Obituary: Ephraim Katz

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Ephraim Katz, writer, born Tel Aviv 11 March 1932, died New York City 2 August 1992.

THE MOST startling feature of Ephraim Katz's The International Film Encyclopedia (1979) was that it had taken so long for something like it to appear.

Just as television in the United States may serve as a dreadful warning that more channels may not necessarily mean more choice, so the flood of film books that has occurred during the past 25 years has resulted in some curious anomalies. There is, on the one hand, always room for one more glossy picture book devoted to James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, while the expansion of Film Studies as an academic discipline has resulted in a proliferation of earnest paperback textbooks written with a rigorous pedantry, yet nevertheless full of the sort of basic errors of fact that would be extremely startling if the author had been writing about a more respectable subject. (One such text manages to get wrong the dates of all four Hitchcock films that it cites in a footnote, and claims that Born Yesterday starred Judy Garland.)

The dearth of comprehensive and accurate quick-reference sources on the cinema comparable to the large variety of those available on art, music, literature and the like, is attested to by the entrenchment since it first appeared in 1965 of Leslie Halliwell's The Filmgoers' Companion. Previously there had for many years existed various industry yearbooks, plus a few more ambitious undertakings, notably Clarence Winchester's The World Film Encyclopedia (1933), whose function was plainly topical - Harry Langdon's slide to near total obscurity at the time being vividly demonstrated by his failure to raise an entry. Halliwell's book thus represented the first attempt in English at the range and clarity of presentation of the massive Italian Filmlexicon, using a format akin to Webster's or Chambers' biographical dictionaries, or one of the various Oxford Companions. The time was ripe for such a book owing to the displacement in people's lives of the cinema by television, which gave a new lease of life to the film libraries of the major studios and made people sitting at home curious to know if a certain actor was still alive or when Garbo made her last film. Thus the last 30 years, while witnessing people forsaking the cinemas en masse for their television sets, has ironically also seen a corresponding increase in the interest of people in the old films they see there.

Until the appearance of Katz's book, the position of Halliwell's Filmgoers' Companion had remained unchallenged, even after two hefty encyclopaedias had simultaneously appeared in 1972. The International Encyclopedia of Film and The World Encyclopedia of Film proved simpler and less comprehensive than might have been hoped. The announcement in 1975 of a Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema raised hopes similarly dashed when it proved to be merely a collection of essays; likewise Cinema: a critical dictionary (1980), with its notorious boast that 'The presence of Robert Kramer and the absence of Stanley Kramer from this dictionary are not accidental.'

Then suddenly, here it was: Katz's staggering book, containing over 7,000 entries to the International Encyclopedia of Film's 1,280 and The World Film Encyclopedia's 1,900 plus, a book which plainly sprang from the author's true vocation as a serious collator of factual material. It beggared belief that such an undertaking could have been the work of just one man, and its gestation period must have been immense.

Katz had been writing film reviews while still in his teens, later working as a reporter and feature-writer before going to the United States from Israel in 1959. After collaborating with Quentin Reynolds on Minister of Death (1960), an account of the snatching of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina, he received a masters degree in Cinema Studies from New York University and made several documentaries, educational and industrial films before delivering his magnum opus to the world.

Like Halliwell's, it consisted principally of biographical profiles of actors, directors and other key personnel, plus definitions of technical terms and essays on national film industries and film movements. It was executed with such meticulous attention to detail as to be reliable about 99 per cent of the time, with just enough occasional slip-ups to convince you that its author was, after all, human. (Halliwell is correct, for example, and Katz incorrect, in identifying the film in which Donald Duck made his debut.) The most striking failing of the book was the number of people long dead listed as apparently still living, while Katz also missed out on interesting figures who had had only brief film careers, such as Robert Williams, whose performance opposite Jean Harlow in Frank Capra's Platinum Blonde (1931) confirms that he would almost certainly have gone on to become a leading name had he not died from peritonitis shortly after it was completed.

The silent cinema is fairly well represented, and there are a smattering of entries concerning Latin America and Asia, but the emphasis, understandably enough, is on European and English-language cinema. Because Katz's entries are generally longer than Halliwell's, there are accordingly fewer of them, with Britain faring far less well than Hollywood in the selection of actors (no entries, for example, on AE Matthews, Charles Hawtrey, Ian Hendry or many others), while many old favourites from the Hollywood character ranks (Tom Dougan, Dwight Frye, Warren Hymer etc) also get the boot.

The book has been obtusely criticised for lack of sparkle in its prose and of excessive orthodoxy in its judgements. But who reads Who's Who for its dry irreverent wit? The principal duty of a reference book is to be a source of accurate information, not a vehicle for wisecracks: the self-effacement of Katz made a refreshing change. He occasionally enlivened his entries with such wry observations as that Victor Mature 'was cast mainly in action roles, using to full advantage all but his facial muscles, which often remained frozen in a toothy grin'.

Nothing has emerged since 1980 to challenge Katz's supremacy, although the French have continued to produce several equivalent books, one of the most recent of which was the 1986 Larousse encyclopaedia, but the tendency in English-language publishing continues to favour collections of essays in large print discussing a relatively small number of entrants at greater length, resulting in an emphasis which inevitably favours individuals currently in vogue. James Manaco's conscientious The Encyclopedia of Film (1991), for example, devotes half a page to Jim Jarmusch while completely omitting Robert Hamer.

Halliwell produced two more editions of the Filmgoers' Companion before his death in January 1989, seemingly unfazed by the competition from Katz. It is heartening to learn that before his untimely death from emphysema Katz had been working for several years on a revised edition of The International Encyclopedia of Film. Halliwell, too, is scheduled to live on in posthumous revisions of his main publications and both men's books should continue to command space on any serious film enthusiasts' bookshelves. But there still remains an enormous gap in the market for one or more other books in English combining the eclecticism of a Halliwell with the thoroughness of a Katz.

Comments