The deeper you immerse yourself into any subject, the more you discover you don’t know about that subject. I’ve been watching movies for most of my life and have occasionally picked up books about them, but such books were never a serious focus. During the past few years, I’ve been very aware that there’s so much about film that I don’t know. I’ve started reading more these past few years and this year I read several books on film. None of them were a waste of time and several of them were very good. I’d like to share with you my favorite books on movies I read in 2016 (although only a few of them were actually published in 2016).
B Noir Detour has a post called “Why I Will Never Have a Top List” and it’s a great post. I agree with the post, and while what appears below isn’t necessarily a “Top 10” or a “Best of” list, they’re simply the books I liked the most this year. As always, I hope you find something to try.
I would encourage you to see a much greater selection of newer books on film by going to the excellent blog Out of the Past, which features an extensive section on New & Upcoming Classic Film Books. It’s quite amazing.
The books contain their original publication date first. They are all available in trade paperback unless otherwise indicated. Books appear in alphabetical order by title:
Robert Altman: The Oral Biography (2009) Mitchell Zuckoff
Vintage, 576 pages
Rather than a traditional biography about Altman’s life, Zuckoff decided to interview Altman and the people who knew and worked with him, letting their memories and anecdotes speak for themselves. A non-traditional idea to be sure, but what was Altman but a non-traditional film director?
I’ll confess that I hadn’t seen many Altman films before reading (or listening to, in this case; it is an oral biography) this book, but since then I’ve seen two more and am getting ready for a third. Even if you’ve never seen any of his films, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography is essential reading for anyone interested in films of any kind.
The Art of Noir: The Posters and Graphics from the Classic Era of Film Noir (2014; original edition 2002) Eddie Muller
The Overlook Press, 338 pages
Muller has gathered an astonishing collection of film noir posters and graphics, showing how each studio and each country handled the marketing of these classics. Many of these posters are extremely rare and unless you’re a collector and have unlimited funds, this is going to be your best chance to see these glorious posters. As usual, Muller’s thoughts on these films are more than worth the price of admission.
Classics of the Silent Screen (1959; newer edition published in 1983) Joe Franklin
Hardcover, Carol Publishing Corporation, 254 pages
Wonderful book covering the silent era’s 50 greatest films and 75 greatest actors. My edition was published in 1959, so many of the people who made these films were still alive, which gives the book a unique, more intimate reflection by Franklin, who clearly loves, appreciates and understands silent film. I only wish a newer edition would come along, one that shows the availability of these films in various formats. Still, this is a great book for people like me who enjoy silent films and want to learn more about them.
Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era (2016) James Baldwin, Ron Miller
Hardcover, University Press of Kentucky, 440 pages
“I don’t like to disappoint people. Because he’s a completely made-up character and I’m playing a part. It’s a part I’ve been playing a long time, but no way am I really Cary Grant. A friend told me once, ‘I always wanted to be Cary Grant.’ And I said, ‘So did I.’” – Cary Grant
Journalists Baldwin and Miller had the great honor of interviewing many stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age before their passing, stars such as Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Joan Fontaine, Gloria Swanson, Margaret Hamilton, film noir queens Jane Greer, Audrey Totter, Marie Windsor, and many more. This book will certainly whet your appetite for more biographies about these stars. It’s a great place to start for people who might be overwhelmed by the number of movie star biographies.
Crime Movies: From Griffith to The Godfather and Beyond (1980; revised in 1997) Carlos Clarens
W.W. Norton & Co., 351 pages
Although this book was revised in 1997 (published by Da Capo Press) to include newer (at the time) films such as Pulp Fiction (1994), I jumped on the older version with no regrets. Of course crime movies began way before the classic period of film noir and Clarens traces their development from the earliest days of silent film, touching not only on the films themselves, but also on the history of crime culture.
Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir (2000) Arthur Lyons
Da Capo Press, 224 pages
Lyons’s book is informative and entertaining in equal measure. The film summaries alone (which are often hilarious in their plot twists) make the book a must-buy. Lyons has searched high and low for some excellent (and not-so excellent) film noir entries and gives us the lowdown on them all. Outstanding reference book with some great extras in the appendices. No film noir fan should be without it.
Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career (1995; this edition 2003) Edmund G. Bansak
McFarland & Company, 571 pages
What a tremendous book… Bansak examines not only the films Lewton produced during his short yet important career, but also his lasting influence on both film noir and horror movies. A must-read and an invaluable resource.
King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn (1967; this edition 2000) Bob Thomas
New Millennium Entertainment, 376 pages
It doesn’t take very long for the reader to become quite knowledgable about just what a tyrant Harry Cohn was, but the rest of the book provides valuable insight into what made Cohn brilliant, heading up Columbia Studios in the classic Hollywood era. Not only that, but the book is also an indispensable look inside Hollywood history.
The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II (1992; this edition 2002) Aljean Harmetz
Hyperion Books, 416 pages
This book was first released in 1992 under the title Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, etc., which I prefer. An excellent look at the planning, making, and cultural impact of a classic film that’s almost universally loved. Harmetz goes into great detail about how the the film was adapted from a play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s, how the screenplay was written (by seven different writers) and all of the “happy accidents” that made Casablanca happen.
The entire film really was a happy accident, although it wasn’t so happy for everyone involved. Ingrid Bergman was in the midst of an unhappy marriage; the film drove an enormous rift between studio head Jack Warner and producer Hal Wallis; “As Time Goes By” almost went goodbye; and the ending… Well, you’ll have to read the book for that. Yet the most fascinating aspects of the book have to do with how World War II affected the film, giving us a movie that – without the war – we probably wouldn’t be talking about today, at least not in the same way. Highly recommended.
Noir City Annuals – Film Noir Foundation
Film Noir Foundation, approx. 250 pages each
I’ve said it before, but if you’re a fan of film noir and aren’t a subscriber to the Noir City e-magazine, you should be. It only costs $20 a year and you get the e-mag delivered quarterly to your inbox. It’s filled with outstanding writing by some of the best writers you’ll find and superb graphic design by Michael Krononberg. I get the e-magazine, but still want to pick up every copy of the Noir City annuals that I can. They’re printed versions of the “Best of” the e-magazine, so while you’re not getting all the articles and art from that year, you’re getting some spectacular stuff. These are hot items and they sell out quickly, so go straight to the Noir City website or possibly try Amazon or eBay.
A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies (2016) Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph
Hardcover, University Press of Mississippi, 240 pages
This look at film collectors and their bizarre collecting habits is just part of what makes A Thousand Cuts such a compelling read. The book also has a lot to say about film preservation, digital movies, and what could be the loss of a number of rare films we may never see again. If you care at all about film, you’ll want to read this book.
I also read several other books on movies, in no particular order:
How to Watch a Movie – David Thomson
San Francisco Noir – Nathaniel Rich
A-Z Film Directors – Andy Tuohy, Matt Glasby
The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend – Glenn Frankel
Video Tonfa – Tim Goodyear
Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning – Kirk Douglas
Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece – Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar
Masters of Menace: Greenstreet and Lorre – Ted Sennett