Tag Archives: Jim Thompson


The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “The Woman Chaser” (1999)


“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

The primordial ooze that the genre we now know as film noir emerged from was the pulp magazine fiction of the 1920s and 30s and the subsequent novels by writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich. In fact, the creation of the film noir genre was an accidental result of then-screenwriter John Huston’s decision to do a meticulously faithful adaptation of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which had already been filmed twice before (both badly), as his directorial debut. Because it retained Hammett’s uncompromising vision of the criminal world and the people who inhabited it on both sides of the law (a reflection of Hammett’s first-hand experiences as a Pinkerton detective), Huston’s 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon seemed breathtakingly new and the film’s success at the box office inspired other studios to try their hand at adapting pulp novels.

The works of the aforementioned writers were particularly popular with filmmakers because their relatively linear narratives made them easily adaptable to the film medium. The works of a later generation of pulp writers from the 40s and 50s were far more difficult to adapt to a visual medium because their first-person narratives took place mainly in the heads of their protagonists and, more often than not, these narrators were psychotics and madmen. The writers that fall into this second category include Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford. As Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) proves, in the hands of a genuinely inspired filmmaker, it is possible to translate material like this into visual terms. Another filmmaker who managed to pull off this challenge was independent director Robinson Devor in his criminally little-known 1999 adaptation of Willeford’s 1960 novel The Woman Chaser.


After premiering at the 1999 New York Film Festival, and subsequently screening at other showcase festivals such as Sundance and South by Southwest, The Woman Chaser opened to mixed reviews, had a limited distribution, and also turned up on cable via The Sundance Channel and Showtime and on VHS. Then The Woman Chaser pretty much vanished off the face of the earth, not even receiving a DVD release. Just recently, however, thanks to that new-fangled thingamabob known as on-line streaming, Sundance Institute’s Artist Services has been able to make The Woman Chaser available for viewing on iTunes (as of May 20), and also on Netflix or netflix amerika, Hulu, and Amazon Prime (starting on June 15), giving this underrated little gem a well-deserved second chance.

Willeford was a World War II veteran-turned-writer whose work had been filmed twice before, Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter (1974) and George Armitage’s Miami Blues (1990, based on the first of Willeford’s Hoke Moseley novels). Both of these films have much to recommend them, but neither came as close to capturing Willeford’s style as Devor’s The Woman Chaser. As quoted in an on-line article by Jesse Sublett, Willeford’s widow Betsy concisely articulated what makes Devor’s film stand out from the other film versions of her husband’s work: “I like it best of the three adaptations. It’s uncommercial, the way the book was, and has the courage of its outrageousness.” As Huston did with Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Devor wrote the screenplay himself, observing scrupulous fidelity to his source, faithfully duplicated the novel’s story structure scene-for-scene, and taking all of the dialogue almost verbatim from the book. Devor also retained the novel’s original setting and period, Los Angeles circa 1960.

Devor had only one previous film, Angelyne (1995), a documentary about actress and model Angyline Angelyne, under his belt when he decided to make his “real” filmmaking debut with an adaptation of The Woman Chaser. In an interview with Dan Lybarger for Nitrate On-Line, Devor recounted how he obtained a second-hand copy of Willeford’s novel from a couple who sold old mystery and crime books out of their home in Redondo Beach and later filmed his adaptation on weekends while retaining his day job as a vice president of a Los Angeles PR firm. Devor’s first choice for the leading role, Richard Hudson, was Jason Patric, but when Patric wasn’t available, he gladly went with Patrick Warburton because, as he put it, “I knew that we would never get anyone closer with physique and comic delivery than this guy.”


Richard Hudson, the main character and first-person narrator of The Woman Chaser, is, like the protagonist of Willeford’s first novel High Priest of California, a sociopathic used car dealer. A representative of a San Francisco repo tycoon known professionally as “Honest Hal,” Richard has returned to his home town of Los Angeles in order to start an Honest Hal franchise there. He selects a rundown used car lot near the Capitol Building, which towers over the background, and quickly scams the lot’s owner (Eugene Roche) into forking the business over to him. Richard then hires an ex-Army sergeant named Bill Harris (Ron Morgan) to be his manager and adds three burnouts to the staff as salesmen. One sweltering August day without any sales happening, Richard has an inspiration and takes it to Bill in the air-conditioned trailer that serves as the lot’s office.

Richard: “Lift the phone, Cool One, and call a costume company.”

Bill: “Any company in particular?”

Richard: “One that sells Santa Claus suits, complete with beards.”

Bill: “What sizes?”

Richard: The sizes worn by Evans, Cartwell, and Jody-boy, our three star salesmen.”

Bill: “You shouldn’t do it, Chief. It’s the middle of August. Those guys will melt out there.”

Richard: (angrily) “It’s the first day of August and they’ll wear the suits every damned day until I tell them to take them off!” (lowering his voice) “What is more unusual than Santa Claus selling used cars in August?”

Bill: “You’ve got me for the moment.”

Richard: “Nothing! Honest Hal is now Santa Claus in the middle of summer, bringing the good people of the City of Angels goodies in the form of repos. Your repos. Now, get the suits and get our buddy boys into them. Take a half-page in The Times and write some decent copy for a change. I don’t want those repos on the lot by Saturday!” (pause) “Oh, by the way, Cool One, you will inform our white-bearded salesmen that the Santy Claus suits are your idea.”

Richard takes advantage of relocating to LA to reconnect with his mother (Lynette Bennett), a retired ballerina who lives in a decaying mansion straight out of Sunset Boulevard with Richard’s stepfather Leo (Paul Malevich), an ex-film director, and Leo’s teenage daughter Laura (Emily Newman). At his mother’s invitation, Richard moves into the former servants’ quarters above the garage. Like most sociopaths, Richard has a heightened opinion of himself and regards his customers and just about every other member of society as “feebs” who live boringly ordinary lives. One night, Richard has a horrifying epiphany: his life is just as pointless as those of all the people he looks down upon. Sitting alone in his car and weeping to himself, he decides that he must “create something. Anything.”

An avid moviegoer, Richard believes that the one form of art that he’s capable of is filmmaking; he’ll write and direct his very own movie. Richard dreams up a story he titles The Man Who Got Away and writes a one-paragraph synopsis of it: “A truck-driver driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles runs over and kills a child. He tries to get away. He doesn’t.” Richard then takes his idea to Leo, who works out the minimum budget required to make the film. Richard is convinced that he and Leo can raise half of the amount needed. (Richard will embezzle his share from Honest Hal and Leo will hock the valuable painting that is his sole leftover from his glory days.) He begs Leo to contact “The Man” (Ernie Vincent), the head of Leo’s former studio Mammoth Pictures, and see if he’ll put up the other half. After reading Richard’s screenplay, The Man greenlights the project and offers the studio’s resources in lieu of cash to make the picture.

Working on a limited budget and schedule that doesn’t allow for any retakes, Richard completes his movie. But after watching the first cut, he becomes dissatisfied with his creation and decides to edit it down to a length he believes necessary to maintain the film’s tension. By the time Richard and Ruggerio (Max Kerstein), the editor assigned to him by the studio, finish pruning the film to the point Richard wants, they have a movie that runs only 63 minutes. That’s when Ruggerio breaks the bad news to Richard.

Ruggerio: “With the sound effects and the music dubbed in, it will be a little masterpiece and I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. Unfortunately, we have to put twenty-seven more minutes of film. Three minutes can be taken in titling, but the other twenty-four will have to be plain old padding.”

Richard: “Can we pad twenty-four minutes and still maintain the pace I’ve set, the mood and so on?”

Ruggerio: “Nope. But there’s no choice.”

Richard: “Why is that?”

Ruggerio: “You know that as well as I do, Mr. Hudson. A movie is ninety minutes long. Six full reels. That’s the business.”

Richard: “But unnecessary padding will ruin my movie.”

Ruggerio: “Not really. We can stretch the hell out of that chase down the highway. I’ve got stock stuff I haven’t even looked at yet, reel after reel. Scenic views, wild flowers, traffic jams, all kinds of stuff, and we can fit it in fine. I remember a western once where I stretched a desert chase out twenty-five minutes with long shots of different guys riding on horseback. Nobody knew the difference. People like chases.”

Richard: “The Man Who Got Away isn’t a western.”

Ruggerio: “Yeah, but he doesn’t really get away, either. It’s the same thing as a big chase—“

Richard: (shouting angrily) “Damn it, no! As far as I’m concerned, my movie will run as it is, twenty-seven minutes short! Period. I’m not going to ruin my movie because of some stupid ruling that it has to be ninety minutes long!” 1

Richard digs in his heels, insisting that adding unnecessary footage to his movie would be “like adding three more plates to the Last Supper or an extra wing on the Pentagon.” Unexpectedly, The Man doesn’t reject the movie outright as being too short. In fact, he and Leo have come up with an idea to salvage the film. When Richard learns what will be done with his “masterpiece” against his will, he explodes in rage, taking a perverse, self-destructive revenge on all those he believes have double-crossed him. (Re: the title, while Richard does his share of exploiting and abusing many of the female characters who are unfortunate enough to cross his path, it’s hardly the main focus of the story. Willeford’s original title for his book was The Director, but Newstand Library, the original publisher, thought that The Woman Chaser would be a more appropriately lurid title for a paperback pulp novel.)


Devor not only got the 1960 period details (costumes, cars, props, locations) down perfectly, but, aided by Kramer Morgenthau’s black-and-white widescreen cinematography, he also was successful in recreating the look of such low-budget independent films of the period as Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962). Also contributing to the period authenticity was Daniele Luppi’s music score, utilizing recordings by jazz artists of the time like Les Baxter, Chico O’Farrell, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Tito Puente, and Jimmy Smith.

Typical of Willeford’s work, much of his novel The Woman Chaser is set inside Richard Hudson’s psyche, with long, rambling soliloquies from Richard detailing how he observes the rest of the world, his patronizing contempt for everyone he comes in contact with, and his philosophy based on his belief that movies mirror real life. Devor retained many of these soliloquies and filmed them in ways that provide visual metaphors for Richard’s life-as-film outlook. Some of the monologues are done as voice-overs accompanying either the action or close-ups of Richard looking straight at the camera with the glare of a movie projector backlighting him from behind and bathing him in a halo-like glow. Other monologues consist of Richard in a dark room breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly with Richard’s head in the far background of the extreme left of the screen while the turning reels of a 16mm projector and its projected light frame Richard in the foreground.

Since the story is told entirely from Richard Hudson’s POV, Patrick Warburton appears in every single scene and he rises to the occasion by giving the performance of his career. (People who know Warburton mainly for his work in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Rules of Engagement will be in for a big surprise when they see The Woman Chaser.) The power in Warburton’s performance lies in his underplaying the role rather than going for the over-the-top approach that most actors take when playing maniacs. Warburton plays Richard as a ticking time-bomb waiting to go off, a passive-aggressive type just barely suppressing his inner rage and frustration while hiding behind a facade of macho hipness. In an interview with Jeffrey M. Anderson for the website Combustible Celluloid, Warburton gave his personal take on the character: “He’s just a brutish, self-serving ass. There’s something very boyish about Hudson. He’s dangerous and he scares you, but then there are times when he’s just like a pathetic little boy. Maybe that’s why you can empathize with him a little bit, ’cause you just see what a pathetic creature he is and how lost he is.”


For the rest of his cast, Devor went with non-experienced actors, deliberately avoiding professionals. As he explained to Lybarger: “To me, the ultimate failure in a lot of movies—and a lot of people will agree with me—is that a lot of the actors look like they’re in the 90s or 2000. They’re just too good-looking; they’re just too coifed. Their bodies are just too cut, and there are no flaws. That’s not the kind of look people had in the past, and it’s not appropriate for this project. My formula for this when I was casting—God love the actors; they’re wonderful, attractive people as contemporary human beings—but I wanted Hudson to be this kind of normal-looking guy surrounded by these grotesques. I wanted to stack the deck and to make his bullying almost more of a mismatch. I wanted to make Leo so unaggressive and so unthreatening that, when he ultimately betrays Richard, it’s very absurd. It’s difficult to find somebody. A lot of people would come in, and they’d be character actors playing [Leo] like a wacky intellectual. This non-actor [Paul Malevich] was a very down-to-earth sweet guy. He was a real person. He allowed us to film him in unflattering ways. There were very few self-conscious actors on the set, which was great.” Ironically, this paralleled the way Richard Hudson decides to cast his movie when Leo states that their marginal budget provides a pitifully low amount for the actors’ salaries. As Richard tells Leo in Willeford’s novel, “To do my movie, it has to be done with nobodies… If I can get actors nobody knows, they’ll believe in the characters as they see them on the screen.”

Although it played in a few key cities (New York, LA, Austin, San Francisco) in mid-2000, The Woman Chaser never received a general nationwide release. It didn’t help that many reviewers (including the New York Times’ Stephen Holder) dismissed it as “a film noir spoof,” which only shows how little most mainstream critics know about film noir. 2 (Despite an undercurrent of dark humor that runs throughout The Woman Chaser, it’s no “spoof,” it’s the real deal.) In the years since, The Woman Chaser has earned more respect and developed a cult following. In a Film Noir of the Week review, Kim Morgan (Sunset Gun) praised The Woman Chaser for being “faithful to its beautifully seedy genre while feeling like an entirely unique experience” and characterized it as “an arch, subversive film that remains, to the very last frame, weirdly understated.”


The jury’s still out on the merits of streaming vs. discs. (I personally share my World Cinema Paradise colleagues Stuart Galbraith IV and Stephen Bowie’s preference for the physical medium. If you own a movie on DVD or Blu-Ray, you don’t have to worry about the “streaming rights” expiring.) But steaming can atone for a multitude of sins if it brings a little-seen wonder like The Woman Chaser to a new audience. Think of it as The Film That Almost Got Away. But didn’t. (Now when the hell is this movie gonna get its long-overdue DVD and Blu-Ray release?)

[1] Actually, Willeford betrayed some unfamiliarity with the film industry here. Although they were becoming increasingly rare by the 1960s, there were still second-features being released with running times well below 90 minutes. For example, Harvey Hart’s Dark Intruder, a 59-minute long unsold pilot for a television horror series produced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shamley Productions, was released by Universal Pictures as the bottom half of a double-bill with William Castle’s I Saw What You Did in July 1965. Also, a reel of 35mm film contained 10-minutes worth of footage, not 15-minutes, so a 90-minute film would be nine reels, not six. Nevertheless, Willeford’s fictional “90-minutes rule” was necessary for plot purposes and Devor made the right call to retain it as is. Nice in-joke: The Woman Chaser runs exactly 90-minutes.

[2] One of the reasons that it’s almost impossible to do an acceptable parody of film noir is that most great film noirs (such as The Maltese Falcon, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, and Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil) contain a great deal of intentional humor and most attempts at spoofing the genre fail to be nearly as funny.

Killing Featured

Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956) and the Prominence of Domesticated Animals

Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film noir The Killing is striking for its attention to domesticated animals – horses, dogs and a parrot. The film’s first shot is of horses being led from their paddock, the title is superimposed over footage of horses, and a toy poodle brings about the movie’s denouement. The title itself can be interpreted as referring to the killing of the racehorse Red Lightning since no character mentions “killing” in regards to the heist, none of them make a killing because they all end up dead or back in jail, and the only character who uses the word “kill” is the hood hired to shoot Red Lightning when he’s asking for the details of the job. All the animals are confined; the horses in stables and paddocks before being ridden and led, the dogs cuddled in their owner’s arms, and the parrot in its cage. Kubrick makes comparisons, in shots and dialogue, between the animals’ confinement and the characters being hemmed in by circumstances they can’t surmount.

The Killing Title
Domesticated animals appear in many scenes throughout the film. The movie’s first seven shots are of racehorses being led to a racetrack starting gate, a team of four horses dragging the gate into place, and the racehorses taking off. This same footage of horses is used as an anchor as Kubrick repeatedly returns to the seventh race to show the various characters acting out their separate roles on the day of the heist. A caged parrot is shown in most of the scenes between the mousy George Peatty and his wife, Sherry, a wisecracking siren in a curly pompadour. Like Polly, George is shown more than once behind bars, and in the scene where Sherry pulls the wool over her husband’s eyes, a cloth is draped over the parrot’s cage. The farmer who moonlights as an assassin cradles and caresses a puppy during the entire scene where he and the heist’s mastermind, Johnny, discuss killing the horse to distract the cops during the crime. Finally, a yappy little poodle precipitates the film’s unhappy conclusion. When the poodle jumps out of the arms of its smothering owner at the airport, it runs in front of a baggage cart. The driver swerves to avoid the dog and Johnny’s suitcase tumbles off the cart and bursts open, sending the loot flying away in the wind generated by the airplane engine.

In the film’s first shot horses ridden by jockeys are led out of their paddock. We see a team of harnessed white horses, with blinders blocking their peripheral vision, dragging the starting gate into place, and the racehorses being led toward it, two of them repeatedly throwing their heads back as if to shake off their restraints. Then trainers, rushing, yank and pull the horses up to the gate. Later in the film jockeys whip them to make them run faster. In no scene do we see the horses being fed, groomed, petted or congratulated, or any affection being shown. They are led, confined and manipulated, and they don’t look happy.

The Killing’s characters are similarly led, confined and manipulated. Kubrick draws a visual comparison between horses and people by cutting from the horses lined up behind the gate to the line of cashier windows at the racetrack. (He also makes a visual comparison between horses and people later in the film, when Nikki waits in the parking lot for Red Lightning to approach, by dissolving back and forth between the racing horses and the cheering crowd.) The characters are confined and limited by their relationships and by their low-paying, dead-end jobs. A loan shark who notes that “We all get a little cramped,” nevertheless raises the vig $400 and menaces Stanley, the dirty cop, with veiled threats of what he’ll do if the debt isn’t repaid soon. Fear of the loan shark motivates Stanley to participate in the stick up at the racetrack to get cash immediately. George Peatty, a track cashier, is under the thumb of his wife, Sherry, a manipulative, wisecracking gold digger. Sherry leads him to believe she will love him if only he provides more money for a fancier apartment and more comfortable lifestyle. To avoid the pain of her emotional blackmail, George takes part in the theft. Just as people make horses race for financial gain, the loan shark and Sherry try to use Stanley and George to procure money for them. In another parallel between animals and humans, just as the horses leave the confinement of their stables and paddocks, and run around and around the track, ultimately ending up back where they started in the confinement of their stables, Johnny gets out of jail, engages in a lot of useless activity, and ends up where he started, in the slammer.

The animal most closely identified with a character is Polly, the Peatty’s parrot (presumably that’s her name, since she squawks, “Pretty Polly, pretty Polly). Polly’s cage has a rounded top and is elevated on a pedestal, so the bird is even with George’s head when he is standing. In the first scene in the Peatty’s apartment, Sherry is mocking him, as usual. Sherry thinks George is a boring loser, and tells him as much. To seek refuge from her belittling, George walks over to Polly, a kindred spirit. Just as Polly is confined in a cage, we see George behind bars, twice. The first time is near the film’s beginning, when he is shown, with a grim facial expression, behind the bars of his cashier’s window. The second time he is framed in a medium close up, holding the balusters of the spiral staircase that Johnny is ascending to hold up the racetrack office. George is imprisoned by his love for Sherry; he will do almost anything for her love.

George also is blinded, metaphorically, by his attraction to Sherry. In the second scene at the Peatty’s apartment, Sherry is seated at a dressing table, George is standing next to her, and Polly is in her cage behind him, blinded literally because a drape covers her cage. Sherry is trying to fool George and obscure the truth by faking affection she doesn’t feel and lying to him so he’ll tell her more about the plot. She says she eavesdropped outside the apartment where the conspirators were planning the job because she was jealous and suspected he was seeing another girlfriend. Sherry tells him she loves him and will love him “always and always.” (Although Johnny doesn’t lead him on, Marvin also is blinded, by his sexual attraction to the younger man. Even though Johnny is engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Marvin suggests he abandon Fay and travel the world with the older man.)

In the final scene at the apartment, George, who has been shot, stumbles in to find Sherry expecting her lover. Wobbling from his injuries, he holds on to the vertical stand that holds up Polly’s cage for balance. Polly says “Watch it” and “Watch out.” When Sherry refuses to call an ambulance for him and tells him to go out and get a taxi, he realizes, too late, that she has never loved him, and he shoots her. When he succumbs to his wounds and tumbles to his death, he is still holding the bird’s cage, and he takes it down with him. The camera pans from George’s head, his expression frozen in death, partially shadowed by Polly, to the parrot, constrained in her overturned cage and unable to fly, before cutting to an airplane taxiing at the airport.

elilsha cook and parrot
The final domesticated animal given prominence in The Killing is the dog. When Johnny goes to Nikki’s farm to hire him to kill the racehorse Red Lightning, Johnny holds and pets a really cute puppy, covering its ears with his hands, while the assassin tries out the shotgun. Then, they exchange the puppy for the shotgun. The farmer/assassin continues to hold and cuddle his puppy throughout the scene, caressing and rubbing its muzzle, back and ears as the men discuss shooting the horse; a perverse contrast between the affectionate gestures and the murderous words. Johnny makes light of the killing, saying that shooting “a four-legged horse” isn’t even murder.

the-killing dog2
A yipping toy poodle with a bow in its topknot renders poetic justice on the heartless (to horses) Johnny, as it foils the (literally) last man standing at the movie’s end. In his exhaustively researched, and highly readable book, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, author Vincent LoBrutto reports that before Kubrick became a director, and was a photographer for Look magazine, he shot a photo essay of a champion toy poodle named Masterpiece. Poodles were extremely popular in the 1950s, and Kubrick was obviously familiar with the dogs, and their owners’ practice of giving them undignified, clownish trims, and having them prance around, perform tricks and otherwise behave artificially for human amusement and, in the case of show dogs as with race horses, purses.

The cloying, middle-aged owner of Sebastian, the poodle in The Killing, cradles him near her cheek and smothers him with affection, cooing baby-talk in a phony, Elmer Fudd voice. At the airport to meet her husband, she addresses the unfortunate dog, “We haven’t seen daddy sweetums foe such a wong, wong, time.” She takes Sebastian outside as the plane is arriving, and the dog, agitated by the engine noise, escapes from her arms. As a worker driving a baggage cart turns sharply to avoid the dog, Johnny’s cheap, flimsy, pawn-shop suitcase topples off the top of the heap and bursts, the loot scattering into the wind generated by the airplane’s engine.

Kubrick and the novelist Jim Thompson adapted the screenplay from the novel Clean Break by Lionel White, published in 1955. The novel’s title does not refer to a horse’s broken leg; it is an expression used by Marvin, who despises the other conspirators and wants to make a clean break from them after the heist, and it’s also used by an initial newspaper report that the crooks got away with the loot. Both Kubrick and Thompson were interested in animals. For example, in Thompson’s novel The Getaway, one character is a veterinarian who calls his wife “Pet” and “Lambie,” and philosophizes over the effects of kindness to animals. The screenwriters added the animals to The Killing; Clean Break doesn’t mention dogs or parrots, or horses leaving their paddock or approaching the starting gate. Of course The Killing is a film noir with has a femme fatale, a flawed hero, characters drawn from society’s underbelly, a grim atmosphere and a downbeat ending, but clearly on another level it is about the treatment of animals.