A Fearful Shadow Lies Constantly Over The Residents Of Uneasy Street. (Jim Thompson)

I worked in a basement in Baltic Street, North London, between Old Street & the Goswell Road, near the Barbican. It was an old building in a funky neighbourhood, a mix of residential & small businesses. I didn’t have to punch the clock, would say “Hi” to the people in the office & disappear underground for the day. I liked the job & I was good at it. I had my coffee maker, my boombox & I was surrounded by books.

The company imported American books not published in the UK. Don, English, & Beth, American, had, at first, brought in titles they & their friends liked. Plan B was to get hold of things that actually sold & they were getting better at doing that. We distributed a lot of  “New Age” thinking, snake-oil salesmen masquerading as gurus in the Age of Aquarius. Now I’m down with Madame Blavatsky & the Theosophists but in the mid-80s the madvice was changing from “smile more & be a better human” to “smile more & make a $1,000,000”. Yuppies eh ? “Quit putting a god damn dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!”. Bill Hicks & I agree on that one. Self-help ? Man, if I need a book to learn about myself & the world I reach for Dostoevsky, Philip K Dick, Bukowski, writers who I know know stuff about stuff.

My basement was the only place in town with a stack of  Charles Bukowski’s poetry books. “Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit”, ideal for lunchtime reading. We had the contract for City Lights too. A copy of “Howl”  in my pocket was more beatnik than that dumb beret I wore for a couple of weeks. We were in on a small company out of Berkeley California, Black Lizard books who were re-printing forgotten “hardboiled” fiction. The lurid, retro dime novel covers were an invitation & these short books, from the 1950s & 60s an introduction to David Goodis, Charles Willeford & a Great American writer, Jim Thompson.

I came to American crime fiction through Hollywood. I saw “The Big Sleep” (1946) & “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)  on TV, watching with my Dad. Humphrey Bogart’s world-weary, smart-mouthed tough guy detectives, Philip Marlowe & Sam Spade were as iconic to his generation as De Niro’s Travis Bickle was to mine. The films led me to the source, to Raymond Chandler & Dashiell Hammett, the twin towers of the genre, tight, “tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder” (Chandler), diamond-sharp dialogue. This pair elevated the genre from the pulp magazines & set the standard by which all crime/detective writers were measured.

I didn’t know at the time that many of the most affecting films of my youth were “film noir”. These post-war productions  presented a complex morality, heroes & anti-heroes familiar with life’s grey, shadowy areas. The books of the films by James M Cain (“The Postman Always Rings Twice”), Horace McCoy (“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”) & Cornell Woolrich (“Rear Window”), were marine-tough, Bogart-tough. Jim Thompson is a couple of steps beyond all those guys. Inside those garish covers his bleak, nihilistic world is a stab to the solar plexus with a Louisville Slugger. Stephen King wrote “the guy was absolutely over the top. Big Jim didn’t know the meaning of the word stop”. Once I got started I didn’t want to stop either.

 

Jim Thompson wrote over 30 novels, 5 in 1953 & again the following year. They were published as cheap, mass-market paperbacks & by the 1960s were mostly out-of-print. Born in 1906 in Oklahoma, his experiences of Prohibition in the 1920s & the Depression of the Thirties were high & wide & hard. His books feature drifters, grifters, convicts, con-men, stand-up broads & swell-looking dames. Everybody’s trying to get by, not everybody is doing the right thing. When trouble comes around inevitably the only way out involves more trouble.

 

I have no list of Thompson’s best books, his stories can be slight & it’s the characters who are memorable. These people are way past sociopathic. JT’s piquancy is to show their dark inner-world, twisted logic, desperation & downright badness. In “The Getaway” Doc McCoy is a killer, a bank robber, a man with a plan. Carl Bigelow (“Savage Night”) is a scuzzy, tubercular hitman who, like young bellhop Dusty Rhodes (“A Swell-Looking Babe”) thinks with a body part other than his brain. Then there’s Roy Dillon (“The Grifters”) the short-con operator whose relationship with his mother is wrong & shocking. These fractured felons, captured with an unflinching & wry realism, stay with you. I know what Jim Thompson would have made of  those 70s New Age yuppies…mincemeat.

 

Gratuitous pic of Jessica Alba from “The Killer Inside Me”.

Hollywood has adapted a number of Thompson’s books. In Sam Peckinpah’s “The Getaway” (1972) an ageing Steve McQueen takes a good shot at Doc but Ali MacGraw was nowhere near his sharp & shrewd wife Carol. His work has appealed to non-American directors. “Serie Noire” (1979) by Alain Corneau is a striking reworking of “A Hell of a Woman” while Stephen Frears’ “The Grifters” (1990) is an entertaining neo-noir but a little too glossy. It’s difficult to lasso Thompson’s spirit & engage a large audience. Michael Winterbottom’s film “The Killer Inside Me” (2010) has a starry cast in a story about a brutal psychopath, it opened in just 17 US theatres & was buried.

 

Further up this page I name-dropped 3 of my literary paragons. A reviewer actually termed the phrase “dime store Dostoevsky” to describe Thompson. Like Dick he was prolific, sometimes erratic but capable of unrivalled brilliance. Thompson’s portrayal of life in or near the economic & moral gutter matches Bukowski too. His insight & honesty places him in the company of all 3. Jim Thompson was not just a top crime/thriller writer, not only the most hard-boiled of the pulp pantheon but was, in my opinion, a Great American Novelist.

 

 

Jim Thompson (1906-1977)

 

 

 

We’re Not Addicted To Oil But Our Cars Are.

Way way back I had a provisional driving licence but I never got around to actually learning to drive. I delivered milk on a Sunday & surprisingly you were deemed capable of pointing a large electric vehicle in the right direction, on a real road, with no previous experience. My route took me out of town to a couple of villages & it was a good thing that the float knew the way because at 6 a.m. on a Sunday I was likely to be asleep at the wheel. My girlfriend lived in one of these burgs. She taught Sunday School at the church (Really !), I would give her & some of the kids a mild ride in my 3-wheeled wagon. I’m guessing that this would be frowned upon by the dairy & possibly against the law. I liked the job, every day I got the wheels, the empty glass bottles & myself back unscathed was quite a big deal.

Any road up, my family didn’t own a car until after I left home. Dad used the redundancy money he received when his “job for life” became economically unviable. He later upgraded with the compensation he got for the occupational lung disease which killed him before he was 70…the working life eh ? I spent the next 30 years living in cities & joined the twice-daily commotion of rush hour commuter confusion. This metropolitan mayhem got old fast but the more private alternative to public transport seemed no more attractive, all of us, being driven on the bus or driving themselves were in the same dreary boat.Of course I knew people who were car owners, good folk who were kind enough to allow me to accompany them on their journeys. More than that, in fact I gave up my virginity to a lovely young woman in the back of a friend’s Ford Cortina estate. Thanks for the loan Dave.

 

 

Yeah ! Like Iggy, I am the Passenger. Happy to be riding shotgun & never interfering because I have no idea or opinion about what goes on after the turning of the key. Instead I try & be the best fellow traveller around. I can read a map, select a killer playlist, talk up a storm to keep you awake or just shut up, take care of the catering & roll up a doobie in the dark. Let’s see your sat-nav do that. This  combination of Jeeves & Dr Gonzo seems to be what is desirable from the ideal passenger…maybe it’s the company I keep. I’ve been the minder/muscle on cocaine deliveries, the guy who threatened to kill me in a Tesco car park in Leeds put me off that game. I love treks across continental Europe because it’s an rare opportunity  to experience the driver’s eye view of the road. Sacre Bleu ! No wonder I don’t drive.

 

“The more you drive, the less intelligent you are”, says Miller in “Repo Man” (1984). Now Miller is an acid-fried hippie burn out but some of my best friends are a little…well, y’know & I’m not about to take the risk that he may be right. Have you seen those men-but-still boys who present “Top Gear” ? Makes you think. My friend Martin, one of the most considerate & insouciant humans I know, undergoes a Hulkian transformation when he’s behind a wheel. I am always shocked by this when I travel with him. I can bore for Britain on many subjects but I am excluded from the “what do you drive ?” petrolhead small talk. I get to  walk away from any discussion anywhere about shock absorbers, spark plugs, the best way to negotiate every town’s one-way system & that’s the way I like it.

 

.

 

The infernal combustion engine, that’s some invention. Congesting our towns & cities, a 6-lane network of  concrete & tarmac imposed in the name of progress across any bucolic bailiwick. Urban public transport is left to the lumpen while the beautiful National Railway Museum in York is a poignant memorial to a superannuated technology. The automobile won. Henry Ford’s assembly line aimed to put the world on wheels & mass production is pointless without mass consumption & that’s the only reason you own all this crap that your grandparents never had. Cars are still sold with ridiculous associations to “freedom” & “individuality”, constructs that have no relation to the stuff you buy so fuck that noise. The primacy of the car has made the Western world dependant on a cheap, plentiful supply of gasoline…that’s working out well !

 

 

Unlike the Buzzcocks I don’t hate cars, fast of otherwise. I quite like the red ones ! My boss would give me a lift home in his Rolls Royce. You were probably a gangster if you drove a Roller through the city’s ripped backsides of the Old Kent Road & I made sure that my street knew we were coming. I just never got around to learning how to use  them & they seemed to take up to much time, energy & money. I enjoy walking, I talk about the terrible weather to the old ladies at the bus stop, try to put them right about their casual racism & this July I get my free bus pass so that’s it for me then.

 

It’s probably a little ingenuous (who me ?) that I am still gratified when someone turns up in their motor to run me about. It has never been an everyday thing & I would never impose on a friend to provide a free taxi service. What’s today…Friday ? I was in a car on Tuesday & it’s a possibility that I will be again over the weekend…what a life I lead ! I now live in an industrial town surrounded by villages undisturbed since the Viking incursion. My nephew Dan & I get mobile & explore market towns stranded by the Industrial Revolution, picnic in the rolling Wolds, visit an undeveloped perfect beach or make a 30 mile round trip for the best ice cream in the county. I’m the guy being driven around, head out of the window like a puppy, expecting good things around each corner. We make a good team, there’s a division of labour going on. Dan likes to drive & I am very happy being the Passenger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Are What You Eat (Comedy Cannibalism)

In 1975 Paul Bartel directed a film for Roger Corman’s company New World Pictures America’s premier manufactory of low-budget exploitation flicks. “Death Race 2000” was made to cash in on the popularity of “Rollerball” the future-sports hit of the year. A zero stars review from critic Roger Ebert obviously helped & the film became a cult classic, a midnight movie mainstay, a comic book & a Criterion Collection Blu-ray Deluxe Edition. Ebert later changed his tune too, noting that “Death Race 2000” had a  “summer exploitation mentality in a clever way”.

The next year he made another Carmaggedon movie with the same star, David Carradine. It would be 6 years before his next film was released. Bartel, an actor/writer/director had always operated on the edges of the mainstream but “Eating Raoul” was going to be a hard sell to any Hollywood studio. It was made for just $350,000, a laugh out loud, choke on your popcorn movie, one of the best comedies of the early 80s & I’ve seen “Cannonball Run II”.

 

 

Paul & Mary Bland (Bartel & the wonderful former Warhol actress Mary Woronov) live a Fabulous Fifties, Dick Van Dyke/Mary Tyler Moore (ask your grandparents) life, dreaming of having their own restaurant while a wave of Los Angelean squalor breaks on the door of their apartment. The Blands (geddit ?) murder a swinger who gets too close, discovering an extreme but effective solution to the shortfall between their income & their aspirations. With the help of Doris the Dominatrix they infiltrate the “lifestyle”, knocking off rich perverts & trousering the dosh. Raoul finds a stiff while burgling the apartment & helps the pair maximise the profits of their operation. When this menage gets a little too hot & sweaty something, that would be Raoul, has to give. The Blands have an important dinner that very night & the only meat in the house is…Well, “Bon Appetit”, which is the name of the restaurant they open.

 

“Eating Raoul” is a rush of a movie, it’s short (84 minutes) & the Blands are rather sweet. The irony of the behaviour of these transgressive suburbanites as they pursue the American Dream is played as straight as a John Waters film. Meanwhile a parade of passing perverts (including Buck Henry, Ed Begley Jr, Gary Goodrow & others I should know) go for the gag as if they are being directed by Mel Brooks. If I give too much of the story away then I apologise. It is the archness, the gusto of the film, which makes it a great black comedy.

 

 

So, I like a cannibal movie. The Italian exploitation “Mondo” films peaked around 1980. Titles like “Zombie Holocaust” & “We’re Going To Eat You” guaranteed buckets of blood & flesh-eating fun. “Ravenous” (1999) , “Trouble Every Day” (2001)  & the Hannibal Lecter series are more modern takes on the tasty taboo. My preference is to laugh along at such violations of the verboten. I know, that’s not funny that’s sick but I do find people eating other people amusing. C’mon, it’s only a movie.

 

“Parents” (1989) is set in the 1950s suburbs that the Blands had emerged from. Nick & Lily Laemle (Randy Quaid & Mary Beth Hurt) are living the Dream but their son Michael is troubled by sanguinary nightmares & by the provenance of the “leftovers” served at every evening meal. Michael has an active imagination but his worst fears are confirmed. Only bad things can happen to anthropophagites & they do. First time director Bob Balaban, a notable actor in “Catch 22”, “Close Encounters…” & plenty since, oversees a sharp comedy/horror blend & Quaid is a perfect mix of  the straight & harrow. I mean that crazy kid must be crazy, right ? Ms Hurt…well she could be Mrs Reagan. Back to Ebert who said the movie was “depressing” & “depraved”, a “creepy bad time”. The New York Times wrote that “Parents” was best enjoyed on video in a “mindless, undemanding mood”…back then that would possibly be me.

 

In 1986 director David Lynch’s thrilling thriller “Blue Velvet” had penetrated the thin veneer of small town respectability with precision. In the 1980s not everything, in Hollywood or America, had to be of such quality. This was the decade when the President was a B-movie actor. “Parents” & “Society”, an accomplished horror film made in the same year, are both resourceful, low-budget, genre riffs on the idea that the suburban silent majority, with one of their own back in the White House, perhaps had something less wholesome on the menu.

 

 

Now “Delicatessen” (1991) is a whole different cup of meat. It is the debut feature film by director/writer team Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, award winning French animators. Set in a fantasy world where food is scarce & morality sparse the butcher/landlord of a crumbling apartment block keeps his deli stocked & his tenants fed with choice cuts from itinerants employed as handymen. The latest candidate/victim, Louison, an unemployed circus clown played by the elastic-featured Dominique Pinon, charms this eccentric community, particularly the butcher’s daughter. Will Love, assisted by “Les Troglodistes”, an underground vegetarian group, triumph over the desire for a nice plate of charcuterie ?

 

“Delicatessen” is a wonder of a film, each imaginative frame packed with detail & atmosphere. The storytelling is graceful & charming. Like Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” only on the poor side of town, Delicatessen’s technology had swerved the transistor, contraptions of Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson complexity & resourcefulness mirror the inspired surrealism of a terrific, category defying piece of cinema. This clip, a montage of synchronicity within the house, was used as a trailer for the film. It would be a struggle to nail the essence of “Delicatessen” in just 90 seconds. Jeunet & Caro collaborated on “City of Lost Children” before Jean-Pierre went to Hollywood for “Alien Resurrection” then to international acclaim for “Amelie”. I really do enjoy all of his films, even the slight “Micmacs”. If though you prefer to chew on something more substantial then get your teeth into “Delicatessen”.