Note: Please excuse the quality of the stills. The DVD of this film is OOP and I had to pull the pics off the YouTube link a kindly user uploaded the film to.
“The Book was better”
Oof. It’s so hard to not come off as a prick when comparing a novel to its screen adaptation. In this frustratingly anti-intellectual age, having read a (gasp!) book sadly acts as a branding iron for self-superiority. Sure, there are some jerks who really do act better than everybody else because they read this or that literature before it became “mainstream.” Just imagine how people who read A Song of Ice and Fire felt when Game of Thrones came out. I admit that I do get frustrated when the film or TV version of something I’ve read strays off course or makes big changes. It’s baffling when I see a great part from a book not included in the screen version. “Why leave that out?” I’ll ask. In the case of Jim Thompson’s deliciously evil 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me, it’s leaving things in that presents filmmakers with some real problems.
Thompson was a wild man in his youth and remained an alcoholic throughout his life, but he also had a family to support. His process for writing some of his novels was booking himself into a hotel along with a ton of liquor and pounding out the pages on his typewriter. In many ways, it was therapeutic and afterwards he’d go right back to being a father and husband. I read Killer many years ago and was struck by the audacity of its main character, Lou Ford, the sociopathic, twisted, and highly intelligent murderer with charm to spare. Thanks to Thompson’s sure-handed approach, Ford is not so much a villain you root for as he is a monster who might just get away with it. What sets the character apart is the brutality with which he dispatches his victims, particularly women. I have a strong constitution for extreme screen violence and although I’ve mellowed a bit since my early days scanning the video shelves for the bloodiest titles I could find, I still get an adrenaline rush from a well-made scene of “ultra-violence.”
That said, violence against women on screen is always a difficult proposition. In the case of horror movies, the often-graphic depiction of women being murdered or tortured ranges from ridiculous to disturbingly sadistic. Still, it’s a horror movie and although every film is different, there’s a certain expectation and acceptability. In other words, what else were you expecting to see in a horror flick? For dramas or thrillers, the waters get murkier. I’ve only seen Michael Winterbottom’s (mostly) faithful 2010 version of The Killer Inside Me once. I don’t have vivid memories of it, but I’ve never forgotten one scene. Lou’s sweet girlfriend Amy, played by Kate Hudson, has lovingly stayed by his side despite his odd behavior and he returns the favor by punching her in the stomach. Hard. Really hard. So hard in fact that she crumbles to the ground. She starts to shake. Not so much from the pain. Her body is literally convulsing and she appears to be going into shock. Even worse, a puddle of urine forms underneath her. This all happens in the novel as well. It’s a very accurate portrayal of the events Thompson created, but its raw power is overwhelming. I refuse to fault Winterbottom for “going all the way’ with this scene. It may be unpleasant, but this is what was in the book, so here it is onscreen. The film earned a ton of controversy upon its release. It’s easy to complain when a movie wimps out or severely truncates a scene from its source material, but what if they follow the book to the letter? What if a particular scene was best left inside someone’s head and not visualized literally?
For the 1976 film version, the bare bones outline of the novel remains, but much has been changed. Considering the 1970’s was the second golden age of Hollywood, or at least the emergence of the “American New Wave,” it’s particularly disheartening how deeply compromised the final product is. It’s more palatable than the Winterbottom version, but whether due to an old-fashioned sensibility or an unwillingness to portray an irredeemable character, Burt Kennedy’s The Killer Inside Me fails as an adaptation, struggles as a standalone thriller, and contains only flashes of inspiration. It’s ironic that another film about a serial killer, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, was also released in 1976. For Sundown, a great concept based on a true story is absolutely squandered by horrible attempts at slapstick humor. Killer is better than Sundown, but it suffers from dealing too clumsily with the psychological complexities of its narrative.
The failure of the film can’t be laid at the feet of its leading man. While Casey Affleck was an offbeat choice for the 2010 version, Stacy Keach does his best with the material he’s given. A fine example of a character actor who started his career as a leading man, Keach’s credits include impressive turns in Fat City, The Ninth Configuration, Road Games, and of course his long-running role as Detective Mike Hammer on TV. As that very abbreviated list proves, he always got work but never had a major hit like his contemporaries. He’s been the title role in many productions and would often choose difficult roles to play, but he’s always remained somewhat on the fringes of major stardom. His role on Titus (2000-2002) was a comeback which rejuvenated his career and he’s worked steadily, racking up over 200 screen credits. As Lou Ford, Keach has a quiet confidence and geniality that hides his true motives.
The novel unfolds as such: Lou Ford is a deputy sheriff in a small Texas town (the 1976 version oddly transfers the action to Montana) and behind his friendly façade lurks a vicious killer. He has a secret “sickness,” then known as ‘dementia praecox’ but now more commonly referred to as schizophrenia. He becomes mixed up in the affairs of a businessman, his son, and a prostitute the son has been seeing. Although he received poor grades in school, Ford is extremely smart and calculating, able to read people and detect their weaknesses. He carries on a relationship with a sweet school teacher, Amy, while becoming involved with the prostitute, Joyce. He beats her nearly to death, then shoots the son to frame him for the beating. He spends the rest of the novel doing anything he can to avoid detection, murdering more people to protect himself. The ending is practically apocalyptic.
The film retains some of Lou’s quirks, like passing along corny catchphrases and a film noir-style voice over, but that’s jettisoned pretty quickly. It’s also made clear that Lou is indeed the “smartest guy in the room,” but he has to tamp that down, lest he let on he’s more than just some small-town cop. Serial killers are often portrayed as being narcissistic and the film opens with Keach standing in front of a mirror, adjusting his best suit as he repeats the ‘policeman’s oath’ over the soundtrack. A silly dissolve takes us back in time to a rock quarry, where a scuffle breaks out over the two candidates for town mayor. Chester Conway (Keenan Wynn, Dr. Strangelove – Bat Guano!) is the incumbent and holds the town in an iron fist while his idiot son Elmer (Don Stroud, a surfer turned actor who popped us as cattle rustler Bill Sharp in Django Unchained) runs around getting into fights and messing around with hooker Joyce Lakeland.
Joyce is played by the great Susan Tyrrell, one of the greatest character actresses who ever lived. As Robert Tyree told her in Cry-Baby (1990), “You a hard woman.” Possessing a non-traditional beauty and a hard-edged screen persona, she’d be nominated for an Oscar for Fat City and appear in many cult films, including Flesh+Blood, Tapeheads, a couple Ralph Bakshi films, The Chipmunk Adventure “We’re doing things MY WAY this time!”, The Forbidden Zone, and give a stunning, uncompromising performance as a psychotic mother in Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker. Her scenes with Keach are among the best in the film.
Lou’s been sent to run her out of town and she greets him with an appropriate “trick or treat.” In a scene shockingly reminiscent of The Big Lebowski (1998), she tells him to blow on her freshly painted nails. He kisses her toes and she’s definitely turned on. Joyce thinks he’s there for pleasure, but it’s all business. “Nicest ass around and it turns out to be a pigtail,” she saucily states when he reveals his identity. She lashes out at him and he responds, slapping her hard several times. It’s rough, but it turns out that’s the way she likes it. “You play my kinda pool, Lou. Dirty.” Her dialogue and delivery are dynamite and add a real energy and flair to the film. Although we get many dramatic 70’s zooms into Keach’s eyes and black-and-white flashbacks (that resemble Universal monster movies) to a traumatic incident from childhood throughout the film, both the novel and movie do acknowledge that the sadomasochistic nature of their relationship releases Lou’s pent-up murderous tendencies. The novel makes it more clear that they’ve always been there, but the film does its best to portray the change. I guess it wasn’t in their best interest to show him as a young boy molesting a little girl like in the book.
He goes home to find Amy (Tisha Sterling, who would often play the younger version of her famous mother, Ann Sothern) waiting for him. Smelling Joyce’s perfume, she decides to end it, but he tries to convince her that he was only around the hooker not…in the hooker. They’ve been together for years but he’s refused to take it to the next level and pop the question. Sterling doesn’t leave much of an impression here, but her voice has a breathy, sweet quality that makes the futility of her love for Lou all the more meaningless and tragic. He’s left alone with his thoughts, which are becoming increasingly unhinged.
Joyce shows up at Conway’s office and blames the marks on her body from her romp with Lou on Elmer. She demands 50 thousand dollars or else she’ll go to the police. Conway seeks Lou’s help, but Lou is only willing to book her. Conway is worried about a scandal with his election around the corner, but he’s willing to give her the money. Elmer, the dumb, horny hayseed, is in love with Joyce and Lou tells him to take the 50k and run off with her.
“Mama hit the jackpot!” Joyce exclaims when Lou arrives to tell her about Elmer’s plan. He really did a number on her since she’s all set to run off with him and cares nothing for the bohunk Elmer. When he refuses her advances, she threatens to expose him. Six-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer William A. Fraker, whose credits include fine work like Rosemary’s Baby, Tombstone, Bullitt, Coonskin, Sharky’s Machine, and American Hot Wax, makes great use of shadows. As Joyce stares at Lou, his face is entirely enveloped by shadow, with only a backlight to silhouette him against the door frame.
The major difference between the Kennedy and Winterbottom versions is that here Lou tends to lash out when provoked, either intentionally or not. She slaps him, he punches her. She falls back and he assumes she’s dead. Thanks to action movies, most filmgoers have been programmed to believe that it takes more than one punch to knock someone out. Here, the indication is that his punches are downright deadly. Elmer shows up and gives Lou some cash from his stack, which looks way too small for fifty thousand smackeroos. These bills turn out to be marked, but we don’t know that yet. He finds Joyce on the floor, then Lou plugs him with Joyce’s gun six times. He blames their deaths on a squabble, which is quickly questioned by mayoral candidate Howard Hendricks (Charles McGraw, the great tough guy actor from Richard Fleischer’s best film, The Narrow Margin). Lou even agrees, acting puzzled. This brings up the legitimately fascinating possibility that Lou is too smart for own good. He underestimates everyone around him so he ends up being sloppy about cleaning up the mess he’s made. This arouses the suspicions of both Howard and Bob the sheriff (John Dehner – The Boys From Brazil, The Right Stuff).
Joyce has a broken neck but is still alive. The movie seems to jump ahead an unknown amount of time. Lou gives some of the marked bills to his friend Johnny Lopez (Pepe Serna, the great Mexican-American actor from Scarface, Vice Squad, and The Day of the Locust), which causes him to be arrested for Joyce and Elmer’s murder. There's a great deal of “tell, don’t show” in this film and the ‘marked bills’ thing is explained away as Lou walks down the hall toward Johnny’s cell. They have a pleasant conversation and Lou innocently inquires who Johnny has told about the bills he gave him. Once he establishes that no one knows, he has a brief moment of regret, then does another one-punch knockout. Seriously, is Keach playing his character from Fat City (1972)? He hangs Johnny with his belt and sets it up to look like suicide. Suspicion continues to mount against Lou.
An unnecessary scene and a cameo by John Carradine as a visiting doctor follows. Lou and Amy are going to elope so he’s selling his house. Carradine shows up to check the place out and we get an indication of how well-read Lou is when he interrogates the doctor about various conditions, including a mention of his own hypothetical schizophrenia. He sees right through the doctor’s disguise and exposes him as a plant sent to spy on him. Both actors are fine, but it plays like the final scene of Psycho (1960), i.e. somebody explaining everything that’s just happened.
Clichés galore as a thunderstorm rages while he packs his things and Amy arrives with her suitcase. He begins to have flashes and oddly starts to call out for Amy even though she’s right there. It’s very strange, even for a mentally ill character. She goes to hug him and touch his face, but he reacts and hits her very hard. This is nothing compared to the 2010 version, which felt unprovoked, but it’s still pretty harsh. Again however, the indication is that he killed her with a few blows. Affleck didn’t seem to regret his actions, but Keach does, which feels like more of the script simplifying the character.
What makes the novel so cool is that although Lou is caught, he never seems to panic. He douses the house in alcohol and when Joyce, who arrives with the police, tries to reason with him, he stabs her to death and the subsequent gunfire from the police cause the house to explode. It’s a satisfyingly nihilistic ending to an uncompromising tale. In the 1976 version, the police arrive, including Wynn, and Joyce, looking pretty healthy, sits in a squad car. The voices in his head grow louder and we’re back to the beginning, where he’s dressed in his Sunday best. He sees Joyce and approaches. The ending is bizarre, to say the least. The soundtrack blares ragtime-style music and he smiles, puffing on a big cigar. He pulls out his gun and seems to aim it but is gunned down immediately. Credits.
This role needs an actor who can be likable even when committing horrible acts and Keach is the right man for the job. He doesn’t let the movie down, but the direction and writing do. Burt Kennedy was a fine writer and director, mainly of Westerns featuring actors like John Wayne, James Garner, and Robert Mitchum. He nearly finished his career with Suburban Commando (1991, terrible, but a film I watched many times growing up. “We’re gonna sue ya!”), but he luckily ended it with Comanche (2000), a good career capper. Here, his approach is too mundane. If the script were stronger, it might have worked. Writers Edward Mann (who had a brief career scripting a few horror films, including Oliver Stone’s first feature, Seizure) and Robert Chamblee (oddly his only credit) can’t seem to grapple with the complexities of the story and opt for a more sympathetic portrayal of the Lou Ford character.
The 2010 version may be repugnant for many, but I still prefer that one to this. At least they attempted to adapt the novel, rather than softening Thompson’s hard edges. It’s possible this story simply couldn’t be told faithfully at the time, but I’d argue that of any time in cinema history to go for something different, the 70’s was the time.