Magazine article Artforum International

Lost in Translation: Robert Polito on the Killer Inside Me

Magazine article Artforum International

Lost in Translation: Robert Polito on the Killer Inside Me

Article excerpt

IN THAT GHOST WORLD WHERE, as Godard proposed, all anyone needs for a movie is a girl and a gun, what about Jim Thompson, at once the acknowledged master of American noir and the crime writer whose novels have most obdurately resisted translation to cinema? Consider, for instance, these Thompson girl-and-gun scenarios--how would you film them?

SCENARIO A: A pair of genial crooks, Carter "Doc" McCoy and his wife, Carol, stage the spectacular robbery of a Beacon City bank, only to find their caper unraveling. They flee across the Mexican border to El Rey, tumbling through a trapdoor into hell--a hell of their own devising, culled from smart, gruesome objectifications of heist-fiction commonplaces. They hole up inside, well, holes--coffin-size underwater caves--for forty-eight hours and twenty-five hundred claustrophobic words. Once all their dreams turn to shit, as it were, they're forced to hide in a room dug from mounds of warm dung. The preying on society by twisted parasites like the McCoys will tip into cannibalism. "That smell that filled the air. The odor of peppery roasting flesh. ... 'Quite fitting, eh Senor? And such an easy transition. One need only live literally as he has always done figuratively.'"

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Or this:

SCENARIO B: Charlie "Little" Bigger, a bantam, tubercular hit man, botches his assignment to kill the key witness in a mob racketeering trial and escapes with his companion, Ruthie, to what can only be described as a vagina farm in Vermont, maintained by an absent writer who creates his books by cutting up verses from the Bible. There, amid shrieking goats and thickets of writhing sex organs, the killer and his moll devolve into brutish silence, grunting and pointing, until she pursues him into the cellar with an ax, hacking off his limbs and disassembling his senses. The closing sections of the novel contract in proportion to his steadily diminishing body--the last chapter a single sentence, as Bigger chatters past his own death into the void: "The darkness and myself. Everything else was gone. And the little that was left of me was going, faster and faster."

Against all odds, Thompson's The Getaway (1959), described in Scenario A, is actually the source for not one but two stylish suspense films, the first by Sam Peckinpah in 1972, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, the next Roger Donaldson's 1994 remake, with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger; both directors, of course, jettisoned El Rey for a routine scuttle of car chases, shoot-outs, and triple crosses. But shouldn't filming Thompson mean discovering cinematic ways to register the rhythms of crime and phantasmagoria in Doc and Carol McCoy's infernal whorl? And wouldn't we expect a filmmaker to insinuate formally on-screen that, by dying at the end of his first-person narrative, Charlie Bigger--the protagonist of Thompson's 1953 Savage Night (Scenario B), which has yet to be adapted--must somehow have been dead right from the start, a disembodied voice signaling back to us from a world beyond the grave?

Even if Thompson's books should prove filmable via such oblique strategies, taking them on would entail more "standing outside" yourself--as narrator Lou Ford styles "thinking" in The Killer Inside Me (1952)--than filmmakers so far have tended to carry to the projects. An obvious slant of filmic thinking about Thompson might by now include a recognition that his fiction isn't, by any familiar acid test, realism; his novels, in fact, insistently taunt the naturalistic fixtures of the modern crime saga. A writer who often repeated that there is only one basic plot for fiction--"Things are not as they seem," a lesson he said he learned from Marx and Don Quixote--Thompson overturned any implicit promise of resolution in the genre for a devastating ambiguity. His novels originate in the appearance of everyday social order and personal integration, a world of train stations, rooming houses, highways, bakeries, and schools, then chart a descent into madness, extinction, and nothingness. …

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