The Grifters

(1990) director Stephen Frears
viewed: 07/01/10

The second film of my Jim Thompson films of 1990 double feature, The Grifters, is doubtlessly the best adaptation of Thompson to the “silver screen”.  Credit goes heavily to director Stephen Frears (The Hit (1984), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Prick Up Your Ears (1987), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), High Fidelity (2000), Dirty Pretty Things (2002), The Queen (2006)), but also to producer Martin Scorsese and the excellent cast: Angelica Huston, John Cusack, and Annette Bening.

Like After Dark, My Sweet (1990), the first film in my double feature, the story is lifted from its original present-day setting of the novel, 1963, and re-set in the film’s present, 1990, but in a very interesting tweak on reality, the film echoes eras not only of the present but a past even perhaps older than that of Thompson’s novel, using costume designs for Bening and Huston that echo of an older, more classical Hollywood, with headscarves and stylish dress, as well as the settings of the living locations of the characters, in older Los Angeles structures from a more classical era.  The effect is one of the present and the past merging, melding, in what plays out as an interesting theme, not just visually, but of the story itself, which feels not just something of a deeper 20th century, but of something more classical.  The story is downright Oedepian, a theme reaching back into antiquity, yet still full and alive of danger, transgression and taboo.

Cusack is a small-time, short run “grifter”, a term for someone who is a bit of a shyster, playing chumps for money with various different scams.  His are all small-time, but allow him to live well without a job, living outside of the regular working stiffs, the normal people of the world, whom they hold themselves above.  Huston is Cusack’s mother, from whom he took leave at the age of 17, an age only a tad older than when she had him.  She’s a grifter of a different sort, leaching off of a small-time mob boss, getting slowly fat.  It’s been years since they’ve seen one another, but a trip to a La Jolla racetrack brings her close enough to approach her son.

Cusack, in the meantime, has taken a nasty blow to the stomach that causes potentially fatal bleeding, while performing one of his short-term grifts.  His mother recognizes the severity of his illness and has him hospitalized.  Cusask, as well in the longer meantime, has taken up with Bening, playing very against type as a smart floozy, appearing in full frontal nudity that is strikingly strange considering that it’s her.  And she’s also on the grift, but traditionally on the bigger type than Cusack has been taught to believe in.

So the mother-son-girlfriend triangle is set, and it’s as poisonous and lethal as it comes.  The film gives each of the characters good room to develop, not existing purely as cliche “types” but as more wholly realized characters.  And the story and direction makes for more than a just “by the books” neo-noir.  If anything, this film is perhaps the finest of the “neo-noir” genre.

What’s interesting about “neo-noir” is that film noir is a style, not a genre, but as modern interpretations have adopted the style, it’s developed into a genre, not a genre to project on the past, but a genre of the (well, okay 1990 is 20 years ago, so it’s the past but I mean the original period of film noir) contemporary.  Frears strikes a truly wonderful nuance of past and present, self-aware, somewhat post-modern, but still deeply steeped in the traditons of the style and genre, something that straddles and rides the setting and story, and set in Los Angeles, as it is, in many ways the film makes sense, the city of noir, even in the modern era.

Frankly, I was duly impressed with The Grifters this time around, not only reinfocing my previous concept of the film, but of really admiring the work on its own.  It made me want to consider what some of the best films of that period really were/are and set in my mind, at least, that The Grifters may indeed be one of the best of its period.

The Killing

The Killing (1956) movie poster

(1956) dir. Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 06/17/10

After watching Michael Winterbottom’s latest adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel from pulp page to big screen, The Killer Inside Me (2010), I felt somewhat interested in venturing down Thompson’s other cinematic forays, such as they’ve been.  Most of Thompson’s work that has been adapted, I have seen, but what was also compelling was that briefly, in the 1950’s he worked with notable auteur Stanley Kubrick on two films, the 1956 low-budget, highly stylized noir film The Killing and then again on 1957’s Paths of Glory.

Kubrick is such a popular auteur, a big cult hero with several films that people just love to watch over and over, that it struck me as odd that in the nine or so years that I have been writing and keeping my film diary that I’ve only actually watched one of his films.  I mean, I’ve seen a lot of them varying numbers of times but the only one that I’d seen in the last decade or so was The Shining (1980).  A lot of that is just circumstance.  I almost went and saw Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) last month at the Castro.  Anyways, I still only had seen one of the films recently enough to have written about it.

I’d seen The Killing before, but for some reason had some sort of mental block about it, getting it confused with whether it was Kubrick’s previous film, Killer’s Kiss (1955) (which I do not believe that I’ve seen) and also perhaps with the two versions of The Killers Richard Siodmak’s 1946 version and Don Siegel’s 1964 version.  Now that may seem just silly to you, but believe me, I think I’ve found confusion there.

Perhaps no more, however.

The Killing is a terse heist film, a bit of an ensemble picture in which even star Sterling Hayden is as much of a character actor as much of the rest of the cast.   It’s told in a not completely linear fashion, though with a loud, pedantic narrative voice over to give us “just the facts”, so to speak, reminding me quite significantly of Sgt. Joe Friday’s dull monotone from Dragnet.  But like almost every heist story, things go wrong, as much as they go right, as much precision is brought to bear, the whole crew is due for dissolution and death.

Not being a Kubrick scholar or having even read up on him much, I can only speculate at the experimentation that was going on in this film, from its narrative hopscotching to its often very interesting camerawork to the rich character actor performances that give this film its particular flavor.  It’s funny to me that it always failed to register more significantly in previous viewing or viewings in that there is so much specific here from the horse race (filmed at local Bay Meadows) to the unusual ethnic identities and racial slurs of some of the characters.   And even especially a couple of key scenes, Hayden in the clown’s mask, robbing the crew at gunpoint to the penultimate image of the wads of stolen money blowing wildly about on the tarmac at the airport, swirling away into nothing.

It’s an excellent film.  Hard to say about the Thompson dialogue, since I know little of the production of the film (he’s credited for dialogue, not the screenplay), though there are lots of colorful barbs and backs-and-forths.  I suppose that this is a film that can be seen in a number of contexts, and perhaps the Jim Thompson angle is one of the smaller ones.  Still, it’s well worth the re-visit for any number of reasons.  And it might finally do me some good to make sure that I can finally lay claim to having seen all four of the films that I conflated with one another so as to never have that problem again.

The Killer Inside Me

(2010) dir. Michael Winterbottom
viewed: 06/11/10

Jim Thompson is one of the most fascinating writers to have ever emerged from America’s pulp fiction landscape.  A true modernist, draped in the crime genre, Thompson was miles ahead of and beyond most anyone else.  And his deep-seeded darkness, penchant for weirdness, and powerful stories are among my favorite fictional writings.  And while some of it perhaps lends itself more easily for adaptation, other works fall into the realm of near impossibility.  And that’s not to say that they are so far-fetched, but simply to capture exactly the black spirit, black comedy, and ruthlessness has just been one rare thing.

Adapted from the classic 1952 pulp novel The Killer Inside Me, director Michael Winterbottom’s latest film is the latest stab at taking one of Thompson’s most seminal works and translating it into cinema.  There had been an attempt before, a pretty atrocious attempt, by Burt Kennedy in 1976 starring Stacy Keach.  I’ve nearly completely blotted that abortion from my mind, now only left with the scars, not much memory of it per se.

Thompson’s work has been most effectively filmed by Stephen Frears.  His 1990 film of The Grifters starring Angelica Huston, John Cusack, and Annett Bening, while it’s been a long while since I’ve seen it, I recall thinking was a deft and true adaptation.  I also recall liking James Foley’s adaptation, also from 1990, of After Dark, My Sweet, starring Jason Patric, Rachel Ward, and Bruce Dern.  Now my memories of these films are now quite old themselves, so perhaps I need to revisit them.

More recently, I’d watched Coup de torchon (1981) (adpated from Thompson’s novel Pop. 1280) and also Sam Peckinpah’s adaptation of Thompson’s brilliant The Getaway (1972).  But even in Peckinpah’s rather dirty and blood-soaked fingers, Thompson’s work didn’t find it’s way to the fore.  But still, I perservere here, hoping.

I liked the casting of Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, the small Texas town deputry sherriff with an increasing number of dark secrets to cover up, a growing body count, and a mania that is spinning, spinning, spinning.  I’d really liked Affelck in Andrew Dominick’s amazing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and in big brother Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (2007), and thought that this was quite a casting coup.  For the female roles, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, I was a little more dubious.  And as for Michael Winterbottom, I should have been most dubious.

Winterbottom, an English filmmaker of middling quality, actually is often attracted to a number of interesting scripts and ideas.  I haven’t seen by any means all of his films, but that he adapted a version of Thomas Hardy’s Jude, I find intriguing, that he made a movie about the Manchester, England music scene 24 Hour Party People (2002) I found interesting, I also watched his Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) and had previously seen his first feature film, Butterfly Kiss (1995).  That he’d adapted Hardy again in The Claim (2000) also interested me.  I find that he’s drawn to movie ideas that intrigue me.

Only, his movies aren’t all that great.

Now, my intention had been to re-read the novel before seeing this new version of the movie, but I didn’t get around to it, and when I saw that it was being played on On Demand before it even hit San Francisco movie theaters, I decided to give it a go.  And since it’s been such a long while since I have read the book, I couldn’t quibble over little interpretive aspects.

Affleck, though, seems wrong.  The killer is inside a soft-spoken, nearly effeminate-voiced Lou Ford, who while seeing the world as his rapidly-decaying oyster also likes to stun others with his pretense of stupidity, while internally thinking he’s smarter than everyone else.  Or at least that is sort of how I recall the character.  Here, he’s a bit on the sympathetic side, with some weird references to child abuse and abandonment, and he’s loving to both the woman who would be his wife (Hudson) and the whore with whom he has love and lust (Alba).  That is, when he’s not bruising them or beating them to death or near-death.

The whole thing just feeling kind of wrong.  Like it doesn’t gibe.  And I’m not sure if that is my expectations talking or just purely my reaction.

One thing I did like a lot was the soundtrack.  Great period music that I’d love to listen to on a jukebox.

But the film, which has gotten mostly negative criticism from what I’ve read, also with a focus on the film’s violence, which I think is a bit of an over-wrought reaction, it’s not what it could be.  And I think, perhaps, that even Affleck is not necessarily miscast but just goes the wrong way with this whole thing.  And one of the key elements missing, I think, is Thompson’s ruthlessly black humor.  Part of the character’s meanness and madness plays out in some comic perspectives on the world and the people around him.  Affleck’s version of Ford is an almost sympathetic fatalist, doomed to be the way he is and to bring those down around him.  What made Thompson’s character frightening, his burning drive and internal chaos and cruelty, are almost apologized for in this film.

Frankly, I would have to re-read the novel to give it a better estimation.  It’s not that an adaptation needs to be true to a novel, though often that is what is expected.  But when a direction is taken that seems to rob the story of its core elements, its core character, one has to wonder…  And I will wonder.  I do wonder.

The Getaway

The Getaway (1972) movie poster

(1972) dir. Sam Peckinpah
viewed: 09/07/09

Legendary director Sam Peckinpah’s adaptation of the brilliant novel by the amazing Jim Thompson, starring Steve McQueen,…well, you’d think it would have turned out better.

I recently re-read Thompson’s The Getaway on a plane flight back from Australia.  Thompson has been a favorite author of mine for nearly two decades now, and though I have read most of his work, it’s been some time since I had read him at all.  The Getaway is, narratively, one of his most straight-forward crime novels, but its power, darkness, and commentary on life, love, and marriage, is a bleak, horrific, endlessly impossible one.  It’s about the ability to trust, and the harshest of challenges to know and love another person.  And it doesn’t turn out well.

The story starts out in action, in the robbing of a bank, through to the ensuing “getaway”, and twists and turns down into various corners of hell.

The movie, unfortunately, takes great liberty with the novel, not simply allowing a “happy ending”, but cheapening the danger and uncertainty of the relationship between “Doc” McCoy (McQueen) and his wife Carol (played by Ally MacGraw).  While the film still plays with their uncertainty and doubts, it absolutely squaders the potentcy of Thompson’s bleak and terrifying story.

The best sequence in the film is the one that follows the book the most closely.  That is the scene in the train station in which Carol has the bag of loot stolen from her by a shifty grifter and the hunt to find him on the train and get the money back.  Again, in the book, Carol is not so sophisticated as MacGraw’s character is supposed to be (not that she comes off that way exactly).  And the thing is, that it’s a shame.  There are great elements there, but the alchemy and probably lots of Hollywood bullshit, including star egos as well as studio interference ruined it.  Apparently, Thompson was originally the scriptwriter eventually replaced by Walter Hill.

The film is at its strongest where is adheres to Thompson’s novel.  The theft of the moneybag in the train station and the catching up with the crook on the train (though “Doc” doesn’t kill him in the movie) is great.  The sequence in the garbage truck is pretty good, but pales starkly in comparison to the elided sequence in which “Doc” and Carol are “entombed” in an underwater cave.  The paranoia and outright terror are nowhere matched.  Al Lettieri does a good turn as the co-robber who tries to doublecross them, though he’s much different from the character in the book.  His kidnapping of the vetrinarian and his flousy wife (played by a young and perfectly apt Sally Struthers) works very well, too.

But instead of psychological strain between two people who need to trust one another but cannot, the visceral nightmarish hell through which they move together, the compromises and bleakness…well, I guess you can’t have all that and have a happy ending.

The thing is that the film is really not bad on the whole.  Watching it right after reading the book, it seems a sadly squandered opportunity to make a great film from a great book.  Peckinpah certainly has his masterpieces, though not in this film.  A shame, really.

The bottom line: Read Jim Thompson.

After Dark, My Sweet

(1990) director James Foley
viewed: 07/01/10

After watching Michael Winterbottom’s recent adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (2010), decided to go on a mini-venture of other Jim Thompson films, which led me to a little double feature of two films from 1990 which are arguably the best of the adaptations of his work, director James Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet and Stephen Frears’ The Grifters.  I’d seen both of these films before, and I’ve read both of the novels, now quite some time ago, and I’d remembered them both as being good, solid adaptations each, though I remembered The Grifters as a the better of the two films and remembered it better in general.  I have to say, these films make a good double feature.

After Dark, My Sweet is one of Thompson’s slimmest novels, but one of his great novels.  It’s features one of his most sympathetic protagonists, a mentally-challenge and potentially psychotic ex-boxer, Kevin “Kid” Collins, played in the film with a shambling gait and near stutter by Jason Patric.  He’s essentially a homeless person, wandering from place to place, until he meets up with Fay Anderson (played by Rachel Ward in the film), a beautiful, alcoholic widow, who semi-seduces him into her life and a scheme to kidnap the child of a wealthy family, to raise a ransom, and make it big.  She is partnered with “Uncle Bud”, a shifty character, who is played by the terrific Bruce Dern in the film, the mastermind behind the plan.

As in many of Thompson’s stories, told in the first person, the narrator is unreliable, or unreliable enough to himself.  Is he paranoid? Or is her really being set up to be murdered, used as a chump by these people?  Does the flawed and fluctuating Fay love him or is she just playing him?  He doesn’t know.  And we only know what he tells us, though the beauty of Thompson’s stories are how the reader has to see the story as failing to be certain.

As I recall, the novel is moderately straight-forward for Thompson, written in the first person.  The film mimics that sensibility with voice-over narration by Patric.

The film is not flashy or overly stylized, but uses its southern California semi-desert setting to great effect.  Fay’s house is on the desert reaches of the town, and has rows of overgrown palm trees that had been imported to be farmed and sold, but are over-grown and somewhat derelict.  Her house is an open bungalow, with a pool blackened with algae.  Her life, though we know little of it before her husband passed away, is one of disrepair and slowly moldering in the dry California sun.  And while the locations and setting are contemporary to the film, not made “retro” to the setting of the novel’s 1955 present, as in The Killer Inside Me, the transposition in time works well and feels quite right.

Dern and Patric are both quite good.  It’s funny about a movie that you haven’t seen in close to 20 years as to what you remember about it, but Patric’s near-Parkinson’s-like shifting gives that effect to his character, who has perhaps taken too many punches to the head or elsewhere, and that kind of stuck with me.  Dern’s performance is more straight-forward: he’s a middle-aged dude with dodgy written all over him, but dodgy, still trying to make the score, and not necessarily evil.  Much like Collins’ inability to make a read on “Uncle Bud” and Fay, we’re never sure how willing Uncle Bud is to kill to get what he wants.

The film doesn’t quite excel to a level of greatness, but it’s a rock-solid effort.  It’s one of those kinds of films that you can see people glomming onto, savoring and liking, because there is a lot there to like, despite never quite achieving a level of power.  For me, this is how I feel about Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), though a lot of people think that it was better than Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1990) (though I think I disagree).

It’s anomalous in that having a tragic hero whose goodness wins out over evil, this is one of Thompson’s rare stories where human goodness eclipses badness in the end, though still with a sublimating and nihilistic tonality.  There is great bleakness in the characters, in their world.  Even the little abducted boy, who nearly dies due to his diabetes while in their care, receives greater care and kindness from the broken people that are his kidnappers than he did in his well-to-do home.  It’s a story with great sadness, but also of redemption.  And frankly, a pretty darn good flick.

Coup de torchon

Coup de torchon (1981) movie poster

(1981) dir. Bertrand Tavernier
viewed: 06/08/07

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.