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Bookshelf treats for movie buffs

When television started to steal the affections of a once-loyal cinema audience in the 1950s, the cinema fought back.

Movies appeared in glorious Technicolor with stereophonic sound, widescreen vistas and 3D effects. Suddenly, bigger was better. Film books seem to be taking a similar approach as they fight to survive in the digital age. The past year has been marked with hefty tomes on iconic stars, including the gorgeous Audrey: The 60s (Aurum Press, £25) by David Wills, celebrating the eternally photogenic Audrey Hepburn, and by lavish accounts of landmark movies, notably Godfather Treasures: The Official Motion Picture Archives (Carlton Books, £30) by Peter Cowie, who has made a career writing about Francis Ford Coppola and this particular film.

It will not have escaped your attention that it is 50 years since the first James Bond film appeared. Publishers have been quick to jump on that particular Bond-wagon but the most appealing volume is Best Of Bond (Michael O'Mara, £25) in which Roger Moore provides a typically witty, self-deprecating commentary on the whole 007 phenomenon, arriving at the conclusion that the best Bond was Sean Connery. Impossible to argue with that.

It is almost 30 years since Richard Burton died and his life now seems defined by the intense, addictive love he experienced for Elizabeth Taylor. The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale University Press, £25), edited by Chris Williams, publishes surviving diaries from 1939 to 1983 that reveal many facets of a complex personality beset by insecurities and constantly drowning in a sea of alcohol. His ability to consume bottles of vodka and cases of wine is staggering. A week of entries in 1975 is marked by the same single word for each day: "Booze". He can rage with approval at some of his achievements and wallow in bitter regret at a potential that many felt went unfulfilled. Indeed, Burton often suggested that he might have traded all his fame and riches for a successful career as a writer. The diaries confirm a talent that he never felt confident enough to pursue. Our loss.

Oscar-winning legend Spencer Tracy is also probably best remembered now as one half of another of the great Hollywood love stories. If Burton and Taylor existed in the fierce glare of public scrutiny, Tracy's 25-year affair with co-star Katharine Hepburn passed far from the madding crowd. Their relationship was common knowledge among a press corps who never spilled the beans. Spencer Tracy (Arrow, £10.99) by James Curtis was written with the co-operation of Tracy's daughter and with access to previously unseen papers. More than a 1000 pages long, it must stand as the definitive biography of an influential screen actor and a man beset by demons, from Catholic guilt to chronic alcoholism. It is a book that might even encourage a new generation to watch the great Tracy performances where he underplays so beautifully and naturally that he feels as contemporary as a George Clooney or a Sean Penn.

David Thomson has a fondness for the era of Tracy and Hepburn, a time when stars were gods, cinemas were dream palaces and films were the great escape from the daily grind. Thomson is one of the finest writers on the movies; his prose is pithy, erudite, unfolding in sparkling rhapsodies of thoughtful praise and acute insight. He can capture the essence of an individual or a film in a single memorable line. The New York nightlife of Alexander MacKendrick's extraordinary Sweet Smell Of Success is described as having been photographed to resemble "the hide of a crocodile in the moonlight".

Thomson's latest book, The Big Screen: The Story Of The Movies And What They Did To Us (Allen Lane, £25), tries to make sense of how the movies have influenced every aspect of our lives, drawing us towards the light of escapism and then plunging us towards the darkness born of an alienation from the real world. It is an elegiac work from a man who feels that the parade has passed by and that the glories of the past have led us to the era of fragmentation and frenzy where YouTube represents the "debris from an explosion in the culture".

It is an endlessly provocative and personal response to the history of the movies, written by a man who has come to resemble Lampedusa's melancholy prince in The Leopard. There is plenty here to challenge and debate, and enough fine reading to satisfy any serious movie buff over the festive season and beyond.

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