The River

Friday, July 16, 2004

Out of the Past
 
Looking back on it, during my younger days I was quite an accomplished loafer. For example, I once pursued with great zeal a quest to see every film in "The Devil Thumbs a Ride", a book of short essays on some 100 or so films in the noir genre.
 
I’d only run across the book because it was authored by a recently discovered -- and still greatly admired -- writer, Barry Gifford.
 
My friends and I called it “The Book.”
 
“Hey, Charley Varrick’s gonna be on AMC tomorrow night. It’s in The Book.”
 
The Book never let us down. Not once.
 
Charley Varrick, the film, is from 1973, directed by Don Siegel and starring Walter Matthau. See it if you get the chance. Says Gifford, “This movie is dusty and low-rent, a late 20th century western with no generous souls. We admire Varrick for his cleverness, his ability to slide by, but his horizon is a colorless L.A., a low-profile one-eye-over-the-shoulder existence. Guys like him drive past you on the freeway every day.”
 
I stayed up late one night because AMC was airing Detour. Gifford had informed me that it was “dashed off” on the cheap in 1945 by Edgar G. Ulmer, who he calls the prince of under-noir. “Ulmer’s master was F. W. Murnau (Sunrise, Nosferatu), and those Prusian shadows shriek throughout his work,” writes Gifford.
 
Like so many, this film follows a poor sap who never saw it coming, steamrolled by his own misapprehension, disadvantaged circumstances, inability to conform, desire and bad luck. Hell, my life was a Detour as well. I’d left journalism for bookstore retail, fighting my own sense of Impending Doom and No Way Out.
 
The book concentrates on the great noir period of the late-30s through the mid-50s, but also recognizes films from later decades. And it points to a few outside the genre that contain the noir feel.
 
Says Ed Gorman in the introduction: "Barry is not strictly speaking a critic (and this book is not in any formal way criticism) but rather a novelist and cultural observer who has written well and variously about the American scene of his times. He brings to these pages his gifts – tapped-out humor, dignified anger, an ear for the subtlest and most valuable kind of gossip – that can illuminate not only the movies but also our own experience.”
 
Barry understands “that noir is the cinematic fever chart of the American dream in this century, from the doomed teenagers of Rebel Without a Cause to the middle-class concerns of Mildred Pierce.”
 
We thumbed that book incessantly back then. I must have read each essay several times, and at least once before and after a viewing. My edition, published by Grove Press, is out of print, but it’s still available from University Press of Mississippi as “Out of the Past.”
 
I picked my copy up at the bookstore I worked at, not realizing it had been signed by the author. Its pages are coming loose from the spine now. Regardless, it’s one of my most treasured possessions.
 
It was brought to mind again the other night. I don’t know why, as I rarely turn the thing on, but I was looking at the TV listings in the paper. It happens that Turner Classic Movies is having a “crime week” and Out of the Past was on, and 30 minutes in. The kids were in bed, so I sat on the couch and watched the rest. Barry says the 1947 Jacques Tourneur film is one of the best noir melodramas, and I agree. It exudes what so many of the films in the book, and the book itself, possess – soul, integrity, realism, truth.
 
As Gifford says in The Book’s dedication to his daughter: “Even though life isn’t all black and white, it often looks better that way.”
 
---

From "The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films", by Barry Gifford. Copyright 1988, Grove Press, pages 82-83. 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers. 1956. Directed by Don Siegel. Screenplay by Geoffrey Homes (Daniel Manwaring). Starring Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, and Larry Gates.
 
This science-fiction noir is a crossover masterpiece. Written by the author of Out of the Past and directed by the maker of Charley Varrick, The Big Steal, and numerous other crime classics, it could hardly miss. The remake by Phil Kaufman was unnecessary – not terrible, just not worth the bother; the original is perfection, and why anyone would want to mess with that is beyond me. (Kaufman, by the way, co-directed a strange and wonderful little non-noir movie called Goldstein, starring Lew Gilbert and Ben Carruthers, made in Chicago in the mid-60s. It’s seldom seen these days, but well worth the effort if you can find it.)
 
The idea of aliens from outer space taking over the earth is one that can never lose currency. Human-sized pods, like pea or bean pods, appear everywhere and reproduce within them the physical bodies of earth residents, transplanting alien minds for human. Only Kevin McCarthy, a doctor, manages to escape the takeover of his small California town, and then can only warn others of their – as well as his own – impending doom.
 
It’s easy enough to see this movie as an object lesson: Don’t let others do your thinking for you. And it’s as relevant today as it was during the McCarthy era and Cold War panic, when it was first made. It’s not that they’re coming – they’re already here, and always have been. Keep your eyes open or you’re a goner. In the movie the aliens take over your mind when your body falls asleep. This is one of the most serious, realistic movies ever made. Don’t ever forget it. 

 




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