Cover image for Out of the past : adventures in film noir
Out of the past : adventures in film noir
Gifford, Barry, 1946-
Personal Author:
Revised edition.
Publication Information:
Jackson, Miss. : University Press of Mississippi, [2001]

Physical Description:
190 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
"Published and expanded in 2001 by University Press of Mississippi."

"Originally published by Grove Press in 1988 under the title The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films."
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PN1995.9.F54 G54 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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For a tour of noir cinema this handbook is the perfect companion and Barry Gifford is an ideal guide. His choice selection of films exposes the menacing, moody, and oftentimes violent underbelly of this dark movie genre that occupies a favorite niche in American popular culture.

Some are classics, some are little known and seldom seen, but all, once viewed, are deeply remembered by aficionados of noir . Gifford's roll call of unforgettables includes these, and more: The Asphalt Jungle , Body and Soul , Body Heat , Charley Varrick , Chinatown , The Devil Thumbs a Ride , D.O.A. , Double Indemnity , High Sierra , Key Largo , Kiss of Death , Mean Streets , Mildred Pierce , Mr. Majestyk , Out of the Past , The Strange Love of Martha Ivers , Strangers on a Train , White Heat , along with several noir classics from Europe -- Repulsion , The Hidden Room , Shoot the Piano Player , The 400 Blows , Odd Man Out .

Gifford identifies the directors and names the many noir stars, the greats and not-so-greats who were cast in the indelible roles of hoods, B-girls, psychopaths, grifters, gumshoes, waifs, tarts, femme fatales, mobsters, molls, and ex-cons.

In an introduction novelists Edward Gorman and Dow Mossman applaud Gifford's selections and his insights: "The movies discussed here range from the lowest of the B's to the biggest of the A's, and this book is going to make you want to run out and locate every one of them (and good luck to you; finding The Devil Thumbs a Ride could take you a lifetime). Through Barry Gifford's eyes we begin to see their similarities and their value. What Andrew Sarris did for the mainstream film in The American Cinema , Barry does here for the crime film."

With a connoisseur's insight and an offbeat sensitivity perfectly tailored to his subjects, Gifford's brief essays cover a hundred of the noir buff's favorites. His highly polished impressions take the reader through five decades of noir to find both the heart and the art of the plotline.

Author Notes

Poet, novelist, and playwright Barry Gifford was born in Chicago, Illinois on October 18, 1946. He briefly attended both the University of Missouri and Cambridge University. He published a book of poems in 1973 and started writing novels in 1980. He collaborated with David Lynch on Lost Highway and the HBO series Hotel Room. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

Every film buff would like to write this kind of book, filled with seat-of-the-pants, off-the-cuff, one-of-a-kind summaries of films that range from straightforward reviews to highly impressionistic creative nonfiction. Most film historians concede that noir is fairly specific to time (generally, the immediate post-World War II period) and culture (American, with European influences). But Gifford's purview includes not only heist films and semidocumentaries but also sf, horror, Westerns, the French New Wave, and even an Elvis musical. His scope encompasses both 1933's schlock horror Island of Lost Souls and David Mamet's 1988 thriller, House of Games. Novelist and screenplay writer Gifford makes no pretenses, adhering neither to form nor philosophy. Even in this unorthodox pantheon, however, there are some omissions: Where is 1950's Panic in the Streets? Methodological foibles aside, this book is like cozying up with a friend who has an imperfect memory for details but who isn't afraid to be opinionated or candid. Likely to be of interest to most large general collections.DJayne Plymale, Univ. of Georgia, Athens (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival ) 1951. Directed by Billy Wilder. Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Richard Benedict, Robert Arthur and Porter Hall. The bronc bucked on the red Wyoming license plate as the battered purple pickup carrying two men in black cowboy hats lurched along the highway past the outskirts of Albuquerque. I followed close behind, wondering where in wide-open Wyoming they were from and what they were doing this far from home. An empty beer bottle rolled off the back of the open truck tailgate and crashed just ahead of my maroon '55 Buick Century, crunching under the right front tire.     I decided to try and pass the pickup and see what these two boys looked like. It was a two-lane, and after topping a rise I swung the Buick out to the left into the opposite lane and stabbed it. When I pulled even with the pickup cab I slowed a moment and stole a look. They were two old fellas, looked like they just tumbled in off the range, jagged sideburns, beards half-full, lean and wiry, in their late fifties, sixties-and-some, both grim-mouthed and eyes set to the sunset blue-red road in front of them. I moved the Buick past, taking a curve sharper than I should have, tires squealing, leaving the old boys behind.     I decided to stop for coffee at a cafe west of town. I sat at the counter. There were two other customers in the place, an old man and an Indian kid, both of whom sat at the far end of the long side of the L-shaped counter eating chili out of dark blue enamel bowls. The old man did not look up while he ate. The Indian kid glanced over at him every few seconds to see that the old man was doing all right.     Then the angel appeared. I was sure she was an angel, an omen, a fawn-child no more than thirteen years old in a white waitress uniform, platinum hair tied tight to her head, clear blue eyes surrounded by an inky path of make-up, Lolita-like with skirt stopped top of the thigh and disdainful lip no doubt dealt with midnight truckers, small town wifely sneers, all men mad to unwrap and sup at the sweet sap purity tap. But there was so much coldness, hardness in her stare that I had to avert my eyes, blink blindly at the menu, then gaze again, unable to convince myself that this was no vision, no lie, but the pearl of New Mexico.     I couldn't help but follow her movements carefully, and didn't dare look away when she bent to retrieve a fallen utensil, revealing the underside of her thighs and flash of flame-pink cotton. I coughed and she brought me a glass of water. I ordered coffee and scrambled eggs and toast.     Outside again I spat out the window and drove on, leaving the angel of the desert cafe to her Hollywood dreams, to age, to what I couldn't touch but what I could not help but be touched by. Algiers 1938. Directed by John Cromwell. Screenplay by John Howard Lawson with additional dialogue by James M. Cain. Starring Charles Boyer, Hedy Lamarr, Sigrid Gurie, Joseph Calleia, Alan Hale and Gene Lockhart. This is a remake of Pepe le Moko , the French classic that starred Jean Gabin as a gangster sequestered in the Casbah, from which he controls a network of criminals. In English, it's Charles Boyer as Pepe. The French police come to Algiers determined to apprehend Pepe, suggesting a house to house search, at which the Algerians scoff. Joseph Calleia plays the native cop who actually hangs out at Pepe's and tells him he'll get him one day. But Pepe is protected in the Casbah maze--anyone who means him harm would never get out of there alive.     Scripted by one of the Hollywood Ten with clean-up work by a master of American menace, Algiers 's premise is that Pepe is tired of life behind the walls, even though he has money, women and power. The French want him back for crimes he's committed there, and the Algiers police have no recourse but to wait him out. Sooner or later, Calleia knows, something will lure him from his stronghold. Of course, it turns out to be a woman, Miss Hedy Lamarr, straight from her Czechoslovakian Ecstasy , wherein she appeared topless and caused a sensation. In truth, her body wasn't so great but her face was exquisite. She was one of the all-time great beauties of the 1930s and '40s. She's with a group of tourists when Pepe meets her, and the suave Boyer, in black shirt and white tie, is immediately captivated. Her name is Gaby, and she is intrigued by this slick, powerful figure, the notorious Pepe le Moko, living legend of The Casbah.     Pepe has a main squeeze, Sigrid Urie, who becomes insanely jealous, and conspires with the lackey Gene Lockhart to allow the cops to get him. Pepe winds up going after Hedy, leaving the compound, running to the harbor and shouting for her to come back as her ship is about to sail, only she can't hear him because of the ship's horn. Just as Javert doggedly pursued Jean Valjean in Les Miserables , Calleia pursues Pepe, and as the boat moves away from the dock, the detective's hand clamps down on the doomed Pepe's shoulder.     That's the basic story. The movie contains some great sixteen millimeter footage of the ferret-like scurryings in the Algiers streets. The nefarious characters who populate the quarter are examined like in a National Geographic film--"Negroes from every corner of the African continent! Women of all shapes and sizes willing to please the taste of any man!" It's a great sideshow.     It's Hedy Lamarr who interests me most of all, of course. It was impossible for Pepe not to be swept away once he looked into her perfect face. He was ready for the fall; in fact, he needed it. And that's the point. Pepe had to mark his own fate, to be willing to get caught, to find something or someone worth giving himself over for. It wasn't the sultry Hedy who mattered so much as that it was the right time for it to happen. The only way to avoid disaster is to convince yourself that happiness is what you've got. And then you'll never know whether you're right or wrong. Pepe made it happen, and when he toppled, he was ready. He'd really just gone as far as he could in that place. Hedy played the role of the tethered goat at the tiger trap. It would have taken a lesser man to not take the leap. The American Friend 1977. Directed by Wim Wenders. Based on Patricia Highsmith's novels Ripley's Game and Ripley Underground . Starring Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Lisa Kreuger, Gerard Blain. This movie seems to confuse people. They find it flawed, verbose, prolix, boring. Of all the "homage" films made since the 1940s and '50s meant to evoke noir, The American Friend succeeds more than most because of the spaces, the sputters, and sudden shifts of energy that allow the characters to achieve veracity.     Bruno Ganz is a picture framer in Hamburg who learns he's going to die within a short time, though he's still a young man with a wife and child. Through a series of circumstances he agrees to murder a mobster for money to leave his family after he's gone. The man he is to kill is in Paris. Dennis Hopper is a wealthy alcoholic American--the Friend of the title--involved in a painting forgery scheme with Nick Ray (who's in New York doing the forgeries; Hopper sells the paintings in Europe). Hopper gets hip to Ganz and their relationship takes over the movie, Hopper doing a bizarre imitation of William S. Burroughs when he helps Ganz out by murdering a guy on a train. As is usual in Highsmith's stories, there is a strong suggestion of homosexual association here. Ganz is driven mad by the whole plot and the runover. Sam Fuller, the director, appears as a porno filmmaker who's also involved in the gangland murders. Hopper lives in a huge, half-empty roundhouse in Hamburg. One of his best scenes takes place in a state of drugged self-absorption one night, snapping photos of himself like masturbating, passing out in a delirious seminightmare.     The real dramatic life of this movie is in the undertow, the way Wenders meanders broodingly, using Ganz as his amanuensis, stroking the viewer with images, making all colors seem brown at their core--the world turning to shit. Startling shots of the Hamburg harbor from the Ganz family's apartment windows don't help alleviate the doomed countenance of the picture. Ganz's wife, Lisa Kreuger, doesn't understand what's happening to her husband. She reacts in that mean, sexy way, with her powerful German jaw and warrior's eyes, straining to involve herself, which she does until the whole thing's played out on a bleak wintry beach.     Wenders allows the mood to become heavy, savage, uncontrollably black/brown. There are gaps designed to involve the viewer, to convey the experience of desperation and madness, depression. A dim world-view, to say the least. Everyone and everything's fraud, like the forged paintings. What kind of future is there for Ganz's kid? The wife probably takes the child and moves to Hawaii after this. I would. Angels with Dirty Faces 1938. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, The Dead End Kids, Pat O'Brien, and Ann Sheridan. Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, Gabe Dell, Leo Gorcey, and the others got the name "Dead End Kids" from the 1937 movie Dead End , in which they portrayed slum kids on New York's Lower East Side. They went on to make a series of films as The Bowery Boys, a moderately successful run that carried into the 1950s, by which time most of the "boys" were, if not exactly approaching decrepitude, certainly not capable of carrying off successfully the illusion of being gang kids pulling silly adolescent pranks. Hollywood rode the charade too far, and their later movies are just plain junk. However, the early efforts, where they are teamed up with Bogart, Cagney, and Garfield ( They Made Me a Criminal , 1939], among other leading actors of the day, are terrific. Not least among them is this one, Angels with Dirty Faces . It is, in fact, even more than Dead End , the quintessential Dead End Kids movie. Most of the credit for this must go to Cagney, who, as the gangster Rocky Sullivan, plays to the hilt the older version of the kids themselves: he's what they'll be in a few years if they continue to live their punk lifestyle. Rocky is released from prison a hardened criminal, and goes back to his old neighborhood--the Lower East Side, of course. The kids don't know who he is when they spot him walking down the street; they figure he's some simple mark and they lift his wallet, then run off. Rocky, however, tracks them to his old lair, a basement hideout, and surprises them as they're counting his money. He sticks an empty hand under his jacket pocket and pretends to point a gun at them. Most of the boys quake and shiver and beg for mercy, but Billy Halop, the leader, sneers and says, "Shut up, rats!" He's the tough guy, the up-and-coming Rocky. Rocky shows them his initials carved into the basement wall, done years before, and they're in awe. It's Rocky Sullivan! So he becomes the kids' idol and mentor. They all want to be just like him. Rocky goes after Bogey, his former partner, to collect what's due him, so the kids get involved in the world of bigtime, real-life hoods.     At the beginning of the movie, however, we see Rocky as a kid, with his young pal Jerry. They're running from the cops and Rocky helps Jerry get away, but he gets caught and sent to reform school. Jerry grows up to be Pat O'Brien, a priest, of course. But he and Rocky are still friends, and they vie for the loyalty of the boys. "Whaddya hear, whaddya say?" is Rocky's familiar greeting. His upper lip's permanently curled. He romances Ann Sheridan, his neighbor and sister of Bobby Jordan, one of the kids. Ann's a good girl--everybody good in this movie is Irish. When Rocky gets nailed for murder and is about to go to the chair, the Catholic church really raises its head and flares its nostrils. It's not enough that Rocky allows Father Jerry to talk Excerpted from Out of the Past by Barry Gifford. Copyright © 2001 by Barry Gifford. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.