Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes by Wayne Kinsey (2010, Tomohawk Press)
If you’ve ever wondered how a film studio works, this book will provide most of the answers you’ll ever need and it’ll keep you entertained as well. It’s full of anecdotes and explanations from almost everyone associated with Hammer films with one glaring exception: the stars.
Hammer is a British film studio famous for churning out low and mid-budget movies – originally mostly crime, later mostly horror. They helped to elevate a handful of actors to international star status, and those actors, like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, have had dozens of books written about them.
This is a chance for everyone else associated with the studio to tell their stories. From the producers to the people in the makeup department, every aspect of film creation is explored through interviews. The authors interviewed everyone living who’d had any significant part in the company and was willing to talk with them. The result is a series of insider tales of movie filming gone wrong, time and budget pressures, and the camaraderie and frustrations which go into creating not just one but dozens of films in short order. Along the way the reader also learns about things like the relationships between US and UK studios in the 1960s and 1970s, and the problems associated with UK oversight of their movie industry.
To cap the appeal, the book was somewhat overproduced, meaning that you can pick up this decade-old book for about $10-15 and shipping. It’s a great bargain for those who might be interested, almost 500 pages of insider stories and classic photographs.
Shaft Among the Jews by Ernest Tidyman (1972, Dial Press)
If you’re not familiar with blaxsploitation, this book could teach you about it. In a book which would have difficulty being published today. It’s full of stereotypes, both positive and negative. The Jews, in this case, are a group of diamond merchants who hire Shaft to determine who’s killing some of them off and stealing their product.
Many “n-bombs” are dropped. It becomes clear fairly quickly that not a single Jewish person should be trusted. It seems like a recipe for disaster, but it isn’t. Ernest Tidyman didn’t just win the contract to write a licensed character, he’s the man who co-created Shaft, a black private eye hero of his eponymous seventies movie. He’s also the man who wrote The French Connection. Tidyman’s characters live in a world of stereotypes without being diminished to cartoons.
The Jews, for example, aren’t trustworthy not because they’re Jewish but because they’re diamond merchants. Tidyman explains to Shaft, and through him the reader, the way the diamond exchange works… and that what allows a diamond trader to operate is being very guarded with information, even to his best friends, when it comes to the business.
There’s no animus here (which shouldn’t be too surprising; Tidyman was Jewish himself, and anyone who saw the original Shaft knows that he views his character as a modern paladin, albeit one that is easily distracted by sex in the swinging seventies.) Because of the sexual suggestiveness of some of the book (Shaft’s focus on a woman’s ass, in an early chapter, sets the tone for his human failings) it’s going to be off-putting to some. What it is, though, is a complex thriller with a heroic main character and believable secondary characters. It’s enjoyable and worth a read if you can find a copy cheaply… which will probably mean getting very lucky in a second-hand bookstore or borrowing one from a friend, as even paperback editions tend to start around $25 for beaten-up copies.