With such a voluminous library on the history of film, is there scope for anything new? Francine Stock, who presents The Film Programme on Radio 4, has made a brave attempt in this knowledgeable book that sets a century of movies in historical context and explores their influence in an unfusty, readable way. Tackling this ambitious task, she utilises a decade-by-decade approach including a detailed exploration of 30 "films that exert a particular power".
The first key work is a Danish film from 1910. Going by the title, Afgrunden (The Abyss) sounds less than compulsive but Stock's account says otherwise: "Magda's dress is loosely belted with a rope which she employs as a lasso to pull and bind her wayward lover. She advances on him… rubbing her buttocks into his groin." Phew! In Glorious Technicolor is ironically unillustrated, but you can see this sultry dance on YouTube. It made Asta Nielsen into "the first international film star".
In the Twenties, Robert Flaherty's polar semi-documentary Nanook of the North inspires a discussion of movie as ambassador, taking in such disparate works as Gigi, Lord of the Rings (filmed in New Zealand) and Notting Hill. In the Thirties, Gold Diggers of 1933, which concludes with an expressionistic sequence about the Great Depression, produces a rumination ranging from Gracie Fields's We'll Sing As We Go to The Dark Knight. In the Sixties, Woody Allen's Annie Hall leads to a survey of film's influence on fashion: It Happened One Night (1934) made vest sales plummet, while Sideways (2005) did the same for merlot.
A host of cinematic ramifications are explored at the expense of more traditional aspects of film history, such as directorial progression. A more significant problem concerns some of Stock's idiosyncratic choices of films that "exert particular power". Top Gun, Natural Born Killers and Basic Instinct may fulfil her criteria but are they interesting? Still, this remains a most original book venturing well beyond the customary confines.