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Jim Thompson

BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . .

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In 1952, Jim Thompson published The Killer Inside Me, the novel which was to make his name. The central character is Lou Ford, an apparently mild mannered Texas Deputy Sheriff. Behind the bland mask he is, however, manipulative sexual sadist and a stone cold killer. For a detailed review of the novel, click the image below.

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The Killer Inside Me is astonishingly frank for 1952, so much so that the implications of sadistic sex, paedophilia and substance abuse would make anyone writing a screenplay tread very warily indeed. The first movie version wasn’t until 1976, and it featured Stacey Keach as Lou Ford. Director Burt Kennedy transposes Central City Texas to Montana. Sometimes this geographical shift is echoed by the storyline, resembling that of the novel in the same way that the mountains of Montana mirror the vast flatlands of the Texas oilfields, but at other times, such as the jail scene between Ford and Johnny (now Hispanic rather than Greek) the dialogue is lifted straight from the novel.

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The novel has Ford speaking from the very first page and we know immediately who and what he is, whereas the film takes a while to reveal to us Ford’s true character. Ford still ends up shot dead by his former colleagues, but his demise comes much quicker and with less ceremony than in the novel. For the complete cast and credits, click here. Keach makes a decent enough fist of the part but in a brilliant cameo as Joyce Lakeland, Susan Tyrell was the stand-out performer, brief though her role was. Her New York Times obituary decribed her ‘talent for playing the downtrodden, outré, and grotesque.

A second adaptation, directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, was released in 2010. Thirty-odd years is a long time in cinema, and while remakes are rarely considered to be as good as the original, in this case Winterbottom gave us a movie which was altogether more thoughtful and complex, partly because it stuck closely to the original story and dialogue. There is an abundance of softcore sex and hardcore violence which made it controversial. Interestingly, while the roles of prostitute Joyce and Ford’s school-ma’am girlfriend Amy remained intact plot-wise, there was something of a reversal in how they were played. Jessica Alba was almost impossibly beautiful and vulnerable as Joyce, while Kate Hudson was often seen slouching around Ford’s house in slutty underwear with a cigarette between her lips.

Ford’s frequent flashbacks to his dark and doomed relationship with Joyce link explicitly to the damage done to him when he was a child. Joyce herself, as in the novel,  did not die from Ford’s beating, and true to Thompson’s plot she gets to appear in the Grand Guignol final scene where Ford is confronted by his accusers before everything literally explodes in flames.

The film is violently stylish with an ironic soundtrack of country schmaltz and gauche 1950s rockabilly, but punctuated with operatic arias, most tellingly at the end, where Caruso sings ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’ from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’Amore.

For full cast and crew, plus production details, click the image below.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . The Killer Inside Me

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James Myers ‘Jim’ Thompson (1906 – 1977) was an outrageously talented novelist, screenwriter – and drunk. When he died in Los Angeles of an alcohol-induced stroke he left a legacy of hard hitting crime novels and brilliant screenplays, perhaps none better than that for Paths Of Glory, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film set in the French trenches of The Great War. With a dazzling performance by Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, the film has become a classic.

killer_inside_meThompson’s first major success came in 1952 with The Killer Inside Me and it remains grimly innovative. Psychopathic killers have become pretty much mainstream in contemporary crime fiction, but there can be few who chill the blood in quite the same way as Thompson’s West Texas Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. His menace is all the more compelling because he is the narrator of the novel, and a few hundred words in we are left in no doubt that the dull but amiable law officer, who bores local people stupid with his homespun cod-philosophical clichés, is actually a creature from the darkest reaches of hell.

Ford has homicidal urges which he refers to as the sickness. They date from childhood, and we learn that he was used for sex by his father’s housekeeper and went on to murder a girl – a crime for which his foster brother took the blame.  Ford’s downfall begins with a visit to a beaten up house, outside the city limits;  the resident of the house, Joyce Lakeland, is a prostitute, and Sheriff Bob Maples has given his amiable deputy – renowned for not carrying a gun, and being able to sweet-talk his way out of difficult situations – the task of telling her to move on.

KillerInsideMe01_cvrSUBJoyce is savvy, and world-weary, but when Ford’s “pardon me, Ma’am,” charm strikes the wrong note, she slaps him. He slaps her back and the encounter takes a dark turn when Ford takes off his belt and gives Joyce what used to be known as “a leathering.” She responds to the beating with obvious arousal, and the pair begin a violent sado-sexual affair.

Ford’s involvement with Joyce becomes complicated when he is summoned by Chester Conway, the major employer in the city. Conway’s feckless son Elmer is one of Joyce’s paying customers and Conway senior wants Ford to engineer a meeting where Elmer is to give Joyce a large sum of money on the understanding that she leaves immediately. Ford twists the situation to his own advantage by giving Joyce a near fatal beating, shooting Elmer and setting up the scene to look as if there has been a violent quarrel which has left both participants dead.

His plan seems to have worked, but seeds of doubt have been sown in the minds of some of Ford’s associates, including Joe Rothman, a sceptical union official, and also Bob Maples, who is old, ill and drinking himself away from thoughts that his deputy may be a murderer.

KillerInsideMe02_cvrSUBA key figure in Ford’s life is Amy, his long-time girlfriend. Thompson paints her as physically attractive, but socially constrained. She is a primary school teacher from a good local family who, despite responding to Ford’s violent sexual ways, is determined to marry him. As the dark clouds of suspicion begin to shut the daylight out of Lou Ford’s life, she is the next to die, and Ford’s clumsy attempt to frame someone else for her death is the tipping point. Thereafter his downfall is rapid, and his final moments are as brutal and savage as anything he has inflicted on other people.

We live in a different world now. While violence against women is pretty much standard fare in the scores of serial killer novels which are published every year, The Killer Inside Me is different. Nowadays, if a book is classed (by whom, one could ask) as a literary novel, then almost anything goes. American Psycho attracted all kinds of labels; it was satirical, it was post-modern, it was transgressive, it was New York chic. Firmly rooted in the crime fiction genre, I Was Dora Suarez was horrifically violent, but shot through with author Derek Raymond’s overwhelming compassion and pity. Could, would, should The Killer Inside Me be written and published in 2020? I doubt that a mainstream publisher would handle it, and I am certain that critics would kill it dead, leading to social media vultures hovering over the remains.

For an account of the two movie adaptations of
The Killer Inside Me, click the image below

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THE AMERICAN SOUTH . . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (2): Tropes, Tribes and Trauma

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An opening word or three about the taxonomy of some of the crime fiction genres I am investigating in these features. Noir has an urban and cinematic origin – shadows, stark contrasts, neon lights blinking above shadowy streets and, in people terms, the darker reaches of the human psyche. Authors and film makers have always believed that grim thoughts, words and deeds can also lurk beneath quaint thatched roofs, so we then have Rural Noir, but this must exclude the kind of cruelty carried out by a couple of bad apples amid a generally benign village atmosphere. So, no Cosy Crime, even if it is set in the Southern states, such as Peaches and Scream, one of the Georgia Peach mysteries by Susan Furlong, or any of the Lowcountry novels of Susan M Boyer. Gothic – or the slightly tongue-in-cheek Gothick – will take us into the realms of the fantastical, the grotesque, and give us people, places and events which are just short of parody. So we can have Southern Noir and Southern Gothic, but while they may overlap in places, there are important differences.

I believe there are just two main tropes in Southern Noir and they are closely related psychologically as they both spring from the same historical source, the war between the states 1861 – 1865, and the seemingly endless fallout from those bitter four years. Despite having a common parent the two tropes are, literally, of different colours. The first is set very firmly in the white community, where the novelists find deprivation, a deeply tribal conservativism, and a malicious insularity which has given rise to a whole redneck sub-genre in music, books and film, with its implications of inbreeding, stupidity and a propensity for violence.

Real-life rural poverty in the South was by no means confined to former slaves and their descendants. In historical fact, poor white farmers in the Carolinas, for example, were often caught up in a vicious spiral of borrowing from traders and banks against the outcome of their crop; when time came for payback, they were often simply back to zero, or ALMKTHthrown off the land due to debt. The rich seam of dirt poor and embittered whites who turn to crime in their anger and resentment has been very successfully mined by novelists. Add a touch of fundamentalist Christianity into the pot and we have a truly toxic stew, such as in Wiley Cash’s brilliant A Land More Kind Than Home (2013).

No-one did sadistic and malevolent ‘white trash’ better than Jim Thompson. His embittered, cunning and depraved small town Texas lawman Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me (1952) is one of the scariest characters in crime fiction, although it must be said that Thompson’s bad men – and women – were not geographically confined to the South.

Although not classed as a crime writer, Flannery O’Connor write scorching stories about the kind of moral vacuum into which she felt Southern people were sucked. She said, well aware of the kind of lurid voyeurism with which her home state of Georgia was viewed by some:

“Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-07 at 20.13.46Her best known novel, Wiseblood (1952) contains enough bizarre, horrifying and eccentric elements to qualify as Gothick. Take a religiously obsessed war veteran, a profane eighteen-year-old zookeeper, prostitutes, a man in a gorilla costume stabbed to death with an umbrella, and a corpse being lovingly looked after by his former landlady, you have what has been described as a work of “low comedy and high seriousness”

There are a couple of rather individual oddities on the Fully Booked website, both slanted towards True Crime, but drenched through with Southern sweat, violence and the peculiar horrors of the US prison system. The apparently autobiographical stories by Roy Harper were apparently smuggled out of the notorious Parchman Farm and into the hands of an eager publisher. Make of that what you will, but the books are compellingly lurid. Merle Temple’s trilogy featuring the rise and fall of Michael Parker, a Georgia law enforcement officer, comprises A Ghostly Shade of Pale, A Rented World and The Redeemed. I only found out after reading and reviewing the books that they too are personal accounts.

Trilogy

The second – and more complex (and controversial) trope in Southern Noir is the tortuous relationship between white people both good and bad, and people of colour. My examination of this will follow soon.

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