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
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The Independent Culture
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.