The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
by David Thomson
A review by Benjamin Schwartz
A reference book of extraordinary literary merit, this eccentric, audacious, sparkling work returns — revised, updated, and bulging with 300 new entries (including Rin Tin Tin and Graham Greene), which helps to account for its nearly 1,000 closely printed double-column pages. Probably the greatest living film critic and historian, Thomson, an Englishman who lives in San Francisco, writes the most fun and enthralling prose about the movies since Pauline Kael. His judgments in these pungent mini- and not-so-mini-essays can be exasperatingly wrong: He characterizes Mike Nichols's vacuous and pretentious wife Diane Sawyer as "lovely and smart"; how can he express any reservations about Children of Paradise? And although he's hardly an auteurist, his book focuses on directors at the expense of writers and producers.
But regarding the important issues Thomson is almost always dead-on: He champions the supreme genius of Howard Hawks, who captured better than any other filmmaker both "masculine romanticism" (in Red River) and "the dazzling battles of word, innuendo, glance, and gesture" between men and women (in Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, and, of course, His Girl Friday). He astutely observes that Agnes Moorehead figures in "the two most indelibly humane moments in the work of Orson Welles" — the scene in Citizen Kane in which Kane's mother opens the window "to call in her son from the snow so that he may advance on his destiny" and the scene in The Magnificent Ambersons in which "Aunt Fanny watches Georgie devouring her strawberry shortcake, pleased to be useful ... but knowing that he does not need her, deeply aware that her vibrant romantic hopes are growing shrill with neglect." He appreciates the often neglected Jean Arthur, prizing her "rare, querulous charm" and the "earnest, furious thought" she brought to comedy and romance. He knows that Cary Grant "was the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema" — and he even has the perspicacity to recognize as Grantlike the "wit, narrative speed, and good-natured ease" of the great TV show The Rockford Files. The book is a marvel.
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