Film: The year's best books reviewed

Swoons and screams
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The Independent Culture

Sweeping here and there in a billowing burnoose, Rudolph Valentino was the first and probably last time an Arab was ever thought sexy in Hollywood. Though in reality an Italian immigrant, his lustrous olive skin and fluttering lashes were what made The Sheik in 1921 such a box-office sensation. But after a handful of haunted, starring roles of sometimes dubious exotica, Valentino was dead - killed like Byron by the botched attention of his doctors. As Emily L Leider notes in her excellent Dark Lover: the life and death of Rudolph Valentino (Faber, £20), a rumour-mill still persists he was dispatched by a jealous husband. This is a luxuriantly well-researched book and reading it feels like eating a huge box of Godiva chocolates.

Such was Valentino's allure (and threat to American masculinity) that he was an easy target for satire at the time; according to Simon Louvish in his producer biopic Keystone: the life and clowns of Mack Sennett (Faber, £20). One of Sennett's stars was the cross-eyed Ben Turpin in The Shriek of Araby. Sennett discovered Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson, and it is Louvish's contention that the producer was secretly gay. This is an agreeably salacious early Hollywood history: Hollywood Babylon, indeed.

In 1983, Donald Spoto wrote a biography of Alfred Hitchcock, claiming the master was a closet psychopath. It has taken 20 years for this libel to be refuted, and refuted it pretty much is in Patrick McGilligan's Alfred Hitchcock: a life in darkness and light (John Wiley, £19.99). Despite the avalanche of Hitchcock ephemera, this is the first major biography since Spoto's book. Here is Hitchcock the consummate professional and happily married husband, as well as the darker man too.

Colin MacCabe's Godard: a portrait of the artist at 70 (Bloomsbury, £25) is another analysis of a highly influential figure. Godard afiçionados should have it on their shelves, but it succeeds for a general reader too; usually, tomes on Godard are excessively academic, but this one is fresh and vital as it puts the film director's films, politics and love-affairs together.

Plenty of politics fill in the mind of Village Voice critic J Hoberman in The Dream Life: movies, media and the mythology of the Sixties (The New Press, £17.95). This is a critic esteemed by Martin Scorsese. and his analysis of the political architecture of films such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch is revealing. On a lighter note, Robert Evans's The Kid Stays in the Picture (Faber, £12.99) was turned into a good film this year: more scandal, more big stories from Hollywoood, by the boom-and-bust producer of films such as Rosemary's Baby.

Highly entertaining also is John Walsh's Are You Talking to Me: a life through the movies (HarperCollins, £16.99): a rollicking good read and a trip down memory lane, showing how the author learned sexual confusion, insurrection and the anxiety of parenthood - all from the movies. Great fun and entirely frivolous is Quentin Falk's Cinema's Strangest Moments (Robson Books, £8.99): a stocking- filler if ever I saw one. Another would be Eddie Robson's Coen Brothers (Virgin, £16.99), an exhaustive account of their films, albeit presented in a rather dreary way.

Too big for any stocking is Ray Harryhausen's An Animated Life (Aurum, £35), a sumptuous accounting of the veteran animator's life on celluloid. Emily King's Movie Poster (Mitchell Beazley, £25) is a well-designed tour of the art form, and Jeffrey Vance's Chaplin: genius of the cinema (Abrams, £29:95) another lavishly appointed book, and an excellent photo-biography. Edward Buscombe's immensely heavy Cinema Today (Phaidon, £39.95) would delight any film fan. Coming from an art-book publisher, it's very beautifully done.

Among the film guides, The Radio Times Guide to Films (BBC, £19.99) is comprehensive but sometime guilty of poor editorial judgement, with a few maverick critics. Halliwell's Film, Video & DVD Guide (HarperCollins, £22:50) is beginning to look dowdy, unlike the re-vamped Time Out Film Guide (Penguin, £19.99), which is now my first choice. Finally, Steven Jay Schneider's 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (Cassell, £20) is an excellent starter for a teenager becoming interested in film. In contrast to the anti-intellectual cringe found in some film books, the editor has made no bones about hiring the best international critics.