News and Commentary – Bookshelf: Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies IV

The newly released The Great Movies IV, the final collection of essays originally published by Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun Times, arrives as a pleasant surprise—if, necessarily, as a bittersweet one.  The preceding three volumes each had one hundred entries; this final installment features only sixty-two, a crooked numerator that calls attention to a life interrupted.  (Ebert died at the age of 70 in April 2013—not quite a “where were you when Kennedy was shot” moment, but I was presiding at a panel at the International Studies Association in San Francisco, and felt compelled to make an announcement informing the audience.)

The Great Movies project was initiated by Ebert, he once explained, “at a time when Hollywood product seemed at a low ebb,” and he thought he might take pleasure in revisiting some of the All-Time-Greats, and also hoped to introduce younger viewers to underseen classics and obscure treasures.  I am a huge fan of the format, and it also plays to Ebert’s greatest strengths.  Movie “reviewing” is actually a tricky business. To the extent that it is a “consumer guide,” you can just check some dopey internet aggregator instead; as an exercise wherein some “authority” tells you what you are supposed to like, well, that sounds like a dental appointment. Moreover, Ebert’s enduring legacy will not be found in how many “stars” he gave one film or another.  Indeed, with regard to Hollywood entertainments, he could be more than unhelpfully non-discriminating in the range of his pleasures.  (I’ll never forget Gene Siskel’s incredulous reaction to Ebert’s thumbs-up for Cop and ½:  “Wow, where’s your big red suit and beard, Santa, you just gave them a gift.” The internet is with Gene on this one, by the way.)

But that’s not what great criticism is about.  As A. O. Scott explains in his recent book, Better Living Through Criticism, “a critic is a person whose interest can help activate the interest of others.” (Promotional aside: my review of Scott’s book will appear in the winter issue of Film Quarterly.)  And that is what The Great Movies enterprise was all about—and Ebert did it as well as anybody ever has.  With these essays, he’s not telling us whether or not a movie is “good,” he’s walking us through an invariably steeped-in-wisdom and often beautifully-crafted soliloquy on why a movie is Great. 

The Great Movies IV delivers the goods, from start to finish.  It makes little point to select favorites from a list of favorites, but I can’t resist sharing a few passages.  Of Ozu (whose masterpieces An Autumn Afternoon and The Only Son are in this volume) he writes, “From time to time I return to Ozu feeling a need to be calmed and restored.” Regarding Kubrick (Barry Lyndon, The Killing): “It is certainly in every frame a Kubrick film: technically awesome, emotionally distant, remorseless in its doubt of human goodness.”  Read about In a Lonely Place and feel that you know Bogie, and director Nicholas Ray, and the movie in ways you hadn’t thought of before.  Remember how Hitchcock loved staircases—and let Ebert explain why. The deliberations about Leon Morin, Priest and Lost on Translation linger in the mind.  But I will try and stop now.  Just buy this book, and read them for yourself.  And with appendices that list the entries from the other three volumes, you’ve also got a list of 362 great movies that you might watch, and re-watch, and think about, a bit more.