Jim Thompson’s Lost Hollywood Years

Early on in Barton Fink, the Coen Brothers’ satire
of a beleaguered Hollywood screenwriter, John Turturro’s title
character eagerly arrives in depression-era L.A., only to slip
into a slow, alcohol-induced firestorm of creative malcontent.
Holed up in an ancient and strangely underpopulated hotel, the
New York playwright’s soul is gradually snapped in half, pistol-whipped
like a junkie-whore by his brutal pimp, the Hollywood dream machine.

So what else is new, right? Despite current Variety
headlines, which canonize well-connected hacks and their $2.5 million
spec sales, Hollywood screenwriters have always been notorious
bottom-feeders, lapping up crumbs from the base of the cinema totem
pole. Noble intentions (and art) aside, this was never more true
than when Eastern novelists (or as the Hollywood moguls of their
day called them, "sissy writers") packed up their Smith-Coronas
for a piece of quick change, and dumped their souls into the California
sea.

A sad case in point was the brilliant pulp-fiction
writer Jim Thompson, whose talent, at least on the surface, seemed
born to the screen. A speedy scribe with a distinctly modern vision,
Thompson blazed onto the 1950s New York literary scene like an
angry comet, completing twelve books in an astounding year and
a half. This legendary run of noir classics began with the most
frightening first-person account of a pathological killer ever
committed to print, The Killer Inside Me (transformed into an insipid
1971 Warner Brothers film starring Stacy Keach), and flamed out
with the amazingly reckless A Hell Of A Woman, whose deranged narrator
splits into separate personalities in order to cleanse himself
of a horrific double-murder.

Wielding words like a baby with a chainsaw, Thompson’s
books underscored the dark undertones of Cold War America. They
found a ready, hungry audience-at least until mainstream paperbacks
(and television) captured the public’s attention. After the pulp
market went south, Lion Books, the publishing house that had nurtured
Thompson’s bleak vision, collapsed. Adrift at the peak of his powers,
the tall, quiet Oklahoman looked to his childhood love, the movies,
as a way to sustain himself. And so he decamped for Hollywood,
embarking on a course that would eventually echo many of his own
characters’ fates: swathed in booze and emotional impotence, leading
straight to hell.

Unlike some of the more prominent novelists before
him, men such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Raymond
Chandler, Thompson sidestepped the salt mines of a studio contract
when fellow maverick and creative genius Stanley Kubrick came calling.
Thompson’s ear for dialogue, honed from his years as a wildcatter
in the West Texas oil fields, had caught the young Kubrick’s eye.
Approached by Kubrick’s producer, James B. Harris, to adapt Lionel
White’s crime novel Clean Break, Thompson worked in very close
partnership with Kubrick to create the screen blueprint for what
was to become The Killing. Today, the film stands as a kind of
cinematic Rosetta Stone for a new generation of filmmakers who,
like Quentin Tarantino, routinely sport a similar, spiraling structure
and lots of Thompson tough-guy talk.

The Killing was well received for its taut, ingenious
storyline, and nearly forty years after its release, Thompson’s
script is still sublime. Yet as the sole screenwriter for Kubrick’s
breakthrough effort, Jim Thompson received only the meager credit
of "additional dialogue." Although he would write three
screenplays and a novella for the Kubrick-Harris team, The Killing
was to be the first in a string of film-world indignities inflicted
on Jim Thompson’s eager and gentle spirit. Like many novelists
before him, the writer came to Hollywood wide-eyed and with good
intentions. And in the great tradition of so many East Coast novelists,
he laid himself down like a lamb to the slaughter, well-paid for
his humiliations along the way.

Some of the blame for Thompson’s lost Hollywood years
can be placedwithin the writer’s own character. The alcoholic and
chronically debt-laden Thompson wasn’t exactly dumped on Hollywood’s
doorstep a complete naif: he’d been shaped by sixty years of movie
history. Robert Polito’s superb biography, Savage Art (Alfred A.
Knopf, 1995), details how Thompson’s conception of Hollywood was
derived from a lost era. "Jim Thompson loved the idea of Hollywood," Polito
writes, "especially the old Hollywood that endured around
such vintage establishments as Musso & Frank’s Grill. But he
never understood the workings of the film industry, never would
be mistaken for an insider." Polito describes a jittery Thompson
who was often confused by story meetings. Old-school to the marrow,
and content to seal a deal with a highball and a handshake, Thompson
was unable to accept Hollywood’s screenwriting-by-committee methods.

A County Sheriff’s son from rural Oklahoma, Thompson
and his family had once operated their own movie theater. Jim had
even spent his wedding night inside a Nebraska picture-house. Though
fused with horrendous demons from the shadow of his powerful and
gregarious father, Big Jim, Thompson’s riveting prose was stoked
by the same movie machine that eventually destroyed him. Noir flicks
like Out Of The Past (1947), Gun Crazy (1950), Detour (1946) and
The Big Combo (1955) all featured psychologically troubled antiheroes
(many of them downright psychotic), which became a staple of Thompson’s
fiction. What seems ironic, particularly in the surge of Thompson
novels filmed after his death in 1977-The Grifters, After Dark,
My Sweet, Pop. 1280, A Hell of a Woman, The Kill-Off, The Getaway
(remade twice, counting the From Dusk ‘Til Dawn ripoff)-is the
timid approach Hollywood has taken to his work.

By the time he had moved to L.A., Thompson had already
ransacked the dark closets of Hollywood’s own past, pushing further
in his violent prose than any filmmaker would ever dare. After
The Killing, Thompson jumped all the way to the head of Hollywood’s
class, only to fall fast and hard. Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is
arguably the finest anti-war film ever made. Although the script’s
exact authorship is difficult to trace, Thompson was the first
writer hired to adapt the World War I novel to film. After a tortured
birth to film, Paths of Glory’s screenplay was submitted to the
Writer’s Guild for credit arbitration. The Guild’s decision, whereby
Thompson received third billing (behind Stanley Kubrick and Calder
Willingham) ran roughshod over Thompson’s ironclad contract with
Kubrick-Harris pictures, which had laid out screen credits in advance
of the production. Though not as bitter as his experience on The
Killing (Paths Of Glory went on to receive a WGA nomination for
best screenplay), Thompson again felt burned by the movies. He
could not have known how prescient the title Paths of Glory would
be for the film’s director, Kubrick, and its star, Kirk Douglas,
who both enjoyed enormous wealth and fame. But for Thompson, the
film’s principal story architect, a much less glamorous fate lay
ahead.

Speaking through self-proclaimed "movie whore" Charlie
Fox in his short play Speed The Plow, David Mamet wrote that the
film business is like beginning a new love affair: "It’s full
of surprises and you’re always getting fucked." Given Mamet’s
own tortured Hollywood past (a rumored seven back-breaking drafts
as screenwriter on The Untouchables) his words beg the question, "Does
the Hollywood beast eat up outsiders?" Or do prose stylists
who choose to ride the film gravy train get exactly what they deserve?

Clearly the numbing indifference with which an American
artist with the scope and breadth of Jim Thompson was met in his
final decade was, as one of Thompson’s own creations might’ve mumbled,
a raw deal.

Particularly tragic throughout Thompson’s Hollywood
years was his desire to rekindle his first love, fiction. But seduced
by the hungry animal that was series television, which dangled
just enough work Thompson’s way to keep him reeled in, the glory
of his Lion Books period never returned. Thompson had two, perhaps
three literary hurrahs in him after Paths of Glory; and interestingly
enough they resulted in his three strongest film adaptations: the
strange, grim road novel, The Getaway (translated to the screen
in 1972 by Sam Peckinpah); The Grifters (adapted by Donald Westlake
and filmed by director Stephen Frears in 1990); and Pop. 1280,
the venomous tale of a small-town sheriff who tends to his flock
in a windblown Southwestern town (filmed as Clean Slate/Coup de
Torchon by French director Bertrand Tavernier in 1981).

But in between these three books, Thompson stumbled
his way through such forgettable episodictelevision as Tales of
Wells Fargo, Mackenzie’s Raiders and Man Without A Gun. As he wrote
in a letter to his sister:

"At long last I’ve got my foot firmly in the
door of television, and I’d like to put it up the industry’s collective
butt. Everything I’ve done so far has been for Ziv Productions,
which is polluting the airwaves with a dozen-odd idiots’ delights,
and is a very low-pay, slave-driving outfit, but by no means the
worst."

For Thompson, an ex-Communist party leader and union
sympathizer, work of any kind was ennobling. He’d come up in the
hard-scrabble world of true-crime reporting and was armed with
a fierce degree of professionalism. But for all his efforts to
transcend the medium, Jim Thompson knew he was writing schlock.
He came to resent his lowly filmland status and his lack of fame,
particularly in light of his literary triumphs in the 50s. Gradually,
health and family problems (Thompson’s only son attempted suicide
in 1963) began to chip away at his Hollywood dream. A serious stroke
in 1960, and the removal of half his alcohol-ravaged stomach in
1965, left Thompson unable to meet the daily demands of a writer’s
life which, then as now, meant lots of schmoozing and meetings.

But even if he had been clean and sober, the evidence
was already in that studio story departments found Thompson’s work
too dark and depressing. Nearly all of his published novels had
made the rounds as the ’60s came to a close. Most found their way
to executive desks with readers’ notes complaining of few sympathetic
characters and repugnant situations the average American would
never tolerate.

As the ’70s approached and a new guard of film-school
grads like Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg seized power, Thompson’s
self-esteem, in an industry that worships youth and casts middle-aged
writers aside, hit rock bottom. Yet like a proud old bull rising
for the final goring, Thompson tried to resurrect his Hollywood
profile one last time. Fawned over for his tough-guy rep by a stream
of young players such as actor (and soon-to-be producer) Tony Bill,
Thompson held court in old-style Hollywood fashion. He would beach
himself in one of Musso & Frank’s dark corner booths and spin
his hard-knocks tales of a writer’s life on the road. Bill, and
a rising young star named Robert Redford, fell under Thompson’s
spell. Bill’s company signed Thompson for ten thousand dollars
to write a screenplay based on his novel of oil-riggers and hobos, South
of Heaven.
Pretty heady and exhilarating, even if Thompson
had been in this movie before.

Slated to coproduce and star, Redford flew Bill and
the aging writer up to his Utah mountain ranch for story meetings.
However when Thompson’s violent and off-target first draft was
rejected, and after his subsequent Redford-friendly second draft
failed to generate any excitement, the players quickly lost interest
and drifted on to other flicks. Once again, Thompson, the living
legend whom producers revered in name only, couldn’t get arrested
in Hollywood.

The high-hat that filmdom was giving him was by no
means limited to poolside meetings in Beverly Hills. Wooed by French
distributor Pierre Rissient, who had convinced a French company
to buy the movie rights to Thompson’s unfinished White Mother,
Black Son,
the writer, now suffering from bleeding ulcers along
with his previous stroke-induced problems, was flown to Paris to
complete the novel. However, his brutal capacity for alcoholic
self-abuse quickly reared its ugly head, and after only ten days
France said adieu. Rissient’s producers felt Thompson’s new pages
failed to live up to his reputation, and the project was summarily
dropped.

As a prose writer, Jim Thompson was radical and adventurous,
forever pushing the boundaries of a genre as tightly ordered in
its day as today’s formulaic Hollywood action flicks are in theirs.
Claiming "there are thirty-two ways to write a story and I’ve
used every one of them," Thompson instilled in his pop-culture
gun operas a feverish panoply of off-limits emotions. The man simply
crushed taboos like no crime writer anywhere ever has. Forget Chandler
or Hammett or Leonard; Thompson pushed his gifts far beyond commercial
considerations into the realm of pure experimental art. Every time
he sat down to write, he sliced open his wrists and bled straight
onto the page.

But the bitter payoff of his creativity hewed so
very close to his own characters’ fates that fame forever darted
off like a frightened squirrel during Thompson’s life. In his declining
years, his spirit was broken not once but twice by the great raging
moviemaking machine over which he had come to obsess. Most of the
Hollywood people who approached him meant well; they were drawn
to his novels for exactly those qualities missing from their own
films: unrelenting honesty and a frighteningly naked emotional
power. Still, for all their lip-service, producers could never
figure out how to get Jim Thompson’s fire on screen.

The twin straws of humiliation that broke Thompson’s
back began in late 1970, when his novel The Getaway found
its way into the hands of Steve McQueen, at the time a solid action-hero
draw. The book’s intermediary was a powerful young agent named
Mike Medavoy, who would later go on to run United Artists and Tri-Star
Pictures. At first, McQueen and his producer approached a young
Peter Bogdonavich to direct, but Bogdanavich dropped out to shoot What’s
Up Doc?
instead. Then they lined up a far better choice: Sam
Peckinpah, the toughest of the tough-guy directors still alive
in Hollywood. This pleased Thompson to no end. Like a long-neglected
violin that has been freshly tuned, the writer eagerly committed
to writing a script based on his novel. Urged by all involved to
be letter-faithful to the book, Thompson slaved on The Getaway adaptation
for over four months, including a prose treatment, a first draft,
and alternate scenes and episodes. However, when McQueen and his
producer got a look at the final segment of the script where, as
in the book, on-the-lam Doc McCoy and his wife descend into a nightmarish
physical and spiritual hell south of the border, Thompson was immediately
fired from the project.

Replaced by a young Walter Hill, who would later
excel as an action director, Thompson received no screen credit
at all and decided to take action. He appealed Hill’s solo credit
to the Writer’s Guild Arbitration Committee, but without success.
To Thompson, the blow was especially harsh coming from Peckinpah,
who was cut from the same mold as the book’s creator, a hard-drinking,
hard-boiled product of hard times spent in the real world. Though
he knew of The Getaway years before becoming involved with
the film, Peckinpah still canned Thompson’s script for its debasing
final act. Had Peckinpah gone soft? Well, the aging director had
to keep his star (and his star’s wife and costar Ali McGraw) appeased,
while all Thompson had to do was fulfill his contract in a timely
manner. You decide.

Salvo number two had already been fired at Thompson
as a result of Robert Redford’s involvement with South of Heaven two
years earlier, but Columbia Pictures was about to escalate that
glancing blow into a full-scale assault. In 1975, two years before
Thompson’s death, Universal Studios came calling with a solid,
high-end offer to purchase the movie rights to his hobo novel.
But instead of a fat payoff, which Thompson dearly needed to pay
his medical bills, the writer learned that Columbia (the studio
which had initially ponied up money to Bill and Redford to adapt
Thompson’s novel) was insisting on ownership rights. All signs
pointed to Bill and his production company having bamboozled Thompson
into signing a contract that would allow Bill’s company to reassign
the book’s rights. In other words, Thompson no longer owned his
novel, and that meant Universal’s offer was moot.

Preparing for war, Thompson mustered his forces:
his lawyer nephew filed a complaint in Superior Court against Tony
Bill and Columbia Pictures. To reassign the rights to South
of Heaven,
Bill’s company had paid Thompson the token sum of
ten dollars, or "consideration," a practice common in
the movie business whereby the parties involved show good faith
in their intentions and allow a minimum amount of money to change
hands to bind the agreement under law. For the last and most hurtful
time, Thompson was convinced he’d been blindsided by the Hollywood
elite. He even suspected, and hinted as much in the complaint,
that he was drunk at the time of the contract signing and had no
recollection of what he’d done.

Whether Thompson understood the snake-charming ways
of high-stakes movie production or not, the lawsuit, and Columbia’s
claim of ownership, were the final nails in a coffin already fully
built. As Thompson’s daughter Sharon recounts in Savage Art, "To
this day I think that what happened with South of Heaven was
partially to blame for his death. That really was the beginning
of the end for my father."

The end for Jim Thompson came on the eve of Good
Friday, 1977, with Alberta, his devoted muse and wife of forty-six
years at his side. Living in virtual obscurity from the film community
that had shunned him, Thompson died in his cramped Hollywood apartment,
steps from the inglorious "Walk of Fame" that refused
him entry. Only a handful of mourners attended the memorial service
on Monday. None of the producers, directors, actors, agents or
writers who had championed Jim Thompson’s bold American vision
bothered to show.

Thompson’s loyal editor and great friend, Arnold
Hano, who had shepherded his work at Lion Books, was there, and
he was dismayed by the poor turnout. As on so many occasions throughout
the writer’s strange and eventful life, the final service resembled
a chapter from one of his own novels. "It was just another
Jim Thompson story," Hano is quoted in the final pages of
Polito’s biography. A chronically ill alcoholic who had drifted
in and out of jobs all his life dies a slow, obscure death, without
any of his peers flicking so much as an eyelash.

But Jim Thompson’s stories always had a blacker-than-night
kicker. In this case, thirteen years after he was buried, that
same dead scribbler was "rediscovered" as a uniquely
American writer bursting with an uncompromising talent and vision
that had somehow escaped the world for nearly half a century. Hollywood,
traditionally more resistant to risk than any other popular art
form for fear of alienating its audience, had finally caught up
with Jim Thompson. Prophetically sniffing the winds of good fortune
that would someday utter his name, Thompson’s dying instructions
to his wife had been to watch over all his papers and effects because
he was sure he’d be famous within ten years or so after his death.
Big Jim’s son couldn’t have scripted a more cynical denouement.

Did Hollywood really kill Jim Thompson the way, some
insist, it wrecked Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Chandler? Not completely.
The freight-train of self-destruction, alcohol, undid many of the
great prose-men who chased the money west. So it was that booze,
and a complex, seething cauldron of family turmoil dating back
to his own father, eventually took Thompson out. But no other novelist,
before or since his death, was appropriated and exploited by the
great dream factory as was the gentlemanly son of Andarko, Oklahoma.
Plow through Jim Thompson’s books, novellas, screenplays, true-crime
reportage and even his college essays, and you can find enough
bad blood and imploded anger to light up a Hollywood premiere.

But if you go looking for the man’s true spirit,
an epitaph to cap off a frustrating but at times brilliant career,
you need only turn to Jim Thompson’s final days. Bedridden in his
tiny apartment above Hollywood Boulevard, wracked by a series of
devastating strokes that debilitated both his motor and oral skills,
Thompson knew he could no longer write or even spit out the words
in his head. And so, whispering to his wife that a life without
words was no life at all, Thompson simply stopped eating. Until
he passed away. MM

David Geffner is an L.A.-based writer/director.
He spends most of his free time cruising the South Bay and wishing
he were James Ellroy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *