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 in the subtext of 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: Spoiler-Free 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 does not discuss the Winterbottom version, on account of the decisive lack of talent possessed by the actors in the film’s lead roles.
The film version 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 Film Goes Downhill Fast
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 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 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 by no means a perfect novel either.
Analysis: My Review of The Killer Inside Me
Due to the shortcomings outlined above, I think it’s best to avoid any retroactive psychological analysis of these texts.
Both versions make it possible to see 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 essentially rigging the municipal election. The main jobs available to local men require back breaking manual labour in the oil field of the strip mine. The most economically successful character in the entire text is a prostitute who succeeds in extorting one man in order to blackmail another.
Faced with such limited options, Ford had 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.
The notion that The Killer Inside Me is a primitive, fictional case study of 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 was simply preoccupied with brutal violence, and not a certain type of capitalism.
Although it’s not explicitly stated in the text, 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 various masters.
In the novel, this connection seems drowned out by the totalizing interiority of its first person narrative.
Forcing yourself to watch the film may unlock a different perspective.
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 Noir and Hardboiled fiction.
You can (usually) watch the 1976 film version for free on YouTube.
The 2010 film version has gradually been cancelled by censorious streaming gatekeepers. With some effort, it can still be found online or purchased on DVD.
If you enjoyed this “Book vs. Movie” style post, check out our Graham Greene’s The Third Man.