If you are fan of the British-based Movie magazine you will have read some of Michael’s articles: if you are a regular or frequent visitor to either Il Cinema Ritrovato or Le Giornate del Cinema Muto you will likely recognise Michael: you may well have enjoyed his passionate and detailed discussions of both mainstream and art cinema: and you may well have read one or more of his major books on distinctive aspects of world cinema.
Michael sadly died earlier this week. For some years he had suffered from a rare disease which affected his lungs; a Covid infection was too serious for him, even with hospital treatment. He will leave behind many friends who feel the loss and acquaintances who will not again enjoy his critical analyses, his humorous anecdotes and, notably, his generous hospitality.
Michael was born into a Yorkshire family close to Robin Hood’s Bay. After grammar school he went to Oxford University, studying science. But he quickly became keen on the movies and the varied types of film on offer in a university town; a happy provision that I enjoyed a few years later. When he moved to London he at first lived in a communal household: later he settled in Herne Hill: another famous but earlier resident was Ida Lupino, an actor and filmmaker that we both admired. Michael became a regular at the National Film Theatre; a venue that he attended and enjoyed throughout most of his life. He soon also joined the people involved in the journal Movie, launched in 1962. This was a journal with a fresh take on cinema and strongly influenced by the French theories on film and their engagement with the idea of auteurs and an emphasis on the study of mise en scène.
An early publication was a collaboration with Robin Wood (who introduced Michael to the Movie circle) on Claude Chabrol (Studio Vista, 1970). I remember Michael telling me that during the writing of the book he was offered the opportunity to go to France and interview Chabrol in person. Michael reckoned he was packed and ready to go in twenty minutes; a feat I could never emulate.
Michael was a frequent contributor to both the journal and to the several Movie book collections on Film Noir and on The Western. One of his major piece was on ‘Melodrama and the American Cinema’ in issue 29/30. He analyses a series of generic variations on melodrama, starting with the films of D. W. Griffith. An important aspect of the article is the treatment of the ‘Melodrama of Protest’; a genre to which Britain’s Ken Loach has made an important contribution. Sadly these days it is not that easy to access copies of the print editions of the journal; our local University library has only a few copies out of the three dozen issues.
Michael also moved into teaching in Further Education at the Isleworth Campus of Hounslow Borough College, (since 1993 West Thames College). He was based in the General Studies Department where I was fortunate to spend a teaching practice for a Certificate of Education training. The General Studies Department was a lively and stimulating staff group. Michael taught A level Film Studies. With his usual attention to quality and detail he had a basement room converted into a mini-cinema, with its own projection box. Wednesday mornings the two year student groups would gather to watch the week’s study film. The most memorable screening for me was Douglas Sirk’s 1959 Imitation of Life. This is a modern classic and the director a favourite of the Movie group. It does have a celebrated emotional climax; on this occasion the soundtrack was almost drowned out by the responses of the audience.
After retirement Michael was able to attend both Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, which for a few years moved to nearby Sacile. Both these archive festivals offered splendid but demanding programmes; for most years on 35mm prints. Apart from the films there were frequent meal breaks where there were lively discussion on the films, the filmmakers and some of the critical questions people raised. Michael was always fully involved in these discussions with a long and varied experience of cinema from all round the world. In 2018 he contributed an article on the classic Leave Her to Heaven for a volume on ‘John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama’ (John Libbey 2018) which accompanied a major retrospective at Il Cinema Ritrovato. And he contributed a review of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto to an online edition of Movie, including the interesting history of the festival. He was still able to attend in 2019 despite his illness, after which both cinema and social intercourse suffered from the pandemic and lockdowns.
Retirement also enabled Michael to bring together his years of viewing, critical discussion and research in a series of impressive books on film. The first addressed Michael’s long-term interest in motifs and later their companion concept tropes as well as his enthusiasm for Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s Motifs (Amsterdam University Press, 2005) studies all the Hitchcock films and a variety of motifs across the titles: predictably ‘Blondes and Brunettes’ and ‘Handcuffs and Bondage’: ‘Dogs and Cats’: intriguingly ‘Food and Meals’: and ‘Keys and Handbags’: among an extensive selection. The book also enjoyed appendices of material on the films and indexes that enabled cross-referencing by either title or motif.
The next book addressed contemporary films as ‘Modern Ghost Melodramas’ (Amsterdam University Press, 2017). Among the topics was ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ dealing with the Japanese Ring / Ringu cycle (1998 and 1999). He also discusses the Hollywood remake which he thought was pretty good. There is the ‘gothic strain’ with The Gift (USA 2000): there is one of my favourites, Dark Water / Honogurai mizu no soku kara as ‘Ghosts in the Women’s Film’: and some major film artists such as Jacques Rivette’s Historire de Marie et Julien (France 2003). It is an extensive study over 400 pages.
The most recent work deals with Michael’s longest and most intense study, film endings. Endings in the Cinema (palgrave macmillan 2012). The study is of endings as such and explores in particular the motifs and tropes found in concluding sequences. The sub-title presents the emphasis ‘Thresholds, Water and the Beach’. An index offers titles that include one for every year since 1942, the beach ending filmed on location being a somewhat modern phenomenon. Friends would advise Michael if they saw a film with a beach ending. He had a problem with one year, 1976. Happily a mutual friend, John, came up with The Eagle has Landed, which is also a canine ending.
Writing the books helped him to keep going as his illness developed. He was working on fresh studies: a contemporary subject ‘modern female spies’: and a long-standing interest ‘persecuted wives’. But he has left a rich legacy of books and articles on a wide range of films and cinemas. He also leaves his friends with many memories of screenings and festivals: of stimulating conversation on movies: and a number of wry moments and tales which still raise a smile.
It is indeed a sad loss. Michael’s book on Chabrol was one of the first books film books I bought and I met him a few years later at a British Film Institute Summer School, possibly the one on Film Noir. He was an established scholar when many of us were just finding our way. I’m envious of Keith being able to observe his teaching at Hounslow in a department I would get to know more about later. In the years that followed I only met Michael a few times but I remember his smiling face and I used several of his writings on melodrama as stimulating resources informing some of my own writing. I’m glad he was able to enjoy his retirement and I’m sure his published work will remain a valuable resource for film scholars for many years.
There is an obituary by his friend Alex Jacoby that was printed in the Guardian in September and is accessible here.