Talking pictures

Hollywood: A Celebration

David Thomson <em>Dorling Kindersley, 640pp, £30</em>

ISBN 0751346292

Henry Miller told Writers at Work in 1963 that he welcomed the day when film would displace literature. "You remember faces in films, and gestures, as you never do when you read a book." In 1981, Gore Vidal told the same magazine: "Beckett stammers into silence, and the rest is cinema." Two writers, two opinions - but, crucially, two decades between the interviews. As a glance through David Thomson's sumptuous new book of photographs from the Kobal Collection proves, it was a lot easier to have faith in the cinema in the 1960s than it has been since the 1980s. Who can forget Lauren Bacall putting a match to Humphrey Bogart's cigarette in To Have and Have Not? Or Marilyn Monroe singing "Running Wild" in Some Like It Hot? Or Cary Grant, well, doing almost anything?

To say that film cannot do what literature can is not to say that the movies are worthless. Hollywood might always have strived to entertain, but what's wrong with that? Certain Tinseltown practitioners tried to do more than just amuse us: some of those comedies of the 1930s - the ones in which, say, Katharine Hep-burn or Claudette Colbert gets the better of Clark Gable or Cary Grant - can feel as liberating as Fidelio.

The mood darkened in the 1940s with the oily nihilism of film noir, what Thomson calls "arguably the most adult genre the studios would ever fashion". If those Thirties comedies pulled the rug from under Hollywood's cosy fantasy of the bourgeois home, noir burned the house down. Nothing is worth anything in these gloriously monochrome movies, yet everyone is on the take.

With the arrival of the 1950s, Hollywood was shooting pretty much everything in colour, but the films were still dark. This was the decade when Alfred Hitchcock's chill vision came of age, when John Ford was growing disillusioned with America and when Billy Wilder had scorn to burn. Eisenhower, as Thomson remarks, would not have approved, but how could the rest of us not cheer? Taken as a whole, the Fifties is probably the most solid decade in Hollywood's history, especially when compared to the Sixties, which started out so patchily. Think back, and the movies you remember from that period are probably French. But the "New Wave" gave back to Hollywood a little of what it had stolen. Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, all fractures, frissons and fragile energy, would be unthinkable without the examples of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. Bonnie and Clyde opened up the American cinema at a time when the studio system was closing down. For ten years or so - the period that witnessed the beginning of the careers of Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Michael Cimino - US films were as intelligent and challenging as they have ever been.

It couldn't last, and it didn't. Jaws chewed up any idea we might have of the popular cinema being a serious art form. Who could doubt that Steven Spielberg is to blame for the infantilisation of contemporary Hollywood - with its bangs, its crashes, its fairy-tale nausea? How many movies moved you as an adult last year? How many serious films have you watched on television recently? Unless you scour the afternoon and late-night listings, I would guess not many. It's hard to believe now, but I came across Howard Hawks, Douglas Sirk, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart through documentaries introducing film seasons on the Beeb. Today, all we have is blockbuster clamour and the banalities of Jonathan Ross.

I am telling a sad tale, and at almost as great a length as David Thomson does in Hollywood: a celebration - which, after all, is no more than a pretty picture book. But what pictures they are! It's impossible to flick through the book without obsessing over one face or another. Roland Barthes once remarked that nobody would fall in love if they hadn't read about other people doing so. Thomson, indisputably my favourite writer on the movies, says something similar here: "So many movies about romance - teaching us how to kiss, urging us to fall in love, and laying in such an unattainable code for happiness . . . Has that stress made for more love or more divorce?" I'll leave you to answer that.

Christopher Bray is working on a book about Michael Caine