Fucked up and over at the miserable old age of 70, Jim Thompson died at home in, of all places, Los Angeles-a town that promised golden dreams to an aging novelist who’s novel writing days were over. He got fucked over by Stanley Kubrick, and by Steve McQueen, and by Walter Hill, and yeah, probably by Sam Peckinpah, but certainly by the Writers Guild. Robert Redford may have paid him for a screenplay, but that movie was never filmed. And while the French had discovered Thompson and started providing some sustenance in royalty payments, in America, none of his books were in print at the time that he suffered several strokes from decades of drinking. They made a movie out of his best novel, starring Stacy Keach. It sucked. He was miserable and refused to eat–literally starving himself to death, which was what really did him in at the end.
Born in 1906, in Anadarko, Oklahoma, Jim Thompson grew into a tall, lean young man, highly intelligent, an avid reader, and a published writer by his mid-teens, but he never had much use for formal teaching. While still in high school, in Fort Worth, Texas, he worked nights as a bellhop in the Hotel Texas. That’s where he got his most useful education. Besides running guests’ luggage up to their rooms, it was Thompson’s job to go out and procure bootleg liquor during those prohibition days, in addition to whores, weed, and heroin. Thompson was apparently good at his job, because on the books he was making $15 dollars a week, but it was really more like $300 a week. As he got older the oil fields were a’calling and not only did he work the fields but tried to start his own company with his father, but that was doomed to failure. Thompson’s father, by the way, had been a sheriff in Oklahoma, but had been accused of embezzlement. He moved his family off to Texas in disgrace. The elder Thompson would later die in an asylum.
Between the Hotel Texas and the oil fields, Jim Thompson suffered a nervous breakdown at the tender age of nineteen. Alcohol had frayed his nerves along with the late nights of illicit dealings in the shadier parts of Fort Worth. I guess operating an oilrig seemed like a healthier alternative. The work introduced him to the unionized labor movement and after drifting up to Nebraska and finally back to Oklahoma he joined the Federal Writer’s Project, where he met Ronald Reagan’s favorite author, Louis L’Amour, and then spent three years as a member of the Communist Party-which would come back to haunt him.
Only a few short years later, while working at an aircraft plant, at the start of World War II, the FBI investigated him for his Commie ties. It cost him his job, but it inspired a great book, his first novel, Now and On Earth. The critics loved it, but the public didn’t care. Thompson had, all along, been getting published in various detective and true crime magazines, gaining some success and acclaim to his name, but Now and On Earth was literary fiction; a dark, pessimistic, modernist novel about a family in turmoil (very autobiographical). It didn’t matter how excellent the novel may have been, and it still holds up as mid-20th century underrated classic, it was the sex and blood that was going to pay the bills.
Thompson turned up the lurid with his next novel, Heed the Thunder, but it was his third, Nothing More Than Murder where the pieces really started to fall into place. But what earned Jim Thompson the title of “dime store Dostoyevsky” was the 1952 landmark of crime fiction, The Killer Inside Me.
The Killer Inside Me is arguably the greatest crime novel ever written and can contend with literary fiction’s heaviest hitters for raw, psychological twists and turns in an examination of man’s capacity for pure evil. No crime novelist before Thompson ever dared or perhaps had the wherewithal to get so bleak in their psychological portrayals or to be willing to get so surreal in psychological deep dives of killers, deadbeats, door-to-door salesmen, whores, grifters, and femme fatales.
He wrote a succession of important and classic novels including, Pop. 1280, Savage Night, The Alcoholics, A Hell of a Woman, The Getaway, After Dark, My Sweet, and The Grifters among many others. By the late 1950s though, the money from writing books was quickly drying up, so Thompson turned to writing for television.
While living in LA, Thompson met Stanley Kubrick, a fan of Thompson’s work, and about to shoot his first feature, The Killing, based on the Lionel White novel Clean Break. When the movie came out though, Thompson was only credited for writing the dialogue and Kubrick took credit for Thompson’s screenplay. Somehow they reconciled and Thompson agreed to write the Kirk Douglas WWI epic, Paths of Glory, but again, Kubrick pulled the rug out from under Thompson, who got third billing on the script behind Kubrick and Calder Willigham.
The future may have looked a little brighter when Sam Fuller came calling to have Thompson adapt his own novel, The Getaway, but Fuller lost the film to Sam Peckinpah, which sounds like a good trade on paper, but when Steve McQueen was cast as Doc McCoy, he demanded major changes to the ending. Enter a young screenwriter named Walter Hill, who re-wrote Thompson’s script by basically cutting out the entire harrowing and horrific ending of the novel. Thompson claimed that pretty much everything he wrote made it on to the screen, but his name was scrubbed. He sought arbitration from the Writer’s Guild, but they sided with Hill.
And that was it. Thompson was washed up. An old drunk Okie in a town that would pat an old man on the back while looking for the perfect place to stab him. At least he had his young friend Harlan Ellison to hang out with. Out of print and out of luck. Broke and fucked.
It took a good decade before Black Lizard started getting most of Thompson’s books back in print. In addition to two excellent French adaptations of A Hell of a Woman and Pop. 1280 (Serie Noire and Coup de Torchon respectively), Hollywood took on After Dark, My Sweet with Bruce Dern, Jason Patrick, and Rachel Ward and The Grifters starring John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and Annette Benning-which garnered four Academy Award nominations. A remake of The Getaway was just that, a remake of the film, not a new adaptation of the book, so still neutered and ultimately a failure. In 2010, Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, and Kate Hudson starred in a new adaptation of The Killer Inside Me, which went a long way to making up for the 1976 version that completely wasted Stacy Keach (who was frankly miscast in the film to begin with).
None of that amounts to much though, does it? Walk into a Barnes & Noble right now… Good luck finding a single Jim Thompson book on the shelf. You might get lucky and find The Killer Inside Me. People who know hold Thompson up as a towering figure of American literature. Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler couldn’t touch him. It seems though, in death as in life, Thompson’s work is fated to burn bright and then fade for a time, waiting on the right people to be inspired and rescue his misfits, miscreants, and mother fuckers from the dustbin of history.