The Canon: A Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson

July 8, 2010

When A Biographical Dictionary of Film was first published in 1975, critical reaction ranged from delight to outrage, often within the same review. Describing it in Sight and Sound as "the sort of book which infuriates as often as it pleases", David Badder commended David Thomson for writing "economically and entertainingly", but was "horrified to read an unconvincing and unrelenting diatribe on John Ford". It was Thomson's views on Ford, at that time a near-sacrosanct figure who had died only two years previously, that aroused the most ire among reviewers.

The assault on Ford pulled not a single punch. "I must confess to being daunted", wrote Thomson, "by the booze mythology of complacency and sentimentality in Ford's films. No one has done so much to invalidate the Western as a form." Further damning the director as "bigoted, grandiloquent and maudlin", he added: "The Ford philosophy is a rambling apologia for unthinking violence later disguised by the sham legends of old men fuddled by drink and glory", and by way of a final kick in the guts, compared him to Leni Riefenstahl.

The gleefully opinionated Thomson demolished the most eminent reputations. Stanley Kubrick's work was "devoid of artistic personality", his style "meretricious, fussy and detachable"; Abel Gance was "an unabashed wallower in trite feelings"; David Lean had "the same hollowed-out creative character as an executive in public service broadcasting"; in Sergei Eisenstein's films "the argument ... is often foolish and, ultimately, inhumane".

Actors, on the whole, got off more lightly, though even those Thomson liked often felt the lash of his caustic style: Victor Mature was "an incredible concoction of corned beef, husky voice and brilliantine". But Thomson could enthuse, too, even to excess: Cary Grant was roundly hailed as "the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema". His susceptibility to feminine charm has occasionally lured him into sentimentality: "Audrey (Hepburn) - in eyes, voice and purity - rang as true as a small silver bell."

But then all Thomson's judgements, whether pro or con, are intended to provoke. In his introduction to the first edition, he hoped that the reader would be "jostled by agreement or scorn. He will begin to exercise his own critical faculties, answer back, throw down the book in exasperation." This was the book's value: that it encouraged those of us venturing into serious appreciation of cinema to question received opinions, reconsider our own assumptions, seek out neglected or dismissed figures and revisit often-seen films with fresh eyes.

Now into its fourth edition, much expanded, with the word "New" added to the title, the Biographical Dictionary remains as stimulating and infuriating as ever. Thomson has scarcely mellowed; although his opinion of Robert Altman improved radically between the first and second editions, his aversion to Ford has only deepened. He can still be malicious, skewering "the itchy mannerisms that pass for acting in (Hugh) Grant", or mischievous: "I always have the urge to reach out and tickle Gabriel Byrne." The fifth edition is eagerly awaited.

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