May 2003

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
(Alfred A. Knopf, 1088 pages, $35)
By David Thomson

"In the Introduction to this fourth edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson admits that "the reckless kid who once knew the dates of many films by heart, and their trivia, now needs to look such things up — and to remember not to use his own book for that task."

If that is a warning for readers to double-check facts elsewhere, fair enough. But even if one were to read all 1,300 entries, it would be impossible to verify every word as many of Thomson's selections are not readily accessible. If there are easily correctible errors or bizarre takes (describing the 6' 1" inch actor Bela Lugosi, as "small?"), they are no worse than those found in similar research tomes, including Ephraim Katz's venerable Film Encyclopedia. Welcome to the tricky world of film history.

Stating at the outset that he is uncomfortable with the new title of "the" rather than "a" biographical dictionary, Thomson encourages his readers to compose their own responses. He certainly smashes some icons. Of John Ford he writes, "No one has done so much to invalidate the Western as a form." He calls Ford "bigoted and maudlin" and deems the "visual poetry so often attributed to [him] ... claptrap in that it amounts to the prettification of a lie." He won't grant Alfred Hitchcock unblinking awe and (rightly) credits David O. Selznick (of whom Thomson wrote a biography) for teaching Hitch "plausibility and character."

On the other hand, Thomson's nod to under-appreciated directors such as Mitchell Leisen, whom he calls "a minor master," is heartening. (Don't miss a chance to see Leisen's Remember the Night, 1940 — "arguably the most human love story Preston Sturges ever wrote.")

Thomson can nail an actor with a deft phrase (James Mason "brought a unique sensuality to polite arrogance") or jog our memories of a picture by giving us some of its lines. Whenever a film is mentioned in any category, its director is always cited — occasionally with a short comment on how well the job was done. Some entries are brief; others like the thoughtful essay on Steven Spielberg, go on for pages.

Thomson confesses that he feels "less in love with movies ... than at any other time in [his] life" — especially when he eyes the newer crops. (On his Acknowledgments page, he includes the favorite films of each person he thanks, as well as three of his own; few recent titles are among them.) However, directors such as Carl Franklin and M. Night Shyamalan seem to give him hope.

Thomson is witty, subjective, opinionated, contradictory, instructive, gossipy — and fun, à la Pauline Kael, baiting filmmakers to do better and readers to dialogue (you are always saying something to him, yea or nay, under your breath). The Dictionary is nothing if not stimulating and as a reference, no matter how irreverent, it's invaluable.

Review written by Lisa Mitchell


The best of new publications by, for, and about directors, their teams and the industry.

More from this topic