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.