Thursday, 16 September 2010

[384] David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema

The Sense charity shop on Walworth Road is usually home to yellowing copies of Aquaman and dusty old vacuum cleaners, but the other week I spotted this in the window.


A copy of David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema. The first edition, in fact, from 1975. It's a mighty 600-page tome, structured like an objective, alphabetical resource - but phrased with wit and critical specificity. When I was at Sight & Sound, it was voted one of the top five most influential film books. Author Geoff Dyer dedicated his five slots to the Dictionary and its subsequent, re-jigged editions (from 1981, 1994, 2002, and another this year), saying :

I’m sure some future scholar will produce an admirable thesis comparing the changes in – and evolution of – what has come to be, along with everything else, a vicarious and incremental autobiography. In that context, even Thomson’s diminishing interest in cinema – or current cinema at any rate – becomes a source of fascination. The Dictionary is not only an indispensable book about cinema, but one of the most absurdly ambitious literary achievements of our time. It deserves a shelf to itself.

Well, as I only have this one edition, I'm stuck with merely an 'indispensable book about cinema'. It set me back £1.85. Madness. I thought I'd root through it and pick out a relevant entry to post here - and of course my first choice was Woody Allen. By 1975, he'd released a handful of his 'earlier, funnier' movies (Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death), and was only 2 years away from Annie Hall. Thomson's not interested in him at this point.

Tomorrow I'm going to a press screening of From Here to Eternity, released in reprinted form by Park Circus. I haven't seen the film before, but it stars one of my favourite actresses, Deborah Kerr. I looked her up in the Dictionary, and was a little disappointed to see Thomson gloss over her roles in Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus - two classic films of British cinema. He takes a keen interest in Eternity, though, opening the entry with this knotted, cheeky paragraph:

The story goes that the turning point of Deborah Kerr's career came when she was cast, against all expectation, as the lusting wife in From Here To Eternity. This meant an energetic roll on the beach with Burt Lancaster, but it still left a rather more restrained woman than James Jones [the source novel's author] had intended. She also suggested that the American army in Honolulu was incongruously comforted by memsahibs. Deborah Kerr was then, has always been and still is true blue.

Memsahib isn't even in the spell-check dictionary for Blogger. This is going to be fun.

More on From Here To Eternity later.

1 comment:

James Clayton said...

Incredible! It's fascinating how reputations and value of things change over time and film seems to go through those transitions and reappraisals rapidly. I look forward to reading about some of the really striking findings.

For under £2 as well - amazing!