In October of 2019, I posted a three-part series on film books in my library that I considered significant, both old and new. I’ve since acquired several titles that I think are worth mentioning. Of the following eight books, all but two of them have been purchased since the first of this year. Here they are.
I love “making of” film books, especially when they’re as good as these two. They’ve set new standards for how this can be done.
Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas by Glenn Kenny (Hanover Square Press, 2020)
I first became aware of Glenn Kenny from his film reviews in the New York Times, but nothing prepared me for the forensic attention to detail he brings to this study of Martin Scorsese’s epic 1990 gangster film, Goodfellas. To say it’s in-depth doesn’t do it justice. Check out the table of contents below.
Of particular note is the fourth part, “A Martin Scorsese Picture, Scene by Scene.” This breakdown of every scene in the film takes up 162 pages of a 397 page book, but it’s not simply a description of what happens. The backgrounds of real-life figures and the actors who portray them are woven in and out. The information goes deep. This is true of the entire book. What might at first seem like digressions serve to create a fuller picture. This enriches our appreciation and understanding of Goodfellas, really gets into its DNA.
Kenny introduces the iconic “How Am I Funny” scene as “…one of the film’s most famous, most quoted scenes. And it defines the knife edge of comedy and mayhem (physical and/or moral) that much of the rest of the film balances on, almost always falling the side of mayhem.”
After the scene by scene breakdown, part five is “All the Songs,” which covers the music in the film and the reasons for choosing each song. Kenny writes, “In Goodfellas Scorsese moves freely between songs coming from jukeboxes and live performances and songs that are just in the air, so to speak.” Anyone familiar with Scorsese’s films knows that music, especially rock, is very important to him. He’s quoted in Made Men as saying, “For me, it’s very, very serious. Probably the most enjoyable part of making movies is to select these songs.”
There’s a lot more to Made Men, such as a chapter on Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor since Raging Bull in 1980, what happened to the real Henry Hill, and a 2020 interview with Scorsese talking about Goodfellas and his career in general. This is a densely packed work, and I recommend it highly.
The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson (Flatiron Books, 2020)
As with Made Men, this book goes beyond the usual nuts and bolts of how a particular film was made, which in this case is the classic Chinatown. I bought my copy in April of last year, but my first attempt to read it was short-lived. Focusing on four key participants — actor Jack Nicholson, producer Robert Evans, director Roman Polanski, and screenwriter Robert Towne — it seemed promising indeed. I was initially put off by Wasson’s style of saying what people were thinking or feeling. I guess I was more used to the “usual nuts and bolts” approach. That’s what I’d been expecting, not some novelistic approach. So I put it down for several months, until one day I decided to take another run at it. This time I slipped right into it. Checking the 47 pages of notes at the end of the book, I saw that every thought or feeling Wasson had ascribed to someone had a source in interviews (either previously published or by the author) and articles.
Like Glenn Kenny, Sam Wasson goes for depth. And like Made Men, what might first seem like digressions adds layers that create a fuller picture.
The flyleaf of the book has this to say: “During a seven-decade career that spanned from 19th-century Vienna to 1920s Broadway to the golden age of Hollywood, three-time Academy Award winner Max Steiner did more than any other composer to introduce and establish the language of film music.”
I’ve not yet finished reading Music by Max Steiner, but this past March I streamed a virtual lecture by the author that was fascinating. It motivated me to buy a copy of the book.
I’ve loved Steiner’s film music for many years, though I don’t think I was aware of the scope of his output. He composed over 300 scores for RKO and then Warner Bros., receiving 24 Oscar nominations along the way. His work includes King Kong (1933), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Letter (1940), Now Voyager (1942), Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), White Heat (1949), and probably my favorite, The Searchers (1956).
My response to the music of The Searchers is no doubt informed and influenced by my love of the film itself, just as my love of the film is reinforced by the power and emotion of Steiner’s score. It’s all of a piece, all one thing.
From Music by Max Steiner:
“The Searchers came to Max not via its director, John Ford, but its producer. Merian C. Cooper envisioned a reunion of the creative trio behind two of his most acclaimed projects, The Lost Patrol and The Informer. But the renewed partnership proved a rocky one. Ford eschewed a big-orchestra approach in his films, preferring spare folk song accompaniments. When Cooper proposed hiring Steiner, a compromise was struck: country vocalist Stan Jones would write and perform a title song with his group, the Sons of the Pioneers (a Ford favorite). Max would incorporate Jones’ melody throughout his score. The blend fit the film magnificently. Jones’ ballad delineates anti-hero Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a loner who spends years roaming post-Civil War America, hunting for the niece who was taken as a child by Indians. What make a man to wander? / What makes a man to roam? / What makes a man leave bed and board / And turn his back on home? ”
The “soundtrack suite” (running time 14:54).
The final scene of The Searchers, powered by Steiner’s music. It gets me every time.
Max Steiner’s incredible filmography can be accessed here.
This is a very informative, highly entertaining account of the making of Joel and Ethan Coen’s now-classic film, Fargo. Todd Melby covers in detail the writing, casting, production, and afterlife of the film. We learn the lengths to which William H. Macy would go to land the role of Jerry Lundegaard; the difficulties of shooting snow-covered landscapes during a season when there was little snow; the efforts to have the regional accents be just right; and the post-Fargo journey of the wood chipper. And that’s not all. Shortly after finishing Melby’s book, I watched Fargo again. I never grow tired of seeing it, but this time I had the knowledge of how it came to be.
The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries and Marvels of Christopher Nolan by Tom Shone (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020)
I initially got this book from the library, but realized I’d never get through it all by the time I had to return it. I felt like I needed to know what was in it, so I ordered a copy. I began by skipping around, reading about certain films. I soon realized it was so densely packed and interconnected that I would have to read it from beginning to end in order to get the most out of it. I still haven’t done that, but my selective reading has so far inspired me to re-see Nolan’s Insomnia (2002), The Prestige (2006), the three Batman films, and Interstellar (2014).
The Nolan Variations is clearly not a superficial study. I sense that, similar to Made Men and The Big Goodbye, it includes digressive material that ultimately leads back to the main subject. The table of contents suggests that this is not the usual book about a film director.
Alien Invasions! The History of Aliens in Pop Culture edited by Michael Stein (IDW Pulishing, 2020)
This is an ideal book for me, given my lifelong interest in science fiction and horror. Copiously illustrated, it covers the topic of alien invasions from H. G. Wells through pulp magazines, comic books, movies and television, and beyond. The table of contents breaks it down.
The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense by Edward White (W. W. Norton & Company, 2021)
I’m a third of the way into this now, and liking it a lot. Per the flyleaf copy, “The book’s twelve chapters illuminate different aspects of Hitchcock’s life and work… Each of these angles reveals something fundamental about the man he was and the mythological creature he has become, presenting not just the life Hitchcock lived but also the various versions of himself that he projected and those projected on his behalf.”
Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris (Penguin Press, 2021)
I wanted to read Mark Harris’ biography of Mike Nichols as soon as I heard of it. Nichols is endlessly fascinating to me, and very, very funny. Sometime last year I read Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as remembered by 150 of his closest friends. It was great. So I was ready for a hefty biography. Mark Harris is a terrific writer. His Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008) and Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (2014) are major works. I reread Pictures after finishing his Nichols book, and it was just as good as when I first read it.
Mike Nichols feels like a definitive book. Harris goes deep and gets inside his subject. An epigraph at the beginning, quoting Nichols, sets it all up: “You don’t know what’s going to happen. Big things look like little things. Little things don’t have big signs on them that say ‘This is a Big Thing.’ They look like everything else. Disaster can reorder our lives in wonderful ways, and you just go on to the next thing. I passionately believe that in art, and certainly in the theater, there are only two questions… The first question is: ‘What is this, really, when it happens in life?’ Not what is the accepted convention… but what is it really like? And the other question we really have to ask is, ‘What happens next?'”
I was primarily interested in Nichols’ ground-breaking work with Elaine May and, of course, his films. Harris delivers in spades, and then some. I was deeply moved by the following passage at the end of the last chapter before an epilogue. Nichols had been to dinner with his wife, Diane Sawyer, and three of his children. “As they got back to the apartment, he complained of feeling dizzy and collapsed. He died a short time later, surrounded by the people he loved the most. He left behind an appointment book for the coming week that was completely full.” Completely full. That kills me. It perfectly describes Nichols’ approach to life.
My only complaint with the book is that the binding began breaking down before I’d finished reading it. Take my advice, don’t get the hard cover.
My previous posts on film books can be accessed at the following:
That wraps up this installment. See you next time. Until then, be safe. — Ted Hicks