It is only fair that the author of a book which categorises fifty years of films should give some account of his own prejudices. I have spent more than fifty years seeing, talking about and writing about films, so my affection for the medium in its ‘golden age’ can hardly be doubted. Even then, however, the worthwhile movies were the tip of the iceberg: probably eighty percent of what was produced was ghastly rubbish, which is why this book deals with ten thousand movies, not all of them good, out of a total output of four times that number. The best kind of film buff loves the movie business for what it can be at its best, not for its journeyman ‘B’ features, its crackpot experiments, its cheapjack exploitation screamies or those relentlessly boring bottom-of-the-bill fillers.
Jonathan Swift said in 1725: ‘I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth.’ This book encapsulates my Johns, my Peters and my Thomases; this essay complains bitterly that they lately have been so few in number, and attempts, admittedly by some slight use of exaggeration, to throw light on a confused and unhappy segment of cinema history.
When Sam Peckinpah made Straw Dogs from a novel called The Siege of Trencher’s Farm he thought it unnecessary to explain to his audience the significance of his new title which, his publicists informed us on request, was taken from an old Chinese proverb*. And when Stanley Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange he did not bother to retain the section of the Anthony Burgess novel which explained why it was so called. These almost identical incidents exemplify the kind of arrogance which besets film-makers in the seventies. Steeped in the history of Hollywood’s golden age, they have no idea what made it work so well, and as soon as they become successful they begin to despise their audiences and are concerned only to over-spend enormous budgets while putting across some garbled self-satisfying message which is usually anti-establishment, anti-law-and-order and anti-entertainment.
In this they are assisted by such long-haired publications as Sight and Sound and a variety of earnest critics who bend over backwards to see ‘significance’ where none exists and to ascribe all the film’s virtues and faults to the director, or in the current jargon the auteur. (Would any theatrical critic dream of judging a play solely on the director’s contribution, or a literary critic of reviewing a book solely on the basis of its layout on the printed page?) If cinema, which is the creation of so many people, can be an art at all, it must be a folk art which appeals to innocent and sophisticate alike, and can be easily appreciated by both. This happy state of affairs was reached thirty-five years ago by unpretentious and slick productions of the studio system such as The Maltese Falcon and Stagecoach, which used every camera trick in the book without blinding the audience to the characters and the plot. Nowadays one has to fight one’s way through the thick showy surface in order to get to a story which all too often is not worth following.
One problem is that modern films are largely made by people with no sense of humour, people who do not realize that they must please the mass audience if the industry in which they work is to survive. Old-time screenwriters such as Ben Hecht, Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti would no doubt be viewed by these young men as cynical hacks, but at least they took pains to please their audience with all the expertise at their command, and they still expressed their own view in a vein of sardonic humour which ran through most of the scripts of the thirties and forties and was there to please and satisfy the minority of film-goers who sought it out.
The absurd pretensions of some modern film-makers certainly cause amusement wherever sensible people congregate, but the advocates of sanity are in no position to have the last word. The present set-up of the film industry encourages wilder and wickeder sensations, from homicidal sharks to diabolical babies, as these are the only subjects which lure large audiences. The successes, however, are all one-offs: no one is much interested in sequels**, preferring to wait for horrors of some other variety. The result is that only one film in twenty or thirty makes a profit, but the custodians of the cash have no option but to go on investing in the hope that the occasional fluke will make a fortune, which will then be quickly dissipated by a string of failures. Universal’s phenomenally successful Jaws, for instance, was immediately followed by such commercial duds as Gable and Lombard, W. C. Fields and Me, The Great Waldo Pepper and The Hindenburg, and the studio is still looking for another hit. The sad fact is that no policy can be devised because the people in charge of the money have no idea what is likely to appeal, and they are forced to put their faith in reputedly brilliant directors who have no idea either but are quite prepared to spend large sums of other people’s money in flying their own flimsy kites. The flimsiness is sometimes astonishing. The director of an abysmal 1976 comedy called Harry and Walter go to New York announced to the press, as a selling point, that it was ‘Laurel and Hardy with real people.’ Had he inquired of his mass audience, he would surely have been told that Stan and Ollie had more reality in their little fingers than was to be found in the entire crew of Harry and Walter go to New York, whether before or behind the camera.
One should of course add that many films these days are not supposed to make money. The adage which used to run ‘you’re only as good as your last picture’ has been changed to ‘you’re only as big as your last budget’, and it is no trick to get a big budget when many films are conceived by industrialists as tax losses: all you have to do is get in the news by holding outlandish views or even making pornography, and Hollywood these days opens its doors to you because at least you must have learnt how to point a camera or arrest public attention. The ones to suffer are the audiences, who have foisted upon them material which they have every right to expect to be professional, and which all too often is not, just the result of untalented exhibitionists spending someone else’s money in whatever way happens to divert them most. Even if there is a profit, their habit is to take the money and run, not to invest it in better production facilities as used to happen in the good old days.
Work is thus produced for a small group of jet-setters; meanwhile that patient paying audience discovers that not only the films but the standards of physical cinema comfort are far worse than they were thirty years ago; since then the cost of admission has risen at a phenomenal rate, the average cost in Britain now being twenty times more than in 1956. What other commodity has risen in price to this extent? Television is infinitely cheaper and can be viewed in the comfort of one’s home: no wonder so many people prefer it.
So the movie industry hastens on its way to perdition and catastrophe, a fate which surely cannot be delayed more than another few years, and for which simple-minded greed, lack of foresight and a large measure of incompetence are chiefly responsible. Those of us who are old enough and who still care about the movies sigh frequently for the halcyon days when Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer sat in their front offices, for their intellectual limitations were far less harmful and sometimes far more stimulating to the medium than the excesses of the present incumbents, who seldom stay long enough to make their presences felt and certainly not long enough for any sense of continuity to develop. There is for instance no continuity of employment, which makes the unions tougher and tougher to deal with in an industry which was always volatile in its labour relations: every film is a fresh project for which there is no bank of trained talent to fall back on. As Billy Wilder said, you spend eighty percent of your time making deals and twenty percent making pictures. The old moguls had enough common sense and business acumen to keep the system working so that costs were comparatively low and one could afford the occasional interesting failure to please the intellectuals.
How did the movie world go so wrong? You can trace it to the restlessness after World War II, when the regular audience declined and television was a coming threat and the bosses knew that new trends had to be found but no one knew what they might be in a glum and depressed world. When actors began to want a say in production and seemed willing to risk their own money, the bosses were delighted to share the possible losses; instead they found themselves being eased out and their profits halved, their studios no longer vast employment centres with a constant production line but simply enclosed space and facilities which could be rented out to the highest bidder.
The old moguls were getting older and couldn’t fight the developing situation; the new young ones were businessmen who often backed the wrong horse because they didn’t understand the industry. Meanwhile the old showmen had one last irrelevant fling. If television was the enemy, they reasoned, then give the paying public what television cannot provide. Technology now allowed films to be shot on real locations, which was splendid but had two handicaps. First, the units were away from central control for a long time, and the costs were phenomenal; second, the magic was lost, for the real Paris was by no means so romantic or mysterious as Paramount’s backlot which had served Paris for so many years, nor could the lighting of it be so carefully controlled. The new realistic films were slower, because the travel costs had to be justified and the travelogue largely took the place of drama. (Did anyone complain about the lack of shots of San Francisco in The Maltese Falcon?)
The other way to combat television was to change the shape and effect of the entertainment screen. 3-D was tried, but audiences hated wearing Polaroid glasses in order to get a three-dimensional image which producers largely utilised by hurling knives, tennis balls, spiders and even grubby redskins into the audience’s lap: this was fairground stuff. Cinemascope was then seized upon by Hollywood: twice as wide as the ordinary image and capable of the most spectacular effects. There is no record that the paying audience ever especially liked Cinemascope, or could even remember whether or not a film was in the process, but once the expensive equipment was installed in theatres there was no turning back. Unfortunately the technique involved a reversion in many cinematic effects to the days of D. W. Griffith. The compression of the wide image on to film and its subsequent expansion in the projector made the photography grainy, especially in black and white, which was henceforth virtually abandoned. (At about the same time a transference to safety stock lost us the glamorous luminescent ‘Feel’ which had been possible with nitrate and which can still be seen in old prints.) The new shape was impossible to compose for; as Fritz Lang said, it was fine for funerals, but what painter through the ages had ever selected it unless to cut up into a triptych? Editing was cut to a minimum because on an image so large each cut made the audience jump. Instead, and cheaper, the camera stayed still while the cast roved around the empty spaces in front of it, and there was an absurd number of shots in which the leading actors reclined so as better to fit the frame. Close-ups and subtle nuances were forgotten: no longer did the camera direct you to the drama, you had to look around and find it yourself. It is rather astonishing that directors with an eye to their reputations still persists in using the scope format, for after initial release the future of any film these days is on television, and no scope film will satisfactorily adapt to the TV screen.
In many cinemas Cinemascope was even a fraud, for it had to be on a screen smaller in area than the old image, which was now being referred to sneeringly as ‘postage stamp’. This happened when the old screen had already occupied all the width allowed by the cinema’s structure: to get the Cinemascope shape, if you could not go any wider, height had to be sacrificed, and audiences wondered why suddenly they were looking at a ribbon of picture across the middle of the space which the fine old screen had occupied.
Cinemascope was patented by Fox, so the other companies all hastened to produce their own variations: Warnerscope, Metroscope, Techniscope, Superscope, Megascope, Camerascope, Panavision, each with its own cheap colour process. Projectionists all over the world were confused by these new names, and seldom knew whether they were projecting a film as they were supposed to. The results were often truly appalling, with lack of focus, too much brightness and wrong screen masking among the most common faults. Paramount’s Vistavision, a non-anamorphic process, used the full frame ration but was intended for projection at anything between 1.33:1 and 2:1, so that the essential action had to take place in a strip along the centre of the picture; consequently, to see a Vistavision print on a 1.33:1 screen was painful indeed, as all the action seemed to take place in the middle distance with great areas of unused space at the top and bottom of the image, and composition, which any painter knows to be all-important, was no longer possible. By the mid-fifties, however, 1.33:1 was no longer generally available, as ‘wide screen’ had become de rigueur even for non-anamorphic films: these cut off the top and bottom of the frame and magnified the rest. This meant that revivals were impossible unless one was prepared to suffer dancers without feet and actors without heads!
The result of all this technical uncertainty was that by the mid-fifties movies were in danger of becoming mere expensive sideshows, uninteresting to anyone of sensitivity. At the same time, an element of sophistication crept away from the popular arts: whereas in the thirties and forties smooth and educated idols had been set up for general approbation, the fifties and sixties showed an alarming tendency not merely to make heroes of ‘people like us’ but to rub our noses firmly in the gutter by devising stories whose leading characters had few redeeming features. Censorship had been absurdly tight and must obviously relax, but it was unwise and unexpected that the floodgates should open as they did, to admit movies which would previously have been considered anti-social rubbish. It was right, for instance, for Otto Preminger to fight the idiocies of the Production Code with his The Moon Is Blue and The Man with the Golden Arm, but it was a pity he won his battle with a leaden piece of schoolboy smut and an absurdly melodramatic updating of The Road to Ruin***. Such films simply made one yearn to go back to the days of Trouble in Paradise and The Palm Beach Story, or for the true social concern expressed in the considered, powerful and moving masterpieces of Frank Capra, John Ford, or the early Chaplin.
The talents which had made Hollywood great were certainly nearing retirement by now, but it was perhaps unwise as well as churlish for the new wave to pension them off quite as hurriedly as they did, because there was no comparable talent to take their place. Great art directors like Anton Grot and Hans Dreier, great cameramen like Arthur Miller and James Wong Howe, great directors like Michael Curtiz and William Dieterle were either tossed aside or forced to work on material totally unsuited to their talents and not at all comparable to the films which had made their names. The results were big-budget disasters such as The Egyptian and Omar Khayyam; meanwhile the young directors were copying low-budget television techniques which for every Marty produced a dozen flatly realistic bores.
By the early sixties Hollywood had decided on a new image, but it had lost its old loyalties – the golden age audiences as well as the talents were getting older – and had to appeal deliberately to the ‘emancipated’ young generation. This meant a virtual abolition of censorship, and from the release of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In 1966 to that of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Devil in Miss Jones ten years later is but a short step. The film is no longer an art, or even a craft: after a brief ‘swinging’ period it became an exploitation industry designed to take quick money from suckers, led by maverick Ken Russells rather than conscientious Irving Thalbergs, to plaudits from irresponsible critics whenever some totally untalented new director ‘does his thing’. There is no justification except box office for films like The Exorcist or Mandingo, none except self-indulgence for a $12 million coffee-table film like Barry Lyndon, while the popularity even in sophisticated circles of shoddy pornography like Deep Throat and Death Weekend should stand as an awful warning to the leasers of our society that a vivid young art form has overreached itself and is well and truly on the verge of disaster. It is all very well to say in defence of such films that large numbers of people flock to see them: so they did once bear-bating and public executions and witch hunts, but the human race long ago prided itself on having passed that stage.
The movies will be lucky if, in their search for sensationalism, they do not check themselves out altogether. Audiences have dwindled rapidly and are still dwindling; so is the number of cinemas. The lush old two-thousand seaters have turned into supermarkets, and instead each city has its ineptly-run boxes of mini-cinemas, the effect of which is rather like sitting in cheaply decorated funeral parlours and paying through the nose for the privilege. The family outing to the cinema is a thing of the past: few families can afford it or can find a suitable film, except once or twice a year when the Disney organization stirs itself; and their standards are by no means as high as they were, as a comparison of Robin Hood with Bambi or Pinocchio will immediately show. (The fact that such an uninventive computerised cartoon as Robin Hood can do well at the box office is an instance of how starved the public is for the older, gentler forms of entertainment.)
Another problem besetting the cinema in the sixties was its adoption by verbose and pompous critics who were determined to turn it into serious art. True art is the work of one man, or at least his personal vision; each film is the work of several hundred people. Of these, admittedly the director has the most control, but to assign to him the role of auteur and to ignore the contribution of producer, writer, photographer, composer and editor is arrant nonsense, except possibly in the cases of such as Hitchcock and Kubrick who do control almost every aspect of their output. The new cinema journalism simply encouraged the worst motives of the new breed of film-maker, who came to know that whatever idiocy he perpetrated would be staunchly defended, researched and psychoanalysed by one of these mercenaries in search of a cause. If a character spat on the pavement this would be taken as his final shedding of his working-class upbringing; if he went to bed with a girl it would symbolise his treachery to his own beliefs and his giving in to the snares of Mammon. Listen to a modern critic in the British Film Institute’s Monthly Film Bulletin, once a terse and reliable guide to film trends, on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: ‘What Scorsese has done, however is to rescue an American cliché from the bland, flat but much more portentous naturalism of such as Harry and Tonto and restore it to an emotional and intellectual complexity through his particular brand of baroque realism.’ Or on Rafelson’s Stay Hungry: ‘What distinguishes him from other film-makers of the “head” generation is both the poetic sureness of his fragmentary, allusive style, and the elliptical observation which prevents his social themes from being spiked too easily on the cultural antithesis of that bygone era.’ Spare us.
Some of the elements missing from modern cinema are to be found in television, certainly in the UK with its brilliant documentaries, sharp comedies, serious art programmes and single plays; Americans are less lucky except on their public broadcasting system. But television is a private enjoyment, and one inevitably misses the sense of comradeship, of sharing a pleasure, that the cinema used to fulfill. Who having experienced them can forget the feeling of a full house being pleasurably chilled by The Cat and the Canary, or rolling in the aisles at Laurel and Hardy, or hoping against hope that Colman will find his Lost Horizon? What modern films can produce the sheer entertainment value and unforgettable, vivid scenes of such as The Philadelphia Story, Stagecoach, Rebecca, Camille, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain, A Night at the Opera, The Lady Vanishes, and The Third Man? These were all intelligent films, all made for the despised mass audience, and they all made money because they were produced with impeccably professionalism and star talent, and because to these qualities they added heart and good humour. Where is the good humour in Jaws? Where is the heart in The Exorcist? These are rides on fairground ghost trains: one pays for the thrill, but one comes out more depressed than uplifted.
Of course there are some genuine talents at work in films today. One respects the likes of Jack Nicholson and Ellen Burstyn and Al Pacino and Glenda Jackson, but they are all depressingly committed to their own self-expression and to the depiction of mankind with warts and all, not to pleasing, stimulating or improving the public. The need control; but where are the likes of Lubitsch to control them? Of Sturges? Of Ben Hecht? Of James Whale? Of Donald Ogden Stewart? Of S. J. Perelman? Of Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker? The films produced by Altman and Scorsese and Ashby are doubtless stimulating in their violent, abrasive way but they are not the whole of life. David Lean and John Schlesinger and Arthur Penn are meticulous craftsmen, but they are driven by commerce into the excesses of Ryan’s Daughter and Marathon Man and The Missouri Breaks. In the acting league, where are our up-and-coming replacements for David Niven, Cary Grant, Melvyn Douglas, Katharine Hepburn, Ronald Colman? When again will it be the turn of grace and elegance? When indeed will actors want to work? Steve McQueen and Elizabeth Taylor and their like prefer to demand an impossibly high fee, and if they do not get it to sit comfortably at home on the proceeds of their previous hits.
Hollywood at its best – and for Hollywood also read Ealing and Tobis Klangfilm and Svenske Filmindustri – was the purveyor of an expensive and elegant craft which at times touched art, though seldom throughout a whole film. Reality was seldom sought, but why should it be? Real life is not dramatic anyway: even Taxi Driver is heightening, a selection, an emphasis. So are all the great realist films from The Battleship Potemkin to The Grapes of Wrath. And so are the great works of Beethoven, of Rembrandt, of Michelangelo. Film stands to live as poetry to prose, and its comments were at their most apt and stylish when movies were confined to the sound stage and the backlot. Freedom from that confinement has not made them any better: it has only made them diffuse and patchy and overlong, and colour has made things worse because it apes reality whereas black and white conjured up its own mood and its own comment. Today’s screens are too large for the eye to take in. Sound tracks are so ‘realistic’ as to be incoherent. Big budgets are wasted on movies which would have been ten times as effective if a little imagination had been used or required. Kaleidoscopic effects dazzle the eye and befuddle the brain; immensely long pre-credits sequences make one think the film is nearly over before it actually starts; characterisation flies out the window because sex and violence must be fitted in somehow. Plot doesn’t matter: since swinging London was invented every film has become a ‘happening’: which is another way of saying that anything goes and lack of professionalism cannot be criticised.
All right, this essay is a deliberate hatchet job by a disappointed fan who has turned devil’s advocate. Some of the new films clearly have virtues which the old ones didn’t possess: one is grateful for The Graduate and Charlie Bubbles and Cabaret and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which for various reasons could never have been made in the old Hollywood. But if my thesis were not largely true, how would one explain the enormous popularity of old movies on television, or the recent deluge of books about them? Why, out of more than sixty films on British television over the Christmas of 1976, were White Heat (1948), A Night at the Opera (1935), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) the most discussed and appreciated? Nostalgia is only a trendy word to describe something which people have at last learned to appreciate because it has been taken away from them. No one in his right mind would be nostalgic for PRC second features or for much of the pure assembly line product which inevitably poured out of the studios when they were working at full pitch. And one must progress. But surely not to the wasteful ineptitude which confronts us at the cinema these days. Not to Lucky Lady, Mother Jugs and Speed, At Long Last Love or Harry and Walter go to New York. Must modern audiences really put up with inane or violent rubbish and appear to enjoy it simply because the are supposed not to know any better? We may not be able to get the golden age back, but we can cry for it. If ‘they’ fail to respond we can at least appreciate the best of it, and learn from that best. This book, I hope, may help a few people to do that.
Postscript (January, 1985)
The preceding was written seven years ago, but it seems to have dated in very few respects save that the prophesied decline has been a longer and more complex business than any of us imagined, the advent of such new outlets as cable and video having put back the evil day. Certainly the old pleasures of a family visit to the cinema are experienced now by almost nobody, partly because admission prices continue to skyrocket and partly because the films themselves are totally unsuitable. Thirty years ago, more than half the films on release had ‘U’ certificates, with a mere handful of titles labeled ‘Adults Only’. Now the boot is on the other foot: the vast majority of movies are for people aged fifteen and over, and when very occasionally a ‘U’ film happens along, it does no business because the potential audience thinks it must be bland beyond belief.
During the same period the number of British cinemas has dwindled to a twentieth of what it was, and few indeed of those remaining make a healthy profit. This decline is more marked in Britain than anywhere else in the world, but it is scarcely surprising in a period when the cost of a reasonable seat has risen from 10 or 15p to a suburban average of £2.70 and a West End top of £4.70; this to sit in boxlike tripled or quadrupled cinemas which are uncomfortable and badly run, often with poor sound and picture quality, while the audience endures tedious advertisements and extended intervals in place of the brisk supporting programmes which some of us still remember. In some other parts of the world, probably those with more isolated communities and less varied and attractive television service, it appears that there is still a sufficiently considerable cinema audience, though it stays more or less within the age range of 16 and 24 years old, but it does seem that those who would prefer something less excessive are prepared to patronize the cinema only in its less commercially viable art forms.
Producers with little sense of history have proved more than willing to go on spending other people’s money in increasingly large amounts, and it has become clear that the best this process is likely to throw up is a couple of prestige pictures a year plus half a dozen blockbuster adventures at the level of the old newspaper comic strips. This is perhaps the most astonishing development of all. Adults thirty years ago might possibly have enjoyed E.T., as they enjoyed The Wizard of Oz, but can you imagine them willingly sitting through Star Wars, Ghostbusters or Gremlins? I am not denying that when one is in the mood for something very easy these films can provide a modicum of simple enjoyment, but by and large they are hokum entertainments by and for the untrained mind, and I think one should feel just a little ashamed of submitting to them at a time when a once-great art is providing nothing more stimulating.
One way or another, the end of the cinema has been staved off for another indefinite while. British Film Year is unlikely to have much influence one way or the other. Critics and audience will continue to grit their teeth through expensive flops like Heaven’s Gate, Give My Regards to Broad Street and Dune for the sake of the occasional product of a superior mind: Gandhi or Chariots of Fire or A Passage to India. How long a glamour industry can go on surviving by the skin of its teeth is obviously unsafe to predict, but in the end it is the exhibitors who will call the tune. Now beset by a greater-than-ever emphasis on home entertainment, with even the newest attractions almost simultaneously available on video, they must surely continue to close their empty halls at an even greater rate than has been recently evident; and without cinemas in which films can be seen there will eventually be no way in which producers can get their money back on big-budget enterprises. That may not be entirely a bad thing, for perhaps before too long we may see a return to wit, charm and expertise in place of the mounting excesses of the last quarter-century.
PPS (January, 1987)
Two years later it seems unnecessary to update the above beyond noting an increasing break-even rate for independent films low of budget and high of brow, made specifically for a quick cinema release followed by ‘minority’ TV exposure. One might wish only that a greater proportion of these hybrids showed some optimism for our ailing society instead of wallowing in its lunatic shallows. Commercially, as a mass-entertainment, the cinema still needs a saviour.****