I’ve always been interested in the movies that’re made out of books by Jim Thompson — like most major American hard-boiled writers he gets adapted not infrequently, because the toughness and fatalism of his milieu is appealing to filmmakers. But he’s also hella tricky to adapt, because his books are so interior: he wrote some of the most amazing first-person narrators in all fiction, guys who’re often outright paranoid schizophrenics, and so his books aren’t just pulpy twists and turns, they’re often outright psychodrama. He’s often done wrong; I think that the one time he’s really ever been done right is in the underseen French film Serie noire (from his A Hell of a Woman, and named after the seminal French line of American genre fiction). It plays tonight at Film Forum, as part of their (marvy) French Crime Wave series.
Funny story, I and Cullen Gallagher, a film critic for the L and a bigger Thompson fan than even me, did an article for Moving Image Source about Thompson on film, it’s going up later today. In the meantime, here’s what we say ’bout Serie noire (this part is mostly Cullen, actually):
Corneau and screenwriter Georges Perec’s version of A Hell of a Woman is the only Thompson adaptation to truly express the author’s deeply personal darkness, from its opening shot of Patrick Dewaere shadowboxing and miming a sax solo against an overcast sky to the final image of a desperate embrace swallowed up by the void of nightfall. Dewaere is Franck Poupart, a sleaze selling overpriced junk to the under-privileged; after a shrewish recluse offers her daughter, Mona (Marie Trintignant), as payment for silverware, Poupart and Mona plan "the perfect murder" and, in seeking an escape from their dreary surroundings, find themselves more entrapped than before.
Corneau trains his camera on his star, and Dewaere’s highly physical performance turns Thompson’s neurotic narration into a hurricane of volatile gesture. Improvising songs, dancing about with an air freshener and conversing with himself, Dewaere is the most kinetically unstable actor to have attempted a Thompson schizo. Poupart’s body is the manifestation of his psychosis — of an unspoken paranoia in conflict with the external forces of work, money, sex, home. Even his actions reveal this duality: as he honks his car horn to attract the attention of his customer(whom he is about to frame for murder), he prays out loud for his customer not to respond. It’s as if he is questioning fate, scared as he is about his newly found command over life and death. And he should be scared — like his brethren-in-despair in The Grifters and This World, Then the Fireworks, Pourpart’s final realization is that he isn’t the only crooked soul in town — crystallized in the unforgettable image of a murderer with his hands afire, and a young girl holding an armful of francs.
“Perhaps the power to rationalize is the power to remain the same. Perhaps the insane are so because they cannot escape the truth," says Marty Lakewood [in This World, Then the Fireworks]. Thompson’s distorted, venal worlds are rendered by utter nutters, constantly telling themselves stories in order to live — and eventually the order they create descends into chaos. Dewaere’s body, like Thompson’s first-person narration, is never at rest, constantly reestablishing its relationship to the world in the hope of shaping it to his liking. Inevitably, the center cannot hold — three years later, at age 35, Dewaere shot himself dead with a rifle in a Paris hotel room.
So, yeah, see the movie it’s real good.