Celluloid Heroes

A champion jazz critic turns to the silver screen

Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema | By Gary Giddins | W.W. Norton & Company | 416 pages, $18.95

A genius jazz critic who dares turn film critic risks fisticuffs with cineastes. Stick to your syncopated knitting, Giddins! What, you’re not satisfied with your bestselling Bing Crosby bio, your Grammy, your Peabody, Gleason, NBCC, and six Deems Taylor awards? Go ahead, rub it in our noses that you’ve got an eye as well as an ear. Must you muscle in on our turf?

He must. And his first book wholly devoted to movies is the real deal, a deeply reflective work bristling with the kind of scholarship that also feels spontaneous. In these pieces, most reprinted from the New York Sun, Giddins’s headlong sentences and rapid-fire associations sometimes remind me of Preston Sturges: the apparent chaos is under total control. Well, almost total—the author can be one clause too prodigal with insights, and despite nifty leads, transitions, and kickers, his seventy-one brief essays often disdain to prove any visible thesis. Still, Warning Shadows belongs on the short shelf of books that can make you quadruple your Netflix plan, right up there with Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, Andrew Sarris, and the more idiosyncratic David Thomson and Manny Farber.

Who else would suggest that if we could vacation in the films of any director, we might well choose Lubitsch, “if only for the clothes?” Giddins oddly but illuminatingly compares Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth with that other movie about “strangers in strange lands, messiahs, [and] aliens treated badly by the natives,” William Wyler’s Ben-Hur. As he notes, both films are preoccupied with water, thirst, and portentous shooting stars. But in the case of Wyler’s sword-and-sandals epic, Giddins urges some judicious use of the fast-forward button: “Watching Ben-Hur all at once is like sitting down to a ten-course meal and finding that every course consists of potato dumplings except for the seventh, which is strawberry shortcake. That would be the chariot race.”

This is hardly the author’s last word on that tasty scene, which was choreographed by the horse-wrangling auteur Yakima Canutt. Elsewhere, he points out that Canutt crafted an even better, tighter chariot race in Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, which caused me to race out and rent it. He’s made me no less eager to lay my hands on G.W. Pabst’s Secrets of a Soul—from which, we read, Hitchcock filched the knives in Blackmail, the bell-tower climb in Vertigo, and Spellbound’s dream scene. (The latter bit of pilfering should surprise nobody: Secrets of a Soul was the only film Freud actually helped shape, by sending Pabst two dream-interpretation screenwriting advisors.)

Giddins likes noting resemblances. The Reaper in The Seventh Seal, he tells us, is a lookalike for Dwight Eisenhower. Reviewing Houdini’s performances on film, he compares him to “a more muscular, Hungarian-looking cousin to the mute magician-comedian Teller.”

At least Houdini and Teller were in the same racket. Elsewhere, Giddins casts his net still wider, comparing the avenging papa of the raped daughter in Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring to Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence. He’s compelled to hear echoes. The moment he encounters the opening narration in Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin, Giddins leaps ahead to Ed Wood’s kitsch masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space. And sometimes, of course, you wonder whether the echoes aren’t in his own head. When Clark Gable gabbles at Claudette Colbert about donuts and hitchhiking tips in It Happened One Night, is it really “directly prefiguring Seinfeld in clamping on a word and stretching it into nothingness?” Nothing doing. Still, it refreshes our perception of the scene. His glosses wipe our glasses clean.

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.