What it is is the film fan reference book to end all reference books, rich in detail and even richer in provocative, fight-launching opinions. The first nine volumes chronicle something more than 35,000 talkies from 1927-'83, including foreign films distributed here. Also in Vol. 9 are 620 releases for 1984, and another 2,000 features labeled miscellaneous. Vol. 10 identifies 15,000 silent pictures; the last two volumes are cross-referenced indexes.
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The Guide also rates the talkies (from nil to five and a half stars) and editorializes outspokenly in its synopses. Thus, of "Billion Dollar Brain": "The actors are forced to slog through a muddy, ill-conceived film"; one star. The dialog (sic) in Eric Rohmer's "The Aviator's Wife" is "a bit soggy"; two stars. The synopses, obviously the work of many hands, are rife with contradiction. "The Battle of Algiers" "must be seen" but draws only three stars, equating it with "The Big Broadcast of 1937." More generally, the pattern of approval seems oriented, fanlike, toward nostalgia and mass appeal.
The star system is as challengeable as all such brusque ratings. Five stars for the Charles Boyer "Algiers" and for "The Awful Truth," one star each for Terrence Malick's "Badlands" and "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes," two and a half for "Absence of Malice," "Airplane!" and "All That Jazz," three and a half for "The Bad News Bears," a mere half star for the Lubitsch-Brackett-Wilder "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife." Still, for the film lover with a large budget and coffee table to match, "The Motion Picture Guide" is many an evening's browse, and it may at that settle more arguments than it starts. At least until the American Film Institute finishes its authoritative, minutely detailed Catalogue of American Feature Films (available thus far only for the decades of the '20s and the '60s), the Guide lives up to its billing as the most comprehensive (American) film encyclopedia in print.