Off-camera lives of movie characters

Suspects, by David Thomson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 274 pp. $16.95. We sit spellbound in darkness and watch movie characters enter, then leave, our lives. What we see of their lives may be only a day or two, sometimes a few months or a year, but almost always only a segment.

What sort of lives did these imagined people have before and what were their lives like after the lights went on? If you have ever indulged in such speculation, you are not alone: David Thomson has, too, and his ``Suspects'' is a richly imagined novel that draws its energy from famous movie characters.

Thomson's method is interesting. He provides capsule biographies of 85 characters from 65 movies, virtually all of them film noir classics, and in the process creates a small universe of losers, criminals, and other less-than-wholesome types.

Among those whose lives he imagines outside of their movie roles are: Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson in ``Chinatown''), Cody Jarrett (James Cagney in ``White Heat''), Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker in ``Strangers on a Train''), Casper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet in ``The Maltese Falcon''), Cora Papadakis (Lana Turner in ``The Postman Always Rings Twice''), and Julian Kay (Richard Gere in ``American Gigolo'').

Thomson's novel lacks a strong narrative core -- it reads something like a cross between Who's Who and a Latin American novel -- yet it amounts to a collective portrait, partly infused by myth, of the Americans most Americans don't want to become.

Yet even though it traffics in outcasts and losers, ``Suspects'' is anything but tacky. It is, in fact, an elegant if occasionally too self-conscious novel which seems to suggest that movie characters inhabit us, and the other way around.

James Kaufmann reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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