Film books for Christmas – time to get Hammered

Nick Curtis

2 Dec 2010

From a celebration of the horror studio to a new biography of Clint Eastwood, Nick Curtis selects the best presents for cinema buffs…

Although the market for celebrity biographies collapsed last year, still the film-star tomes keep coming. Michael Caine’s updated The Elephant to Hollywood (Hodder, £20), already reviewed on these pages, is a yawn but at least has the virtues of being comprehensive and relatively honest. Christopher Plummer’s In Spite of Myself (JR Books, £20) is even more indiscreet about the Canadian actor’s profligate boozing and womanising but is hopelessly prolix, its 600-plus pages packed with name-drops and mannered, actorish expostulations. In the event of a nuclear holocaust, I suspect we’d find Plummer still standing, prattling on about John Gielgud and Natalie Wood and getting a police horse drunk in a bar.

Simon Pegg’s Nerd Do Well (Century, £18.99) shows the clever, private comic actor and writer wriggling uncomfortably as he cashes in on his cult success and consequent Hollywood career. It’s largely a memoir of childhood and early work mediated through his love of sci-fi and slacker cool — Cider with Robots might have been another title — and bulked out with some embarrassing, not-very-comic fantasy sequences.

I doubt the world is crying out for a biography of Britain’s cut-price bombshell Diana Dors but David Bret has produced Hurricane in Mink (JR Books, £18.99). This brisk trot through the Swindon temptress’s life and career, littered with irrelevancies and exclamation marks, alternately celebrates her as a camp icon and an emblem of Britain’s second-rate Fifties and Sixties film industry, and wags a finger at her naughty private life. Do we really need another book about Sean Connery either? With little original material to work with, Christopher Bray’s Sean Connery — The Measure of a Man (Faber, £20) ends up a well-written but half-hearted critical study of the taciturn Scot’s oeuvre — mostly, inevitably, the Bond movies — with an outline of his personal life tacked on.

For a genuine insight into a screen talent, turn to Amy Raphael’s Danny Boyle: In His Own Words (Faber, £14.99). As with her previous, similar collaboration with Mike Leigh, Raphael proves a shrewd interrogator who writes intelligently but accessibly about the art, craft and commerce of film. Boyle, the director of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, opens up about his Catholic upbringing and influences. He is infectiously enthusiastic, frank about his failures, and very good on the grind and compromise involved in making a movie. 

Hardcore cinéastes will be pleased with a raft of 10 new books of critical essays on the careers of directors including Almodóvar, Spielberg and Kubrick. Produced by Cahiers du Cinema and competitively priced at £5.95 each, they’re chin-strokingly authoritative and highbrow. A little solemn for a Christmas present, perhaps.

Fortunately, two auteurs celebrated by Cahiers are also the subject of handsome coffee-table tomes. Richard Schickel’s Clint — A Retrospective (Sterling, £25) is a middlebrow but lavishly illustrated study of Eastwood’s work as actor and director. It’s informed, or not as the case may be, by the fact that Schickel is a friend of Eastwood’s. Laurent Bouzerau’s Hitchcock Piece by Piece (Abrams, £30) takes a thematic approach to the works of the portly master of suspense, with individual chapters on his imagery, his women (not just the glacial blondes) and his accidental heroes. The text is diverting rather than illuminating, but the book is beautifully designed as a covetable artefact. Along with some fine photographs, there are envelopes bearing Hitch’s famous profile as a flap, which yield facsimiles of costume designs, storyboard images, correspondence and candid snaps.

Marilyn Monroe — Fragments (HarperCollins, £20) also reproduces facsimile material but it’s an altogether more grisly prospect than the Hitchcock book. Basically, it’s photographs of some anguished and inarticulate letters, poems and journal entries — and even, God help us, shopping lists — that Monroe left behind, transcribed and dully annotated by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment. Even more basically, it’s another necrophile step in the death cult that surrounds this mediocre actress.

On, then, to the reference works. Andrew Osmond’s 100 Animated Feature Films (BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, £20) is a learned attempt at an overview of full-length cinematic animation from the sublime to the whimsical. So Disney, Pixar and Nick Park rub shoulders with Jan Svankmayer and Hiroki Mayazumi. Not to mention Quirino Cristiani’s 1917 El Apostol, which I confess was a new one on me. It’s intelligent but under-illustrated, and I’m at a loss as to who it’s aimed at.

The updated and expanded fifth edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Little, Brown, £35) isn’t comprehensive — we’ve got the internet for that. Rather, you dip into it for the quirky pleasures and dazzling insights of Thomson’s prose. “There are times when Richard Gere has the warm affect of a wind tunnel at dawn, waiting for work, all sheen, inner curve and posed emptiness.” I couldn’t have put it better. No one could.

Further down the food chain, Christopher Tookey’s Named and Shamed (Matador, £9.95) is a tum-strokingly self-satisfied anthology of, as the subtitle puts it, “the world’s worst and wittiest movie reviews from Affleck to Zeta-Jones”. Many of its entries seem to have been selected purely so that Tookey, the Daily Mail’s film critic, can trot out his own favourite, damning one-liners. It reminds you that film criticism generates more spleen, overstatement (“I’d rather die than watch this again” — really?) and personal invective than any other branch of the arts. It also reminds you how incisively funny the News of the World’s Robbie Collin is.

Finally, the picture books. Bond Girls and Bond Villains (Dorling Kindersley, £9.99 each) are dreadful bits of tat cobbled together by Alastair Dougall for the adolescent Christmas market.

Far more attractive is Marcus Hearn’s The Art of Hammer (Titan Books, £24.99), which beautifully reproduces the poster art of the British film studio — not just the iconic horrors but also the comedies and melodramas this low-budget powerhouse pumped out in its heyday.