He’s similarly astute when it comes to actors—especially iconic figures about whom there is theoretically nothing left to say. Edward G. Robinson, argues the author, was “best in a medium shot with other actors, listening and reacting, then closing in for the kill.” Robinson’s face could “shut down in implacable contempt or stall with crafty desperation or pontificate with ingenuous wisdom…A homely yet vain peacock of a man who was never allowed to win the girl, he could even play beautiful—not handsome but beatific, inspired, lit from deep inside.” Just so.

Finally, Giddins is a passionate, persuasive close reader of scenes. I’m sold by his case that Pabst’s Brecht-distorting film actually improved The Threepenny Opera, and that Brecht was a disingenuous jerk to sue him for his services. Another example: listen to Giddins put you in the climactic chase scene of John Brahm’s 1944 expressionistic Jack the Ripper picture The Lodger. Star Laird Cregar, alternately hovering and cowering in bipolar brilliance, is

a hunted killer climbing spider-like through lacy chiaroscuro, his half-moon eyes strangely illuminated, the entire crushing finale shot from his point of view. The ending, which involves a standoff that is silent except for the Ripper’s panting, is masterful. The Lodger was a huge hit, and Zanuck wanted another just like it. What he got was even better—Brahm’s masterpiece—but at the cost of Cregar’s life.

Don’t you want to see what happens next? Read Giddins. Then you’ll really see.

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Tim Appelo , editorial director of Seattle's City Arts magazine, has been a film critic at The Nation, The Oregonian, and Entertainment Weekly.