How Does It Feel?

References to Detective Fiction & Films
Found in Bob Dylan's Work

Playing hide-and-seek with Dylan's lyrics is a full-time gig, but Dylan's bonds to hard-boiled crime and detective fiction -- and particularly film -- go far deeper than a world-weary attitude, a cock-eyed wit or a simple refusal to be not play the sap for anyone.

In fact, Jim Linwood's amazing Film Dialogue in the Lyrics of Bob Dylan web site helpfully points out that of the sixty-odd films from which Dylan has "borrowed" lines of dialogue:

"... nineteen belong to the dark, cynical cycle of 40/50s crime films that French cineastes later christened 'film noir' and nine star the archetypal noir anti-hero, Humphrey Bogart. The film from which most of Dylan's quotes are taken is John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), which defined the noir genre and Bogart's screen persona."

Spade and Dylan may not have trusted each other, but they would have understood each other.

Hell, we could argue all day about whether "Ballad of a Thin Man" has anything to do with Spade or Hammett -- or Flitcraft.

But for the more literal-minded, Bob Dylan's 1985 album, Empire Burlesque, does contain several pretty clear references to John Huston's film classic The Maltese Falcon, including:

  • "I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble..."
    -- Seeing the Real You at Last
  • "Don't look for me/I'll see you..."
    -- When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky
  • "Maybe you love me and I love you ..."
    -- When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky

  • "You wanna talk to me/Go ahead and talk..."
    -- Tight Connection to My Heart
  • "Well, I'll have some rotten nights after I've sent you over/But that'll pass..."
    -- Seeing the Real You at Last.

  • "At one time there was nothing wrong with me/That you could not fix..."
    -- Seeing The Real You At Last

From Knocked Out Loaded:

  • He also paraphrases some dialogue between Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas from the 1947 RKO noir classic Out of the Past.

    "You said you were going' to Frisco, stay a couple of months.
    I always liked San Francisco, I was there for a party once."
    -- Maybe Someday"

But there are a ton more. Other crime or detective films Dylan has cited include The Petrified Forest, The Big Store, All Through The Night, Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, To Have And Have Not, Key Largo, City That Never Sleeps, On The Waterfront, Rear Window, 12 Angry Men, Shoot The Piano Player, The Hustler and Taxi Driver, among others.

I'm not making any of this up, either. I stumbled across them in All Across the Telegraph, a collection of items pulled from a British Bob Dylan fanzine, edited by Michael Gray and John Bauldie.

Dylan has always struck me as a bit of a hard-boiled guy, anyway. In 1997's Time Out of Mind album, he lets fly with what I think is perhaps the ultimate noir line of despair:

"Don't know if I saw you
If I would kiss you or kill you
It probably wouldn't matter to you anyhow..."
-- Standing in The Doorway

There are also a few passages with references to crime and detective (and a few sentences that could have come right out of a hard-boiled P.I. novel) in his rambling 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, including:

  • "He (Albert Grossman) looked like Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon." (p. 97).

  • "I had the Mike Hammer attitude, my own particular brand of justice. The courts were too slow and too complicated, don't take care of business. My sentiment was that the law is fine but this time, I'm the law -- the dead can't speak for themselves. I'm speaking for 'em. Okay?" (p. 51)

  • "It's a crazy mixed up world and you have to look it right in the eye." (p. 45)

  • "Oh, the wicked ironies of life. I'd gotten a cosmic kick in the pants. I probably should have been wearing steel underwear." (p. 162)


  • Empire Burlesque.....Buy this CD
    by Bob Dylan
    (1985, Columbia Records)

  • Knocked Out Loaded.....Buy this CD
    by Bob Dylan?
    (1986, Columbia Records)


  • Chronicles: Volume One (2004; by Bob Dylan).....Buy this CD
    Dylan is often infuriatingly full of himself, and sometimes he's just full of shit, but his magic swirling shit's still more fascinating than almost anyone else's.


Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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