I took a shot on Gary Giddins' Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema thanks to a nice sale price and Amazon's Look Inside feature which reveals a Table of Contents half-filled with DVDs I already owned. Since it arrived I've had a hard time putting Warning Shadows down: Giddins makes me want to run back to Amazon to buy the titles I'm missing and has me making notes of which commentary tracks to listen to later on those I already own!
He likes the films I like, and yeah, they're classics so you probably like them too, but he connects in not only liking them for the reasons I do, but for expressing what's good (and sometimes bad) about familiar DVD titles in an elegant writing style that I can only hope seeped into my own sub-conscious for an occasional unintended imitation.
I could only wish to write such a tight summary of The Third Man for instance:
Set in Vienna in 1947, the film is a thrilling contradiction. Misery, menace, and horrific crimes play cheek by jowl with inspired comedy and Anton Karas's hauntingly buoyant zither music--which transformed a beer-garden entertainer into the most profitable Austrian composer since Johann Strauss II. The Third Man is often characterized as perfect, which seems fair. Greene's script, improved by Reed, who devised the unforgettable close scene over Greene's objections, is Aristotle-pure; even throwaway lines (and there aren't many) divulge increased significance on repeated viewings. Robert Krasker's photography, coached by Reed's blueprint of off-kilter angels, continues to astonish. Vincent Korda's set design fastidiously complements the bombed exteriors and personalities of the characters--counterintuitively in the case of Harry Lime, whose bedroom is disarmingly feminine with its delicate fixtures, vanity table and quilt.
Giddins peppers each entry, and there are 71 of them, most covering more than one title, with every bit of relevant detail from the latest DVD release. There's the film itself, the extras, commentary tracks, even the packaging sometimes draws comment, plus he often pulls in literary or historical comparisons to the film in question, the occasional personal anecdote, all in typically just 4 or 5 pages as each of these essays were previously published as columns for publications such as The New York Sun, DGA Quarterly, and The New York Times Book Review.
It was during the section on Musicals that Giddins' text makes clear his speciality, Jazz. If there was any small criticism of Warning Shadows it'd probably be that somebody such as myself, previously unfamiliar with the well-respected Giddins because of my own lack of interest in this area, immediately recognized Jazz as his passion. Sure enough looking at his personal website Jazz is Gary Giddins' thing. He's authored 10 books on the subject including biographies of Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and even Bing Crosby's early years plus currently writes for Jazz Times among other publications. I only mention this because it stood out to me, but there's really not so much included to distract the non-fan, such as myself, from the film coverage and like the rest of Giddins' writing what is there is very well done.
If you're looking for pictures head elsewhere, Warning Shadows is 400 or so pages of pure text. You want images, pop in one of the DVD's Giddins writes about.
Titles covered are arranged into sections such as Directors and Stars, where for example the "That Wild So-And-So William A. Wellman" entry covers not only its focus, Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume Three, including extras, but also an overview of Wellman's entire career including other titles available elsewhere on DVD and more which aren't, but probably should be. Movies by Genre are naturally further divided into the genres themselves including Biopics where you'll find Young Mr. Lincoln and Lust for Life discussed in the same article, Lust for Lives, and the aforementioned Musicals where not only is The Jazz Singer discussed in Who's Afraid of Al Jolson, but the entire contents of Warner's huge 2007 3-Disc tribute to the early talkies are covered.
While the nature of this collection casts some immediacy over reading it, I recommend that you do just that, read it ASAP. Giddens actually opens Warning Shadows with a brisk 17-page essay titled "Home Alone With Classic Cinema" that covers the history of how we have watched film from the 19th Century peep show through to the 21st Century DVD. So what's inside Warning Shadows is for the the here and now, DVD releases from 2005-2009, but it's Gary Giddins' descriptions of the much older source material which makes Warning Shadows a title which will retain relevancy long after your bulky collection has been traded in for a palm-load of classic movie downloads. In five years time Warning Shadows could be an underground guide to a hobby as niche as vinyl collecting is today, but that said, here in 2010, Giddins makes releases issued 5 years ago as fresh as the limited pickings coming out next Tuesday and the one after that.
For more: Book Review: 'Warning Shadows' by Gary Giddens in the May 23, 2010 edition of the Los Angeles Times