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By Timothy Hallinan


I read at least twenty books, possibly thirty, for every movie I see. Books change my life virtually on a daily basis, usually in tiny increments—a glimpse of something I didn’t know, a glimmering of moral or ethical enlightenment, an original kind of humor. If I were a mosaic at least half the bits of color that define me would have been chipped, in passing, out of books.


For all I know, there may be personalities that are self-generating, but I believe that more of them are (like mine) essentially acquisitive. There’s a bivalve mollusk called the Carrier Shell that roams aimlessly around the bottom of the sea, picking up bits and pieces of other shells, coral, broken glass, pirates’ teeth, whatever, to make itself bigger and harder to swallow.


I identify with that mollusk. I’ve assembled myself, I sometimes feel, out of people I’ve met and books I’ve read, adding and subtracting until I’ve got something that feels like a plausible mix and seems to have the things I need to stop roaming aimlessly around around the bottom of the sea and actually get somewhere.


Movies have probably influenced me less than books have, but because I’ve seen so few of them, relatively speaking. For the same reason, individual films stand out more. So here we go, in the order in which I saw them.

The Maltese Falcon,” written and directed in 1941 by John Huston (his first film!) proved to me that perfection is possible in a work of popular art (or any other kind of art, for that matter) and was therefore worth chasing, even if no one but Huston will ever get there. The casting, perfect; the writing, perfect; the pacing, Mary Astor, the cinematography, Mary Astor, the direction. Mary Astor. How perfect was it? So perfect that in the 73 years since it was made, no one in the most imitative industry on earth has attempted a remake, except for a couple of pallid television series swipes at the characters. And it also changed my life by introducing me to Humphrey Bogart, who was the reason I watched . . .


The Big Sleep:” Bogey brought me to this mean little stunner, directed in 1946 by Howard Hawks from a screenplay by, uh, William Faulkner, based on a book by someone I hadn’t read at the time, Raymond Chandler. (This is the production in which the director and screenwriter, unable to figure out who killed a chauffeur, wrote the novelist a letter asking whodunnit and got back the response, “Damned if I know.”) I loved the whole package—I was sort of addicted to Hawks at the time—but what I liked best was the Los Angeles it pictured, a warm place full of cold people, individual arctic micro-climates glinting in the sun. So I read the book and then the other books, and then I started writing. I would never have written either Junior Bender or Poke Rafferty if I hadn’t seen “The Big Sleep.”

This is Spinal Tap,” (1984, Robb Reiner, director, Christopher Guest, presiding spirit) for teaching me that nothing and no one is actually cool because whatever attitude feels cool today will be an emotional mullet in a year or two. This realization/recognition has freed me up to be whoever the hell I’ve put together without worrying at all about whether I’m au courant, since today’s au courant is tomorrow’s Justin Bieber. Oh, yeah, and the movie taught me there’s no reason not to have my own personal amps go all the way to eleven.


Tonari no Totoro/My Neighbor Totoro”(1988, Hisayo Miyazaki) To tell a fascinating, inspiring, thrilling, funny, heart-clenching, spirit-lifting story, you don’t need a villain. This is such a fundamental recognition it’s like realizing, as a very small child, that it’s the car that’s moving, not the scenery. Miyazake does it in this wondrous fantasy about two little city girls who have moved to a house in a forest full of magic, and he does it again in “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” about a young witch who puts her broomstick flight skills to practical use. Great stories, no villains. I haven’t figured out how to do it myself, but this guy has:


Afterlife” (Hirokazu Koreeda, 1998): Another great storyteller who doesn’t feel the need for a villain. This film changed some of my most basic attitudes toward my life. You die. You wind up in a group of people who died at the same time you did, in what looks like an abandoned junior high school, where you’re going to remain for one week. During that week you’re to work with a counselor to find the one moment in your life in which you want to spend eternity. Almost all the film’s characters start with something big and work their way down to something tiny: a teenage girl begins by choosing the night her class went to Splash Mountain and ends with a moment when she was four and had her head in her mother’s lap and her mother was wearing a clean linen apron. Literally woke me up to the fact that I’d been paying no attention to moments that were literally irreplaceable and unrepeatable, and are, if I simply slow down and acknowledge them, the highlights of my life.

There are performers and directors who had a permanent impact on me, but over a span of films: Buster Keaton and Akira Kurosawa stand out. But these are the five individual films that I can say changed the way I see things. Of course, it might be a different list (except for “After Life”) tomorrow.


Timothy Hallinan is the author of sixteen published novels including two current series, the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers and the Junior Bender mysteries. The fourth Junior Bender book, Herbie’s Game, will be published in July by Soho Crime.