Five Best Books on Movies


By Lillian Ross (1952)

It never had been done before: a small, 30-ish journalist asked if she could watch a movie being made—”The Red Badge of Courage,” by John Huston, out of Stephen Crane, with Audie Murphy as the boy tested on the Civil War battlefield. Apparently no one noticed her. So Lillian Ross sat in a corner, or under a tree, and wrote down all she heard. The result is a record not just of the easy-come, easy-go Huston, yarning his way through mishaps, but also of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer about to crumble. So we hear how Louis B. Mayer talked (“I need money the way you need a headache!”), and we see the paranoia in a studio undermining a brave venture while the executives try to sound like Medici gangsters crossed with philosopher kings. More than 50 years later Ross’s “Picture” remains the model for observing the movie business and letting its people convict themselves with their own melodramatic talk. “The Red Badge of Courage” was not a good film, but the book sings.

The Citizen Kane Book

By Pauline Kael (1971)

It’s clear in “The Citizen Kane Book” that Pauline Kael meant to put the knife into Orson Welles and deflate what she regarded as an overrated film. So she set out to show how screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz had been cheated of proper praise and credit. Kael printed a draft script and the movie’s final cutting-continuity instructions—both revelatory of Mankiewicz’s vital role in forming the movie—along with an extended essay on the importance of smart, cynical writers in the 1930s and on the jazzy élan of America’s best talking pictures. The book is unfair but riveting, and it had the effect of drawing attention to the uncanny genius of Welles and his movie, helping to establish it as the all-time champion in critics’ polls. Scripts don’t often read well, but “Citizen Kane” is an exception. The book, in addition to showing us how unkind Kael could be in her exhilaration, was the closest she came to publishing a full-length study, as opposed to her collected reviews.

Final Cut

By Steven Bach (1985)

In 1981, Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” opened in theaters—and closed down its studio, United Artists. This was a tragedy, but traditional Hollywood studios were doomed anyway. The picture cost too much, it went too far into the wilds of Wyoming, it cast a French actress no one had heard of (Isabelle Huppert!), and it was the Waterloo of the auteur theory—Cimino had been permitted to do nearly anything he could think of. What makes “Final Cut” so rueful and readable is that Steven Bach was at the time a top executive at United Artists—one who was fired in the “Heaven’s Gate” aftermath. In the book he is also a dry, funny, very smart writer who pulls no punches and gives a controlled portrait of how things spun out of control. “Final Cut” is also a book about professional vulnerability in status-obsessed Hollywood, where Cimino (the “genius” from “The Deer Hunter”) has long been consigned to oblivion. Here’s the kicker: More and more viewers now realize that “Heaven’s Gate” is pretty good!


By Antonia Quirke (2002)


This short book is one in a series of British Film Institute publications on particular films written by Antonia Quirke, one of the sharpest young film writers in Britain. Her “Jaws” essay omits some valuable detail (like the way Lew Wasserman changed the business in his marketing of the movie). But Quirke loves the dottiness of the film and, as she describes the strenuous ordeal of its making, she comes to the luminous conclusion that “Jaws” has “sheer exhilaration at lacking an agenda or a subject in any classical dramatic sense. The film is sometimes nothing more than a dance to music. Steven Spielberg never meant anything really. But neither did Fred Astaire.”

Round Up the Usual Suspects

By Aljean Harmetz (1992)

Aljean Harmetz is one of the best Hollywood reporters we have ever had, a good writer and someone who knows how pictures are made. So she set out in “Round Up the Usual Suspects” to describe the history of “Casablanca”—how it was written and cast, what it cost, how it opened—and why it survived. Everyone has heard stories about “Casablanca,” and as Harmetz shows, most of them are half-true. Above all, the book is a tribute to the Warner Bros. studio, working at the top of its game, at a time—during World War II—when Hollywood had total confidence. That’s how a piece of fluff and cigarette smoke turned into the world’s favorite picture and left us feeling we must remember this. Harmetz’s “suspects” include not just Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman but also a crazy director, Michael Curtiz, a supporting cast of Peter Lorre, Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet, writers who worked like spies on the ever-evolving script, and a superb boss, Hal Wallis.

Mr. Thomson is the author of “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” recently published in its fifth edition.


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