Words On Pictures

I was recently telling someone about how the great Sidney Lumet said he had used long shots and closeups in a couple of his films — “Twelve Angry Men” and “The Verdict” — to produce a desired emotional response in the audience. I started out to look up the examples he gave and ended by rereading his entire brief, brilliant book on the director’s art and craft, “Making Movies.”

My education focused on literature, history and politics, which I loved, but my heart has always belonged to the movies. It began when my mother, who shared the passion, took me to “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “War of the Worlds,” but also films that starred some of her favorites like Robert Taylor in “Party Girl,” at whose screening I was definitely the only ten-year-old in the audience.

In addition to spending a lot of my life in movie theaters and watching old films on television I’ve enjoyed learning about them from film makers and their critics. Here’s a little list of must-reads when there’s no movie worth watching at the multiplex.

Lumet’s “Making Movies” is an illuminating discussion of all the human and technical factors that have to be organized to produce a film– script, lighting, camera work, sets, acting of course, editing, sound. By the time Lumet gets through, you realize that it’s a wonder than any movie gets made or that some are actually wonderful.

An essential reference work is David Thomson’s “Biographical Dictionary of Film.” This sounds as dry as dust but is actually endlessly entertaining. Because Thomson loves movies and knows a great deal about them, he has chosen to make each of his entries, hundreds of them, a mini-essay full of appreciation, criticism and opinion as well as a complete list of the subjects films, from Abbott and Costello to Edward Zwick.

Thomson, for example, regards Howard Hawks very highly and has grave reservations about the often lionized John Ford. He regards Cary Grant as possibly the greatest film actor, and makes a persuasive, subtle case for the notion. You may agree or disagree with his conclusions, bit you are forced to think anew about your own notions and look at many works with new eyes.

A couple of books of interviews are essential reading. One is “Hitchcock/Truffaut” in the which the French director got the admired older man to sit down and discuss each of his films in chronological order. Truffaut has the pro’s interest in finding out how and why Hitchcock put what he did on the screen. It’s a funny, revealing master class in the way movies are made.

Richard Schickel’s “The Men Who Made the Movies” is the companion volume to a series of TV films from 1969. It consists of interviews with eight golden age directors including Hawks, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, George Cukor and Vincente Minnelli. Apparently some of the TV episodes pop up on TCM occasionally, but that’s catch as catch can. While waiting, you can read the book.

A couple serious books about how Hollywood came to be Hollywood and how it operated in the days of the studio system are indispensable — “The Genius of the System” by Thomas Schaltz and “An Empire of their Own” by Neal Gabler.

Among the best film autobiographies is “The Name Above the Title” by Frank Capra who gave us “It Happened One Night,” “Meet John Doe,” “Lost Horizon,” and Mr Smith and Mr. Deeds. Biographies of movie people often tend toward the two poles of hagiography or smear, but an entertaining and revealing exception is “Baby, I Just Don’t Care” which recounts the remarkable career of a most unusual man, Robert Mitchum.

Another is Schickel’s “The Disney Version,” an unsentimental look at how an empire was made. Spoiler alert: Walt’s studio was often not the happiest place on earth for the employees.

Finally, no film library an be complete without the work of several seminal film critics beginning with Otis Ferguson and James Agee who were active during the studio heyday and the tart and passionate Pauline Kael. She wrote when a new Hollywood was being born in the second half of the 20th century, but two pieces on earlier films — a famous excavation of the authorship of Citizen Kane, “Raising Kane” and her mash note to Cary Grant “The Man from Dream City” — can’t be beat.


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