PRINT Summer 2010


Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me

IN THAT GHOST WORLD WHERE, as Godard proposed, all anyone needs for a movie is a girl and a gun, what about Jim Thompson, at once the acknowledged master of American noir and the crime writer whose novels have most obdurately resisted translation to cinema? Consider, for instance, these Thompson girl-and-gun scenarios—how would you film them?

SCENARIO A: A pair of genial crooks, Carter “Doc” McCoy and his wife, Carol, stage the spectacular robbery of a Beacon City bank, only to find their caper unraveling. They flee across the Mexican border to El Rey, tumbling through a trapdoor into hell—a hell of their own devising, culled from smart, gruesome objectifications of heist-fiction commonplaces. They hole up inside, well, holes—coffin-size underwater caves—for forty-eight hours and twenty-five hundred claustrophobic words. Once all their dreams turn to shit, as it were, they’re forced to hide in a room dug from mounds of warm dung. The preying on society by twisted parasites like the McCoys will tip into cannibalism. “That smell that filled the air. The odor of peppery roasting flesh. . . . ‘Quite fitting, eh Senor? And such an easy transition. One need only live literally as he has always done figuratively.’”

Or this:

SCENARIO B: Charlie “Little” Bigger, a bantam, tubercular hit man, botches his assignment to kill the key witness in a mob racketeering trial and escapes with his companion, Ruthie, to what can only be described as a vagina farm in Vermont, maintained by an absent writer who creates his books by cutting up verses from the Bible. There, amid shrieking goats and thickets of writhing sex organs, the killer and his moll devolve into brutish silence, grunting and pointing, until she pursues him into the cellar with an ax, hacking off his limbs and disassembling his senses. The closing sections of the novel contract in proportion to his steadily diminishing body—the last chapter a single sentence, as Bigger chatters past his own death into the void: “The darkness and myself. Everything else was gone. And the little that was left of me was going, faster and faster.”

Against all odds, Thompson’s The Getaway (1959), described in Scenario A, is actually the source for not one but two stylish suspense films, the first by Sam Peckinpah in 1972, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, the next Roger Donaldson’s 1994 remake, with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger; both directors, of course, jettisoned El Rey for a routine scuttle of car chases, shoot-outs, and triple crosses. But shouldn’t filming Thompson mean discovering cinematic ways to register the rhythms of crime and phantasmagoria in Doc and Carol McCoy’s infernal whorl? And wouldn’t we expect a filmmaker to insinuate formally on-screen that, by dying at the end of his first-person narrative, Charlie Bigger—the protagonist of Thompson’s 1953 Savage Night (Scenario B), which has yet to be adapted—must somehow have been dead right from the start, a disembodied voice signaling back to us from a world beyond the grave?

Even if Thompson’s books should prove filmable via such oblique strategies, taking them on would entail more “standing outside” yourself—as narrator Lou Ford styles “thinking” in The Killer Inside Me (1952)—than filmmakers so far have tended to carry to the projects. An obvious slant of filmic thinking about Thompson might by now include a recognition that his fiction isn’t, by any familiar acid test, realism; his novels, in fact, insistently taunt the naturalistic fixtures of the modern crime saga. A writer who often repeated that there is only one basic plot for fiction—“Things are not as they seem,” a lesson he said he learned from Marx and Don Quixote—Thompson overturned any implicit promise of resolution in the genre for a devastating ambiguity. His novels originate in the appearance of everyday social order and personal integration, a world of train stations, rooming houses, highways, bakeries, and schools, then chart a descent into madness, extinction, and nothingness. His monstrous story lines are inseparable from the cracked bits of weirdness about the edges and from his self-consuming wheel-of-knives structures. Oulipo novelist Georges Perec’s cunning screenplay for Alain Corneau’s 1979 Série noire (after Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman [1954]) recycled French clichés and stereotypes to frame the psychic vacancy at the core of traveling salesman Frank “Dolly” Dillon’s interior life. For his canniest move in The Grifters (1990), Stephen Frears announced the angles of his fatal triangle by atomizing the screen into a triptych of analogues and divergences. In 1981, Bertrand Tavernier lodged the most faithful translation of a Thompson vehicle to date, Coup de torchon (from Pop. 1280 [1964]), notably through a radical dislocation of the West Texas setting to French West Africa. But Thompson is typically filmed as if only connecting the dots of the frantic action, or accommodating the infamous physical violence, matters, the manifold results—starting with the original The Killer Inside Me in 1976 and running through The Kill-Off (1990), After Dark, My Sweet (1990), Hit Me (1996; adapted from A Swell-Looking Babe [1954]), and This World, Then the Fireworks (1997), as well as each version of The Getaway—at once reverential and clueless.

British director Michael Winterbottom would look a dead-cinch alternative to this inverse Masterpiece Theatre cycle of rote Thompson adaptations, with a prospect of getting The Killer Inside Me right. Imagine a film that mixed the lurid intensity of Winterbottom’s feature debut, Butterfly Kiss (1995)—a serial-killer psychodrama inside a lesbian romance inside a road picture—and the electric, self-reflexive savvy of A Cock and Bull Story (2005), his movie-within-a-movie rendering of Tristram Shandy (another book “many say is unfilmable,” as a real-life TV interviewer observes there for a fictional Shandean making-of documentary).

The Killer Inside Me was Thompson’s first paperback original and will likely remain his signature fiction. As the novel opens, Central City deputy sheriff Lou Ford’s encounter with a prostitute rekindles “the sickness” he’s masked since he molested a girl years earlier. Ford tags his public life his “act,” a dumb show where he impersonates a stock Texas lawman. His release—and weapon of choice—is “the needle,” deadpan torturing with platitudes and cornball routines. “Striking at people that way,” he says, “is almost as good as the other, the real way.” Ford’s account escalates with instances of the “real way”—beatings, stranglings, shotguns fired into mouths, and a last, apocalyptic explosion. We follow, repulsed and captivated, even as the deputy sheriff torments his readers with the same s/m verbal riffs he worked on his victims. Throughout, Thompson traces a Möbius strip of compulsion and theater. Is Ford a helpless psychopath? Or a callous killer posing as one? “We might have the disease, the condition,” he blandly offers, “or we might just be cold-blooded and smart as hell.”

In Burt Kennedy’s notoriously inept 1976 film, with Stacy Keach as Lou Ford, every hint of “the sickness” occasions seasick horror lighting, Psycho music, and a susurrus of dripping faucets. Winterbottom sidesteps gothic camp for a sly art-house-noir/pulp elegy, equally homage and requiem, that riskily assumes viewers already know the novel, so glancing are the nods to elemental character groundwork like Ford’s childhood and even his bent for needling. The brio of the indie cast outwits most elisions and stutter steps in John Curran’s screenplay: Jessica Alba as prostitute Joyce Lakeland, Kate Hudson as Ford’s schoolteacher fiancée Amy Stanton, Bill Pullman as attorney Billy Boy Walker, and Casey Affleck in the axial role of the deputy sheriff. Affleck spookily plays (and speaks) Ford as a Texas cousin of Bill Clinton, simultaneously feeling and inflicting your pain, a dynamo of charm and menace until he implodes. Winterbottom manifests “inside” in tight close-ups, but his root gambit is sound—the hypersonic beatings of Joyce and Amy, and his tracking of Ford’s split as a polarity of song, from the breezy western swing of Spade Cooley and Bob Wills to the overwrought strains of Mahler, Strauss, and Donizetti.

The classical gas also imparts a specious, white-elephant strain to the violence: transcendence through art. The film noodles other psycho-killer saws—Ford’s incredulous stares into the mirror, his distressed mumbling to himself. Winterbottom hews closely to the story, but without ever seizing the novel. Here Ford merely pulverizes Amy Stanton. In Thompson, he cruelly stops and restarts his confession of her murder through ten maddening pages, like Sade dallying the climax of a lover.

So, if not Winterbottom, then who else for The Killer Inside Me? The Coen brothers might be candidates: Blood Simple (1985) and No Country for Old Men (2007) excavate the crazy-western-peace-officer terrain, after all, but one trivializes as the other sensationalizes the tone. The recent movie that slices closest to Thompson is David Cronenberg’s 2005 A History of Violence, with its slide from sexual role play into force; its protagonist’s split identity; its arousal and deflation of our identification with vengeance, shock, and mayhem. Cronenberg said he wanted the audience to wind up “complicit” in the violence, to experience the “paradox of enjoying something that, morally, [they] find reprehensible,” and his ambition is inescapably also that of Jim Thompson and Lou Ford.

But nothing is harder to bring into focus on-screen than the double-dealing and sleight-of-hand shenanigans Ford performs on the reader—the evasive, fishy storytelling. This suggests that the most accurate “adaptation” of The Killer Inside Me is still a B movie released some seven years before Thompson wrote the novel, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945). As pianist/hitchhiker Roberts (Tom Neal) tries to alibi past the death of Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), the showy gambler who gives him a ride in Arizona, and then the strangulation of the sour, corrosive Vera (Ann Savage), I can think of no other film that so convincingly persuades us to disbelieve what we are hearing and seeing. As Thompson always said, “Things are not as they seem.”

Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me opens in New York on June 18 and in select cities nationwide on June 25.

Robert Polito directs the Graduate Writing Program at the New School in New York. He is the author of Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson (Knopf, 1995) and, most recently, the poetry collection Hollywood & God (University of Chicago Press, 2009).