The BFI Film Guides: A Guide

Books, Film

The British Film Institute shop continues to be the best destination I know of to find serious works on cinema. Its booklist includes the BFI Screen Guides, the International Screen Industries series and the prestigious BFI Film Classics, in which an academic conducts a study of a single film over 100+ pages. The BFI site lists them all, and they are enlightening reads for writers. A few thoughts to encourage you.

Never trust someone who puts ‘Pretty Woman’ in their top ten movies; it tells you too much about them. Making a list of your favourite films always risks exposing your personality. While they create a satisfying sense of order, they also reveal your age, class, intellect, sexual orientation and whether you have any symptoms of OCD.

The British Film Institute notched the art of list-making up a gear with their stylish pocket books of around 100 films apiece. The screen guides explore genres and aspects, of cinema in the kind of dense but revealing detail that listmakers love.

The titles I have include ‘100 Shakespeare Films’ by Daniel Rosenthal, covering a century of cinema, starting with a silent ‘Tempest’ (1907), one of a surprising number of mute Shakespearean films, through to Kenneth Branagh’s mysteriously vanished Japanese version of ‘As You Like It’ (2006). It’s surprising how many re-imaginings of classic texts there have been, from crime movies like ‘Joe Macbeth’, high school comedies like ’10 Things I Hate About You’ (a reworking of ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’) and even Shakespeare-based science fiction (‘Forbidden Planet’). ‘West Side Story’ famously added music to Romeo and Juliet, and ‘King Lear’ makes a natural western, but many of the entries are hard to come by, even with the availability of obscure internet sites.

The more constricting the subject, it seems, the better the guide. Jason Wood’s ‘100 Road Movies’ examines films about real and psychological journeys that range from ‘Vanishing point’ to ‘The Wizard Of Oz’. Road movies exploit the visual medium; they’re about landscape and humanity, freedom and choice, chance encounters and existential pleasures, but they do encourage pretentious directors to make statements about the psychic bond between man and road, and the curse of BFI writing can be a certain slavishness to films that a handful of academics consider to be good for us.

There’s a difference between films which are deliberately alienating and ones which are merely boring. At school it was always the art teacher who chose the Film Club movies, which limited his audience to fans of Wim Wenders and Jean-Luc Godard. If you expanded the concept of the road movie to embrace populist and even unfashionable films, you’d get an alternative but equally revealing list that would include everything from ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ to ‘Clockwise’. Sadly Wood takes the expected route and uses Chris Petit’s unbearable ‘Radio On’ as his road movie benchmark.

‘100 American Independent Films’ offers a mix of fashionable auteur movies like ‘Blood Simple’ and ‘Donnie Darko’, with a preface explaining the prerequisites for qualification. Strictly speaking, ‘independent’ means films financed by German dentists that feature stars who will work cheaply due to some recent career-demolishing scandal, but there are enough surprising inclusions to keep the subject fresh.

There are BFI guides to Bollywood, Anime, westerns, and hoorah – European horror films. Italy, Germany and Spain are key territories for new terror. Spain siphoned the horrors of the Franco regime through a dark lens. Films with minimal gore and heightened suggestion hark back to the classics and leave the greatest impression, so it’s surprising to find the British Gothic tradition under-represented. Certainly, many Italian films owe a debt of style to early Hammer films. The lists are personal recommendations, of course, primarily linked by intelligent writing, and should not cause too much anxiety about what’s been excluded.

A favourite of mine is ’100 Modern Soundtracks’ by Phillip Brophy, because it requires you to single out a particular element in a film. ‘Soundscapes’ should perhaps have been the title, for Brophy is concerned less about music stings and themes than with the ambience of a film’s sound design and how it can transform emotional tone. Brophy brings a welcome lightness of touch to his subject, noting that when haunted houses are beset by deafening ghostly crashes, characters timidly ask if anyone heard a noise, his point being that in such cases the sonic purpose of the film is not to describe reality or portray a psychological state, but to make viewers jump, thereby ending all attempts at plausibility.

Films can disturb more cleverly with the sound of silence; listen to the eerie longeurs in ‘The Innocents’ or ‘The Birds’. Neither Brian De Palma’s ‘Blow Out’, a film about the very essence of sound, nor Tobe Hooper’s ‘Poltergeist’, which virtually redefined aural effects in the 80s, make the cut here, but it’s the nature of all good lists to leave you with something to argue over.

This piece was not paid sponsorship, sadly. BFI, you could at least give me a discount!

32 comments on “The BFI Film Guides: A Guide”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    You show two of my favourites in your picture: ‘Quatermass And The Pit’, and ‘Witchfinder General’. Both movies from 1967, and both still extraordinary. Watched many times, and still find both completely entertaining. The BFI guides are definitely worth getting.

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    Of course the best Road movies were made by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

  3. kevin says:

    “Making a list of your favourite films always risks exposing your personality. While they create a satisfying sense of order, they also reveal your age, class, intellect, sexual orientation and whether you have any symptoms of OCD.”

    Really? Here goes:

    1. Mona Lisa by Neil Jordan
    2. Psycho by A. Hitchcock
    3. Kwaidan by Masaki Kobayashi
    4. Silence of the Lambs by Jonathan Demme
    5. Rear Window by A. Hitchcock
    6. Kill Bill by Q. Tarantino
    7. A Chinese Ghost Story 2 by Tsui Hark
    8. She’s Gotta Have It by Spike Lee
    9. Double Indemnity by Billy Wilder
    10. The Godfather Part 1 by M. Scorsese

    Who (or what) am I?

  4. Paul C says:

    Kevin – where’s Harold and Maude ?

  5. Brooke says:

    Well done, Kevin.

  6. Paul C says:

    Kevin – Godfather was Coppola not Scorsese !

  7. Jan says:

    1. Night of the Demon (I actually got round to reading the M.R. James short story during lockdown. The Collected Ghost stories of MR James was one of my phonebox library finds. Casting the Runes was really surprisingly one of the most un-scary horror stories I had ever read. Unlike ” Oh Whistle and I’ll come to to you my lad” which was well unsettling. ).

    I love that scene in the woods when Dana Andrews leaves Karswells home all the backlit trees. The house scene disturbs cos it’s all angled skew wiff but then the woods really get you.

    2. Escape from New York. I know – but I love it I had to think for ages whether it was number 1 or not. It’s the threat situation the bloke alone in this totally hostile environment. Like a SF western in a way. Isaac Hayes + Lee Van Cleef are both in it for a minute or two as well. I like the mechanical tinkly music too. Thats good.

    3. The Thing. AND They Live share third place for me which I know is a cheat.Couldn’t separate them tbh.

    4. 4 Weddings and a funeral. Posh people can be very comical and reminds me of working in. Kensington.

    5. Ghostbusters and the first follow up which I also liked. Bill Murray tickles me he seems to be difficult but funny. Colourful ghosts and the great big Pilsbury dough boy. And the song, a great song it’s got everything that film.

    6. Groundhog Day. Cos it was so original and funny. And Mr. Murray

    7. Miranda the Mermaid. And equally because I am such a big cheater “Splash” Young Tom Hanks and John Candy all the scenes with the female employee who works at the fruit depot are really funny. The lovely Rita Coolidge song at the end. If I could choose a voice I would choose to have a voice like Glynnis John’s in M the M.not really posh but less squeaky than mine she’s got a really husky voice. See I worked a reference in here to my third favourite in the 7. Mermaid films category “The Little Mermaid” Which I have got on video. Another Great song “Kiss the Girl” and Ursula is one of the greatest ever Disney villains. Best we leave the Mermaid films category now. Moving on.

    8. Quatermass and the Pit
    on one of the little Sky channels they recently showed the more modern John Mills as Quatermass tv series you know where the hippies are all trundling around the stone circles and going up in smoke. The Kit Pedlar series. Loved that as well. Although I was so knackered from a long day at work I dozed off on the sofa and slept through the end of it. Doh!

    9. Trading Places cos it’s proper funny and it says very cleverly what we all know soon as you have got something for yourself you want to be keeping it. And Denhelm Elliott (whose name I think I have spelt wrong. ) He was brilliant in it.

    10. Get Carter. Even just the music the start of that picture the journey from London to Newcastle with that music is for me about the best opening titles ever. Great music.

    11. Because I just couldn’t leave this out “Big” Tom Hanks
    If we were just doing non horror my bestest film. It’s a lovely film that makes you laugh and makes you cry. Tom H is brilliant in this he gets it just right and the Girl who falls for him is pretty good she plays the more difficult part in a way.
    They probably wouldn’t make this film now cos it’s all seen as being pretty dodgy ground but for me they got it on the nail. Lovely film. The scene where they find the Zoltar machine that place where the Zoltar machine is situated is brilliant and the ending makes me cry. When he goes in the house and you hear his mum.

    So there’s about 15 films in my Top 10 tells you about all you need to know really. Apart from the analytical stuff.

    Hope u r ok Mr. F been ever so busy @ work. Hope all is good with you. still not got e mail fixed. Car broke down also and the replacement was rubbish. I’ve got Mr. Skod the Skoda back now. Done so much walking am suffering from lead legs.

    Keep falling asleep on the sofa after I get in and waking up about 2.30-3.00 a.m. to find that I am watching shopping telly. Think hang on I was watching James Bond film or Derren Brown when I dozed off what’s occurring? The night time tv channels are infested with Ideal World and JML.Very confusing.

    Hope u r feeling good. Stay well Jan

  8. Peter Dixon says:

    Jan, – Get Carter. Journey from London to Newcastle. Now thats my kind of Journey.

    Actually the movie was meant to be set in Hull but when director Mike Hodges (Flash Gordon for God’s sake) saw Newcastle he couldn’t resist.

    There’s an occasional ‘Get Carter’ bus tour up here for real aficionados but almost everything has been knocked down. Including Alun Armstrong.

  9. Mike Hill says:

    I can’t resist. I have to share my Top 20 20th Century Films in alphabetical order (OCD?)

    Big Sleep, The (Bogart version)
    Blue Lamp, The
    Bonnie and Clyde
    Brighton Rock (Attenborough version)
    Get Carter
    Green Man, The
    Hidden City, The
    Interview with a Vampire
    J F K
    L A Confidential
    Ladykillers, The (Guiness version)
    League of Gentlemen
    Long Good Friday, The
    Maltese Falcon, The
    Never Let Go
    Pulp Fiction
    Raiders of the Lost Ark
    Richard III (Ian McKellen version)
    Sweet Smell of Success, The
    Touch of Evil

    I could cut’n’paste the other 80 from my 100 list but I won’t.

  10. Andrew Holme says:

    Best road movie is ,of course, ‘La Strada’, with everyone involved at the top of their game.

  11. Brian Evans says:

    Andrew, my fave road movie is “Genevieve”, and as you say, everyone at the top of their game, incl the usually dreary John Gregson.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Genevieve and the trumpet solo at the pre race party. Love that movie.
    Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon.
    The African Queen because the character contrasts are so absolutely priceless and she turns out to have common sense.
    The Lady Killers
    ( Ordering Kind Hearts and Coronets from the library. Have a feeling I haven’t seen it since 1958)

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – in ‘Get Carter’, did you notice in the opening scene (Roy Budd’s superb score has the music you liked entitled ‘Carter Takes A Train’), that, sitting in the same carriage as Jack Carter is a man wearing a prominent ring. This is the man who ruin’s Jack’s day at the end of the movie. Night Of The Demon. My all-time favourite movie. The rattling, coruscating ball of smoke and sparks that chases Dr Holden through Lufford Park is still chilling and infinitely creepy. Let it never be remade.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – in ‘Get Carter’, did you notice in the opening scene (Roy Budd’s superb score has the music you liked entitled ‘Carter Takes A Train’), that, sitting in the same carriage as Jack Carter is a man wearing a prominent ring. This is the man who ruins Jack’s day at the end of the movie. Night Of The Demon. My all-time favourite movie. The rattling, coruscating ball of smoke and sparks that chases Dr Holden through Lufford Park is still chilling and infinitely creepy. Let it never be remade.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Sorry for duplicating. I noticed a rogue apostrophe in the word ‘Ruins’. Unforgiveable. Had to correct it.

  16. Jan says:

    No I never noticed that guy Ian “Get Carter” was on telly not that long ago on some little Sky channel and i set off to watch it but ended up performing my falling asleep trick. I’ve got that off a treat the instant inadvertent snooze. Did well to get to where I did in the film. It’s weird though I love it but seeing the opening titles does me! He’s very watchable Michael Caine. Not in that he’s such a good looking bloke but there’s something about him that makes you want to keep looking at him. I read that once that on screen there’s only one face you really want to keep looking at and that’s the face of the star.

    Newcastle is such a scenic City Peter I think it’s a smashing place.

    My youngest nephew was a uni there and I spent bit of time up there with him. He took me on a good walk or two round the place John took me up took me up to Newcastle’s ground which is sort of on a hill above the commercial shopping part of the City and told me about how on match days you could hear a sort booming sound down in the commercial quarter. This sound being the roars of excitement of the crowd. Unusual to have a football ground so close to the City centre I think( or at least in my experience. ). I think Arsenals old ground was about the closest to the centre of London. Or Millwall maybe. Stamford Bridge is a fair way out now I have started thinking on that I wonder which is the football ground closest to the City centre of the town it represents? It’s probably somewhere totally unexpected like Norwich! Anyway I digress wandered off the path.

    John reckoned that proportionally out of the number of residents in the City Newcastle was the best supported team in the UK. He also told me that locally there’s some really interesting dialect words that don’t appear elsewhere in the UK that seem to have come over with the Vikings. I think one of them was “Ya” or “Ha” which meant good or fitting.

    I thought it was such an interesting city. Quite a compact place after John got his degree you know the presentation day we went for a meal at the Baltic place on the other side of the Tyne. is it Gateshead soon as you cross The river. The area round the rivers an amazing place larger defines the town doesn’t it the Tyne?

  17. Jan says:

    Ian it’s strange I have been thinking on what you said about never let there be a remake of N of the D and I dunno that I agree with you sir..

    The Casting the Runes story – I read through it through twice once not be be as frit as I thought I was gonna be. Secondly to try + suss out where they got the construction of the film from.”casting the Runes” does really supply like a skeleton for the script writers to flesh out but now with technology being so totally different there are possibilities.

    For me the scariest bit of the tale comes in its early stages when Dunning (the Dana Andrews character) is on a local tram journey home and spies an advert in his tram carriage at a bit of a distance from his seat. This advert it was blue letters on yellow paper and displayed the name of John HARRINGTON (The first victim of Karswells demon) Died 18/9/1889. 3 months allowed. There’s a bit of an extension to the incident that I won’t mention but it sort of makes Dunning realise he could be in a bit of bother.

    Later on he’s passed an advertising leaflet in the street which worries him. A series of other events kick off centering on his possibly being passed the runes.

    For me N of the D inspired “Fallen” the Gregory Hoblit film starting Denzil Washington. Another favourite movie of mine and I wondered if much more could be made of the passing of the Runes aspect of the tale. I would really like some decent director to have a pop at it. Somebody like Chris’s buddy Guilarmo Del Torro or Hoblit. (The Del Torro film with Mr Funny shoes the giant insect is a bloody good picture. Can’t remember it’s title but such a good film) I wouldn’t like to see it dissolve into a big computer generated horror fest but I think there’s another take on this story there. Another avenue worth exploring.

    There’s some elements there that could make for a wonderfully scary film.

    No one will better the trip to Karswell mansion the odd chequered floor moment then the woods but there’s room for another picture to be made – something well worth watching.

    I’d like to see it done.

    Actually while we are discussing Runes a bloke called Christopher Fowler wrote a novel called Rune inspired by this same tale. Starring a pre mystery Bryant and May. One of his best books I reckon. There’s a section near the end where he explains what runes are and how they survived in crafts and patterns outside the radar of Christian mainstream belief that for me is one of his best bits of writing.

  18. Paul C says:

    David (The Biographical Dictionary of Film) Thomson wrote the BFI monograph on ‘The Big Sleep’ which is the best one I’ve read. Some are far too dry and academic.

    Has anyone read his marvellous book ‘Suspects’ ? Dozens of short biographies of characters in film noir which go beyond their film appearances and start to intersect and crisscross with each other to form an overall plot. Dazzling prose (‘eyes like bulletholes’ comes to mind) and a book to treasure.

  19. snowy says:

    The most ‘blingy’ shoes in a GdT film are probably those worn by ‘Hannibal Chau’, [Ron Pearlman] in ‘Pacific Rim’. [They even merit a mid credits scene which cannot be described for spoiler reasons.]

    [Nice to learn somebody else enjoyed ‘Fallen’, despite looking very low-budget it is an interesting idea.]

  20. Ian Luck says:

    Never liked ‘Pacific Rim’, but I do like the bloody great mechs in it – I have models of some of them.

  21. Derek J Lewis says:

    Couldn’t someone just re-edit “night of the demon” and take the rubber monster out? Brilliant, scary performances by Bryan Wilde and one of my favourite actors ( and real life surgeon) Niall McGinnis.

  22. Paul C says:

    The rubber monster gave a more animated performance than Dana Andrews. Was there ever a blander actor ?

    Perhaps Keir Dullea of whom Graham Greene wrote ‘Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow’

  23. Peter Dixon says:

    Jan- yes, the Baltic is in Gateshead where lots of Get Carter was filmed, as well as scenes on the High Level bridge (Lord Armstrong again).

    The city is compact but with a lot of perspectives due to the river Tyne and bridges – I’d recommend a a 1950 movie called ‘The Clouded Yellow’ starring Trevor Howard and Jean Simmons, ‘Payroll’ a 1961 heist movie, and ‘Stormy Monday’ with Sting, Tommy Lee Jones and Melanie Griffith.

    Nowadays the area has been included in TVs ‘Spender’, ‘George Gently’ and most recently ‘Vera’

  24. Derek J Lewis says:

    You’re so right Paul. Of course Dana Andrews was having a bit of trouble with the bottle at the time. He got so sozzled on the flight over to the UK to start filming ‘night of’ that he famously fell down the aircraft’s steps on arrival.

  25. snowy says:

    Dana Andrews was probably cut off from his usual supply of prunes when filming in 1950s Britain.

    *Adjusts Fishnets*

    Ryan Reynolds has put in some astonishingly bland performances. Until ‘Deadpool’ he was ‘beige in human form’. [Eg. to see the absolute extremes compare ‘Deadpool’ with ‘RIPD’, both films based on Comic book characters.]

  26. Helen Martin says:

    Mr Reynolds has recently responded to our premier’s callout to speak to the younger thans about their response to pandemic restrictions. He pointed out that his mother lives here and he’d just as soon she wasn’t killed by this thing.

  27. Jan says:

    Mimic
    Was the name of that picture where the little lad describes the giant insect thing as Mr Funny shoes.

    Think it had lots of scenes in disused bits of the New York subway …was really interesting film.

  28. Jan says:

    I think someone wrote on this blog that the rubber monster scene was actually inserted into Night of the Demon against the wishes of the director purely because there really isn’t a denouement scene toward the end of the picture a scene in which the hero actually deflects or escapes from the monster. It’s a weird thing really the scene where the scary demonic monster puts in his appearance so early on in the film at the same time works and doesn’t work. At some level you think this baddie looks pretty much like grief best keep your distance from him and at another you think bloody hell is that it? Is that rubber stop motion toy /puppet really what we’re supposed to be concerned about?

    Wonder if all the scary later scenes would still resonate without the only semi successful early appearance of the demon. I dunno. In the story “Casting the Runes” it’s even flatter you hear about the initial victim you are made aware that Karswell is a bit loopy and that’s yer lot. For me it didn’t work at all. At least the punchy opening set off the story at a bit of a trot. Established that there was a fate well worth avoiding.

  29. snowy says:

    It was not me that mentioned it, but it is true that the Producer added extra scenes prior to distribution. A pointless act verging on a travesty, given Tourneur had directed ‘Cat People’ in 1943 which as a film is all suspense – the menace is entirely conjured in the mind of the viewer.

  30. Wayne Mook says:

    PS Publishing’s Midnight Movie Monographs are good, the BFi ones though are really good. Even if the BFI do sell Overlook socks (The Shining hotel, the socks have the same pattern as the carpet, really.)

    John Harrington – didn’t he invent the flush toilet? As a medieval scholar MR James would have known that, now what does that say?

    As to favourite films, I can’t pick 10 in a set genre let alone 10 across the whole gamut.

    Wayne.

  31. Ian Luck says:

    I like the Demon – it’s beautifully made, and originally, it was going to be made, and animated by the great Ray Harryhausen, but that fell through. The argument for and against it seems pointless now – Hal E. Chester inserted against everyone’s wishes/It was meant to be there all along… It’s pointless – it could have been a bloke in a rubber suit, but it isn’t. It’s a thing, sparingly shown, wreathed in smoke when it is, and more often than not, it’s presence is implied, which makes it more sinister. Be thankful for the superb movie we got, and not a tossed-off (stop laughing at the back) dull movie we might have got.

  32. Ian Luck says:

    Talking of Demons, I just read John Connolly’s ‘Samuel Johnson’ trilogy. Marketed as kid’s books, they are anything but. Imagine ‘Artemis Fowl’, but written by Douglas Adams, Professor Brian Cox, the Monty Python team, the creator of ‘Hellboy’, Mike Mignola, a soupçon of H.P. Lovecraft, and you’re nearly there. The tale of a rather odd boy and his dog, and the unpleasant neighbours at number 666, who are doing something iffy in their basement. Throw in an accident at CERN, footnotes about quantum physics and the nature of hell, and you have an extraordinary trio of books that’s thrilling, clever, laugh out loud funny, and in places (The Blacksmith in book II), heartbreakingly sad. I’m a big fan of Mr Connolly, and his thrillers, but these are simply exceptional. Oh, and the rowdy Dwarves in book II made me think of ‘Time Bandits’. They’re comedy gold.

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