This is a magnificent book: if I were allowed only one book on film then I would unhesitatingly choose this one.
Arranged alphabetically, and covering virtually every important actor, director and producer in film history (and many other figures associated with film), it provides fairly thorough filmographies, but it’s not intended as a reference book. On questions of fact (‘Who won Best Supporting Actor in 1975?’; ‘Who played Marlowe in Murder My Sweet?’) this is not the most convenient work to consult, and often the answer simply cannot be found.
Rather, this is film criticism – and Thomson is an acutely perceptive, intelligent and eloquent critic. Invariably passionate, often funny, frequently challenging and provocative, and occasionally annoying, he is a brilliant writer and a model of how to say a lot in few words. In little more than a sentence or two he can offer a profound observation or opinion which radically alters one’s own view on a film or individual.
He can be wonderfully iconoclastic. For example, both John Ford and Stanley Kubrick, widely esteemed as great directors, are (rightly to my mind) shown up for their severe shortcomings. Sometimes he can be spectacularly and justifiably savage, about Roberto Benigni or Wes Craven for example. Equally, he is very good at extolling the virtues of underrated individuals, Barbara Stanwyck for example. Above all he provides honest, thoughtful and sophisticated appraisals, in most cases amounting to miniature essays, which rarely fail to open up new insights.
Thomson is no snob or elitist: he may lambast Tony Scott and Madonna, but he has good things to say about Spielberg and Schwarzenegger, Tarantino and Sharon Stone. His favourite director is Howard Hawks, his favourite actress Angie Dickinson, and he has a deep fondness for American film. But he is as at home with world cinema as he is with Hollywood. Bergman, Dreyer, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Bresson, Riefenstahl, Renoir and Rivette are among numerous figures explored at length. All the great figures from past and present film are here, but so too are many who are obscure or minor but interesting or deserving of reassessment – for example, Yilmaz Guney, Larissa Shepitko or Kon Ichikawa (names unfamiliar to me before Thomson).
This is an ideal book for dipping into frequently, emerging each time with a widened and deepened appreciation of film and a starting point for further discovery; but it could even be read from cover to cover and provide an excellent (albeit unorthodoxly alphabetical) film education. If you love film and regard film as a serious medium rather than merely entertainment, if your film world is not restricted to mainstream Hollywood and a few old favourites but embraces the whole history of film from around the world, if you enjoy intelligent argument and strong opinions, then you will love this book.