The Getaway: Jim Thompson (1958)

“Flight is many things. Something clean and swift, like a bird skimming across the sky. Or something filthy and crawling; a series of crablike movements through figurative and literal slime, a process of creeping ahead, jumping sideways, running backward.”

A few months ago, I committed to a Jim Thompson Noirfest. I had several Thompson titles sitting neglected on my shelf, and I’d intended to read his books for years. A conversation here sparked the commitment to hold a Thompson Noirfest, and I selected 7 titles for the read-a-thon. I blasted through The Killer Inside Me, Savage Night, A Swell Looking Dame, and A Hell of a Woman. Then I made the strategical error of watching Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway right as I started the book. I couldn’t wash away the images of Steve McQueen as bank robber Doc (along with his side kick wife played by Ali McGraw). So I put aside the book and let some time pass and the film fade.

The Getaway (and I’m glad I read this title BTW as it’s a complete change of pace from the other Thompsons I read), is about a bank robbery and the subsequent attempt to escape to Mexico. The unreliable narrator is absent, and also absent is an intense character study. Instead it’s a rapid robbery, the double-crossing relationships between the thieves and then the getaway takes up most of the story. The story is punctuated by a very strange ending, but more of that later.

Thompson doesn’t neglect character in The Getaway, but neither does he linger on it (as in The Killer Inside Me). His characters are wrapped up in just a few succinct sentences. There are no layers here (The Killer Inside Me, A Hell of a Woman); what we see is what we get, and what we get isn’t nice at all. Doc, for example, is the son of a small town corrupt sheriff (back to that Thompson biography again), and Doc’s seemingly pleasant and generous nature coats the character of a cunning predator:

Doc, then, was born popular; into a world where he was instantly liked and constantly reassured of his welcome. Everyone smiled, everyone was friendly, everyone was anxious to please him. Without being spoiled–his father’s  strictly male household took care of that–he acquired an unshakeable belief in his own merit; a conviction that he not only would be but should be liked wherever he went. And holding such a conviction, he inevitably acquired the pleasant traits and personality to justify it.

Doc’s moll is Carol–a former librarian, the daughter of a nice middle-class family. Her walk on the wild side has negated any return to her former life. When the book begins, she has a taste for the bad boy in Doc–or at least she thinks she does, but things are about to get wilder than she imagined.

When the book begins, career criminal Doc McCoy is out of jail on parole. This was his second sentence. The first sentence was no biggie, but the second sentence is different as McCoy now has a much younger wife, Carol who’s “almost fourteen years his junior” left on the outside to worry about. Doc is looking at a twenty-year sentence, but with his loot to pay for the services of a “topflight criminal lawyer,” the sentence is reduced to ten years. Any hope of early release is dashed when Doc’s appeal to the parole board is denied, and at that point, Carol decides to approach one of the board members, Beynon, personally. This works, Doc is out on parole and when the book begins, he’s about to pull off his final heist before ‘retiring’ to El Ray, a remote area in Mexico that specialises in harbouring wealthy criminals on the lam.  

The robbery is swift and brutal in its execution. Doc’s partners are the horribly misshapen and mentally twisted Rudy, and a young kid named Jackson. The money is going to be split after the robbery, but both Rudy and Doc have no intention of splitting the pot, so Carol and Doc hightail it to Mexico with Rudy in hot pursuit.  Here’s Rudy–a paranoid sadist who, in many ways, is the opposite of the self-assured, confident Doc:

He was afraid to sleep, and equally fearful of awaking; from the dawn of his memory, the days had also been identified with terror. In the latter case, however, his fear was of a different kind. A cornered rat might feel as Rudy Torrento felt on coming into full consciousness. Or a snake with its head caught beneath a forked stick. It was an insanely aggressive, outrageously furious fear; a self-frightening, self-poisoning emotion, gnawing acidly at the man whose existence depended upon it.

He was paranoid; incredibly sharp of instinct; filled with animal cunning. He was also very vain. On the one hand, then, he was confident that Doc McCoy intended to kill him, as soon as he had served Doc’s purposes, and on the other, he could not admit it.

The book is full of interesting contrasts. Doc is an affable, well-liked criminal whose past behaviour has secured many allies, and this proves to be a useful factor along the escape route. Rudy, on the other hand, has no friends to help, and he kidnaps the Clintons, a veterinarian and his lascivious wife for the trip. Doc and Carol make a tight team, and Rudy sees them as an enviable couple, but as the pursuit lengthens, Doc discovers some truths about Carol that begin to irk him and which threaten to sever their partnership. Underneath Doc’s affability, lurks a predatory reptile, and it’s clear that Carol is out of her depth. 

A thread of sadistic action runs throughout The Getaway and this mainly explodes on to the many characters who fall into Rudy and Doc’s paths. There are some wonderful characterisations here–my favourite has to be Ma Santis: “Daughter of a criminal, wife of a criminal, mother of six criminal sons.” She’s a Ma Barker figure–well she would be if all that shit fabricated about Ma Barker by the FBI were true, so instead I’ll say that Ma Santis is the sort of Ma Barker figure J Edgar Hoover dreamed about.

As for the novel’s unexpected ending (not at all like the film BTW)…think nasty shades of Shirley Jackson. While the film ends on a happy note, well, that’s Hollywood for you, the book’s savagely twisted ending somehow fits the sadistic action of the rest of the book. 

On a final note about the film–It’s amusing really to hear the criticisms lobbed against Peckinpah who was known as “Bloody Sam” for his use of violence. Obviously the critics hadn’t read the book–otherwise they’d have appreciated how the screenplay toned down the book’s sadistic passages. Although I must add that the touches added regarding the Clintons are brilliant. Sally Struthers plays Dr. Clinton’s hot-to-trot wife, and the film elaborates on her role as she giggles and floozies her way into a sleazy relationship with Rudy which is openly flaunted against her tormented husband. This elaboration is a truly subversive addition to the film as Rudy’s insertion into the Clinton’s marriage acts as a sexual liberator for skanky Fran–yet another woman with a secret taste for the dark side of life:

He’s seen this babe before–her many counterparts, that is. He knew her kin, distant and near. All her mamas, sisters, aunts, cousins and what have you. And he knew the name was Lowdown with a capital L. … This babe got around. She was the original square-plug-in-a-round-hole kid. But she never changed any. She had that good old Lowdown blood in her, and the right guy could bring it out.


Filed under Fiction, Thompson Jim

18 responses to “The Getaway: Jim Thompson (1958)

  1. I would expect the darkest things coming from Peckinpah after having watched Cross of Iron. Even in terms of war movies it’s a brutal one to watch. I’m surprised he toned down the sadistic parts.
    Thompson seems to have a wider range than one might expect at first but some elements remain the same. I think you liked this one the least so far?

    • The body count in the book is much higher. The film has a happy ending, and it’s easy to go along with it, but the book has some many people as collateral damage–well Doc and Carol get their just desserts.

      The Killer Inside Me is still my fav. Second–A Hell of a Woman, then comes A Swell-Looking Dame. I prefer the Getaway to Savage Night.

  2. Sweet Fanny Adams

    Another brilliant review! You’ll have me skint if I continue subscribing to your site. Thanks.

  3. leroyhunter

    It’s been years since I saw the film so I made less of a link between the versions. Isn’t McQuee’s Doc less charming, more taciturn? Or am I just thinking of the McQueen persona in general?

    Anyway, as you say this is an action-fest, quite startling in places. Rudy and Doc are dangerous, and the way things nearly unravel is great. Loved the extended endings: the actual getaway, with Ma Santis, and the bizarre coda. I don’t think it’s over the top to say you could imaging Kafka writing that last bit, if he’d ever knocked out a couple of crime stories.

    • The film doesn’t delve into Doc’s use of charm as much, and there’s much less time spent on his relationships with people other than Carol. Thompson’s extended ending here reminded me of Savage Night–although the ending in Savage Night was rather demented.

  4. Interesting to see him vary the template a bit. Clearly he’s still on profoundly nasty ground, but a different sort of nasty ground to the others.

    Nice to see the favourites list. I think this is one I’ll read, but probably not until a couple of those others are out of the way first.

  5. He changed his usual pattern but it doesn’t seem it’s for the best. It made me think of No Orchids For Miss Blandish.

    • I think the book is good for what it is, and that the author handled the material well, but I have a weakness for character driven novels. Still have to read that Orchids novel.

  6. leroyhunter

    I’m waiting for you & Emma to review POP 1280, but I know I need to get to Savage Night, Hell of a Woman and maybe Swell-looking Dame. Trying to respect a current buying embargo – it’s tough.

  7. That’s the book I’m opening next (after finishing the two I’m currently reading).

  8. I think the book is good for what it is, and that the author handled the material well…

    Well, I liked it more than that, but I still put Killer Inside Me as No. 1!

    The film (which I also enjoyed) is more of a regular crime flick, and McQueen plays his usual cool, quiet guy. But his character in the book is, we soon realize, just short of being psycho. Why? We never know.

    The violence in the novel is way beyond what’s in the film, and it’s shocking in its offhandedness. So is the violence to the women, including Rudy’s romance that is initiated with a brutal kick to the stomach.

    I found the scorching two-days in the manure pile, followed by the underwater cave (wait…do I have the order wrong??) horrifying and quite different from the sort of thing Thompson usually delves into.

    As for the ending, you gotta hand it to the guy – he’s writing a violent crime-spree novel and it ends with an allegorical descent into hell, the hell of other people as John Satre would say. Not bad, not bad at all!

    • My personal preference is just that. The heist sub genre of crime, if you want to call it that, isn’t a favourite–whereas I have a weakness for the unreliable narrator. I have to say that I really liked the way the film beefed up the action between Rudy and Fran. It makes everything sicker somehow.

      • Yeah, it is sort of shock to realize that’s Sally Struthers who played the do-goodie liberal on All in the Family. And I guess I just have a weakness for heist films, always have.

        BTW, it occurred to me that McQueen’s character in Thomas Crown is like Doc’s character in the book in that he is outwardly very cool and polished, but obviously is quite strange inside. Why does he rob those banks?? And along the heist trail, I think the setup to the Thomas Crown Affair owes something to Kansas City Confidential – none of the robbers know the identities of their colleagues – which was a pretty good heist film.

        • I keep seeing her (Fran Clinton) giggling. We never do find out why Doc turns to crime–although of course his dad was one step away from it even while he wore that protective badge. You have to wonder how many modern (ish) crime films take a slice of noir for inspiration.

          One thing I really really liked about the book was the unglamourous approach to the getaway (as you pointed out–watery pits and manure). And then El Ray.. who’d want to end up there?

          Often you see some story in the paper or watch something on television about some robbery or a theft of some kind. Let’s say they even get away with it and make off with 100,000. How long does that last on the run? It may sound like a lot of money before you take it, but I bet it runs out a hell of a lot sooner than the perp expects.

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