Movie Greats: A Critical Study of Classic Cinema

Philip Gillett,
Movie Greats: A Critical Study of Classic Cinema.
Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2008
ISBN: 978 1 84520 653 6
US$29.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Berg Publishers)

Philip Gillett is obsessed with canons. He doesn’t like any of the existing ones. His ostensible intent in this book is to establish a fresh set of criteria by which to evaluate films for canonization. He proposes four criteria: a film should be absorbing enough to suspend time, offer a fresh take on the familiar, linger in the emotional memory, and affect the gut, not just the mind. But rather than use these criteria to argue for a new canon – his own “best” list is demurely presented in a single paragraph – he employs them in a systematic takedown of fourteen canonized or, he fears, soon-to-be-canonized films.

The problem, of course, for a subjective approach to evaluating films (or anything) is that an evaluation, to interest others, has to be objective. That is, the evaluator has to present a reasoned analysis demonstrating why you and I, not just he, should value the films that he values. Or, in Gillett’s case, since the thrust of the book is to persuade us why we should devalue the films he regards as overrated, the challenge is to make a case against them.

Gillett’s strategy for accomplishing this is to apply a common template for his examination of each overrated film. Each gets its own chapter, which in every case is organized into four sections: synopsis; cultural context; subjective impression; and analysis. “Cultural context” consists mainly in a summary of what reviewers thought of the film at the time and over time. “Subjective impression” recounts Gillett’s feelings as the film unfolds. “Analysis” seeks some semblance of a reasoned argument for Gillett’s subjective reaction.

This turns out to be a rather elaborate and clunky structure for what could be presented more pleasingly in a straightforward personal-essay approach to each film. And often, the divisions between criteria aren’t clear. Objective reasons for devaluing a film sometimes appear under subjective impressions; under analysis we sometimes find subjective impressions. And in the statement, “One pointer to obscurantism is the difficulty of trying to summarize what happened in the film” (p. 111), he straddles three criteria, analyzing his subjective difficulty writing a synopsis. Even when it functions well as an organizing device, the template seems like an elaborate and unnecessary disguise for Gillett’s personal dislikes.

In most cases, Gillett’s criticisms are unlikely to provoke much controversy. Yes, The Battleship Potemkin(Soviet Union 1925) suffers from its crudely political message. Yes, there is stylistic excess in The Night of the Hunter (USA 1955). Yes, the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life (USA 1946) is annoying. The central performances in Citizen Kane (USA 1941) and Lawrence of Arabia (UK 1962) are, yes, overbearing. But some of his criticisms set the bar awfully high: the main character in Modern Times (USA 1936) “makes no significant contribution to solving the world’s economic woes” (p. 52); Coppola, in The Godfather (USA 1972), “lacks the combination of objectivity with compassionate understanding found in … Robert Bresson or Ermanno Olmi” (p. 125). And he can be ungenerous – failing to see any depth to Wonderful Life’s Mary – or obtuse – missing that the significance of Rosebud is not as a key to Kane’s innermost soul, but that it is incinerated, rendering that soul ultimately unknowable to those peopling his cinematic world.

The one chapter in the book that might seriously raise eyebrows is on The 39 Steps (UK 1935), not for Gillett’s reasonable criticism of the film – essentially, that it is shallow – but rather for his use of this comparatively minor Hitchcock film to dismiss Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre. For Gillett, Hitchcock is “an interesting rather than a great film-maker … a marginal figure” (p. 43). This is a judgment I would have liked him to elaborate on. It would be interesting to read an attempt to dismantle the reputation of Rear Window (USA 1954), Shadow of a Doubt (USA 1943), or Vertigo (USA 1958) from someone as erudite as Gillett.

Gillett’s learning is employed not to expand the canon but to churn it, and he seems motivated, at heart, by a kind of redistributionist resentment. Early on, he suggests that “questioning the adulation given to the few might allow others to share the limelight” (p. 12). “The few,” however, exist as “the few” only in this book; the fourteen films comprising them are hardly representative (The 39 Steps for Hitchcock?) of any canon likely to enjoy widespread approval. Further, the adulation accorded to Gillett’s few occurred more in the past than it does in the present; their reputations already have been chipped away at many times over. And if the aim is to allow other films to share the limelight, why not direct some light on those other films, rather than nudge these few off-stage? When he derides Citizen Kane as “an elderly black and white film” (p. 20), Gillett sounds like a representative of an impatient younger generation trying to push the older one aside. In his preliminary discussion of what constitutes a classic, Gillett quotes Saint-Beuve’s elegant definition of classic as a work that is “’contemporary with every age’” (pp. 9-10). If Gillett’s verdict on Citizen Kane is correct – and on Saint-Beuve’s criterion it may well be – then why not present us with a rosy young new face instead of tracing the wrinkles on an obviously aging one? Why not let time take its course? Why the hurry?

D.B. Jones,
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Tuesday, 1 December 2009

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →