The Ending of The Getaway by Jim Thompson

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Back in the 80’s the Black Lizard/Vintage editions of Jim Thompson’s books were the most consistent sign of the Thompson revival. I like the black and white photos used for covers, and in the case of THE GETAWAY in particular. The picture helped wipe away the image of the story as a Steve McQueen flick. It’s not a terrible movie, but like THE KILLER ELITE, it’s neutered Sam Peckinpah, not the straight stuff like THE WILD BUNCH or BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA.

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Later, the Alex Baldwin/Kim Bassinger adaptation had me apologizing to the spirits of McQueen and Bloody Sam. It’s slick and flashy and you forget it the second it’s over. And of course they skip the best part.

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If Baldwin and James Woods switched roles, this might’ve been something.

As with SAVAGE NIGHT, the highlight of THE GETAWAY is the ending; as with Matheson’s I AM LEGEND, the best part of the book hasn’t made it to the screen. In it, Doc McCoy and his wife Carol have escaped the cops and their crooked ex-partner, and end up in a hideaway in Mexico. The movie skips over the parts that wouldn’t work with McQueen, such as his killing of an innocent driver. Doc McCoy would bump off a guy just because it was convenient for him; Steve wouldn’t.

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The movie, scripted by Walter Hill (THE WARRIORS), has Doc and Carol tumbling out of a trash container and stumbling around a little. The movie’s corny “We’re criminals, but HOLLYWOOD criminals” view of the pair means they’ll somehow make it work, those crazy kids.By Hollywood standards this is radical, I guess.

That’s not how the book ends.

Thompson goes off into loopy extremes. See, Doc paid to be hidden in Mexico, and he and Carol end up in a kind of Bad People Town. They have gotten away with the loot from a bank heist, but that money’s going to be used to finance their stay in a town peopled by criminals on the lam. The money’s going to go to room and board, and the peculiar meat churned out nearby.

The meat is made of folks whose money finally runs out. Doc and Carol know they can’t trust each other, but they’re also stuck with each other, at least until they end up smoked and between slices of bread.

Now, why didn’t they use that ending in the movies?!

This is the real madness of Thompson’s work, this grotesque stuff that’s like a horror mold that’s consuming the final pages of a straight crime novel. Thompson’s surreal/horror streak doesn’t get as much notice from critics, but it’s responsible for much of the madness in his books.

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Dames’re Funny Machines:BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL by Elliott Chaze

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The cover artist seems to think our evil heroine is working for the French Resistance.

Our hero is just out of the big house and our heroine is an ex-prostitute he met on the job (hers). They’re of the James M. Cain “We’re both rotten, we belong together” school of sexy criminals who can’t keep their hands off each other and everyone else wishes they were him or her, but they can’t be satisfied with that so they pull a crime that leads to disaster. Where would noir/hardboiled be without ’em?

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Take two

Barry Gifford can’t seem to write about books without name-dropping; his list of great books in one of his collections is mostly stuff like, “I was walking in Times Square with David Lynch this one time and we were talking about film noir,” but he has written about a lot of good books and movies, so I can’t hate him. He did more in this case–half the intro to the NYRB edition of this is him telling you all about it–and helped get this back into print.

While it takes a little long getting where it’s going for my modern temperament, BWHMA is a terrific, bleak crime story that deserves more readers. You like Thompson, Willeford, Cain? You need to read this. There’s the self-destructive couple who can’t stay away from each other out of Cain, the narrator’s a self-pitying criminal who has a great deal of insight about himself out of Willeford, and a climax that lurches toward surrealism in the manner of some of Thompson’s crazier books like THE GETAWAY.

The key to this kind of book is The Dame. Chaze excels in his depiction of Virginia, though she is a creation of the era, too: She looks awesome, she loves sex, and she’s Evil, and that’s pretty much the male noir fantasy woman. Chaze gets away with it because, as is the case so often with fine writing, it’s as much what he comes up with as what he leaves out that makes his characters stick. Knowing too much about Virginia would spoil the suspense about her ultimate plans.

They almost made a movie of this a few years back. I’m glad they didn’t. This was the casting:

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Eh, Absolutely Not, and There Are No Perverted Short People in This, casting for Savage Night is down the hall.

Virginia comes off a lot like Ann Savage in DETOUR.

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I’ll do anything you say, just stop looking at me.

My casting for Virginia would’ve been Peggy Knudsen, particularly how she looked in THE STOLEN LIFE:

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Looks good, has a wise mouth, is evil… HIRED!

Our hero thinks a lot about the crime, before and after they pull it off, and Chaze comes up with a beautiful noir image, the sort of thing the French Siere Noire crowd got all sweaty about: a seemingly bottomless pit, part of an abandoned mining site, into which evidence of the crime is dumped. It’s out there, tugging at the characters’ thoughts, an actual void into which they fear falling but to which they’re drawn. The Existential Hardboiled Void, if you can boil a void.

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While acting like regular suburbanites before the big caper, our hero wears a suit and acts all respectable. Our whore-with-a-heart-of-bitcoin plays the good wife as long as she can (about three seconds) before turning the garden hose on the suit while our hero is wearing it.

Then she says this:

“I can stand anything in the book but gentlemen. Because I’ve spent a lot of time, too much time with them, and I know why gentlemen are what they are. They decide to be that way after they’ve tried all the real things and flopped at them. They’ve flopped at women. They’ve flopped at standing up on their hind legs and acting like men… They’ve flopped at being individuals. So they say to themselves one fine morning: ‘What can I be that’s no trouble at all and that doesn’t amount to a damned thing, but yet will make everyone look up to me?’ The answer’s simple. Be a gentleman. Take life flat on your back, cry in private, and then in a well-modulated voice… A gentleman is a door mat with all the scratch gone from it.”

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That’s why people are villains in hardboiled stories, and why readers like me love books like this.