What’s Eating Leslie H? – A Critical Look at Halliwell’s Film Guide

In his day, Leslie Halliwell was one of the world’s best-known film critics – but like Philip Larkin as jazz critic, he was not without his flaws.

The comparison is not an idle one – anyone familiar with both Halliwell’s Film Guide and Larkin’s jazz criticisms will know why. While Larkin was a die-hard fan of trad-jazz, lamenting the ‘filthy racket’ of the post-bebop world, Mr H felt the same way about post-40s cinema.

If you think that’s a sweeping generalisation – consider this. According to Leslie Halliwell, by the time Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the cinema was already in terminal decline.

Halliwell used a four-star scale in his film appraisals with only films which represented a ‘major milestone’ in cinema getting the coveted four. Most films in his guide in fact, get no stars at all indicating a ‘totally routine’ production or worse.

On the face of it, that sounds reasonable enough – except the last film to get a four-star rating from Halliwell was 1967’s ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ And he didn’t die until 1989.

Let that sink in for a minute. Not a single film after 1967 got a four-star grade. Not a single film in 22 years of reviewing. From the 70s, his guide snubs such famous flicks as Alien, Manhattan, Annie Hall, Cabaret, All the President’s Men, Deliverance, the Tin Drum, the Exorcist, Apocalypse Now, A Clockwork Orange, Rocky – and of course, Star Wars.

Things are no better in the 80s. And while most modern-day critics would endorse the likes of Ran, the Empire Strikes Back, ET, Blue Velvet, Cinema Paradiso,  The Color Purple, Gorillas in the Mist, Terms of Endearment, Blade Runner and Amadeus, it seems dear old Leslie H was having none of it. Granted, some of those movies may have been given a few grudging stars here and there, but none got the coveted four. Not one was adjudged a milestone in cinema history.

If that sounds a bit harsh, it’s because it is. There’s no two ways about it. And while Halliwell’s knowledge of cinema from the Golden Age of Hollywood (pre-1950 or so) is without equal, you cannot say the same for his knowledge of – or at least open-mindedness towards – anything done after the 60s.

The above cannot be emphasised enough. The bulk of Halliwell’s selections from the early days of the medium are admirable. The pre-talkie era yields up such gems as the Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the Battleship Potemkin and the General alongside lesser-known worthies like Easy Street and The Cure.

Predictably The Jazz Singer (as the first-ever talkie) gets its four-stars before we launch into a list of all the usual suspects from the 30s and 40s. Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, Rebecca, Pinocchio, Stagecoach, the Maltese Falcon and Casablanca are all present and correct.

I can’t even fault Halliwell’s taste in films from later decades – I just wish there were more of them.

By the time of the final edition published during Halliwell’s lifetime, we had just five, four-star entries for the 60s – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy, A Hard Day’s Night, A Man for All Seasons and Bonnie and Clyde.

Of those, I’ve seen all bar the Harold Lloyd one – which (on the basis of the clips I have seen) would no doubt be enjoyed by those old enough to remember the venerable comic from first time around, but I suspect would be less interesting to those (like myself) who aren’t. Halliwell as usual had his rose-tinted specs glued firmly to the end of his nose.

But where’s Psycho? Where’s West Side Story or the Graduate? Where’s Easy Rider, 2001 a Space Odyssey or Kes? Granted, no critic in the world will ever perfectly mirror the tastes of their audience – but so consistent is Halliwell’s anti-modernist tone one begins to suspect a kind of perverse, wilful fogeyism at work. 

Again, we’re back to the Larkin analogy – loving the Louis Armstrongs but hating the Charlie Parkers. Embracing the Bessie Smiths, the Bix Beiderbecks and the Lester Youngs while cocking a snook at the John Coltranes and the Charlie Minguses. What a sad state of affairs.

Had Halliwell lived into the 90s would his views have mellowed at all? I doubt it. You even wonder whether Schindler’s List, Goodfellas, the Shawshank Redemption or Jurassic Park would have warmed the cockles of his heart, or been dismissed like so many before them. Writing spoof Halliwell is not a very difficult game to play. Imagine the following:

Goodfellas – ‘Over-long gangster picture, festooned with violence and unnecessary sadism. A waste of the talent involved. One star.’

Schindler’s List – ‘Sentimentalised account of history. Little imagination at work. Two stars’.

Jurassic Park – ‘Eye-catching special effects are insufficient to plug the dirth of fresh ideas or inspiration. A cheap-jack carnival ride aimed squarely at the untrained mind. One star.’

Meanwhile, third-rate schlock from the 1940s or dull star vehicles from the 1930s made by now-forgotten directors would get equal or better billing, purely by virtue of when they were made.

Halliwell even wrote an essay entitled ‘The Decline and Fall of the Movie.’ Reflecting his general view of cinema, namely that it reached its peak in the early days of the talkies, began to decline with the advent of rock n’ roll and by the start of the 70s was just about ready to die and be buried.

The self-conscious fogeyism I mentioned before is in full swing in Mr H’s unapologetically retrograde essay.

After trashing Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange (two films from the early 70s now hailed as modern classics by most film guides), he states:

“Steeped in the history of Hollywood’s golden age, they (film-makers), have no idea what made it work so well, and as soon as they become successful they begin to despise their audiences and are concerned only to over-spend enormous budgets while putting across some garbled self-satisfying message which is usually anti-establishment, anti-law-and-order and anti-entertainment.”

He goes on to bemoan the influence of ‘such long-haired publications as Sight and Sound’ and a ‘variety of earnest critics who bend over backwards to see significance where none exists.’

Instead of a sincere defence of a superior age of film-making this just comes across as wilfully perverse and narrow-minded. Is it true that A Clockwork Orange contains no coherent message at all other than a knuckle-headed celebration of violence? How about a scathing satire of social control? Of governmental corruption? Of the need for human beings to be able to make valid, purposive decisions if they are to be ‘good’ – rather than just the clockwork automatons of the title?

The adjective ‘long-haired’ though clunky is significant here. It seems to suggest a general dislike of the attributes of a younger generation. I have no idea what Leslie H’s musical tastes ran to, but I can imagine him hugging his Vera Lynn or Gracie Fields records while bemoaning those horrid Rolling Stones gradually luring young people to antisocial excess.

In fact, Halliwell’s rationale seems to be that there are areas of life where films should not venture. Explicit depictions of rape, torture or violence are not the province of the good film-maker. Movies should concentrate on giving us a good ol’ chuckle, a la early Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy or Buster Keaton. They should tug at the heart-strings like Bambi or the Red Balloon. They should excite us visually like King Kong or Metropolis. But they should not aim to shock or disturb us. A simplified version of this forumla might read – Keystone Cops – in; Deliverance – out.

Apologists for Halliwell may say I am portraying his guide as some kind of Mary Whitehouse straw-man, ignoring the fact that gritty films of their day – All Quiet on the Western Front, for instance, were also given four-star gradings. 

Very true. But there’s no denying there’s a bias at work in Halliwell, stemming from a preoccupation with what a film ought to be – meaning its rationale as well as merely how it is put together.

In fact, his guide invites questions about what the nature of film should be. Are films there to entertain? To educate? To inspire?

We might accuse Halliwell of being some dusty pedant who only admires films which convey high-minded intellectual meanings. He seemed to anticipate this fact himself – and even made a point of claiming that ‘mere entertainment value’ is not to be sniffed at – before proceeding to do exactly that, over and over again.

It’s not hard to find examples of this, and once more we can turn to his illustrative essay.

“Adults thirty years ago might possibly have enjoyed E.T., as they enjoyed The Wizard of Oz, but can you imagine them willingly sitting through Star WarsGhostbusters or Gremlins?  I am not denying that when one is in the mood for something very easy these films can provide a modicum of simple enjoyment, but by and large they are hokum entertainments by and for the untrained mind, and I think one should feel just a little ashamed of submitting to them at a time when a once-great art is providing nothing more stimulating.”

Such sentiments are now an hilarious anachronism. We can well imagine today’s adult, or those of 30 years ago, enjoying such films – it happens all the time. The films mentioned above have long since entered our collective consciousness as classic family favourites.

Yes, Gremlins might be made for the mass-audience – the ‘popcorn set’ as they’re patronisingly dubbed – but so were the classic films of the 1940s. Humphrey Bogart’s film noir detectives and Jimmy Cagney’s tough-guys were lapped up by the working-class audience of my grandma’s generation. In the pre rock n’roll world, the proverbial ‘trip to the pictures’ was often the highlight of the week, beaten only perhaps by a dad’s trip to the footy on a Saturday afternoon.

But is Gremlins so debased for all that? A film about little monsters who terrorise a small town, it’s really no different in spirit from such Halliwell-praised fare as Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Them! – the boom of monster-movies seen in the wake of The Thing and War of the Worlds. Gremlins even brings such fare full-circle, with cheeky nods to other films dotted all the way through it (Billy its protagonist even watches ‘Body Snatchers’ with his little mogwai friend before all hell breaks loose in the town). It smacks of film-makers in love with the rich history of the silver screen, determined to put their own spin on it. Halliwell, I suspect would have had little truck with such self-indulgent postmodernism, no doubt dismissing it as empty-headed nonsense, but again, the view seems harsh.

Halliwell was undoubtedly right on some things. Even the proverbial stopped clock will tell the right time twice a day. There’s no doubt that of the millions of films churned out each decade by the various film industries, the good majority of them are rubbish – or at least, very missable. Film may be a relatively young medium compared to print, but the principle remains the same. How many films are Citizen Kane or Casablanca? The truth is very few – in the same way most cheap paperbacks do not aspire to be great literature.

The guide certainly does wag its finger at the lesser movies made during the Golden Age of Hollywood with poor musicals, dull star vehicles, unfunny comedies and dated flag-wavers equally held up to merciless scrutiny.

There’s also no denying we still make tacky and dreadful films. Z-rate rubbish such as The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, Mac and Me or the innumerable low-brow rom-coms, dull horror flicks and imbecilic comedies are all cannon fodder for the likes of the Halliwell Film Guide.

But to ignore the best a decade has to offer and to hanker exclusively after a semi-mythical golden age is to set oneself up as a guardian of the shrine.  In which case you’re no longer a critic – you’re a curator.

When I first got my copy of Halliwell’s Film Guide as a teenager, I remember looking up all my favourite films and finding – surprise, surprise – that the vast majority either got one, or more commonly, no stars at all. Favourites such as Labyrinth or the Neverending Story were summarily dismissed, much to my irritation. I could understand him not digging Rocky IV or Rambo – First Blood Part Two, but what was his beef with Aliens, Blade Runner or the Terminator?

I did however end up checking out the older films Halliwell recommended and by and large being impressed by them.

His guide gave me The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu (only a three-star showing in the original edition) with which I was then unfamiliar. For that, I am in Halliwell’s debt – and while I disagree with him on virtually all his assessments of the post-1960s world, I doubt not his knowledge of the medium, nor his commitment to cinema as a vital creative endeavour. 

It’s rather like a rock fan discovering jazz through the more ‘accessible’ artists such as Miles and Brubeck – then using Larkin’s ‘All That Jazz’ as the springboard to discover Billie, Ella, the Duke and Satchmo.

So, what do we learn from all of this? Perhaps that a critic’s opinions are only as valuable as the mental rule book which informs them. In which case, most of which Halliwell says about pre-1950s cinema can be regarded as generally pretty accurate. After that, I’d suggest taking it with a gigantic pinch of salt.

Or read in conjunction with another film guide.


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