Hidden Hints, Motifs, and Deep Details in Films from ‘The Secret Life of Movies’

Simon Brew's latest book, The Secret Life of Movies, gives film fans a compelling look into films from angles they might not have thought of -- yet.

The Secret Life of Movies: Hidden Hints, Motifs, References and Background Detail in the Greatest Movies​
Simon Brew
Oct 2019

Movies provide us with many things, including a nearly inexhaustible source of anecdotes and trivia. Because movies are a prominent aspect of our shared culture, we naturally have a curiosity about how they were made, what went right and what went wrong in the process, and what might have been. And because making a movie is such a complex process, with so many people involved and so many moving parts that have to ultimately work together, there’s always lots to tell and even more to discover.

Simon Brew is well known to fans of movies (and of popular culture more generally) as the founder of the Den of Geek website, creator of the podcast Film Stories, and author of the books TV Geek: The Den of Geek Guide for the Netflix Generation and Movie Geek: A Geek’s Guide to the Movieverse. His latest book, The Secret Life of Movies: Hidden Hints, Motifs, References and Background Detail in the Greatest Movies, provides pretty much what it promises in its lengthy title: stuff you didn’t know about movies you do know.

That’s more than enough of a recommendation right there, but frequently Brew goes the extra mile by explaining how each bit of information is meaningful in terms of the movie and the imaginary world it creates. He’s not just providing a random selection of movie-related trivia, in other words, but providing the reader with facts and details that aid in understanding how specific movies work.

Take the telling but easily missed detail at the beginning of John Krasinski’s 2018 film, A Quiet Place—uneaten bags of potato chips in a store that has otherwise been thoroughly looted for edibles. Why is it that no one wants the chips, even in a post-apocalyptic world where food is in short supply? Because, as we will soon learn, in the world of this film humans live under constant threat of attack from creatures with extremely good hearing. Eating a noisy snack would very likely be the last thing they ever do. And here’s a fun fact to go along with that nifty bit of production design—some movie theaters stopped selling noisy snacks during the run of A Quiet Place, so filmgoers could experience the film’s silence. Film critic Mark Kermode, with is Code of Conduct on how to behave in a movie theater, would approve.

The dolly zoom, a pre-CGI method of toying with your perception by having a camera zoom in and dolly out at the same time, was first introduced in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Hitchcock used the dolly zoom to good effect to portray the disabling dizziness felt by retired police detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) as he looks down a staircase. If you remember the story of the film, you also remember that Scottie’s difficulty with heights is the very reason he was hired to do the job he is doing at that moment.

Later directors have also used the dolly zoom to register moments of sudden realization—basically, when everything suddenly changes for a character. Examples include Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), at the moment when police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) realizes there’s a shark in the water, and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), when Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) realizes there’s a contract out on him and his wife.

Even studio logos can do more than simply tell you which studio produced a film. Sometimes a logo is just a logo, of course, but other times it provides a clue as to what is coming up in the movie itself. The logos for the movies in the Harry Potter franchise are a good example. As the world of each successive movie became darker and more threatening, so do the Warner Brothers logos that appear at the very start of each film. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001) the familiar WB shield appears golden before a blue sky filled with fluffy clouds, while the sky is notably darker and the clouds more threatening in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (ibid, 2002). By the final film in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II (David Yates, 2011), the sky is in the opening credits is so dark that you can barely see the WB shield, which also looks to be made of pewter rather than gold.

Other films have used similar techniques. The Walt Disney Animation Studios logo in Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore, 2012) is pixelated like the images from an old-school video game, which is a nice set-up for the film to come. And that’s enough spoilers for one review—you’ll have to get the rest directly from the book.

The Secret Life of Movies is a visual delight, and for that we have designer illustrator James Round to thank. Every page has color, and blocks of text are surrounded by film stills, posters, and whimsical woodcuts that provide a handcrafted feel to the whole enterprise. A given page seldom contains more than a few paragraphs of text, and the pages themselves are self-contained, so you can open the book anywhere and find something of interest. Layouts are customized to the materials on each page, and never feel repetitive. Instead, they combine with Brew’s well-chosen text to create a book that is both fun and informative, and works equally well whether you’re browsing or reading it from start to finish. An index of film titles will come in handy if you’re looking for information about any film in particular, while a reference section highlights the sources of information used to create the entries.

RATING 7 / 10