'1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die' By Steven Jay Schneider (ed.) London: Cassell Illustrated, 2007. ISBN 978 1 8440 3618 9 960pp. (softback) £20.00

In an amiable and very perceptive forward to 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, General Editor Steven Jay Schneider identifies the desire of the book to motivate[original emphasis] the reader to seek out the films that are discussed in the resulting pages which attempts to offer up ‘an all-time, all-genre, all-world, must-see films list’(p.7). In this forward, Schneider also refers to the risk of having the book turn out to be ‘just a cinematic smorgasbord’ (p.8)- but this, to my mind, is unavoidable given the parameters that he subsequently outlines: Art is not to be prioritised over Commercial, the films of the Elite not to be elevated above those of the Popular. In essence, once one has decided to include, say, the Marx Brothers, the problem then becomes which one (or ones) make the “final cut”. Thus, the pursuance of this very activity in microcosm begins the process that drives the book to, ironically, what Schneider sought to avoid- an ‘edited highlights’ anthology of generic, national and directorial cinema.

For a book as ambitious as 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, perhaps the hardest step is knowing exactly where (or more precisely when) to begin. Interestingly, the book refuses to start with the origins of cinema in 1895, but instead plumps for Georges Melies 1902 A Trip To The Moon closely followed by Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). These are the only pre. 1915 movies to be included however- the omission of all the Lumiere Brothers’ admittedly short efforts being somewhat of a surprise.

Once the Hollywood Studio System becomes established, of course, the book comes into its own, wheeling out the Welles, Wyler, Hawks and Ford masterpieces that are to all intents and purposes expected. Once this process gets underway, two key questions force their way into the mind of the reader like two express trains set on a collision course. One such question is which major works will be included, the other question reversing this to ask which will be excluded. Due to its wide-ranging nature, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die is able to take a more holistic view of the whole situation- there is simply not room for a wealth of Welles, a wagon-load of Wylers, a handful of Hawks or a fistful of Fords. Instead, the choice is made- the key films identified- and the book moves on.

Naturally (and indeed unfortunately) it is a measure of a book like 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die to bring to mind those titles it fails to include. Of course, there must be some sense of perspective and a cut-off point somewhere, but puzzling early absences include Wings(1927), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Will Hay films full stop, whilst Bergman’s masterpiece Summer With Monika(1952) is overlooked in favour of other works from the Swedish maestro. Browsing through the list of films, and oddly answering both our previous questions simultaneously, does actually yield some enjoyably pleasurable surprises. For this author, the inclusion of The Mortal Storm(1940), the under-valued Max Ophuls film The Reckless Moment (1949), Malle’s Le Souffle Au Coeur (1971) and My Own Private Idaho (1991) proved unexpected, evidence that, despite its remit of just 1001 films, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die still manages to find room for some less obvious but nonetheless brilliant films.

Of course, once one finds the movie one had hoped to find (and there is an odd self-satisfied smugness in that very activity), there is the information to be consumed- and often an appropriate illustration to be studied. Apart from the technical details concerning each film, a short essay also accompanies each title. Overall, these critical insights-cum-reviews are reasonably incisive- but they are a very mixed bag, with an occasional tendency to elaborate every detail of plot at the expense of telling the reader just why a particular title is worthy of inclusion while another is not. One notable exception is Geoff Andrew, whose brilliant piece on Rebel Without A Cause concisely explains why he feels Nicholas Ray’s film is such an exceptional one without giving away anything more than outline plot details. As a lifetime Laurel and Hardy fan, this author was pleased to note the inclusion of Sons of the Desert(1933) but less pleased to observe that the plot apparently involves ‘a trip to Hawaii with the Freemason-like fraternity’ (p.116) as opposed to a trip to Chicago with the wives being told Ollie has to travel to Honolulu for his nervous disposition. Although the variety of critics used give the book a varied approach (and it would have been remarkably time-consuming were one man to have attempted to comment on all 1001 films!) it does lead to one problem. Like any compilation/anthology/collection (call it what you will), 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die is reliant on both the accuracy and the integrity of its contributors. With the wholesome approach of some being to invite you to appreciate what they see in the film, there is an opposing camp who feel it their entitlement to précis the plot in xwords yet offer little in the way of exposition as to the cinematic merits of the film and therefore reasons for its inclusion.

Despite its drawbacks however, one definite plus to the book is its inclusion of very much less well-known films (ranging from Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927) to Me and My Gal(dir. Raoul Walsh, 1932); Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow(1937) to Litvak’s rarely seen The Snake Pit (1948). If one can avoid being informed of the plot and also track down these often elusive titles the book can claim to have succeeded, for it has drawn attention to great films which may otherwise have been overlooked.

Unquestionably, despite the discussions and methodology outlined in the book’s forward any choice of one film over another displays a certain amount of subjectivity. Thus, whilst a nucleus of films is expectedly present, others make the “cut” for reasons beyond the comprehension of this author. One such example is David Lynch’s bizarre, grotesque symphony of boredom Eraserhead (1977), which is described by Schneider himself as ‘simply unforgettable’ (p.634). (I suppose it depends on what your definition of ‘unforgettable’ is). Another (to my mind) crass inclusion is John Carpenter’s horrendously overrated Halloween (1978), perhaps included more for its clichéd score than for any cinematic merit. There are other films dotted throughout which I would have preferred transposed, some swapped in, others swapped out, certain politically-correct titles ignored rather than cultivated just because it is fashionable to do so. These comments made, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die does set a very positive challenge. The simple fact that somebody believes a certain film is well worth watching and is willing to say so in print goes some distance toward people widening their usual cinematic tastes and watching something new. If indeed these are the ‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’ I hope that we all can live long enough to see them.

'1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die' is published by Cassell.

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