Lonely hunter: “Midnight Cowboy” (1969)


“Too much time alone had done something peculiar to his heart…”
James Leo Herlihy, Midnight Cowboy

By Scott Ross

I have had a long and somewhat troubled relationship with James Leo Herlihy’s 1965 novel and the subsequent movie made from it, for well over four decades (see Enemy, a love story) and because of that, had until recently avoided re-encountering either. Reading Herlihy’s book again for the first time since my mid-teens it struck me that the essential search of his protagonist Joe Buck, beyond “something soft and fat and gentle, full of rounding sweet places to hide in,” is for the intense, intimate form of male friendship denied him by his peculiar upbringing, one that kept him out of school and alienated from the place where most of us connected with others in our childhood and adolescence, and which tended to cement the firmest friendships of our youths. Joe is no more adept at making friends than he is at his other failed quest, selling his body to wealthy women in New York City. He has no social skills, and cannot either read the signs people give him or separate the phony from the sincere.

It’s easy on the surface to see Joe as just the proverbial fish out of water, a Southwestern rube in the Big City and unused to its ways. But revisiting Herlihy now, after a period in which, during a crucial portion of their lives, children and teenagers with developing brains were denied the ability to read the faces of other human beings or to interact with their peers on a daily basis — and by the sorts of fools who out of unreasoning fear decree that “remote learning” is the same as being in a classroom — Joe Buck seems like an object lesson to all such officials (elected and un-), principals, teachers and parents who eagerly slapped cloth masks across small children’s faces and otherwise isolated them from each other and from their teachers for two years. No wonder Joe has such a hard time of it; like these kids, he has no experience of people’s faces. He’s been raised in such isolation he can’t interpret social signals and he’s so naïve, and so deeply in need of friendship he cannot in the novel comprehend the manipulative, ultimately masochistic hustler Perry, and partly as a result ends up being raped in a pathetic brothel by the madam’s grotesque son.

Although Joe Buck is, at least as far as he understands himself, heterosexual, his creator was gay, as was John Schlesinger, the man who directed the artistically exceptional (and unexpectedly successful) movie of Midnight Cowboy. As a result, some have questioned the intensity of the character’s need for male companionship, which readers of the novel may have more easily understood. Even Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, the young stars who played Joe and his grubby eventual friend Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo, misunderstood the parameters of the relationship and thought there should be a sexual encounter between the characters. Schlesinger wisely demurred. Both Joe and Rizzo (I have a hard time calling the poor, consumptive wretch “Ratso”; it just seems too cruel) are almost agonizingly lonely, yet there is nothing in their slowly growing friendship, at least in the book, that suggests a homoerotic attraction. The only exception to this in the picture is that moving moment just before they enter the Greenwich Village party when Joe tenderly wipes the sweat from Ratso’s hair and brow and Hoffman, his arms around Voight’s waist, briefly rests his face against his co-star’s exposed belly. It’s as far as the movie ever goes, and as far as it needs to. When Joe, unable to fulfill his fantasy of being a stud for rich women, offers himself to men, it’s with resignation that he’s broke and can’t do any better. (And anyway, he’s never the active partner in fellatio, nor anally passive.) It’s certainly not done out of any latent homoerotic desire; when the schoolboy played by a young Bob Balaban blows him in the balcony of a movie theater, Joe has to fantasize about the insatiable girl he knew back home to achieve a climax.

Could Joe be deluding himself about his own erotic flexibility? It’s certainly possible; in both the novel and the picture he seeks men for friendship and women seemingly only for sex, and there’s something more than a little suspect about that… although that same neurosis, the same inability to integrate mature romantic and erotic impulses to one gender or the other and to separate them from compartmentalized juvenile desires afflicts any number of men outside of books and movies. How many seemingly heterosexual men have we known who can’t wait to leave their wives or girlfriends at home while they “spend time with the boys”? They equate their spouses with obligation and their male friends with fun.

But back to Joe Buck. What he shares with Ratso, and what draws these unlikely allies together, is a sense of loneliness so vast it’s nearly overwhelming. It’s why the runty street hustler invites Joe, whom he had previously cheated out of 20 dollars, to share the “X flat” in the condemned building in which he shelters. Joe, understandably, can’t comprehend Rizzo’s motive in asking him to stay, especially since the crippled reprobate doesn’t, as he sees it, “seem like a fag.” Joe has needed companionship all of his life, but after the bitter experience with Perry he’s retreated further into himself and sees cultivating friendships as a sure road to being hurt, and exploited, again. Ratso needs Joe to assuage his loneliness just as Joe needs “Rico” as something human to cling to in a scowling metropolis that sneers at and rejects him.

Waldo Salt, the movie’s brilliant, blacklisted screenwriter, wisely jettisoned the first half of the novel depicting Joe’s experiences in Albuquerque and Houston but retained or elaborated on bits of his childhood and adolescence in brief, disturbing flashes — occasionally too brief, but too little is better in this case than the reverse. I do think he and Schlesinger err in depicting Joe as one of a gang of horny teenagers chasing the promiscuous girl (Jennifer Salt, the scenarist’s daughter) who metes out her favors to all and sundry but who appreciates the gentle, generous way Joe makes love to her. Why would Joe be part of that gang when he’s so clearly alone in life, his amorous grandmother (Ruth White) always off with this man or that and leaving him dinners and money for the movies in place of affection and supervision? If he could connect with a group of his peers that way, even superficially, he wouldn’t be so ill-equipped to make friends elsewhere.

That’s a rare miscalculation in a picture that gets almost everything else exactly right, from the use of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” to the casting of the supporting roles and the time-capsule view of New York as (in John Lindsey’s idiotic phrase) “Fun City” devoid of anything remotely approaching “fun.” Schlesinger was criticized for depicting a pedestrian face down on the street outside Tiffany’s while everyone except Voight passes him by as if he isn’t there but he witnessed the very thing himself on a different street. Like it or not, pictures like Midnight Cowboy, as much as the stories on the nightly news, fixed New York for most Americans as a nightmare city being destroyed by crime, pollution, decaying structures and a system on the verge of collapse. (Schlesinger arrived in New York just as the infamous 1968 garbage strike began, which can’t have brightened his artistic vision.) Not that New York was alone in that sense of dystopia; nearly every large city in America was also teetering on the edge of an abyss. But there were few movies set in New York during that period, apart from expensive musicals and bright, frothy comedies, that didn’t in some way emulate or take a leaf from the imagery Schlesinger’s gifted cinematographer Adam Holender captured.* It was certainly how I thought of New York in those years. Now, with everything on the fritz in every American city, citizens priced out of living in them, the entire population faced with manipulated inflation and shortages, seething with anxiety and wondering when the next man-made crisis will hit, Schlesinger’s New York may not seem quite so terrible.

It’s interesting, and instructive, to view a movie at different times in your life and to see, not how the passage of time has changed your reaction but how the movie has altered the years. Few things date faster than contemporary stories, and few contemporary periods of American and European movies could become dated more quickly than those made between the mid-’60s and mid-’70s, when the cinéma vérité style exploited by directors such as Truffaut and Goddard on the Continent and quickly borrowed by British filmmakers like Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson and John Schlesinger, crossed the Atlantic. When I saw Midnight Cowboy as a teenager at a late-show screening in early 1979, only a decade since the picture’s release, the visuals by Schlesinger and Holender, the effects by Pablo Ferro and the editing of Hugh A. Robertson often felt hopelessly dated, especially the mod Warholesque party scene in the third act. Seeing the movie again in the splendid Criterion Blu-ray, only the party felt out of date. The costumes and hairstyles worn in the movie were of their time of course, but you accept those things about motion pictures made in an increasingly distant era. (It shocks me a little to acknowledge that a picture released when I was eight years old is now further away from the present than Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid was from the world of 1969.) The way the movie was put together feels more organic now, and you can see where others, usually less talented, took from it so often and so blatantly in the years after its release that perhaps my 18-year old self was irritated because he’d seen so many tiresome knock-offs of Schlesinger’s impressionistic style.

The moments I’ve cited, and things like the flashes from Joe Buck’s past and the fantasy sequence in the Florida sun, however, are merely obvious and ostentatious examples of style — the dated stuff. The more important and lasting aspects of Schlesinger’s real style as a filmmaker are not flashy handheld camerawork and frantic editing but the compassionate manner with which he observes his characters and their milieu. Although I’ve never been wild about Sarah Miles’ outré performance as an overripe call-girl (no wonder some people thought of her as the ultimate fag-hag)† even that character is treated, if not with sympathy, at least without condescension. I’ve read at least one description of the street preacher played with uncharacteristic brio by the wonderful John McGiver calling him a phony, but he’s not. If he were only that he could have been ridiculed. He’s a true believer, which is what makes Joe’s encounter with him more than merely a funny reversal set up by Ratso to con Joe out of his money. (He’s been led to believe McGiver’s character is a procurer.)

There’s obvious feeling in the depiction, both in writing and in direction, of the two homosexual characters Joe picks up, the first (Balaban) because he’s so young and so freaked out by what he’s doing he vomits after Joe’s climax and begs Joe not to take his watch in payment; and the second (the superb Barnard Hughes) because the man is such a miserable, hag-ridden, self-hating fraud. Salt was right to condense the two separate encounters with the Hughes character into one. (It’s not really believable in Herlihy’s novel that the man would open the door to Joe when he returns.) But the scene is a bit rushed; we don’t, as we do when reading the book, have the same chance to experience just how thoroughly the pretentious conventioneering paper manufacturer from the Midwest bores the everloving bejeezus out of Joe, so that by the time he threatens and then attacks the man, there doesn’t seem any other means of dealing with him. The scene, short, sharp and brutal, doesn’t carry the sexual undertones in the novel (i.e., the older man’s arousal as he’s being beaten) but does retain the awful, almost black-comic, moment in which his dentures fall out of his mouth, which allows Joe to stuff the telephone receiver into his open maw. It’s a sad, rather terrible depiction of what the closet does to some men, and the false bonhomie Hughes affects gives his admission that he loathes life even more poignancy.

Waldo Salt’s nearly perfect screenplay includes every important character and incident in the second half of the novel and adds to them in small but significant ways, the best being how he incorporated the actors’ rehearsal improvisations into his screenplay, enriching the dialogue, especially between Joe and Rico. Ratso’s sneering at Joe’s Western get-up as “fag stuff,” and Joe’s retort. “John Wayne! You gonna tell me he’s a fag?” came from those improvisations, as did some of their domestic arguments, and Joe’s jokes at Rico’s expense. In the sequence between Voight and Brenda Vacarro when, due to his imbibing drugs at the party he’s impotent, her gentle probing of him over a game of what she calls “Scribbage” does not come from the novel; that exchange emerged from Waldo Salt’s fertile brain, confronts head-on the question of Joe’s sexuality, and has the desired effect on his libido: her suggesting he might be gay turns him into a (hetero) sexual tiger. For the first time since coming to New York, Joe has a successful liaison, and gets paid for it. Ironically Ratso’s ill health becomes worse and he begs Joe to get him to Florida just as Joe finally achieves an erotic victory and a recommendation that makes him feel his luck has turned. The even greater irony is that it won’t matter, although as in the book Joe finally admits to himself on the bus ride south that his dream was impractical.

We’ve watched Jon Voight on the screen for over half a century now, so unless you saw Midnight Cowboy when it was new you may not quite appreciate how fresh his performance as Joe Buck was, nor how fully he inhabits the role. Voight captures Joe so completely — he even pitched his natural voice higher to approximate the character’s Southwestern accent — the actor entirely disappears. Voight absolutely mastered Joe Buck’s naïve enthusiasm and his narcissistic sense of his own erotic irresistibility as well as his innate kindness, all of which his experiences in the city do their best to destroy; his turn to brooding suspicion of everyone is as thoroughly believable as his previous inability to perceive the malicious intentions of others. The actor knew Joe Buck was a starmaking part, and attacked it with gusto. His performance is one of the great imaginative leaps in post-war movies. I don’t see how it, or he, could have been bettered.

If I am less enamored of Hoffman’s portrayal of Rizzo it’s because he doesn’t subsume himself in the role as thoroughly as Voight. His is a more actorly performance, full of the tics and mannerisms he would display throughout his career and which damage some otherwise splendid work elsewhere: The nasal whine, the way he pushes the Noo Yawk accent a shade too vigorously, the repeated “G’head,” which reminds me rather forcefully of his constant invoking of Judge Wapner in Rain Man: Imitable. You can imitate Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo; you can’t parody Jon Voight as Joe Buck. And yet for all of that, Hoffman is undeniably effecting. Although emotionally closed off from others and encased in the thick armor Ratso has had to encrust about himself in order to survive, there’s a vulnerability about Hoffman’s performance that is enormously touching, particularly when he tearfully admits to Joe that he can no longer walk. Just take his assertion that he improvised the famous “I’m walkin’ here!” encounter between Ratso and the law-ignoring taxi driver with more than a grain of salt; although the line may have been the actor’s, the moment was laid out in Waldo Salt’s screenplay.

John Schlesinger made a modest name for himself as a filmmaker with British working-class pictures like A Kind of Loving and Billy Liar before gaining notoriety collaborating with the novelist and screenwriter Frederic Raphael on the “Mod London”-skewering Darling, which made Julie Christie a star and led to his being permitted to make anything he wanted. What he wanted was Far from the Madding Crowd, an interesting failure (again with Raphael) that cost MGM a bundle and embarrassed its maker. He was advised to be very careful about his next project, yet he chose the adaptation of a novel treating of alienation, sex-for-hire, masculine rape, furtive homosexual encounters, poverty, disability, degradation and death — all those things the family audience can’t get enough of. One has to tip one’s hat to such audacity, and to United Artists for agreeing to it, but it would have all been for naught had Schlesinger and his creative associates not made so brilliant a movie out of it. Even the staid, moribund Motion Picture Academy took notice: At the same time John Wayne was given the Best Actor award, Midnight Cowboy took home not only the Best Director and Screenplay awards but also Best Picture, the first and only time a movie carrying an X (or NC-17) rating has copped it.‡

Voight and Schlesinger on location. Note the transistor radio.

Schlesinger’s team was so concerned with authenticity that the production designer John Robert Lloyd had the X-flat the director wanted to film in removed from its condemned building and reassembled it in a studio and the party sequence is populated with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd: Viva, Ultra Violet, Paul Jabara, International Velvet, Taylor Mead, Paul Morrissey and, although I have been unable to spot him, Joe Dallesandro. And while viewers tend to remember the bits and pieces of Joe Buck’s youth and childhood because of their flashiness, far less commented upon, and much more notable, is the sequence in which Joe, his ever-present transistor radio to his ear and shot from below and behind, walks the city streets in a series of rapid transitions from daylight to darkness, darkness to daylight, the repetition encapsulating the soul-deadening monotony of his search for something well outside his grasp.

The use of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” is representative of the picture’s integrity and its artful sense of feeling. United Artists wanted a new song it could exploit for its record division but Schlesinger was adamant about Neil’s extraordinary ballad, tossed off for an album and expressing the singer-songwriter’s desire to return to his home in Florida.§ The plangent vocals by Harry Nilsson, beautifully arranged by George Tipton and anchored to Al Casey’s exquisite acoustic guitar fingering (which are likely the first thing you recall when you think about it) and those long, haunting high string chords, give the picture some ineffable, even inevitable, sense of place, and being. It sounds as if Neil wrote it for this story; his song is now inseparable from the picture, cannily used in five slightly differing versions in the movie’s first half-hour. Barry’s own compositions for the picture are limited (aside from the Nilsson vocals the bulk of the music is diagetic pop recordings by The Groop, Leslie Miller and Elephant’s Memory) and his most important musical contribution is the plaintive theme for Joe which is heard in subtly different versions at various points in the narrative and features melancholy harmonica work by “Toots” Thielemans. The theme, and Thielemans’ playing, encapsulate Joe Buck’s journey, and when it comes in at the end, as the bus heads into Miami and Joe holds on to his lifeless friend, the sense of loneliness and loss are nearly unbearable. It’s possible the scene would have played just as well, and been equally as moving, with no music at all. But that theme accretes to Joe in such an intrinsic way it is nearly inseparable from him, and from his journey.

Joe is blasted beyond words by the experience, and his lack of preparedness goes with his inability to read people; he’s been deluding himself all along about how sick Rizzo is, and Rico’s sudden yet inevitable death rocks his only friend to the core. As a novelist, Herlihy throughout his book gives us Joe’s thoughts, which are limited by his nearly total lack of education, as well as authorial observation concerning Joe denied even the greatest screenwriter, unless he wishes to quote large swaths of the prose he’s adapting, as narration. The last lines of his novel are stark, and frightening, and seem to question the notion that Joe Buck can ever climb out of the mess he and circumstance have made of his life. The final moments of Midnight Cowboy bring everything together — photography, writing, direction, acting, musicto suggest what a movie, particularly a great movie, which this is, has no words to say. And shouldn’t.

*Movies as diverse as The Out of Towners (in which the city’s malevolence was the entire plot), Desperate Characters, The Hospital, They Might Be Giants, The French Connection, Shaft, Across 110th Street, The Seven Ups and The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three viewed the city as a place that for all its cultural advantages existed in a state only slightly above that of an abattoir. About the only major filmmakers of the time who didn’t see New York as filthy and dangerous were, on opposite extremes, Sidney Lumet and Woody Allen, both of whom loved it too much to depict it pessimistically. One interesting exception was Klute; however frightening the action in that seminal thriller, the city itself looks pretty inviting.

†In an incident recorded in New York magazine in the 1990s, Miles ordered a cup of coffee in a Village restaurant. When the waiter asked how she wanted it the actress trotted out that old wheeze, “I like my coffee like I like my men.”
Waiter: I’m sorry, Ms. Miles. We don’t serve gay coffee.

‡About that “X”: Among the other then-current MPAA ratings (“G,” “M” and “R”) only the “X” was not trademarked; anyone could use the rating, and did. United Artists simply applied it to Cowboy, which later embarrassed the MPAA (as well as the Motion Picture Academy) when the movie won Best Picture. The censoring body begged United Artists to take a token frame out and submit the movie so it could be re-rated “R.” U.A. refused. The fact that the “X,” alone of its recently adopted rating letters, was not copyrighted suggests that the board of the MPAA knew it would become associated with pornography, with which it gradually became synonymous. That’s why it wasn’t trademarked. They never wanted it to begin with. Not copyrighting the letter ensured it would disappear, which it eventually did, although not perhaps as soon as the bluestockings hoped. I care neither about the censorious Ratings Board nor the Motion Picture Academy and the annual awards its millionaires give to each other. What bugs me is the hypocrisy of both.

§Nilsson, who had recorded “Everybody’s Talkin'” for his 1968 Aerial Ballet LP and hoped to write and perform the new song himself collaborated with John Barry, the movie’s musical director, on a number called “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City.” It’s a pleasant number with a prominent banjo and some unusual and ingratiating percussion but it ultimately sounds too much like the Neil song. It’s included on his 1969 album Harry.

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: April 2022


By Scott Ross

As ever, click on the highlighted text for a fuller review.

The 39 Steps (1935) Alfred Hitchcock’s most enjoyable British picture, the quintessential wrong-man/serio-comic thriller prior to its virtual remake as North by Northwest.

The Three Lives of Thomasina (1963) A pleasant fable from Disney out of Paul Gallico — or do I mean the reverse? — that for some reason backdates a then-modern (1957) story to 1912 but is otherwise remarkably faithful to its source, which may or may not be a good thing depending on how easily you are able to digest the peddling of belief in sky gods or the unhealthy psychic condition of the little girl at the center of the narrative. On the credit side are Patrick McGoohan as a cold Scots veterinarian, bitter over the death of his wife; Susan Hampshire as a young recluse with a healing touch, naturally considered a witch by superstitious locals; Vincent Winter, Denis Gilmore and Matthew Garber as local boys; and a cat who thinks she’s God. (Don’t they all?) On the debit are an insistence that everyone believe in that other God, and the veterinary’s daughter (Karen Dotrice) who refuses to acknowledge her father when he puts Thomasina down, sickens with grief and nearly dies out of what may strike you as sheer bratty willfulness verging on insanity. It certainly struck me that way, in both the book and the movie. But then, I am neither a child nor a parent, and when I first saw this rather likable fantasy at four or so on what was then “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” I enjoyed it a great deal more than I do now. (Although curiously little stuck with me aside from the brief glimpse of Kitty Heaven.) And yes, I do understand that the girl’s mother has died and that she has formed an overly intense dependence on the cat. I still think she behaves appallingly.

Yet there is much to like about Thomasina. At least the McGoohan character is not as viciously indifferent to suffering as he is in the novel, nor does the screenwriter, Robert Westerby, push the divine belief line as hard or insistently as Gallico did in his book. Don Chaffey’s direction is pleasant, Terry Gilkyson wrote a nice if oxymoronic Italianate theme song, and the picture has a lovely supporting cast that includes Laurence Naismith, Jean Anderson, Wilfrid Brambell and, although he is limited to a single scene, the great Finlay Currie. Elspeth March provides the voice of Thomasina and she sounds exactly like the cat behaves.

Midnight Cowboy (1969) The extraordinary adaptation by Waldo Salt and John Schlesinger of James Leo Herlihy’s remarkable novel, anchored by Jon Voight’s beautiful performance as Joe Buck.

Bandolero! (1968) Most of this James Stewart Western is enjoyable, if somewhat thematically threadbare, until the last few minutes when for no good narrative reason it suddenly turns tragic: There’s a great deal of talent both before the camera and behind it, and they carry the picture along nicely until that unfortunate climax. James Lee Barrett wrote the often very funny screenplay from a story by Stanley Hough, the cinematography was by the excellent William H. Clothier (Fort Apache, Track of the Cat, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the underrated Firecreek, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers) and the terrific score is by Jerry Goldsmith in his best Western mode. Stewart is enormously engaging, especially when assuming the role of a philosophical hangman; Dean Martin does nicely as his thieving brother; George Kennedy has a good role as a lovesick sheriff; Will Geer a meaty one as a nasty old reprobate; and even Raquel Welch does not embarrass herself as the object of both Martin’s and Kennedy’s affections, although the part cries out for a Latin actress. The solid supporting cast includes Andrew Prine, Denver Pyle, Harry Carey Jr., Sean McClory and Dub Taylor. Andrew V. McLaughlin directs competently if with no special distinction (did he ever show any special distinction?) and the production makes splendid use of its Kanab and Glen Canyons Utah locations.

Interestingly, Larry McMurtry took the names of the sheriff (July Johnson), his deputy (Roscoe) and the Martin character (Dee) and presented their namesakes in altered form, monikers and all, in his masterpiece Lonesome Dove, where all three experience fates similar to those in Bandolero!

Babe (1995) Like nearly everyone who saw it, I too loved this gentle, sweet-natured fable when it was new. I’m still quite fond of it, but significantly less so after having in the interim read the slender children’s book on which it was based. Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep-Pig, while owing an obvious debt to E.B. White (“Some pig!”) is both utterly charming and beautifully self-contained. Most of the central events in Babe occur in the novel, but the screenplay by George Miller and Chris Noonan enlarges the narrative in ways that seem to me mere padding while ignoring the much better (and more logical) material contained in the book. The border collie Rex is not in King-Smith’s novel, for example, and you don’t miss him. Nor is the annoying duck Ferdinand or (blessedly) Duchess, the spoiled, nasty Persian who seems a sop by the filmmakers to those who reflexively hate cats. The script is so busy building these characters up it misses attending to matters the author of the book knew were essential, such as the length of the story’s time-line, and how King-Smith resolves Babe’s physical condition. (His surrogate mother Fly gets Babe to diet and exercise so that he can both run more easily and keep out of Mrs. Hoggett’s oven; in the movie, he merely, and illogically, stays a small piglet through several seasons.) The novel also has a more plausible, fixed geography: Rural England. In the picture, directed by Noonan and filmed in New South Wales, the characters seem to be American but their architecture, surroundings and customs feel entirely Aussie.

Yet even if you know King-Smith’s book and, like me, prefer it, the movie is still endearing, due to a few primary factors: A whimsical nature which somehow skirts preciousness; Chris Noonan’s direction, expertly paced and executed; the lovely, idealized cinematography by Andrew Lesnie; Nigel Westlake’s charming musical score, which is never overbearing or unduly emphatic; Roscoe Lee Browne’s perfect narrative voice; James Cromwell’s wonderful performance as Farmer Hoggett (which reaches its apogee when while nursing a sick Babe he sings the Saint-Saëns-inspired “If I Had Words” to the pig and dances an impromptu reel); and Babe himself, both adorable as piglets tend to be and, as a character, gentle and considerate. This conceit — the pig’s belief that all creatures deserve to be treated with respect and allowed their own particular dignity — comes directly from the book, and it’s from it that everything in the story flows. Christine Cavanaugh’s voice is the perfect one for Babe and the then-new “talking animal” effects by the Rhythm & Hues Studios and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, are virtually flawless. Had they not been, I doubt anyone would remember Babe today, or in any case so fondly.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) The very effective adaptation of Orwell’s warning by the writer-director Michael Radford, especially pertinent today.

Foreign Correspondent (1940) This, not Rebecca, should have been Alfred Hitchcock’s first American picture, because it feels like a Transatlantic extension of such British thrillers as The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Although nearly all of the action takes place in a Europe jittery with anxieties over impending war the protagonist is an American, brash and confident, signaling the director’s newly bifurcated allegiance. I’ve never been quite sure how I feel about Joel McCrea, who plays the eponymous role of a hotshot reporter in Europe. At times I find him appealing, especially in The Palm Beach Story for Preston Sturges, although I am cool both to Sullivan’s Travels and to his performance in it. There’s something a bit unformed about McCrae, as if he’s not quite there, and even when he is he sometimes seems unaccountably amateurish. While watching Foreign Correspondent I keep thinking how much better Cary Grant would have been, and Hitchcock wanted Gary Cooper, who turned him down and later regretted it. But the picture, written by Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison with “dialogue” by James Hilton and, as they used to say, “additional dialogue” Robert Benchley (although presumably not together) is great fun, with a marvelous supporting cast that includes Herbert Marshall, suave and kindly as a supposed pacifist; George Sanders, dry and urbane as a British reporter with the unlikely name of ffolliott; Benchley in an all-too-brief role as an American journalist in London doing exactly as little as he can get away with; Harry Davenport as McCrae’s sly old editor; Eduardo Ciannelli as a grim enemy agent; Edward Conrad as a smiling Latvian; and Edmund Gwenn as a kindly and solicitous assassin.

As the reporter’s meet-cute paramour, Laraine Day is breathtakingly lovely and gives an extremely likeable performance, although the romance itself moves a bit too fast for believability. Even better is the marvelous Albert Basserman, who plays the missing diplomat at the center of the espionage and who learned his lines phonetically, which you’d never guess — by way of contrast, you will instantly cringe at the little girl who has to speak in Dutch and who clearly doesn’t know a word of the language — and his innate naturalism, warmth and gentleness are astonishing. Although Hitchcock’s indifference to matching foreground with back projection is sometimes in evidence his direction is otherwise without flaw. There are wonderful touches throughout, such as an assassin escaping through a sea of black umbrellas, the windmills whose blades move backward, the terrifying shots of the street from the tower out of whose glassless window Gwenn hopes to hurl McCrae, and the genuinely frightening (and technically astounding) airplane crash at sea.

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) illustrates how beautifully the dated literary conventions of another era can be transmogrified by a clever filmmaker. I tried to read the 1915 novel by Harry Leon Wilson and had to give it up after two somewhat lugubrious chapters. The movie, however, is an unalloyed pleasure from beginning to end, largely I suspect because of its director (Leo McCarey) and a cast (Charles Laughton, Mary Boland, Charlie Ruggles, ZaSu Pitts, Roland Young and Leila Hyams) so good, and so funny, you cannot imagine quite how either could be bettered. McCarey is one of the rare exceptions to my reservations about auteurism due to his improvisatory style and his penchant, a remnant of his silent comedy training, for revising the screenplays of his pictures as he directed them, a trait he shared with Gregory La Cava and Howard Hawks. So while the dialogue (Walter DeLeon and Harlan Thompson wrote the screenplay, and Humphrey Pearson was credited with the adaptation) seems to be largely faithful to Wilson the movie is almost infinitely brisker. It’s a fish-out-of-water comedy, in which a prototypical British butler (Laughton) in Europe is “sold” to an American couple to settle the poker debts of his impecunious gentleman (Young) and must travel with a social-climbing wife (Boland) and her uncouth husband (Ruggles) to the wilds of Red Gap, Washington where, naturally, he triumphs.

Although he had a very funny scene in the 1932 If I Had a Million in which, newly wealthy, he blew a raspberry at his hated boss, Laughton was known to movie audiences of 1935 almost entirely for his dramatic (or, given his lack of histrionic inhibition, occasionally melodramatic) appearances, so his performance as the mostly unflappable Ruggles must have seemed miraculous. He’d always been a witty actor but while he shows himself a comedian of no small genius here the most memorable sequence in the picture is his sober, moving but not overawed recitation of the Gettysburg Address. (The joke is that the British butler is the only person in the Western saloon who remembers the words.) Charlie Ruggles, who often played nervous flibbertigibbets, gets a change of pace as the unreconstructed hick married to Boland, who does one of her hilariously grand pretentious specialties, Maude Eburne has a grand time of it as Boland’s practical mother, and Young is superbly dejected as Ruggles’ former employer who finds an unlikely mate in the charming Leila Hyams. The comic ace up McCarey’s sleeve is Zasu Pitts, who appears as Ruggles’ unexpected American salvation; she and Laughton make one of the great pairs of homely lovers in movie history.

City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) The last great Charles Chaplin comedies, two of the unperishable masterworks in American film.

A Quiet Place in the Country (1968) A repulsive horror thriller concerning a trendy, sex-obsessed Roman artist who fears he is going insane. He is. And now you need never waste an hour and 45 minutes of your time, as I did, watching it.

The only saving graces in this overheated farrago are Vanessa Redgrave’s luminosity, Franco Nero’s astonishing beauty, the lovely Italian locations and the rich, lustrous photography by Luigi Kuveiller which makes the thing occasionally seem better than it actually is. Elio Petri’s direction is maddeningly busy in the approved late-1960s handheld style, and if that isn’t alienating enough there’s also atrocious music by Ennio Morricone. I was once given a disc by a perplexed friend of a Morricone score that, while its title has blessedly faded from my memory, remains the single worst movie score I’ve ever heard. This one may not be quite that putrid but it comes as close as never mind. Did any comparably gifted composer for movies toss off as many rotten, headache-inducing scores as Morricone?

The Lady Vanishes (1938) The last of Alfred Hitchcock’s British escapist thrillers before his departure for America is a pleasant, charmingly enacted and nicely directed comic thriller, yet one that in altering its source misses some significant possibilities and embraces not a few absurdities. Not the least of these is the revelation of who the missing Miss Froy actually is. (A 75-year old female spy who sprints from gunfire? Please.) I don’t mind so much that Hitchcock and his scenarists, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, changed many of the characters from their genesis in the Ethel Lina White novel The Wheel Spins on which they based their screenplay. Iris Henderson, White’s heroine, is largely insufferable in the book, the professor who argues against her belief in Miss Froy’s existence is a boor, and the young man who becomes her most ardent supporter is nowhere near as delightful as the Michael Redgrave character in the movie. Additionally, the main villain is such a hulking meanie there’s no way the reader can mistake him for anything else, whereas Paul Lukas in the movie is suave and pleasant, so the viewer may be shocked when he reveals his true nature. I object far more to the inclusion of those cricket-loving twits Charters and Calidicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), although they do present an interesting puzzle for those who scent a heady whiff of homoeroticism in their bachelor relationship, especially when Hitchcock shows them in bed together, Caldicott naked at least from the waist up and Charters’ pajama bottoms hanging up on the wall of their hotel room. Granted they’ve had to sacrifice separate rooms to a full hotel, but what are those pajama bottoms telling us?

The picture was done on so low a budget that the filmmakers had only a 90-foot train interior set on which to work, which necessitated eliminating the many sequences in the crowded corridor which are a feature of the book. It was this, perhaps, that kept Hitchcock from replicating the single most Hitchcockian moment in the novel: When Iris is told Miss Froy has returned and she scrabbles through the crowded train, sees a woman in Miss Froy’s outfit, turns her around… and is confronted by a stranger. Reading that in White’s book, one can see so plainly how it could have been filmed that not seeing anything like it in the movie is a let-down. The pinched budget is on display from the beginning, when the camera pans over a snowy train station set including a miniature moving train; it looks for all the world like an especially well-done department store Christmas window — charming, but no more realistic than an animatronics display at Disneyland.

I seem to be arguing against The Lady Vanishes as an entertainment. I don’t mean to; I’m merely aware of and annoyed by its shortcomings. These include the over-extended “meet-cute” between Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood’s Iris at the beginning. That objection aside, both they, and Dame May Witty as Miss Froy, are wonderful companions in an engaging escapade and the supporting cast includes Cecil Parker as the adulterous Todhunter, Emile de Boreo as the harried hotelier who finds time to accommodate certain favored guests, Philip Leaver as the magician “Signor Doppo” (a character created for the movie in order to get a good, claustrophobic action scene in the baggage car) and Googie Withers in what amounts to a cameo as one of Lockwood’s friends at the hotel.

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross

Smile: “City Lights” (1931) and “Modern Times” (1936)


By Scott Ross

When it comes to which of Charles Chaplin’s masterworks seems the greater I generally take a leaf from the late John Simon, who once wrote that his favorite of these two “silent” classics was whichever one he’d watched most recently. I often think City Lights has the edge until I see Modern Times again, and then I’m not sure. The latter has the appealing Paulette Goddard, a beautifully composed finale, Charlie caught in the cogs of a factory machine, performing French and Italian-laced gibberish as a singing waiter and one of the greatest of all movie scores. But the former has, among other beauties, a final shot that James Agee deemed “the highest moment in movies.” Seeing them both again recently via their lovely Criterion editions I am even more firmly convinced that the tie is justified.

It find it telling that City Lights received no nominations from the then-young Motion Picture Academy for its annual awards, especially since in 1928 that body had given Chaplin a special citation for The Circus. (And even though this august body found space on its 1931 “Best Picture” roster for the lively but hardly artistic Five-Star Final.) I strongly suspect the studio establishment was not best pleased by Charlie’s feature-length twitting of “talking pictures.” The satire begins immediately; in the opening sequence a statue is about to be unveiled and the “voices” of the mayor and the female dignitary on the soundtrack are obviously the sounds of a kazoo in the mouth of a jester. Chaplin is poking fun not merely at the empty platitudes of public speeches but at the very notion of recording sound and matching it to moving image. (The woman’s vocal dying fall at the end of her speech is especially funny.) The tripartate statue too seems to sneer at the industry’s self-imposed censorial standards: The figure on the left literally thumbs the Tramp’s nose at the audience while the one on the right, when Chaplin slides down the sword that has pierced his ragged trousers onto its face, almost seems to be rimming him. Such comic moments may have buttressed the arguments of the moralists who habitually sniffed that Chaplin was vulgar. There’s no Puritanism as strained as the Hollywood variety.

Chaplin spent nearly two years filming City Lights, junking footage and entire sequences, shutting down, rethinking his scenario when he wasn’t satisfied and starting over again. It was how he’d become accustomed to making his pictures, and how many of the great silent comedies were made, but Chaplin was virtually alone in continuing to work that way after the silent era ended. Then again, unlike almost everyone else, Charlie owned the studio. He could afford to be perfect. And while there is no recorded dialogue in the movie, it’s fully, and wonderfully, scored. One of the least discussed aspects of City Lights is the quality (and indeed the quantity) of Chaplin’s music. Most historians cite Max Steiner’s King Kong score as the first true landmark of the talkie era but two years earlier Chaplin, a musical amateur with no formal training, composed over 100 cues for a score that runs the length of the picture and is as beguiling to hear as City Lights itself is to see. Even granting that he utilized José Padilla’s “La Violetera” as the theme for the blind flower girl played by Virginia Cherrill with whom the Tramp is in love (and without that composer’s permission, which cost him later) and, further, that Arthur Johnston filled out his hummed compositions and orchestrated them, the music Chaplin created for the picture is astonishing. The score is a reflection of the Little Fellow’s soul: Elegant, romantic, buoyant, dynamic, wistful. And nowhere more than at the finale, which elevates and intensifies an already supernally moving moment.

City Lights ins’t a perfect work of art. As beautifully as Chaplin works out the reason, remarkable in a silent picture, the flower girl believes the Tramp to be a wealthy man, the subplot involving the dipsomaniacal millionaire (Harry Myers) who only remembers the Tramp is his friend when he’s plastered is purest hokum. Additionally, the notion that a young woman presumably blind from childhood will be able to see if she gets an expensive European operation is patently absurd. Yet both threads are absolutely essential to the picture, so you either take them as they are and enjoy the way a master filmmaker exercises them, or you give up on the whole thing. Like Spielberg with Close Encounters, Chaplin had un-credited co-scenarists (oh, but how much better does it look when the credits read, “Produced, written and directed by…”!); in this case, Harry Carr and Harry Crocker. Both ideas may for all I know have been theirs, although Chaplin himself clung to the outmoded narrative forms of his early years. But whereas in any other type of contemporary movie of the 1930s those two clichés, endemic to the storyline, would be insurmountable obstacles to success, this is a Chaplin picture, and Chaplin pictures existed in their own special, late Victorian strata.

Fortunately, for all its contrivance and sentiment, City Lights is full of Chaplin’s inspired comedy: The opening with the statuary; Charlie and the sidewalk elevator; the attempt to dissuade the millionaire from suicide that lands Charlie in the drink; the Tramp as a street-sweeper confronting the sight of an elephant; the hilarious boxing match against Hank Mann. Yet it’s the feeling of the picture we remember, and Chaplin’s extreme close-up at the end, which Agee deemed the “greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid.” If that moment, and this movie, fail to move you, your heart may be a dishrag.

I alluded earlier to the moralists for whom Chaplin was de trop. Those Puritans must have choked on their popcorn when they got a load of Modern Times, where the Little Fellow, his nerves destroyed by what would now rather prettily be called repetitive motion sickness (otherwise known as wage slavery) through repeatedly and mechanistically tightening two bolts on an endless succession of small boards becomes a fully human Pan, lasciviously turning his wrenches into satyr’s horns and chasing first a curvy secretary with large buttons on the back of her dress and then a matronly woman (Juana Sutton) on the street, two of whose dress buttons, uproariously and somewhat shockingly, are affixed over her breasts like enormous round areolae. When Charlie takes after her with, as the proprietor of Funk’s House of Geekery hilariously terms it, “the sole purpose of twisting her nipples off,” it’s side-splitting. (Although I imagine the entire sequence would now be decried by the professionally Woke as beyond the pale.)

There’s nothing amusing about a nervous breakdown, of course… unless it’s depicted by a genius.* It isn’t the fact that the briefly-employed Tramp is suffering that is hilarious, it’s how he suffers, and what happens when he does. And it’s all funny, even when the system inflicting the damage on him is operating at its most vicious, as when in an excruciatingly funny bit Charlie is made the guinea pig for an outlandish self-feeding machine designed to save the bosses money, or when he’s literally sucked into the capitalist maw. Like “legendary,” the word “iconic” is overused with such whorish abandon these days one hesitates ever to write it. But when Charlie is pulled into the machinery, the moment is both funny and an eternal metaphor for the worker who exists only as a cog in a rapacious corporate machine. Not for nothing did Chaplin use his own casting director Al Ernest Garcia, who resembled Henry Ford, as the oppressive factory owner who through a futuristic television apparatus barks out orders at his employees and even spies on them in the lavatory. Yet another reason Hollywood had a hard time with Charlie: He critiqued businessmen, something the studios were loath to do — and which the Production Code office clucked its Catholic tongue over. As with City Lights, Modern Times received no Academy Award nominations, either for Best Picture, Actor, Writer, Director or Score. (Quick: Name the winners!) It’s telling too that the only voices we hear in the picture come from sources of reproduction: That two-way television screen for example, and the self-satisfied recorded sales pitch for the feeding machine. Charles Chaplin knew his onions.

That the filmmaker’s sympathies were with the working class was apparent long before City Lights. While the Tramp began as a convenient persona on which to build slapstick gags he had developed, by 1931, into a kind of symbol for the downtrodden — who are, as that word implies, constantly being trod upon by the larger society. It should also be remembered that Chaplin came from dire, Dickensian poverty. Sure as hell he never forgot it. It’s no accident that while he had no formal political allegiances one of the most striking scenes in Modern Times occurs when, seeing a red “danger” flag fall off the back of a lumber truck the Tramp picks it up and as he’s shouting at the driver and waving it in the air to attract his attention, a line of marchers comes around the corner and falls in behind him. Charlie suddenly appears to be leading a worker’s protest… which is promptly beaten into submission by the cops. Police were the bane of most stage and silent movie comics, of course, but lest anyone miss the point, Chaplin the composer accompanies the sequence with “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” that old marching anthem of the Wobblies.

Speaking of music: Modern Times has a score by Chaplin that is not only even better than the one he came up with for City Lights but one of the finest ever created for an American movie. I discovered the early ’70s United Artists label reissue of its 1950s soundtrack album in my local library when I was 10, and was absolutely knocked out by it. At the time all I really knew of movie scores, aside from some Disneys and a couple of musicals — and of course hearing music while seeing movies — was the Rózsa compilation LP in my parents’ small record collection (Great Movie Themes Composed by Miklós Rózsa, MGM Records, SE-4112) and the Chaplin didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard. I couldn’t have explained my reaction, especially since I had yet to see Modern Times and wouldn’t until I was in my 20s but it felt somehow European in tone. Perhaps because it was written for a picture with almost no dialogue it was dense in a way that struck a deep chord in me. The factory music was so fast and so perfectly timed it was dizzying. (Alfred Newman, who conducted it, cannot be praised highly enough.) And David Raksin, who served in the same capacity as Arthur Johnson on City Lights but who refused to be one of Chaplin’s yes-men, was surely largely responsible for the sound of the Modern Times score, the richest Charlie ever composed. I’m not suggesting Raksin came up with the tunes, merely that, as Chaplin’s arranger, he filtered them through his own strong sensibilities and enriched them the way only a great musician can.†

City Lights and Modern Times are very different movies but they’re very definitely Chaplin pictures. They share his sensibilities and his sense of construction as well as that uncanny ability of his to build a comic situation and then to top it so that even the darkest of concepts can leave his audience helpless with laughter yet wholly cognizant of the humanity that lies beneath the gags. A number of comic technicians have been as funny as Chaplin, or even funnier. The way Keaton, for example, could amass a sequence of gags surpasses almost everyone else in the business, and sometimes eclipsed even Chaplin himself. But except in The General Buster lacked Charlie’s warmth and sense of pathos. Most of the time he didn’t need them, and when he tried to emulate what was innate in Chaplin but outside of himself, he was wholly at sea; the best he could come up with in the way of emotion in Go West, for example, was to sentimentally tether himself to a soulful moo-cow.

As I’ve said, neither picture is, strictly speaking, a silent movie. Both contain full musical scores and sound effects, often very funny in themselves, and while Modern Times does not include Charlie’s speaking voice, we do hear him sing Léo Daniderff’s “Je cherche après Titine” (usually abbreviated as “Titine”) with those gibberish lyrics, and thanks to Chaplin’s genius at pantomime we follow the action of the story-song through every made-up word. Alas, even Chaplin could not resist the permanent assault of talkies; Modern Times is the last time we will see the Tramp, who cannot exist as a dialogue character. It didn’t help that Chaplin’s own speaking voice comes across in his talking pictures as self-consciously cultivated, and over-emphatic. His narration, added to the 1942 reissue of The Gold Rush, all but ruins that masterpiece; it’s a pompous Victorian’s idea of how a narrative text should be read. Worse, when Chaplin turned to dialogue he caught Importanitis, leading to such horrors as that terrible, endless speech of his at the climax of The Great Dictator. Billy Wilder once likened Chaplin’s “ideas,” and his giving voice to them, to “a child of eight writing lyrics to Beethoven’s Ninth.”

So even Charlie Chaplin capitulated to the times, at least as regards the Little Fellow. When he walks with Paulette Goddard toward the camera at the end of Modern Times and the angle switches, showing as us their backs as they saunter arm-in-arm down the open road, it’s the end of the Tramp. The poem is over. He’s finally gotten the girl, and there’s nothing, really, left to say. Any words from his mouth after that would have been entirely unwelcome, and almost obscene.

Both pictures contain brilliant, beautifully planned and sustained set-pieces, more in Modern Times than in City Lights. The earlier picture has the great prizefight sequence, in which the Tramp cannily keeps the referee between himself and Mann, gets tangled up in the bell and through his movements causes it to ring repeatedly and, in what is arguably the high point, sails across the canvas like Popeye in a Flesicher cartoon. (If you watch closely you can see the cables used to fly him. You can also see him holding onto some sort of black lead when he’s being pulled into the cogs in Modern Times.) The later movie opens with the assembly line and continues with the Tramp’s riotous and at the same time elegant breakdown; Charlie thwarting an attempted jail-break; taking a leaf from Buster Keaton by accidentally launching the frame of a ship; takes him through a hair-raising roller skating routine in the department store; and, finally, catches him up in a human maelstrom at the restaurant in which thanks to the patrons dancing he is unable to serve a patron his duck dinner.

There are also, in both movies, moments that no doubt still raise eyebrows today. The Production Code existed when City Lights was made, but was not enforced; it was in full effect five years later, so some of what Chaplin gets away with is jaw-dropping. Aside from the nipple gag, in Modern Times the Tramp also accidentally ingests cocaine left by a fellow convict in a salt shaker and, later, both he and a minister’s wife experience flatulence while drinking tea.‡ Chaplin also had an odd tendency when the Tramp is trying to ingratiate himself with other men, especially those who frighten him, to interlace his fingers, pose his body somewhat seductively, and grin with his teeth. It’s meant as a sign of fear, defensiveness and desperation, but the men invariably interpret it as a come-on.§ (In City Lights the fighter played by Hank Mann gets up and disrobes behind a curtain in disgust, although the Tramp’s cellmate in Modern Times merely glares at him and goes back to his needlepoint.) It’s the sort of thing that decades later led a moderately talented comedian and future filmmaker to opine in a 1980s interview that he preferred Buster Keaton because Chaplin “acted like a fag.”

Chaplin “acting like a fag,” according to Christopher Guest.

Someone on the Criterion City Lights suggests that, although Virginia Cherrill’s lack of experience as an actress and her casual attitude toward work drove Chaplin mad, her reactions onscreen are more candid and less formally “dramatic” than might have been the case had a more seasoned actress played the blind girl. This notion is borne out by watching Paulette Goddard’s performance in Modern Times. Chaplin photographs her with love (they had a common-law marriage at the time) and there are more close-ups of her in the picture than is the norm for him. But although she’s utterly charming, her big moments, of smiles or of tears, are too studied, and too overdone, to move the viewer the way the more amateurish (and perhaps more pliable?) Cherrill does at the end of City Lights.

But then, the climax of Modern Times is merely moving. The finale of City Lights shatters you.

*The only comparably funny nervous collapses I can think of are Oliver Hardy’s in Saps at Sea, Walter Matthau’s brief one in The Odd Couple, Richard Mulligan’s in the Blake Edwards comedy S.O.B., Herbert Lom’s in Edwards’ Inspector Clouseau series, and a few in cartoons animated by Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng and Tex Avery. Geniuses all.

†Edward B. Powell also contributed arrangements for the score, and received on-screen credit.

‡I’m referring to borborygmi, not breaking wind. John Huston and James Agee gave Bogart the same gag 15 years later in The African Queen, also over tea.

§These examples are mild compared to the moment in the 1915 Essanay short Shanghaied in which the Tramp has a highly suggestive encounter with a flirtatious cabin boy played by Lee Hill. Charlie guides the youth to another part of the boat, kisses his forehead, doffs his hat and cane and even begins removing his jacket before he’s distracted by something off-stage and walks away, leaving the shrugging boy behind.

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross

Learning to love Big Brother: “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1984)


By Scott Ross

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.” — O’Brien

George Orwell’s prototypical “dystopian novel” was not a title I was ever assigned in school as I was his Animal Farm, and it’s one I’ve had the intention to read for decades. Since over the last two years I’ve felt more and more that we are living it, this seemed to be a good time to open the book and, having appreciated its largely un-heeded warnings and the ways in which the society Orwell depicts reflects the world of 2022 in increasingly unsettling ways, to sit down with the 1984 movie based on it. If neither was what you might in any respect call reassuring, they didn’t disappoint. As many have been saying for years, Orwell did not write the book as an instruction manual; yet so many of the world’s governments since 1948 seem to have modeled their organization upon it one would imagine that some people never saw it as anything else.

I chose a propitious season to read Orwell’s novel and to watch the writer-director Michael Radford’s adaptation of it, what with the current American president’s administration disseminating nearly constant disinformation about (among other topics) a conflict it precipitated and then having the almighty cheek to create a so-called Disinformation Governance Board for the frighteningly-named Department of Homeland Security (when, prior to 2001, did Americans ever refer to their country by the vaguely Hitlerian term “Homeland”?) It is no accident that many were instantly reminded, by the Board’s name, by its intended purpose and by the available utterances of the woman picked to oversee it, of Oceania’s ironically-named Ministry of Truth, concerned solely with presenting disinformation. As this now seems the secondary function of the United States government — the first of course is overseeing the manufacture and selling of the munitions of war; or, in the current context, arming professed Neo-Nazis with them — no one who isn’t either a born-again neoliberal or permanently asleep could miss the significance of this move, particularly in an election year.

While Michael Radford errs as a screenwriter, I think, is in not getting far enough into either the thoughts of Orwell’s protagonist Winston Smith or the explicit meanings and uses of Newspeak, Doublethink, Ingsoc and Thoughtcrime as explicated by O’Brien and the book he passes on to Smith (both omissions indicating the perennial problem of adaptation, especially of a psychologically incisive literary novel.) But while he can likewise find no means of replicating the book’s chilling last words (“He loved Big Brother”) and further misrepresents the Two Minutes Hate, which in the movie goes on and on, he gets most things right. The desaturated cinematography by Roger Deakins strikes me as exactly correct, and on a very limited budget the production design by Allan Cameron, the art direction by Martyn Hebert and Grant Hicks and the costumes of Emma Porteous evoke Orwell with almost uncanny perspicacity. The picture is wonderfully cast, and if John Hurt is a bit long in the tooth for Winston his characterization and performance could not, I don’t think, be bettered. Richard Burton, whose last role this was, makes a superb O’Brien, seemingly humane and gentle even while torturing. Suzanna Hamilton is a compelling Julia, although the filmmaker’s frequent use of her nudity seems to me excessive.

The Criterion release of the movie, thankfully, permits the viewer to choose between the splendid score composed by Dominic Muldowney and the godawful Europop inanities of the Eurythmics imposed on the picture by Virgin against the writer-director’s wishes. Muldowney’s national anthem “Oceania” wisely eschews the impulse to weighting the music with unsettling dissonance. Instead the composer wrote an uplifting, even thrilling, choral anthem with an intensely memorable tune — exactly what such a song would need to be, since the object is to inspire unthinking patriotism. Are “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America” any less insidious?

Text copyright 2024 by Scott Ross

The wrong garden: “The 39 Steps” (1935)


By Scott Ross

Professor: Well, Mr. Hannay, I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of leading you down the garden path – or should it be up? I never can remember.
Hannay: It seems to be the wrong garden, all right.

Earlier this year while writing about North by Northwest I remembered that it was not, as I had thought, the first Alfred Hitchcock movie I ever saw. That honor fell, appropriately enough, to this one, viewed with great pleasure at a local library screening a few years earlier. Appropriate because, seeing The 39 Steps again for the first time in what I shudder slightly to realize is nearly a half-century I think I understand why I got confused: North by Northwest, wonderful as it is and as relatively uncluttered by the director’s more intrusive visual flourishes, is virtually an American version of his most quintessential and enjoyable British picture.

All the tropes are there, courtesy both of Hitchcock and his scenarist Charles Bennett as well as, to a lesser extent, the 1915 John Buchan spy thriller on which the screenplay was based: The man alone, accused of a murder he did not commit (and one strikingly similar to the killing that puts Cary Grant on the run in NxNW); the cool blonde he meets on a train and with whom he enjoys a rocky relationship (she’s definitely not in the book); the foreign agents who must be thwarted if the hero is to prove his innocence and prevent some vague but terrible thing from happening; the smooth, urbane, friendly-seeming head villain; the chase across a continent (or continents, since in The 39 Steps the protagonist goes from England to Scotland and back again); the scene in which the “wrong man” causes a disturbance in order to thwart the espionage plot and take the heat off himself. There’s even a flying machine over the hero’s head — although not, as in NxNW, a deadly one. For North by Northwest, Hitchcock and his gifted screenwriter Ernest Lehman reconfigured these strands, and filtered them through an American perspective; the later picture is not (odious word) a “remake” of The 39 Steps so much as a most enjoyable variation on it.

There is so much pleasure contained in The 39 Steps (as there is in North by Northwest) that you may only gradually become aware while watching it how perfectly shaped and realized every sequence in it is, and how in command of the material and visual impact the filmmaker is without, as he so often did later, calling attention to himself while claiming he wasn’t. It’s a sign either of arrogance or of desperation when a director sets up elaborate crane shots and swooping cameras for their own sake; when your material is as strong as it is in a picture like The 39 Steps, you don’t, as Orson Welles remarked of John Ford, have to bang around. I hadn’t, as I said, seen the movie since I was 12 or 13 but I still remembered Peggy Ashcroft as the crofter’s anxious wife; Robert Donat trying to escape the police by hiding on the stage of a political rally and then having to pretend he’s the guest lecturer (exactly the opposite of Cary Grant in NxNW making an obnoxious public spectacle of himself so the cops will arrest him); Donat handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll on the moors; the fatal shooting that isn’t*; Mr. Memory on the stage of the Palladium; the man with the missing pinky finger… None of these moments would have taxed the most rudimentarily trained director’s resources, yet if they do not shriek, “Look at me and my camera!” they do speak, in their casual artistry, of Hitchcock’s early mastery of form: The sequence in which Donat, standing with his back to a pylon of the Forth Rail Bridge on which he is hiding from police detectives, looks down at the water far, far below, for example, triggers my increasing acrophobia to a nearly swoon-inducing extent. There is more to admire in the way he handles the picture’s final moments, with the high-kicking chorus framing the main action in front of it and the camera slowly dollying in on Donat’s and Carroll’s backs as their hands find each other than in the whole of The Birds.

I’ve watched Donat in a handful of pictures and he never registers with me — indeed he often causes my teeth to ache; the scenes of Mr. Chipping’s senescence during Donat’s Oscar-winning performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips are among the hammiest Goddamned things I’ve ever seen. So I was happily surprised to rediscover how effective he is as Richard Hannay, Buchan’s protagonist. By no means as good looking as Cary Grant (who was?) nor as charming (not even Cary Grant was, at least in life) Donat here has an easygoing quality that ought to make it clear to anyone how innocent Hannay is, and how unthreatening. But it doesn’t help; the situation is both so incriminating and so absurd it can only really exist in the topsy-turvy world of the thriller based on surface circumstance. Donat is wonderfully funny at times, such as in the long sequence at the country inn when he’s prattling on about his imagined childhood as an apprentice murderer, a Hitchockian reverie if ever there was one. Perhaps the nicest surprise in The 39 Steps is when Hannay, running from the detectives on the train, slips into Carroll’s compartment and kisses her as if they’re lovers and she’s been waiting for him; he’s sure she won’t give him away, but she does, smiling haughtily at him as she tells the cops he’s lying, and in a way that says, “See? You oughtn’t to be so smug. For all I know you are a killer.” Contrast with this the ease with which Grant gets Eva Marie Saint to cover for him and the delighted laugh you get from Carroll’s smirking betrayal of Donat is liable to be twice as big.†

There is barely a sequence, an action, a line of dialogue or a moment in The Thirty-Nine Steps that doesn’t engage, enthrall or delight. Even the less pleasant bits, such as when after aiding Hannay the crofter’s wife is physically attacked by her sour Calvanist husband, are handled with assurance, if not with any sense of reassurance; her scream, and what we assume is the beginning of a beating, occur off-screen. When in North by Northwest the U.N. diplomat is killed by a thrown knife and falls into Cary Grant’s arms we don’t feel anything for him because we don’t know him, whereas the woman (Lucie Mannheim) who is murdered in Hannay’s flat we, and he, have gotten to know, and to understand is concerned for her life; we have an emotional connection to the knifing victim absent in the later picture. Her death also confirms her assertion that the shadowy “39 Steps” organization exists, and is as dangerous as she claims. There is one bit of obvious technical manipulation by Hitchcock (the cleaning woman’s silent scream heard on the soundtrack as a shrill whistle when he cuts to the train station) that is almost too much, but it’s so witty you can’t help smiling.

It’s often difficult in talkies of the first decade to know who did what on the scenario. The screenplay is credited to Charles Bennett, but Ian Hay is listed as the dialogue writer. (Such bifurcation was not unusual at the time, although in this case I believe Hay contributed what used to be called additional dialogue.) I’m not sure who is responsible for the effervescent verbal exchanges, which reach their apogee in the Donat/Carroll scenes where their constant languid sniping at each other has the Cowardian sparkle of Private Lives. As always with Hitchcock, the director himself may have come up with some of the lines, as he almost certainly devised the scene at the inn where Madeline Carroll has to roll down her wet stockings while handcuffed to Donat, one of the most deliciously sexy moments in 1930s cinema. The censorship in Britain at the time was not as stringent as it had recently become in America when the Production Code came into strict enforcement, but The Thirty-Nine Steps gets away with so much risqué material it’s almost shocking. The entire inn sequence is an unalloyed beguilement, topped by the charming Hilda Trevelyan as the innkeeper’s wife, expressing her delight at what she thinks are two clandestine unmarried lovers sharing one of her rooms.

The movie is beautifully shot by Bernard Knowles and buoyed by Derek N. Twist’s lively editing which, like Hitchcock’s direction, propels the narrative at an almost breakneck speed yet pauses now and again for an amusing sequence (the commercial travelers commenting on a new model of brassiere is a good example) or some offhand line that cheers you. The Thirty-Nine Steps is, pound for pound, among the half-dozen or so most skillfully diverting and completely satisfying movies of its kind ever made. (Robert Towne: “It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The Thirty-Nine Steps.) From an audience perspective Richard Hannay may be up the wrong path, but the garden surrounding him is gloriously right.

*Another sequence to which Lehman and Hitchcock nod in North by Northwest, when Eva Marie Saint appears to murder Cary Grant in the Mt. Rushmore cafeteria.

†And yes, I am aware that the Saint character knows very well Grant is not dangerous, and that he’s been mistaken for a man who doesn’t exist.

The Magic Factory, Part Four: An Annotated List of a Few Essential Books About the Movies — Individual Films and Miscellaneous Titles


By Scott Ross

See also:
Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Note the First: I do not by any means claim that this list, which I am posting in installments, is either exhaustive or definitive. It’s merely obsessive. And highly personal. This is my list, based on my experience, my likes and prejudices and my reading, Your list will differ wildly. I merely mean to recommend a few books that influenced me and that you might also enjoy.

Note the Second: Although the list, when it’s finished, is meant to add up to 100, I am going to fiddle outrageously with the numbers. When within a particular category a writer has a number of titles, or a series of books, or I mention a volume by someone else on the same topic, I will count them all as one entry. It’s my party, and I’ll cheat if I want to.

VII. Specific Movies

“Making-Of” books are a fairly recent phenomenon, although a handful were published in the 1950s. They seemed to have gotten a boost in the early ’70s from the success of Jerome Agel’s massive (and, to me, unreadable) The Making of Kubrick’s 2001. Herewith a few of the better ones.

73. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho Stephen Rebello (1998)

Rebello does an exceptional job of illuminating the history of Psycho from Robert Bloch’s short story “The Real Bad Friend” and the later novel through Hitchcock’s interest in it and the writing by Joseph Stefano of the screenplay, to the filming itself, a deliberate attempt by the director to make a theatrical hit on a television budget, and with a television crew. I use the word “exceptional” above because Rebello was not writing a contemporaneous account of a new movie but sifting through nearly 50 year-old records and the memories of the surviving participants.

Among other things, the author demolishes Saul Bass’ ludicrous claim that he directed the shower sequence, which the credulous had unquestioningly accepted as fact.

74. Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic Film Ray Morton (2007)

Few movies in my lifetime enchanted, and excited, me more than this one, and Morton’s intelligent, thorough account of its making was worth the three-decade wait. His archeological excursions into the authorship of the screenplay, attributed solely to Spielberg, is especially useful. (Among those who worked on it, some of them extensively: Jerry Belson, John Hill, Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins.) The author is also excellent on the extraordinary special effects, and why they looked so much better than those in the contemporaneous Star Wars. Morton’s is as close to a definitive history of one of the best pop movies of the 1970s as we are likely to get.

75. Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary Bob Balaban (1977; Reprinted 2003)

Balaban — whom theatregoers might have remembered as Linus in the Off-Broadway musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and moviegoers would have recalled as the boy in Midnight Cowboy who blows Jon Voight in the movie theatre — got himself cast in CE3K in the time-honored fashion of actors: He lied. His character, the American interpreter for the scientist played by François Truffaut, was supposed to be fluent in French and Balaban could recall a few phrases from his high school studies; spoken quickly and authoritatively, that was sufficient to fool the casting directors. Balaban’s diary of the filming has a wonderful immediacy and is especially informative on the many weeks of filming in the huge Alabama hangar converted into the Devil’s Tower “Other Side of the Moon” for the alien landing. His book is one of best glimpses we’ve ever gotten into the day-to-day realities of filming an important popular motion picture, one written with unusual perceptiveness and wit.

76. Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Ultimate Visual History Michael Klastorin (2017)

Published in conjunction for the long-awaited (by me, at any rate) 40th anniversary theatrical re-release of CE3K, the movie of movies from my late adolescence. A smallish coffee-table book — the best kind — packed with beautiful color photographs and useful information on one of the most visually ravishing movies of its time. Had Close Encounters entered the market when Steven Spielberg wished, not in the late autumn of 1977 but before the May premiere of Star Wars, it would almost certainly have stolen George Lucas’ thunder, in no small part due to its superior look. Achieved by filming the special effects shots in 35mm and blowing them up to 70, softening the blue-screen edges and permitting the marriage of backgrounds and effects to appear seamless, this process had the subsequent effect of making Vilos Zsigmond’s muted cinematography look even more impressive than what Lucas and his team had unveiled earlier in the year.

See also: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind: A Document Of The Film (1977) A beautiful trade paperback published by Ballantine with a lovely introduction by Ray Bradbury.

77. Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate Steven Bach (1985)

Bach was one of the executives at United Artists (senior vice-president and head of worldwide production) while Michael Cimino was filming his epic about the Johnson County wars, and intimately involved in approving the picture for shooting. Although he is critical in the book of his own failings during the making of the movie whose budget overruns (and subsequent poor box-office performance) more or less destroyed UA, some — including Pauline Kael in her review of the book for the New Yorker — felt he let himself off the hook too easily. But in a story like this, there are always multiple points of view, and many directions from which fingers can and will be pointed. I have never seen Heaven’s Gate, so I can’t speak to its merits or defects, but a friend whose opinions I value admires it enormously and thinks the critics who slammed it, pretty much en masse, got it wrong. And United Artists had a history of fucking things up financially before it ever engaged Michael Cimino; in 1970 the men who’d been running it for 20 years were ousted for losing $35 million on bad choices. Studios spend comparable amounts today on catering but 50 years ago that was real money, just as the $44 million spent on Heaven’s Gate was a substantial amount in 1980.

78. The Jaws Log Carl Gottlieb (1975; Updated numerous times to 2012)

The first book of its kind I purchased with my own money, and one I re-read every few years for the pleasure of its author’s company and the remembered delights of a favorite movie. Gottlieb, who played the Amity Island newspaper editor Meadows, was the credited co-author of the screenplay after Peter Benchley turned in his unacceptable first draft; although he was by no means the last writer to tweak the picture’s dialogue (the playwright Howard Sackler worked on it — the USS Indianapolis monologue was his — as did John Milius, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood and the third-billed star Robert Shaw) Gottlieb was on the set by day and working with Spielberg on revisions at night. His version of the filming, while obviously subjective, had the advantage of being fresh, and is about as reliable a narrative as we have of what, to everyone’s surprise, became the highest-grossing of all movies within months of its opening, knocking The Godfather off the top of the list. That fact, and the subsequent shark-like feeding frenzy among Hollywood suits for the next sure thing (which is of course a chimera) led, slowly and inexorably, to the lousy state of things we’ve been living through at the movies for the last four decades. But I for one do not blame Spielberg for that (although he certainly helped dumb things down in the ’80s). Due in large part to the trouble they had making it, for which so much had to be compensated and because of which the actors, their director and their screenwriter had more time than usual in which to improvise dialogue and deepen their characters,* Jaws remains the most beautifully assembled and entertaining of popcorn movies.

Gottlieb’s revised editions correct his few errors and elaborate nicely on what he’s learned since that he didn’t know in 1975.

See also: On Location… On Martha’s Vineyard: The Making of the Movie Jaws Edith Blake (1975) and Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard: A Definitive Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Greatest Suspense Thriller of All Time Matt Taylor (2012) Blake is a Martha’s Vineyard resident, a photographer who wrote a column for the Vineyard Gazette. Her book is packed with the many terrific photos she took and benefits greatly from her local’s perspective. Taylor’s gorgeous coffee-table style trade paperback benefits from page after page of luscious color photographs detailing every aspect and phase of the production.

79. The Magic Factory: How MGM Made An American in Paris Donald Knox (1973)

“MGM” didn’t make An American in Paris, of course; that shorthand takes in the producer, Arthur Freed and his un-credited associate Roger Edens; the director, Vincente Minnelli; the star/choreographer, Gene Kelly; his fellow actors Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Nina Foch and Georges Guétary; the screenwriter, Alan Jay Lerner; the lyricist, Ira Gershwin; the music directors, Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green and Conrad Salinger; the cinematographers, Alfred Glik (the film) and John Alton (the ballet); the editor, Adrienne Fazan; the art and set directors, Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons, F. Keogh Gleason and Edwin B. Willis; the costumers, Orry-Kelly, Walter Plunkett and Irene Sharaff; and the hundreds of technicians, crew, dancers, extras, costumers and artisans MGM employed. Knox’s oral history of one of the most accomplished and pleasurable of all movie musicals is itself a pleasure, and covers with admirable thoroughness every aspect of the production.

See also: Directed by Vincente Minnelli Stephen Harvey (1990) A very fine and perceptively written coffee-table tome on Minnelli by the late critic and associate curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art. As well as offering his well-considered critical analyses of Minnelli’s movies Harvey also reveals the extent of the director’s visual fussiness: On Some Came Running he had a ferris wheel moved a few inches, decided he didn’t like it and had it moved back. Although unrelated to Minnelli, I still cherish a critique Harvey made in his Pyramid Illustrated History volume on Fred Astaire in 1975: Writing about Silk Stockings, he cited as a defect of that particular dud the “Novocaine-tinged line readings” of Cyd Charisse. Perfect.

80. The Making of The Wizard of Oz: Movie Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM and the Miracle of Production #1060 Aljean Harmetz (1977)

I wish Aljean Harmetz published more books but this one, and her Casablanca study (see below) are worth a barrelful of other, shoddier “making of” volumes. She was the first to assay The Wizard of Oz in depth, and there is almost nothing about that beloved musical soufflé she missed, or got wrong. Harmetz traces the history of the picture from the marvelous Baum books to the subsequent popular stage musical of 1902 and the largely forgotten 1925 silent movie (in which Oliver Hardy played the Tin Man) through the first faltering steps toward a new screenplay and on to the composing of the imperishable song score, the designing of the sets and the sometimes troubled filming itself, speaking to as many survivors as were able and willing to talk. (The Introduction was written by that most adorable of witches, Margaret Hamilton, about whom I have never heard a bad word.) People seeking an avalanche of color photos can look elsewhere. If you want the goods on how Oz was made, this is your book.

See also: The World of Entertainment!: Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals Hugh Fordin (1975) Speaking of MGM, if you enjoy movie musicals you may wish to avail yourself of the late Hugh Fordin’s fascinating history of the Arthur Freed unit, which along with some appalling dross did indeed produce the greatest of them after the glory days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at RKO and before the advent of Cabaret and Fiddler on the Roof: The Wizard of Oz, Cabin in the Sky, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harvey Girls, Easter Parade, Royal Wedding, An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Gigi. Some spoilsports complained that Fordin’s book was little more than a collection of telegrams and in-house memos, but reproducing these primary sources is a perfectly legitimate, and often illuminating, way of putting together the history of a movie production unit. Besides, most of Rudy Behlmer’s books are collections of similar items and no one complained about that, or needed to.

81. The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece Jan Stuart (2000)

Another splendid oral history, this time of what may have been the most representative American movie of the 1970s. It’s a picture that could only have been filmed by Robert Altman, the exception to nearly all my rules about directors of movies. Although conceived and written by Joan Tewkesbury, Nashville is the ultimate exemplar of its maker’s technical acumen and personal, highly idiosyncratic style. We learn here about the picture’s origins and how Tewkesbury came to write her kaleidoscopic, elliptical screenplay with its 24-character ensemble (the movie was her idea, pitched to Altman while they were working on McCabe and Mrs. Miller) as well as how the roles were cast and the freedom Altman gave his actors, not only to improvise, which was by then the lingua franca of his method, but to compose many of the songs heard in the movie, as well as about the day-to-day exigencies of the location shoot. As with Michael Zuckoff’s later oral biography of Altman, this concatenation of contrapuntal voices is the perfect format to illuminate a movie whose aural imprint is as memorable as its visuals. One of the nicest compliments I can pay Stuart’s book is to say that just talking about it makes me want to read it a second time.

Although I hate to keep harping on the defects of Wikipedia (no I don’t, not really) the category into which their Usual Gang of Idiots has dropped this non pariel is too good not to share: On the page devoted to the movie we learn that Nashville is an “American satirical musical ensemble comedy-drama film.” I suppose we ought to be grateful for how much nettlesome critical thinking these imps of the perverse save us through their obsessive need for categorization.

82. Notes Eleanor Coppola (1979)

Younger people may not credit this, but there were few celebrity figures in the 1970s more compelling than Francis Ford Coppola, and no movie on which more ink was spilled before its premier at the Cannes Film Festival than Apocalypse Now. Everyone who cared even slightly about the present and future of American movies knew that the director and co-writer of The Godfather and The Godfather — Part II (and the writer-director of The Conversation) was shooting an epic vision of the Vietnam war, the most controversial American-directed conflict since our rape of the Philippines 80 years earlier and from which we had only extracted ourselves, bloodied and bowed, a scant few years earlier. That Coppola was refracting his version of the war through the equally vivid nightmare of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness made an intriguing picture sound even more enticing. His wife Eleanor was there throughout, watching and worrying as her husband (and his cast and crew) grew increasingly less and less tethered to reality, as one leading man (Harvey Keitel) was replaced by another (Martin Sheen) who then suffered a near-fatal coronary, and as the entire project threatened to spin crazily out of control and engulf her and everyone she loved. Eleanor Coppola captures all of this and more in spare, limpid prose that limns the everyday and the extraordinary with the same practiced, sometimes coolly imperturbable eye.

83. Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego and the Twilight Zone Case Stephen Farber and Marc Green (1988)

In July of 1982 during a night shoot for the multiple-director omnibus Twilight Zone: The Movie, a helicopter crash killed the actor Vic Morrow and two illegally-employed Vietnamese children. It was one of the worst, most incompetent and, as we later learned, unconscionable incidents in movie history. Farber and Green followed the case and in their book explicated every sickening detail, including the culpability of the picture’s producer, Steven Spielberg, who instantly distanced himself, in one of the more craven performances of the last 50 years, condemned the director John Landis and desperately downplayed his own involvement. Not that Landis did not deserve opprobrium; in fact he deserved a prison sentence. (Did anyone really expect him to receive one? Not on your nelly.) He also behaved like an appalling, infantile brat during the trial, which is as revealing of his character as his willingness to endanger the lives of his actors, his technicians, and two small children.

See also: Indecent Exposure — A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street David McClintick 1983. When the wildly successful television executive David Begelman foolishly (and puzzlingly) embezzled petty amounts of cash from, among others, the actor Cliff Robertson, no one outside Begelman’s circle expected to hear about it. Then Robertson went public. The result was one of the great scandals of a scandalous decade. McClintock covers every tawdry feature of a cheap, mystifying affair.

84. Picture Lillian Ross (1952)

The grandmother of all fly-on-the-wall accounts of moviemaking. Ross followed the filming by John Huston of his and his co-scenarist Albert Band’s adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage and its subsequent dismembering by MGM — which slashed it from two hours to 69 minutes — and published her report first in The New Yorker and later as a book. It’s a classic in a field that hasn’t many masterworks. Huston was the most reproduceable of speakers, and in an accurate account of his speech such as Ross provides the reader can hear his curious, deceptively mellow tones and odd conversational patterns and locutions. (Peter Viertel in White Hunter, Black Heart, his wonderful 1953 roman à clef about the filming of The African Queen, got Huston absolutely down.)

See also: Anatomy of a Motion Picture Richard Griffith (1959) An enjoyable, largely photographic, account of the making of Anatomy of a Murder.

85. Put Money in Thy Purse: The Making of Othello Micheál MacLiammóir (1952)

Othello was Orson Welles‘ most protracted movie, shot on multiple continents and filmed over time; it was begun in 1949 but for complex reasons was not completed until 1951, and not exhibited before 1952. (The American release was further delayed, until 1955.) Filming had already begun when the original producer informed Welles he’d run out of money. With no cash and no costumes, the filmmaker shot two crucial reels depicting the murder of Roderigo in a Turkish bath in Morocco while local tailors labored to sew the clothing he needed to proceed. He was forced eventually to stop shooting and earn money to continue, and even then had to work around the schedules of his actors. Out of this grew the erroneous legend that Welles couldn’t complete a project. MacLiammóir, the movie’s inspired Iago, kept a contemporaneous diary that captures the madness of the filming and Welles’ mercurial moods and contradictory impulses as well as his talents and determination in the face of setbacks that would have defeated a lesser man. It’s a tour de force literary performance, one of the inarguably great books on the making of an equally great, if necessarily flawed, motion picture.

“… everything as I see it is against him before he starts, but his courage, like everything else about him, egotism, generosity, ruthlessness, forbearance, impatience, sensitivity, grossness and vision, is magnificently out of proportion.” — MacLiammóir on Welles

86. Roger Moore’s James Bond Diary Roger Moore (1973)

Written when Moore was filming Live and Let Die, his (if you’ll pardon the seeming oxymoron) maiden effort as James Bond. Whether Moore habitually kept a diary or did so only for one picture, the resulting manuscript is a delightful account of a typically complicated international Bond shoot, nicely illustrated with on-set photos and publicity stills, although as was typical of Fawcett paperbacks of the time you risked tearing the spine apart if you opened the book wide enough to read their captions. (The British edition, published by Pan, contained a different set of photos, most in color. Both are now prohibitively expensive, but the History Press reprinted the book in 2019, with a foreword by David Hedeson, the movie’s Felix Leiter.) I daily await with a certain dread the discovery by the Generation-Z cancel-culture brigade of Live and Let Die, with its hip black villains and sinister depiction of Baron Samedi. Doubtless they will demand Eon burn every extant copy, or get Disney to buy them all and stick them in a subterranean vault with its prints of Song of the South.

Moore was many 007 fans’ least favorite Bond apart from George Lazenby, but I usually found him charming company. So is his book.

87. Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca – Bogart, Bergman, and World War II Aljean Harmetz (1992)

What Harmetz did for The Wizard of Oz in 1977 she did again for Casablanca in 1992. She covers, with her usual diligent thoroughness, its origins in the un-produced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s; the complicated saga of the screenplay and its multiple authors; the miracle of its casting; the filming and editing; and the picture’s decades-long legacy which saw a popular wartime romance gradually become recognized as the ultimate movie-movie of the great age of studio filmmaking. Not incidentally, the author also addresses, in detail, the way the government controlled the content of what American audiences saw during the Second World War. Other writers, such as Glenn Frankel, have attempted to do for pictures such as The Searchers and Midnight Cowboy what Harmetz did for two of the most well-loved American of all movies, but no one has come close.† A treasure.

88. A Star Is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and Its 1983 Restoration Ronald Haver (1988)

Without the author’s perseverance, it’s unlikely that A Star is Born would ever have been restored and rediscovered. Granted there were gaps in the footage that were only partially mitigated by fuzzy outtakes and still photographs. But a minor masterpiece of Hollywood craft had, like Lawrence of Arabia, been cut, and cut again, although at least Lawrence got a full release at its original length; A Star is Born was shorn of far too much footage before its premiere, and Jack L. Warner showed so little faith in it that he had it eviscerated again after less than a month in theatres. (Perversely, Warner had also demanded that more footage be added to a movie that was already too long: The unnecessary “Born in a Trunk” number, which none of the creators of the movie had a hand in.) Haver’s essential book not only covers, with remarkable thoroughness, the development and filming of the movie but his own, only partly successful search for the lost footage and soundtrack. In this case, however, a partial success was still more than anyone could have hoped, or expected. If only for the restoration of the wonderfully written, beautifully shot and charmingly acted marriage proposal sequence on the soundstage, unseen for decades, we owe him.

VII. Miscellaneous

89. Are You Now or Have You Ever Been: The Investigation of Show Business by the Un-American Activities Committee, 1947-1956 Edited by Eric Bentley (1972)

Although this small volume is essentially a playscript adapted by Bentley from his own, much longer book on the House Committee on Un-American Activities Thirty Years of Treason, it’s a perfect vest-pocket history of the hearings and the misery they merrily visited upon American citizens. In this pared-down version the veteran dramatist Bentley highlights some of the more memorable witnesses such as Marc Lawrence, who claimed he joined the Party to pick up girls; Paul Robeson, who chopped the Committee down to size but was its victim anyway; Sterling Hayden, who ratted on others at the urging of his analyst and loathed himself forever after for it; that (to mix my bestial metaphors) serpentine rat Elia Kazan; Lillian Hellman, who with her lawyer cannily (and memorably) extricated herself from having to testify; Zero Mostel, who was clever enough to gentle himself off the hook (but who was blacklisted all the same); and of course the drama’s central tragic figure, Larry Parks, the unconscionable bullying of whom into informing on others against his will remains a stain on our national character and institutions. But then, the hearings were largely a matter of, in no particular order, vengeance against Roosevelt, scare-tactics in aid of building a National Security State, anti-Semitism and the totalitarian impulse with its attendant sadistic delight in forcing others to bend to the will of petty martinets drunk on temporary power.

There seems to be an un-organized movement afoot among Millennials these days to deify these bastards and to pretend that a few ineffectual Communist cells in Hollywood were somehow poisoning the American character. It goes hand in hand with the new intolerance of alleged leftists who seek to call anyone who disagrees with them a racist, a Nazi or, saints preserve us, “an anti-vaxxer.” Bentley’s book is a needed corrective. Now, how can we get these mindless lickspittles to read it?

See also: Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities 1938-1968 Eric Bentley (1971) 1,000-plus pages of testimony.

90. City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s Otto Friedrich (1986)

One of the most compelling narratives about the movie business ever written. Friedrich begins his portrait with the old-fashioned triumph of Gone with the Wind (1939) and ends, a decade and a world war later, with the Grand Guignol cynicism of Sunset Boulevard (1950). Nothing escapes his notice, from the sexual epistemology of the Hollywood closet and assimilated Jews worrying that focusing on anti-Semitism and the plight of European Jewry will bring unwanted goysiche attention to themselves, to Joseph L. Manckiewicz despairing of the sub-literate ignorance around him and the arrogance of Walt Disney, presuming to teach his fellow citizens about concert music of which he himself was stunningly ignorant. Among this magnificent book’s strengths is its author’s knowledge about, and ability to limn, the émigré community of largely German expatriates, most but not all of them Jewish, some of them (like Thomas Mann) giants struggling to eke out a living, as the late Martin Greif put it in one of his Gay Engagement Calendars, in the land of Pygmies. If, as they like to say in the ad biz, you read only one book about Hollywood, it should be this one. I regard it, without hesitation, as not only the finest book on Hollywood I’ve ever read but the best of all books about the movies.

91. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era Thomas Schatz (1988)

Schatz’s impeccably researched and forcefully written book is perhaps the ultimate refutation of auteurism. Taking off from the critic André Bazin’s commentary that one ought to praise American cinema “for what is most admirable, i.e., not only the talent of this or that filmmaker, but the genius of the system,” the author illuminates how that system worked, and who was most responsible for the classics that occasionally emerged from the various factories: Surprise, Mr. Sarris! The producers.

92. Haywire Brooke Hayward (1977)

I considered placing this one in my round-up of actor biographies but I include it here because Hayward takes in so many Hollywood personalities and so much cultural history of her youth and childhood that her book transcends the personal memoir and becomes something of a collective autobiography. Born to the agent and theatrical producer Leland Hayward and the charming actress Margaret Sullavan, she and her siblings were caught in a maelstrom that also included, on the periphery, Henry, James and Peter Fonda, a family whose sad, creepy dysfunction rivals that of the Haywards. Brooke’s sister Bridget was a probable suicide at 21 and her brother Bill finally succumbed, years after this book was published, shooting himself in the heart. Tolstoy was right, as he so often was, about unhappy families; Hayward’s book may be recommended to anyone who still maintains a childlike faith in the annealing powers of fame and money.

93. A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann Steven C. Smith (1991)

Herrmann had long been in need of a comprehensive, sympathetic and erudite biography, and in Smith he got all that and more. The giant on whose shoulders so many have stood, both major and lesser, Herrmann brought to Hollywood a radical approach to scoring movies; it’s more than appropriate that his initial movie score should not only be for his friend and radio collaborator Orson Welles, but for that most radical of talking pictures, Citizen Kane. More than anyone else in movies, Herrmann concentrated on orchestral color rather than themes and motifs and only he, I think, could have composed a “black-and-white” score for Psycho. Certainly only he would have written it solely for strings. Although he could be bombastic — there are moments in his otherwise lovely score for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir that set my teeth on edge, and his last, Taxi Driver, is largely over-emphatic and often hysterical — his was a singular talent; it’s impossible now to imagine certain movies (Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Hangover Square, On Dangerous Ground, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Psycho, Jason and the Argonauts, Marnie) without his music. An explosive, highly-strung artist, Herrmann often clashed with his colleagues, even with the imperious Alfred Hitchcock. It was the composer, for example, who averred, against the instincts of the director, that the crop-dusting sequence in North by Northwest should be assembled without music until its climax, and who insisted that the Psycho shower scene must have it. That one stood as perhaps the most famous piece of music composed for a major American movie since the Max Steiner “Tara’s Theme” in Gone with the Wind, and until John Williams’ equally unsettling theme for the Great White shark in Jaws. Smith’s biography of the man who virtually defined the word “irascible” is full of splendid insights and striking details. One among many: His description of Herrmann in the ’70s scouring record store soundtrack holdings for bootlegs of his scores and banging angrily on the bins with his cane when he found one.

94. It Don’t Worry Me: The Revolutionary American Films of the Seventies Ryan Gilbey (2003)

I regard two eras in American movies as our finest: The 1930s (at least once the technicians mastered the soundtrack and freed the camera again) which in spite of the reactionary Catholic domination of film via the Production Code saw such wonders in comedy, drama, melodrama, thriller and social polemic as (to take only 1931 into consideration) City Lights, Little Caesar, The Front Page, The Public Enemy, Monkey Business and Frankenstein. No one would suggest that all the pictures of the decade were as adult, witty, sophisticated, daring and critical of social norms as the best of them, but the ’30s was the period when the movies grew up and burst their chains, despite the efforts of small minds to contain them. In the creatively comparable era of the ’70s it was only the public’s desire for the conformity of the sure thing, and the studios’ concomitant eagerness to replicate the contours of what had been successful, that pretty much put an end to personal movies made by serious writers, actors and filmmakers. It is astonishing that someone as young as Ryan Gibey, who was four years old when Taxi Driver was released in 1976 and who missed nearly all of the important pictures he writes about so knowledgeably, and beautifully, when they were new could write a book this good about an era he had to catch up with at Bfi screenings and on video as a young man. When I add that he is British, it should go some way toward conveying my surprise and delight with this, the best book on 1970s American movies I’ve ever encountered.

See also: Hollywood Films of the Seventies: Sex, Drugs, Violence, Rock ‘n’ Roll & Politics Seth Cagin and Philip Dray (1984) This small book was, until It Don’t Worry Me, not only the best available volume on ’70s cinema but virtually the only one. It’s still a splendid and insightful title.

95. Movie Comedy Teams Leonard Maltin (1970; reprinted in 1973 and 1985)

A breezy overview of a dozen major teams from Laurel and Hardy to Martin and Lewis, touching as well on some minor ones (Noonan and Marshall, anyone?) by a professional fan with an ear for the telling phrase. In addition to the dozens of wonderful black-and-white photographs, Maltin also provides complete filmographies and biographical details that make this one of the more pleasurable books of its kind.

For the longest time I thought that beautiful cover on the 1973 reissue as well as the one on Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Venus were the work of Richard Amsel. However, the gifted artist and Amsel expert Adam McDaniel informs me that both were by Ann Meisel.

96. Naming Names Victor Navasky (1980)

Navasky, then the editor of The Nation, later its publisher (back when it was still true to its roots as a radical publication and not yet another compromised house organ for the DNC) was perhaps as a result the perfect man to write what for many years was the definitive book on the Hollywood Blacklist. I’ve read numerous volumes on the subject both before the 1980 publication of Naming Names and in the four decades since and none has exhibited more erudition, social-historical acumen or unsentimental compassion. This is a subject which in the last five years since the Clinton campaign launched its phony accusations of “Russian collusion” against her opponent has become, to my astonishment, current again.

See also: Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle (1997) An extremely informative collection of interviews with survivors of the 1950s Red Scare including Norma Barzman, Walter Bernstein, Alvah Bessie, Betsy Blair, Jeff Corey, Jules Dassin, Faith Hubley, Marsha Hunt, Paul Jarrico, Mickey Knox, Mill Lampell, Ring Lardner Jr., Karen Morley, Abraham Polonsky, Martin Ritt and Lionel Stander.

97. Double Life Miklós Rózsa (1989) Rózsa was one of the masters, not only of 20th century movie scoring but of concert forms as well; hence the title of his memoir, taken from one of the MGM pictures for which he provided his distinctive Hungarian folk-laced musical scores. Notable among composers for his erudition and wit (in several languages!), Rózsa was suited, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, to writing a book as informal, and informative, and as charming, as this one.
Why, if you don’t know him, you should:
Concert works: Theme, Variations and Finale; Three Hungarian Sketches; Rhapsody for cello and piano; The Vintner’s Daughter – twelve variations on a French folk song; Violin Concerto; Piano Concerto; Spellbound Concerto; Sonata for guitar
Movie scores: The Jungle Book (1942), Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Spellbound (1945), The Killers (1946), The Red House (1947), Madame Bovary (1959), Quo Vadis (1951), Ivanhoe (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), Lust for Life (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), El Cid (1961), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), Time After Time (1979), Eye of the Needle (1981), Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)
Masterworks: The Thief of Bagdad (1940), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970, score based on his Violin Concerto), Providence (1977)

See also: No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood André Previn (1991) A teenage prodigy, Previn began working in the MGM music department at 16 and was composing for films at 17. Although he turned his back on movie scoring in favor of conducting concert music, in spite of four Academy Awards (and 13 nominations; we may not presume that an Oscar is a sign of quality, but those numbers are awfully impressive) his “Days in Hollywood” certainly made an impression on him. Reading his book is like listening to him speak: A pleasure. In addition to illuminating the corners of his own creative life, at MGM and elsewhere, Previn is often wickedly funny about others, as when he quotes Frederick Loewe’s staggering musical pretension; his own stunned reaction at witnessing, just before intermission of the flop Alan Jay Lerner-Leonard Bernstein musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the shadow of Abraham Lincoln ominously crossing the stage and thinking to himself, “I’m going mad”; and, on being asked to meet with Michael Eisner to discuss a continuation of Fantasia, discovering the Disney CEO wanted him to arrange an entire soundtrack of Beatles instrumentals. ‘Tis a mad world, my masters.

98. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood Mark Harris (2009)

With this book Harris, at the time the only notable writer at Entertainment Weekly (or, as it is known in my home, Ew) aside from Stephen King, hit on a notion so good and so obvious in retrospect it’s amazing no one thought of it before: Examining the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture in 1967, the year that changed the contours of the movie business more than any since the advent of the talkies. The nominees represented the warring taste of American moviegoers, or at least how they were perceived by the studios: The well-intentioned, feel-good-about-how-unbigoted-you-are-when-your-white-daughter-snags-Sidney-Poitier-Stanley-Kramer-picture (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner); the overblown musical/”family” film, a flop the studio flogged so relentlessly it almost had to get a nod (Doctor Dolittle); the phenomenally successful youth comedy directed by a media darling (Mike Nichols’ sophomore effort The Graduate); the witty whodunnit with a social conscience (In the Heat of the Night); and the most radical alternative movie of the year (Bonnie and Clyde). Harris guides the reader through the thickets of America’s late-’60s cultural divide, plots with admirable meticulousness how each picture was developed, made, marketed and received, and draws his irrefutable conclusions in a way that will keep even the most knowledgeable of readers riveted. Pictures at a Revolution is one of the few genuinely great new books on American movies produced so far this century.

99. Roadshow: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s Matthew Kennedy (2014)

Following only five years after Mark Harris’ landmark study was another wonder, a book on a subject that on the surface should have attracted only a fan besotted by Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand as both writer and reader but which, to my almost shocked surprise and pleasure, was a serious, thorough, wonderfully written examination of a long-gone cultural phenomenon that, in its day and after the success of The Sound of Music, became the holy grail of every American movie studio: The hit roadshow musical. “Roadshows” were big-budget movies, usually in (as Cole Porter had it) glorious Technicolor, breathtaking CinemaScope and stereophonic sound that before general release at (as they then said) “popular prices” were exhibited in select cities on a reserved-seat basis, and were often accompanied by overture, post-intermission entr’acte and post-show “exit music.” One after another of these pictures flopped at the box office, some (Sweet Charity, Darling Lili) undeservedly, until the accumulated disaster pretty much killed off the movie musical. Kennedy is splendid company, witty and thoughtful by turns, and admirably thorough.

100. Walt’s Time: From Before to Beyond Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman (1998)

One of the rarest of movie books to locate, and one of the most delightful. I have long felt the Shermans severely underrated as songwriters, but what isn’t widely enough known is how essential they were to the scripts of the pictures for which they wrote their literate yet accessible numbers. Mary Poppins is the classic example of a movie for which Richard (music and lyrics) and Robert (mostly lyrics) developed the story before Disney assigned a screenwriter, and the one that perhaps most fully expressed both their sensibility and his. They didn’t always operate at top of their game (who does?) either at Disney or, later, elsewhere, but they were right more often than they were wrong. The Shermans’ beautiful book celebrates a time and an opportunity they knew they were lucky to be chosen for, and to seize. Like its gently punning title and the brothers’ own penchant for merging old, ordinary words into entirely new and enchanting ones, the book is a charming thing. I will resist the impulse to say it’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, but you are free to do so.

*All, ironically, except Gottlieb’s own role, which got smaller with each revision, until it was comprised of a couple of lines in one brief scene. (The one on the ferry, in which Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody is browbeaten into not closing the beaches after the girl’s death.)

†In addition to imposing anachronistic 21st century slang on events of the past, Frankel also makes far too easily-corrected factual errors and misreadings both of source material and finished film — errors which without a doubt will be repeated in the future by other lazy writers.

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross

The Magic Factory, Part Three: An Annotated List of a Few Essential Books About the Movies — Screenwriters, Screenwriting and Screenplays


By Scott Ross

See also: Part One

Part Two

Part Four

Note the First: I do not by any means claim that this list, which I am posting in installments, is either exhaustive or definitive. It’s merely obsessive. And highly personal. This is my list, based on my experience, my likes and prejudices and my reading, Your list will differ wildly. I merely mean to recommend a few books that influenced me and that you might also enjoy.

Note the Second: Although the list, when it’s finished, is meant to add up to 100, I am going to fiddle outrageously with the numbers. When within a particular category a writer has a number of titles, or a series of books, or I mention a volume by someone else on the same topic, I will count them all as one entry. It’s my party, and I’ll cheat if I want to.

V. Screenwriters and Screenwriting

When I refer to myself as an anti-auteurist I realize I may be creating some confusion, since it should be obvious to the casual reader of these pages that I also honor a number of favored filmmakers. Most of these, however, are or were either writer-directors (Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Preston Sturges, John Huston, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, Samuel Fuller, Blake Edwards, Paul Mazursky, Robert Benton, Oliver Stone); directors who could have taken screenwriter credit on almost any movie they made, and sometimes did (David Lean, Peter Bogdanovich, Sidney Lumet); almost never did (Alfred Hitchcock); never did (Leo McCarey, Howard Hawks); or who habitually worked closely with screenwriters to develop the movies they directed (Ford, Cukor, William Wyler, Martin Ritt, John Schlesinger). Perhaps it’s a limitation in me, but I have never been able to fathom how so many movie critics could embrace the misrepresentation of the French theory — which was far more selective and referred only to certain filmmakers — and warp it, as Andrew Sarris did, to suggest that every movie director is the “author” of any picture he or she makes. And my mystification is centered on one simple reason: That critics are writers too. Why are they so hot to strip the credit from others?

As a result of this madness, any hack or beginner can slap a possessive credit on a movie, even if the script he’s shooting is the seventeenth draft of a screenplay that’s been re-written by a dozen different writers, only two or three of whom will likely be credited. Look up any movie title, on any search engine, and when it pops up the first entry will read, “A film by…” Nearly as bad, even as great a home video producer as Criterion reflexively places either “a film by” or an apostrophe and an “s” on the cover of every disc even when to do so is patently absurd, as in its release of the 1952 The Importance of Being Earnest which it describes as “Anthony Asquith’s.” Surely the possessive attribution is due to Oscar Wilde? After all, even the New Testament admits that in the beginning was the word. But then the Word was God’s, and for an auteurist that can only mean a director.

48. Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting William Goldman (1983)

It is entirely appropriate that the first volume on this list is Goldman’s, because no other screenwriter had or has ever written a book which became, and so quickly, immortal, at least in Hollywood. Goldman had already bequeathed to the world an epigraph — “Follow the money” — that is now so much a part of the common language it is routinely cited in reference to corruption by people who have no idea what its provenance is. (And it was Goldman, not “Deep Throat,” who came up with the phrase, in his screenplay for All the President’s Men.) To this he added a new one, which caught on so quickly it’s employed by the very sort of smug people its author was talking about when he first wrote it: In coining the dictum “Nobody knows anything,” Goldman was asserting that, essentially, all movies that become hits, unless they are sequels to other hits, are what is dismissively referred to as a “non-recurring phenomenon.” No one ever knows what will succeed, or fail, and those who think they do are in for some nasty surprises. Goldman also wrote a tertiary epigraph which is much less often quoted, but which should be tattooed on the inner eyelids of every screenwriter: “Screenplays are structure.” But they are not, as so many ignoramuses aver, “blueprints.” Change a blueprint while you’re building and see how well the construction stands.

You may agree or disagree with Goldman’s other observations (I for instance love the movie Philip Kaufman made from Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and would not have wanted to see the flag-waving version Goldman wrote) or see him as a facile, talented smart-ass. I don’t know how his novels, which I began to devour at age 15, might read for a younger audience, but I like his writing, both for print and movies, too much to find fault with much of it, although I do admit to being one of the few people I know who isn’t gaga over the movie of The Princess Bride, perhaps because I read and loved the novel. In any case, it’s a safe bet no screenwriter will ever create, with a book, the stir Goldman did with this one.

49. Backstory 1: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age / Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s / Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 60s and Backstory 4: Interviewers with Screenwriters of the 1970s and 1980s Edited by Patrick McGilligan (1988 – 2006)

One of our finest biographers of moviemakers, McGilligan also conducted (or edited those conducted by others) dozens of interviews with American screenwriters and published these in five volumes over 21 years. The Backstory series includes discussions with Niven Busch, Alan Scott (author or co-writer of many of the witty Astaire-Rogers pictures), Donald Ogden Stewart, Philip Dunne, Julius J. Epstein, Richard Maibaum, Leigh Brackett, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Garson Kanin, Arthur Laurents, the blacklisted Ben Maddow, Stewart Stern, the ubiquitous blacklistee front Philip Yordan, Jay Presson Allen, George Axelrod, Walter Bernstein, Hitchcock’s great 1950s screenwriter John Michael Hayes, Ring Lardner Jr., Richard Matheson, Wendell Mayes, Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., Sterling Silliphant, Terry Southern, Robert Benton, Blake Edwards, Walter Hill, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Elmore Leonard, Paul Mazursky, Frederic Raphael, Alvin Sargent and Donald E. Westlake. That’s practically the entire history of the talkies to the turn of the century.

I have not read McGilligan’s 2009 volume Backstory 5: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1990s, largely because I have so little interest in movies of the 1990s. Once, in real time, was more than sufficient.

50. Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema Richard Corliss (1975)

Unique in its time, and even to today, Corliss’ second book on movie writers is a perceptive series of essays grouping together scenarists and their representative scripts — a sort of critical bestiary of screenwriters. Amid Corliss’ piquant observations: Anent the 1970 movie of M*A*S*H for which the blacklisted Ring Lardner, Jr. won an Oscar, that the much-loved Hawkeye and Trapper John often behave like fraternity bully-boys, no better than their adversaries and in some ways worse. Among his discoveries: That letters form such a strong narrative thread in the movies written or co-authored by Howard Koch (such as Casablanca) they are almost a personal signature.

See also: The Hollywood Screenwriters (A Film Comment Book) Richard Corliss (1972) The first of Corliss’ books on screenwriting is a collection of essays and interviews which, in Dr. Roseanne Welch’s apt words, “was a seminal work… in terms of bringing the screenwriter out from under the director’s shadow following a decade of auteurist criticism run rampant.” Frustratingly, in a 1990s issue of Film Comment Corliss repudiated his own 1970s defense of screenwriters. Oh, well; he also around that time began using the teenage neologism “way” in place of the perfectly acceptable and grammatically effective “much,” “far” and “more” which had sufficed for centuries. As, alas, did every other adult in America.

51. The Hollywood Writers’ Wars Nancy Lynn Schwartz; Completed by Sheila Schwartz (1982)

If there is an essential volume of screenwriting history, the Schwartzes’ splendid book is it. A wide-ranging account of the oft-thwarted attempt of a majority of scenarists to set up a union, the vicious opposition of the studios (which set up Screen Playwrights, their own, reactionary union, one most writers, quite properly, disdained or chafed under the yoke of) and the ultimate triumph of the Screen Writers Guild. The only sad thing about The Hollywood Writers’ Wars is that its author did not live to complete it, dying in agony of a brain tumor at an obscenely young age.

52. Laughing Matters: On Writing M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Oh, God! and a Few Other Funny Things Larry Gelbart (1998)

With the possible exceptions of Ben Hecht and Billy Wilder, I don’t know of a wittier American writer of screenplays than Larry Gelbart, or an more verbally elegant one. (As a playwright and librettist he was scarcely less impressive, writing with Burt Shevelove the achingly funny book for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and, solo, the hilarious one for the Cy Coleman musical City of Angels, the great Iran-Contra satire Mastergate, the funny and terrifying Power Failure and the Volpone-inspired Sly Fox, the single funniest playscript I’ve ever read.) Although his range was great his comic work is marked by two related attributes: His general literacy, and his gift for malaprop, usually in the service of overturning a verbal cliché. Recently, while watching a DVD of sketches from “Caesar’s Hour” I heard a line that I would be willing to bet money was Gelbart’s: Caesar, playing a vaudeville hoofer, avers that he’s a great dancer because “I’ve got ten toes in my heart.” Although he seldom received solo credit as a screenwriter — Oh, God! was a notable exception — his writing infused the projects on which he worked with sparkling wit and a seriousness of purpose that is at the root of all great comedy. His memoir is an unalloyed delight.

See also: Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood Arthur Laurents (2000) Laurents virtually defined the word “prickly,” his later dogmatism sometimes destroying decades-long friendships. He was also, as a playwright, librettist and screenwriter, seldom as great as one hoped he would be. On the other hand, he was associated with three musical classics (West Side Story, Anyone Can Whistle and especially Gypsy) and wrote two exceptional screenplays whose subsequent movies their respective directors fucked up through insecurity and compromise: The Turning Point and The Way We Were. Whatever his flaws as a human being, Laurents’ memoir is an eye-opener, fascinating, articulate and compelling.

53. Mad as Hell: The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky Shaun Considine (1994)

Of all American playwrights and screenwriters, few were as drunk on words as Paddy Chayefsky. In the 1970s, going to see a movie written by Chayefsky (who was without a doubt the auteur of those pictures) was an exhilarating experience, the writers’ mordant wit and “outrageous” point of view, wedded to his dazzling verbosity, combining to give viewers almost an entirely new genre, something we might call rhetorical slapstick. Although Pauline Kael for one accused Chayefsky of being a reactionary, I don’t think she quite understood his position as a satirist. (Although certainly he behaved like a reactionary the night Vanessa Redgrave made her … is “ill-considered” the correct word?… acceptance speech at the Academy Awards.) Initially celebrated as the poet of kitchen-sink drama for television plays like “Marty” and “The Mother,” Chayefsky gradually began to explore larger ideas, and social comedy, and his dialogue became more expansive, less realistic and far more memorable. So memorable, in fact, that even when a broad audience embraced his expression, it didn’t always understand what he had in mind; in 1976, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” became the watch-cry of Americans who were fed up with… well, just about everything. What the people who repeated the phrase didn’t quite understand was that the aphorism was uttered in Network by an unbalanced schizophrenic. Considine does an admirable job of research and writing, capturing a non pariel in all his nettlesome genius.

54. The Craft of the Screenwriter: Interviews with Six Celebrated Screenwriters John Brady (1982)

Brady’s splendid book consists of long and free-ranging interviews with five of the great screenwriters of the era and one interloper whose scant worth to movie history has, I think, been proven over time… and I am not referring to Paddy Chayefsky, William Goldman, Ernest Lehman, Neil Simon or Robert Towne. Interestingly, the most informative chapter for me as a young playwright was the Simon interview, which I hadn’t expected to enjoy as much as did, or to find so useful in a practical sense. (The book was published long before the emergence of the mature Simon of Lost in Yonkers, remember.) I only regret that Brady didn’t know, as no one did until fairly recently, that Edward Taylor co-authored every script Robert Towne took solo credit for. I haven’t pulled The Craft of the Screenwriter down from the shelf in years, so it will be interesting to re-read that interview in light of what Sam Wasson dug up on the matter for his book on Chinatown.

55. What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting Marc Norman (2008)

An engaging, unusually intelligent history of screenwriting by a screenwriter, which may be a first. Norman, who wrote the vastly entertaining novel (and subsequent movie) Oklahoma Crude and later won an Oscar for a romantic comedy about Shakespeare I haven’t seen due to what I consider an impossible imbecility at its core (Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter indeed!) not only provides a rich, spirited novelistic history of the screenwriter in Hollywood but, as his title suggests, the contours of his craft: The what-happens-next? of celluloid storytelling.

See also: Some Time in the Sun: The Hollywood Years of F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Nathaniel West, Aldous Huxley and James Agee Tom Dardis (1976) Dardis’ book is especially useful for its debunking of the legend that surrounds Fitzgerald’s late Hollywood period, written as a refutation of Aaron Latham’s myth-reinforcing book Crazy Sundays.

VI. Screenplays

In the 1970s, when “film studies” was everywhere, screenplays got published at a dizzying rate. Some now make one scratch one’s head in bemusement (Cisco Pike? Little Fauss and Big Halsey? Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid? Two-Lane Blacktop???) Others, like Easy Rider, were cutting continuity scripts, difficult to read… if you wanted to read the screenplay for Easy Rider, and I can’t imagine who would. The most enjoyable, like Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, were written to be read and are less concerned with outlining elaborate tracking shots (which the director is going to ignore anyway when he comes to shoot the thing) than with establishing and prolonging humor, mood and suspense. The best, such as those in the University of Wisconsin Warner Brothers series, contained long, informative histories of the pictures themselves and many frame blow-ups. But there were those who felt the practice of putting screenplays into print was a dubious idea at best; Larry McMurtry, himself a screenwriter, disdained them as “non-books.” He may have had a point. I admit I read them less often now than I did when I was an adolescent and becoming besotted with movies, needing movie books the way a dope-fiend needs a fix. But the best of them are pleasant keepsakes of movies that meant, and mean, something to me.

56. The Annotated Godfather: The Complete Screenplay with Commentary on Every Scene, Interviews, and Little-Known Facts Jenny Jones, ed. (Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo) 2007

I wish Jones would repeat this for The Godfather Part II, without doubt the finest sequel ever made to an already magnificent American movie. Otherwise, I have no complaints. It’s interesting, in light of so many auteurist directors taking the possessive line, that The Godfather pictures have all borne the credit “Mario Puzo’s.” Coppola, and Paramount, knew, at least in 1972, that Puzo’s was the name (other than Brando’s) the millions of readers of the novel were looking for in those posters and advertisements.

57. Best American Screenplays 2 Sam Thomas, ed. (1991) Thomas edited three omnibus screenplay collections covering a wide range of genres. The second volume is the finest by a hair and includes My Man Godfrey, Citizen Kane, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Some Like it Hot, Terms of Endearment, The Lion in Winter, Julia and The Sting. Best American Screenplays (1985), the first volume, includes The Graduate, Sounder, Arthur and The Candidate. and Best American Screenplays 3 1995 includes The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Sunset Boulevard, Tender Mercies, Double Indemnity, Harold and Maude and Unforgiven. Although some of these classics have since been published separately most have not, so this trio constitutes a vest-pocket library of great American scenarios.

58. Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot – The funniest film ever made: The complete book Alison Castle, ed; Interviews by Dan Aulier (Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) (2002)

When I was 15 I found a copy of the old Signet paperback edition of the Some Like it Hot screenplay in a second-hand bookshop. Reading it that afternoon, I quite literally fell off the family sofa. I had never read a funnier script before, and have only read one since that was as funny (Larry Gelbart’s play Sly Fox). Some Like it Hot was the favorite movie I’d never seen for years before I finally caught it at a university screening in the 1980s. It has since become my favorite movie, period. So you can imagine with what trembling anticipation I learned of this Taschen book, and how nearly orgasmic my pleasure on receiving it. The ne plus ultra of books devoted to a specific movie, this is a glorious package supplemented by interviews, limned by wonderful photographs and other graphics, and with that great Wilder/Diamond screenplay at its center.

59. The Big Brass Ring: An Original Screenplay Orson Welles and Oja Kodar (1987)

In the years before his death, Welles was shopping this incisive political thriller around Hollywood, hoping to snare one of the then-biggest male stars (Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty) to take the leading role of William Blake Pellarin, a gubernatorial candidate treading dangerous lines of intrigue and obsessed by the young beauty with whom he once had an incendiary affair. While interested, none of the actors he sought would bite, using the excuse that they couldn’t afford to cut their price for a single movie (not even one to be directed by Orson Goddamned Welles!) when one suspects the thing that really unnerved them was the presence in the scenario of Kim Minnaker, the politico’s mentor, an ageing gay man fighting his own, unrequited desire for his old student. That would have been, and should have been, the Welles role, as the girl would have been his companion and collaborator Oja Kodar’s. Frustratingly, it was never to be; Welles died without a deal… which in Hollywood I suppose means you’re really dead. But his and Kodar’s screenplay is marvelous: Witty, erudite, intelligent and, in the sequence in which Minniker, riding a ferris wheel outside Blake’s hotel, is stopped just outside the window where, in agony, he watches the younger man having sex with his beloved, incendiary. It’s a shocking moment and one can only imagine, with regret, what Welles would have done with it, both as director and as actor. If you’ll pardon my quoting from my own centenary essay on Welles, “In a moment as sexually charged as anything in American movies, Pellarin becomes aware of this scrutiny, and his eyes lock with Minnaker’s. The description of this emotionally naked encounter, in the published script, is among the most breathtaking I’ve ever encountered in dramatic literature; it should have burned holes in the screen.”

60. The Bonnie & Clyde Book David Newman & Robert Benton (1972)

No movie of the late-1960s aside from Midnight Cowboy (and, peripherally, The Wild Bunch, which wasn’t nearly as popular) had more of an impact on the American popular culture than Bonnie & Clyde, even if many if not most Americans were unaware of them as the changes were happening. There was outrage at the form the picture took, seeming to be a comedy and abruptly exploding into bloody violence at mid-point, with considerably more to follow before the astonishing finale. The director, Arthur Penn, got much of the credit (and the blame) for the style, and certainly he and Dede Allen, the editor, were responsible for the movie’s electrifying kineticism. But so was Warren Beatty, who produced Bonnie and Clyde, starred as Clyde Barrow and hired everyone else involved, including Penn. (On the debit side, Beatty was also responsible for indications of Barrow’s homosexuality being removed from the picture.) But Bonnie & Clyde was a writer’s picture, or a writers’ picture, since it was entirely the product of two young men. Newman and Benton had been making a name for themselves as clever young Esquire magazine art directors and copywriters when they collaborated on the B & C screenplay and tried to get it made by François Truffaut. Beatty and Penn had enormous input into the original authors’ revisions to their script, and of course Penn was rightly praised for how he shot and, with Allen, edited the material. But Bonnie & Clyde is prima facie evidence against the idiotic American concept of all-movies-belong-solely-to-directors-auteurism. Everyone contributed to the success of B & C, not only at the box office (when Beatty pressured Jack Warner to re-release it after a disappointing early run and it caught on the second time around) but in fashion, the honing of opinion among younger critics, the depiction of screen violence and the opening up of what was permitted generally in the most influential of the popular arts.

See also: Two for the Road Frederic Raphael (1967) Stanley Donen also got a lot of credit for the shattered temporal structure of this alternatively dark and charming romantic comedy, but the script was written that way from its inception. Raphael makes this abundantly clear in his introduction, and refutes with evidence the notion that Donen was in any way the progenitor of what, apart from the lovely starring performances by Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney (and the nifty Mancini score) made the picture so memorable. Herein lies a lesson for every TV-commercial wizard who slaps a possessive credit on his first, usually rotten, movie.

61. Casablanca: Script and Legend Howard Koch (and Julius & Philip Epstein) 1973 (Expanded edition, 1995) Although Koch was one of three credited scenarists on Casablanca, it was he who wrapped the published screenplay within his own reminiscence of its complex creation, filming, initial success and enduring popular repute. (Three years earlier he had done a similar job on The Panic Broadcast, a book reprinting his script, heavily doctored and improved by Orson Welles, for the phenomenal 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast, a publishing event about which Welles was none too happy.) The most important aspect of the Casablanca book, of course, is the Casablanca script, which despite its romantic excesses — courtesy of the un-credited Casey Robinson — remains one of the wittiest and most quotable screenplays ever written for an American classic.

See also: Casablanca: The 50th Anniversary Edition (1992) The Koch and Epstein screenplay sans Koch’s memoir.

62. The Citizen Kane Book Orson Welles and Herman L. Mankiewicz; Pauline Kael (1971)

Few essays on the popular arts were more widely read, and fewer created more unnecessary controversy, than Pauline Kael’s “Rising Kane” in The New Yorker, which she later made the centerpiece of her book publishing the original screenplay by Orson Welles and Herman J, Manckiewicz along with the cutting continuity of what was then being routinely called “the greatest movie ever made.” It’s a typically witty, informative Kael essay but filled with inaccuracies, particularly about Welles’s contributions to the script. (Among her sources was John Houseman, Welles’ one-time producer and later deadly enemy, who must have relished the opportunity to deny Welles writing credit for his most well-regarded picture.) Kael’s essay was so persuasive it even fooled the redoubtable Kenneth Tynan, up to then a lifetime Welles acolyte. What was curious about “The Kane Mutiny,” as Peter Bogdanovich wittily dubbed it in Esquire, is that Kael was also a strong public admirer of Welles’ work as a filmmaker, particularly at a time when most of the press was ignoring him entirely. It must have galled him that the screenplay he and Mankiewicz wrote was forever wedded to an essay hot to prove he didn’t deserve much credit for the writing. Kael’s piece is still worth reading, provided you know how to refute it, and that screenplay still well worth studying, in whatever format. The advantage of having the shooting script yoked to the continuity is that this allows you to confirm at a glance which lines and sequences were dropped, or altered by Welles and his Mercury Theatre actors, during the filming.

63. Greed: A Film by Erich von Stroheim (1979)

One of the great, mutilated masterworks, Greed was famously (or infamously) chopped down by MGM to 140 minutes from an 8-hour first cut by its writer/director, the genuinely visionary Erich von Stroheim. That Stroheim was extravagant is an understatement, but he was not foolish enough to believe a major Hollywood movie studio would release a picture of that length, although he (like Robert Altman later with his unrealized movie of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and Claude Lanzmann with his overrated and exhausting 9-hour Shoah) wanted a two-part movie audiences would have to see in separate screenings. A 1999 Turner Entertainment “reconstruction,” which runs 239 minutes is, like the 1984 A Star is Born restoration, filled out with stills and is based on Herbert G. Weinberg’s coffee table book The Complete Greed, which is now quite rare. The Lorimer text, pictured here, is a less profligately illustrated but more affordable means of judging what Stroheim had in mind. At least you should have an easier time getting your hands on a copy than you will finding the Turner Greed, for which there has never been a DVD release.

64. JFK: The Book of the Film – The Documented Screenplay Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar (1992)

Prior to JFK, Stone was a media darling for the 1986 Platoon in spite of the fact that nearly all American newspapers and magazines pushed the Vietnam war until it became fashionable to condemn it, and the 1987 Wall Street, because everyone but a fiscal vulture can feel virtuous critiquing rapacious capitalism. Born on the Fourth of July didn’t hurt his media reputation either. But challenging the Warren Report? How very dare he? An early draft of the screenplay was leaked to the press while the picture was shooting, and the war was on. Despite the nearly constant barrage of negative press, broadside reviews and colloquies by the usual talking heads condemning him and his film the picture took off into the stratosphere to such a degree that Congress passed The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 as a result. (Not that this has led to much of anything.) As a result of the false, hysterical claims against JFK, when they came to publish their screenplay Stone and his collaborator Zachary Sklar prepared a fully annotated edition which refuted many of the lies and much of the mythology the CIA_infiltrated American media still pushes on an increasingly credulous population concerning the very public murder of a president.

65. The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction Orson Welles; Robert L. Carringer, ed. (1993)

Whenever I consider the violence done to what on the evidence was almost certainly Orson Welles’ masterpiece as a writer/director, I get physically ill. Not only because what still exists of Ambersons is so brilliant, or even because its mutilation savaged Agnes Moorehead’s still-astonishing performance, but because of the damage it did to its maker. “They destroyed it,” he once said, “and it destroyed me.” “They” is of course RKO, which used Welles’ being in South America at government request as an excuse to first disfigure his movie by removing more than 40 minutes from it and, later, after he’d been removed from the studio, to destroy the negative and even the preview print, leaving us an hour and 20 minutes of tattered glory beyond the means of rescue. Carringer’s book reconstructs the picture in verbal and visual terms (by the use of production stills) so that we can at least read what Welles intended. Much of the cut material appeared in script and still form in the earlier book This is Orson Welles but Carringer’s volume puts the whole thing together.

66. More About All About Eve Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Gary Carey (1972)

All About Eve is everyone’s favorite theatre fable, one of the wittiest and most quotable of American movies. Joseph Mankiewicz’s exceptionally literate screenplay was a natural for publication, and Random House brought out an edition of it in 1950. Two decades later Bantam reprinted it, supplemented by a long interview with Mankiewicz by Gary Carey. The script still shimmers, but Mankiewicz revised his interview responses to such a degree he removed all the air from his remarks, replacing spontaneity with fussy ponderousness. It’s a tendency he also had as screenwriter, cluttering things up with verbiage, and the reason I suspect he did not direct an original movie of his own after 1967; he had become what Orson Welles once called “a loquacious bore.”

67. The Ninth Configuration William Peter Blatty with Mark Kermode commentary (1999)

Another witty and endlessly quotable masterpiece, although far less well known than All About Eve. Blatty’s alternately hilarious and harrowing adaptation and revision of his novel Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane is a non-pariel, filled with verbal slapstick and marvelous oddballs. For the published screenplay, Mark Kermode leads the author on a journey through the picture, their commentary appearing alongside the text. Even if Blatty ends the picture by handing us yet another facile “proof” of life-after-death, the ride is so uniquely entertaining we can even forgive him for the sermon.

See also: William Peter Blatty on The Exorcist: From Novel to Screen (1974) Blatty was nothing if not sincere about his somewhat trying missionary zeal, and in this Bantam paperback he explicates that mission, along with the shooting script for his most popular movie. “William Friedkin’s The Exorcist,” my ass.

68. Nixon Oliver Stone and Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson (1995)

Having been burned by the corporate media on JFK, Oliver Stone was taking no chances with Nixon. He and his co-scenarists thoroughly annotated their published screenplay, including transcripts from the White House tapes and essays by some of the participants. The script, lavishly illustrated with stills from the picture, would be satisfying enough; the added weight of the documentary evidence makes the book a necessary volume in the expanding Nixon/Watergate libraries. I can never quite decide which Stone picture is my favorite, although I vacillate between JFK and Nixon, as I do between City Lights and Modern Times for Chaplin… and this is probably the first time the names of those two filmmakers have ever been yoked together.

69. Screenplays Volume II, The (The Collected Works of Paddy Chayefsky): The Hospital, Network, Altered States Paddy Chayefsky (2000)

Applause Books issued three Chayefsky collections in 2000: One for his stage plays and two for his screenplays. The second volume of movie scripts contained his best and most representative work, including the two on which his modern reputation rests. Although The Hospital is still a wonderful movie, I think a new Chayefsky may be required to, as Paddy did with the state of the medical monolith ca. 1970, satirize the way insurance and Big Pharma manipulate, rule over and generally destroy the lives and health not only of Americans but of nearly everyone on the planet. But while the contours of the news business have changed since 1976, Network retains its sting. Chayefsky was so prescient about televised news he was nearly an oracle; nearly everything he “predicted” in Network has come true in the decades since what MGM, hedging its bests, marketed as “a perfectly outrageous motion picture” was unleashed to the theaters.

See also: The Collected Works of Paddy Chayefsky: The Screenplays (Volume 1): Marty, The Goddess, The Americanization of Emily Paddy Chayefsky (2000)

70. Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi) Laurent Bouzereau (Screenplays by George Lucas, Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan) 1997

Only a fool or an overstimulated fanboy would refer to the screenplays of the original Star Wars trilogy as great literature, or even great pop literature. But if you’re fond of the movies made from them they’re great fun to read, and the annotations provided in this nifty volume are fascinating. As a maker of exceptionally thorough behind-the-scenes documentaries Bouzereau’s name has been nearly ubiquitous on DVDs and Blu-rays of many popular movies. He applies the same rigor and besotted intelligence here.

71. Hud, Norma Rae and The Long, Hot Summer: Three Screenplays by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. Edited and with an Introduction by Michael Frank (1988)

Beginning with the Faulkner-inspired The Long, Hot Summer, Ravetch and Frank embarked on a career-long collaboration with the director Martin Ritt, resulting in eight pictures including the remarkably intelligent Paul Newman Western Hombre and Conrack, their adaptation of Pat Conroy’s despairing memoir of teaching shockingly impoverished Gullah children in South Carolina. Hud, of course, was one of Newman’s most identifiable roles (and the first Larry McMurtry novel adapted for the screen) while Norma Rae, based on the life and union activism of the late Crystal Lee Sutton, showed the moviegoing world that Sally Field was a major talent with a range far beyond what her earlier work (excepting “Sybil”) had led anyone to expect from her. The Norma Rae screenplay is perhaps the Ravetches’ most representative, filled with compassion, intelligence, humor, what used to be called “social consciousness” but which while passionate does not hector the viewer, and an impeccable sense of the dramatic. Who, having seen the picture, can forget the image of Norma Rae Webster standing defiantly atop the factory table with a hastily-scrawled “Union” placard in her hands? And as a writer I treasure this exchange by the screenwriters between Norma and the textiles union organizer Reuben Warshawsky, portrayed by the wonderful Ron Liebman:

Reuben: You’re the fish I wanted to hook.
Norma: Well, you got me. So what the hell are you gonna do with me?
Reuben: Make a mensch outta you, kid.
Norma: You are?
Reuben: Mm-hm.
(After a pause) What is that?
Reuben: Somebody who goes to the old folks’ home on Saturday morning instead of playin’ golf. Somebody who puts a dollar in a blind man’s cup for a pencil.
Norma: I’d do that.
Reuben: Uh-huh. But would you take the pencil?
Norma: Of course. I paid for it.
Reuben: Somewhere between logic and charity, there falls a shadow.

That, not boilerplate Democrat pieties dressed up in “dazzling” verbiage by self-righteous liberal dramatists, is what great screenwriting is all about.

See also: Three Screenplays by Horton Foote: To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Mercies and The Trip to Bountiful (1994) Harper Lee remarked of Foote’s beautiful adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird that he had “distilled the essence” of her novel. This is the most that can be expected of a writer transliterating the nearly perfect work of another, and the best that can ever be hoped. Foote was also, of course, a considerable playwright and screenwriter, and this collection brings together, along with Mockingbird, two of his own finest screenplays. And, not that this automatically confers honor upon them, all three of these scripts won Foote Academy Awards.

72. To Have and Have Not Jules Furthman & William Faulkner (1987)

I fell in love with the dialogue (and Bogart’s and Bacall’s performances) in this most entertaining of war-time escapist pictures long before I ever saw the movie, listening late at night in my bed to a local radio station airing of the 1946 “Lux Radio Theatre” broadcast, with an earplug (singular; this was the mid-’70s) but without, alas, Walter Brennan. Even though some of the repartee between Harry “Steve” Morgan and “Slim” Marie (“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve…?”) that so delighted me at 13 or 14 I later discovered was written by Howard Hawks, the picture’s director, the rest of what I was hearing was sharper and more intelligent than the 1940s norm. And although I have always loved Casablanca, I don’t love it as I do To Have and Have Not. There’s almost no fealty in it to the bitter, downbeat Hemingway novel, but that was the point; Hawks wanted to show how Marie and Harry might have met. The University of Wisconsin edition of the screenplay includes a splendid long introduction by the editor, Bruce F. Kawin, that delves deeply into the development of the script: The first pass was by the gifted but unpleasant Furthman, the second by Faulkner, and the polish by Hawks who, as so often his pictures, could have taken a screenwriting credit and didn’t. The running gag of Brennan’s Eddie asking everyone he meets if they “was ever bit by a dead bee” sounds like something Hawks might have devised, but it was Furthman who had the wit to come up with it.

Honorable Mention:
The 400 Blows François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy (1969) The Grove Press edition, packed with photos.

Abraham Polonksy’s Force of Evil: The Critical Edition Abraham Polonsky and Ira Wolfert (1996)

American Graffiti George Lucas and Gloria Katz & William Hyuck (1975) Another terrific Grove Press edition, later reprinted by Ballantine Books.

The Apartment and The Fortune Cookie: Two Screenplays Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (1971) One of Wilder and Diamond’s masterpieces, coupled with an amusing but much less effective script.

Apocalypse Now Redux John Milius and Francis Coppola (2000)

Avalon, Tin Men, Diner: Three Screenplays Barry Levinson (1990) Two of the most original pictures of the 1980s plus an overlong, sentimental movie memoir.

Baby Doll Tennessee Williams (1956) Williams’ notorious comedy of sex in the South, loudly condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and defiantly portrayed on a Times Square billboard a block long.

Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana; Annie Proulx (2005) The original Proulx story and the beautiful film script.

Charade: The Classic Movie Screenplay  Peter Stone (2015)

Chimes at Midnight Orson Welles (1988) A typically fulsome Rutgers Press edition with incisive accompanying essays and frame blow-ups.

Chinatown and The Last Detail: Screenplays Robert Towne (and the un-credited Edward Taylor) (1998)

Do the Right Thing Spike Lee (1988)

Double Indemnity Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (2000)

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial: From Concept to Classic, The Illustrated Story of the Film and the Filmmakers (Screenplay by Melissa Mathison) (2002)

The Empire Strikes Back Notebook (Script by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett) (1980)

A Face in the Crowd Budd Schulberg (1957)

Five Screenplays: All the President’s Men, Magic, Harper, Maverick, The Great Waldo Pepper William   Goldman (1997)

Five Screenplays: The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, Hail the Conquering Hero Preston Sturges (1986)

Four More Screenplays: The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Unfaithfully Yours, Triumph Over Pain/The Great Moment Preston Sturges (1995)

Four Screenplays: Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, Misery William Goldman (1997)

The History Boys: The Film Alan Bennett (2006) It’s instructive to compare Bennett’s playscript with his screenplay, which I regard as both a splendid adaptation of a wonderful play, and an improvement on it. The moving final lines from Posner (Samuel Barnett) are a prime example of how Bennett deepened his own work for the screen.

How Green Was My Valley: The Screenplay for the John Ford Directed Film (Limited Edition) Philip Dunne (1990)

I Never Sang for My Father Robert Anderson (1970)

Irma LaDouce Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (1963) Midwood Tower was known for its erotica. Irma was about a prostitute. I guess that’s why they published this script, a slim volume teeming with wonderful photos.

The Lion in Winter James Goldman (1969) Another splendid play improved on its way to the screen.

The Lost Weekend Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (2000)

The Maltese Falcon John Huston; William Luhr, ed. (1995) A high-quality Rutgers edition.

Monkey Business/Duck Soup S.J. Perelman; Will B. Johnstone; Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby (1972)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Book) Graham Chapman; John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones (1975)

Monty Python’s Life of Brian Graham Chapman, Graham; John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones (1979)

Nashville Joan Tewkesbury (1976) A wonderful book of a wonderful movie.

North by Northwest Ernest Lehman (1993) Another splendid Rutgers edition.

Platoon and Salvador Oliver Stone; Oliver Stone and Richard Boyle (1987)

Point of Order!: A Documentary of the Army-McCarthy Hearings Emile de Antonio and Daniel Talbot (1964)

Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Illustrated Screenplay Lawrence Kasdan (1981)

Robin and Marian James Goldman (1976)

The Shawshank Redemption: The Shooting Script Frank Darabont (1995)

Singin’ in the Rain Betty Comden and Adolph Green (1972)

Stalag 17 Billy Wilder and Edward Blum (1999)

Sunday, Bloody Sunday Penelope Gilliatt (1972)

Sunset Boulevard Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett with D.M. Marshman (1999)

Sweet Smell of Success Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets (1998)

Talking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan John Sayles (1987) The script for Sayles’ great depiction of the Matewan massacre along with his account of filming it.

They Might Be Giants James Goldman (1970) Goldman’s lovely adaptation of his charming play.

The Third Man Graham Greene (1968)

Three Screen Comedies: Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, Heaven Can Wait Samson Raphaelson (1983) Three of the wittiest and most charming movies ever made, written for and directed by Ernest Lubitsch.

Three Screenplays: Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake E.L. Doctorow (2003) Only one of these was filmed (Daniel) but all of the scripts are worth reading.

Tom Jones John Osborne (1963) A wonderful Grove Press publication copiously illustrated with stills.

Touch of Evil Orson Welles (1995) Yet another great Rutgers edition.

The Treasure of Sierra Madre John Huston; James Naremore, ed. (1979) Rutgers again. A great film series that appears to have been either cancelled, or suspended indefinitely. Perhaps too many screenplays were published in the ’70s, but almost none that aren’t owned by Disney are getting into print today.

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross

The Magic Factory, Part Two: An Annotated List of a Few Essential Books About the Movies — Critics and Filmmakers


By Scott Ross

See also: Part One

Part Two

Part Four

Note the First: I do not by any means claim that this list, which I am posting in installments, is either exhaustive or definitive. It’s merely obsessive. And highly personal. This is my list, based on my experience, my likes and prejudices and my reading, Your list will differ wildly. I merely mean to recommend a few books that influenced me and that you might also enjoy.

Note the Second: Although the list, when it’s finished, is meant to add up to 100, I am going to fiddle outrageously with the numbers. When within a particular category a writer has a number of titles, or a series of books, or I mention a volume by someone else on the same topic, I will count them all as one entry. It’s my party, and I’ll cheat if I want to.

III. Criticism

Of (obviously) deep concern to the writer of this blog, good movie criticism has never been exactly plentiful, although it has certainly been a hell of a lot healthier than it is today. On the other hand, so has everything else. Alas, in a land where either editors no longer know the rudiments of their jobs and writers for print and online publication simply do as they please without the nagging interference of the men and woman who used routinely to turn poor writing into the acceptable and the good into the great, we can expect little better than what we get. (I’d love an editor to give my work the once-over before I post it — probably the fond wish of some of you as well — but since I get paid nothing for this and this cannot afford to hire one…) Gore Vidal famously noted that there can be no great writers without great readers, and not only was he correct but his aphorism has a corollary applicable to film criticism: There can be no great movie critics without great movies, and great movie audiences. It’s no accident, then, that most of the best-written movie criticism in America was of another era, or focuses itself on the movies of the past.

21. Agee on Film Volume 1: Essays and Reviews by James Agee (1958) (Library of America edition [#160]: James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism: Agee on Film / Uncollected Film Writing / The Night of the Hunter / Journalism and Film Reviews, 2005)

Whenever I want to remind myself what a great writer can do with material scarcely worthy of his notice (and to feel correspondingly wretched about my own anemic abilities) I re-read Agee’s reviews, written mostly for Time and The Nation. While he seldom got near a movie good enough to be worthy of him, it’s safe to say that many if not most of the pictures he routinely critiqued during this period — roughly 1942 to 1948 — often in omnibus groupings, would be entirely forgotten except for his memorable reviews of them: His response to one standard B-musical olio (“Vaudeville is dead; I wish to God someone would bury it.”) inters any number of equally silly wastes of time. Yet however biting Agee’s wit could be, his open-heartedness is never far from the surface. I’m not sure what would possess a man, even the wordl’s most devoted Charlie Chaplin fan, to take three long columns to review Monsieur Verdoux, and then to complain that a three-part critique is not long enough to address it fully. But one would rather Agee’s very occasional folly than the sanest work of almost anyone else of the period. No writer of his generation had as much love for, and knowledge about, silent comedy than Agee, and his 1949 Life magazine essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era” is arguably the best overview of the pictures Agee loved as a boy and which were still fueling his ardor for movies 30 and more years later.

If you really want to feel like an inarticulate boob, read Dwight McDonald’s piece on Agee in which he quotes letters from his then 16-year old friend, who not only had a fully worked-out philosophical attitude toward movies, a subject beneath the contempt of most of his contemporaries, but astonishingly sophisticated ideas on how they could be made better and with greater artistic and psychological license. It may be that Agee, who so badly wanted to direct movies from a young age, would, had he lived to try his hand at it, have made an arty mess of things. Perhaps he wouldn’t have. Maybe he would have made something astonishing. The great catastrophe of his largely self-foreshortened life is that neither we nor he ever got to find out. But his reviews will live on as long as there are at least a few great readers around.

See also: Dwight MacDonald on Movies (1969) Speaking of MacDonald, this collection of his occasional reviews of the late 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s is a useful one, even if his tastes diverged from much of the movie-going public of the time and aligned, somewhat alarmingly, all to closely to those of John Simon, who whatever his gifts as a theatre critic, and his adoration of Ingmar Bergman, could nearly always be counted upon to get any English or American picture wrong. Anyone can commit a critical error now and then; for men this erudite to get so many now classic pictures (The Apartment, Psycho, One Two Three, Hud, Tom Jones) wrong is dismaying. MacDonald also, like Simon, got schoolmarmishly huffy about the 1962 Cape Fear. He should only have lived to see what Scorsese did with it.

22. A Biographical Dictionary of Film David Thomson (1975; Revised and expanded numerous times)

Thomson is a troublesome writer: Part critic-part biographer, a sometimes lazy researcher and a sort of celebrity voyeur, speculating on the private lives of personalities in a way that most of us indulge in privately but which becomes unseemly and even creepy when aired in print. He’s also an unrepentant auteurist; nowhere in the several revisions of his 1975 Biographical Dictionary will you see a single entry on a screenwriter unless he happens to be a director. (“Over 800 directors, actors, actresses, producers” reads the cover blurb.) Yet he’s fascinating to read, his opinions alternatively outrageous and insightful. In no other book, I think, will you read an entry on W.C. Fields written, appropriately, in the voice of Charles Dickens — appropriate not only for Fields’ own Dickensian character names and florid, circumlocuted Victorian dialogue (as well as his having starred as Micawber in the 1935 David Copperfield) but to his dying on Dickens’ special provenance: Christmas day.

23. Canned Goods as Caviar: American Film Comedies of the 1930s Gerald Weales (1985)

Weales takes a movie decade year by year, with a single picture representing each, from City Lights in 1931 to Destry Rides Again in 1939 and taking in as well the Marx Bros., Mae West, W.C. Fields, Ben Hecht, William Wellman, Leo McCarey, John Ford, Morrie Ryskind, Gregory La Cava, Frank Capra, Robert Riskind and Howard Hawks. Although as another reader noted a better title might have been Cavier as Canned Goods, Weales’ is an eloquent analysis of the greatest decade for American comedy after the merging of picture and sound — a period in which a general literacy prevailed that permitted genuinely witty (as opposed to wise-ass) dialogue to be heard in the nation’s motion picture theaters on a regular basis. (We can obviously except Chaplin from that generalization.) My only cavil is that Weales has a tendency to over-emphasize directors when surely the writers of these pictures were of at least equal if not greater importance.

See also: We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films Andrew Bergman (1971) Before becoming a published mystery novelist (the Jack LeVine series) and screenwriter (Tex X, which became Blazing Saddles; the original The In-Laws; The Freshman) Bergman was a doctoral student. This, his PhD thesis, is a bracing overview of early 1930s American movies, intelligent, knowledgeable and erudite. Bergman is especially good on the Warner “social problem” pictures and their frequent, now forgotten, star, the remarkable Richard Barthelmess.

24. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies Vito Russo (1981; Updated, 1987)

When I discovered Russo’s book in 1981, it was with the force of revelation. As both an avid movie lover and a young gay man of 20, The Celluloid Closet almost seemed to be the book I’d waited my adolescence for without knowing it. Parker Tyler’s 1972 Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies got to the subject first, but I don’t know anyone who has ever been able to get through it, including me. Russo didn’t tag absolutely every gay (or implied) character who ever appeared in a movie, nor did he try to. But his scholarship is impeccable and he airs his critiques with intelligence, enthusiasm and wit. Russo had no idea (nor did the rest of us) that something eventually called AIDS was about to alter the existence of every gay man on the planet, a vulnerability that, rather surprisingly, did more to advance the cause of gay civil rights than Stonewall or Anita Bryant, and included greater — though not necessarily more positive — visibility in popular culture. Harlan Ellison was fond of quoting Pasteur’s dictum that “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Russo’s was one of the most prepared of his generation.

See also: Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969 William J. Mann (2001) and Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall Richard Barrios (2002) Two entertaining surveys, the first of gay and bisexual Hollywood figures, the second of movies with overt or coded homosexual characters which is, perhaps surprisingly, not merely a Celluloid Closet re-tread.

25. Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema Gary Giddins (2010)

Giddins, arguably the finest critic and historian of American jazz, has lately turned his attentions to movies. This collection of pieces from The Sun, wedded to the DVD releases of a wide range of pictures both domestic and foreign, exhibits his customary taste, intelligence and wit, and one wishes Giddins would compile a compendium of capsule reviews which might, with Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies, more or less obliterate the need for Leonard Maltin’s middlebrow movie guides. (But then I’ve been wishing for decades that David Denby would put together a collection of his movie reviews and that’s never happened.)

See also: Natural Selection: Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music and Books (2006)

26. On the Verge of Revolt: Women in American Films of the Fifties Brandon French (1978)

One of the most graceful, beautifully written books of its kind, a knowing survey of 10 movies from a transitional decade’s screen representation of women, from Sunset Boulevard (1950) to Some Like it Hot (1959). Far from a doctrinaire broadside, French’s exceptionally intelligent book benefits not only from its author’s thoughtful analyses but from her limpid prose, which reminds the reader of why, whatever its flaws or virtues (and its perhaps suspicious origins) the the so-called second wave of feminism had to occur. Each time I return to its pages I find it more lucid, and more charming, than I’ve remembered from my previous readings.

See also: The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s Elizabeth Kendall (1990) Kendall’s auteurist approach is unique: She pairs several important actresses (Stanwyck, Colbert, Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne) with the directors (Capra, Sturges, George Stevens, Gregory La Cava, Leo McCarey) of their great romantic/screwball comedies. Despite my aversion to the Auteur Theory as popularized by the idiotic Andrew Sarris, Kendall’s is a delightful study.

27. Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream Marjorie Rosen (1974)

Although Molly Haskell’s sour, fag-baiting feminist broadside From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies got far more ink, and sold many more copies — she knew what she was doing putting “rape” in her title — Rosen’s is the finer achievement, elegant and witty. (And, unlike Haskell, Rosen doesn’t confuses an actress’s screen persona with the performer herself.) A bright, perceptive cultural critic, Rosen charts the development of women in American movies from the Victorianism of the ‘teens through the emergence in the 1920s of the independent “flapper” and the ’30s and ’40s working girl all the way to the Second Wave revolution of the early 1970s: From “Little Mary” Pickford to Jane Fonda in Klute.

28. Reeling Pauline Kael (1977)

Readers of these pages will know how highly I regard Kael’s criticism, and had the 1970s never happened she still would have been an important and influential writer on the movies. But as great writers need great readers, they also need great subjects, and the era of adult, personal American filmmaking that ran roughly from 1967 to 1982 was Kael’s great subject. When the phenomenal receipts for the Star Wars series rang down the curtain on popular movies for intelligent adults Kael was as marooned as the writers, actors and directors she championed and about whose best work she wrote more urgently and enticingly than anyone else. John Simon, in his review of Reeling, sneered at Kael for asserting that “we [were] living though a classic period for movies.” But she was entirely correct, and among the first to sense that something extraordinary, and exceptional, was going on, and that even those pictures about which she was less enthusiastic were a part of that.* I’m just slightly too young to have seen many of them when they were new, or to have read Kael’s critiques of them then, but I can well imagine the keenness with which avid moviegoers of the time, many of them of the so-called “Film Generation,” must have anticipated reading what Kael had to say about the newest release. Even her detractors must admit that having such a lightning-rod of a movie critic at the center of our popular discourse was a healthy thing, especially now that most critics function as little but public relations for the dwindling pack of major studios, all of which will disappear up Disney’s asshole ere long.

See also: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968), Going Steady (1970), Deeper Into Movies (1973) and When the Lights Go Down: Film Writings 1975 – 1980 (1980) Taken together with Reeling, these titles constitute a vest-pocket history of the last great period of American movies, and the last we are ever likely to get: Our best critic on our best decade and a half of popular entertainment.

5001 Nights at the Movies (1982 / Updated, 1991) During the 1950s Kael contributed capsule reviews for a Berkeley revival house, later publishing a clutch of them as “The Movie Past” in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. They eventually resurfaced in the movie listings of The New Yorker before Kael collected them, along with excerpts from many of her New Yorker reviews, into this compulsively readable compendium. Once you start poring over it, you may come to and realize you’ve been reading for hours.

Following Kael’s death in 2001, the New Yorker began busily scrubbing these brief reviews of classic movies from its pages, replacing them with the mind-numbingly pretentious yawping of one Richard Brody. It almost seemed the magazine wished to erase any trace of Kael’s connection to it… and considering how many readers she brought to what (Seymour Hirsch’s reporting to one side) had become a moribund and largely irrelevant publication, that’s a real slap in the face. Even more puzzling, Brody’s stultifying academism is precisely the sort of cloistered, dead prose and mode of thought Kael’s jazzy approach was in opposition to. Exactly what message is the New Yorker sending?

29. Toms Coons Mulattoes Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film Donald Bogle (1973; revised and expanded numerous times)

Like The Celluloid Closet years later, Bogle’s was a book whose timeliness, encyclopedic breadth and critical acumen were sorely needed. His analyses are sharp and genuinely witty (especially in the photo captions), evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the actors and personalities available to black audiences on their theater screens — always assuming they could see them, since in the South black performers, especially those in musicals, were often cut from the movies in which they appeared. Bogle is particularly perceptive on the acting limitations of a number of sacred cows as well as of those pictures whose good social intentions were overwhelmed by their earnestness and general mediocrity. The last edition of Toms etc. I read was the revision of 1994, in part because I got the feeling that the first book did not need updating or expansion; it was a product of its time, and brought needed discussion to a too-long neglected topic. But did the original criteria on which Bogle based his study still obtain in the 1990s, and beyond? I wish that, instead of grafting new material onto a splendid old book, its gifted author would create a new title specifically designed to explicate what has happened since 1973.

See also: The Devil Finds Work (James Baldwin) 1976 Baldwin’s book-length essay on race, politics and film is also a memoir of one Negro boy’s experience of American movies not made with him (or any black audience) in mind.

IV. Filmmakers

As an unrepentant anti-auteurist, I tend to favor the work of writer-directors — or at least, those filmmakers (Ford, Cukor, Hitchcock, Hawks, Lumet, George Roy Hill, Bogdanovich) who not only worked closely with their scenarists but could had they so chosen have taken a screenwriting credit on most of the movies they directed. Robert Altman, who could be a writer fucker, I except from this personal rule because, whoever wrote it, an Altman movie was an Altman movie. He was both a genuine innovator and a poet, and how many of these have there been in American movies?

30. Billy Wilder in Hollywood Maurice Zolotow (1977; Updated in 1987)

I feel quite sure Zolotow’s is by no means the finest book written about my favorite writer-director. However, because of a writing project I began long ago and have not been able to finish, I have deliberately not read any of the subsequent books published about him and his movies in the years since. Zolotow’s was the first biography of Wilder and while he was either a bit gullible, unwilling to challenge his subject’s self-devised mythology (and the myths devised by others) or unable to do the research necessary to debunk them, and also had a dismaying inability to retell an anecdote without somehow mucking up the punchline. Yet his book is a great deal of fun and had the advantage of being authorized, so Wilder’s distinctive voice is prevalent throughout.

31. Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat Edward McPherson (2007)

Following my introduction to silent comedy as a 9-year old, via a children’s matinee of the Robert Youngson compilation 30 Years of Fun and (thanks to a New Year’s Eve PBS marathon of his Mutual comedies), I became an instant Charles Chaplin fan. Buster Keaton’s great shorts and features were tougher to see in those years, but the more of them I encountered the higher he rose in my estimation. Now, I happen to think that comparing these two short-statured giants is a waste of time, especially since the Keaton camp tends to look down its nose at Charlie for his sentimentality and I have no interest in starting an argument. But I must admit that as time has gone by I find Keaton, while ingenious and physically astonishing, a more limited performer and his movies, taken as a whole, surprisingly and almost depressingly gruesome. That doesn’t mean Keaton pictures are not funny; indeed, his 1924 The Navigator is the second-funniest movie I’ve seen (the first is Richard Pryor: Live in Concert) while The General (1927) manages to be beautiful, dramatic and hilarious and watching his two-reelers in order, as I did last year, is an exercise in genuine dazzlement. His life, unfortunately, was as disordered as his best work was controlled; in addition to being an alcoholic he seems to have been both hapless and alarmingly passive. He got a superb biographer in Edward McPherson, whose wonderfully titled volume was one of the most pleasant surprises of the early Aughts.

See also: Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down Tom Dardis (1979)

32. Chaplin: His Life and Art David Robinson (1985)

I wish I could adequately convey the excitement I experienced when this book was published in America, or the complete spell it wove over me as I read it over several, completely satisfying weeks. The breadth of its author’s knowledge, and the extent of his research, were impeccable as he set about to gently deflate the mythology that had accrued to Charles Spencer Chaplin, much of it generated by Charlie himself. Robinson’s was the first book of which I am aware to detail the painstaking manner in which Chaplin worked out his great comedies. (Much of this was also explicated in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s three-part 1983 documentary Unknown Chaplin.) He is also devastating on the impact of Charlie’s pretentious self-serving memoir My Autobiography (1964) and the hurt it generated among the many long-time Chaplin associates whom he slighted in it. Robinson’s remains the Chaplin book of Chaplin books.

See also: Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion David Robinson (1984) The year before his biography of Chaplin was completed, Robinson published this fascinating volume which details what was written and said about Charlie during the various important periods of his life. It’s almost a Concordance to the biography, but fully able to stand on its own.

33. Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, [sic] and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, [sic] and the Movie Game Oliver Stone (2020)

I don’t know how the proliferation of unnecessary commas before the conjunction “and” took hold, or why it affects even seasoned writers. That small cavil aside, this is the book Stone’s admirers have been waiting for, detailing his childhood and youth, his Viet Nam experience and the frustrating road he traversed from struggling screenwriter to Academy-honored writer and director. Stone spares no one, least of all himself, and as is so often the case with the most interesting movies what a friend and I used to call “the backstage stuff” is almost as interesting as the pictures themselves (and occasionally more so.) Stone’s prose is both graceful and unflinching, and his book a deep pleasure to read. Chasing the Light takes the reader up to the triumph of Platoon, so we can only hope that Stone will bring out a second volume on the years of his greatest daring and achievement.

34. David Lean: A Biography Kevin Brownlow (1996)

Brownlow’s biography honors Lean but also sees him plain, his follies as notable as his masterworks and his personal style that of a cold, shy autocrat with flashes of great decency. The author had enviable access to Lean, so we hear his voice throughout; Brownlow also interviewed as many of Lean’s old associates, resulting in descriptions of the making of his movies that are remarkably thorough. Appropriately, he devotes three long chapters to Lawrence of Arabia, Lean’s magnum opus and, despite its somewhat muddled politics, one of the great glories of world cinema. Brownlow, whose subject has been the silent movie, sees Lean not merely as a great editor but a director whose eye missed nothing. Anyone who has seen his adaptation of Great Expectations remembers with a shiver up the spine the opening sequence in which Pip encounters Magwitch. Equally likely to sear themselves in the mind are the climax of Oliver Twist; the exquisite views of Venice in Summertime; the scene at the well, the train wreck, the hallucinogenic ship, the attack on Aqaba and the desert itself in Lawrence; the long train journey, the ice palace and Omar Sharif’s trek across the desert of snow in Doctor Zhivago; Judy Davis’ encounter with the monkeys and the death of Peggy Ashcroft in A Passage to India; and the many indelible sequences in Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean was a born filmmaker, and as Brownlow makes clear, the movies gave him a life that saved him from the despair that so often attends the misfit of genius.

See also: David Lean Stephen Silverman (1992) A beautiful, intelligent coffee-table volume limning Lean’s filmography.

Lawrence of Arabia: The 20th Anniversary Pictorial History L. Robert Morris and Lawrence Raskin (1992) A well-written celebration of Lean’s finest picture, with glorious color photographs throughout.

35. The Hustons Lawrence Grobel (1989; Revised and updated, 2014)

A revealing group biography of one of Hollywood’s great dynasties, and a disturbing critique of its center, the gifted but deeply troubled, sadistic, misogynist John. Grobel also points out that the writer-director’s best features were those based on second and third-rank material (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Night of the Iguana, The Kremlin Letter, The Man Who Would Be King, Prizzi’s Honor) and that it was only when he tackled the first-rate (The Red Badge of Courage, Moby-Dick, Wise Blood, Under the Volcano) that he floundered. (The single notable exception is Huston’s swan-song, the beautifully observed The Dead, which somehow, almost miraculously, approximates in cinematic terms its universally well-regarded source.) Grobel chronicles the family from John’s actor father Walter to John’s children, the actress Angelica and his eventual actor/writer/director sons Tony and Danny. But it’s John who is the focal point of the book, and who, while endlessly fascinating, leaves the most unpleasant aftertaste.

36. Making Movies Sidney Lumet (1996)

Although there have been countless “how-to” books published on filmmaking, some dating back to the 1920s, Lumet’s is the only volume I know of in which an important movie director discusses the process at length, and covers every department. While the specific means by which Lumet achieved his considerable effects are, obviously, unique to him (few directors care to rehearse their actors as Lumet routinely did, for example) the anecdotes he offers as illustrations of each topic under discussion express a universality that I’m sure has resonated with filmmakers who’ve read his book. We were the poorer for the loss of this most intelligent, literate and ultimately humane filmmaker but Making Movies continues to shine with the same qualities that mark his work on film.

See also: Sidney Lumet: A Life Maura Spiegel (2019) A lovely first biography of Lumet, written with thoughtfulness and grace. Among other things, Spiegel had access to Lumet’s unfinished memoir, abandoned shortly after it was begun and in which the remembered pain of his childhood and youthful experience apparently overwhelmed their author. Spiegel also reveals that Lumet seldom looked back at his own work; his impatience to push forward was something Pauline Kael noted early on, when she observed the filming of The Group, and which she felt limited him as a director. Perhaps she might have been a bit more compassionate had she known about Sidney’s youthful traumas: His father, the Yiddish actor Baruch Lumet, exploited his young son as a child actor, his mother died when he was a boy and his sister was troubled. No wonder he was always playing hurry-up.

37. On Cukor Gavin Lambert (1972; Reprinted, 2000)

In the early 1970s Gavin Lambert, an excellent novelist, biographer and sometime screenwriter (with a special focus, in a time when it was definitely not the thing, on gay characters) conducted in-depth interviews with his friend George Cukor on the movies he’d directed. The result is a wonderful free-ranging discussion on some of the brightest and most entertaining pictures of the talkie era: Dinner at Eight, David Copperfield, Holiday, The Women, The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, Born Yesterday, The Marrying Kind, It Should Happen to You, the 1954 A Star is Born. Around the time on On Cukor Lambert also wrote GWTW, the first book-length account of the making of Gone with the Wind. It was a picture from which Cukor, its original director, had famously been fired, for reasons that remain murky but which may have been the result of Clark Gable’s discomfort with him. The 2000 edition was reimagined as a well-illustrated coffee-table book.

See also: A Double Life: George Cukor Patrick McGilligan (1992) The first biography of Cukor, by one of our best and most thorough writers on film.

38. Mainly About Lindsay Anderson Gavin Lambert (2000) Although I had not seen any of Anderson’s pictures and only one video of a play he directed (David Storey’s Home) when I stumbled upon Lambert’s affectionate biography/memoir I found myself entranced by the book, its subject’s rigorous intelligence and its author’s reconstruction of his friendship with his one-time fellow cineaste co-founder and contributor to Sequence magazine.

The title is a nod to Anderson’s own influential study About John Ford.

See also: Inside Daisy Clover (1963), arguably the best novel ever written about Hollywood and Running Time (1982), the second-best.

39. Orson Welles: A Biography Barbara Leaming (1985)

Leaming, perhaps taking a leaf from Whitney Stein’s Bette Davis book Mother Goddam, wrote her fascinating authorized biography of Welles with Orson’s input. Due to his intimate involvement with it, and because he would die a few months after her book saw publication, Leaming’s biography became in a way a final portrait of the playwright, actor-manager, radio and theatre innovator and great, radical filmmaker whose work exerted a powerful influence over the medium of film. It was a harsh (and expensive) mistress, one that demanded of its devotee more time and attention than any other art form and which still reverberate, even among ignoramuses who’ve never seen a frame of Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, MacBeth, Othello, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight or F for Fake. In Welles’ case that meant taking on acting work in lesser pictures as a means of earning the funds to produce his own, and chasing after deals that were somehow never finalized. As a result, a great moviemaker left us with far fewer pictures than he intended. Leaming illuminates both Welles’ ardor and the decades-long frustrations which, along with his excessive weight, almost certainly led to his death at 70.

40. Robert Altman: The Oral Biography Michael Zuckoff (2010)

The form Michael Zuckoff employed for his Altman book is so perfect for its subject, one of the great innovators of motion picture soundtracks, and most of whose movies are essentially kaleidoscopic, I’m amazed no one came up with before. Inevitably with these things, there is a occasionally a kind of Rashomon effect. There is also much agreement. The form seems to me eminently fair, and gives a marvelous sense of perspective on the various movies Altman made, as well as on his personality.

See also: Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff Patrick McGilligan (1991) McGilligan has for decades been quietly amassing a stack of fine, non-sensational biographies of important figures in American movies. This is one of his best.

41. Searching for John Ford Joseph McBride (2001) McBride is, like Patrick McGilligan, one of our best and most reliable writers on movies and their makers, especially on Orson Welles. Here he gives serious consideration (838 pages) to Welles’ favorite filmmaker. The result is, I suspect — and barring a fuller discussion of his possible bisexuality, hinted at elsewhere — essentially the definitive Ford biography. I do not believe that any biographer can fully explicate his subject, any more than any human being thoroughly knows himself, and Ford was more complicated than most. Yet if McBride cannot reach into the man’s psyche and pull out the threads that made Ford Ford, he comes awfully damned close.

See also: About John Ford Lindsay Anderson (1983) A superb study of Ford and his pictures, written with a director’s eye and the perspective of a prickly critic for whom “not quite” is never good enough.

John Ford Peter Bogdanovich (Revised and Enlarged Edition, 1978) Bogdanovich’s Ford monograph, expanded and with extensive interviews with the deliberately crotchety director.

42. A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards Sam Wasson (2009)

Readers of these pages may know that I have a great deal of difficulty with Wasson. While I respect the authoritative scope of his knowledge and understanding I find his work sloppy and limited (Fosse) and sometimes shockingly ignorant, even about the subjects of his own books (The Big Goodbye). In the case of Wasson’s wonderfully-titled examination of Blake Edwards my irritation lies with his occasional mind-numbing academic flights, seeking as is common with what Gore Vidal once called “scholar-squirrels,” to root out symbols, with stultifying persistence. When Wasson is good, however, he is very fine indeed, and among other things I am grateful to him for leading me to Ellen Barkins’ marvelous performance in Switch, which I missed in 1991 and which I now treasure.

See also: Blake Edwards Peter Lehman and William Luhr (1981) and Returning to the Scene: Blake Edwards, Volume 2 Peter Lehman and William Luhr (1989) Speaking of scholar-squirrels, these two volumes are both useful and annoying, in the rather typical academic style. But for many years they were all we had, so that usefulness must be acknowledged.

Blake Edwards Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series) Gabriella Oldham (2017) A bit repetitious (Edwards tends to tell the same anecdotes repeatedly) but full of goodies.

43. A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking Samuel Fuller (2004)

I don’t know whether, post-stroke, Fuller dictated this superb memoir or not, although it sounds like his speech. Frankly I don’t care if Fuller spoke it, typed it, wrote it longhand or whether it appeared, fully formed, like Venus from his forehead. A Third Face is one of the finest autobiographies any movie writer or director has ever written, and it may be the best of all such books. Fuller brings everything he was and did into focus: From impossibly young cub reporter to novelist to screenwriter to soldier to writer-director, and from the lively crime scene of the 1920s through the heartbreaking dismissal of good work in the ’80s. He seemed, even after his debilitating stroke, to have total recall about his life and work, and it’s his unique voice, cigar firmly in place, you hear as you read his wonderful book.

Martin Scorsese famously observed that, “If you don’t like the films of Samuel Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema.” If we ignore the pretentious use of the words “films” and “cinema” (Fuller would have rolled his eyes at both) Scorsese’s observation is entirely correct. If you can look down your nose at the subway sequence at the beginning of Pickup on South Street, or the devastating scene in which Thelma Ritter’s professional stool pigeon is murdered, or the brutal fight between Richard Widmark and Richard Kiley; if you can watch the opening of The Naked Kiss without astonishment; if the transformation of Mark Hamill, on Omaha beach and at the ovens at Falkenau, and the mute child Lee Marvin attempts to bring back to the world of the living in The Big Red One leave you un-moved; if you can watch White Dog and come to the conclusion that the movie is an expression, not of outrage but of racism… you are lost not only to Fuller but to what makes moviemaking special.

44. This is Orson Welles edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum; with Peter Bogdanovich & Orson Welles (1992)

Welles’ great friend Marlene Dietrich once said of him, “When I have seen him, and talked with him, I feel like a plant that has just been watered.” I have the same reaction to this book; re-reading it, which I do every couple of years, opens my senses and, despite the sadness of Welles’ unrealized projects, leaves me in something close to a state of wonder. (The tapes Random House released of some of Welles’ and Bogdanovich’s conversations do likewise for me, although I wish they had been issued on CD as well as cassette.) While these wide-ranging talks were edited by Welles, who sometimes reduced his own words from poetry to prose — for example when he says “under the shadowed elms” on Bogdanovich’s tape but revises it on paper to read, “the shadows of the elms” — and he even added an event that didn’t happen, for flourish, reading their transcripts is such a pleasure that niggling doubts or critiques drift away like grains of sand in a breeze. If the later My Lunches with Orson is to be accepted and Henry Jaglom did not invent any of Welles’ comments or obnoxious attitudes (like many men who are sexually suspect, OW expresses repeated appalling viciousness about gay men), Bogdanovich may have smoothed things out a bit. Welles is at pains not to make critical remarks about other filmmakers, although the few that slipped through are instructive, and apt. As much a mythologist about himself and his movies as Hitchcock at his worst, there is much here that should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially if you don’t know the truth of these matters. Yet everything I said in praise of the book still obtains. And as if the conversations were not sufficient, Jonathan Rosenbaum contributes a career chronology that is surely definitive, and staggering: Once you know how much Welles did, year by year and nearly day-to-day, and how busy his gifts kept him, it forever destroys the boring old “He couldn’t finish anything” critique.

See also: Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles Frank Brady (1989) The first biography of Welles following his death in 1985, Brady’s is marked by its intelligence, thoroughness and compassion.

In My Father’s Shadow: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles Christopher Welles Feder (2009) A thoughtful, beautifully rendered memoir of her father by Welles’ eldest daughter. (She’s in MacBeth, as the foully murdered young son of McDuff; the scream she lets out off-screen is chilling.) Although she has no axes to grind, her portrait of Welles illustrates how manipulative he could be with his children as much as with the adults around him — and how distracted, playing Daddy as if it is a role, and not one in which he has a great deal of interest. Feder is revealing as well about her half-sisters, particularly the Dread Beatrice, who has fucked up everything of her father’s she’s touched, up to and including his funeral. There must be enormous unacknowledged rage at work there.

Making Movies with Orson Welles Gary Graver with Andrew J. Rausch (2008) As much as anyone other than Welles’ companion and collaborator Oja Kodar it is Graver we owe for everything shot between F for Fake and the end of Welles’ life. By making himself, as a cinematographer, constantly available to Welles he enabled him to shoot off the cuff, and at considerable cost to Graver’s own career. (Although Welles gave him his writing Oscar for Citizen Kane during the filming of The Other Side of the Wind in lieu of payment.) There is something touchingly foolish about that, and rather heroic. Graver’s is a lovely book about a period he clearly regarded as the most interesting of his working life.

45. When the Shooting Stops… The Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen (1980)

Rosenblum’s book is one of the key titles of my pivotal six year post-high school/pre-college period as an autodidact, when I was absorbed like an especially thirsty sponge everything I could get my hands on about theatre and movies. In it the veteran editor recalls the ways in which several important pictures on which he worked evolved through his collaboration with their directors during the post-production process. And while we have only the author’s word to support this, it would seem that few movies of the period were more significantly altered in the editing than the adaptations of Herb Gardner’s play A Thousand Clowns and Rowland Barber’s delightful novel The Night They Raided Minsky’s. The most heartbreaking chapter in the book is Rosenblum’s recollection of how with cold-blooded logic Monroe Arnold’s performance of an excoriating monologue in Goodbye, Columbus (and which he was promised would win him an Academy Award) was ruthlessly and gradually trimmed away until it existed as little more than a walk-on.

46. Who the Devil Made It Peter Bogdanovich (1997) As a young writer and occasional critic, Bogdanovich published several monographs and interview books on several movie directors, finally collecting many of them in this entrancing volume. And no, the title does not require a question mark; it’s part of an observation made by Howard Hawks about film directors whose pictures interested him.

See also: Conversations with The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute George Stevens, Jr. (2006) and Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation, From the 1950s to Hollywood Today George Stevens, Jr. (2012) Two superb omnibus reprintings of the old “Dialogue on Film” segments from the late, lamented magazine American Film, in-depth and often revealing colloquies with movie and television actors, writers, directors, editors, cinematographers, designers, composers, critics and producers. Stevens, son of the director, was a co-founder of the American Film Institute, and its director during the first decade which, among other things, saw the creation of the Institute’s Life Achievement Award, once venerated and now, with the likes of George Clooney winning it, a very un-amusing joke. (Actually, the AFI self-dubbing its award “the highest honor in film” is itself hilarious. Oh, yeah – sez who?) In any case, these two volumes fully capture the voices of, among others, Harold Lloyd, Raoul Walsh, King Vidor, Fritz Lang, Frank Capra, Ernest Lehman, Arthur Penn, Leonard Rosenman, Neil Simon, Howard Hawks, Robert Towne, Anne V. Coates, James Wong Howe, Roger Corman, William Wyler, Sidney Poitier, John Sayles, William Clothier, Steven Spielberg, David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Cortez, George Lucas, George Cukor, Gregory Peck, Jack Lemmon, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Ray Bradbury, Fred Zinnemann, Gene Kelly, Richard Brooks, Hal Wallis, Jean Renoir, Robert Altman, Larry Gelbart, Alan Pakula and François Truffaut.

47. Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane Patrick McGilligan (2015)

I have over the years read so many books on Orson Welles — my shelves are fairly sagging with volumes by and about him — that I have begun to approach new titles with an inner groan. Will this one merely repeat the many lazily resold myths about Welles? Will it tell me anything I don’t already know? Thankfully, Young Orson wipes away nearly everything we think we know about Welles’ early years, his theatrical triumphs and follies, and most especially about the making of Kane. In 832 meticulously researched, exhaustively sourced and utterly compelling pages, Patrick McGilligan portrays George Orson Welles in all his glory, his contradictions, his achievements, his cruelties and his kindnesses.† McGilligan has written terrific books on Robert Altman, George Cukor, Fritz Lang, Jack Nicholson, Oscar Michaux and Alfred Hitchcock. Young Orson is his chef d’oeuvre. Many biographies are called definitive, and few ever are. This one almost certainly is.‡

*Among them, just taking in the years from 1970 to 1973: M*A*S*H, The Angel Levine, Bartleby, The Liberation of L.B. Jones, The Owl and the Pussycat, I Never Sang for My Father, The Landlord, The Boys in the Band, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, Something for Everyone, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The Traveling Executioner, Klute, Fiddler on the Roof, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Cold Turkey, A New Leaf, Bananas, They Might Be Giants, The French Connection, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Go-Between, Desperate Characters, The Skin Game, Born to Win, Harold and Maude, The Last Picture Show, The Hot Rock, Travels with My Aunt, What’s Up Doc?, The War Between Men and Women, Frenzy, The Candidate, The Ruling Class, Sleuth, Avanti!, Cabaret, The Godfather, Sounder, Across 110th Street, The Iceman Cometh, The Last Detail, Mean Streets, Oklahoma Crude, Serpico, A Delicate Balance, The Legend of Hell House, The Exorcist, The Last of Sheila, High Plains Drifter, Scorpio, Paper Moon, “Save the Tiger,” Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, Slither, American Graffiti, Sleeper, The Three Musketeers, The Day of the Jackal, The Seven-Ups, The Sting. Kael would argue with me about the quality of some of the those titles, just as I argue with her about her negative opinions of some of my favorites. But the fact that interesting, intelligent and largely adult movies were being released in this country on practically a weekly basis, for years, is something of a miracle… and one that will not be repeated.

†The single aspect of Welles’ personality which remains underexplored is the one that is likely impossible to pin down, and may be forever elusive, although Joseph McBride has commented on it: His possible, even likely, bisexuality.

‡There are in existence now three foul volumes of Welles biography by a pompous British character actor apparently bent on tearing the man’s reputation to shreds, and which are now routinely deemed “definitive.” Avoid them.

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: March 2022


By Scott Ross

Brother Bear (2003) was my punishment for believing there could be no modern hand-drawn animated Disney feature worse than Hunchback! The Musical. Somewhere in this movie lies a nice fable for children utterly destroyed by the latter-day Disney penchant for smothering everything in smart-ass anachronism: In the dialogue, relentlessly “street” circa 2003 even though the people who made it are at pains, through depicting things like woolly mammoths, to tell us this is an ancient story; in the characters, such as the obnoxious moose voiced by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis and clearly intended to evoke the equally annoying McKenzie Brothers, the least funny recurring sketch on the old SC-TV program; and, relentlessly, via Phil Collins’ staggeringly inept, utterly banal and aggressively persistent songs, in the music. (Because nothing says “Authentic Ancient Eskimo Story” quite like Tina Turner screeching at you and the Blind Boys of Alabama twanging away.) Brother Bear marks the first time since my parents took us to Mary Poppins when I was four that I have ever turned the volume off, or otherwise sought to escape, songs in a Disney movie. This, from the studio that was once capable of giving us “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “Baby Mine,” “Pink Elephants on Parade,” “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” “Feed the Birds” and “Under the Sea”!

The picture itself is often breathtakingly beautiful. But God do you owe me, Collins.

The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true…

The Court Jester (1955) It was with blessed relief, then, that I turned to Danny Kaye’s best and funniest comedy, one with actual songs instead of ear-splitting percussion and created by people who knew how to write them. In this case, that was Kaye’s wife — and best special material provider — Sylvia Fine, with lyrics for most of the numbers by Sammy Cahn. (The exception is “The Maladjusted Jester,” which Kaye performs for the tyrannical king and for which Fine provided both the music and the lyrics.) A great deal of care was taken with The Court Jester, including with the songs, the witty screenplay (Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, who also jointly directed), the Korngold-evoking musical score (Vic Schoen), the rich VistaVision cinematography (Ray June), fulsome art direction (Hal Pereira), perfectly appointed costumes (Edith Head) and charming choreography (by the wonderfully-named James Starbuck). Perhaps too much care was lavished on it: The movie, budgeted for an over-lush $4 million — actual money in 1955 — returned a little over half that amount in revenues. It was television that, over time, turned it into a classic.

I’ve always found it interesting that while Kaye was under contract to Sam Goldwyn for five years, the two never made a single good picture; he had to go first to Warners (for The Inspector General) and then Paramount to do his best work. He’s a bit more restrained than usual under Frank and Panama, and all the funnier, although surely the clever script helped a great deal, requiring as it does that his persona change constantly, literally at the snap of someone’s fingers. Kaye is surrounded by better actors here than usual as well: Basil Rathbone, whose face Mrs. Patrick Campbell once perfectly described as “two profiles pasted together,” essentially spoofing his own Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood; Angela Lansbury, both cold-blooded and amorous as the usurper king’s marriageable daughter; the deliciously honey-voiced Glynis Johns as Kaye’s feminine counterpart; and the great Mildred Natwick as the sorceress who memorably advises him not to drink from the vessel with the pestle. Frank and Panama wrote two of Bob Hope’s better pictures (My Favorite Blonde and Monsieur Beaucaire, the latter also a comic swashbuckler) and there are times when Kaye almost seems to be imitating Hope… which in turn makes him also sound a little like Woody Allen. I wouldn’t dwell on that for too long.

Whichever idiot or idiots wrote the Wikipedia entry on the picture deemed The Court Jester part of a genre blessedly undiscovered heretofore, namely a “musical-comedy, medieval romance, costume drama film.” Get it? Got it. Good.

Ragtime / Ragtime Director’s Workprint (1981) Miloš Forman and Michael Weller’s disastrous adaptation of Doctorow’s literary masterpiece.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) Alfred Hitchcock’s first picture for Gaumont-British, and his first big talkie success both expresses his admiration of German Expressionism and lays out his thriller template, aspects of which will recur throughout the remainder of his filmography. It isn’t as sharp or as accomplished as his pictures would become, quite soon, and he foils his hero (Leslie Banks) by making him a prisoner of the international spies and killers who have kidnapped his daughter (Nova Pilbeam) to keep him and his sharp-shooter wife (Edna Best) quiet. But it’s an entertaining thriller, droll and occasionally witty, and the young Peter Lorre makes an engaging villain. This is the earliest depiction of which I am aware in movies of the widespread public fear of dentistry, as a vaguely sinister “painless” dentist (Henry Oscar) menaces Banks with ether. The big, noisy shootout during the last third was based by Hitchcock and his scenarists (Charles Bennett , D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlinson) on the Sidney Street Siege of 1911. Emlyn Williams is credited with additional dialogue and Arthur Benjamin composed the crucially-situated Albert Hall cantata. Hitchcock remade this one, in a bland 1956 color VisatVision release under the same title but which lumbers on for 120 minutes, 45 longer than the brisk original.

Cinderella Liberty (1973) One of a pair of movies made from Darryl Ponicsan novels in 1973, and the lesser of the two. Poniscan’s engaging narrative depends too much on whimsy to survive a literalist interpretation, which is what he (as scenarist), Mark Rydell (direction) and Vilmos Zsigmond (photography) imposed on it. Rydell, an excellent actor — he’s coolly terrifying as a gangster in the botched Altman The Long Goodbye — was also a good director of other actors but a plodder behind the camera who, unless he was manipulating an audience, was entirely lost. The shocker here is how poor the great Zsigmond’s cinematography is; the night sequences (and there are many) are so dark, and so indistinct, it’s difficult to see the actors at all, let alone what they’re doing at a given moment. That isn’t a style, it’s a technical error somehow carried through an entire movie. The best thing about the picture is its people, even if you can’t really believe in any of them; the movie is wonderfully cast, with James Caan giving a relaxed, amused performance as a sailor caught in limbo when the Navy loses his paperwork and who becomes involved with a slatternly B-girl and her mixed-race teenage son. As the boy, Kirk Calloway is astonishing, even when the script meanders into the cliché of uplift, and Eli Wallach counters the stickiness with vinegar as, essentially, the story’s deus ex machina. In smaller roles, Burt Young, Dabney Coleman and Allyn Ann McLerie give rich support and the young Bruno Kirby is wildly funny as the bizarre, officious little chatterbox who gets temporarily yoked to Caan on Shore Patrol duty.

The role of the B-girl Maggie is crucial to giving the picture a semblance of reality, and Marsha Mason really delivers. At the time, and thanks largely to a brief but impressive performance in Blume in Love, Mason was emerging as one of our more interesting actresses, and there’s no artifice to her Maggie. It’s a performance that goes with her engaging but somehow lumpy facial features. Like Ellen Barkin later, Mason’s face skirted conventional prettiness, which made it easier to concentrate on what she did as an actress; we weren’t distracted as we commonly are with those who are, to use Anthony Burgess’s phrase about Jeremy Brett, “adventitiously endowed with irrelevant photogeneity.” She has an exceptional moment when, screaming at the departing Caan, she yells, “I hate you!” and then weeps, “I hate sailors…” You can tell from her devastated face that, dependent on them for her meagre livelihood, she really does despise these men and may not have realized the depth of her loathing until that moment.

Although Rydell, Zsigmond and Poniscan muck things up generally, the picture goes down fairly easily and you may not hate it even when it’s trying your patience with its contempt for verisimilitude. What is unforgiveable are Paul Williams’ simulated orgasms to a funky John Williams melody on the soundtrack. But then, the only way to make a Paul Williams lyric palatable is to have someone other than Paul Williams sing it.

Candleshoe (1977) A “cute” Disney comedy-cum-thriller-without-thrills from the late ’70s all too freely adapted by David Swift and Rosemary Anne Sisson from a charming mystery novel by Michael Innes that increases the nastiness quotient (embodied by the seriocomic Leo McKern) and all but eliminates the charm. It’s up to David Niven and Helen Hayes to compensate, and they do their damnedest against overwhelming odds, which include a basic lack of believability in nearly every element aside from Jodie Foster’s solid performance as a tough orphaned street kid forced by circumstance to pretend she might be the heir to Hayes’ stately home, in which is hidden a cache of fabled doubloons. Thus is Anastasia grafted onto Innes, right down to a steal of Hayes’ own revelation scene from the movie version. There’s a typical would-be amusing Disney battle between the thieves and the children and old folks of the manor near the end, but the cast is pleasant and Foster, who the year before had astonished the viewers of Taxi Driver with her astounding performance as the child prostitute Iris, manages to inject a measure of reality to counter the preciousness.

The Last Detail (1973) The other, better Darryl Ponicsan adaptation of its year is not (pace Alexander Payne on the Indicator Blu-ray extras) quite a classic but has much to admire, not the least of which are the three central performances. Since his star-making turn in Easy Rider in 1969 — and he was not only the best thing about that masturbatory, self-indulgent mess of a movie but the only reason to sit through it — Jack Nicholson had been on the verge but the movies in which he’d starred (Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, The King of Marvin Gardens) had either under-performed at the box office or otherwise hadn’t been sufficient to make the difference. And while The Last Detail, owing in part to an indifferent release by Columbia, also didn’t make the money it ought to have, its Oscar nomination for Nicholson seemed to certify him as a bona fide movie star. (His next picture, which was likewise only a moderate hit, also resulted in an Academy Award nomination for its star, and has long been recognized as a genuine classic, both of its era and its genre: Chinatown.)

Nicholson plays Billy “Badass” Buddusky, a career sailor tasked with escorting the young kleptomaniac Meadows (Randy Quaid) to the naval prison at Portsmith for an unconscionable eight-year sentence. The novel, and the picture, concern how Buddusky and his coeval, Mulhall (the splendid Otis Young) react to this unwanted Shore Patrol duty, and what it takes out of them. Billy is determined to show their prisoner a last good time (which, because the virginal boy has so little in the way of good memories, becomes his only good time) with the more serious, circumspect Mulhall a somewhat reluctant participant. It’s the basic road-movie updated with sex and profanity; the screenwriters, Robert Towne and the (as usual) un-credited Edward Taylor, laced Billy’s speech with so many variations on the word “fuck” that Columbia got nervous about it and someone at TV Guide opined that when it aired on television it might be the first silent talkie.* But the use of obscenities was entirely correct; they brought a necessary level of reality to the dialogue. The characters’ behavior benefits from the screenwriting and the acting too, as when a drunken Billy tries to goad the sweet-natured Meadows into hitting him and, rebuffed, punches out a hotel lamp. Nicholson’s Buddusky seems easygoing but underneath he’s tense and coiled and as the picture goes on the detail he’s been assigned eats away at his sense of composure so that when Meadows makes a futile attempt at escape Billy’s rage at the situation explodes and he beats him savagely with his fists.

Ashby’s cool, cinéma vérité style perfectly suits the material, as does Michael Chapman’s splendid lighting and Robert C. Jones’ intelligent editing. Although I find the series of dissolves during Young’s dressing-down of Nicholson, of which Jones is so proud, obvious and obtrusive, it may have been the only solution to a problem Ashby left him with. I also, in common with Payne, believe Johnny Mandel’s martial score intrusive, except for the placement of the old English hymn near the end, which is exactly right. The wonderful supporting cast includes Clifton James, Michael Moriarty, Nancy Allen, Carol Kane as the whore with whom Meadows couples, Luana Anders as a cult aficionado and, in a brief turn, Gilda Radner. (The picture was largely shot in Toronto, doubling for the U.S.)

One of Towne’s/Taylor’s most inspired alterations from the novel was to have Meadows’ mother, when the three sailors pay an impromptu visit, be away from home. The quick glance we get of the alcoholic mess inside Mrs. Meadows’ living room renders her banal, cliché-spouting appearance in the book entirely moot: We know everything we need to from that look inside, including why Meadows is so quietly broken. It was also a smart move on everyone’s part to end the picture before Ponicsan’s denouement. Although the final portion of the novel, in which Buddusky and Mulhall go AWOL out of self-disgust at the completion of their detail, is perfectly legitimate and, from a literary point of view, entirely explicable, it’s not exactly a satisfying finish: Billy is killed resisting arrest, and I can’t imagine anyone who loves or admires the movie of The Last Detail wanting to see that.

*Robert C. Jones, The Last Detail‘s editor, was asked to handle the television and commercial airline edit, and he refused to have the actors overdub the usual idiotic “acceptable” substitutions for the movie’s blue language. Somehow, by cutting the picture’s running time and trimming the then-record number of “fucks” in the script (65) Jones was able to please the ABC censors.

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross

Playing “Ragtime” fast (1981)


By Scott Rossf

“Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast.” — Scott Joplin, quoted in the epigraph to E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime

Before I say anything about Miloš Forman and Michael Weller’s rather disastrous adaptation of Doctorow’s 1975 masterpiece, a confession: When I first saw it, at 20, without having read the novel, I thought it was marvelous… and then I read Doctorow’s book. Aside from being dazzled by the author’s tightrope act of pastiche, his command of his artistic and historic materials and the panoramic sweep of his narrative, I became instantly aware that this was entirely literary material. It was not meant, and could not be made, to be filmed except perhaps by an imaginative poet of cinema, and where was he to be found? I doubt even Robert Altman, who wanted to make a two-part, six-hour version based on Doctorow’s original and more faithful screenplay, could have managed it. Who has, or had, the wit to film Ragtime as a kaleidoscope? Who possessed the visual and editorial flair to match the novelist’s whimsy? Who had the poetic vision to make a movie equivalent of the immigrant Tateh’s little animated flip-book, something that might capture the contours of the writer’s imaginative leaps yet erupt with its own sense of wonder? I felt much the same way about the far more artistically and financially successful musical theatre version decades later; it’s better than Forman’s movie, but that isn’t saying much, and sometimes it gets the tone exactly wrong, as in the high-spirited baseball game number, so utterly at odds with Doctorow’s somber observations. (Although at least Stephen Flaherety’s wonderful music is superior generally to the humorless Lynn Ahrens’ earthbound lyrics.) In an irony surely lost on no one who saw the movie, the show was staged cinematically, and with infinitely greater imagination, than its predecessor. Still, Ragtime‘s is prose that, like Fitzgerald’s in The Great Gatsby, defies transliteration. Doctorow wrote his doomed, epic screenplay out of a sense of self-preservation but Ragtime was such a phenomenon it was going to be filmed, whether it should be or not; it had made too much money for its publisher not to become a movie.

Since I saw Ragtime twice that season, once before reading the novel and a second time after doing so, I was surprised on seeing it again how little of it resonated with me visually or remained, even vaguely, in my memory — especially since the contemporaneous Reds made so marked an impression on me in every way but especially in Warren Beatty’s extraordinarily accomplished direction. Aside from the occasional comic touch, such as Elizabeth McGovern’s Evelyn Nesbit having been caught in flagrante delicto with Brad Dourif and playing the rest of the scene in entirely un-shocked immodesty, Forman’s staging is mostly square and unmemorable, matched by Weller’s plodding, literalist adaptation. Nesbit, although surely no intellectual giant, is turned by these two into such a gabbling, whorish moron one half expects her shade to sue for slander, and McGovern’s alternately shrill and slack-jawed performance is no help either. It’s left to the better actors to salvage something from the set of attitudes they’ve been asked to play and many of them (Dourif, Robert Joy as Harry K. Thaw, Howard E. Rollins as Coalhouse Walker, Kenneth McMillan as a bigoted bully, Jeff Daniels as a well-meaning constable, Mary Steenburgen as Mother, James Olson as Father, Moses Gunn as Booker T. Washington and even — surprisingly — the usually insufferable Mandy Patinkin as Tateh) succeed, against the odds. Others, like Jeffrey De Munn as Harry Houdini, have roles that barely register, while Debbie Allen as the mother of Coalhouse’s child, is presented so enigmatically she is less un-worldly and innocent than repellently idiotic. (Of course the filmmakers are too timid to depict her abandoned newborn infant as buried in the garden, or to show Mother discovering him; it’s left to the family’s maid to stumble across the baby, removing Mother’s initial maternal bond with the boy.)

Mariclare Costello: The Emma Goldman who almost was.

Arguably, the best performance in the movie was one no one outside of its making ever saw: Mariclare Costello’s wonderfully fulsome portrait of Emma Goldman, preserved in the “Paramount Presents” Blu-ray’s workprint edition and as an extra on the first disc. Some contemporary observers, such as the typically ignorant David Thompson in Film Comment, believed the role had been axed due to Beatty’s use of Goldman in Reds, but it seems her scenes were cut at the order of the producer, Dino De Laurentiis, seconded by Doctorow himself. And aside from their crude rendering of Evelyn Nesbit, the screenwriters (Bo Goldman was uncredited) and the director also rob her of her affection for Tateh’s adorable little daughter, and her basic humanity: In the novel, when Goldman singles her out, anonymously, at a rally to which Tateh has taken her, Evelyn is mortified; in the director’s working cut of the movie, she’s publicly called a whore and is too dumb to even be offended. She just stands there grinning. Poor Tateh too is leached of his horrific working-class experiences, including his narrow escape with the Little Girl from the impending violence at Lawrence, Massachusetts which leads him to ride endlessly on trains and trollies until he finds salvation selling novelties in Philadelphia. It’s crucial to understanding how Tateh becomes “Baron Ashkenazy,” the moving-picture director, that his leftist radicalism is worn away by his experiences, to the point where popular art is not merely a personal expression but a means of clawing his way out of the cycles of poverty. Forman & Company show us none of this.

Goldman was at least included in Weller’s script and her sequences filmed. Aside, briefly, from Washington and those in Nesbit’s orbit, few of the other historical figures (Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Sigmund Freud, Robert Peary, Matthew Henson, Emiliano Zapata) of the novel even make a newsreel appearance. These characters are not mere window-dressing; Doctorow uses them cannily, weaving their public faces into the mosaic and, in the cases of Ford and Morgan, exposing them privately for their sense of noblesse oblige and self-proclaimed godhood while Freud is seen as affronted by America’s noise, wondering when he speaks to Americans if they will even be able to hear him. Their loss (and especially Houdini’s, which seems to me entirely egregious) is, again, due to Forman’s and De Laurentiis’ square picture-making, removing the very thing about a book that makes it unique in order to “streamline” the narrative. It’s all rather typical: You buy the rights to a novel because it’s different, and then do everything you can to flatten it out. By way of example: Although the poster art featured a pointed variation on it, the filmmakers didn’t even make use of Charles Dana Gibson’s famous silhouette of Nesbit, “The Eternal Question,” which in the novel Younger Brother hangs on his bedroom wall. Needless to say there is no screen equivalent of the “great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker tape” as Young Brother tumbles from the closet in Goldman’s room, a passage the librarians in my high school, gigging, passed between each other and which online idiots now refer to as a “violent sexual act.” (A violent act of masturbation?) I wouldn’t have wanted to see that particular moment preserved on the screen, mind you. But at least it would have suggested the people who put Ragtime together had some sense of daring or even a bit of healthy vulgarity.

Instead, desperate for a “name” to exploit, Forman brought James Cagney out of retirement to play Rheinlander Waldo, the Police Commissioner who is given a passing mention in the novel. (The figure who oversees Coalhouse Walker’s siege of the Morgan Library in the book is the Manhattan D.A. Charles S. Whitman; both men were decades younger than Cagney at the time of the action.) It was amusing to see Cagney on a big screen in 1981, Weller’s dialogue for him so obviously tailored to his brash persona. But he feels like a distraction, his role expanded to justify his appearance. His old co-star and compatriot Pat O’Brien in a way fares better; his face and acting style having been largely forgotten by the movie-going public, he is able to simply (and effectively) play his scenes as one of Thaw’s lawyers without having to stand as a symbol, or an eminence grise. The best things about Ragtime, it seems to me now, are the sets and costumes, and Randy Newman’s typically quirky, beautifully crafted score, which respects Scott Joplin without slavishly copying him.

It struck me while watching Ragtime for the first time in decades that there is no way anyone could get away with it today. The depiction by Weller, Forman and McGovern of Nesbit would be not only be decried as sexist (which is certainly what it feels like) but the “woke” mob of know-nothings would demand that she be made a heroine instead of, as Emma Goldman suggests to her, the victim of every man she ever met. Even more unforgivable would be the portrayal of a black man as terrorist, regardless of the events that compelled his terrorism and his own awareness that he has allowed his rage to carry him to extremes. Indeed, were Doctorow alive and publishing Ragtime now, it would almost certainly be removed from bookstores at the screeching demand of young liberals for whom no history or reality is permitted save the one they have convinced themselves is “correct.”

Speaking of such things: One of the usual gang of idiots writing the Wikipedia entry on the novel claims of Doctorow’s patently obvious (and fully admitted) use of the Heinrich von Kleist Michael Kolhause that “it is a matter of opinion among critics whether this constitutes literary adaptation or plagiarism.” Would a plagiarist attempting to pull the wool over reader’s eyes by “stealing” Michael Kolhause from Kleist give his own character the surname “Coalhouse”?

This is how stupid non-creative types like to imagine their artistic betters are. But then, as with those who wish to erase any history that makes them personally uncomfortable, they cannot themselves create, only tear down.

Text copyright 2022 by Scott Ross