"How to Read a Film" is one of those books that tell you something you already know. I remember how incredibly quiet it was in the packed theater watching "The Blair Witch Project" and realizing that the film was being "read" in such a way that everyone was on the edge of their seat because something was about to happen and because nothing really did happen in that movie the suspense was killing everyone. If you are raised watching films then you learn how to "read" them. What James Monaco does in his book is provide the conceptual vocabulary that is used in the fields of movie making and academic criticism to describe the process.
"How to Read a Film" has six parts. (I) "Film As An Art" establishes where film stands in relationship to other types of performance, representational and recording arts. (II) "Technology: Image and Sound" deals with the hardware of making movies from lens and camera to film stock and projection. (III) "The Language of Film: Signs and Syntax" is the key chapter where Monaco works out the codes of mise en scene and montage. (IV) "The Shape of Film History" makes a useful distinction between the economics of "movies," the politics of "film" and the esthetics of "the cinema." (V) "Film: Theory: Form and Function" looks at theorists on film, which includes not only critics like Bazin but directors like Eisenstein and Godard. (VI) "Media" briefly extends some of the book's ideas to non-film media including television, radio and video. There are also three appendixes: a first class glossary of terms, a bibliography of film/media works and a chronology of film and media.
Even when I have not used this as a textbook in a film class, I have always relied on Monaco's work. His strength is in not only defining concepts but in contextualizing them so that you understand the relationship between various categories of terms. As a result, once students have digested the wealth of information contained within, they could look at a scene from a film lasting less than a minute and write a 50-page essay detailing how the film demands to be read by its audience. As I said in the beginning, we already know how to read a film. What this book does is give us the vocabulary for talking about it once we leave the theater (or rewind the video tape).