Louis Giannetti’s Understanding Movies is a popular textbook in film school and his Masters of the American Cinema should be too, because it provides a fine survey of filmmaking styles, film theory and history in an easy to read and highly entertaining volume. The edition I read is a 1981 paperback, 466 pages packed full of facts and insight. In the introduction, Giannetti outlines the history and structure of the studio system, defines genre, warns against easy or blanket theories and weighs American’s cinema’s shortcomings against its unique assets and huge contributions. Then he chooses 18 directors and, in detailed essays discussing their career and analyzing their films, he looks at their signature themes and approaches, their places in and impact upon cinema, and how they measure up against each other. Wherever helpful and relevant, Giannetti explains trends in Hollywood and beyond, the concerns and background of each, and the industry each filmmaker operated in. Giannetti also stops to define terms, concepts, theory and background related to or best illustrated by each director, all of which adds up to a history and film school crash course provided with each concise and fascinating biography.
So, in the Ernst Lubitsch section, you get a full explanation of what is meant by his unique “touch” with an analysis of how much he drew from the comedy of manners, and how he refined those stories of the idle and absurd rich for the screen. In John Ford’s chapter, Giannetti examines the enduring appeal of the western, its place as a subspecies of the epic, as well as the significance in Ford’s films of community rituals and institutions, leisurely structure and underplayed violence. Howard Hawks first considered how his material might work as a comedy, and his ideal “man is measured a la Hemingway, by how good he is at his work.” William Wyler’s films constitute the substance of Samuel Goldwyn’s reputation, so Giannetti describes the nuts and bolts of their professional relationship and also defines what is meant by the “prestige picture.” From Fritz Lang’s chapter we learn about noir, expressionism, social criticism, melodrama and how some of his characters’ obsessions with revenge make them as machinelike as their persecutors. Orson Welles’ films are marked by searches, extremists and obsessives; Billy Wilder was shaped by his years as an expose journalist and the influence of the “Lost Generation” writers; the conflicts in Elia Kazan’s work calls for a comparison of “individual” vs. “societal” values; Alfred Hitchcock makes the most of offbeat settings, philosophical and religious and gender tensions, and makes events seem predestined and unavoidable. These are just a few examples from the 18 intelligent essays on the men mentioned above, plus D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Frank Capra, John Huston, Fred Zinnemann, Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman.
Giannetti spends a lot of space in each section discussing the way each of these directors wrote scripts or worked with writers, how they collaborated and how much value they placed on fidelity to source material and the page, how much they changed during shooting, and if they allowed actors to alter so much as a syllable. Even the photo captions are packed full of analysis, quotes and biographical facts. It’s very much a textbook but very accessible and enjoyable. If you think you know all of these directors and their movies inside out, you’re bound to learn something new about their beginnings and behind-the-camera travails, and you’ll also have basic ideas reinforced in very entertaining style (I laughed out loud at and reread several vivid scene dissections in the Lubitsch chapter). I’d call it essential reading for newbies who need an intro to these people or to classic movies, and it makes a nice starting point for further exploration through individual biographies and binge viewing. My edition has extensive bibliographies at the end of each chapter, a glossary of technical, industry and critical terms, and the all-important index.