Barry Gifford on Film Noir – A Way with Words

As a writer, Barry Gifford definitely gets around. Born in Chicago in 1946, Gifford’s hefty  output (over 40 titles to date) includes fiction, non-fiction, biographies, poetry, and screenplays. I first became aware of his name as the author of the 1989 novel Wild at Heart, which David Lynch made into one of his very strange (as you’d expect) films the following year. In 1997 Gifford co-wrote the screenplay for Lynch’s even stranger film, Lost Highway.

Gifford also co-wrote a 1997 film called Dance with the Devil, based on his novel 59° and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango. The cast includes Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem, James Gandolfini, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, which is pretty intriguing lineup. As far as I can tell, this film was not released theatrically in this country, only on home video.

So far I haven’t read any of Gifford’s fiction or poetry (though I just remembered that I’d read and liked Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac, a book Gifford did with Lawrence Lee that came out in 1978), but I recently read his incredible Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir (University Press of Mississippi, 2001). This is an expanded edition of a collection previously titled The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films, published by Grove Press in 1988. I’m not even sure what you’d call this book. It’s not film criticism in any traditional sense. Gifford covers approximately 120 films (mostly noir, but not exclusively) in short, punchy entries of a page or two each. The pieces are not necessarily descriptive of the films, though sometimes they are. The writing is highly subjective, impressionistic, sarcastic, cynical, sincere, even poetic at times. I love his use of language, which is very alive, often with surprising and unpredictable word choices. He’s loose, idiosyncratic, and as far from stuffy as you’re likely to get. It occurred to me at times that if Charles Bukowski had written film reviews, they might have been something like these.

In an Author’s Note at the end he writes: “Insofar as accuracy is concerned in the following, I guarantee only the veracity of the impression. I wrote these essays as I imagine many of the Cahiers du Cinema reviews of the 1950s were written, on the café or kitchen table at one in the morning. None have been revised for their publication in magazines. This is and was by design, in an effort to retain the freshness of the thought.” Indeed.

Out of the Past Adv in Film Noir-cover

Barry Gifford

Barry Gifford












Following are quotes from 48 of the films Gifford writes about. I found these particularly vibrant. They definitely got my attention. Reading these can be a kick even if you don’t know the films, but even more so if you do.


American Friend-poster2The American Friend (Wim Wenders,1977) with Dennis Hopper, Bruno Ganz, Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray.

“The real dramatic life of this movie is in the undertow, the way Wenders meanders broodingly, using Ganz as his ameneusis, stroking the viewer with images, making all colors seem brown at their core – the world turning to shit.”

The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950) with Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe, Marilyn Monroe, James Whitmore.

Jungle reflects two shades: dark and darker.”

“…the streets are filled with spiders and their webs enfold the earth.”

"Asphalt Jungle" - Spanish

“Asphalt Jungle” – Spanish

Asphalt Jungle-poster








Autumn Leaves (Robert Aldrich, 1956) with Joan Crawford, Cliff Robertson, Vera Miles.

“She’s giddy, wild with the smell of love and she’s not sure what to do about it.”

The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955) with Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Jean Big Combo-poster3Wallace, Lee Van Cleef.

“…the tentacles of light directed at us and slowed down so that the smoke curls and wraps around the darkness like reticulate pythons.”

“…dynamite. When it blows it’s in slow motion again, the white piles of flame and smoke slithering over and around each other, another exquisite maze of deathclouds.”

“Darkness disguises cheap sets… but it takes a visual artist to make the black work, to infect it with just enough light so that anything other than dark seems wrong, uncomfortable, unnatural.”

The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953) with Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin.

Big Heat-Marvin, Grahame, Ford“Grahame’s sharp-angled face is savage enough to begin with, but after she’s burned by the coffee she becomes a kind of she-creature, an untouchable sex bomb.”

“…Gloria Grahame comes out looking like Mary Magdalene, a slender cut above all the other sick fools caught in the bad light.”

The Big Steal (Don Siegel, 1949) with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix.

“The plot is simple but Siegel makes it lively as hell, with wild cutting during the chase scenes. It’s easy to pick out the sequences shot exclusively in the studio; they’re hokey but topsy-turvy and it’s fun to watch Mitchum and Greer goose each other like Bogart and Bacall. Short, sweet, and not too deep.”

Body Heat (Lawrence Kasden, 1981) with William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, Mickey Rourke.

“Kasdan does a good job there, and he throws in enough rustling palm leaves, clanging wind chimes, and sweaty foreheads to usher in a grand sexual rush.”

Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray, 1950) with Joan Fontaine, Zachary Scott, Robert Ryan.

“Krisabel’s got Curtis snowed – he hardly notices that cash kicks off her shoulders like dandruff and that she manages to find a double dozen reasons to avoid making love with him.”

Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962) with Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Polly Bergen, Telly Savalas, Martin Balsam.

Cape Fear-still“Mitchum is a giant of evil in this movie; a slithery, completely corrupt, malevolent force.”

“He’s the angel of death-with-pain, put on earth to give men pause. When he describes to Peck how he got back at his ex-wife after he got out of prison, kidnapping her from her new husband and holding her captive in a motel room for days, raping and torturing her, and finally throwing her naked and filled with whiskey onto the road, we hear the Truth; it’s a swift lesson in the validity of Bad.”

Charley Varrick (Don Siegel, 1973) with Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker.

“The movie is dusty and low-rent, a late 20th-century western with no generous souls.”

Conflict (Curtis Bernhardt, 1945) with Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, Alexis Smith.

“The atmosphere is heavy, ponderous, dark, with lots of rain and misty windows and too much furniture in the rooms.”

“The movie is like good German potato salad, heavy and spicy at the same time.’

Cry Danger (Robert Parrish, 1951) with Dick Powell, Rhonda Fleming, William Conrad.

“Nancy lives in a bric-a-brac heaven, a cozy trailer covered by clinging vines. The setting is claustrophobic, and you can see Rocky squirm thinking about life with this devil-woman.”

Cult of the Cobra (Francis D. Lyon, 1955) with Faith Domergue, Richard Long, David Janssen, Jack Kelly.

Cult of the Cobra-poster2“…Cobra Princess, played by Faith Domergue, who somehow manages to look reptilian even in female human being drag.”

“Faith Domergue gets to like her life as a hot-blooded woman more than her slimey cobra body; she heats up as a dame and can’t take the schizophrenia of it all and goes out her apartment window one last time.”

Cult of the Cobra” is director Francis D. Lyons great paean to anthropomorphism; sophisticated foolishness that nevertheless conveys a vivid image of psychosexual conflict.”

Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, 1947) with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Agnes Moorehead.

“So here we have Agnes Moorehead’s best screen performance. She literally vibrates with evil as the murderess Madge Rapf, an arch slut/bitch unlike any other female villain this side of Judith Anderson in Rebecca.

“…the feline Bacall picks up Bogey on a country road.”

“The scene with the crazy plastic surgeon at two A.M. whose office is down a dark alley is the best of all, full of distended closeups and warped proportions, like faces leaning over a coffin; and we see them as would a corpse. Everyone looks already-dead, half-faded in failing light.”

“…Bacall slithering across the room toward him…”

“…Bogey’s grinning like the Chesire Cat as the warm waves slather the palm-strewn sands, and we fade out to a wonderland where the wounded survive and the wicked don’t.”

Dead Reckoning (John Cromwell, 1947) with Humphrey Bogart, Lisabeth Scott.

“Movies like this depend on nothing so much as mood, on Bogey’s epiphanic expressions, his ability to skate through and around the ham-fisted situations, to make the viewer comfortable through an illusion of competence.”

Dead Reckoning is better than the sum of its parts would seem to yield, which is probably due to the soft sea breeze that blows through it.”

Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945) with Tom Neal, Ann Savage.Detour-still

“Ulmer’s master was F. W. Murnau (Sunrise, Nosferatu), and those Prussian shadows shriek throughout his work.”

“Tom Neal is perfectly cast as the dumbshit dupe who thinks he knows what he’s doing. Ann Savage… gives a tour de force performance as the tubercular madwoman manipulating Neal to Total Loss.”

“Her head is like a bowling pin with brown hair and heavy eyebrows painted on.”

“She looks like a deranged leopard stalking off to the bedroom with the telephone to call the cops on him.”

“The almost ultraviolet bands of light across Neal’s face in Ulmer’s film are like streaks of evil.”

“Even the daylight in this movie is cloudy.”

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix Feist, 1947) with Lawrence Tierney.

“The hours covered in this film are from midnight to dawn, the period during which reality is suspended, when the rational mind loses control, and everything goes haywire. This is one of the meanest, most boldly deranged exercises in maniacal behavior this side of Ed Gein, minus the dismemberment.”

“…evil doesn’t lurk in his face, it gloats.”Devil Thumbs a Ride-Tierney

“Tierney invests this basically stupid plot with such genuine virulence that Devil must be ranked in the upper echelon of indelibly American noir.”

“There is no daylight in that face.”

D.O.A. (Rudolph Maté, 1949) with Edmund O’Brien, Luther Adler, Neville Brand.

“…this ultra-noir masterpiece, a movie that has everyone in a violent sweat from beginning to end.”

“Maté uses the city streets brilliantly in this, making it all into a maze with O’Brien the fightened, maddened, careening rabbit slamming into the wall with nothing making sense. Sweat, sweat, sweat – this movie has it. All improbable, impossible, with finger-snapping blondes, bop, post-World War Two ‘50s-prosperous American city scenes twisted through the bottom of a glass by an uncompromising Kandinskylike eye.”

Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971) with Michael Caine, Ian Hendry, Britt Ekland.

“An underrated, seldom-mentioned noir masterpiece, Mike Hodges’s Get Carter is the shiny suit of British cinema.”

Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946) with Glenn Ford, Rita Hayworth, George Macready.

“It’s enough just to watch Rita in all her glory descend a winding staircase, to fluff up her hair with one hand and let it fall all over her face while her ears and eyebrows twitch and Macready’s nose goes out of joint.”

Get Carter-posterGilda-poster








Gun Crazy-poster2Gun Crazy-stillGun Crazy (Joesph H. Lewis, 1949) with John Dall, Peggy Cummins.

“The guy – long, tall John Dall, kind of a horse-faced Gary Cooper – has to wrest the platinum Peggy Cummins away from the carnival owner.”

“The camerawork is wicked, like Peggy’s mind; the eye is unblinking, relentless, raking across everything it sees like a claw. It’s a hard, mean focus, and I suppose that’s Joseph Lewis’s trademark: the screen pulsates like an injured nerve…”

“The climactic scene, shot in heavy white fog, is exquisite, startling because of the visual quiet – we just hear voices and shots. All in all, a remarkable little movie: sexy, violent, stupid, sad, pretty, tense, strange. More than enough.”

High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941) with Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino.

“When he gets pinned down on a mountaintop, Marie returns with the dog, who leaps out of her arms and runs to Bogey, who’s then drilled into immortality by the bulls.”

House of Horrors-posterHouse of Horrors (Jean Yarbrough, 1946) with Rondo Hatton.

“A personal favorite of mine, House of Horrors is a fractured exegesis on art, love, and curvature of the spine.”

“His face really was remarkable: a grotesquely beautiful shape that the sculptor in House of Horrors just has to render in clay.”

I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) with Francis Dee, Tom Conway.

“The light is always hazy, the black not quite black but with an opaqueness that makes you strain to see more clearly. The effect is like looking through a keyhole and being shocked by a cold fingertip on your neck.”

Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942) with Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway.

“So much is unexplained in this movie that it works – it’s simple but bizarre and very dark.”

The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) with Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Isabel Jewell.

“The Penitente Parade at the end is as weird a procession as anything ever filmed. Lewton and Tourneur knew precisely how to make the innocent and obvious seem strange and unknown. Submitting yourself to them is like giving yourself over to a leering hypnotist and his hunchback dwarf assistant…”

Cat People-poster2Leopardman-posterI Walked with a Zombie-poster








I Want to Live! (Robert Wise, 1958) with Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland, Theodore Bikel.

“All that’s stacked against a woman is in evidence here, and for a chick who’s trying hard to be a stand-up guy it’s especially gut wrenching. Bodies and shadows pass through, the blacks and whites licking at one another like flames, giving out auras of blue, yellow, green, and gray – until she goes down for the count and everything fades to basic black.”

In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950) with Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy.

“Bogey’s problem is that he can be a mean drunk even when he’s not drinking.”

In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967) with Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Jeff Corey.

“The dark quality of remote flatlands haunts the frame, even indoors. What’s outside is real, ominous, waiting; as dramatic and dynamic as a madman in a hockey mask holding a hatchet.”

“The killers are scars on the plain face of the land, scuttling across it like crabs miles from sand, no place to bury themselves, to escape the light. When they’re hanged their perverse energy oozes out of them like pus from a wound. As valid a portrait of the heart of the country as It’s a Wonderful Life.

The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946) with Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien.

“The Swede offers no resistance: he knows it’s time, life isn’t worth living, and they plug him. But why go down so easily? Why the fatalist? You guessed it: betrayed by a woman. Again. Remember the green scarf with the birds or whatever the hell it had on it? The one she used to wear? Especially if she’s Ava Gardner at her loveliest. Just enough to make you swoon and die. If you’re the Swede, that is.”

The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956) with Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Jr., Timothy Carey, Colleen Gray.

“It’s another great Carey performance as he leers and grunts and groans out of his permanent death-mask face.”

“Everyone looks so worried and concerned throughout that their features are marred, twisted, bent, screwed up in the physical as well as psychological sense.”

Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955) with Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Cloris Leachman.

“This Hammer is kind of an automaton, almost as if he’d been body-snatched and is running on remote control – very remote.”

Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway, 1947) with Victor Mature, Richard Widmark, Colleen Gray, Brian Donleavy.

Kiss of Death-Tommy Udo3“Mature fills up the screen while Widmark wriggles sideways into the frame, a nasty little reptile.”

Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) with Joan Crawford, Ann Blythe, Zachary Scott.

“The theme here is greed, like always, except it’s Southern California style. We get beach houses, mansions, drive-ins, swanky yellow convertibles, adultery out the wazoo, and prick-teasing at its middle-brow best.”

Mr. Majestyk (Richard Fleischer, 1974) with Charles Bronson.

“Bronson doesn’t really mind Cristal’s attention but life beyond the melon patch isn’t quite happening for him.”

“If Peckinpah had made it, movie lizards would consider Mr. Majestyk a masterpiece.”

Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975) with Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Susan Clark, Melanie Griffith.

“Daylight is just some stage we have to go through to get to the moments of truth.”

Night Moves-posterOn Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1952) with Robert Ryan, Ida Lupino, Ward Bond.

“The first half of this movie moves ahead like an express train barely able to stay on the tracks.”

“And the music by Bernard Herrmann, who did so many Hitchcock scores, fractures the pictures, taking them apart and then rewelding them so that the pace hits home like a whirling, bucking bronc, each concussion shattering the previous mood or moment.”

On Dangerous Ground-posterShack Out on 101 (Edward Dein, 1955) with Lee Marvin, Terry Moore, Keenan Wynn, Frank Lovejoy.

“It’s as if William Inge were forced by the government to rewrite some Chekhov play, but set in McCarthy-era America, and he took twenty Valium, washed them down with Old Crow, and dashed it off as the drug grabbed his brain and put him in Palookaville.”

“This movie is a dead-on minimalist portrait of America at its most paranoid. It’s the one to show the history class.”

Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard, 1978) with Dustin Hoffman, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, Theresa Russell.

“This is a troubling movie; it doesn’t make it all the way and yet it nags, gnaws on the viewer like food that just won’t digest.”

Strange Love of Martha Ivers-posterThe Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Mileston, 1946) with Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas, Lisabeth Scott.

“This movie is filled with darkness, brown soot, pessimism, secrecy, control freaks.”

“Nice story, yes? Nobody is happy in this, not even a little bit.”

“Rain, smoke, dirty minds, and bad ideas make this a classic of the corrupt.”

The Strange One (Jack Garfein, 1957) with Ben Gazzara, George Peppard.

“Jocko’s malevolent leer has everyone weirded out, but they’re powerless to avoid him.”

Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951) with Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Leo G. Carroll.

“Nothing’s bolted down in Bruno’s brain; his head is like a trashed pinball machine, with little sparks and bulbs lighting up here and there but in all the wrong places and sequences.”

Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) with William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Jack Webb.

“The movie is an arrow straight into the heart of the Hollywood mystique. It’s something beyond aberration, a larger remark which may not be literature but is nevertheless serious and quite profound.”

They Made Me a Criminal (Busby Berkeley,1939) with John Garfield, Claude Rains.

“This is a sentimental sucker punch of a movie.”

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958) with Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver.

“He uses Akim Tamiroff, who looks like a Turkish Groucho Marx, to set up Vargas’s wife, Susan, as a junkie in order to discredit Vargas. This is an especially fascinating scene, with Mercedes McCambridge playing a lesbian Mexican hoodlum, with the gang of wolf-eyed, leather-jacketed Mex punkers coming down like hyenas on the vulnerable blonde babe.”

The Turning Point (William Dieterle, 1952) with William Holden, Edmund O’Brien, Ed Begley.

“…he’s an amoral monster, willing to torch babies in order to stay on top.”

Where Danger Lives-poster2Where Danger Lives (John Farrow, 1950) with Robert Mitchum, Faith Domergue, Claude Rains.

“She was snakily seductive, though, and her reptilian eyebrows slither and squirm as she coils, strikes and collects Big Bob.”

“Actually, there’s a lot of eyebrow raising in this movie: Domergue, Mitchum and Rains were all experts at one-eyebrow-upmanship, so for a while here it’s kind of an eyebrow Olympics, with the three of them madly manipulating their respective forehead muscles.”

“This is a guy who hasn’t been laid enough because he’s been too busy studying, and when Domergue makes him think she’s giving herself to him when in fact he’s being sucked dry and made stupid by a voracious vampire whore, all we can do is shudder and be wary of love at first bite.”

The Wild One (Laslo Benedek, 1954) with Marlon Brando, Lee Marvin.

“Actually, Brando’s mob are decent fellows compared to the group led by Lee Marvin, who steals the picture right, left, and up the middle.”

Wild One-Lee Marvin****************************************************************************************

Most, if not all, of the films referenced here should be available for either rental or streaming from Netflix, Amazon, and other points on the compass. – Ted Hicks



About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
This entry was posted in Books, Fiction, Film, Home Video, TV. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Barry Gifford on Film Noir – A Way with Words

  1. garywdavis says:

    Amazing mastery of detail! Thanks for your good work. The New Yorker should run this.


  2. Pingback: Ein Kapitel aus "King of Cool. Die Elmore Leonard Story" - CulturMag

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s