The Washington Post

Book review: ‘The New Biographical Dictionary of Film’ and ‘Not to be Missed’

Sixth Edition

By David Thomson

Knopf. 1154 pp. Paperback,

Fifty-four Favorites From a Lifetime of Film

By Kenneth Turan

PublicAffairs. 345 pp. $25.99


"The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition" by David Thomson (Knopf/Knopf)

Sixth Edition

By David Thomson

Knopf. 1154 pp. Paperback, $29.95


Fifty-four Favorites from a Lifetime of Film

By Kenneth Turan

PublicAffairs. 345 pp. $25.99

"Not to be Missed: Fifty-four Favorites from a Lifetime of Film" by Kenneth Turan (PublicAffairs/PublicAffairs)

These two books — one a revision, the other brand-new — join the long line of lists, dictionaries and encyclopedias aimed at satisfying our lust for ratings of movies and profiles of the actors, directors and moguls who make them.

David Thomson, who writes about film for the New Republic, acknowledges that if this sixth edition of his invaluable “Biographical Dictionary of Film” is “not to be the last, then a seventh will have to break new ground and may even need a word beyond ‘film.’ ” Thomson is alluding to the technological innovations now threatening to crowd out the traditional moviegoing experience. As early as the fourth edition, in 2002, he gave an entry to Johnny Carson, and this time, he finds room for Bryan Cranston and Jon Hamm, who, despite having middling Hollywood résumés, warrant coverage for their pivotal work in the cable series “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.”

Now in his early 70s and living in Northern California, Thomson grew up haunting the movie palaces of London and remains wedded to the shared pleasure of watching films in theaters. He also delivers and argues for strong opinions — this book is closer in tone to Pauline Kael’s peppery “5001 Nights at the Movies” than to Ephraim Katz’s genteel “Film Encyclopedia.”

But Thomson has been toiling long enough to savor the triumph of seeing his once-eccentric views vindicated. As he notes in his introduction, “I admired Nicholas Ray more than I did David Lean [and] felt that the most important actors in film history were Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, and Barbara Stanwyck; and so on. Such claims are closer to orthodox now, but they disturbed plenty of people in 1975 when the book was first published. (Indeed, I discovered that both Grant and Mitchum were taken aback.)”

Thomson excels at both one-liners and extended analysis. After conceding that actress Keira Knightley is “astonishingly beautiful,” he calls her “about as interesting as a creme brulee where too much refrigeration has killed flavor with ice burn.” Thomson quips that director Todd Haynes’s 2011 HBO remake of “Mildred Pierce” “needed a touch of trash.”

A few pages ahead of the Haynes entry comes the one on director Howard Hawks, a great favorite of Thomson’s. The Hawks write-up works a variation on the old desert-island game: Which 10 films from the global archive would you toss into a life raft as your ship sank? Sifting through Hawks titles, Thomson gets stuck — how could he possibly do without “Bringing Up Baby” or “Only Angels Have Wings” or “His Girl Friday” or “To Have and Have Not” or “Rio Bravo”? He ends up squandering up his entire allotment on the silver fox alone, then wondering if he shouldn’t have cheated and grabbed more. In Hawks he finds an “optimism” based on “a delight in people.” Thomson himself maintains lofty critical standards while exuding an unfailing delight in movies.

Kenneth Turan, a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s “Morning Edition” (and, once upon a time, a staff writer for The Washington Post), beats the drum for his choices in “Not to Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites From a Lifetime of Film.” The book contains some entries found in almost everyone’s canon: “Sherlock, Jr.,” “The Lady Eve,” “Casablanca,” “All About Eve” and “Vertigo.” Among the surprises are “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964), a film of Christ’s life made by a nonbeliever (Pier Paolo Pasolini) and selected by a Jew (Turan). Surprisingly, no Hawks films make the cut.

Turan singles out a number of movies that tend to be overlooked. One is “Bombshell,” a 1933 Jean Harlow vehicle that he considers one of the best self-critiques Hollywood has ever generated. (He gets a basic fact about Harlow wrong, though: She died “tragically young” all right, but not at age 37; she was only 26.) And if you’ve seen “Stranded” (2007) and “Senna” (2010), which Turan packages as a “Documentary Double Feature” in his section on “The New Century,” you are a film buff to be reckoned with.

The book’s real value, however, may lie in the oddities that Turan has unearthed over a lifetime of viewing: connections between films and cultures that showcase influences and enhance reputations:

●In making “Tokyo Story” (1953), which regularly appears high on critics’ best lists, director Yasujiro Ozu was inspired by an obscure Hollywood movie called “Make Way for Tomorrow” (1937), directed by Leo McCarey.

• The director Ernst Lubitsch was such a commanding figure that when James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan were unavailable for his next project, “The Shop Around the Corner,” Lubitsch didn’t miss a beat. He shelved “Shop” temporarily and instead made “Ninotchka” (1939) with Greta Garbo. A year later, he succeeded in making “Shop” with the stars he wanted, giving us two masterpieces instead of one.

• When John Wayne declined the starring role in “Seven Men From Now” (1956), from a script commissioned by his own production company, director Budd Boetticher asked who should take Wayne’s place. “Well, let’s use Randolph Scott. He’s through,” Wayne replied. But Scott turned out to be far from “through.” He went on to star in several more Westerns directed by Boetticher, all of which have become cult classics.

A couple of years ago, David Thomson provided Sight and Sound magazine with a list of his 10 favorite movies of all time. Except for “The Shop Around the Corner,” his 10 and Turan’s 54 coincide not at all — proof that two of our best critics can size up the art of film in almost entirely different ways.

Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.

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