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The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson

A great judge of film thrills movie addict Douglas Kennedy with a fresh fix of his wit and wisdom

Saturday 16 November 2002 01:00 GMT
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A true, if somewhat prosaic confession: my profoundly mismatched parents had one of those marriages that could best be described as Second-Rate Strindberg, in which they waged war against each other within the confines of our Manhattan apartment. But I don't look back in anger on the domestic disharmony in which I was raised. On the contrary, I am enormously grateful for their marital strife. Because they made me into the biggest film buff imaginable.

Indeed, from the age of 11 – when I was allowed out of the house on my own – I took refuge in one of the dozens of cinemas that decorated the West Side of Manhattan. I could haunt the still-extant picture palaces of Broadway, or head north to the New Yorker on 88th Street, where they always seemed to be alternating screening of Godard's Le Petit Soldat with heavy doper-favourites like The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The movies didn't simply become a means of escape, but also an addiction, which I still feed today – to the point where, whenever I'm in Paris (the best city imaginable for a film nut), I'll happily spend days in the little rep cinemas near the Sorbonne. There, it is still possible to catch, say, a rare screening of that great 1952 noir classic, Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin.

Speaking of that little hard-boiled gem, here's an abbreviated version of David Thomson's assessment of its director's chequered career: "In the late Sixties and early Seventies, Fleischer aimed at being the most prolific and least identifiable director in America: 12 films in eight years is eccentric energy now ... His work in the Eighties was dire ... As one who never thought much of Mandingo, I feel it necessary to stress that The Narrow Margin is still excellent, while many other Fleischer films are genuine entertainments."

Of course, Thomson is one of those rare, once-in-a-generation cinephilic madmen whose knowledge of film is so passionately encyclopaedic that he can also write knowledgeably of Rex Ingram – the Dublin-born director of such silent, beefcake classics as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And he can also make you interested in a forgotten character actor named John Ireland: "I know of two young women who caught one glimpse of John Ireland as Cherry Valance in Red River (1948, Howard Hawks), and had to know more ... I value most of all the actors and the characters who will not stay as they were made. So John Ireland is here now as someone I always want to know more about."

Now, as those three sentences demonstrate, we are in the presence of a critic who isn't merely a reviewer, but a great stylist, not to mention the sort of brilliantly partisan, wholly obsessional junkie who has an opinion on everything to do with the business of film. Only Thomson can uncover an anecdote about the great costume designer Edith Head, and how she carried out Hitchcock's orders to give Grace Kelly "a little more bosom" in Rear Window. Only Thomson can acidly dismiss the career of a journeyman director, Norman Z McLeod, by noting: "With his name on several perennial comedies, McLeod is better known than his record deserves." And only Thomson can wax lyrical on the rigorous, rarefied documentarian, Chris Marker: "For anyone who has not seen a Marker film, their varied effects may be compared with that obtained in reading the journal of some 18th-century traveller: Johnson in the Hebrides, Rousseau's promenade through his own sensibilities, or Goethe's visit to Rome."

For those of you who have yet to encounter the Biographical Dictionary of Film (now in an extensively revised and updated fourth edition), take it from me: it's essential reading. For nearly 1,000 pages, Thomson rants and raves about the movies, and along the way demonstrates epic erudition and an equally epic sense of mischief. He worships the cinema and simultaneously sees right through its artifice and its absurdities.

This, in turn, makes him the best sort of true believer – passionate, often smitten, yet equipped with the most deadly bullshit detector imaginable, as best demonstrated in his 22-word summation of the career of Richard Donner (he of the Lethal Weapon series): "Mr Donner has made several of the most successful and least interesting films of his age. And one doubts it's over yet."

It's hard not to be engaged by a critic like that. Just as it's hard not to be dazzled by someone who can also write a dense, two-page defence of the films of Jacques Rivette, and also deliver an elegant right-left jab against Jerry Lewis: "To live in America is to experience the native incredulity at Lewis being taken seriously. Few things are held against the whole of France more fiercely than French love of Lewis." And, in true Johnsonian style, this unapologetically personal, dogmatic and deeply ardent dictionary remains – four editions on – a labour of love, and one of the great individual achievements in postwar criticism. For an unreformed film addict like myself, it also provides a necessary fix for those lost hours when I'm not hiding in a movie.

Douglas Kennedy's next novel, 'A Special Relationship', is due in 2003 from Hutchinson

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