Bright Lights Film Journal

10 (or More) Film Books That Made Me What I Am Today

Speaking of books – having been invited by Movieman to contribute to his Reading the Movies meme, I submit a list of the 10-plus film-related books that had the greatest impact on me.

1. William K. Everson, The American Movie – Everson was not a critic; he was a film historian, a dying breed, and one of the best. Everson seemed to have watched every film made from the silent era to the day he was writing. At a time when movie-related publishing was dominated by books with titles like The Films of [insert star’s name here], Everson’s wonderfully photo-illustrated and long-out-of-print decade-by-decade survey of American filmmaking was probably the first intelligent book on the movies I ever read.

2. Carlos Clarens, An Illustrated History of the Horror Film – Although I had been reading magazines like Famous of Monsters of Filmland, Fantastic Monsters, and Castle of Frankenstein since the age of 13, Clarens’ book was my first hardback introduction to serious genre-based criticism.

3. Hitchcock/Truffaut – Francois Truffaut’s book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock is lavishly illustrated with frames from Hitch’s films, including shot by shot breakdowns of entire sequences. Hitch was a director who believed in “pure filmmaking” and could speak articulately about it – instead of just regaling the reader with amusing anecdotes (although Hitch was great at that, too). I read this one over and over.

4. Raymond Durgnat, Films and Feelings – I first encountered this book in a library, and it led me to read many other books by the same author. Durgnat, with his highly distinctive, not to say eccentric, style, emphasized the aspects of filmmaking that still interest me most, among other things, how the purely formal elements of a film – composition, camera movement, montage – evoke feelings in the viewer. He also excelled at psycho/sociological analysis. See, for example, his brilliant take on This Island Earth.

5. Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films – After watching all the Hitchcock films I could, and reading Hitch’s own take on them, Wood took me to the next level – subtext! Wood is one of the finest and most insightful non-fiction prose stylists I have read on any subject. His seminal work on Hitchcock, one of the first book-length auteurist studies written in English, was followed by monographs on Bergman, Hawks, Chabrol, and Penn, among others, and essay collections like the aptly titled Personal Views. (In the world of Wood, criticism is frequently inseparable from autobiography.) No writer on this list has influenced me more profoundly.

6. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 – Andrew Sarris is the man who brought Cahiers du Cinema style auteurism to the United States, and The American Cinema is the book that lays down his creed. Sarris’s book is often illuminating, sometimes infuriating, but more important than any of that, The American Cinema introduced me and a generation of film buffs to dozens of great directors and hundreds of great films.

7. Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By – I may not agree with Brownlow’s thesis (that’s it’s been all downhill since the coming of sound) but his book, a lengthy combination of research and oral history, remains the definitive introduction to the silent film era.

8. Ian Cameron (Editor), Movie Reader -This is a collection of articles from Movie, the greatest English-language auteurist film magazine ever published, and it includes pieces written between 1962 and 1965 by Raymond Durgnat, Robin Wood, Ian Cameron, V.F. Perkins, and Charles Barr, among others. A highly recommended collection, if you can find it. If you can’t, try looking for back issues of the magazine itself.

9. David Thomson, SuspectsSuspects is film criticism disguised as fiction, or maybe it’s fiction disguised as film criticism. In either case, Thomson’s series of imaginative sketches based on characters who appeared in film noir – interrelating them as part of a master narrative – was an eye-opener for me with respect to my appreciation of the genre. Equally literary, and appearing at about the same time as Suspects was Barry Gifford’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride (later republished as Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir). Thomson and Gifford were both significantly more expansive in their view of noir than prior writers on the subject. They included films like Citizen Kane, Cat People, and It’s a Wonderful Life, women’s melodramas like Mildred Pierce and No Man of Her Own, as well as more recent films like Blue Velvet. Together, you can find no better introduction to Noirworld than these two books.

10. BFI Film Classics The British Film Institute’s series of monographs on individual films, some by established film writers, others by writers known for their work in other areas, was a brilliant idea. Two of my favorites in the series are Salman Rushdie on The Wizard of Oz, and Camille Paglia on The Birds. There are many more worth your while. BFI Film Classics and its companion series, BFI Modern Classics, can be considered a single ongoing work-in-progress, an exceptionally literate encylopedia of the greatest films ever made. (Click on photo below to enlarge.)