Thorold Dickinson: A World of Film

January 22, 2009

The once-neglected topic of British cinema has undergone such a sustained re-evaluation over the last ten years or so that there remain few nooks and crannies that have not been brought into the light. However, film-maker Thorold Dickinson is still not a name that will spring easily to the lips of many. This impressively comprehensive and heartfelt collection aims to put this right.

It's difficult to understand why Dickinson has remained so overlooked when few film-makers could boast such a varied range of achievements. From making documentaries for the UN and becoming the first film studies lecturer employed by a British university, to directing two of the most visually striking films ever made in the UK (Gaslight and Queen of Spades), Dickinson's career was always marked by the breadth of his interests.

The book's editors, Philip Horne and Peter Swaab, have set out to reflect the diversity of Dickinson's output by adopting an appropriately similar approach in compiling this book. Rather than producing a predictable monograph, they have opted for what they call a "combination of voices" to match the nature of Dickinson's work. They are unashamedly enthusiastic and personal in their tone, something reflected in many other contributions included here.

Among a number of appreciations of Dickinson is a highly detailed, cinematically fluent assessment by Martin Scorsese. The depth of Scorsese's analysis is complemented by some more personal reminiscences by several of Dickinson's former students at the Slade School of Art. These include future film-maker Gavin Millar and academic Charles Barr, who both remember a man who combined an essential Britishness with an international perspective: Dickinson worked in Spain and Africa, as well as making a feature about the creation of the state of Israel. These pieces are warmly unacademic in their recognition of an exceptional teacher.

One of the voices given prominence in the book is that of Dickinson himself. Many of these short extracts give insights into the creation of individual films and Dickinson's working methods, but his political leanings are also revealed in a concise, vivid account of his stay in Spain during the Civil War. His unswerving commitment to the British film industry is apparent in a waspish letter from 1973 to Margaret Thatcher, then Minister for Education and Science. The voice we hear in these writings is full of enthusiasm for his medium, as well as concern for its positive impact in the wider world.

A more traditionally academic approach is provided by a selection of essays examining each of Dickinson's films. These are all lucid and illuminating, but particularly striking is the editors' own contribution, an examination of the tortuous history of Gaslight, perhaps Dickinson's finest cinematic achievement.

A second film of Patrick Hamilton's play was made in Hollywood and its producers set about suppressing Dickinson's version, buying the rights from its UK producer and destroying every print and the original negative. Fortunately, Dickinson succeeded in saving one copy so that today we can see that is the vastly superior of the two films.

The level of scholarship is admirable, with a detailed and annotated filmography, extensive bibliographies and information on archive material about Dickinson. There is everything here that students of British cinema will want on Dickinson. For those who have never heard of him, it is a fascinating introduction to a man as complex, humane and varied as the work he produced.

Thorold Dickinson: A World of Film

Edited by Philip Horne and Peter Swaab. Manchester University Press 320pp, £55.00. ISBN 9780719078477. Published 1 September 2008

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