I was introduced to Halliwell’s Film Guide in 1986 when my parents gave me a copy of the 5th Edition for passing my O levels. I’d had a long-standing interest in movies both old and new but my only previous reference book had been The Futura Illustrated Film Guide, which covered barely a few hundred of the most famous titles. I could see that it would be no match for the hefty tome which my folks had now presented me with and instead would languish neglected on a shelf from that moment on. Halliwell’s book was big – very big. Flipping through the pages I could see that it contained literally thousands of films, all dealt with in the same concise style. How was it possible, I wondered, to see all these films in one lifetime? I’m still wondering now.
I immediately set about looking up all my favourites of the time: The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now; Rocky II and First Blood; Convoy and Beverly Hills Cop. Now, even back then I knew that Stallone films were not exactly highly regarded by the movie cognoscenti but I felt sure that the Vietnam epics would be praised, especially since a whole bagful of Oscars (surely an unquestionable indicator of quality?) had been dished out to them. Alas no, the films listed above received the sum total of four stars, with the Guide’s assessments ranging from ‘…too noisy to sleep through’ to ‘pure blood and thunder…’ Who was this man who couldn’t see Stallone’s genius, and felt that he could second guess the Academy? What did he know?
As I leafed through the Guide I struggled at first to find any films that the author did like. There seemed to be some sort of star system in place to rate the movies but none of them seemed to have any stars! Gradually though, a pattern emerged and it became clear that this chap, whoever he was, liked the oldies. This was fine by me because even then I enjoyed the films of Gene Kelly and Humphrey Bogart etc., but whilst movies from the Golden Age had always intrigued me, it was because of Halliwell’s Film Guide that I developed a much wider-reaching interest in the era and many of its best productions became my favourites, and remain so today.
I was astonished at the level of research that had obviously gone into the Guide’s production but I was also fascinated by the consistency of the opinions offered. You’d think just occasionally he might have let his guard down; allowed himself to enjoy something he knew deep down was a bit rubbish, as I’m sure we all have from time to time. But no, he stuck resolutely to his critical guns and throughout the 16,000 entries there isn’t one film you think might have been reviewed in an offhand moment. Each one seems to have been given an equal chance, which is remarkable in itself: who couldn’t have preconceptions when going to see The Amazing Colossal Man or Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, yet they both seem to have been given a fair crack of the whip, each receiving at least a star.
His ability to damn with faint praise also amused me. Imagine you were involved in the production of the 1957 movie Account Rendered. You’ve put every drop of creative talent you have into this film – it’s Citizen Kane as far as you’re concerned – only to have it dismissed as an ‘adequate lower-billed suspenser’ by some chap from Bolton who’s never even been on a movie set in his life.
If a movie was an adaptation Halliwell seemed always to have seen the play or read the book it was based on, and sometimes here stepped a little out of his remit by italicising the name of the author or playwright – his way of indicating a contribution of particularly high standard. These italics also fascinated me, especially in what would come to represent for me the ultimate expression of Halliwell’s personality: the Gladys George Effect. She was an actress who appears in one of Halliwell’s favourite movies, The Maltese Falcon, in 1941. In the entry for this film every member of the cast and crew listed receives italics… except for poor old Gladys. She plays the widow of Humphrey Bogart’s partner and performs capably enough in my opinion. Anyone else might have thought: well, it’s such a great movie why not just give everyone italics? But no, Halliwell’s fastidious devotion to duty would never permit of such sentimental slackness.
If I hadn’t already grasped the thrust of Halliwell’s personal prejudices, his almighty whinge on the then current state of the cinema, The Decline and Fall of the Movie, the essay to be found at the back of the Guide, certainly rammed home the message. It seems all the more remarkable to me these days as the seventies are now viewed as some sort of halcyon decade for film-makers. Peter Biskind’s celebration of those times, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, lists at its conclusion the notable works by directors featured in the book. The sum total of sixty-three films are listed. Sixty-three films in sixteen years, and even then the list includes Popeye, At Long Last Love, Heaven’s Gate, The Last Movie, One From the Heart, Sorcerer, New York New York and 1941, and many others which also only serve to prove LH’s point about directors being ‘concerned only to over-spend enormous budgets while putting across some garbled self-satisfying message’.
However, that doesn’t mean that films from the Golden Age automatically received higher ratings than the more recent ones. In fact, due to the volume of films made during that era, quite the opposite is true. There is a tendency – and I was aware of it at the time – for any old movie to be declared a ‘classic’ simply by virtue of its age. My other film guide had been guilty of this behaviour, but here was someone who obviously knew what he was talking about, quite prepared to say that old films had their share of turkeys too. For my edition Halliwell had re-researched the 1930s in particular detail so that, according to the fly-leaf, ‘few people in the world will now be able to name English-speaking films of that era which do not find a place.’ But this was, as I have mentioned, the fifth Edition of the Guide, i.e. all the films of even the slightest merit were already included in its pages. So, at the outset of this new research Halliwell would have been more than well aware that the thousand-odd movies he was about to add to his Guide were all going to be completely rubbish! And he would have to watch them all in order to give his assessments. How many hours of dubious entertainment was he therefore sentencing himself to?
For twenty years Halliwell’s Film Guide has been my cinema bible, and whilst I occasionally defect to certain online reference sources for more in-depth information, it is to the Guide I immediately turn after watching a movie, simply to find out what Halliwell thought of it. And whilst I may agree or disagree with the assessment given, it is rare that I don’t at least appreciate his point and wish that I could discuss it with him further, perhaps over a curry supper.
Halliwell appeared a little snooty about home video but I’ve often wondered if he eventually bought into it and, like most people, had a stack of movies on tape? What would he have made of laserdiscs? Would he have been an avid devotee of the Criterion Collection? And DVDs? Without all these I would never have been able to see the films Halliwell cherished so much: Lost Horizon, The Bride of Frankenstein, Citizen Kane, The Old Dark House, Things to Come, The Maltese Falcon, A Matter of Life and Death, Destry Rides Again… I’ve seen all of those and yet in another sense I haven’t and never will. I’ll never know what it was like to see a gleaming new print freshly-struck from a pristine negative, thrown up through light onto a giant four-by-three screen and appreciated with hushed reverence by a packed house, all sitting in the plush warmth of a newly-built 1930s Odeon...