Thompson, Jim


Thompson, Jim
(1906–1977)
   The man who worked with STANLEY KUBRICK on the screenplays of THE KILLING and PATHS OF GLORY is the legendary author of many acclaimed “hard-boiled” crime novels of the 1950s and 1960s. With Mickey Spillane, Thompson most exemplified the paranoia and incipient violence of America’s immediate postwar years. The petty crooks, corrupt law officers, small-town dropouts of his crime noir paperback novels represented the underside of American life on the margins of society.
   He was born on September 27, 1906, in Anadarko, Oklahoma. His father was “Big Jim” Thompson, the sheriff of Caddo County in Oklahoma, who regaled his son with wild tales of territorial misdeeds and lawlessness. But Big Jim was guilty of graft and corruption, and he fled the town and his family just ahead of imprisonment. The powerful, charismatic lawman who was also an unstable criminal became a model for many of the characters to come in novelist Thompson’s books.
   After leaving the University of Nebraska, young Jim married early and worked at a variety of jobs to support his wife and three children. During the 1930s he was appointed director of the Oklahoma Writers Project. After the financial failure of his first two novels, Now and on Earth (1942) and Heed the Thunder (1946), the 43-year-old Thompson published his breakthrough work, Nothing More than Murder (1949), the first of the noteworthy paperback originals he wrote in the early 1950s.
   His novel The Killer Inside Me (1952)—a portrait of the mental disintegration of a small-town sheriff with a lust for murder—came to the attention of Stanley Kubrick, who pronounced it as “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered. ” Thompson went to work for Kubrick, adapting Lionel White’s novel CLEAN BREAK. Retitled The Killing, it was Thompson’s first screenplay, although he was credited only with “additional dialogue. ” For Paths of Glory, he received coscreenwriting credit with Kubrick and CALDER WILLINGHAM. After that, while battling alcoholism,Thompson wrote television scripts, short stories, and more crime novels (his last novel was King Blood in 1973) until his death from several strokes on April 7, 1977. His fiction has been adapted to the screen by Sam Peckinpah (The Getaway, 1972), Stephen Frears (The Grifters, 1990), and James Foley (After Dark, My Sweet, 1990). “Thompson’s slippery, self-reflexive novels begin with the appearance of integration and order,” writes biographer Robert Polito, “then chart a descent into madness and extinction. ” In his study of Thompson, Charles L. P. Silet declares, “Thompson depicted a fictional world of unrelieved rage and self-destructiveness, full of sadomasochistic relationships, that erupts into outbursts of staggering violence. . . . Such savage extravagance gives Thompson’s writing a hard edge missing from much other crime noir, and it signaled a shift in fictional tone that came to mark the noir writing after him. ” Biographer Polito succinctly characterizes the experience of reading a Thompson story: “Reading a Thompson novel is like being trapped in a bomb shelter with a chatty maniac who also happens to be the air-raid warden. ”
   References
   ■ Polito, Robert, Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson (New York: Vintage Books, 1995);
   ■ Silet, Charles L. P. , “Crime Noir,” in Robin Winks, ed. , Mystery & Suspense Writers, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998), 1009–1028.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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