David Thomson’s Have you Seen…? could easily be passed over as an old fashioned, frankly unnecessary brick of a book. At 1000 pages, this is a film guide that recalls the era when Halliwell’s, and then later perhaps Time Out, provided your unputdownable film reference. Do we need such a heavy manual in this age of gadgetry? Can’t we just look for reviews on our iPhones? Well we can, although Thomson provides a very refreshing collection of film writing that’s worth investigating if you have the muscle.
Have you Seen...? Have you the strength to lift it?
How do you read a heavy film guide? Do you simply plough in from the start? Do you do what I did and look up all of your favourite films from memory until you are exhausted? Thomson lists his reviews alphabetically, beginning with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and ending with Zabriskie Point. He also provides a chronology, listing the films he’s covered from 1895 (L’Arrosseur Arrossé) through to 2007 (You, the Living). He doesn’t provide an index, however, so if – like me on my second interrogation of the book – you want to look up specific actors or directors, you’ll find this harder to do.
Like every film reviewer, Thomson is opinionated, and, like every film book, you’ll find opinions you’ll agree with more than others. You’ll find opinions that will make you cross. The films left out can also annoy, so while he includes Kind Hearts and Coronets, he doesn’t include The Ladykillers. Where’s Get Carter? Where’s Billy Liar and A Kind of Loving? Why does he include some tv such as The Sopranos? And so on. It’s also very easy to tell who his favourites are; he’s obviously a fan of Ridley Scott (next time you’re in the bookshop have a sneaky read of the excellent Alien review) but not so much of Spielberg. And he’ dismissive of Star Wars to the point that it’s hardly worth him including it at all. Of all the film genres out there, he’s most baffled by horror, and repeats himself several times by stating that the genre dates badly. But when he does tackle it, for example Rosemary’s Baby and The Silence of the Lambs, he writes well.
Of all the geniuses of film, Thomson writes best on Hitchcock. On Psycho:
After one of the great night drives in American film, with torment in the rearview mirror, Marion comes to a shabby motel bypassed by the new highway – in the fifties, America’s rural character was erased by freeways. Yet something remained in the bypassed spots – rancor, regret, revenge, as mothers and sons huddled together in the same lamplight.
Elsewhere in the book there’s excellent musings on Hitchcock’s other major films, as well as interesting insight into the careers of Welles, Polanski and Kubrick. But this is a film guide beyond review, mostly because I’m still reading it, and I’ll be reading it for years to come. Now I’ve got to know Thomson, agreed to disagree in several areas, I’m moving on to the discovery phase – reading about the cinema I’ve missed, avoided or simply don’t know. Because this guy has seen an awful lot of films…