Published in 1952, The Killer Inside Me marked Jim Thompson’s bold return to fiction after a brief stint working as a journalist.
Thompson’s third novel in the Noir Crime genre, The Killer Inside Me expanded the scope of his previous titles (Heed The Thunder, 1946) (Nothing More Than Murder, 1949) by embedding a medically defined psychological component throughout its first person narrative.
Not unlike his other work, semi-autobiographical details are sprinkled throughout the text, although never with the factual earnestness of Now and On Earth (1942). Instead, The Killer Inside Me contains inventive fictionalizations of Thompson’s real world experiences.
In the novel, the narrator’s father was a former Sheriff. In reality, Thompson’s father held the Sheriff’s post in their small Oklahoma town.
Chester Conway, one of the novel’s chief antagonists, is an oil tycoon in the middle of a Mayoral campaign. In real life, Thompson’s father was also (briefly) a successful oilman who ran for State Senate in the early 1900’s, but ultimately failed to get elected.
And it’s not a stretch to speculate the colorful minor characters that populate The Killer Inside Me are based on the shady clientele of the “Hotel Texas”, the Fort Worth establisment where Thompson worked as a teenage bellboy during prohibition.
Although only moderately successful upon initial publication, the book was the catalyst for his most fertile decade as a novelist.
After releasing The Killer Inside Me in 1952, Thompson went on to publish fifteen more novels before the 1950’s came to a close—including five novels in 1953 alone.
This highly prolific period included two of Thompson’s best known books, After Dark, My Sweet (1955) and The Getaway (1958), both of which were later adapted into major motion pictures.
Table of Contents
‘The Killer Inside Me’: Synopsis
The novel tells the story of Lou Ford, a Deputy Sheriff in the small Texas town where he grew up. Despite his stature in the community, we quickly learn that Ford is not who he pretends to be. In fact, he couldn’t be more different.
Although highly intelligent, Ford portrays himself as a mild-mannered, kindhearted fool. This is not an accident, nor is it the result of circumstance. Ford makes a conscious effort to play this role, to the point where he purposely speaks in the most boring manner possible, an attempt to frustrate and annoy his often captive audience.
These multi-faceted deceptions are not simply for his own entertainment: Lou Ford has a secret. A perverse compulsion emanating from his childhood that he often finds difficult to ignore.
Presenting himself as a simplistic rube is a camouflage that has worked well for him so far. But competing interests in the town’s social and political landscapes soon put Ford at the center of a conflict that triggers the return of his “sickness.”
As his public-facing veneer begins to crack, so too does Ford’s ability to control these sinister urges.
Narrated entirely in the first person, The Killer Inside Me is not just a diary, it’s a confession. As the story unfolds, Ford is both blunt in his admissions of brutality and glib in his perception of the consequences.
Bodies pile up. Evidence mounts. Options for escape become limited. And yet throughout his calculated rampage, Ford seems to oscillate between opposing positions: anger and fear, confidence and doubt, indifference and remorse.
These contradictions are key to both the intellectual depth of the narrative and its realistic depiction of sociopathic behaviour. Even as his fate becomes obvious to the reader, Ford’s jail-house musings remain focused on evading prosecution. Consider this passage:
“No one had pushed me around or even tried to question me since the morning they’d locked me up. No one, at all. And I’d tried to tell myself that was a good sign. They didn’t have any evidence; I’d got their goats, so they’d put me on ice, just like they’d done with plenty of other guys. And pretty soon they’d simmer down and let me go of their own accord, or Billy Boy Walker’d show up and they’d have to let me out…that’s what I’d told myself and it made sense—all my reasoning does.”
The most impressive aspect of the novel is Thompson’s ability to express the killer’s point of view in strangely rational tones. There are occasions when as readers, we almost sympathize with Lou. We relate to how he feels despite the horror of his actions. We even come to dislike his perceived enemies and actual rivals. Perhaps more disturbingly, Ford’s lack of remorse after a murder seems to interfere with our own ability to feel empathy for the victim.
In this regard, the novel’s title acquires a deeper meaning. The Killer Inside Me is really about the killer that lives inside all of us, given the right set of circumstances.
Book vs. Movie: ‘The Killer Inside Me’
Released in 1976, the film starred Stacy Keach as Lou Ford, along with Susan Tyrell, Tisha Sterling, Keenan Wynn and Don Stroud in supporting roles.
The novel was also adapted for the screen in 2010 by Michael Winterbottom. This article primarily discusses the 1976 version, but you can skip to a review of the 2010 version here.
The 1976 film moves the setting from Texas to Montana and also swaps the oil fields for a strip mine. After an aerial shot and Keach’s brief first person monologue, the movie deftly foregrounds both the time of year and the town’s tenuous socio-political dynamics. We learn the story occurs during a heat wave, on the cusp of a miner’s strike, in the middle of a Mayoral election.
Two brief scenes also illustrate the tension between Lou and the town’s opposing mayoral candidates: Chester Conway (Keenan Wynn), rich businessman and political power broker, and Howard Hendricks (Charles McGraw), the District Attorney. Without knowing why, we know that Lou Ford is in some way beholden to both these men at once.
Lastly, we see a pile of books in the backseat of Ford’s police car. Right away, the film is telling us that Lou is smarter than he looks.
In short, the first act establishes tension, stakes, temporality and power dynamics. This wealth of information is transmitted to the audience in the first seven minutes of the film. In terms of storytelling, the first act is well-structured and efficient.
The first act also provides us with an interesting counterpoint in relation to the novel.
In the book version, the extent to which we know what’s happening in town relies on Lou’s subjective decision to tell us about it. Compounding the reliability of his narration is the fact that he’s already told us he’s a liar, that he likes to bore people with long dull stories full of tired cliches.
At the outset of the film, however, the way the town is depicted seems objectively true. Lou Ford appears to be involved in these events simply as a result of his professional duties.
For a brief and fleeting moment, the film suggests a classic Film Noir trope: through no fault of his own, the Noir hero is reluctantly drawn into a world of crime.
The 1976 Film Is A Mess
Despite this promising beginning, our hopes are quickly dashed. The second act’s flaccid nature confirms that anything compelling in the film’s first twenty minutes were accidents at best.
The mundane atmosphere becomes repetitive and boring. There is simply nothing “Noir” about the world of this film.
Hardly anything takes place at night. The weather is always beautiful. The score, sound design, and directorial pace are all akin to that of a Western or perhaps a rural melodrama, certainly not a 1970’s Neo-Noir as the film was billed.
The only discernible Film Noir techniques are about a dozen shots of Lou Ford’s face, often gazing through his blinds or partially obscured in darkness. Expressionistic use of angle, shadow and framing are virtually non-existent.
None of this comes as a surprise when one considers that director Burt Kennedy was known primarily for Westerns, including films like The War Wagon (1967), Welcome to Hard Times (1967) and Young Billy Young (1969).
Other problems become apparent during the film’s second half.
Although the film opens with a voice-over, instances of Ford’s narration gradually lessen, until vanishing completely in the final act. As the frequency of voice-over decreases, the number of intrusive thoughts and traumatic flashbacks increase correspondingly.
The problem here relates to narrative perspective. The voice-over that opens the film suggests Ford is telling us his story. But the intrusive thoughts and flashbacks are not “told” in his voice. As audience members, we WATCH him watch his own flashbacks, often while he’s gazing out the window.
There are also several scenes in which Ford is not physically present. Once again, if Ford is the narrator, the only way he could be telling us about scenes in which he’s not present is if he’s telling us his story in the past tense.
The past tense would be fine, except Ford DIES at the end of the movie. So—the only way anything in this movie makes sense is if Ford is telling us his story from the afterlife.
Sure, this narrative perspective worked fine in films like American Beauty (1999) and probably at least one movie starring Matt Damon. But this is NOIR. There’s no heaven in Noir. Especially not for guys like Lou Ford.
Another problem that becomes unbearable are the obvious references to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Ford’s memories of his mother (who we assume molested him as a boy), are presented in black and white, with horror movie music suddenly present in the background. The way her voice intrudes his thoughts and even tells him what to do is also very reminiscent of Norman Bates.
The ending holds the final glaring issue.
In the novel, Ford is suspected of his crimes much earlier in the story. He’s arrested, sent to a mental institution, released on bail and then placed on house arrest while he waits for trial. Ford tries one last time to cover his tracks, then makes plans to flee. After all that happens, we finally arrive at his house for the stand-off with police.
In the film, Ford becomes a suspect with roughly fifteen minutes left until the credits roll. He doesn’t try to set the house on fire. You don’t see him writing a letter or any kind of confessional, which once again invokes problems with narrative perspective.
Most importantly, the film does not make it explicitly clear to the audience that Joyce (Susan Tyrrell) is still alive. The way she is presented in the police car is ambiguous. She may be Ford’s hallucination, she might even be a ghost.
While these are interesting ideas, the aesthetic of either scenario completely contradicts the conventions of the genre, the novel, and the previous ninety minutes of the film itself.
Does The 1976 Film Have Any Redeeming Qualities?
In the novel, Ford seems unnaturally aware of the complexities of his own disorder. He diagnoses himself, he identifies root causes stemming his childhood, he even invents an elaborate persona to hide his true self from the world. While this makes for an entertaining book, it does not represent the nature of paranoid schizophrenia.
If Lou had the cognitive ability to be that mindful of his behaviour, logic dictates he could stop himself from killing people too.
While such contradictions may have been difficult for Thompson to avoid when composing a first person narrative, the film lacks these problems with verisimilitude. Lou is depicted as a sick man struggling with a disorder that he’s unable to control. A man who, in the end, succumbs to his true nature.
The novel also lacks an adequate degree of ambiguity for us to view Lou Ford as a true Noir hero. Even at the outset, he knows (and we know) that his actions are wrong.
In Albert Camus’s The Stranger (1942), we aren’t exactly sure if Mersault is truly guilty. Crucially, neither is he.
In J.M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1936), the respective narrators never stop to analyze their own psychologies. They don’t research their own mental health conditions, or consider how to go about hiding said conditions from the world. These narrators simply commit their transgressions because their eventual predicaments demand some kind of action, for better or for worse.
In other words, while the 1976 adaptation is by no means a perfect movie, The Killer Inside Me is not a perfect novel either.
‘The Killer Inside Me’ (2010) Review: Casey Affleck Wears A Big Hat
The first thing we notice about Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 rendition is that everyone is far too clean and handsome. Immediately, it’s clear what we are watching possesses overwhelming commercial intent.
We also note a deviation from the source material in the way that Ford is first presented. In the novel, and the 1976 film, we are initially led to believe that things are going pretty well for Lou. This starting point gives the story somewhere to go.
But in the 2010 film, Ford’s creepy BDSM scene with local prostitute Joyce Lakeland occurs very early in the first act, completely flattening his potential character arc. You can’t spiral downwards if you are down there to begin with.
The truth is that Casey Affleck was simply the wrong choice to play Lou Ford.
I realize that 2010 was in the Casey Affleck heyday, but that’s really no excuse. This movie was never going to achieve pop culture notoriety regardless of its casting, so why not choose a lesser known actor—one who’s actually talented?
Not to beat up on Affleck, but he’s too boyish, too baby-faced and too soft spoken. He’s not charming in the way we understand psychopaths to be. Are we supposed to believe that Affleck’s Lou Ford has fooled this entire town for his entire life? That he’s really capable of masterminding a murderous conspiracy?
At no point does Affleck convince us he could possibly conceal a single murder, let alone the vast degree of criminality outlined in the novel. Not only does he lack the charm and wit to avoid detection, his demeanor alone would result in his immediate arrest.
The title also suggests a story that explores duality. After all, it’s The Killer INSIDE Me, right?
But Affleck lacks the acting chops to bring this quality to life. With his skeevy-mumbled-softly-drawled-performance, the killer always seems to be on the OUTSIDE.
It’s only in the film’s final moments when Affleck wills himself to muster something that resembles Thompson’s Lou Ford, but I suspect most viewers lose interest long before those scenes occur.
One saving grace is that the costume design and cinematography seem closer to what the novel intended than that of the 1976 version.
Unfortunately, these components are drowned out by a truly awful musical score, which often implies a comic, vaudevillian aesthetic. At times, we almost expect The Three Stooges to chase each other down the street.
The Winterbottom film may stick to the basic details of the novel, but it fails to render its depth, spirit or atmosphere. The introspective quality that makes the novel so compelling is simply missing.
In the novel, we are side by side with Lou as he interrogates his own psychology. But in the 2010 film, even despite instances of voice-over narration, Lou seems to have no interiority at all. We only learn about him through the actions and reactions of other characters.
Winterbottom’s decisions around violence only adds to this sense of lack.
In the novel, Lou’s actions are brutal because we never see them coming. In the 2010 film, however, we spot those brutal moments coming from a million miles away. In fact, this violence is so overwrought and cringe-worthy, we almost wonder if the director is driven by some kind of secret perverse fetish.
The socioeconomic component that Thompson presented in the novel is also completely omitted from the 2010 film. There’s no commentary about corruption, no metaphor for corporate capture, no allegory for the harms of de-industrialization. And there’s nothing besides boots, hats and dust to tell us we’re in Texas.
But the most offensive thing about the Winterbottom film is the way it treats Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba). Screenwriter John Curran deserves some blame in this regard as well.
Alba’s Lakeland seems to love being a prostitute. She also seems to enjoy getting the shit kicked out of her. She’s too docile, too appealing. She lacks agency. Most importantly, she lacks rage.
In the novel, and even the 1976 film, Lou’s relationship with Joyce is more complex. Mirroring his mental disorder, there is both push and pull, attraction and repulsion. Ford is drawn to Joyce and yet disgusted by her at the same time.
Furthermore, in the novel, Joyce is ultimately Lou’s nemesis. She gets fucked by him, but in the end, she fucks him right back. As Lou Ford burns, he knows it was Joyce who lit the match.
But Curran and Winterbottom turn this rich dynamic into a wet fart.
As their expensive debacle reaches its merciful conclusion, we are left to wonder wonder what might have been. What if the score had been composed by Nick Cave or Angelo Badalamenti? What if a director who actually understands the genre had been attached to the project?
Someone like Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here), Tom Ford (Nocturnal Animals) or Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective, S1) could have saved me about a thousand words, the studio about nine million dollars, and you, the viewer, one hour and forty-nine minutes of your life.
Analysis: What’s ‘The Killer Inside Me’ Really About?
Due to the shortcomings outlined above, I think it’s best to avoid any retroactive psychological analysis of these texts.
Each version make it possible to conceive Lou Ford as a product of his environment. His mistreatment within the family unit mirrors the same dynamic in the power structure that dominates the community, while also highlighting the lack of economic opportunity in the broader landscape of the State.
Unchecked corporate capture is running rampant. A shady businessman is on the verge of consolidating power by rigging the municipal election. The only jobs available to local men require back breaking manual labour in the oil fields of the strip mines. The most economically successful character in any of the texts is a prostitute who succeeds in extorting one man in order to blackmail another.
Faced with such limited options, Ford has no real choice but to follow in his father’s footsteps. The end result was that he became more like his father in a psychological respect as well.
While a Marxist reading of these texts may sound outlandish to some, one should keep in mind that Jim Thompson was an oil worker during the Great Depression, and also flirted with organized communism in the early 1940’s.
Thus the notion that The Killer Inside Me is strictly a primitive, fictional case study of a person with a psychological disorder seems unlikely.
Moreover, to claim the story as nothing more than an homage to Albert Camus is short sighted.
That type of reductive criticism is akin to interpreting American Psycho (1991) as a novel that is simply preoccupied with brutal sex and violence, and not a certain type of capitalism.
Although it’s not explicitly stated, I think The Killer Inside Me draws connections between Lou’s disorder and the oppressive economic system that controls him. It seems to say his crimes are a perverse reaction to a lifetime of latent abuse at the hands of his various masters.
In the novel, these economic harms are drowned out by the totalizing interiority of his first person narrative. So while the films may fail on different levels, consuming them in conjunction with the book might still unlock some rich perspectives.
A companion piece to novels like The Stranger (1942) (Albert Camus), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) (James M. Cain) and American Psycho (1991) (Bret Easton Ellis), The Killer Inside Me is mandatory reading for all aficionados of Classic Noir and Hardboiled fiction.
You can (usually) watch the 1976 film version for free on YouTube.
The 2010 Winterbottom film version is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
If you enjoyed this “Book vs. Movie” style post, check out Graham Greene’s The Third Man.