THE MOVIE SHELF: comparing films to their literary counterparts
AFTER DARK, MY SWEET
james foley, 1990.
Welcome to The Movie Shelf, an ongoing series that compares the films on our dvd shelves to the novels on our bookcases.
We at the 'Smoke have always been fascinated by screenplay adaptation: what a script writer takes from the source material, what gets discarded, how the two works differ from each other and what the existence of the movie itself says about the book (and vice versa.) It's "book versus movie" time, compadres.
based on the novel
AFTER DARK, MY SWEET
jim thompson, 1955.
~ by christopher funderburg ~
I didn’t know what I should do. Hell, I didn’t even know whether I should even be thinking about doing anything. Everything was working out like we’d planned, wasn’t it? The only thing that had really changed was me - my mind.
Jim Thompson, like any pulp novelist I suppose, wrote stories that don’t sound like much when you give anyone the gist of them. The Killer Inside Me or A Hell of a Woman sound pretty straight-forward when you try to describe them succinctly: “a small-town sheriff gets involved with a blackmail plot” and “an Average Joe wants to save a mysterious, alluring woman from a life of misery.” But when you do that, you know that on some level you’re actually doing a bad job describing them so you offer up an immediate semi-apology, “but like any great pulp novelist, it’s what he does with the story that matters; the books are about the strange places he takes those basic ideas.” You know, writing genre fiction is like playing the blues and all that. There’s more going on than the description could do justice.
The trick of Thompson’s 1955 novel After Dark, My Sweet is hiding how, this time, there’s maybe less than meets the eye: a loose woman and a crook connive to screw over a patsy… but they don’t have the patsy’s number, not the way they think they do and he causes everything to go wildly to shit. That’s a hundred or a thousand but probably not a million crime stories.* Because it’s Thompson, you expect a reversal or a hiccup or even something like Savage Night or The Getaway that as they “run to the end” (as the narrator of After Dark, My Sweet phrases the idea) careen into bizarre, even phantasmagoric, places.
The wicked joke of After Dark, My Sweet is that the audience is saddled with a first-person narrator who seems to read every situation correctly, who calls every shot and nails it… but we can never trust it, we can never settle comfortably into taking his analysis of the world at face value, never take him at his word. As in Thompson’s two best novels, 1952’s The Killer Inside Me and 1964’s Pop. 1280, the tension of the storytelling is juiced by an unreliable first-person narrator. I wouldn’t be the first to make the observation that those books’ protagonists, Lou Ford and Nick Corey, are basically the same character: small-town sheriffs who affect an outward ineffectualness as a mask for sadistic psychosexual inner-lives. They’re cunning, petty, manipulative and bottomlessly cruel but everyone around them considers them annoying fools, even the gaggles of women who find themselves in bed with these men for reasons they can’t seem to grasp.
In those two novels, Thompson plays the trick on his readers of lulling them into believing that the general public is right about these clowns: in the first several pages of Pop. 1280, the henpecked Corey is dressed down by his ill-tempered wife, shoved in the mud and insulted by a pair of pimps (whom he only wants to get a bribe from so he can leave them alone in any case) and laughed at by a random train passenger who humiliates him out of using the bathroom. In that last one, he literally runs away from the ridiculous scene, still desperate to take a piss, as the train conductor and passenger share a laugh over him.
The narrators affect an “aw shucks” harmlessness and it’s only as the stories develop that the reader becomes aware of the unsettling gap between these men’s presentations of themselves and the reality of who they are. At first, it’s hard not to enjoy the small revenges they enact on a world that’s not very kind to them (Corey causes an asshole judge to fall into a privy, for example), that’s the second step of Thompson’s strategy. Make you think you’re on their side, if only for a fleeting moment. But it’s the rope-a-dope, Thompson is setting us up to knock us out. Corey and Ford aren’t fools, they’re devils. They possess the diabolical ability to confuse the moral compasses of everyone around them - they’re as much satanic trickster figures as they are all-consuming demons.
But maybe that’s too easy. These are painfully, terrifyingly human characters. To frame them in mythic terms does a disservice to the writing. The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 exploit the gulf between reality and consciousness, the gulf between the thing inside me that is me and the people around that thing that by its nature will never be able to see it, the people who will always on some level have to take me at my word. They’re books about the most human of actions: the lie. The exploitation of that gulf. How deep can a lie go? Thompson seems to answer, “All the way to the bottom” and be determined to dredge his way down there.
The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 would be effective crime novels without their cagey, diabolic first-person narration, but that perspective allows Thompson to explore the only thing he ever seemed interested in: the almost epistemological obsession with the separation of mind and world. His nickname was the “Dimestore Dostoevsky” but he never shared the Russian crank’s Orthodoxly dyspeptic sense of hope and order. “Dimestore Heidegger” would’ve been more appropriate and I doubt either one would’ve ever helped to sell a single paperback, so it would’ve been immaterial to Thompson in any case.
The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 bookended the meaningful portion of Thompson’s career and After Dark, My Sweet comes more or less in the middle, output-wise. It pulls a trick that’s almost the inverse of Killer and Pop. 1280: ex-boxer William “Kid” Collins narrates the story and he seems plenty sane, plenty reasonable to hear him tell it - but everyone around him reacts like they’re dealing with a lunatic or a moron. Probably with good reason: he’s an escaped mental patient, a guy serving time for killing another boxer in the ring. The people he meets instantly see through his hitchhiker patter about “crazy Jack Billingsley” and a mix-up with a broken down car. They make jokes at his expense that they think he won’t understand, they rib and needle him with condescension and unfiltered contempt thinking he can’t keep up, but what the reader knows (because we’re inside is head) is that not only is he keeping up, he’s frequently way ahead of them.
In addition to their phenomenal plotting, Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 amp up the tension by causing the reader to ask, “What is really going on?” As it dawns on you that you can’t trust what Nick Corey or Lou Ford are telling you, you begin to worry just how far and how dark they’re willing to take things. And things get very dark, very fast: nightfall descends like a death-shroud before you can even get your bearings. After Dark, My Sweet escalates tension by causing the reader to ask, “What is really going on?” because this unstable, violent lunatic on the lam can’t be getting it right, can he? You can’t trust Lou Ford because he’s a liar. You can’t trust Collie because it seems like he’s telling the truth.
At the very beginning of the novel, Collins carefully lays out how he’s wearing relatively clean clothes, has had a recent shave and made an effort to comb his hair - in his opinion, he’s looking pretty ok. Pretty reasonable. But the way he’s immediately met with disgust by everyone he comes into contact with causes the reader to question how Collins actually looks. Does he look pretty ok or does he look like an escaped mental patient who has been thumbing rides for a thousand miles? But Collins seems to read so many situations correctly: he knows beautiful widow Faye Anderson is taking too convenient an interest in him, he sees right through the fake smiles of small-time chiseler “Uncle Bud” Stoker. He diagnoses the double-cross on the horizon and deftly turns the tables on his scheming cohorts. It’s like watching a mush-brained Parker mumble through a bizarro version of The Man with the Getaway Face.
To work over his conspirators like this, Collins can’t be crazy.
Instead of being reassuring, it’s deeply unsettling to see “Kid” Collins anticipate every punch and land a brutal counter-blow because you know this is a man capable of killing someone in the ring. Lou Ford and Nick Corey are less existentially upsetting to me because they’re liars. Sure, they may lie to themselves a bit, maybe a lot, but a lie is an exhibition of control: those characters manipulate the gulf between reality and their inner selves to their advantage. But Collins is wildly out of control, he can't consistently breach that gulf so when he does manage to reconcile outward reality and self-perpection, it's often disturbing. If I’m being truthful, I’ve frequently had the experience that Collins has over and over throughout the book - people treat me like an idiot who’s lagging one step behind up until the moment when I make them understand I’m actually five steps ahead. Or maybe I’m both, maybe it can be both: you can be one step behind and five steps ahead at the same goddamned time. You can see yourself only through a distorting haze, but see the world around you with clarity.
I drove off, wondering why it was always the stupid people who figured everyone else to be stupid. Why they always think they can outsmart the other guy.
Who the hell knows, because at the end of the book, the question isn’t resolved - there’s a lingering ambiguity as to whether Collins read everything right and got crushed by fate or whether he really was the unstable patsy who fucked everything up. Was he the smart one or the stupid one? His interactions with Faye are particularly cloudy: Did she really intend to commit murder (by pie)? Did she really love him? Did they have a moment of deep connection? Was she backed into a corner and forced into a scheme she wanted no part of? Collins himself shifts between certainty and self-doubt. Far more than with Lou Ford and Nick Corey, Thompson allows the reader to identify, or at least commiserate, with Collins: just when he thinks he knows, he doubts. And so do we. The gulf between reality and Collins’ understanding of it remains.
But Fay wasn’t a woman like that. Like it seemed she might be. She wasn’t cheap, shoddy,, whatever else she was. She wasn’t that, even if this was some kind of a trick. And I sure hoped it wasn’t for her sake, and mine. Because a guy like me, you sure never want to try to trick him.
The first issue of any cinematic adaptation of After Dark, My Sweet has to be dealing with that gulf. Kid Collins can tell us all he wants in a voice-over that he thinks he looks alright, presentable enough, but we’re going to see him up there on screen and make that judgment for ourselves. So much of the drive and curiosity of the book is in interpreting the reactions everyone around Collins has to his behavior, which is even more complicated by the first-person filter of Collins’ own interpretation of their reactions.** With the film, we get to see the reality of the world around Collins. I suppose there’s some version of the film that hits Buñuelian notes and unreality constantly bleeds into reality - Thompson himself creates that sort of feel in several of his books where it’s hard to discern if what’s happening in the book is happening within its reality or if reality has come unmoored. (As I mentioned, Savage Night and The Getaway both have this quality by their endings, but there are even pieces of After Dark, My Sweet where I felt like “That can’t be real, can it? That’s too convenient, too strange, too grotesque.”)
Along with The Kill-Off and The Grifters, James Foley’s 1990 adaptation of After Dark, My Sweet came as part of a small boom of Thompson adaptations - I talk about this phenomenon a bit in my piece on The Grifters and as much as I like that film, I think After Dark, My Sweet does the better job of capturing Thompson. That’s surprising considering The Grifters doesn’t have the “first-person perspective problem” to deal with, keeps large chunks of dialog entirely unaltered and doesn’t change the setting. Foley flips his story from some indeterminate place (that they’re not “back West” or “out in California” is the closet we get to knowing where they are in Thompson's book) to dusty Southern California, loses all but a few pieces of the book’s defining narration and updates character names and dialog to make the words more smoothly interlock with a modern-setting.***
Plenty of dialog originally from the novel appears in the movie, but there’s unquestionably an effort to make sure the words square with coming out of the mouth of a mulleted and earring-clad Rocky Giordani better than what’s on the page would (what’s on the page generally would feel right coming out a young, broken-nosed Lawrence Tierney.) There are a few exchanges and phrases that feel a touch archaic appearing in the world of Foley’s film, but there’s no question he and co-screenwriter Robert Redlin made the decision to give the work an appropriately modern feel whenever possible. Hoods change, so the words need to change - there’s a deeper fidelity to Thompson’s work than slavish re-creation.
The same can be said for the change in setting. In the book, the vaguely evoked place where the story goes down exists as a fog because Collins rarely bothers to describe it in detail. Foley doesn’t have that option (not without pulling a Dogville or some nonsense) so he finds dusty, dingy locations that reflect the characters’ parched desperation. Instead of shacking up in a garage beside Faye’s house, Collins stays in a trailer plopped in the middle of a withered date-tree orchard, another one of her dead husband’s failed get-rich-quick schemes we’re told. It’s entirely invented by Foley, but it’s perfect. Same with Uncle Bud’s apartment being cloistered behind some sort of a Chinese sweatshop - rather than attempt to reproduce intentional vagueness of the novel, Foley finds locations with a specificity that feels true to Thompson.
Even the dustiness of the roads that Collins finds himself hitchhiking along adds a plausible and palpable griminess to the character that can be explained beyond “he’s a crazy person so he doesn’t know he looks like shit.” He looks the best he can considering the situation. One tumble to the turf and his pants are going to be dirty no matter his effort to make them presentable. He looks reasonable all things considered. And that leads us into the basic issue: what do you do about the gulf between Kid Collins and the world?
Foley, smartly, does the only thing that could work: he finds a great actor and gives him the space to act the hell out of the character. In preparation for a recent podcast appearance, I came across this quote by Neil Jordan about his film Mona Lisa, “But most of all I could see a film of a kind there is no generic name for, but for which there should be. A film that is indistinguishable from its central performance; the moods, light, perspectives, emotions of which are defined by the central character, George, played by Bob Hoskins.” Whatever that generic name should be, After Dark, My Sweet is that kind of film. After Dark, My Sweet is Jason Patric.
After a bit of credits and table-setting, the film settles into its first scene and Foley gives Patric an extended close-up which allows him to take command of the film. The gestures are minute but not subtle, they exist almost entirely within the actor’s eyes but create an expressive totality; Patric’s work is both small and massive in this close-up. He’s pitching his “crazy Jack Billingsley” story, getting goofed on for it and not appreciating it. Patric plays it so that we don’t need to be told there’s anything “off” about Collins, but gives plenty of weight to the ways in which he is mystifyingly, sometimes terrifyingly “on.” After this scene, any worries you might have about how the film will handle the challenges of adapting the novel evaporate. Patric can transform its meaning from prose into performance.
The older I get, that more that alchemy becomes to me the most beautiful aspect of cinema - sure, there are things Thompson’s novel can do that I’m just not sure could ever be done in a movie and Patric’s performance might be aesthetically, even philosophically, apart from Thompson’s work but it is still somehow spiritually identical. It contains something essentially cinematic that expresses in ways that are difficult to pinpoint and articulate the same gulf between character and reality. It helps that his director understands how to support his choices as a performer.
In a way, Foley lucks out by selecting a Thompson novel with a thuddingly straight-forward plot (and lacking the perverse digression that’s one of Thompson’s best and worst qualities.) The book is a quick read - I worked through it leisurely over the course of a single weekend both times I read it - very little happens in it. Despite being so short, the first third feels padded like Thompson isn’t in a hurry to get where he’s going because it won’t reach the required word-count if he just dives in to what he has to say. Classic pulp wheeling-spinning. But a lot of cinematic adaptations suffer from what they’re required to parse away from their stories, the adaptations of The Grifters or The Killer Inside Me are characterized by the decisions their filmmakers made on what to leave out - Sam Peckinpah’s version of The Getaway famously ends on a scene that occurs just before the novel takes its biggest, wildest turn.
But there’s almost nothing Foley is required to compress or elide, plot-wise, in getting After Dark, My Sweet up on the screen: a story that’s probably too thin for a novel is just perfect for a film. It’s an easy story to adapt. It’s a perfectly functional narrative engine and Foley can drop it directly in the chassis of his film. Because he doesn’t have to work to sort out the plot and keep it in motion, he can give more space to Patric’s performance - he can allow the film to focus on what Patric is doing as an actor; he can concentrate on using his direction to support Patric’s work, make his directorial choices give power and precision to what Patric is doing rather than simply keep the plot in gear.
For example, Foley and Patric divine the power and instability of Collins made material by the character’s hands: he killed a man in the ring with a series of bare-knuckles blows, his fists are the embodiment of his reason for being institutionalized and criminalized, but they are also the source of his prowess and authority; they are his misery and the reason anyone gives him respect. They are powerful and sensual: they deliver a vicious beating to the tough-guy bartender Bert who has a little fun at his expense, they hold Faye close when the pair dances at a dingy Mexican restaurant.
Foley gives Patric’s hands a series of lingering close-ups, focuses the audience’s attention on them so that later on when Patric makes a subtle show of them, we are sure to see them. When Collins is drawn by Uncle Bud and Fay**** into a half-baked kidnapping plot, the tension of his hands, of their protective and dangerous qualities is deeply felt. They cradle the purloined child’s head and are waved at him in a threat. They comfort. And they pummel. Many directors wouldn’t even notice what the fuck Patric is doing with his hands (when confronted by a friendly doctor late in the film, he clenches them for a split second while shifting subtly into a fighter’s stance) let alone find a way to support the performance - Foley knows when to go in for a steady, quiet close-up and when to allow space for them to be flung wildly around the frame.
Foley is most famous for directing Glengarry Glen Ross and I think he doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for being an actor’s director: his work in Glengarry, After Dark, My Sweet and At Close Range is unimpeachable in that regard.***** Part of the secret of any “actor’s director” is their deftness in casting: Bruce Dern as Uncle Bud is so perfect in the role, it’s no longer possible for me to picture anyone else when I read the book. As great as Patric is in the film, the book’s description of “Kid” Collins as a tall, muscular, insanely handsome sandy blonde has me thinking Burt Lancaster every time. With Dern, there’s your Uncle Bud right there, always and forever. And Uncle Bud might be Dern’s last truly great performance before he settled into the life of a character actor playing “Bruce Dern types.”
In the novel, Uncle Bud is a one-note chiseler, one of a few mediocre elements that keep the book from ranking among Thompson’s very best work. The novel’s Uncle Bud is a smiling liar, a cowardly lying crook who tries to glad-hand his way through every situation. He’s full of shit and not much else. Dern finds incredible variation in the ways in which Uncle Bud can be full of shit: self-pityingly, terrified, condescendingly, gregariously, jealously, cowardly, humorously, venomously, weaselly. It’s like watching a musician pick up an instrument and find every noise it can make, including the sound of its keys clapping down or banging it against a wall. It’s still not a great character, but like Patric with Collins, goddamn Dern acts the hell out of it. And he’s funny, too - funny without making a joke of things; there’s no higher degree of difficulty for an actor than that.
Beyond Patric and Dern, there aren’t a huge number of speaking roles in the film, so Foley takes a lot of care in filling them out. I mentioned muscle-shirt skell Rocky Giordani as Bert the bartender, but Burke Byrnes is also perfect as a wizened cop at the airport who ends having an outsized effect on the plot. And then there’s George Dickerson as “Doc Goldman.” Dickerson is best known for playing Detective Williams in Blue Velvet (Laura Dern’s character’s father who confirms that the ear in Jeffrey Beaumont’s paper-bag is a human ear) and his same natural parental authority deployed by Lynch in that film works perfectly in After Dark, My Sweet. A psychiatrist, Goldman meets Collins by chance at a diner and senses he’s in a bad spot. Doc tries to keep him away from Fay and from trouble, but (again as in Blue Velvet) Dickerson’s tranquil voice and preternatural calm mask his impotence at keeping the dangers of the world at bay.
Far less useful is Rachel Ward as Fay. She’s not a great actress under any circumstance****** and in all but one or two scenes she completely whiffs on the character. More than most crime writers and certainly all but a handful of filmmakers, Thompson understood drunkeness - few artists have ever diagnosed and depicted alcoholism (and shaky sobriety) better than Thompson. His crucial insight, which After Dark, My Sweet makes great use of, is how drunkeness alters morality along a sliding scale: when we’re drunk, we make decisions that we would never make while sober. We say things that we would never say. That does not mean in our soberness we are expressing our truest moral selves or that the cruel and capricious and weird things we say while drunk are untrue. It means that when we are drunk we are both ourselves and not ourselves - there is another gulf inside us, not the same gulf a potentially psychotic person like Kid Collins might experience, but a strange slip into blackouts and non-being, into being not who we are and more ourselves than ever.
Drunkeness looses the moral and psychological constraints that define us; in becoming drunk we lose our definition. Become an alcoholic and “lack of definition” becomes your definition. Now set “Kid” Collins on interpreting and understanding a woman like Faye who goes from acidic to tender, from amorous to ice cold, from neurotic to neutral, from vicious to frightened all according to the amount of gin in her. And have him deal with the fact that “less gin” does not equal “better person.” Is drunk or sober Faye better to have around to pull off the kidnapping? If she’s sober she might lose her nerve. If she’s drunk she might go too far and decide that something really vile is in her best interest. To pull the job, she needs to lose her moral and psychological constraints. But then you’re saddled with a woman with no moral boundaries. And if she’s thinking clearly, what could she possibly think about a man like Collie?
Rachel Ward brings zero percent of this to her character. The sunny, bland, deeply suburban Ward doesn’t have it in her, not as an actress, not as a type. It’s a shame but she holds the film back from reaching the level of the best Thompson adaptations, the French masterpieces Coup de torchon and Série noire.******* Foley and Ward make the decision to play Fay with very little ambiguity: you never get the slightest sense she’s capable of evil. Any time Collins gets the idea that her goodness might be a put-on (as the plot and the novel suggest) Ward’s performance does all it can to shut the idea down. They make her a wine drinker because Ward holding a rocks glass sloshed full of whiskey would be as incongruous as her holding a stick of dynamite. I sympathize with Foley’s decision to simplify the character: in scenes where Ward has to act drunk or express outrage, she’s an embarrassment. Ward, the actress, seems like a nice lady. Fay, the character, can’t get over it.
Unsurprisingly, Ward is at her best in the scenes where Collins is meant to buy into her as a decent human being. She’s good when Fay and Collins are supposed to be connecting - Patric and Ward have incredible chemistry during their sex scene, a great scene paced out slowly over a series of dissolves. It’s a rare sequence where Ward can simply “be” as a performer and you wish she had more opportunities in the film to simply exist onscreen without having to deal with complicated dialog that she doesn’t have the verbal dexterity to contend with. But in the book, her seduction of Collins sets up another ambiguous moment where it’s unclear whether or not she’s used sex to snooker him. Did she plot for him to get sleepy and relaxed and let his guard down so she could sneak off to do something truly despicable? Or is she telling the truth when she says the terrible thing that happened isn’t her fault? In the film, the ambiguity dissolves quickly, Fay is given another “I can’t believe you’d think something so terrible about me!” moment. It’s a character that’s written to have more cruelty, more meanness to it than Ward is capable of giving it.
In the film and the book, she’s introduced by sloppily insulting Collins, drunk at the bar. In this moment, Ward is wearing a floppy hat that’s startling for what a false note it is. She never feels like Faye.
But I think Foley and, especially Patric, end up using her simplistic take on Fay to their advantage. Ward’s Fay doesn’t belong in this movie and her presence perversely ends up creating a reasonable facsimile of the gulf between Collins and the world. We can see that Fay is nice, she’s ultimately good-hearted, what is she doing in a film like this? What’s the catch? Or we are in wrong? It’s ludicrous of Collins to suspect her, it’s ludicrous of us to suspect her. The only thing noir-ish about this woman is her Pinot.
But if that’s true, isn’t it just as ludicrous of him to think this nice woman with her floppy hats and stylish flip-flops and her tastefully bland bedsheets would ever be interested in an escaped lunatic? She wouldn’t love him. It couldn’t be true. All you can do is lay alone and cry because it turns out no one in this world needs you after all. Or maybe you go through with the kidnapping because the kid needs you in on it, needs your powerful mitts, your hardened knuckles to protect him from a guy like Uncle Bud who has double-crossed so many people that he’s always got someone coming after him with a switchblade even at the most inopportune times. Are you needed? Or is the plan always going to be to make you the fall guy? The fear of existence is that it doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t add up to anything.
Who needs you, anyway? Who needs this world? What good are you to it?
The quality that After Dark, My Sweet shares most acutely with Thompson’s novel is at the despair of existence, at the idea that for all of your work understanding life, understanding the people around you, trying to make sense of it, that it all adds up to nothing. That once you know the score, you know it’s zero. Like in Thompson’s best work, there’s a humor and energy to the idea, the notion that life is just a wicked joke played on the weakest and the saddest and the most foolish of us; foolish for wanting to no longer be weak and sad and unneeded, foolish for believing that if you know the set-up you won’t be the punchline. From the moment you see Jason Patric sit down at the bar, you know that if Kid Collins is going to be the punchline, it better be a hell of a joke.
I frowned, not realizing that I did. Just thinking so hard, you know. Thinking and hoping that things might really be like they looked. She frowned, too, a sort of shamed expression crossing her face, shamed and kind of doubtful. And then she smiled again.
~ FEBRUARY 6, 2018 ~
* Hell, it’s King’s Ransom, the last book I covered in this series and I didn’t even try to cover two similar novels in a row. Not that King’s Ransom and After Dark, My Sweet are similar. They’re not. One of the things that makes Jim Thompson one of the most interesting crime writers who ever lived is that his work has almost nothing in common with writers like Ed McBain. It’s like comparing a penny to a pound.
** When I think about the troubles of adapting After Dark, My Sweet, I also think about Charles Willeford’s The Pickup which relies on the same reader confusion where you’re asking yourself “why did those characters react that way?” With Willeford’s book, there’s no way to film it without a massive gimmick - the novel reveals crucial information in its last line that makes everything fall into place. It’s a trick played on the way audiences construct characters and process information in our minds that relies on both misdirection and exploiting ingrained biases. That in and of itself is a fairly cheap gimmick but Willeford only pulled that shit once so I can forgive it. At any rate, there’s no way to turn The Pickup into a film without fundamentally altering what the book is.
*** If you’ve read my piece on Frears’ film, you know one of its weirder aspects is how it updates its time-setting to “present day” 1990 but has everyone talk and act like they’re still in the somewhat indeterminate era of Jim Thompson’s book (written in 1963.) The novel spans what seems like a couple decades, stretching back to the depression era and then catching up with a lot of early-to-mid-50’s signifiers. There’s something that feels both right and weird about The Grifters screenwriter Donald Westlake’s decision to add a very 80’s Wall Street scam subplot but still have the time-setting ambiguously filled with those same 50’s signifiers and Depression—era slang.
**** This is changed from “Faye” in the novel. Like changing Collins’ first name to “Kevin,” I think these minor changes are intended to adjust for the modern setting: Kevin Collins and Fay Anderson sound more like people from 1990 than William Collins and Faye Anderson. It’s subtle, but I think that’s the idea.
***** Foley has got a thin and extremely spotty resume, but jesus, look at the high points! I think there’s something to be said in his favor for having directed the ridiculously weird cult classic Fear. [editor's note: please change this to "the wonderfully brilliant and brutally sexy cult classic Fear." ~ jbc.] I was just seeing what he was up to now and apparently he directed the Fifty Shades of Grey sequel… which only confirms that he’s intent on making it as hard as possible for me to make a case for his greatness.
****** I know next to nothing about Ward, but my guess would be model-turned-tv-actress. She has the worst qualities of both.
******* The film also has a very “of its era” score that does it no favors - it sounds like something that would’ve been laid over a Shannon Tweed erotic thriller or when Jim Wynorski was trying to get a little classy. It’s rote, but it’s not bad music by any stretch of the imagination, it just hasn’t aged well. Looking it up, I was flabbergasted (my flabber was utterly gasted) to find it’s by the legendary Maurice Jarre who scored Lawrence of Arabia, Eyes Without a Face and even Beyond Thunderdome! I’m not crazy about some of his most famous scores - and this is from the “jazzy synths” phase that capped off his career.