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As part of its project to restore 360 ‘classic’ films to their show print condition the British Film Institute is producing a paperback book to accompany each film. 

The first four books showed a great deal of promise. Although the books are fairly short they do encourage you to want to see the films again, and they contain notes, references and a full list of credits to aid further study. I would like to see an index for the benefit of quick reference in future editions. 

All the volumes are well designed in a manner that identifies them as part of a series without making them look too uniform. They contain a useful selection of black and white illustrations (colour illustrations are included in The Wizard of Oz). Though it is annoying that you have to break the spine of the book in order to see all the text. 

The books do not follow a standard format which allows the authors to provide their own unique outlook on the specific film in question. This is a definite bonus but it does make the selection of the right author for the right film crucial. As a consequence I hope they do not fall into the trap of selecting ‘celebrity’ authors rather than those who can actually impart far greater knowledge and enthusiasm for the film under discussion. 

Here's a look at the first four titles: 

Double Indemnity 
by Robert Schickel, BFI, London, 1992. 72 pages, £5.95. 

Brilliant. This makes you want to rush out to see the film and read James M. Cain's original book. Schickel discusses the general pulp origins and popular success of Cain's story. Hollywood obviously wanted to cash-in on this success but the Breen Office censors thought it would be impossible to screen. Schickel shows how director Billy Wilder and screenwriter Raymond Chandler met this challenge and how they improved the original story. This is a very rare event, indeed most screenplays are usually regarded as inferior to their original source. Authors often want nothing to do with the film versions of their work (Stephen King has recently wanted his name removed from the credits of The Lawnmower Man) but in this case Cain was impressed by the changes.

As with most film productions things didn't go smoothly. Chandler and Wilder were completely different characters who tended to irritate each other, in addition Chandler was withdrawing from alcoholism and disliked Cain's writings. In a letter he said that Cain's work reminded him of 'A brothel with a smell of cheap scent in the front parlour and a bucket of slops at the back door.' 

The skill of Wilder was to use accident and serendipity, when shooting the film between 27 September and 24 November 1943, to create just the right atmosphere for this story of crime and double-crossing. An expensive execution scene was dropped during post-production but connoisseurs of the finished film still debate whether Barbara Stanwyck's blonde wig is too over the top. Another problem was whether to include a 'hot sexual encounter' between the two protagonists, there is obviously no question about using such scenes today (indeed it seems obligatory!) but the film probably works just as well without such an encounter. 

Today Double Indemnity is an uncontested ‘classic’ but it did not do very well at the box office and its Academy Award chances were obliterated by Leo McCarey's Going My Way

Stagecoach 
by Edward Buscombe, BFI, London, 1992. 95 pages, £5.95. 

This is another excellent book. Director John Ford's confusing political attitudes are discussed, and he is seen as a supporter of Roosevelt's New Deal in this film, especially by way of having the unpleasant character of Gatewood attacking such ideas. 

Buscombe defends Ford's portrayal of national and ethnic groups (p. 32) though later he admits 'Stagecoach cannot be completely absolved of the casual racism of its time.' (p. 52) Often this is used as a means of injecting humour into the story and he uses blatant sexism for the same purposes. Ironically, this film was made with female viewers in mind. An essential part of the drama and this strategy is Lucy's pregnancy. 

The context of Western stories and B-movies is examined along with the concept of the odyssey and Old Testament views of revenge. Ford's use of geography reveals that the journey in Stagecoach is imaginary - they never get beyond Monument Valley! This certainly must have saved time and money but might also represent Ford's view that Westerns are part of a mental landscape and therefore do not need to be grounded in reality. 

Went The Day Well? 
by Penelope Houston, BFI, London, 1992. 62 pages, £5.95. 

A reasonable guide to this modest film about Germans trying to infiltrate an English village.

The Wizard Of Oz
by Salman Rushdie, BFI, London, 1992. 69 pages, £5.95. 

The contents are more like a series of articles. Disappointing. 

Nigel Watson
 
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