Every frame tells a story

Stanley Kubrick - Alfred Hitchcock - Federico Fellini - Billy Wilder
July 2, 2004

As befits a series of books dedicated to a visual art, it is the appearance of Taschen's four illustrated monographs on film directors that is most immediately striking. The quality of reproductions is nothing short of astounding for books of such a moderate price. And what pictures they are.

One might have thought that by now every image of such a picked-over life as that of Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, would have been reproduced ad nauseam, but here are plenty that I have never seen before.

And plenty means dozens: including photos of Hitchcock at work on the set of films as long ago as the silent The Ring (19) right up to his valedictory Family Plot in 1976; stills from movies throughout a lengthy and fecund career - including The Mountain Eagle (1926), of which nothing but stills remains, as all prints were lost; an almost complete set of shots of Hitchcock's cameo appearances in his own films; and such charming oddities as Hitch getting a haircut from Grace Kelly.

Other volumes boast similarly indefatigable and imaginative picture research. There is Fellini on the set of performing some sort of laboured press-up to show his actors the right way to bump and grind; Stanley Kubrick sprawled on the floor clutching a movie camera to get a spectacular shot of Malcolm McDowell wielding a gigantic prosthetic phallus in A Clockwork Orange ; and, echoing Hitchcock's chop, Kirk Douglas scissoring away at Billy Wilder's bald pate. Both directors must have needed a haircut about once a decade, but on hand was not only a star to perform the honours, but also a photographer to immortalise the event.

Throughout all four books - which devote more than half their pages to pictures - are liberal supplies of crisp, clean film stills. Directorial style obviously comprehends more than just photography, but here are some stunning examples of the compositional mannerisms of four outstanding 20th-century film directors.

Almost inevitably, the words - when one comes to read them - are something of a disappointment. Each volume contains the bare bones of a biography and then embarks on a film-by-film survey of each career, offering a plot summary but, in most instances, little beyond that. The texts are by and large tacitly auteurist: scarcely any mention is made of the hundreds of other men and women who contributed, in whatever degree, to these great men's films.

Fair enough: space is limited, and the emphasis on images has generated substantial rewards. But compression entails sacrifices, which some readers may feel comes close to throwing out the baby of essence along with the bathwater of extraneous detail. Also, for some of the authors, brevity is achieved only by falling back on a shorthand of cliche. Overused terms such as "iconic" and "seminal" crop up often, and "urbane" is unthinkingly coupled with "witty". Pauline Kael is described, as she so often is, as the "doyenne of film criticism" - a lazy borrowing of a stock formulation that obviates the need to assess her real importance.

Elsewhere, important byways go unexplored. In the Kubrick volume, the composers whose works eventually formed the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey are listed, but no mention is made of the original score commissioned from Alex North, recorded, paid for and then scrapped by a capricious Kubrick. In the same volume, the debate over the copycat violence in the wake of A Clockwork Orange that so exercised Kubrick is analysed so glibly that it might have been better omitted altogether.

Some readers will undoubtedly detect anomalies in the film plot summaries.

Hitchcock's masterly The Lady Vanishes is dismissed in a paragraph, whereas his Shadow of a Doubt - whose plotting has more leaks than a Whitehall department - is given a comparatively lengthy and uncritical thumbs-up.

A tendency to mythologise the subjects and overestimate their achievements surfaces from time to time. Hitchcock's side-view thus becomes "the most famous profile in the world". The depiction of a "vulture-like" press in Wilder's Ace in the Hole is deemed "decades ahead of its time": fine film though it is, it was preceded by open-eyed exposes of journalistic amorality in both His Girl Friday and Citizen Kane .

On the other hand, each volume comes up with nuggets that one wouldn't be without. Wilder seems to have been incapable of opening his mouth without something witty coming out: he claimed "the two ugliest words in the world are 'root canal' - with the possible exception of 'Hawaiian music'". And the deadpan sentence "Fellini's Casanova was a commercial failure everywhere in the world except Japan" made me laugh - although it probably shouldn't have.

All in all, these books are not the first port of call for a biography or life and works of each director. Taschen knows this, and has kitted out each volume with a decent bibliography. But if the texts are something I will refer to seldom, the books are nonetheless magnificent collections of images that warrant returning to time and again.

Christopher Wood is a freelance writer on film and music who regularly reviews film books for The Times .

Stanley Kubrick: The Complete Films

Author - Paul Duncan
Publisher - Taschen
Pages - 192
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 3 8228 1592 6

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