The remarkable (and almost accidental) nature of this book was revealed very clearly quite by chance, in David Thomson’s obituary of the publisher Tom Rosenthal, who died in January 2004. In it he described the genesis of the Biographical Dictionary of Film:
I had been commissioned by Tom’s predecessor, James Price, to write a kind of handy encyclopedia of film. It would have entries on leading people, on technical terms, on styles, genres and studios. But modest. Sensible. Publishable. Then, in the writing, things got out of hand. I started by writing about the people, and the essays that emerged were not just longer than intended, they were far more personal, opinionated and other than sensible. I could not help myself. But I did think that I had to show what I had to Secker’s so that they could scream (as was their right), scold me and perhaps abandon the entire venture.
The initial proposal sounded worthy but dull. Unexpectedly, Tom Rosenthal was happy with what he saw, even though it was twice as long as the contracted length and became even longer.
He was urbane in saying that no, this was not the book planned and contracted. However, he admitted, the other book it was becoming might be interesting.
In other words, it had genesis like many reference books.
- The final book is not what was commissioned, but is all the better for it.
- Mercifully, the publisher responsible (not, as often happens, the person who commissioned it) had the courage to let the writer do what they were good at.
- The publisher recognised, perhaps without stating this consciously, that an opinion-based reference book can be as valuable as a balanced and comprehensive multi-authored one.
In other words, let others compile the complete filmography of this or that actor. Thomson can list just the films he found interesting – or disliked particularly, and both are valuable because he often (not always) tells you why. This is one of those wildly subjective reference books that is all the more impressive for being opinionated. It does not attempt to be balanced. It makes snap and sometimes unjustified judgements. But all this is redeemed by Thomson’s ability to get to the heart of cinema. On Hitchcock:
Hitchcock’s most profound subject and achievement is the juxtaposition of sanity and insanity, of bourgeois ordinariness and criminal outrage. .. His great films are only partly his; they also belong to the minds that interpret them.
The other great achievement of the book is that Thomson manages to identify the magic of actors. Again and again, he has a telling phrase that seems to express why an actor is so gripping. For example, on Edward G Robinson:
Lang made Robinson’s stature seem vulnerable and his face tragic where before he had been presented as a scowling killer. Few films make so engrossing an ordeal out of the ordinary man’s alarm at being trapped in situations more appropriate to cinema.
Of course, the BdoF has other failings:
- In terms of national cinema, the coverage seems to be a few figures who interested Thomson. There is no entry for Mario Monicelli, for example.
- It is largely actor and director based, but even here it doesn’t have a consistent selection of either.
- Paradoxically, the book is least interesting in the long list of films the subject acted in or directed. The text only comes to life when Thomson reveals in a few words that he has seen it and responded to it:
Stage Fright … and Torn Curtain seem to me to be thumpingly bad films, helpless in the face of intransigent plots, true delicacy of humor, and uncooperative players.
No academic book would dare include such a damning sentence; as film criticism creeps into the academy, authors become increasingly unwilling to declare a film bad. Even Robin Wood finds things to like about Torn Curtain. But Thomson has the courage to write as a viewer – a well-informed viewer, aware of film criticism, but a viewer nonetheless. He will tell you if a film is good or not, usually in such a way that you can agree or not constructively. I’ve probably hunted down more obscure films from reading Thomson than from any other film critic, which shows the compelling nature of the writing. Thomson is a writer for whom films are vitally important.