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February 04, 2010

The Killer Inside Me (1976)

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Burt Kennedy - 1976
Simitar Region 1 DVD

The disappointing news is that in spite of some of the talent involved, this version of The Killer Inside Me is not a very good adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel. In comparison with his other work, this is not even a decent Burt Kennedy film. Yes, Kennedy is best known for his westerns, but the guy has had some brief flings with contemporary criminals. Man in the Vault, which he wrote, and The Money Trap, which briefly reunited Glenn Ford with Rita Hayworth, suggested that Kennedy might have been able to recreate something resembling Thompson's universe of sociopaths and assorted marginal characters. The character of Bill Masters in the Kennedy penned Seven Men from Now, a darkly comic vision of ingratiating villainy, is not too distant from Thompson's creation, Lou Ford.

Maybe the film might have been better had Kennedy written the screenplay. What there is barely resembles the novel, moving the location from Texas to Montana, and barely touching the desperation of people caught in emotional as well as physical dead end existence. The characters are there, the richest man in town, his dumb son, and prostitute who attempts blackmail, and has a relationship with Ford that is sadomasochistic. What the film lacks is Jim Thompson's black little heart. Even in the 1970s when filmmakers were more prone to push boundaries previously unexplored before the revamped ratings code, Kennedy and company seem skittish about making a film that resembled Thompson's novel in either the dark humor or the violence.

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The potential could have been there with the cast at hand. Stacy Keach, Susan Tyrell and Tisha Sterling are nowhere near as pretty as Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba or Kate Hudson in the same roles. Yet Kennedy's cast looks more like the kind of people one would find in a small town where there's not much going on. There is some pleasure at seeing character actors John Carradine, John Dehner, Keenan Wynn and Charles McGraw share screen time with Keach. Tyrell, especially, is right as a prostitute who is alluring without being conventionally attractive, a woman a man might find sexy given limited options, where everyone seems to know everyone else. There is something of a snapshot of Stacy Keach's career with the inclusion of Tyrell from the film that had suggested the most promise, Fat City, and Don Stroud, who would later costar with Keach in the "Mike Hammer" television series.

Where The Killer Inside Me really misses is in the character of Lou Ford. Thompson's dialogue could have been lifted verbatim. In the novel, Ford disguises his madness with an overly friendly manner, a good old boy who shovels folksiness and verbal cliches over friends and enemies alike. It might have been Steven King, writing about Thompson, that pointed out that Lou Ford's preferred method of murder was to bore you to death. What we have instead is a jettisoning of most of Thompson's back story on Ford, and a garden variety psycho. There is some heavy handed use of voices from the past, and flashbacks to indicate that Ford's madness stemmed from the sounds of a dripping faucet and the discovery of his mother in bed with another man.

This DVD version also suffers from not reproducing the original wide screen cinematography of the usually reliable William Fraker. The film in its current DVD state looks not too different from a movie made for television, minus some glimpses of nudity, as if Burt Kennedy had anticipated where his own career as a director was heading. After a reasonably successful ten year run beginning with Mail Order Bride and ending with his first boss, John Wayne, and The Train Robbers, Kennedy seems to have been exiled from theatrical films to television productions. 1976 saw Kennedy drummed of the set of Drum, the sequel to Mandingo, and having The Killer Inside Me, an independent production, get picked up by Warner Brothers only to be quietly dumped into a few theaters. This first filmed version of The Killer Inside Me had the book and the cast, and might have been a better film had the filmmakers not squandered the possibilities, and trusted their material.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 4, 2010 12:49 AM