A matter of life and death in the film industry

Faber's new series of movie biographies is launched this month. Frank McLynn goes for the wrap

Movie biographies have come of age only in the present generation. Thirty years ago books written about the stars and directors of the silver screen were overwhelmingly scissors-and-paste jobs, where the principal source was the cuttings file. Nowadays film scholarship tends to be meticulous, with each studio archive carefully annotated and each interview scrupulously dated. The result has been some very fine books: Leaming on Welles, Spoto on Hitchcock, Manso on Brando, Lewis on Sellers, to name a handful. This tradition is maintained in the half-dozen volumes with which Faber launches its series of movie biographies (all pounds 12.99 paperback).

Kevin MacDonald's Emmeric Pressburger. The Life and Death of a Screenwriter (467pp) is a labour of love, as Pressburger was his grandfather. In partnership with Michael Powell as "The Archers", Pressburger wrote some of the finest movies in British film history: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus. Although he died at 86, his career was essentially finished at 50. While Michael Powell enjoyed a revival and was taken up by Hollywood luminaries like Coppola and Scorsese, Pressburger was the forgotten man. The old joke says that if you have a Hungarian for a friend you don't need enemies, but this particular Hungarian refugee from the Nazis was really the one let down by his friend. Having over the years patched up many quarrels caused by the mercurial and difficult Powell, he was not taken under the umbrella when Powell's career got a new lease of life.

Although it should be taken with a pinch of salt, Don Siegel's A Siegel Film (500pp) is the most entertaining of the six. Siegel was a highly talented director of action movies (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Charley Varrick, The Shootist) and did much to further the career of Clint Eastwood who figures prominently in these pages. Much of Siegel's book is taken up with a kind of "Thucydidean" dialogue with movie greats, allegedly a faithful transcript of the conversations. Now, either we have to accept that Siegel was an early Tony Benn, in that he tape-recorded everything, or we must believe that all this is in the spirit of l'escalier. Since Siegel is consistently witty and wise and invariably gets the better of all his interlocutors, the conclusion is obvious.

Joseph Losey fled his native US and the anti-communist witchhunts to make a new career in Britain in 1952. He was one of the legion whose fame was a Sixties' phenomenon, being particularly associated with Dirk Bogarde (The Servant, Accident) and with Burton and Taylor. But what really established his reputation was the paean from the influential Cahiers du Cinema where one critic straight-facedly compared him to Valery, Nietzsche, Hegel, Bach and Stendahl. According to David Caute in Joseph Losey. A Revenge on Life (591pp), Losey was a deeply unpleasant man, an apologist for Stalin who tried to avoid conscription in the Second World War and ducked a real confrontation with the McCarthyites. Certainly he got on the wrong side of J Edgar Hoover, and the lengthy FBI file is an important source for this book.

Another director to joust with the paladins of the House Un-American Activities Committee was Nicholas Ray, like Losey a darling of Cahiers du Cinema. Bernard Eisenschitz was a member of the board on that magazine, and the main fault of his Nicholas Ray. An American Journey (599pp) is that he concentrates overly on the film oeuvre so that there is too little about Ray's private life. Ray was divorced after a brief marriage to Gloria Grahame, who promptly married Ray's eldest son. This should make sensational copy, but Eisenschitz mentions it and then hurries on to more film criticism. Given that many of Ray's movies (Rebel without a Cause, Run for Cover) centre on father-son conflict, this seems an odd way to write a biography.

The problem with Joseph McBride's Frank Capra. The Catastrophe of Success (763pp) is that the author does not like his subject. It is of course permissible for a biographer to "take against" his hero while writing the life, but McBride shows no real understanding of Capra the artist, and should have cried off the project on those grounds. In this book Capra is always wrong: he failed the challenge of the blacklist, and the real credit for his best films should go to the screenwriter Robert Riskin, Pressburger to Capra's Powell. Even in the dispute with Columbia's notorious studio head Harry Cohn, where Capra was undoubtedly in the right, McBride manages to suggest that Capra overreacted and behaved self-destructively.

The opposite problem arises with David Weddle's Sam Peckinpah. 'If They Move...Kill 'Em!'. This is a further devotional offering to the cult of Peckinpah, misogynist, racist (see his treatment of Mexicans) and maker of hyper-violent celluloid bloodbaths. Of course for the Peckinpah cultists, the man is a genius, but there is not much one can do about cults. Weddle seems unable to grasp the point that it is permissible to make one film about hyper-violence (as Kubrick did with A Clockwork Orange and later recanted) but not to base a career on it. I wonder if anyone has ever produced such a string of prize turkeys as Peckinpah (Straw Dogs, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Convoy, The Killer Elite, Cross of Iron, The Osterman Weekend). Faber's new venture is a treat for cinephiles, but tighter quality control in the product is recommended for the future.

Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada