From the toy department of the fiction boutique: some 85 mini-biographies of fictional characters from about 75 American movies, most of them more or less in the film noir mode, from Morocco (1930) and The Maltese Falcon (1941) through Hitchcock to Body Heat and Cutter's Way (1981). On one level, film critic Thomson is simply playing film-buff games here--with plenty of cutesiness in the imaginary inter-relationships among the movie-characters: George Bailey of It's A Wonderful Life, who is the narrator (often out-of-character) throughout, turns out to be the brother-in-law of Laura, the father of Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver); Norma Desmond, though 61 at the end of Sunset Boulevard, manages to give birth to Joe Gillis' posthumous son. . . who grows up to be Julian Kay of American Gigolo. And there's some intermittent, in-jokey amusement in the details of the movie-characters' lives before or after the action in the film: Rick and Louis Renault of Casablanca become homosexual lovers; Ilsa winds up writing subtitles for Ingmar Bergman movies in the Fifties; Victor Laszlo dies of emphysema--having ""kept up a vulgar society trick of smoking two cigarettes at the same time."" But Thomson, who displayed his idiosyncratic taste and a penchant for socio-cultural portentousness in Over-exposures (1981), is also using the gimmickry here to write an oblique version of an uninspired film essay--about such tired subjects as the American Dream (""All these people going west""), the failure of the American Dream, the lack of ""authenticity"" in America, etc., etc. Moreover, though many of the films here do have substantial resonance for American moviegoers, many others are merely cult/Thomson favorites. See Max Apple and others for genuinely haunting fiction made from popular-culture icons; this tortured item--part puerile, part pretentious--is only for fanatic film noir buffs who also enjoyed John Barth's Letters.