THE GETAWAY (1959) by Jim Thompson

Thompson-The-Getaway-pbThis tale of thieves falling out is lifted out of the ordinary by  Thompson’s uncanny ability to create chillingly credible portraits of criminals, misfits, felons and psychopaths at the extremes of human behaviour. He then caps it all with a hellish finale that goes where no pulp paperback had gone before, which was predictably excised from both movie versions .. but which unexpectedly surfaced in a George Clooney movie written by Quentin Tarantino …

I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme; and (in hope, and admiration) Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

“Got him right through the heart,” Doc told Carol. “One of those very rare instances where a man actually dies laughing.”
“Just so he died,” Carol grimaced.  

At the heart of story is the relationship between Carter “Doc” McCoy, a career criminal, and his much younger wife Carol, an ex-librarian. Unusually for hardboiled crime fiction such as this, they are neither a faithless husband nor a scheming and castrating femme fatale. Doc spent several years in the slammer and she has had to do a lot to get him out, offering herself to Benyon, the head of the parole board, along with money off the top from the proceeds of the bank job they will pull as soon as Doc gets out. The bank robbery goes according to plan but their partner Rudy Torrento tries a double cross (no surprise, Doc was planning the same) and fails. But unfortunately for Doc and Carol, Rudy doesn’t die despite being shot in the chest and soon he is chasing his ex-confederates to get his hands on a quarter of a million dollars. Ultimately the McCoys head to Mexico to ‘El Rey’, a refuge for criminals that proves anything but a sanctuary. In fact, it is utterly terrifying …

“Doc,” she raised her eyes. “I’ve changed a lot, haven’t I? You think I have.”

Original paperback edition with cover art by Robert Maguire.

Original paperback edition with cover art by Robert Maguire.

What makes this book so memorable is the way it takes take a well-worn scenario (it is worth comparing with another notable paperback original of the time, Gil Brewer’s The Vengeful Virgin) and turn it inside out, with characters we should hate but instead are transfixed by. Rudy is a psychopath who giggles away while doing truly terrible things and the McCoys are unrepentant about the murders they commit to keep themselves going – and yet, we follow them regardless, all the way to hell on earth, and beyond … On top of this are suspense set-pieces as dark and gripping as anything created by Cornell Woolrich, including a sequences set in caves that should not be read by anyone who suffers even a little from claustrophobia. And this brings us to the finale set in El Rey, which is utterly brilliant in its glacial and horrible irony and which it would be wrong to discuss in a spoiler-free forum such as this. It may just be the best thing about the book but it being so extreme and nihilistic meant that of course it got cut from both the movie versions, though it does get alluded to in Quentin Tarantino’s horror thriller, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996).

Carter ‘Doc’ McCoy: “Punch it, Baby!” (1972 film version)

Walter Hill’s screenplay (used in both films) may omit Thompson’s original finale and soften the ending in general, but is otherwise pretty faithful to the novel, with Steve McQueen brilliantly cast as the unsparing Doc. Ali McGraw however gets a bit of a raw deal as Carol, which is very thinly written. Sam Peckinpah handles the plentiful slow-mo action with his usual mastery, while Al Lettieri steals the show as the loathsome Rudy. The film was a really big hit in its day, so it was no big surprise when it got remade, though it was interesting that they kept the bulk of the original screenplay rather than start again. This may, on reflection, not have been such a great idea though, because star cinema had moved on a lot in the intervening decades …

The 1994 remake, tailored for another off-screen actor couple, this time Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, had Hill’s script updated by Amy Holden Jones, who also beefed up Carol’s part, which is just as well because the first film is more than a tad chauvinistic. In fact, it is downright Cro-Magnon-like in its depiction of relations between the sexes! The remake gives Basinger much more to play with as Carol, while Michael Madsen can’t hope to match Lettieri in the original, but does OK in a typical role for him. The same goes for Baldwin, who is good casting but is in fact too convincing as an ice-cold criminal and so doesn’t really give you enough reason to root for such a nasty piece of work. More honest then, but is that really what we want in a thriller such as this? Needless to say, James Woods mops the floor with all of them in the small role of Benyon. Roger Donaldson, who directed the superb No Way Out, does a fair if rather mechanical job of orchestrating the action but … one wishes that perhaps Hill could have been invited to direct it as he would have made it look much more distinctive and would certainly have delivered a much grittier movie overall. Frankly, as good as they are, Basinger and Baldwin always look much too beautifully coiffed and attired to be believable given the situations in which they find themselves.

The Getaway (1972)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: David Foster
Screenplay: Walter Hill
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Ted Haworth and Angelo Graham
Music: Quincy Jones (after Jerry Fielding)
Cast: Steve McQueen (Doc), Ali MacGraw (Carol), Ben Johnson (Benyon), Al Lettieri (Rudy), Sally Struthers (Fran), Jack Dodson (Clinton), Richard Bright (the thief), Bo Hopkins (Frank), Slim Pickens (Cowboy)

The Getaway (1994)
Director: Roger Donaldson
Producer: David Foster, Lawrence Turman
Screenplay: Walter Hill and Amy Holden Jones
Cinematography: Peter Menzies Jr
Art Direction: Joseph Nemec III
Music: Mark Isham
Cast: Alec Baldwin (Doc), Kim Basinger (Carol), James Woods (Benyon), Michael Madsen Rudy), Jennifer Tilly (Fran), James Stephens (Harold [Clinton]) Scott McKenna (Red Shirt [the thief]), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Frank), Richard Farnsworth (Slim [Cowboy])

I submit this review for Bev’s 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘car’ category:


*****(4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, Jim Thompson, Texas, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

56 Responses to THE GETAWAY (1959) by Jim Thompson

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Trust Thompson to create that sort of character, Sergio – the kind who’s despicable in many ways, but whom you can’t help following. That’s hard to do. I’m not surprised to learn that Thompson ‘went there’ with this novel, too, nor that those parts weren’t included in the films. Talk about a no-nonsense writer… I’d put some of Thompson’s noir up there with the darkest. Thanks, as ever, for the fine review.

  2. Colin says:

    Peckinpah’s film is somewhat primitive in some of the attitudes but I still like the movie overall, and it’s a better film, in my opinion, than the remake. Mind you, I don’t dislike the remake – it just lacks a little of what makes the 1972 version memorable.
    I haven’t read the book and I want to do so now, particularly with the allusions to the ending. To say I’m intrigued would be understating things.

  3. le0pard13 says:

    Masterful write-up regarding this title, Sergio. Yeah, that, “…hellish finale that goes where no pulp paperback had gone before” really threw me for a loop (though, in a good way) when I finally read this Thompson classic. And I hadn’t connected this with FROM DUSK TILL DAWN at all till you gave that away. 😉


    Agreed, the Peckinpah version is the more chauvinistic of the two film adaptations, but my preferred. As it is for Colin, the remake I hold in no disdain, still. Just another reading that has some things to further glean from. At least I know now, whenever I re-screen either, to make it a double-feature and put it to bed with FDTD. 🙂

  4. Sergio, I have seen the 1994 version of THE GETAWAY though I don’t remember much. And now I’d like to see the original, as much for Steve McQueen as for the story. Not having read Jim Thompson, the novel sounds gritty with a whiff of promiscuity.

  5. JJ says:

    I interred Thompson as a King of Crime for a plethora of reasons, not least because the guy writes the sort of text that sears your eyeballs as you comprehend just how badass it is; The Getaway is possibly his most lyrical writing, and he has some beautiful reflections on the process and necessity of flight and betrayal here that I can’t help but feel nails those concepts for all time.

    The movies…meh. I like McQueen as much as the next guy, but he played Steve McQueen in virtually everything, and there’s a fundamental alchemy about McCoy that neither Hill nor the two fine gentlemen who played him quite caught. And without that final chapter, you’re telling a very different story…!

    • Again, were are of very luck mind here. I think GRIFTERS and KILLER INSIDE ME (2010) come closest but he really only works on the page.

      • JJ says:

        The Grifters os an odd book and an odder film — the various overlays of misogyny, misandry, nepotism, incest, and obsession are weirdly out of kilter on the page, almost like Thompson didn’t realise what he had written until he was done and then didn’t want to rework it. The film removes most of it can casts John Cusack, one of the most passive actors ever to work in Hollywood, in a role that requires the dynamism and self-disgust of the page to be even slightly workable. Still, Angelica Huston works hard to salvage it, and this was back in the period of her career where she really could turn herself to anything. But it’s a weird brew all the same.

        • I thought the film worked really well on its own terms and I thought Donald Westlake (aka ‘Richard Stark’) did a really good job of making the most of the various oedipal themes, etc etc. I like Cusack a lot and thought the contrast between the three protagonists (Benning is sensational is such an eye-catching role) was especially good and the occasional flashbacks surprisingly successful. But you know what? I need to re-read and re-watch this comic. You’ve inspired me JJ, another Thompson duo on its way (probably in a couple of months though – hope you can wait that long :))

  6. Excellent write-up on a masterful novel — it made quite an impression on me, though it’s been ages since I read it and I’m due to re-read it. I should say I’m overdue to read more Thompson in general, but I try pace myself reading his oh so bleak but compelling novels… so good, but so grim.

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  8. tracybham says:

    I am not looking forward to a “hellish finale” but I am definitely reading the book. I wasn’t sure how much I would like it but you have convinced me of its merits. Also would like to see the movie but depends on availability and cost.

  9. Kelly Robinson says:

    One of a handful of his that I haven’t read yet. I’m funny about reading favorite authors that are dead. I have a reluctance to come to the end of it all and know there’s nothing new left. Having a few holdouts gives me comfort in a twisted way.

    • Thanks for that Kelly – I do exactly the same. In the case of Graham Greene, for instance, it’s the two books he never allowed to be reprinted and which are very hard to find. But one day, when I’m on my deathbed …

  10. Mike says:

    Really good stuff Sergio – love the story, and the climactic ‘hideaway’ scene you mentioned was shocking and extremely claustrophobic back in the day. It felt like a classic, much told story being taken a visceral notch up. Of the film versions, I think McQueen and McGraw were very close to what I thought the characters looked like, especially the latter, but there’s capacity for really recreating the darker elements of the novel, rather than latching onto the romantic, BONNIE AND CLYDE vibe.

    • Thanks for that Mike – ultimately, one wonders if a version will attempt to really bring the book, in all its darkness, to the screen intact – I’m not holding my breath on that one though!

  11. Sergio – Thompson is a favorite, but because the 1972 movie was so vivid, I never read this one. And, I agree, Al Lettieri steals the show. All the scenes with him, Sally Struthers and Jack Dodson are evil, painful and hilarious. He also nearly stole a key scene from Al Pacino in “The Godfather,” when Michael meets him in a restaurant with the corrupt police captain, played by Sterling Hayden. Lettieri died in 1975 at age 47.

    • Thanks Elgin – I always get shocked when I hear about people dying young – always seems such such a waste of course. But fate is a really cruel so and so, as Thompson did keep telling us 🙂 The 1972 movie works well, the book is much better though, honest!

      • My copy is on a shelf behind my desk. I am going to dust it off and dig in. Just hope I can read it with fresh eyes and not see Ali MacGraw on every page. (Whoa! What am I saying?! Even though Ali was too beautiful and classy for that part, that did not bother me one bit.)

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