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Suspects

July 14, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

David Thomson (Knopf: $16.95; 274 pp.)

I have a haunting, half-waking dream in which I am in the presence of all the people I have ever known, family and friends, the quick and the dead, the women I've loved. I'm sure the dream is not mine alone, and neither is the fact that in the crowd are movie figures, the actors sometimes themselves and sometimes the characters they played. Garbo is always Ninotchka, Mary Astor is Brigid O'Shaughnessy, Clifton Webb stands haughtily as Waldo Lydecker; it is James Stewart as Mr. Smith.

Some social scientists think we live on borrowed dreams, our memories overloaded and corrupted with a life's worth of movie watching and television, so that even if it is true that we are all the characters in our dreams, we are never wholly ourselves any more, but the bits and pieces and speech and movements of our watchings.

David Thomson, the English film historian and critic who now lives in San Francisco, has in "Suspects" done something that seems in the same breath original and ingenious and inevitable, a movie fan's delight that is as well a mordant commentary on the loss of national innocence.

He has speculated on the whole lives of film characters, the times and events before and after we saw them on screen, inventing brief biographies that are triggered by clues from the films (and occasionally, from the actors' other roles and their private personas).

Victor Laszlo from "Casablanca" proves to be suspect as an underground hero, ends up in the United States as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee and dies of cancer from his habit of smoking two cigarettes at once. But this of course is Paul Henreid, who was Laszlo, lighting up for Bette Davis in that unforgettable bit of business from "A Stolen Life," and it is one of the countless small, sardonic inside references in "Suspects."

But more than invent 85 of these often astoundingly imaginative profiles--Noah Cross, Lydecker himself, Gwen Chelm, Harry Lime and Kay Corleone, Norman Bates and Gilda Farrell, Bree Daniels and John Klute--he has cross-connected many of the lives, from film to film. (It is interesting, not least, how many of the character names have stayed in memory.)

So Julian Kay, the Richard Gere character in "American Gigolo," is discovered to be the son of Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis (Gloria Swanson and William Holden, that would be) from "Sunset Boulevard," born in a mental hospital after his mother had had the nervous breakdown after she'd shot Gillis and left him floating face down in the pool, to begin his posthumous explanation of how he came to be dead. The pregnancy may have been biologically unlikely, but in film, all is possible.

That specific linkage is startling and arresting, but it is also revealing of Thomson's intent to do more than play fanzine games. He is after a glimpse of our times even darker than film noir saw it during its taut, chiaroscuro heyday. There is a jolting shortage of happy endings in "Suspects."

Thomson has also written a mystery. The biographies have a common narrator, whose literary style changes a bit from life to life and who provides brief, italicized commentaries. His identity is hinted at but withheld until the end. His commentaries are, like the biographies themselves, written with an elegiac elegance that makes "Suspects" a literary event transcending film itself as a genre and film prose as the bleak and banal sub-form it frequently is.

Consider, as token of Thomson's inspired convolutions, the account of Jack Torrance, the Jack Nicholson figure in "The Shining," scribbling away in that ghost-filled resort hotel:

"What was he writing all the time, in those empty, sun-blanched rooms where the timbers creaked and the outer brightness of snow rose like a tide against the glass? All those years of solitary movie-going, a pastime that left him forever pale, had degenerated into a vast, God-forsaken novel (albeit masquerading as a work of reference) involving the characters from those movies, their lives enlarged beyond the scope of the films. A mad book, a unique book, but not his own book. And like all thieves, he went in dire terror of being stolen from. That was why he left a top-sheet on this pile becoming a book, covered with the dittoes of one line, 'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.' "

The mystery narrator is not Thomson but another film character, although, in Thomson's shimmering hall of mirrors, it is the narrator's book idea that Torrance has filched.

"I have a special fondness for Jack," the narrator says in his commentary. "He taught me that I might be mad, instead of just unhappy--quite a striking addition to my role. And then he sprang to life, so real a character that he chose to steal the half of the book already written and make off down the beanstalk. I had to give chase, of course, but through tears of love for him for seeing such promise in the story so far."

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