on 16 June 2010
It might be worth noting that this book first came out in 1975 and has been revised and updated every couple of years, the last being the paperback version in 2004 (specifically the paperback, as it has a few more entries than the hardback of the same time does.) Bear that in mind when/if ordering, you don't want to get an old copy (though it would still be a good read)
I'm simply adding to what other people have said, yes, it is a great book, my copy is worn and tattered, has notes and underlinings on most of the pages. I have read nearly all of it a few times, there's no way of telling because while some people (my brother included) read it from cover to cover like a novel, i just dip in to read up on a specific person, and it's sort of like working through a maze, you start with one person and get sucked in, next thing you know 3 hours have passed and you've been led on from entry to entry. It's very addictive! Not least because it is so well written, besides the actual passion and (at times philosophical, even poetic) understanding of film and what it does to people.
Though maybe Thomson himself is getting a little weary of film, he's in his 70's now, he can't update it forever, and as a writer i suppose it's only expected that writing would be his foremost passion. Hence the amount of writing that he has actually produced.
There are a number of other Thomson books out there.. - Have you seen? Rosebud. A recent Memoir. A recent series on famous hollywood stars. Alien Quartet. Suspects, Beneath Mulholland. Besides his other writings on the Nevada desert, the race to the Antarctic, and Laurence Sterne. Not forgetting his numerous articles for the Guardian newspaper and Salon.com.
But The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is the one to start with, just make sure you have a bit of time to spare before you start looking.
on 6 January 2004
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.
This deftly-written, subtle, slily witty, occasionally exasperating, inspiring, myth-busting, wholly magisterial, utterly unique, now near-legendary tome is everything its admirers say it is, and probably more.
I am reviewing the latest, hardcover, edition, which has recently fallen on my doorstep with a grateful thud. It`s quite a hefty volume, this one. I am still keeping my dog-eared copy of the paperback 2003 edition, as it`s such an old friend now, and I know my way round it as well as my own room. Here, with Daniel Day Lewis in a still from the recent There Will Be Blood adorning the cover (appropriate enough, though sadly replacing a scene from Howard Hawks` To Have And Have Not, which, let`s face it, takes some replacing) is Thomson`s 1000-page meditation on cinema, its makers and some of its shakers.
Anyone who doubts the primacy of the aforementioned Hawks as a supremely natural director of actors, in most genres, or who has the usual inflated opinion of John Ford, who takes something of a well-earned beating from the author in these pages, should read this book. Anyone wanting a pitch-perfect eulogy of Robert Mitchum ("untouchable") or Lee Marvin ("the last of the great wintry heroes") or Jeff Bridges ("as close as the modern era has come to Robert Mitchum") or the lately less visible Nick Nolte ("America`s most elemental actor") should revel in this book.
There are - and will always be, alas - some hurtful omissions. Where, after all these years, is Ellen Barkin? She may not have done much of note recently, but how can one defend the inclusion of, say, small-part British toff comic foil James Villiers, when an actress as smart, vivacious and watchable as Barkin is passed over? The same goes for Catherine Keener. I was sure Thomson would have included this brilliant, ubiquitous, sassy actress and almost-star this time, but no.
Other very strange, surely indefensible omissions include Daniel Craig, Richard E Grant, Bruce Robinson (Withnail and his director), Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Imelda Staunton, Richard Griffiths, Fred Willard (hilariously funny in all Christopher Guest`s films), Felicity Huffman, Telly Savalas, and Russian director Nikita "Burnt By The Sun" Mikhalkov. Go figure. More than those though, one throws up one`s hands in baffled incomprehension as one looks in vain for highly respected and admired director Michael Haneke, or the great and well-named John Goodman (so brilliant in so many roles, not least The Big Lebowski, a film which Thomson is perverse enough to find "too cute by half", the fool). And I`d have gladly sacrificed Tomlin, Lily for the much more interesting, as well as versatile, Tomei, Marisa.
However, there is at last a very nice entry for the late Peter Falk, perhaps the most underrated American actor of his time (I`m serious), due no doubt to his dedication to a certain Lieutenant in a crumpled raincoat.
There is so much bounty on offer here that any omissions, or the odd contrary opinion, fades into Insignificance - a movie he finds "fatuous", by the way.
Madonna gets a thoroughly deserved comeuppance, while her ex Guy Ritchie is quite rightly ignored.
He loves Renoir and Rivette, I`m happy to say, though I think he`s overly kind to Godard and Warhol, who receive expansive entries, as does, puzzlingly, British-born American critic Alistair Cooke. Unfathomable, that one.
He is spot on in his reluctance to over-praise the superb Honk Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, while still giving him his due, and is justifiably sceptical of the
"whimsical pretension" of Wes Anderson. Michael Bay "makes noisy garbage" while he nails the, to my mind, absurdly overblown Kubrick myth in a few words at the end of his entry, thus: "Kubrick was always a `master` who knew too much about film and too little about life - and it shows." Hooray! He is similarly scathing about Lars von Trier and, while praising one or two of his films, Tarantino.
What Thomson is best at is describing a performance, or indeed a whole career, in a few well-placed brush strokes. The joy of this mighty exercise is in the writing. He is as important a writer on film as Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Anthony Lane, or the Cahiers Du Cinema writer-auteurs of a bygone era.
I love his flights of fancy too, and these are many and delightful. One example. He wraps up his suitably adulatory essay on Peter Lorre with the sweetly elegiac words: "He must be somewhere still, pattering around Sidney Greenstreet and doing what he can to dodge Bogart`s laughter."
This is a man who loves cinema, and the characters it has thrown up for our edification, entertainment and delight.
There are over 100 new entries in this edition, and I`m still discovering them. What is so gratifying about Thomson`s essays - some brief, some very lengthy indeed - is what he takes the trouble to notice. For example, of Natalie Portman (pre-Black Swan) he says: "She was extraordinary and the best thing in Cold Mountain." Yes, she was, and she was on screen for only about ten minutes.
One thing I can and will never forgive him is, under director Richard Linklater`s entry, a cursory trashing of his Before Sunrise/Before Sunset duet of films. I do not ever wish to hear anything but praise and slavish devotion when speaking of these modest wonders. The very idea!
But, as my heading above implies, he has finally got round to the divine, peerless Laura Linney, about whom he is, to my great relief, warmly appreciative. The other entry I cheered is that of the miraculous, chameleon-like actor Vincent D`Onofrio, of whom Thomson shares my appreciation and awe.
I`ve spent whole evenings dipping into this marvellous book until my eyes are sore and my mind addled. So, I have no doubt, will you. Just don`t expect it to be a Biography of Film, whatever it says on the cover. It isn`t really a reference book as such, rather it`s something more personal, more elusive.
What it most certainly has been, through several editions now, is completely and unarguably essential.
on 20 August 2014
Only a lad from Streatham could be quite so rude about America's greatest art form* and be feted for it. He's his own man, that's for sure - Graham Greene, an admired early influence, gets three pages (most poor saps do well to get more than one) and Richard Donner (Superman; The Omen; Lethal Weapon - but also Lethal Weapons 2, 3 and 4) a mere two sentences, the second of which is all of six words long. But our man's entitled - he's been at this caper since 1975 (A Biographical Dictionary of THE CINEMA). A Biographical Dictionary of FILM dates from 1994. This 'New' one counts as the 4th edition because there was a 2nd edition of the original BD of the C in 1980. (The 1994 edition claims the 1975 edition is itself a revision of a phantom 1970 edition, and the reproduced 'Introduction to the First Edition' certainly does not match that in the 1975 edition.) The fifth edition (2010) I did not buy**, but I'm happy to see there's now a sixth, a mere four years after the last - and straight to paperback this time. Nowadays the pace of publishing quickens, like everything else, as we head towards the end of the world; I'm sorry David won't be there to commentate. Sofia Coppola doesn't quite yet merit her own entry in this edition, but a canny film buff with a sense of history will lay hands on all editions of this outrageous work s/he's got the space for
As for DT on Kidman - Lordy Lord! Dark and deviant, or just a piss-take on fandom (including himself)? Well, both, obvi, but I suspect more the latter - the sort of abject love or fetishisation that stardom embodies (ha!). What are Bardot, Karina or the lightweight Kidman but commodities, canvases on which we write our dreams? Ms K herself here merits only half a page. (Anna Karina gets more, but she was in some immortal movies.) How to quantify Gish, Garbo, Kelly or Taylor? (Monro probably qualifies as an actress. |Actually I'm being unfair - I'm sure Gish did too once she was allowed to speak.) Worth noting too are DT's novel Suspects and his boyhood memoir Try to Tell the Story. Can't wait for the biog. What japes, Pip..
* actually, second to the blues (and its divers tributaries, jazz et al); but if the blues stand alone I'm prepared to give movies the laurels (and Hardies) not because they go deeper but because they go wider
** No room, I told myself. I lied
on 2 February 2006
Take no notice of Thomas from Norway - this is a fabulous work. I'm an Oscar nominated screenwriter and there is no better volume for understanding what film could and should be. It is fabulously opinionated, but always thoughtful and never churlish. I have found it a real joy and endless resource. It doesn't purport to be a comprehensive reference but you'll get a wider understanding about the scope of what cinema has meant than reading any other single work. It is clearly written by someone who loves cinema. It is neither cold, intellectual nor indulgent. It is acerbic, smart and learned. Dip or read it right through.
The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is a revised edition of Thomson's seminal book on cinema- one of the key film books alongside The Cinema Book, Film Art & Susan Hayward's glossary of film terms. Quite simply, it is a book no serious fan should be without- & is of far more interest than things like Halliwell's or Virgin's Film Guides (you can get all that info off IMDB).
Thomson is one of the greatest writers on cinema & in this 900-plus page tome, he scans cinema (filmmakers, actors, writers) from A to Z from standard figures (Hitchcock, Welles) to more recent cinematic figures (Lars Von Trier, Halle Berry, Renee Zellweger, Nicole Kidman). Some of the essays/mini-essays are long- the Graham Greene entry being an example of this; while Tarantino is dispatched in a few tight paragraphs. The introduction does point out that the book is intended to provoke argument and develop thought about cinema...& it does just that.
Spielberg comes off better than he deserves, while Scorsese gets a kicking with an argument that I can't help but agree with; I don't think he had Kieslowski down. But the writings on Lynch's Blue Velvet & Mulholland Drive, on Bertolucci's The Conformist, on the dire Demme films Beloved & Philadelphia and so many examples I could cite are spot on. As too George C Scott, Coppola, Beatty (whom Thomson has written the best biog of, this side of Easy Riders Raging Bulls), Roberto Rossellini, Visconti, William Goldman, Warren Oates, Bob Fosse...look, the whole book!
In many ways, this book is a forerunner of the internet forum/review site, ultimately it's just an opinion- but an interesting one. Brilliantly written, insightful & always interesting, this is a film book to get lost in- I'm even thinking about reassessing my view of Vertigo (I'm not as keen as I am on NBNW and Rear Window). At this price, this is wonderful value & a book no serious film fan/writer can live without. The reviews of critics like Douglas Kennedy, Anthony Quinn & Chris Roberts are spot-on- you may not agree with some of the opinions, but they are valid & film-writing at its finest. The entry on Michael Bay is just one of the reasons this book is great, reminding me of a recent article Thomson wrote in the Independent on Sunday contrasting Pearl Harbor with From Here to Eternity. Up there with the great film-writers, as Chris Roberts stated in his Uncut review "brilliant, provocative & essential".
In line with the book, I'll offer: The Conformist, If.... & Sunset Boulevard (all of which are brilliantly written on here...). Simply put: OWN!!!!!!!!
on 20 April 2010
Thompson is intelligent and witty there's no doubt, but the danger is in equating that with his judgement.
The author's acclaiming of utterly unremarkable films (for instance Marshall Leisen's To Each His Own and No Man Of Her Own), while lacking even the critical faculties necessary to properly appreciate brilliant filmmakers the likes of Preston Sturges, Chaplin, Fellini, etc. makes his judgement greatly suspect. Take a look at how he uselessly pokes and prods the brilliant Marx Brothers (see Duck Soup, Horse Feathers and Animal Crackers for their genius) before giving up, for a good example.
For a truly brilliant writer on film, who not only was wonderfully eloquent but also understood what great film was, look no further than Raymond Durgnat. "Durgnat on Film" is a good place to start.
on 26 November 2012
Since the 4th edition, this book has been my film bible. Mr Thomson's analyses are penetrating if sometimes uncomfortable, but rarely off-beam. But to repeat one of the customer plaints in the 4th edition, why no Bela Tarr? It has informed my film viewing over the years consequently my dvd my collection contains very few duds (even the 'bad' ones are good). He led me directly to Tarkovsky, which I have never regretted, and illuminated aspects of the Japanese directors whom I studied as a very mature adult for an 'A' level in film studies. I owe a lot to his book and thoroughly recommend it.
on 31 January 2011
This is without doubt the most important book that has ever been written about the subject of Film and filmmaking. More than Bazin, Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris or the Cahier du Cinema even! This version is the 5th edition which was revised to add several more entries. I started with the 4th edition when it came out in 1994. Without David Thomson i would never have discovered most of the great directors and their masterpieces - including Lola Montes, Gertud, Ugetsu Monogatari and Shanghai Express. It was my great luck that i found a writer who i agreed with and connected with what he said, it wasnt the official british line than goodness, but fresh, original, personal and opinionated. In any subject you need a guide and teacher, David Thomson is 'the man' when it comes to the world of Film.
on 8 November 2012
If you are interested in cinema then David Thomson is the man to tell you just about anything you might want to know. His knowledge is such that all of the major movements in cinema are covered. It's alphabetical, so you are free to read from start to finish or home in on what is of interest to you. Or simply open at a new point each time and learn something new. A very interesting writer.