Steven King made this comment about crime pulp writer Jim Thompson. "The guy was over the top. The guy was absolutely over the top. Big Jim didn't know the meaning of the word stop. There are three brave lets inherent in the forgoing: he let himself see everything, he let himself write it down, then he let himself publish it.” Thompson was the darkest of the pulp noir writers.
He predicted his books would be back in print and some made into movies 10 years after he died. Robert Polito wrote Savage Art: a biography of Jim Thompson, on his life and works.
James Myers Thompson’s background is as bleak as the noir he wrote. It is dark, cynical and hopeless. He was born in Oklahoma in 1906. His father, “Big Jim,” was a small town sheriff and the family moved to Texas when embezzlement rumors about him circulated.
When Jim was a child, Thompson’s grandfather served him whisky with breakfast. He was hospitalized for alcoholism at 17. Thompson would be treated for alcoholism over 20 times in his life.
Thompson was a hobo, bellhop, roughneck, boozer, factory worker and writer. He published articles in his teens. He worked as a bellhop and doorman at the Texas Hotel in Fort Worth, and filled guest requests for alcohol, drugs and prostitutes. He graduated from the University of Nebraska.
Thompson worked as a journalist, and contributed articles to true crime pulp magazines. He wrote for the WPA Oklahoma Federal Writers project in the late ‘30s. He was a communist for about three years. Thompson came of age at the start of the depression and the depression’s tone was the voice of his books.
Thompson wrote over 30 books, mostly hard boiled crime novels. He wanted to write social commentaries like Steinbeck, and reviewers liked his early books, but they didn’t sell. In the early 50s, he started writing crime fiction, most for Lion, a pulp paperback publisher. Lion generally sold out Thompson printings of 200,000 to 250,000 copies.
Thompson wrote 12 novels between 1952 and 1954. This period included his best books. He didn’t edit or polish his work, which left them with rough edges. He wrote some brilliant passages, others were deplorable. His concise style and crisp dialogue came from writing for true crime magazines. He was a mild mannered man, able to write highly violent scenes. The violent scenes weren’t meant to be entertaining, but to describe mood and character. Many are told from the first person point of view. Like all noir, a feeling of distrust and doom hangs over the characters. Thompson’s books are disturbing, don’t have sympathetic characters, have plot problems, and harrowing endings. They aren’t elegant. Reading his books is a guilty pleasure.
He tried different techniques. In A Hell of a Woman, as the character splits into two personalities Thompson alternates lines in standard and italic text to tell each viewpoint. His best novels are, The Killer Inside Me, Savage Night, A Hell of a Woman and Pop. 1280. The Killer Inside Me is a good account of a psychopath from the killer’s point of view.
South of Heaven was Thompson’s last book, and negotiations to sell the movie rights were typical of his screenwriting career. The book was somewhat autobiographical and not one of his pulp paperback crime novels. It is about laying oil pipeline in a region of Texas known as “South of heaven”. Producer Tony Bill wanted to make it a movie for Robert Redford. After several meetings and script rewrites, interest faded. Thompson found that he turned over the rights to Columbia Pictures for a ten dollar good faith contract. He said he may have been drunk at the signing. He died two years later in 1975.
Stanley Kubrick admired The Killer Inside Me and hired Thompson to do a screenplay for the 1956 movie, The Killing, from the Lionel White novel, Clean Break. The Killing was a low budget movie with Sterling Hayden. Paths of Glory was their next project. Kubrick listed Thompson as dialogue writer on The Killing and didn’t give him credits on Paths of Glory.
Lunatic at Large, a screenplay about a former carnival worker with anger issues and his “psychopathic” girlfriend was to be their next project. Kubrick moved to England in 1962 and lost the only copy of Thompson’s screenplay. It was found and scheduled for production.
Thompson had story ideas, but couldn’t make good pitches to sell them. He had a small acting part in the Robert Mitchum movie, Farewell, My Lovely. When his screenwriting offers dried up he wrote episodic television screenplays, and novelizations of and movies.
Hollywood likes movies to have happy endings, and that’s one thing Thompson’s books don’t have. Even with this drawback, some of his books were made into movies.
Thompson wrote a screenplay for the Steve McQueen movie, The Getaway with alternate scenes and a prose treatment. He presented this to McQueen and his producer. They fired Thompson after reading it.
Sam Peckinpah directed The Getaway in 1972 and Roger Donaldson remade it in 1994. Peckinpah makes violent movies, but softened the book’s bleak ending. The second version stars Alec Baldwin and Kim , and considered closer to the book.
The movie version of The Killer Inside Me starred Stacy Keach in 1975 and Casey in 2010. The 1975 version has perfect casting, but shortens the last half of the book that neuters the book. The 2010 movie is closer to the book and considered better.
The Kill-Off by director Maggie Greenwald was released 1989. Based on the book, A Swell Looking Babe takes gossip in a small town to its ultimate conclusion.
James Foley directed After Dark, My Sweet in 1990. “Kid” Collins is a boxer who escaped from a mental hospital. He becomes involved with Fay Anderson. He helps her in a kidnapping that goes sour.
This World, Then The Fireworks, 1997, was a short story. Michael Oblowitz directed the movie. After a reporter uncovers police corruption, he goes to live with his mother and sister. The story has incestuous overtones.
Steven Shainbergdirected Hit Me, 1998, from A Swell-Looking Babe. Thompson fans are disappointed with the rewriting.
Foreign directors seem to do better converting Thompson’s books into movies. Steven Freers directed The Grifters and Michael Winterbottom directed the 2010 version of The Killer Inside Me. The French appreciated Thompson as a great writer before Americans and made two movies from his books. Serie Noire (Black Series), 1978, from the book, A Hell Of A Woman, and Coup De Torchon (Clean Slate) in 1981 from Pop.1280. Coup De Torchon is set in Africa. It is directed by Bertrand Travernier and was Oscar nominated for best foreign film.
The Grifters, 1990, received four academy award nominations. Director Steven Freers, Actress Angelica Huston, supporting actress, Annette Benning, and screenplay adaptation by Donald E. Westlake got nominations. It is a story of con men with incest overtones.
Thompson had a good understanding of people who inhabit society’s fringe. He tells their stories from a first person point of view. “Nothing is as it seems,” sums up his books. His books are compelling and offer insights into other people’s minds. Thompson’s books are either admired or hated. There’s little middle ground.