Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The best American adaptations of a Jim Thompson novel are The Grifters and After Dark, My Sweet, but even they don't quite capture the full intensity of this overachieving mystery writer. Thompson, a pulp fiction master who never really broke through, was 'rediscovered' in the 1980s. The print equivalent of the film noir movies we were then discovering, when compared to the so-called cynicism in books or film, Thompson's books were like corrosive acid. His leading players were vicious misanthropes or pitiful losers, or both. The dialogue was hardboiled to the point of being baroque - not feigning nihilism but constantly showing that behind your blackest impression of his obsessed characters, they were even blacker. If you've appreciated Thompson's crackling verbiage in Kubrick's The Killing, then you should be ready for more. Many of Thompson's books had structural experiments that stretched the boundaries of the Novel farther than all the Jack Kerouacs and French existentialists put together. The Killer Inside Me and Hell of a Woman showed the contradiction of schizophrenic madness by introducing parallel text. In Killer, dialogue lines by the murderous sheriff are followed by mocking alternate interior thoughts. The final chapter of Woman, is a run-on paragraph that makes no sense until you realize there's two narratives running at the same time, on alternating lines of text. In his masterpiece The Kill-Off, each chapter is the interior monologue of a different character, a balancing act that comes off as inspired instead of gimmicky.
Bertrand Tavernier transposed Thompson's Pop. 1280 to Senegal, Africa, and made its Texas deputy into a French colonial police chief. It's a brilliant move. Coup de torchon is a superior thriller with a body count as high as your average giallo, a collection of godless lowlifes for a cast, and a sardonic view of life that makes ordinary pessimism seem lighthearted.
Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret), the paunchy police chief of Bourkassa, is a pitiful joke to both his fellow cops and the local French scum. He's baited and humilited by a pair of sleazy pimps, and ignores savage beatings of black men and white women. At home, his wife Huguette (Stéphane Audran) openly keeps a lover in the house (Eddy Mitchell, from Until the End of the World) and passes him off as her brother. For his part, Lucien shacks up with someone else's wife, the pitiful but sex-hungry Rose (Isabelle Huppert), while making amorous moves on the new schoolmarm, Anne, whose relative innocence intrigues him. When Lucien finally embarks on a calm killing spree, he's like a bemused angel of death. He's such a harmless clown that nobody suspects him for a moment, an attitude that he takes as extra justification for 'wiping the slate clean' through judiciously applied murder.
Colonial French West Africa in 1938 is a strange kind of hell on Earth that Jim Thompson fans will quickly recognize. Black kids sift the dirt for grubs to eat. Dead bodies float down the river, to provide shooting practice for the idle French. The local priest complains that he has to replace crosses because the termites eat them, but he only buries whites in consecrated ground. Lucien's response to the general moral inertia and spiritual ugliness is well represented by the stinking open latrine outside his window. The local bureaucrat won't do anything about it, so Lucien saws away the floorboards so he'll fall in. It solves the latrine problem perfectly, so Lucien begins applying the same devious methods to his interpersonal problems. If he's driven mad it's because he's a sensitive guy - concerned for the little black kids scared by the darkness of an eclipse, touched by the sweetness of the schoolteacher.
Coup de torchon plays like the proverbial auto wreck in slow motion - it's ugly, it's something you'd rather not know about, but you can't take your eyes off of it. The cynicism is neither cheap nor exploitative but a compelling world view that makes you think. Lucien Cordier is a Harry Lime without good looks, charisma, or even ambition, a soulless killer in a Godless world.
This is a deceptively well-made thriller: most of the scenes seem wilted with the heat and boredom of the tropics, yet the story moves along at a brisk pace until you find you can't look away. Phillipe Noiret is simply excellent as Lucien, and the well-known actreses Audran and Huppert are very credible as the low women in his low-life. In most crime dramas, the killer keeps killing because it's a requirement of a genre completely given over to exploitation; here you really get the feeling that Lucien is himself astounded at the utter lack of justice or retribution in the world. His reaction to his own crimes is both amusement and despair.
Criterion's DVD of Coup de torchon is yet another definitive rendering of an artistic movie that a major home video company wouldn't touch on a bet. The anamorphic-enhanced image is accurate in its subdued color, and the sound, especially the infrequent but effective Phillipe Sarde music, is well-rendered. Extras include a trailer and some interviews with director Tavernier. He's a published authority on film history as well as an accomplished director (Savant's panting for the promised DVD of Deathwatch later this year) but you have to concentrate to understand him through his accent. He introduces some outtakes from an unfinished alternate ending that was both too technically ambitious and stylistically extreme for this tale, and we're glad he didn't attempt it. As a vision of a world with the slate 'wiped clean of humanity' to make room for ape inheritors, it looks as though it would have done damage to the film's tone. The package essay makes a point that the population number in Thompson's book title drops from 1280 to 1275 between the opening titles and the end credits, and attributes this to Lucien's five killings. Since he really kills six, we have to assume that the theory is wrong, or worse, that Lucien's one black victim isn't going to be counted in the racist statistics.
An unique and superior murder thriller, with a truly exotic location and some of the most believeable lowlife characters ever to sleaze-up a film noir, Coup de torchon is a recommended movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Coup de torchon rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer, director interview, alternate ending clips
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 25, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Index of Articles.
Return to Top of Page