Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema by critic Gary Giddins gets off to a rocky start but quickly nestles into a comfy couch-tour of some of the greatest films and filmmakers from the Silent Era through the 1970’s (although heavily weighted towards American films of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s). Giddins writes with an effortless authority and a deep love for classic cinema, and the book is a constant inspiration to return to old friends and seek out the yet-unseen masterpieces.
‘Part One: Home Alone with Classic Cinema’ is an essay which gives a brief tour of how films were viewed, from solo peeping into kinetoscopes at nickelodeons, through double features, Technicolor, DVD & Blu-Ray – which Giddins rightly predicts will soon be eaten by downloads and streaming, if the studios can get their acts together. Like most critics, he takes the curmudgeonly position about the state of movies today: complaints of hyper-editing, and being viewed at home instead of in theaters. But he does acknowledge how DVD has allowed us to revisit many great movies that otherwise might be lost to history.
‘Part Two: Directors and Stars’ is where Giddins gets cooking. With short chapters on Lubitsh, John Ford, Howard Hawks etc., Giddins writes wonderfully about the ouevres of many of cinema’s most famous men and women. I have only one problem with his otherwise fine scholarship. While Giddins often acknowledges the contributions of great cinematographers like James Wong Howe or screenwriters like Ben Hecht, he is frequently guilty of the auteurist fallacy when it comes to directors. There are many sweeping generalizations about story elements that are similar across a director’s oevre, as if these were the unfiltered artistic choices of the director: ‘in so-and-so’s world, thus and such.’ John Ford often has actors pose with one arm holding the elbow of another – this is a trademark it’s possible for a director to insert in his films. “[A] town idler who achieves purpose by protecting a child, uncertain parentage, misunderstood intentions, greed, the thin veneer of of social order undone by short-fused hysteria and the fragility of justice” are simply common story elements for the time period, and especially in the Western genre Ford often harnessed.
‘Part Three: Movies by Genre’ continues the scattershot survey of classic films, but can avoid being auteurist, since Giddins is free to find themes that tie together thematically similar movies, rather than trying to make a narrative from the filmography of a single individual. To give you an idea, some sample essays from this part are: Men without Molls (Warner Gangsters Collection, Vol. 3); Battling Nazis with Sambas (Saludo Amigos / The Three Caballeros; Love the Warriors (Overlord / The Guns of Navarone / The Caine Mutiny).
Most of the essays in the book were written for The New York Sun, the DGA Quarterly or The New York Times Book Review. If, like me, you missed them there, you will appreciate them collected here. They read fast and pleasurably, and hang together nicely. There seems to be little, if any, original scholarship. But the synthesis is done beautifully and, doggone it, it really makes me want to watch some great films. Recommend.