Warning Shadows: Home Alone With Classic Cinema
by Gary Giddins (2010; W.W. Norton Company)
I like Mr. Giddins’ approach to film: it’s personal, unaffected and eclectic.
The essays that make up Warning Shadows take on the usual suspects—Welles and Bogart and Huston—but the author, it swiftly becomes apparent, is no ivory-towered type with elbow patches and haughty New England twang. He isn’t afraid to get down and dirty with genre and celebrate primitives like Samuel Fuller and Anthony Mann, offering these poignant words while pithily reviewing a compilation of old film noir flicks: “…realism is not really the point. Nor is the plot, although the twists and turns keep us guessing. Most of the stories are no better than magazine hack work. The art is in the style, the gloss, the way directors, photographers, editors and actors use composition, lighting, cutting and improvisation to make sequences a little different than usual…”
The piece on Fuller is sound and balanced. Fuller’s at his best in his war pictures—“Steel Helmet”, “Fixed Bayonets” and “The Big Red One” are classics of their kind, gritty and cynical, authentic as you can get. Never much of an actor’s director; often his movies are marred by wooden performances and histrionics. But he sure knew how to move the story along and Mr. Giddins is quite right to portray Fuller’s body of work, overall, as “vital, original, outrageous and prescient”.
Mr. Giddins’ tastes, I admit, wander further afield than mine. He has far too much time for the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, Alice Faye, Sinatra; I absolutely abhor musicals, whereas he can seriously discuss the likes of Busby Berkeley and Al Jolson. He’s a jazz man, whereas I…well, let’s just say I am not.
So he and I are hardly simpatico.
On the other hand, Gary Giddins gets full marks for clarity of thought and in-depth analysis. He’s a clever writer, articulate and passionate on the art of film. Opinionated but never pedantic. A movie maven with an excellent grasp of the history of cinema, a critic who has yet to lose the ability to be surprised, perplexed, even angered by what he is seeing up there on the screen. Experiencing that thrilling sensawunda when all the pieces fit…