Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Birthday for a Grifter

Jim Thompson, just about the hardest-boiled of them all, was born today back in 1906. Thompson’s books were filled with drifters and grifters, some of them shrewd and sharp, others considerably less so. It is believed that many of his characters had autobiographical components, and Thompson’s life was at times as bleak as many of his creations. He suffered a nervous breakdown at age 19, after already cultivating a life of smoking and drinking. While working as a bellboy at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, he made the majority of his money acting as a heroin and marijuana courier for the hotel’s guests.

In a career that spanned more than 30 years, Thompson published a string of novels that have come to epitomize both pulp fiction and the allure of noir. He is best known for The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters, and After Dark, My Sweet.

Like many other writers of his generation, Thompson tried his luck in Hollywood. A number of his books were adapted for film, and he also wrote screenplays for motion pictures and scripts for television. He is believed to have written most of the script for Stanley Kubrick’s classic Paths of Glory, but Kubrick’s ego prevented Thompson from receiving the solo writing credit. Toward the end of his life, Thompson was hired to adapt his novel The Getaway, but was dismissed by the film’s star, Steve McQueen, who found Thompson’s treatment too dark. It makes one wonder who McQueen thought he was hiring. Thompson can be seen making a cameo appearance in Farewell, My Lovely, playing Judge Baxter Wilson Grayle.

Thompson died in 1971, having suffered several strokes, aggravated by alcoholism and self-starvation. He was at the time largely forgotten, but since his death, his star has risen. The Grifters was made into a successful film, featuring a script by Donald Westlake and a star turn by a young Annette Bening as the dangerous seductress Myra Langtry. Black Lizard returned many of his novels to print. Thompson was also the subject of a serious biography, Savage Art, by Robert Polito.

1 comment:

Graham said...

Actually, I believe that *all* of his novels are in print, or have been within the last 5 years or so. Not bad for a write who died in obscurity 35 years ago.