it seems” theme is personified in his unreliable, psychopathic narrators, especially Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me and Nick Corey of Pop. 1280. There are things going on beyond the narrator’s awareness and the reader, forced to accept the narrator’s version of events, is as unsuspecting as Ford or Corey.
Thompson’s characters usually start off conveying a sense of normalcy: Lou Ford eating a piece of pie; Nick Corey, earning two thousand a year but worrying because he’s having trouble eating and sleeping and doesn’t know what the heck to do about it; William “Kid” Collins hitchhiking into town, but “dressed pretty good” and looking okay. Even “Doc” McCoy, wakes up “easily and pleasantly; a man with not a regret for the past, and completely confident and self-assured as he faced each new day.” But things quickly begin to unravel and they soon find themselves on the doorstep of doom, unable to find a way back.
James Meyers Thompson was born September 27, 1906 in a room over the Caddo County Jail in Oklahoma where his father, “Big Jim” Thompson, was sheriff. Thompson would mine the people and events of his own life in his novels, including his childhood, the small-town sheriff (in the case of both Lou Ford and Nick Corey), the short con grifter (Roy Dillon in The Grifters), dead-end jobs, the seamy side of cheap hotels, Depression-era poverty and life on the margins of society.
A contemporary of writers Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich, all born around the beginning of the 20th century, Thompson had been forced to start working nights as a bellhop while still a teenager to help support his family. He picked up an education of sorts “hopping bells”—moonlighting as a bootlegger, a drug peddler, a pimp, and learning to grift on the side. Working nights and going to school during the daytime eventually brought on a state of exhaustion in the adolescent and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He came of age just in time to have the Depression snatch away his hopes for any kind of prosperity.
Thompson would never make much money in his lifetime even though he managed to publish 26 novels between 1942 and 1973. In 1935 he wrote his first story for True Detective, one of a number of monthly true crime magazines that reached the peak of their popularity between 1935 and 1945. Thompson wrote continuously during the 1930’s and 40’s for magazines with names like Master Detective, Daring Detective, Startling Detective and Official Detective. There were as many as 75 of these monthlies at the time, and he wrote for most of them. He often enlisted his wife, Alberta, his mother, and his two sisters to help him run down the facts of a story. These “pulps” had strict guidelines for writers to follow: no more than three suspects, only using first person narrative in telling the story, maintaining suspense by not revealing the guilty person too soon, and a conviction and sentencing at the end.
Thompson was the only major crime novelist to learn and polish his craft writing true crime to such an extent. Many crime novelists wrote for the detective pulps during the thirties and forties, including Hammett, Woolrich, Harlan Ellison, Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner, but none for as long or as prolifically as Thompson. There’s no doubt his apprenticeship inside the world of real murder left its mark on his later work.
According to Thompson’s biographer Robert Polito, “Writing for the fact-detective monthlies taught Thompson how to relate a complicated story in a few crisp pages. True crime allowed him to explore character, language, atmosphere, pacing, and rhythm without the burden of inventing a plot.”
The plot in Thompson’s novels is inseparable from the characters. When writing about psychopaths and serial killers, Thompson frequently chose to write in a first-person narrative style. In 1940, Thompson wrote: “The first-person device, by permitting the reader to identify himself with one character from beginning to end, not only serves to juxtapose one force with another and gives both meaning, but makes for easier reading. In writing for popular magazines, I have found that the first-person … gives the reader a feeling of being part of things rather than an observer.”
Thompson had a lifelong problem with alcohol that eventually ate up his insides and put him in hospital several times during the last decade of his life. Despite this, he continued to churn out his work at a furious pace. As Polito explains, “Although his legend glows with the heat of his relentless productivity, Thompson wrote as he drank – a novel within five weeks, a half-dozen true crime features over a single month – in binges.”
He wrote 12 books between September 1952 and March 1954 (19 months) including The Killer Inside Me, Savage Night, The Criminal, A Hell of a Woman, The Nothing Man, After Dark, My Sweet and The Kill-Off.
Thompson began writing for Lion Books in the early 1950’s, when paperback originals first started to appear. These mass-market paperbacks were 25¢ apiece and bridged the gap between the pulp magazines of the 1930’s and 40’s and mainstream hardcover book publishing. The publisher hired a stable of writers, providingthem with plot ideas and paying them advances as high as $2,500. In the 1950s, Thompson’s novels usually sold out their printings of 200,000 to 250,000 copies.
The first book Thompson wrote for Lion was based on a plot they provided about a New York City cop who gets involved with a prostitute and ends up killing her. It was The Killer Inside Me, and Thompson gave it his own peculiar twist, transporting it to small-town Texas and narrating the story from the killer’s point of view. He took the bare outline of a story and infused it with the tortured psychology of real people, giving it the distorted quality of life lived in the chasm of mental illness.
The Killer Inside Me (Lion Books, September 1952) is regarded by many readers as Thompson’s masterpiece. Described by the late film director Stanley Kubrick as “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered,” The Killer Inside Me is filled with incidents of stomach-turning awfulness. The murder of Amy Stanton is a cold-blooded act of brutality and her slow and agonizing death is hard to read.
“… she kept moving around. It looked like she couldn’t lie still . . . Once I felt something touch my boot, and I looked down and it was her hand. It was moving back and forth across the toe of my boot. It moved up along the ankle and the leg, and somehow I was afraid to move away. And then her fingers were at the top, clutching down inside; and I almost couldn’t move. I stood up and tried to jerk away, and the fingers held on . . . I dragged her two-three feet before I could break away.”
The concept of the “split” personality occurs frequently in Thompson’s writing. Once again, nothing is as it seems. His psychopathic characters always hide their inner turmoil behind a kind of bumbling amiability. But all the while, the pressure inside is building up, looking for a way to get out. Lou Ford experiences psychotic episodes that he refers to as “the sickness.” He is filled with feelings of guilt and revenge, but has cultivated a mask that the world thinks is Lou Ford.
“I’ve loafed around the streets sometimes, leaned against a store front with my hat pushed back, and one boot hooked back around the other … looking nice and friendly and stupid, like I wouldn’t piss if my pants were on fire. And all the time I’m laughing myself sick inside. Just watching the people.”
The push-and-pull of two worlds eventually destroys the character. Ford tells young Johnnie Pappas, “I guess I kinda got a foot on both fences … I planted ‘em there early and now they’ve taken root, and I can’t move either way and I can’t jump. All I can do is wait until I split. Right down the middle.”
The book was filmed in 1975 by director Burt Kennedy and starred Stacy Keach as Lou Ford. Kennedy gives the film a surreal quality, painting everything in extremes and signalling Ford’s episodes of the “sickness” as flashes of lightning. Keach’s performance makes the film worth watching, but it’s basically an exercise in camp. Thompson was speechless when he first saw the film and according to his daughter Sharon, regretted the sale of his best novel as a “bad deal.”
Jerry Bick, Thompson’s Hollywood agent and friend, said of the writer, “Jim Thompson was very much like the people in his books. On a conscious, acting-out level, he was ingratiating, always apologizing, a big shambling teddy bear. But nobody can be as obliging and meek as Jim was and not have a lot of pent-up rage inside. … He was capable of lashing out at those who had hurt him, or did him wrong, and Jim would lash out in violence. But there was only one place this came out, and that was at the typewriter.”
In After Dark, My Sweet (Lion, December, 1955), William “Kid” Collins, an ex-boxer and mental patient, is another split personality, constantly wrestling with his demons.
“Around four in the afternoon, after I’d walked about ten miles, I came to this roadhouse. I went on past it a little ways, walking slower and slower, arguing with myself. I lost the argument – the part of me that was on-the-beam lost it – and I went back.”
An escapee from a mental hospital, his record describes him as “amiable, polite, patient, but may be very dangerous if aroused.” His condition is “aggravated by worry,” and the treatment is “absolute rest.”
Collins tries to hide his tension with friendly, non-threatening chatter that usually puts people on edge. “I played it dumb – kind of good-natured dumb.” This could be Lou Ford talking but, unlike Ford, Collins hates it when people treat him like he’s stupid. “I’ll tell you something, Mrs. Anderson,” he tells Fay, the woman he’s involved with, “I’d like to correct an erroneous impression you seem to have about me. I’m not at all stupid, Mrs. Anderson. I may sound like I am, but I’m really not.”
Ford, on the other hand, loves to watch people squirm while he repeats a series of platitudes and bunk. He really wants them to think he’s dumb. But then, Ford is a killer and Collins is not. Thompson has infused Collins with a kind of nobility. He’s someone who’s always caught on the wrong side of events through no fault of his own. He tries to do the right thing, but somehow life conspires against him.
The film of After Dark, My Sweet, released in 1990, is surprisingly faithful to the book and succeeds on an emotional level even if it fails in some of the details. It stars Jason Patric as Collins, Rachel Ward as Fay Anderson, the lonely and widowed young lush who draws Collins into a plot to kidnap a rich child, and Bruce Dern as Uncle Buck, the architect of the kidnap plan, who’s the ultimate dirtbag and thinks he’s smarter than everyone.
Patric brings “Collie” to life in a performance that’s intense yet at times gentle. He shows us the character’s extreme loneliness, his volatility, his “split” personality and his innate intelligence. He manages to bring all these disparate elements together and make a real person out of Collins, someone who wants to be necessary. Rachel Ward is believable as Fay, all angles and hard edges, dried up and wasted. She and Collins are drawn to each other because they’re both lost. It’s Collins who tries to redeem Fay, surprisingly, not the other way around. But like most of Thompson’s characters, they’re both sucked into the funnelof destiny.
“It just seemed like something I had to do – like I’d been set in a rut and had to follow it out to the end.” After Dark, My Sweet.
Thompson’s characters always suffer from a sense of inevitability. Fate lays a heavy hand on their future, one they can’t lift or get out from under. Polito claims, “Despite the consuming inwardness of his fiction, Thompson – strange to say – possessed no gift for introspection. With Bad Boy and Roughneck [his two autobiographies] he … retreated into abstractions like Fate and Luck to explain why his world turned out the way that it had.”
Failure would become a central theme in Thompson’s novels. He wrote about the people who inhabit the fringes of society, whose alienation, anger and despair lead to drunkenness and violence. The crime novels of the 1950’s and 1960’s were peopled by anti-heroes, grifters and ex-cons.
In 1959, Signet published The Getaway, the story of “Doc” and Carol McCoy, a 1950’s Bonnie and Clyde on the run from the law. Doc and Carol are cold-blooded killers, but love each other and stick together until the end. The end, in the book, is a kind of hell on earth, a place called El Rey, where killers and thieves can live out their lives in luxury – until their money runs out. It’s a surreal ending, and one that’s an uncomfortable fit for the reader.
A decade later, film producers David Foster and Steve McQueen replaced it with a Hollywood ending in which the happy killers drive off into the sunset in an old pickup truck. Thompson was originally hired to write the screenplay, but after 16 weeks was replaced by Walter Hill, who would receive sole screen credit for the script.
The film bears very little resemblance to the book – the most successful transposition being the nasty subplot involving Sally Struthers as the desperately sluttish wife of a hapless veterinarian. Ali MacGraw (abysmal acting aside) is so wrong in the part of Carol, it becomes laughable. She’s haughty and highborn while the Carol of the book is common and lowdown.
There were other things McQueen changed as well. He glamourized the characters of Doc and Carol, played by himself and MacGraw, who, incidentally, had left her husband, Paramount Pictures executive Robert Evans for McQueen, creating a minor scandal at the time. McQueen had final cut, and when director Sam Peckinpah saw the picture, he was furious, declaring it was not his film. The reviews were not kind but “The Getaway” went on to earn $18 million in the U.S. and another $35 million worldwide, making it the fifth highest-grossing film of 1972.
A 1994 remake, starring husband and wife, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger as Doc and Carol, follows an updated version of Walter Hill’s original script. The critics hated it, but in some ways it’s a better movie than the 1972 version, which has taken on a kind of mythical status. The editing in the earlier version is choppy, in the style favoured by filmmakers in the early 1970’s, and McQueen and MacGraw don’t seem bound together by anything but the feeble dialogue that passes between them. At least the Baldwin-Basinger version is about sex and partnership in keeping with the spirit of the book. In both versions, however, the chase sequences, shoot-em-up and trashy endings are strictly cliché.
According to Mike Medavoy, Thompson’s agent, “Jim never adapted to the Hollywood mold. He really wasn’t a screenwriter per se, he was a novelist who wrote a certain kind of book very well. Jim was too dark for Hollywood … the irony is that today, all the young guys love his stuff.”
Novelist James Ellroy, whose Hollywood Confidential was made into a highly acclaimed movie, once told the Los Angeles Times, “Thompson not only writes great dialogue, but he’s great at capturing the psychology of his characters. You get such a sense of darkness and loss.”
The Grifters (Regency Books, May 1963) is the Thompson novel that has been most effectively translated to the screen. Directed by Stephen Frears, a British director best known for “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “Dangerous Liaisons,” from a smooth script by mystery writer Donald E. Westlake, The Grifters is immaculately cast with John Cusack as Roy Dillon, Angelica Huston as his soulless mother, Lilly, and an impish Annette Bening as Myra Langtry.
It’s the story of Roy Dillon, a man still in his twenties who is locked into the dead-end life of the short con, or the grift. One of the essentials of grifting that Roy learns early on is “retaining a high degree of anonymity while remaining in circulation.”
“You couldn’t disguise yourself, naturally. It was more a matter of not doing anything. Of avoiding any mannerism, any expression, any tone or pattern of speech, any posture or gesture or walk – anything at all that might be remembered.”
Dillon’s despair deepens as he realizes he is “bound to the front, bound to and bound by it.” Nobody trusts anybody in The Grifters. They’re all trying to survive in a world of “Desolation. Eternal, infinite. Like Dostoevski’s conception of eternity, a fly circling about a privy, the few signs of life only emphasized the loneliness.”
The movie begins with Elmer Bernstein’s driving music and a split-screen introduction of the three main characters that shows us just how isolated and separate they are. As an old-time con tells Roy, “You’re a grifter, see? A thief. You’ve got no home and no friends, and no visible means of support. And you damned well better not ever forget it.”
The story winds its way through Roy’s life as he tries to keep everything in balance – his grifting, which he doesn’t want to give up because it’s the one thing that gives him a kick; the sales job that provides the necessary front; his mother, who tries to get him to give up the grift; and Myra, a seductress and a younger version of his mother, who wants him to join her in the kind of big cons in which she was once successfully involved.
In the movie, the sexual tension zings around the room when the three of them are together. The women are battling for more than Roy’s body, they want his soul. Lilly (Huston), who works a con reducing the odds at racetracks by placing large bets for a syndicate, is still a young woman (she was only fourteen when she gave birth to Roy). An incestuous sexual yearning is more than hinted at, and Lilly’s final scene with Roy is a study in seduction. Myra, who’s been knocking around for a few years, using her body to pay the rent, has been looking for another partner for the long con. It’s a classic triangle, but unfortunately for Roy, these women would rather beat the odds and win than find true love. In Thompson’s world, when somebody wins, somebody else usually dies.
At the end of the film, as Lilly drives by Myra’s empty car, we’re given a haunting reminder that only the toughest survive in this world.
“I think you’d have to say that it somehow matches Jim’s view of life, that he gets his fifteen minutes of fame thirteen years after his death.” Donald E. Westlake, screenwriter for The Grifters.
Jim Thompson’s world was filled with obsession, violence, revenge, alcoholism, mental imbalance and fantasies of deliverance. Although his characters belonged to the 1950’s, their roots could be found in the mean, hardscrabble life of the thirties.
Thompson died on April 7, 1977. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard began reissuing his novels in 1984 and in 3 years put out 13 of them. A half dozen more were published in the next decade.
Jim Thompson: Selected Bibliography
Vintage Crime / Black Lizard
After Dark, My Sweet (orig. published 1955) (film released 1991)
The Criminal (orig. published 1953)
Cropper’s Cabin (orig. published 1952)
The Getaway (orig. published 1958) (film released 1972; re-made 1994)
The Grifters (orig. published 1963) (film released 1990)
Heed the Thunder (orig. published 1964)
A Hell of a Woman (orig. published 1954) (filmed as “Série Noire” 1979)
The Killer Inside Me (orig. published 1952) (film released 1976)
Nothing More Than Murder (orig. published 1949)
Now and On Earth (orig. published 1942)
Pop. 1280 (orig. published 1964) (filmed as “Coup de Torchon”/ “Clean Slate” 1981)
Recoil (orig. published 1953)
Savage Night (orig. published 1953)
South of Heaven
A Swell-Looking Babe (orig. published 1954) (filmed as “Hit Me” 1996)
Texas by the Tail
This article first appeared in SHOTS # 9