The Magic of the Movies: two great books about film

November 26, 2007 at 11:45 pm (books, Film and television)

The Great Films: Fifty Golden Years of Motion Pictures, by Bosley Crowther (1967)

A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video, by David N. Meyer (1998)

Bosley Crowther reviewed movies for The New York Times from the early 1940’s to the late 1960’s. Such was his influence as a critic during those years that the producers of the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde are said to have panicked over his negative review, fearing that it would cause people to stay away in droves. (They were wrong, of course.). I remember making my way up Fifth Avenue in New York City in 1967, stopping at Brentano’s, seeing this book, and buying it immediately – a large format soft cover book for the whopping price of $3.95!

The front and back covers alone made it irresistible. the-great-films-front.jpg the-great-films-back.jpg

Somehow, through forty years of frequently moving house (until 1987, when things finally stabilized), I have managed to hold on to this precious volume. It is currently somewhat tattered but still intact. Bosley Crowther’s astute and trenchant criticism (accompanied by marvelous black-and-white stills from the films he discusses) has contributed immeasurably to my lifelong movie-going enjoyment.

garbo14.jpg Leafing through The Great Films has brought back many memories. For instance, I recall that my mother could hardly wait for me to be old enough to see Camille (1936) with her. She was waiting for my romantic sensibilities to mature, I think. I’ll never forget watching it with her, and I’ll never forget Camille/Great Garbo dying in Robert Taylor’s arms as he cries out, “Don’t leave me, Marguerite!” I was in tears, as was my mother. camille.jpg

Here is Bosley Crowther on Marlene Dietrich’s performance in The Blue Angel (1929):

dietrich.jpg “The woman that Marlene Dietrich exudes in this dark, degenerate tale of the destruction of a German schoolmaster by a faithless cabaret girl is so far advanced beyond the limits of the sleek, husband-stealing vamps, the poignant, self-sacrificing mistresses and the shimmying bowlfuls of ‘it’ that so inadequately stated the attraction of women for men in silent films, it’s no wonder she caused a world sensation, launched Miss Dietrich on a fabulous career and became, as it were, the grandmother of a whole slew of notable screen sluts.”

Some of my other favorites from this book:

night.jpg A Night at the Opera, with the incomparable Marx Brothers

maltese02.jpg The Maltese Falcon. I believe this is the scene in which Spade/Bogart taunts Elisha Cook Jr.with one of my favorite lines in crime fiction: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”

ivan_the_terrible_2.jpg Eisenstein’s stunning Ivan the Terrible

henryv.jpgOlivier’s masterful Henry V

Finally, two films that I truly treasure:

paradfis.jpgparadis.jpg Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), directed by Marcel Carne, was made under the extremely stressful conditions prevailing in occupied France in the closing days of the Second World War.

seventh-seal130.jpg seventh2.jpg Through a series of stunning images linked to a medieval knight’s despairing quest, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1956) forces us to face the most fundamental questions of our existence – and dares us to find the answers.

girlgun.jpg A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video by David N. Meyer is a traversal of the dark world of film noir that is blessedly free of film school jargon. Meyer’s writing is witty and accessible, and he has a way of codifying the film noir sensibility that makes the appeal of this genre immediately understandable. (The book takes its title from a comment by Jean Luc Godard: “All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun.”)

From the introduction: “As purely an American art form as jazz or the Western, noir sprang from a specific set of social and creative circumstances: the end of World War II, the impact of European refugees on an American art form, the mainstream film studios’ need for a steady supply of low budgets, lurid pictures, and the ascendance of a particular writing style.”

Meyer is, of course, alluding to the clipped, highly stylized argot of the masters of hardboiled detective fiction.

hammett.jpg james-m-cain-2-sized.jpg chandler.jpg spillane.jpg

Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane – all wrote stories and novels that were made into classic noir films. “The writers created heroes who dealt with spiritual crisis (caused by the emptiness of Amercian middle-class life) by alternating between emotional withdrawal and attack. The refugee directors preferred a more sardonic, alienated approach.” Meyer then concludes: “The combining of these sensibilities helped create one of the great creative outpourings in American history.”

Meyer goes on to expatiate on what he considers to be the defining themes of film noir:

“No good deed goes unpunished.

A detached, ironic view is the only refuge.

Crime doesn’t pay, but normal life is an experiential/existential straitjacket.

Character determines fate.

Though love might seem to be the only redeeming aspect of human existence, it’s not.

Kicks count for something.

Alienation rules.”

The author proceeds to list seventeen titles – the “Noir Canon” – that best represent the genre. Among them are The Asphalt Jungle, Chinatown, Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, Laura, and of course, The Maltese Falcon. A more comprehensive list, with commentary and critique on each film, rounds out the book.

Some of my favorites among them:

mms03.jpg Murder, My Sweet, starring Dick Powell

bigsleep.jpg The Big Sleep, starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart

sweet-smell-1-400.jpg The Sweet Smell of Success, starring Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster (for my money, the best performance ever given by Tony Curtis)

stanwyck.jpg indemnity.jpg Double Indemnity, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray

And finally, a film that you could say transcends the genre by virtue not only of stunning performances by Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles but of terrific writing by Graham Greene: The Third Man.

third-man557.jpg thirdmanr22.jpg graham_greene.jpg

[Left to right: Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Graham Greene]

Both The Great Films and A Girl and a Gun are out of print. Both can be obtained used from Amazon or AbeBooks.

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