Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion, and its sister book, Halliwell’s Film Guide, had a special place in my distant youth. In an era when a kid could not own a bunch of movies (even when we got VHS, I couldn’t afford the blank tapes for a big collection of off-air recordings) a big book was a way to have a swathe of cinema at one’s fingertips. It was similar to the attraction of heavily illustrated tomes like Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies. You gazed in wonder at all the movies you might never see. The difference was, Leslie Halliwell achieved this effect without pictures, just by marshaling facts and opinions.
It’s the opinions that are the problem. While I still keep copies of his books around (not the latest editions, since the IMDb has largely destroyed the need for such reference books, but still, having the facts in hard copy form is useful at times), I’ve learned to largely ignore the value judgements expressed in the capsule reviews.
When I first held the Film Guide in my hands (which was exciting), I was astonished to discover that Halliwell awarded 0 stars out of a possible 4 to Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, indicating that the film was, in his opinion, of no interest to the average viewer. That was the first of various dismaying discoveries. In the edition before me, edited by John Walker, the film now gets 3 stars, but Halliwell’s review remains unchanged ~ “Intermittently lively, very violent, and interminably drawn-out Western with a number of rather hilarious stylistic touches.” Which suggests that Halliwell couldn’t recognise when Leone was being deliberately funny. My ten-year-old self had struggled a bit with Leone’s humour, but I eventually figured out the joke. Halliwell’s inability to do so might tell us a lot about the poor reception Leone tended to get from critics in his day.
I soon learned that Halliwell was not to be trusted on any film made after the 50s, because he just didn’t like modern cinema. The most recent film to get 4 stars was BONNIE AND CLYDE. As I grew more sophisticated, I perceived that he couldn’t really be trusted on earlier films either, since he tended to misunderstand even the great films he liked: he once wrote that the climax of THE RED SHOES seemed tacked-on, as if they couldn’t think of a way to end it. Which demonstrates pretty conclusively that, while enjoying and appreciating the film as the masterpiece it is, he totally missed the point of it.
I did discover that LH had a kind of negative genius for picking out films of rare interest, and roundly condemning them. Long before I saw the films reviewed below, I was drawn to them by Halliwell’s scathing denunciations, which seemed to promise the kind of corrupting and depraving adult entertainment every growing boy needs. See if you can identify the films ~
Despite undeniable technical proficiency this is its writer-director’s most outrageously sick film to date, campy, idiosyncratic and in howling bad taste from beginning to end, full of worm-eaten skulls, masturbating nuns, gibbering courtiers, plague sores, rats, and a burning to death before our very eyes… plus a sacrilegious dream of Jesus.
Couldn’t get my head round that at all. He says “campy” and “idiosyncratic” as if those were BAD things. And wnat’s wrong with rats? And he seems to enjoy the blasphemy in Bunuel, so why not here?
A repulsive film in which intellectuals have found acres of social and political meaning: the average judgment is likely to remain that it is pretentious and nasty rubbish for sick minds who do not mind jazzed-up images and incoherent sound.
Brilliant, I thought. I not only don’t mind “jazzed-up images,” I adore them! In fact, Halliwell’s denunciation was never the “average judgment” of this vert successful box-office hit, nor has such a view prevailed over time.
Not badly made but rather seedy film about appalling people.
The most excessive and obscene of all this director’s controversial works, incapable of criticism on normal terms except that it seems unusually poor in production values.
Our man is being rather inconsistent here, since this film is by the same director as the first example. They can’t BOTH be his most obscene work, surely?
Appalling kaleidoscope of black comedy and the director’s own brand of uncontrolled cinematic zaniness, with echoes of Candide and Oh What A Lovely War! Just the way to alienate a paying audience.
Oh yeah, you keep Voltaire well away from our poor defenseless paying audiences.
The person who does the best job identifying these movies wins a copy of one of them.
Emil Jannings as Henry VIII.
So why do I still keep these books, and why do I cite them as influences on my becoming a cinephile? Well, for all his middlebrow curmudgeonly philistinism, Halliwell had certainly seen a lot of films, and he was happy to pass his experience on to the rest of us. I not only used his books as occasional references, I devoured them, cover to cover, soaking up information on the films that interested me, and locating many others that seemed worthy of pursuit. Leonard Maltin’s books, harder to find in the UK, contained fewer preposterous critical own goals, but also fewer cast and crew credits. Cross referencing between the Film Guide (movies) and the Companion (people), I could assemble a personal cinema history of the cinema I was interested in. While scorning Halliwell’s opinions, I nevertheless owe him a massive debt.