(1981) dir. Bertrand Tavernier
This is a film that I had been interested in seeing for many years, but it’s obscurity on DVD made it hard, and also, I just never got around to it. Adapted from Jim Thompson’s novel, Pop. 1280, the film takes the small west Texas town location to Senegal circa 1938, but keeps the bulk of the story arc and details and criticism and pessimism intact. Thompson is one of my favorite authors, the “Dimestore Dostoevsky”, who wrote in pulp genres, but really elevated the content, created dark, fascinating, complex and interestingly structured works, and adaptations of his works are a scattered bunch.
Even though the setting is dramatically different, I felt myself tracing the acts through my memory of the novel, which I last read about 4 years ago. It’s very funny, actually. While Philippe Noiret looks very different from the Lou Ford of Pop. 1280, and in some ways seems more charming and goofy, he plays the same role, as the local sheriff of a small town/village, who is or pretends to be a stooge who doesn’t do his job or have anyone’s respect and doesn’t really care about anything. After the teasing and joking of a neighboring sheriff, a light bulb clicks on in Noiret’s head, a change in his understanding of the world, and he steps over from some lost agnostic apathy into a sly and vengeful destructor, killing or implicating and framing the people in his life who have caused him trouble.
He is also transformed by his relationship with a schoolteacher, a virginal figure, a platonic, transcendent love. There is definitely the whole virgin/whore thing with his female relationships, and ultimately he sets up his lover to murder his wife and his wife’s incestuous brother, forcing her to go on the lam.
Additionally to the re-envisioning the location and period setting, there is a strong anti-racism critique, which shifts into an interesting take as he ends up killing one of the Africans that trusts him because he became aware of the crimes that Noiret had committed. The ambiguity of his utter a-morality is most explicit then. And set as well, against the coming of WWII, the invasion of France, there is more happening from a political perspective as well.
I thought that the film was an interesting and good adaptation and that Noiret was especially good. The black humor of the novel, which itself was a re-working of Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, is carried forth, though I think that the danger and psychological split that Lou Ford goes through is transformed into a perhaps more “French” type from an American? That could be an interesting thought. Though the French were among the first to appreciate the Roman noir, the American pulps of the 1940’s-1950’s, those pulps are intensely American, though, one might say that their pessimism and cultural critique is of a more existential or nihilistic, a more philosophical and translatable nature.