Looking back on Halliwell’s Film Guide

Back in the days when reference books had not yet been made more or less redundant by the internet, Halliwell’s Film Guide, and its companion volume, Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion, were essential purchases for any self-respecting film buff. Of whom I was one. Or, at least, of whom I fancied myself one. If you wanted to know the director or cinematographer on any film, if you wanted to check who it was who composed the score for Sunset Boulevard or who wrote the script of Vertigo, Halliwell was the man to turn to.

But you got more than mere facts: Halliwell provided for each film a star rating, a brief synopsis, and a few brief – but extremely characterful – critical comments. And these critical comments, I remember, I used to find infuriating. How could he give three stars to a piece of dated Hollywood moonshine like Portrait of Jennie, but give only one to a masterpiece like Through a Glass Darkly? Why does no film made in the last 20 years or so get the maximum four-star rating? Why can he not appreciate the miracle that is Pather Panchali? Why is a film of the stature of  Tokyo Story not even listed? “Eccentric” seemed too mild a word under the circumstances.

Since his untimely death in 1989, Halliwell’s Film Guide, though still in existence, has been thoroughly revised by other hands. And the result, accurate and reliable as before, is also, no doubt, more reliable in its critical judgement, and covers some very important aspects of cinema that Halliwell had ignored simply because he didn’t care much for them. So far, so good. However, these later editions are also bland. True, Halliwell’s critical judgement, even then, was frequently infuriating, but what did shine through was a certain personality. The judgements, whether you agreed with them or not, were the judgement of someone who was happy to declare his personal tastes loud and clear, and who wasn’t prepared to bow merely to critical consensus. The latest version I flicked through read as if it were written by a committee. (Indeed, it probably was.) Although much has no doubt been gained, something rather precious, it seems to me, has been lost.

I am fortunate to have still a copy of the 7th edition of Halliwell’s Film Guide – the last that Leslie Halliwell had prepared before his death. These days, I find myself quite enchanted by it. I find myself delighted even by the things that used to infuriate me so all those years ago. I see once again the mere two stars awarded to Pather Panchali, and, this time, find myself thinking that two stars isn’t really too bad a rating given this isn’t his kind of film. I see the omission of Tokyo Story, and I chuckle to myself, thinking “Well, that’s Leslie Halliwell for you!” All shortcomings of critical judgement are excused as one would excuse the eccentricities of a favourite uncle. And above all, I find myself enjoying Halliwell’s quirky personality: here is a man who clearly has a deep affection for films, and when he writes about what he loves, the sense of delight he communicates is so infectious that I find it hard not to take delight in his delight.

Halliwell loved old Hollywood. He loved the artifice of these films, the glossy production values, the moonshine, the splendid black and white romanticism. I remember him saying once that the real Paris was never as romantic as the Paris of the MGM sets, and every time I visit the city, I can’t help thinking how right he was. He loved the kind of film that I, as a keen watcher of films on television some thirty or forty years ago, grew up with – the classic Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. And 1950s as well, although, no doubt, Halliwell would have felt that the rot was beginning to set in even then.

However, the past, as they say, is a foreign country, and, though now only in my early 50s (which I am assured isn’t too old really), I frequently find myself alarmed by how deeply even the recent past appears to be buried. I have, I suppose, long since given up being shocked that children nowadays grow up without ever having watched a Laurel and Hardy film; that people who would consider themselves as “being into movies” have quite frequently not even heard of, let alone seen, The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca or Double Indemnity; that most people would not be able even to name a single one of Jimmy Cagney’s gangster films – or, indeed, even know who Jimmy Cagney was. Well, I suppose these films that I love so much have all had their day. Nonetheless, these are my films: these are the films that I grew up with. Not only do I not see anything reprehensible about looking back in affection, keeping in touch with one’s past seems to me a positive benefit: contrary to received wisdom that tells us it is wrong “to live in the past” – whatever that is supposed to mean – honouring the past and respecting the present seem to me mutually enhancing rather than mutually exclusive.

I suppose part of the reason I enjoy flicking through Halliwell’s Film Guide is that he celebrates these old Hollywood films with such unabashed joy. And he celebrates them on their own terms: he doesn’t feel the need to make excuses for them. Yes, it is true that much of his critical judgement may be – let us say – “eccentric”, but there are other times when he hits the nail squarely on the head. Here, for instance, is his comment on Yankee Doodle Dandy:

Outstanding showbiz biopic, with unassuming but effective production, deft patriotic backdrops and a marvellous, strutting, magnetic star performance.

Has Cagney’s screen presence ever been so accurately captured in just a few words? Or here is Halliwell again, on John Ford’s film adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:

A superb film that could scarcely be improved upon … Acting, photography, direction combine to make this an unforgettable experience, a  poem of a film.

Indeed. How good to see someone lavish such deserved praise on this wonderful work. And how good it is to see four stars awarded to Preston Sturges’ Miracle at Morgan’s Creek – a film barely known about these days. (Here in the UK, you can’t even get it on DVD. Mind you, you can’t even get Ernest Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be on DVD either!)

As for the more recent films that I in my late teens and early twenties thought were masterpieces, Halliwell’s judgement often seems to prove more astute than it had seemed at the time. After all, nothing dates quite so quickly and quite so badly as cutting edge relevance.

One should mention also Halliwell’s terse and often witty synopses. His one line summary of Gone With the Wind , for instance, can hardly be improved upon:

An egotistic Southern girl survives the Civil War but finally loses the only man she cares for.

Now, what more can there be to say about this film?

I am pleased to see there’s a site devoted to Leslie Halliwell. Warmly recommended – especially to anyone who has an affection for old Hollywood films.

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21 responses to this post.

  1. I too used to buy an annual film guide…

    I’m a fan of classic 1955 Hollywood film (Film Noir too). Currently watching a very lurid soap called Cobweb set in a psychiatric home where the main bickering takes place over the choice of new curtains. Great stuff! Plus it stars one of my all-time favs–Gloria Grahame.

    I have a fondness for films set in insane asylums.

    Reply

    • Ah – then you must have seen Susan Hayward in “The Snake Pit”. It made a huge impression on me when I saw it as a kid!

      Reply

      • I think Susan Hayward is a tremendous actress. Read a bio of her a few years back that changed my view of her. She always worked very hard at the parts she took on. The bio was written after her death and some of her relatives (the ones who weren’t in the will) weighed in about her tight-fistedness. Have you seen Smash-Up?

      • I was about to say I hadn’t heard of this film before, but a little browsing on the net reveals that its UK title was “A Woman Destroyed” – and yes, I have seen it, albeit a very long time ago: this is exactly the sort of film I’d love to see again, but none of the million and one television channels bother showing this kin d of thing, and I’d be very surprised if it were available on DVD release.
        I agree with you about Susan Hayward: she was a fine actress. Then (as now, despite all our claims to be more advanced in these respects) leading ladies had very little to do except stand around and look pretty 9which they all did very well, it must be said), and it’s often difficult to discern just how much acting talent they really had. Susan Hayward was certainly an exception in this respect. She seemed to get a bit typecast with the intense roles, but she did them very well.

  2. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on September 14, 2011 at 11:36 am

    All very well….but u still misinterpreted the role of the priest in ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ as confirmed by the less ambiguous role of the priest in ‘Gran Torino.’

    Clint has issues with the Catholic Church!!

    Reply

    • ???

      I haven’t seen “Gran Torino”. I liked “Million Dollar Baby”, & the priest’s role seemed to me to be to articulate the religious perspective. As, indeed, one would expect from a priest. Your post does, I admit, seem a bit cryptic to me…

      Reply

  3. From my admittedly limited brushes with Halliwell (never bought it, but my brother always had a copy) I concluded that his tastes were almost exactly the inverse of my own. Most of the films he loved I loathed, and vice versa.

    Reply

    • Many of his critical judgements are, I agree, lunatic, but nonetheless, I do like his personality, and in an age in which films of old Hollywood are effectively being forgotten, I find his attachment o these films endearing. In the site on Halliwell I linked to at the end of my post, there is an essay he wrote on why he dislikes modern films (this was written in the 70s). While it is true that the 70s were my era, and while I do think that there were some spectacularly good films made in that decade, Halliwell does, I think, make some very valid (though unfashionable) points, and hits several nails squarely on the head.

      Reply

  4. Posted by Skywatcher on March 12, 2012 at 10:46 am

    He could be massively irritating at times, but I loved HALLIWELL’S HUNDRED/HALLIWELL’S HARVEST and the autobiography SEATS IN ALL PARTS. Have you ever read his fiction? The sequel to LOST HORIZON is a little weird, but the three books of ghost stories are first rate.

    Reply

    • I have never actually read his fiction. Are they still in print? I agree his opinions can be irritating – especially nowadays, when his tastes are so very out of fashion. But I still can’t help feeling an affection for the man!

      Reply

  5. Posted by Paul Anthony Cassidy on November 6, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    While I appreciated Halliwell’s efforts he can not be taken seriously as a film reviewer. Of the so called ‘Golen Age’ of Hollywood perhaps but his trashings of universally accepted classics such as Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Alien and Dawn of the Dead underline his inability to pass worthy reviews. The true golden age of hollywood was the 70s. Halliwell couldn’t get his head round this as he was too wrapped up in nostalgia!

    Reply

    • Hello Paul, and welcome.

      I think what I particularly like about Halliwell is that he was his own man, and that he refused to allow his critical judgement to be influenced by the general consensus. It is precisely because he didn’t think too highly of various “accepted classics”, or because he’d rate highly certain films that not many others do, that makes him, for me at least, entertaining company.

      As for my own taste in films – in the years in which I was forming my tastes, the films of the 70s I saw in the cinema, and films of the 30s, 40s and 50s I saw on television. Perhaps inevitably, I have great affection for both these eras; but, even leaving aside my personal leanings, I do think these were wonderful eras. Hollywood did produce some superb films in the late 60s up to, say, the mid- to late- 70s, I think. I love films such as, say, “Midnight Cowboy”, “Five Easy Pieces”, “The Last Detail”, “Chinatown”, the two “Godfather” films, “The Conversation”, “The Outlaw Josey Wales”, and so on; but I do feel the rot set in quite soon. Speaking personally, I’m afraid I didn’t much care for “The Deerhunter”; “Apocalypse Now” seemed to me a distinct anti-climax after the “Godfather” films and “The Conversation”; “Alien” meant little to me (but then again, I’ve always been resistant to science fiction); and I much prefer the Hammer studios’ mid-sixties film “Plague of the Zombies” to “Dawn of the Dead”. However, even though I don’t care much for any of these four films, they’re all masterpieces compared to “Star Wars” and to the big-budget kiddies’ films of Spielberg that swept the box office from the late 70s onwards: mainstream cinema, that had till then been producing intelligent dramas for grown-ups, became juvenilised (some might say infantilised) beyond repair. But this is just my own take on matters, and I do realise that it does not reflect the critical consensus, any more than Halliwell’s did.

      For me, it’s the 30s and 40s Hollywood films I think I love the best. (And a number of films from the 50s also.) Halliwell is generally a good guide to these films – except for westerns, which is a genre he didn’t seem to have much of a feel for. True, I frequently disagree with Halliwell’s views; but I do find him better company that those who merely regurgitate the consensus of critical opinion. That consensus I can get just about anywhere!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  6. Posted by Drew Salzen on October 21, 2014 at 8:19 am

    Halliwell could be difficult and pawky in some of his reviews, and it used to drive me mad when I was younger and more stupid than I am now. However, these days I agree with you that this very personality and willingness to stand on his opinion is what made him cherishable. I don’t agree with a lot of his views, though I do share his fondness for Golden Age Hollywood: however familiarity with the guides and his views could give you the insight to say ‘well, he doesn’t like this for this reason… so I reckon I might just like it’ and so chance watching a film you might otherwise ignore.

    (I tended to do this with music, too – I remember a Good Missionaries album that had a one star review that read something like “one song on this is called Bugger The Cat – the rest of the album sounds like the cat getting its own back” in amongst a general slagging. I had to buy it, as I knew I’d like it. I still have it, 36 years later. I hope this illustrates the point for the slow of thinking on the role of the critic.)

    To be honest, I think Paul is missing the point about a film critics role. It’s not to be objective as beyond a certain technical knowledge to apply, the viewing of any film (of any piece of art per se) is subjective. Surely the critic’s job is to express that subjective opinion in a manner that allows the reader of said critique to make their own judgement based on that expression? As he goes on to say that the ‘real’ golden age of Hollywood was the seventies, ignoring that there is actually no such thing and ‘Golden Age’ applied to film is more a convenient tag of marketing and dating a movie than a generally applied set of critical values, he just proves that he misses the point spectacularly. The age you grew up in or grew to love (either through going to the cinema or – and here I think we have similar experience – through discovering movies via TV) is always the ‘golden age’ because its your passion and what first hit you at an impressionable age. There is awful crap made now, and there was in the 30’s&40’s and all points between. There’s also some great stuff, and how and why its great tends to change with the evolution of the artform.

    I think I may be grumpier more than argumentative, but this is a great blog.

    Reply

    • Hello Drew, and welcome.

      It’s a shame Paul didn’t hang around here. I don’t mind disagreement at all: I enjoy debate, and there can be no debate without disagreement. I was hoping that the comments section of this blog would be a place where we could discuss and debate matters. There are a few regulars here in the comments section, and occasionally there is a bit of debate, but I’d certainly welcome more!

      What makes a good critic is an interesting question. For many, criticism is merely a matter of offering one’s opinions, or saying whether or not something is to be recommended. I suppose if you’re a critic in a publication with a well-defined readership, and if all that readership wants to know is whether or not they’re likely to enjoy something, then that’s fair enough. In other instances, I’d expect the critic to have at least some ability to analyse, and to be able to offer reasoned argument for their views; and I’d expect a critic to write well. (Of course, there are many different ways of writing well, but let’s not go there now.) Inevitably, there will be an element of the subjective in a critic’s judgement: that’s fine, I think – as long as the critic explains to us why they see things as they do. We would then be able to determine for ourselves to what extent, if any, we share the critic’s values and perceptions.

      I am afraid I am out of touch with modern cinema (and by “modern”, I mean the last 25 years or so). I do feel mainstream cinema has declined badly. Once in a while, I catch some modern film I am told is very good and will “change my mind”, and invariably< I’m disappointed. (I am not talking about films that only come to film theatres: I am talking about films that come to my local multiplex.) I had a bit of a rant about it here. For me, the 30s, 40s and 50s really were the Golden Age of Hollywood; and there was a wonderful resurgence in the late 60s and the 70s. But then again, that’s my subjective take on it!

      I agree with your take on Halliwell. I like his personality. One doesn’t, after all, have to agree with everything a person says in order to like them. I just love the way he stuck to his own idiosyncratic views, never bowing the knee to the tyranny of consensus! And his genuine love of odl Hollywood films is something I continue to value.

      All the best for now, Himadri

      Reply

  7. Posted by jacabiya on October 26, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    Regards from a fellow Halliwell fan. I too own Halliwell’s 1989 book and check it out frequently. I’d rather read the summary of a movie afterwards since H was prone to tell too much info, like the summary you cite of GWTW. I came to understand (not to appreciate) his prejudices, and his fondness for classic cinema, and of course British films. He taught me to appreciate films I wouldn’t have apprecciated otherwise (Bride of Frankenstein, for example). Some ratings, like 3 stars for Voyage to the Center of the Earth, perplex me, and why no 4 star films since Bonnie & Clyde I sure do not understand but all in all I continue to value his opinion.

    Reply

    • Hello, and sorry for the delay in replying: I had been on holiday.

      I think the big surprise for me is not so much that he didn’t give 4 stars to any film after Bonnie & Clyde, but rather that he gave 4 stars to Bonnie & Clyde! he was temperamentally out of sypathy with what were then modern films. Although I love many films from the late 60s/early 70s (that was my era, after all!) I can understand and to a great extent sympathise with Halliwell: the period of Hollywood he loved most had come to an end, and he rather resented that.

      But as you say, once you get to know his quirks, his opinions can indeed be valuable. Certainly more so that certain contemporary critics I can think of who seem unable to speak about films before a certain time without condescension.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by jacabiya on November 3, 2014 at 11:17 pm

        I agree with: Why Bonnie & Clyde? which brings me to a correction and a question of my own. The Guide I own includes films up to 1991, so it is obviously not the 7th Ed. The book is quite worn out, missing the first pages (which if I remember correctly discuss Halliwell’s death) and last pages. The question: in this edition E.T. gets 4 stars. How many stars did Halliwell actually gave this film? I’m no fan of this movie (a prime example of the infantilization of cinema you discuss in another great essay in your blog) but I believe Halliwell liked it. I don’t think there are any additional post-1967 four star films in this book I own. By the way I am also a child of the 70s and agree with the comments that the best American cinema since the 30s, 40s, and I would add the 50s (The Searchers, Vertigo) was made from the late 60s thru the 70s. It’s a pleasure to share my thoughts with you, particularly since we seem to share opinions. José Cabiya

      • Hello, the last edition of the Film Guide that Halliwell himself edited gives ET three stars. Which, for a modern film (which it was at the time), is effectively 4 stars. I do think Halliwell refused to give modern films 4 stars as a point of principle!

        Yes, there were some marvellous Hollywood films in the 50s too. As well as the ones you mention, there’s Singin’ in the Rain, Shane, Sunset Boulevard, Twelve Angry Men, The Big Heat, etc etc.

        Cheers for now,
        Himadri

  8. Posted by Eric Swan on November 25, 2016 at 10:45 pm

    This is an interesting discussion, but I have to point out that Susan Hayward was not in “The Snake Pit.” It was Olivia de Havilland.

    It isn’t being an old fogey to say that an art form has declined. There are ebbs and flows; it happens. After all, the best play of all time was written in 1600. I would agree with Halliwell that the movies, in general, have declined since the forties. But I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible to make a great movie today; it just doesn’t happen as often. I loved “Magic in the Moonlight,” “Bridge of Spies” and “Love & Friendship.” But they turned out movies that good with regularity in the “golden age,” and Halliwell understood that.

    Reply

    • Posted by jacabiya on November 27, 2016 at 3:15 pm

      I believe you happened to find this article many years after it was published in this blog while doing a search on Halliwell, just like me back in 2014. It surprises me it took so long for someone to correct such an obvious mistake. Himadri, the creator of this blog, is recuperating from a health issue: hopefully he will answer your post soon enough.

      Reply

    • Hello Eric, and thank you very much for your comment. As Jacabiya says above, I am currently recuperating from serious illness, and am, as a consequence, a bit short of energy, so this reply will, I’m afraid, be a bit short.

      First of all, thank you for the correction – that was a bad error on my part, and I can only guess at what I was thinking of. I suspect I was thinking of the Susan Hayward film I’ll Cry Tomorrow, but why I should confuse that with The Snake Pit, I can’t imagine.

      I agree that there is really no reason why good films cannot be made nowadays: no generation is short of talent, after all. But I do find the generally dismissive attitude to old films (“it’s before my time”, meaning “it’s of no possible interest to me”) somewhat dismaying.

      I hope i’ll be well enough soon to engage more in discussion. All the best till then,
      Himadri

      Reply

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