Film critic Kenneth Turan grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s in an observant home, which means that he did not often enjoy a Saturday matinee at the Lowe’s Pitkin or the Brandt’s Sutter. “That said, I do have a vivid memory of sneaking out to see a vibrant, cleft-chinned Kirk Douglas so bringing to life the title role of Ulysses … that I still have trouble visualizing the Homeric epic without him in it,” Turan writes in his wholly compelling new book, “Not to Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites From a Lifetime of Film” (PublicAffairs, $25.99).
The richness of recollection that is to be found in “Not to Be Missed” is elegantly epitomized in Turan’s introductory remark. For the last several decades, Turan himself has been a “not-to-be-missed” film critic for the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio, but now he has cast his memory back to his own formative experiences watching movies. The result is more than a collection of reviews, however; rather, Turan offers an enchanting blend of memoir, cultural and social history, Hollywood intelligence-gathering, and, of course, the testimony of an ardent and exceptionally well-informed aficionado of the movies.
“As I look back on it, writing about film has been a voyage of discovery with two interlocking purposes: I write to be a guide for the perplexed (to borrow Maimonides’ wonderful title), to help viewers find films they will love,” Turan explains by way of introduction. But he aspires to much more in his new book. “Through focusing intently on what I liked and disliked, it gradually became a process of finding out what was important to me on a broader scale. A way to find out, in short, whom I am.”
Turan reaches all the way back to the silent era to single out the “Fantômas” movies (1913-1914), a series based on a fictional character whose vast and enthusiastic audience included Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Colette and James Joyce. (Who knew?) The last two movies on the list are “Touch of Evil” (1958) and “Chimes at Midnight” (1965), two films directed by and starring Orson Welles. (Tellingly, it is the occasion for a charming war story about the words he exchanged with Welles when meeting him for the first time at a Hollywood party.) But there is nothing arbitrary about Turan’s rankings; he includes a placeholder for “The Fifty-Fifth Film” and then a list of “A Second Fifty-Four.” The point of the exercise, of course, is that any list of any length is sure to exclude some worthy titles.
“While some films were always going to be there,” he writes, “others gained or lost status and moment as my mood changed and the list grew in size and shape, making [the list] into an ever-changing, almost living thing.”
Indeed, “Not to Be Missed” can be used as the basis of a parlor game. Turan understands that no one’s list will be entirely identical to anyone else’s, and there is plenty of room for pleasurable debate. For example, I embrace most of his choices — including “The Third Man” (1949), “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957) and “Vertigo” (1958), all favorites of mine — but I would have added “People Will Talk” (1951), “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and “Morgan!” (1966), all missing from his lists. Turan himself, I am convinced, will not be surprised to know that a reader has a dissenting opinion; indeed, I think he will regard it as a sign of success in provoking his readers into thinking about movies.
Above all, “Not to Be Missed” is a treasure trove of obscure but worthy movies that have probably escaped the attention of most readers. I knew of the 1937 Yiddish film “The Dybbuk,” for example, but Turan’s short take on the movie made it a must-see for me. Produced only two years before the Nazi invasion of Poland, “the film’s re-creation of the culture and civilization of Europe’s Chasidic Jews, its depiction of a world that would soon be no more, resonates in a way no one involved in its production could have foreseen.”
I already own several books that attempt to do what Turan has done in “Not to Be Missed,” and I consult them often as I troll through Netflix for movies to watch and re-watch. That may become its highest and best use. As I read his book, I was prompted to re-watch some of my favorites and to seek out some of the more obscure movies that I had missed. But Turan has also done something more than that. Here is a critic and writer at the height of his powers, fully himself and speaking in his unique voice, wholly immersed in a body of knowledge that he has mastered with the gravitas of a talmudic scholar, and yet, at the same time, fully alive with the sheer joy that the movies have inspired in him and so many others.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the author of, most recently, “The Short Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright).