Film violence against women, via the ‘dimestore’ novelist Jim Thompson
by Brannavan Gnanalingham
American novelist Jim Thompson is the archetypal cult novelist. Mirroring the revisionist history that dragged film noir from its “low-art” critical place to “high art”, Jim Thompson’s reputation was eventually elevated along with some of the other great “dimestore novelists” – such as Raymond Chandler, James Cain, Cornell Woolrich, and Horace McCoy. The belated recognition came via two primary sources: the French existentialist writers who revered Thompson and his ilk, and the numerous film adaptations of his work.
Jim Thompson’s novels were darker than dark, and his lurid explorations of rationality vs irrationality, use of unreliable narrators, and formal brilliance led him to being nicknamed the “Dimestore Dostoevsky”. He was an explosive writer, one who pushed boundaries far further than many of his contemporaries and acolytes.
The numerous film adaptations include Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway, which was made in 1972 to try and add some commercial respectability to his name (in the end, excising Thompson’s touches) and was remade in 1994 with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. rThe Grifters became a hit in 1990, while his classic The Killer Inside Me was first made into a film in 1977, and then recently re-made by Michael Winterbottom. The French also got in on the act: Pop. 1280 was made into a film by Bertrand Tavernier, who transplanted the sweaty, Southern setting to colonial Senegal. Thompson also substantially wrote the screenplays of the Stanley Kubrick films, The Killing and Paths of Glory – but Kubrick didn’t acknowledge Thompson’s role in those scripts.
Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me has been demolished by the critics. Some liberal and conservative critics alike have decried it for being too violent and nihilistic. The scenes involving violence towards women got the arguments fired up. The camera lingers on two particularly violent scenes, both involving the main character, Lou Ford (an excellent Casey Affleck) beating two female characters to a pulp – his mistress Joyce (Jessica Alba) and fiancée Amy (Kate Hudson).
Winterbottom doesn’t hold back, and the violence is stark and brutal. It was the characters’ reaction to the scenes that really got Winterbottom into hot water. While the violence isn’t sexualised, Joyce’s response to an earlier beating led critics and audiences to boo Winterbottom at Sundance and Berlin, amid accusations of misogyny. Part of Winterbottom’s creative challenge is that the book is told from a deeply unreliable narrator’s point of view. In general, film struggles to achieve the level of subjectivity that a first person narrator can achieve in a novel: and, as a result, Winterbottom’s film felt more ‘objective’ than Lou’s account is in the book.
The violence is certainly hard to watch, but it seems a little simplistic to accuse Winterbottom of being misogynistic. Domestic violence is, after all, brutal. The genre of film noir (and the dimestore novels) feature considerable violence against the femme fatale characters (and men for that matter, but that’s another debate). The female characters were often hyper-sexualised – in that they carried considerable power over the men, to the point where they could dominate the supposedly strong male characters.
This, coupled with a Production Code morality that demanded promiscuous or violent women be punished, meant that women were (deservedly, according to the narrative) frequently killed for their previous behaviour. Some critics have argued that these women were actually revolutionary – in that the audiences remembered these powerful women, rather than their deaths – which was a fairly powerful impression to leave, in the context of the 1940s and 1950s.
Winterbottom uses this narrative trope to show a ‘real’ depiction of the rote punishment that underpins film noir. Joyce and Amy don’t deserve their treatment in the slightest, but Winterbottom contrasts his approach to the way Hollywood has treated these female characters in the past and how many, many films have whitewashed the violence against them. After all, Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho with its Freudian male character, must have in some ways been indebted to Thompson’s novel) made a living out of (a) sexualising and (b) treating his women like shit – and the Psycho shower scene is now remembered not as a horrifying depiction of male violence towards women, but as a scene to be admired for its technique.
But the controversy aside, the book feels remarkably like a Jim Thompson book. It captures the dirtiness beneath the surface just right – Casey Affleck’s impassive face is an impressive mask for repression and violence to hide beneath. The rich colour palette almost looks like a Douglas Sirk film, and similarly suggests that the beauty of the American landscape hides a much darker and malevolent history. Plus, its ability to convey Thompson’s brutal deconstruction of masculinity – albeit in a way that leaves it open to accusations of misogyny – means that Winterbottom’s version deserves further consideration.
One other film that utilizes Thompson’s source material and themes would seem the least promising adaptation. Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘s film Coup de Torchon transplanted the novel Pop 1280 (one of Thompson’s finest books) into a French colonial setting. Pop 1280 is a brilliantly acerbic depiction of small-town ennui and frustration: Thompson presents racism towards ‘blacks’ in the South as an almost natural consequence of repressed ‘white’ masculinity. As for the treatment of women, well it’s almost typical noir territory.
The book is told from the point of view of an apparent good-natured and initially rather dumb sheriff, Nick Corey. However as the novel progresses, Corey becomes an exterminating angel – a figure who tries to rid the town of its ills, but in doing so comes desperately close to indulging in the same prejudices of his victims.
In much the same way as The Killer Inside Me, the film adaptation struggled at first to escape the compelling first person viewpoint of the book. However, its transference of Southern racism to colonial racism is quite an intriguing idea. In the film, Lucien Cordier (the Nick Corey character, played to blank perfection by Philippe Noiret) is a much more detached figure, who isn’t as likeable as Corey is in the book. Colonial racism is arguably a different prospect to the American South variety – invasion rather than forced co-habitation – though Tavernier argues that the impact is similar.
The French are portrayed as arrogant, corrupt and sordid – hardly the ringing endorsement of typical French colonial accounts. In fact, the use of Thompson’s novel allowed Tavernier to push his depiction of the French even further than he might have been able to with an original screenplay. Also, Cordier’s treatment of people around him – purely for his own ends (in part, given he’s treated mighty awfully by everyone around him) suggests that colonial society could never have “worked” in any lasting fashion, given that its proponents were so ruthlessly selfish. Tavernier’s film is also very funny – something which The Killer Inside Me left behind, despite the fact Thompson is a very funny writer.
Tavernier’s camerawork captures the dream-like quality of Thompson’s writing. It floats through space, is frequently almost smashed by light, and the setting is garishly over-crowded. In this respect, it visually captures the decadence of Thompson’s South. The film also highlights just how under-rated Thompson was as a social commentator. As the film shows, Thompson wasn’t simply a reveller in violence and sex – he was elevating film noir, as Stephen Frears, the director of The Grifters suggests, to Greek tragedy.
Thompson’s vast back catalogue is simmering away. A number were re-released in the late ‘80s, yet still remain reasonably obscure – but they have by all accounts gained a little momentum from each movie adaptation. Now all we have to do is wait for the adaptation of Savage Night.
[Editor’s note : for an alternative view of the gendered violence in The Killer Inside Me and the ways in which the film’s characterization of women crucially diverges from film noir tradition, read Natasha Walter’s recent piece in the Guardian.]