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Books on Film

January 04, 2004|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Sun Staff

Critic Peter Conrad has written an unconventional biography of Orson Welles by examining his career as a filmmaker, actor and writer in the context of the facts, self-inventions and obsessions of his tumultuous life. Conrad traces Welles' connections with Shakespearean tragic figures, his manifestations as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane and Harry Lime in The Third Man and his countless uncompleted film projects.

Conrad's Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life (Faber and Faber, 368 pages, $25) is documented by an impressive amount of detail and cross references of cultural history and historical analysis. Conrad paints Welles as a man enthralled with ideas but often unable to translate them into completed work. As time passed, Welles began to see himself more as an ineffectual being. The work he did finish was in varying degrees taken away from him, and at the end he was better known for TV commercials ("We will sell no wine before its time") than his movies.

And yet what sustains interest in Welles is the work he did complete. Besides Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil stands as an original and brilliant film, Othello is one of the great film adaptations of Shakespeare and The Lady from Shanghai has mind-boggling visual flourishes. There has never been an interconnected career and life quite like his.

Little known outside the film world, Walter Murch is without peer as a sound and film editor. He's worked on all three Godfather movies, American Graffiti, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now (including the Redux version), The English Patient and the reconstructed Touch of Evil. Novelist Michael Ondaatje, who met Murch during the filming of his book, The English Patient, has produced the engaging The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, (Knopf, 368 pages, $35) where the two share their passion for storytelling, filmmaking and the creative process.

Through stories and animated discussions about how the movies Murch edited were made, the reader gets an intimate view of the editing process, which is the least understood component of creating any work of art. Murch studied film at USC, where he met future directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. The three worked together during much of the 1970s, when Murch developed the skills and originality that eventually made him a three-time Oscar winner.

What distinguishes Murch and the book is his diversity of interests and knowledge. Coppola says Murch is the "film world's one intellectual. ... He thinks in terms of literature and philosophy." This beautifully illustrated book is perfect for serious film students and for the serious movie fan.

Lew Wasserman, who made MCA the leading talent agency and who later bought Universal Studios and transformed it into the quintessential entertainment conglomerate, was the last great movie mogul. His influence on modern Hollywood and its development as a global force has been well documented. What distinguishes veteran journalist's Kathleen Sharp's Mr. And Mrs. Hollywood (Carroll & Graf, 400 pages, $28) is her reporting on Lew Wasserman's wife, Edie, his lifelong companion / adviser, whose social power-brokering was unsurpassed.

Author Sharp concentrates on four periods of their life: obtaining the prize (1958-1962); rising to the test (1962-1969); celebrating the crown (1969-1980) and safeguarding the legacy (1981-2001). The first section details MCA's battles with antitrust prosecutors and Lew's secret real-estate deal with Ronald Reagan. The second phase examines MCA's dominance in television based on Lew's development of made-for-TV movies and Edie's great influence with gossip columnists.

The final sections include the glory days of the studio's blockbuster movies such as Jaws, Animal House and E.T., the development of the couple's significant political influence and the philanthropy of their later years, up to Lew's death in 2002. Sharp's six-year project is built on solid research and journalistic determination and makes for intoxicating reading.

David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf, 976 pages, $35) is the 2002 update of the reference book that probably has started more arguments about movies than any other. With more 300 new entries and countless updates, critic Thomson is even more provocative, stimulating and original than ever.

This massive work, first published in 1975, covers the entire history of film, from the Lumiere brothers, the silent era, the studio days, the iconoclastic 1970s to the present. Thomson writes with a scalpel. His razor-sharp opinions can be unsparing and his ability to dissect and summarize in a few sentences is amazing.

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