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Jim Thompson: The Dark Poet of the Plains

Willa Cather is a name often associated with Nebraska’s literary heritage, but personally, I prefer the work of Jim Thompson, a hardboiled writer who was a student at UNL for a time, until the Depression forced him to drop out, and after marrying his childhood sweetheart, hop a freight out of town to look for work. Thompson wrote numerous novels, the most famous of which are probably The Killer Inside of Me (two very poor film adaptations of this, sad to say), The Getaway (a solid 1972 film adaptation directed by Sam Peckinpah, thankfully) and Pop. 1280.

Thompson was also friends with the late actor Robert Mitchum, who saw to it that Thompson, who was never in good health throughout his life, had a substantial supporting role as Judge Grayle in Dick Richards’ Farewell My Lovely (1975), a reasonably good adaptation of the 1940 novel by fellow noirist Raymond Chandler. This allowed Thompson to end his days in the Motion Picture Country Home, where he died in 1977.

Bad luck dogged Thompson all his life; his early short stories and poems were published in Prairie Schooner, UNL’s literary journal, but after he dropped out of the university, he had to support himself with any kind of writing at all, until he formed an uneasy partnership with Stanley Kubrick, and wrote much of the script for Kubrick’s films The Killing and Paths of Glory. Perhaps the best adaptation of his work to the screen is Stephen Frears’ The Grifters (1990), with a sharp John Cusack in the title role, as a low level con artist with Oedipal issues on the side.

Thompson wrote about the dark side of life, but he was a true artist — make no mistake. The problem with most film adaptations of his work is that they play up the lurid angles of his narratives with unremitting insistence, when in fact the more sordid aspects of his works are just part of the fabric of his characters’ lives, no more remarkable to them than reading the evening newspaper. Thompson was an original, and his work is still more celebrated abroad — in France, he is often mentioned in connection with Ernest Hemingway — than it is in the United States; this is a shame. It’s hard work reading Thompson, but then he never thought the world was a very pleasant place. And for him, it wasn’t.

You can read here what I had to say about Thompson’s work in my book Straight: Constructions of Heterosexuality in the Cinema.

Here’s a link to an interesting essay on his work by David Geffner in the November/December 2009 issue of Humanities, The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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