My Five Most Influential Film Books

When I first became interested in film, seriously interested, there were not many books on the subject, at least not in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art, published in the late 1950’s, was one of the first books on the subject I read. I discovered  names like Griffith, DeMille, and others. I did find a copy of Rudolph Arnheim’s Film as Art at a local library around the same time or not soon after. Other than that, you were pretty much limited to film star biographies.

Knight

Within a couple of years, I was probably around sixteen years old now–I began traveling by subway into the City (Manhattan), a Mecca for film lovers, discovering films and filmmakers whose works would most likely not make it over the East River into Brooklyn; foreign films like La Guerre est Finie, Cul-de-sac, Mademoiselle, King of Hearts, and Hunger (all 1966). Manhattan was a whole new world for a budding film freak. Times Square was loaded with movie theaters, the Upper East Side had the latest and trendiest theaters, and in the Village, you had the more adventurous theaters showing experimental, independent, and foreign as well as repertory. New York City was a gold mine filled with celluloid dreams.

And then there were the bookstores! In Manhattan, many of the bookstores had a section dedicated to books on film which I began to devour! A few years later in the late 1960s, I found the mother lode of bookstores: it was called Cinemabilia, located on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village (years later they relocated to 13th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues near the Quad Cinema). Here was a small, cramped store dedicated to movie memorabilia, movie stills, lobby cards, posters, and books, and not your average movie star biographies, either. They had books on directors, the history of movies, the art of filmmaking, film analysis, even books imported from England. There were magazines like Films and Filming, Sight and Sound, and Films in Review, among some other short-lived and long-forgotten publications.

Of all the books I read over the years, the following  five film books were the most influential books I read in those early days, shaping my thoughts and feelings about film.

The American Cinema: Directors and Direction 1929 – 1968 (Andrew Sarris)

the-american-cinema

For many years, this was my bible, though I never agreed with Sarris’ low rating of Billy Wilder (he later reconsidered). Sarris was the guardian of the Auteur Theory in America; the concept that the film director who has final control, in theory, of all elements of the film is the “author” of the movie. This, of course, ticked off plenty of screenwriters and other artists who all contributed to the making of a film. Today, I see film as more of a collaborative art. Still, the director is the man in charge (at least until the studios get their hands on the film).

Hitchcock (Francois Truffaut) & Hitchcock’s Films (Robin Wood)

 

I lumped these two books together for the obvious reason. They were groundbreaking at the time taking Hitchcock seriously as an artist, more than as just a commercial entertaining filmmaker.  Both books were the first of their kind; Truffaut’s book-length interview covering the directo’s entire career, and Robin Wood’s study was the first serious critical look of Hitch as a film artist.

Billy Wilder – Alex Madsen

Wiler

This book was part of the Cinema One series, published in the United States by Indiana University Press. Madsen’s book on Wilder was a critical study. Along with Hitchcock, Frankenheimer, and a few others, Billy Wilder was a name I recognized early on and who work I have admired ever since. Madsen’s book is long out of print, but if you find a copy, it is essential reading.

I Lost it at the Movies (Pauline Kael)

LostIt may seem odd to have both Sarris and Kael on the same list since in life they had little use for each other and came at film from different perspectives. However, both were serious about film as an art, and fascinating to read.  Kael’s writing is thoughtful, passionate and snarky. This collection, her first, contains both thoughtful reviews and some fascinating long pieces including Are Movies Going to Pieces.

 

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14 comments on “My Five Most Influential Film Books

  1. A lovely post, John. You remind me of my college theatre professor who said,”I love my wife dearly. I have nothing but respect for her. She is the mother of my children. But the theatre is my mistress.” Two different art forms, of course, but the passion is the same.
    How could Sarris deride Billy Wilder? His films have a more natural feel, yes, but he’s not like Lumet or Jewison either (both who I love, by the way) who make a different style of film each time the direct. There’s a pervasive Wilder style–it’s just more subtle. Wonderfully subtle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Greco says:

      Sarris originally put him in the “Less Than Meets the Eye” category which by the way he included John Huston and Fred Zinnemann. His reason was “Billy Wilder is too cynical to believe even his own cynicism.” For me, WIlder’s wit, and his cynicism, were what drew me to him. BTW Lumet and Jewison were both lumped in a category called. “Strained Seriousness” which Sarris described as talented directors, though uneven with the mortal sin of pretentiousness. I like most of Lumet’s work and Jewison though I would lean more toward Lumet.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Interesting. I too prefer Lumet over Jewison and I can understand Sarris’ criticism of both. I think about Dog Day Afternoon and the grandstanding of the Al Pacino character and the reaction of the cops and police. Keep in mind that I absolutely love this film but that aspect of “pretentiousness” doesn’t ring true. However I disagree with his assessment of Wilder. As for as the comparison of Wilder, Lumet and Jewison, I was referring more to their similar versatility. I must admit that the concept of “Wilder is too cynical to believe even his own cynicism,” is over my hobbyist head. Sounds like a very education opinion piece on the art and intricacy of cinema, no doubt.

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      • John Greco says:

        I don’t buy into Sarris’ too cynical to believe his own cynicism. A film like Ace in the Hole is a very cynical film and I can easily buy into Kirk Douglas’ cynical newspaper reporter exciled to a small town newspaper and looking to get back to the big time by exploiting small town folks. As for Lumet and Jewissom, yep they were both versatile filmmakers in their choice of material.

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  2. Jay Kanter says:

    John, A favorite of mine is “Film Noir an encyclopedic reference to the American style” by Alain Silver

    Liked by 1 person

  3. George Orwell says:

    Pauline Kael is totally overrated.

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    • John Greco says:

      You really cannot blow Kael off so easily. Like Sarris, and others back in their days, Kael was a serious critic. She was passionate about movies, more so than many of the popcorn critics we are over loaded with today. She had her favorite filmmakers and sometimes that made her blind to some bad films by some of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. From Leslie Halliwell and Leonard Maltin to discovering a book of James Agee criticism in the far reaches of the library. There was a small, cramped, hard to get to (long stairway) store called Cinebooks on Toronto’s Yonge Street. Memorabilia, and so many books that intimidated and enthralled me. It’s a journey that never ends.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Greco says:

      For years I always got the updated version of Maltin’s book which in many ways was essential for capsule reviews. Agee was and is a must read.

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  5. classicfilmtvcafe says:

    Great post, John! Truffaut’s Hitchcock book is easily my all-time favorite, but like Paddy, I grew up on Halliwell (whom I met years later) and Maltin.I also love the first edition of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia for its coverage of cult films.

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  6. John Charet says:

    Great post 🙂 These are great choices indeed 🙂 Sarris, Kael and I love that book of interviews between Truffaut and Hitchcock and a few back, their was a documentary with that same title. Speaking of film critics, have you ever heard of Richard Brody? He writes for the New Yorker and his views on film are really interesting. I first read his work a decade ago first when he praised Max Ophuls Lola Montes. Speaking of which, I heard Sarris is a huge fan of that film. On the side, I know some great books about the making of a film that tanked on their initial releases. “Picture” by Lilian Ross (about the making of John Huston’s Red Badge of Courage), Stephen Bach’s “Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate” (a Michael Cimino film) and Julie Salomon’s “The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco” (about Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities). Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks John. Richard Brody is definitely one of the better film critics around today. I read Final Cut and Bonfire of the Vanities. As an FYI, I just purchased an ebook version of a new book called “Why To Kill a Mockingbird Matters.” It’s about both the book and the making of the film.

      Liked by 1 person

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