A Century of Films by Derek Malcolm

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By Maurice Bottomley

Malcolm's List — It Didn't Start With Spielberg

As Derek Malcolm’s retirement after thirty years as film reviewer for The Guardian coincided with the celebrations of “100 years of Cinema,” he was duly asked to contribute a list of his hundred favourite films, each with a short piece justifying their status. This was the grand bowing-out of one of the most respected of British film critics. For two years, Guardian readers followed the week-by-week unfolding of Malcolm’s take on cinema, wondering who he would include and what would be ignored. The resultant project has been made available in book form, and it is now apparent that there was a serious purpose behind what seemed a fairly harmless exercise.

In some ways A Century of Films sidesteps analysis — it is, after all, an avowedly personal compilation — but taken together his “Top 100” offers a particular view of what cinema is, or should be. The all-too-brief introductory essay makes it clear that a definite didacticism underpinned the project. Malcolm, as he did increasingly towards the end of his stint with the paper, rails against the lack of knowledge about film history and “great” cinema both within the industry and among younger film-goers. One of the purposes of this book is to show that “It didn’t start with Spielberg.” From these choices, however, it would seem that it almost ended with him, for the number of films from the last decade or so is minimal.

Not that the list is a general survey of the whole historical span of cinema. Although most of the choices are “classics” there is a preponderance of films from the ‘60s and ‘70s, or, more accurately, films whose critical status was at their height in that period. Malcolm is part of a generation whose taste was shaped by the French New Wave, auteur theory, World Cinema and the general climate of the late ‘60s, and it shows. I suspect if this task had been undertaken in 1975 there would have been few alterations. One presumably unintended by-product is the laying bare of the tastes and prejudices of liberal, intellectual men of that generation. This is not a rebuke — it simply adds a certain sociological fascination to the book.

The principles invoked are of cinema as art form and as individual statement. One of the few self-imposed rules was a limit of one film per director. This is crucial, as directors dominate in this version of film criticism. There is a shortage of star vehicles here, no Hollywood epics, not many B-movies, and precious few comedies. Instead, abundantly represented are distinctive and stylistically innovative films from around the globe, seen through a largely Cahiers Du Cinema filter. The inevitable charges of elitism and middle-class artiness have already been levelled at the end-product, but this is Malcolm’s list and not some new Media Studies, populist survey. In any case, the author has no need to be apologetic. There is much to treasure here, both in the films and in the economy of the writing. The only unsatisfactory passages occur when the examples seem to have been chosen purely as markers of a particular moment (Morrissey’s Trash or Disney’s Fantasia). When Malcolm has a film with the director’s stamp firmly on it, which, given the logic of the book, is most of the time, his summaries are pithy and enlightening. Thirty years of reviewing have given him the ability to say a lot in limited space.

Okay, so who do we get and which of their works? Godard, Ray (both of them), Cassavetes, Fuller, Renoir, Eisenstein, Altman, Rohmer, Chabrol, Lang, Truffaut, Ozu, and so on. If that partial list already has you salivating then you know where Malcolm is coming from. If not, prepare to be educated.

This may, however, be a problem. If you already know about Tokyo Story or Viridiana, you don’t really need a brief sketch telling you how great they are, and if the words mean nothing to you then an apparently random list might seem just like a long (film buff’s) mantra — “Bresson Om Ophuls Om Oshima Om”. Spiritual sustenance for the enlightened, but rather baffling to the uninitiated. A longer introduction or some ordering by place, period, or genre might have helped here.

Of the movies themselves there are few surprises. Touch of Evil gets in ahead of Kane, but surely, as a critical cult fave, that was to be expected. Ditto Raging Bull, A Bout de Souffle, Vertigo and even Boudu Saved from Drowning (Les Regles de Jeu being just a little too obvious, my dears). It is good to see some British films, especially Humphrey Jennings’ Fires Were Started and the anarchic comedy Oh Mr. Porter. America is well represented too, but by its maverick rather than mainstream figures. Thus we have Johnny Guitar, Shock Corridor, and McCabe and Mrs Miller — three classics as quirky as one could wish for. European and non-Western cinema gets a better share than I suspect it would in many English or American hands.

There are some eye-openers, one or two jaw-droppers, and a few disappointments. Malcolm states that one of his guiding principles was to select films he could not imagine not seeing again. Why anyone would want to watch Last Tango in Paris even twice, except perhaps for pornographic reasons, escapes me. Why anyone would prefer it to The Conformist is staggering. Speaking of porn, Behind The Green Door sits oddly with some of its more respectable neighbours. Okay, so it was more arty than most seventies sex flix but surely not a major work? Some of the inclusions seem to be there for their historical importance alone — Triumph of the Will and Birth of a Nation — as I don’t believe for a moment that Malcolm can’t wait to watch either again. The oddest choice is perhaps Witchfinder General, a low-budget English horror flick from the late sixties. Terrific stuff, and far better than many much more celebrated pieces, it is one of the few of the 100 that, as far as I know, has not previously found some critical stamp of approval. Such moments are rare, as the author plays it fairly safe as a rule (by the way, Malcolm is no lover of kitsch and has no time for the “so bad it’s brilliant” school of cinema appreciation, so don’t expect any Russ Meyer or the Carry On series).

So who will get most from this impressive if somewhat canonical collection? The intended reader, I am sure, is a young film-lover starting to break free from the intellectual limitations of current mainstream cinema and eager to explore further. The actual reader, I am afraid, will be one who shares the author’s general taste but wants to pick holes in some of his selections. If there is an ideal reader, it might be one who knows some of the films well, recognises many of the names of the others, but feels the need of a confident guide. Malcolm is eminently capable in that role. He has clarity and he knows his area. More importantly, he loves his subject and conveys his enthusiasm for it well. That, of course, is ample justification for what might otherwise have been a rather pointless publication. Derek Malcolm is a cinephile and this book is there to spread cinephilia — good luck to it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/century-of-films/