Having already submitted a list of ten to Movieman’s Movie Bookshelf meme, a “gathering of all the movie books that influenced, enlightened, and excited me, you, and everyone else,” I was delighted to read his master list of books submitted to him by all the bloggers who participated in the meme – not only delighted, but inspired to add two more books that no else mentioned and which I probably should have included in the first place as “runner-ups.”
The first is a book that had a huge impact on me as a fledgling film buff.
Classics of the Foreign Film, A Pictorial History by Parker Tyler (1967) is a chronological history of the foreign film consisting of 75 seminal titles described by Tyler in nicely photo-illustrated essays of roughly 3 to 6 pages each. As you can see above, the films he selected were now-canonical classics such as – from top to bottom – Rashomon (Kurosawa), La Dolce Vita (Fellini), Potemkin (Eisenstein), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene), Les Enfants du Paradis (Carné), and The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg). He also included several British films. Tyler was not an auteurist as such. He did not subscribe to the “social importance” school of film criticism that was fashionable at the time. Tyler was unique in emphasizing the relationship of film to dream. He was also one of the few critics of his era to champion experimental filmmaking. Thus, he included among his foreign classics a number of avant-garde films such as Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’or, and Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet. For a cinephile just starting out, Tyler provided a great guide to what-needed-to-be-seen.
The second is a recent book, the last work – posthumously published – of Raymond Durgnat.
A Long Hard Look at ‘Psycho’ by Raymond Durgnat (2002) was originally intended to be one of the little volumes in the BFI Film Classics series, but what Durgnat did with the film was much too long and complex to published in that constricted form. A Long Hard Look is an incredibly ambitious book, a shot-by-shot, line-by-line analysis, from beginning to end, of Hitchcock’s Psycho – a film that certainly deserves that kind of close reading. Durgnat also discusses many larger issues that go beyond individual shots and scenes. Offhand, I can’t think of any major film writer who has attempted something that ambitious, except perhaps Durgnat himself, who published a long, almost-as-close reading of Vidor & Selznick’s Duel in the Sun in a 1970s issue of Film Comment. To give you a flavor of the book, here are a few short samples from its first 37 pages:
Re Bernard Herrmann’s score: “its nervous quality owes much to its being all strings, played percussively. But its quiet, reflective moments, its evocation of thought indistinctly ‘stirring’, are just as interesting as its shrill attacks.”
Re the Sam/Marion necking scene: “Visually, it’s dominated not by anatomies, but by hands, his as much as hers, feeling with tender, restless speed the other’s shoulders, neck, face and mouth, while eyes lock on eyes.”
“What’s disquieting is that, as Marion’s lips nibble Sam’s, she murmurs words of dissatisfaction, of edgy negotiation, of despair. (This links with Notorious, where the lovers never stop necking, while also scheming.)”
Countering the idea that Marion’s death is some kind of punishment for sexual misbehavior: “In Psycho, Marion’s death makes no moral sense at all; her fate is in every way ‘absurd’; that’s part of the film’s punch.”
“Sam fondling bed-linen anticipates Norman’s daily linen-changing”
“Pointless, narrative-wise, is a quick shot of the sandwich Marion forgot, amidst a mucky litter of a meal. It’s an ‘atmosphere’ shot; almost, indeed, a metaphor, an emblem, for lunch-hour love as â€¦ fast food.”
And so on.
For Hitchcock fans – or Durgnat fans – A Long Hard Look is a must.