Americans wrote them, but it took the French to figure out what to call them: roman noirs, black novels.
Derived from the tough-guy pulps of the '30s and '40s, the American roman noirs had their peculiar heyday in the mid-'50s, when mass-market paperback publishing had just been invented. They were the quintessential bus- and train-station book, less than 200 pages long, meant for tired travelers on all-night rides between trunk towns like Memphis and Texarkana. They looked the same: on the cover, a bosomy blond with a .45 automatic and a cigarette, and on the back a block of copy in red full of words like "vortex" and "whirlwind" and "web of fate" -- but never, ever "literature."
The writers were hacks and could grind out three or four per year, year after year after year, fueled by loneliness, self-loathing and lots of black coffee. They seem to have been men with squalid backgrounds, usually washed out of the newspaper trade and, having failed at screenwriting and PR, almost all with drinking problems and personal lives like unwatched soap operas. One of them was so utterly peculiar that when he lived in Hollywood he rented not a room but a couch, and traveled the night in an old bathrobe which he represented to people as "Russian fur."
The names were Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis (the couch-renter) and, of course, Jim Thompson (whose "The Getaway" has gotten its second Hollywood treatment and is currently in theaters).
The books were their last stop on the road to hell -- usually stories of doomed losers being played by bigger sharks or hot babes, seeking only a provisional redemption in some lonely alley somewhere in an anonymous big city or behind a cow-town diner. "This is a godless world," wrote a British critic of the place, and in it, "Murder is a casual chore." Of course the French loved them. What can you expect from a culture that adores Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rourke? Thompson, Woolrich and Goodis were republished in France in Gallimard's Serie Noire and remain steady sellers. Indeed, film versions of the works are just as likely to be French, including "Coup de Torchon," by Bertrand Tavernier, after Thompson's "Pop. 1280," and Jean-Jacques ,X Beniex's "Moon in the Gutter" and Truffaut's "Shoot the Piano Player," both from novels by Goodis. I can recall a chat with the particularly obnoxious Tavernier, who leaned over a table during an interview and announced, with the same congruence of Gallic obstinacy and self-righteousness that might have marked De Gaulle in negotiation with pygmies, "Jeeem Thompson eees a better writerr zan, zay, Weeeliam Steeeeeronn or Johnnnnn Uuuuuupdike."
Thompson, born in 1906 in Annadarko, Okla., led a troubled life, variously eking out a living as bellboy, oil hand, actor, burlesque comedian, taxi driver, but most consistently as reporter and detective story writer -- all the things writers did before master's programs in creative writing were started. He wrote two "serious" novels, "Now and On Earth" and "Heed the Thunder," to almost no effect. He turned to crime writing in the late '40s and never looked back, all the while fighting the persistent demon of alcoholism. (He was first committed for alcoholism when he was 18.)
In between heroic drinking bouts, he hit the keys: He peddled pieces to the men's magazines of the '50s, including Saga, of which he was briefly the editor. He actually collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on "The Killing" and "Paths of Glory," probably his highest accomplishments. But without Kubrick he was unable to earn a living as a screenwriter and soon went back to the old Underwood and the 2,000-words-per-day regimen. He wrote books with titles like "The Killer Inside Me," "The Kill-Off," "Recoil," "A Swell-Looking Babe" and "After Dark, My Sweet." At the lowest point of his life he was writing novelizations of "Ironside" episodes and of such dreary screenplays as "The Undefeated."
He ended up with 29 published novels to his credit. He died in 1977, before his celluloid rebirth, a loser to the end.
But rumors of his excellence have been greatly exaggerated, and where Tavernier claims for him any sort of greatness, he was wrong. Jim Thompson, king of the '50s hacks and revered cult figure of the anti-bourgeois lit set, was a lousy writer. No amount of revisionist bull or reverse snobbery will change that.
In fact, the roman noir gents as a whole were far less accomplished than their immediate predecessors, James Cain and Dashiell Hammett, and their inheritors, Elmore Leonard and George C. Higgins. Here's an exchange from Thompson's "The Getaway" that goes down as one of the most moronic in American letters:
Doc has just blown away Rudy the Piehead, his confederate in a bank robbery, and he turns to his wife and partner in crime, Carol:
"Alas, poor Rudy," Doc murmured. "But how have you been, my dear? -- to move from the ridiculous to the sublime?"
"We-el--" Carol slanted a sultry glance at him. "I think I'll be a lot better tomorrow. You know. After I get a good night's sleep."
"Tut, tut," said Doc. "I see you're still a very wicked young woman."
That is Thompson's lame attempt at smutty banter between the outlaw couple, sexually excited by the murder, and it's certainly difficult to imagine either Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, or even Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, exchanging such inanities in either the 1972 or the 1994 screen versions of the story and not being laughed off the screen.
But the fact that there were film versions speaks eloquently to Thompson's true strength, which is story structure, rather than the line by line or sentence by sentence business. In other words, he was a writer who was good at everything except the paperwork. (I stole that line from Peter DeVries, by the way.)
Thompson had the vision thing down: bleak back roads of underworld America. He had the characters: sociopaths and suckers and nobody in between. And he knew how to put a story together.
Thus it is that his works have enjoyed a better run in the movies of late than anyone this side of John Grisham: "The Grifters," the original "Getaway" (1972) and now the current version, Maggie Greenwald's bleak version of "The Kill-Off," James Foley's excellent version of "After Dark, My Sweet." (No one has optioned "A Swell-Looking Babe," to my knowledge.)
Considered strictly as story structure, "The Getaway" is terrific. A professional bank robber, in prison, is paroled after his wife does sexual favors for an influential businessman. In return, the hero-robber is expected to rob a bank to help the businessman out of a jam. The robbery is botched, and one of the robbers betrays the hero, who still manages to shoot him -- but not fatally. Then he is betrayed by the businessman, and kills him. He and his wife must deal with the meaning of her sexual relationship -- was it a betrayal or an act of sacrifice? -- while being pursued by the businessman's cronies, the wounded partner and the entire police forces of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
It has a happy ending.
Actually, both versions of the movie have been terrific, but there are further strangenesses to report. This is, to my knowledge, a rarity in film culture, but both films employ the same script, which was written by Walter Hill, who went on to become a wonderful director himself ("48 Hrs."). Thus one can see the same scenes being played out to the line by McQueen and MacGraw and between Baldwin and Basinger. Some mild updating has been done -- Doc robs a dog track instead of a bank -- but the movies are, scene by scene, largely identical.
Except that they aren't. The two are amazing in that they show how influential a director is to the materials -- how his personality transforms the work. Thus Sam Peckinpah's 1972 version is both more intense and more psychotic than Roger Donaldson's cleaner, more conventional current version. The values that Peckinpah injected into the production are absent in the Donaldson version; those values being a sense of worship of the cult of masculinity and a concomitant hatred or deep distrust of women.
It should be noted that in bringing Thompson's "The Getaway" to the screen, Hill had to "fix" it. Perhaps his success at doing so, without damaging what was good about the book while abandoning what was ridiculous, indicates how sound its structure was.