Barry Gifford, a novelist (Wild at Heart) and poet who co-authored the screenplay for The Lost Highway with David Lynch, collects one hundred andten short essays on noir films in his book Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir. The book itself is out of the past, originally published in 1988 under the title The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films, and although the title page claims some expansion of the original version, it’s hard to see where as the most recent movie covered is David Mamet’s 1988 film House of Games.
Movie reviews often make fascinating reading long after the film itself has been retired to the dustier shelves of video stores. The pieces in Out of the Past, however, are not reviews. In the brief author’s note at the end of the book, Gifford labels them “impressions” written at one a.m. at the kitchen table. The essays, usually covering a single movie in under three pages, do seem banged out shortly after a screening. The word “impressions” may imply that Gifford’s commentaries are abstract and explore the meaning of these movies, but in fact most relate plot elements and little else. If you’ve seen the movie, you do not need the plot related to you and if you haven’t seen the movie, you may not want it related to you.
Besides, plot is rarely the main attraction of film noir anyway. If you are watching something in this genre you can expect betrayal and a femme fatale. Theft, booze, and gunfire are also safe bets. The characters of film noir the criminal trying to live straight, the tough-luck detective or the woman with a secret have an appeal that brings them back to the screen year after year, and the themes of noir the anti-hero fighting a world of corruption, the mingling of sex, money, and danger are more important than the logistics of crime in a particular film. Gifford describes the details without connections to any of these larger themes. Basically, he tells us about the double crosses, when they work, who the victims are, and whether those victims are shot, stabbed, jailed, or heartbroken. This passage on The Big Steal is typical:
Mitchum fills the cops in on the deal and follows Knowles to the fence’s hideout over a rough road in the mountains. The weaselly fence has three thugs on guard but Mitchum kills one, wounds another, and gets through to the house where he confronts Knowles. The fence has offered Knowles $150,000 in unmarked bills for the stolen $300,000, pleading difficulty in unloading the hot cash. Soon after…
The impressions in Out of the Past remain largely self-contained and shallow. For example, after recounting the plot of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, he concludes “it meanders but it’s meaningful as hell.” Yes, it is, but can’t we at least get a paragraph on what that meaning might be? On the few occasions Gifford does veer away from plot reiteration, he veers far afield. The piece for Ace in the Hole is a pseudo-poetic riff about a road trip, with no clear reference to the movie (I haven’t seen that movie so maybe I missed something, but reading about someone’s leering encounter with a thirteen-year-old “fawn-child” waitress didn’t make me want to go rent it). The piece for On the Waterfront features a real or imagined two-page dialogue with a boxing trainer. Gifford’s attempt to write like a noir guy doesn’t help matters. “She done him wrong but good,” we’re told about one film couple. Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear can only be stopped with “a bullet in the brain pan.” This noir style also becomes crude when Gifford discusses the genre’s sex scenes.
The book’s organization doesn’t connect themes or draw a larger picture. The essays have no dates, so we don’t even know when they were written. The movies are presented, lazily enough, in alphabetical order. Even a chronological order would generate some interest, illustrating the development of film noir. There is a title index (in case we’ve forgotten the alphabet, I guess), but no director, actor, character, or writer indices.
The introduction by Edward Gorman and Dow Mossman claims these pieces are not meant as criticism but rather to bring attention to quality noir films. This may be accurate according to the book’s original title, these are all “unforgettable films” and all are praised in one way or another. But if Out of the Past is intended as a primer on great noir it seems fair to point out some strange omissions. Some classics are here, like Double Indemnity and Touch of Evil, but no Maltese Falcon. No Big Sleep. Orson Welles gets slighted on both The Third Man and The Lady from Shanghai. If we go to England for the original Get Carter, why not to France for one of the best noir films of all time, the original Diabolique? A handful of noirish sci-fi is presented, but Gifford misses the best example of this hybrid, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
Overall, Out of the Past has a pasted-together feel one might expect from a website entitled “Noir Films I’ve Seen.” The book fails to deliver a big picture and doesn’t do a very good job at delivering a lot of little pictures either.
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