Nonfiction

Matinee Idylls: Reflections on the Movies, by Richard Schickel (Ivan R. Dee, $26.50). Richard Schickel has a knack for assessing what makes a movie work. Discussing "Ninotchka," the 1939 comedy that restored Greta Garbo's popularity, he writes that its creators -- notably writers Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett and director Ernst Lubitsch -- "did for Garbo what has to be done for every actress -- names like Harlow and Marilyn Monroe come to mind -- who makes her initial impact as a sex symbol of great and exotic force: they gave her the opportunity to practice humanizing self-satire." Other subjects in this collection include King Vidor (in Schickel's estimation "the greatest [American] silent director"); Irene Dunne; Charles Laughton; Fellini; and the decline of narrative skills in Hollywood movies, a problem that the author links with the failure of the critically acclaimed "L.A. Confidential" to do more than so-so business at the box office.

The Mysterious Miss Marie Corelli: Queen of the Victorian Bestsellers, by Teresa Ransom (Sutton, $39.95). What did Marie Corelli and John Milton have in common? The nerve to make Satan a character in their works -- Milton in, of course, Paradise Lost and Corelli in such novels as The Sorrows of Satan and The Devil's Motor. In the latter, says the reference work British Women Writers, Lucifer shows up wearing "smoked glasses" at the wheel of "a huge touring car . . . and is so shocked at human sin that he drives off [a] cliff with all humankind following to destruction." Otherwise, there is little or no correspondence between Milton's majestically wrought verse and Corelli's slapdash verbosity. But diabolically peopled or not, Corelli's novels were snapped up by an adoring public in the early years of this century, with Queen Victoria putting herself down for an automatic two copies of each new work. In this biography Teresa Ransom exposes the manifold ways in which Corelli, nee Mary Mackay, altered, embellished and covered up features of her past, including her illegitimate birth.

William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America, by David J. Langum (New York Univ., $34.95). William Kunstler's clients ranged from political radicals such as Black Panther H. Rap Brown to mass murderers such as Long Island railroad killer Colin Ferguson. The common thread was being an outcast -- that was the kind of person Kunstler wanted to advocate for. Although some Americans considered him disloyal, he had served his country in World War II, winning a Bronze Star. And he clearly was not in it for the money -- when he died, his estate of $400,000 consisted almost entirely of his Greenwich Village brownstone. "Most people who actually met the man," writes the author of this biography, who dissociates himself from his subject's radical politics, "enjoyed his company, regardless of how they stood on Kunstler's politics or public posturings."