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Coup de Torchon: The Criterion Collection

Jim Thompson is one of the great noir writers, but he came too late to be adapted at the height of film noir. His first book was published in 1942, but it wasn't until 1949 that he wrote his first crime novel, Nothing More than Murder, which led to a career in pulp fiction, with such lurid offerings as The Killer Inside Me and A Swell Looking Babe. These titles may sound compelling, but they're actually misleading — Thompson was after something much more powerful than catfights and gunplay. Rather, his novels explore the devastating effects of violence and crime on his protagonists; his fatalism is the sort you can choke on. Courted by Hollywood via Stanley Kubrick, Thompson worked on two of the legendary director's screenplays: The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957). Both pictures featured the Thompson claustrophobia that marks his best work, and the two stand among Kubrick's tightest films. However, the black-and-white world that Thompson populated so effectively was dying cinematically, and he soon left feature films, turning to some TV work while continuing to write his novels (he appeared as an actor shortly before his 1977 death, in the Robert Mitchum film Farewell, My Lovely). By the '70s Thompson's literature was slowly making inroads into Hollywood, and in 1972 Sam Peckinpah used Thompson's novel The Getaway for the film version. However, while Thompson's books usually are about American landscapes, oil rigs, and cowboy lawmen, the two best Thompson adaptations surprisingly were directed by a Brit (Stephen Frears' 1990 The Grifters) and a Frenchman. Bertrand Tavernier's 1981 Coup de Torchon ("Clean Slate") is based on the novel Pop. 1280; it substituted a French colonial African town for the border towns of Texas, and the choice couldn't have been more appropriate. Philipe Noiret plays local cop Lucien, who is treated by all the white residents as a buffoon. His wife won't sleep with him, steals his money, and nags him constantly. She has a brother who lives with them, whom she may or may not be related to, and may or may not be sleeping with. Meanwhile, Lucien is having an affair with another woman (Isabelle Hupert), but she has an annoying husband who likes to beat her. Visiting a neighboring officer to ask for advice on how to deal with some pimps in his neighborhood who bribe and abuse him, Lucien is mocked and told to abuse them twice as hard back — and jokingly is told he should kill them. Thus, when Lucien returns to town he kills the pimps and then sets up his alibi. Thompson was always interested in watching a man create his own personal hell, making choices that only tigthen a noose of his own making. Tavernier is successful at capturing this in Coup de Torchon, and though we may have a rooting interest for Lucien at first, we are not meant to regard him as the cool Hollywood anti-hero, giving us one of the best films noir since Touch of Evil. Criterion's DVD release improves on their previous Laserdisc with an anamorphic transfer (1.66:1), and though the print has occasional scratches and evident reel-changes, the colors are fabulous. Audio is in French, with optional English subtitles. The disc also includes an American trailer (which has a hard time selling the film) and an alternate ending that Tavernier introduces, explaining what it was supposed to be and why it doesn't work. Most informative is a 46-minute interview with Tavernier that goes into why he adapted Thompson's novel and his approach to the shoot (done almost entirely with a Stedicam). Keep-case.
—DSH



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