One of several deeply flawed ’70s films containing an Oscar-worthy performance by Stacy Keach, The Killer Inside Me is the first of two movies, thus far, adapted from the Jim Thompson novel of the same name. (A 2010 version starring Casey Affleck received a more favorable critical response.) The material is strange, tracking the adventures of a small-town cop who secretly harbors homicidal tendencies, so the storyline asks viewers to take an unusual ride from wholesome Americana to deviant ultraviolence. Getting the tone of this one right would have challenged even the subtlest of filmmakers, a group to which rough-and-tumble action guy Burt Kennedy most certainly does not belong. Accordingly, the 1976 version of The Killer Inside Me is a mess from a tonal perspective, because it’s unclear whether the movie is a straight drama, a thriller disguised as a lighthearted character piece, a satire of American values, or some combination of all of those things.
Keach finds a peculiar sort of true north, both in his onscreen performance and in his wry narration track, so his characterization tells a fatalistic but darkly funny story about a guy trying to make murder a part of his everyday life. Alas, the movie around Keach isn’t nearly as surefooted, even though some of the supporting performances are tasty and even though cinematographer William A. Fraker shrouds the film in evocative shadows. Those excited about exploring weird pockets of Hollywood cinema will be more inclined to cut The Killer Inside Me slack than those looking for straightforward escapism.
Set in a small Montana town, the story follows Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (Keach) through a colorful period in his life. To the casual eye, he seems like Mr. Nice Guy, because he romances a local schoolteacher, evinces great skill at de-escalating conflicts, and gets along with people on every rung of the social ladder. Secretly, however, Lou begins an affair with a local floozy, thereby entering into a triangle with his buddy Elmer (Don Stroud), son of rich landowner Chester (Kennan Wynn). All the while, viewers glimpse Lou’s demons thanks to flashes from childhood trauma, so when Lou freaks out and kills two people, we have an inkling why.
The first half of the picture is all setup, and the second half is all repercussions. Throughout, the filmmakers provide colorful details and grim humor. In one entertaining scene, Lou welcomes a con artist (John Carradine) into his home and proceeds to scare the bejesus out of the guy, seemingly just for sport. In another vivid bit, Lou’s boss, Sheriff Bob Maples (John Dehner), employs unique vernacular to lament his poor marksmanship: “I can’t hit a bull in the ass with a banjo.” Although the movie never coheres, The Killer Inside Me is interesting and odd from moment to moment. Beyond Keach’s beautifully deranged performance, the picture boasts strong work from Carradine, Stroud, Wynn, Tisha Steriling (as the schoolteacher), and—reuniting Keach with a costar from John Huston’s Fat City (1972)—Susan Tyrrell (as the floozy).
The Killer Inside Me: FUNKY