Though it hasn’t got much of a reputation, especially among fans of Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel, the 1976 Burt Kennedy version of The Killer Inside Me strikes me as truer to the spirit of the book than Michael Winterbottom’s more elaborate, respectful version. Partially, it’s down to the casting: Stacy Keach just has more going on behind his eyes as Lou Ford, a seemingly plodding deputy who is actually a murdering sociopath, than Casey Affleck, whose whiny little creep Lou doesn’t play as someone who could pass for normal or gull various folks into going along with his big plan to kill people and get away with it. Affleck was perfect as Bob Ford, but too small and slight for Lou Ford: you can’t see why anyone would put up with him, and it’s obvious from the outset that the real authorities know what he’s doing and will take him down – in the book, it’s a shock to realise that the killer’s spell doesn’t extend beyond his immediate circle. As the women in Lou’s life, Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba try to look less glamorous than usual, but they are stars stepping out of typecasting to boost their cred. Kennedy’s women, Susan Tyrrell and Tisha Sterling, felt much more real as knocked-about losers, and Winterbottom overcompensates by staging their abuses and deaths in mildly indefensible detail – I got the message that there’s something wrong with people who like beating up women before Amy (Hudson) pissed herself while her fiancé was battering her to death. Seriously, who do you believe as a small-town hooker who has taken a few too many hits to the head: Susan Tyrrell or Jessica Alba?
Thompson’s persuasive, unsettling book depends on the odd pulp device of the reliable narrator, a madman who is honest with the reader even as he dissembles to everyone else he knows. Here, that just translates into a voice-over which doesn’t seem much different from the way Lou talks to his not-very-easily-fooled colleagues. Kennedy has a scene where, after an hour of acting like a bumbling hick who mouths commonplace slogans in an infuriating manner (a trick Affleck can’t match), Keach’s Lou senses a psychiatrist in the room and switches to sophisticated self-diagnosis; Winterbottom avoids that, but lets the camera linger on the high-end psychology texts on the killer’s bookshelves, which prompts you to wonder why no one has ever called him on his reading habits. The plot suffers from the film’s inability to do more than sketch key relationships: there’s little real sense of why Lou specifically targets some of his victims, especially the cloddish Elmer (Jay R. Ferguson), son of a local bigwig (Ned Beatty), whom Lou shoots and frames for the murder of a hooker (Alba) thanks to a murky set of backstory incidents to do with a foster brother who took the blame for one of Lou’s first rapes and later died in a dodgy industrial accident. The 1976 film revolves around the interplay between Lou and Elmer (Don Stroud), showing Lou’s Iago-like ability to manipulate a supposed best friend for long-term evil.
Affleck’s Lou is beset by sinister types – a union fixer (Elias Koteas), a canny DA (Simon Baker), a blackmailing bum (Brent Briscoe), a cannier deputy (Matthew Maher), a glad-handing lawyer (Bill Pullman) – who all prod him to various actions, but also swamp the thin central performance. Actually, when Briscoe (an underrated you-know-the-face character player with an impressive CV) and Pullman show up, the film lifts because their energy infuses things: however, they’re not in it long, and don’t get much to chew on. Kennedy was a pro but not a hack, and saw Thompson’s book for what it was – ambitious pulp; Winterbottom is an auteur with eclectic tastes (you have to admire his range of achievements even if every other film misfires), but he is making an art movie with a redneck noir gloss, imitating a bygone form (the film has a loving 1950s period recreation, down to the underwear) with a near-prissy exactitude which misses the original point (The Kill-Off, After Dark My Sweet and The Grifters similarly got made into Masterpiece Theatre noirs). It is blunt and violent, but its horrors have less impact than, say, those of David Lynch or Brian DePalma, because it’s impossible to care about these people.