Jim Thompson

April 28, 2011

I am not one for mystery novels, but I enjoy visiting the Mysterious Bookshop in lower Manhattan near where I work.  It’s a large, airy store, with couches, and lots of displays, and the people are friendly.   I purchased a massive anthology of crime pulp to pass the time on my commute.  (I believe the editor owns the store). There I found a copy of Jim Thompson’s A Hell of Woman tossed onto a shelf of miscellaneous books.

I wouldn’t call Thompson’s book a mystery by any means.  That’s not his style.  Crime, murder, brutality, ice pick sharp dialog, and a fair amount of suspense – did I say insanity – are what hold your attention.  Waiting for the denouement  Agatha Christie style, it’s not.  Perhaps I’m not fair to the mystery genre, but that’s me…

Once I read A Hell of a Woman and realized Thompson’s connection with Stanley Kubrick, and the films The Grifters and The Getaway, I knew I’d read more.  One thing, one comment lead to another, and now Tilting Planet is having a Thompson Noir Fest, and I’m getting the jump on it!

Thompson’s novels -the ones for the Fest are shown above – make an interesting bookend to the Black Mask stories.  Those are shorter, of course, and mostly written decades before, so the sex and violence is much less explicit.  For the most part, the Black Mask tales exemplify the hard-boiled style:  detectives are either macho or quiet, intelligent, crafty types; dialog is clipped, emphasizing declarative sentences.  The style seems to heavily favor the passive voice:  things just happen.  The characters react. There is often emphasis on detection, deduction, and mystery rather than on suspense and vérité crime; and the baddies are simply bad, perhaps perverse, but not usually sickos.

Thompson, from the first two I’ve read (Hell of a Woman and Killer Inside Me), true to his monniker, the dime store Dostoyevsky, favors first-person narratives by disturbed individuals, sometimes in throes of deep mental disorders.  Things always go from bad to worse, and no rational detectives guide the action to a satisfying conclusion.  Just when you think that things can’t get any sicker, they do.  It keeps me reading!


Baby, I don’t care.

July 20, 2010

Out of the Past is often cited as one of the best noirs ever, and with good reason!  Jane Greer, gorgeous, slinky, and absolutely ruthless, and Robert Mitchum, droopy-eyed and victimized by fate, are fantastic.  The plot structure is classic:  a decent guy is destroyed by a fatal woman and a past which he tries to outrun, but which inevitably overtakes and devours him.  Marvelous dialog and Kirk Douglas as a cold-hearted mobster complete the inky tableau.

Jeff Bailey is a private eye retained by Whit, the mobster, to find and retrieve his moll, Kathy, who shot him in the belly a few times before decamping with $40,000.  Jeff finds her down Mexico way, a long, tall, cool drink of white in the afternoon sun, and, of course, he’s done for.

I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end

How big a chump can you get to be? I was finding out.


On the beach, Kathy tells all to Jeff, and he abandons himself to her and to his destruction:

But I didn’t take anything. I didn’t, Jeff. Don’t you believe me?
Baby, I don’t care.

Ah, but later, the crosses, double-crosses, and various twists intervene, and Jeff sees that Kathy is not one to be trusted even as far as you can see her.

Can’t you even feel sorry for me?
I’m not going to try.
Just get out, will you? I have to sleep in this room.

Jeff eventually finds himself trapped in the web of this black widow, expostuating fatalistically, “Build my gallows high, baby.”  But he gets his wish:

Oh, Jeff, I don’t want to die!
Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I’m gonna die last.

She didn’t have to kill him, but it was so much easier that way.

Chabrol & Playing God – 1925

February 7, 2010

Van Horn lives and rules in 1925 forever.

Ten Days of Wonder is a film by Claude Chabrol based on a mystery novel by Ellery Queen, the pseudonym of two cousins who produced a stream of very popular mystery tales and products in the 40s and 50s.  Chabrol said he became an avid fan during the German occupation of France:  I don’t share his love of mysteries – even Poe’s tales of deduction leave me cold – but I liked this film a lot.  It’s a weird gothic tale with a soundtrack by Bach.

I find it hard to grasp the notion of Chabrol getting the idea to make a movie of a Queen book, but, like any culture-struck Yank, I guess French means Art to me.  On their side of the sea, they are fascinated by our pop culture – Jerry Lewis, murder mysteries, noir, and detectives.  I don’t quite get it, and thus, the New Wave of French Cinema leaves me cold.  Funny, this issue doesn’t come up for me with Hitchcock, another cinematic artist who was at home with the whodunnit, and to whom Chabrol has a close connection.

In the film, the elder van Horn (Orson Welles) lives in splendid isolation in an Alsatian manor, and likes to pretend it’s 1925 – everything was good then.  His drunken mother hangs out in the attic.  His adopted son, Charles (Anthony Perkins)  worships him, but has a father complex, as well as a passion for his young stepmother, a pretty, lithe thing that God, …er Dad, rescued from rural poverty and then married.  She worships him too, of course, but loves Charles.

The two lovers fear the wrath of Father and are being blackmailed by an unknown caller who is in possession of some love letters that Charles sent.  After the second money drop, I figured out the identity of the blackmailer – am I good with voices or was I supposed to know? – but since I don’t care about cinematic exercises in deduction, it didn’t matter to me.

Charles, poor stressed-out boy, is subject to blackouts now and then that last for days,  and he fears he may kill someone during one of them.  He invites Paul Regis (Michel Piccoli), his former professor, to the manor to try and help sort things out.  Paul’s renowned logical mind can surely produce some light in his darkness, and he consents to play the part of the Ellery Queen detective figure in this drama.

I have never read an Ellery Queen, and this plot doesn’t make me want to start now.  Ah…but in this film, the entire story is a complex fabric of themes related to patriarchy, oedipal frustration, sin, repression, arrogance, Original Sin, and more…There’s something about these lapsed Catholics (Chabrol was one) – the old black magic never quite lets go.  The film seemed to me to be two running parallel at once – the weird psycho-drama,  and the tedious detective story.  Clearly Chabrol is someone I must investigate further.  The only film of his I know is La Ceremonie.

The stills below are from the mesmerizing sequence when the elder van Horn/Yahweh (Welles) exacts his terrible revenge on his young wife, Helene (Marlène Jobert)

This sequence recalled to my mind another strange film that involves a mad, arrogant, male god-figure who dispatches passive beautiful women using a straight razor with balletic finesse, The Night of the Hunter.

On the DVD, there is a comment by Chabrol that is something like, “What I like is beautiful women being sliced with razors in circumstances  très distinguées.”  Hmm…and that chilling blue!


October 10, 2009


It’s common now to come across the phrase “caution – spoilers ahead” in discussions of books and movies.  People want to avoid having their experience ruined  by reading a review that reveals the end, the surprise, the mystery, etc.  Personally, I don’t care.

Were people upset that they knew the ending of the Illiad when they heard it for the 100th time?  Everyone has favorite films or books that they see or read again and again.  The best works don’t depend on surprise.  That is, the suspense depends on the characters’ not knowing what’s ahead.  Some of them, Greek tragedies for example, assume that we already know the whole story.

I know it may be snobbish, but this is why I have no interest in reading mysteries – I can’t abide a book that depends for its appeal on hiding an aspect of the plot.  In a movie, it can be fun, and if it’s a good one, knowing the secret really doesn’t matter, but in a book, it’s just tedious for me.

The Lady Vanishes

October 5, 2009


Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) reminded me of Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel in a way.  A group of middle-class people find themselves in a nightmare world bounded by the edge of a room, or railway car, from which they cannot escape.  This one has a happy ending.

The movie gets off to such a slow and corny start, I almost gave up on it.  There’s the rich playgirl, getting ready to return to London to settle down according to Daddy’s wishes, and marry a “check-chasing blueblood.” A pair of stereotypical, cricket-obsessed Brits who keep up a steady idiotic patter, a charming, handsome, and brash musicologist  studying local folksongs, and a slightly batty old English lady governess.  They are all trapped by an avalanche in a remote backwater of some fictional central-European country, waiting for their train connection back to England.

off_to_marriage    not_cricket

Once on the train, the playgirl and the governess become friendly, and when the girl wakes up from a snooze, the old lady is gone.  Simply gone.  Everybody claims to have never seen her!  It becomes a somewhat labored cat-and-mouse game between the girl and the passengers:  she trying to get evidence that the woman did exist; they implying or saying straight out that she’s crazy.  A bit of physical evidence convinces the music man, and they make a team.  It turns out that the passengers are in a conspiracy to abduct and kill the old lady with an elaborate switcheroo involving a fake medical expert, a nun in black high-heeled pumps, and an Italian circus performer.  Then it gets weird.

After the heroes rescue the governess, the bad guys separate the train cars and direct the passengers and the engine onto a small line that runs into the forest.  They stop the train and surround the car with armed men.  After a failed ruse to get the passengers to disembark, they direct a fusillade at the car.  Why are all these people suddenly fighting for their lives in the middle of nowhere, trapped in a rail car, simply because of some old lady? 

A pretty woman with her lover, both fleeing spouses, demands that her man use his gun to defend them.  He thinks it’s all insane – the only sensible thing is to surrender and explain everything.  She grabs his gun and starts firing.  The two Brits rise to the occasion, without visible emotion of course, and turn out to be crack shots.  One grabs the pretty lady’s gun saying, “I’ll put it to better use,” and proceeds to pick off the attackers.  With each shot, the woman starts with fear while he, surveying the situation, calmly remarks, “I’m sure that there’s a rational –bang!– explanation – bang! – for all of this.”  Indeed there is.

use_the_Gun   a_rational_explanation

Happily returned to London, the playgirl abandons her gold-digging fiancé and surrenders to the ill mannered, but charming music man in an embrace that is not what I expect from a Hitchcock film

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