Moments that Made the Movies
By David Thomson Thames & Hudson/303 pages/$39.95
Reviewed by Ed Voves
In a life time of studying motion pictures, David Thomson has learned a lot about film lovers as well. Movie fans love to make lists. They classify and categorize films with relentless zeal - the one hundred greatest movies of all time, the top ten musicals, the funniest comedies, etc. This passion for films often devolves into motion picture taxidermy, as these inimitable works of art are pinned, butterfly-like, to a scrap-book page.
Thomson's new book sidesteps "list mania" by emphasizing the importance of the film scene as the truest measure of quality in film-making. Moments that Made the Movies reveals the "back story" of pivotal scenes from classic films. These turning points are brilliantly analyzed to show how the action or dialogue of a single scene can establish the theme or tone of an entire motion picture.
Some film scenes demanded to be included in Thomson's book. In a witty personal aside, Thomson notes that as he outlined the book he knew he would have to write about the "I'll have what she's having" restaurant encounter from When Harry Met Sally. And of course, the night club scene in Casablanca was a "must." Humphrey Bogart's heart-stricken response to Dooley Wilson playing "As Time Goes By" is "as corny as can be, yet like most clichés it's based on a universal knot of human behavior..."
Thomson, always one-step ahead us, is quick to remind us that "the big moments don't always come in outstanding pictures." He asserts that the "movie moments" under consideration are not the "best" or greatest or even his personal favorites.
But these are moments that have stayed in my memory, and which leap onto the screen in my head if the title is mentioned ... doing something that could be managed in no other medium - the look, the pace, the movement, the texture, the context, all these things are vital. I can describe them, or I will try, but really you have to witness them and feel them.
Thomson here underscores the personal interface of a motion picture and the individual viewer. This happens every time someone watches a film. This is the true magic moment of the movies. Like Dana Andrews, the world-weary detective who becomes mesmerized by the portrait of Gene Tierney in Laura (1944), the film images get inside our heads. Once inside, these "moving" pictures become part of our own story and we are no longer just observers.
Sometimes we can spot a great film scene on the visual horizon, but often they take us by surprise. These "movie moments" trip us up, as Barbara Stanwyck did to Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, and we plunge head-first into the action.
The Lady Eve, 1941
"Screwball" comedies like The Lady Eve reflected the turbulent times of their heyday, at the start of World War II. This wacky film genre presented their stars with unforeseen, astonishing story twists and expected them to climb their way back to sanity. The audience, too, was required to bring a considerable amount of mental agility and movie "smarts" to these "screwballs," for how else could these films be appreciated?
Movies, from the very beginning, even before the advent of "talkies" in 1927, entered into a deliberate dialogue with their audience. And in a very curious way, scenes from different films can communicate or relate to each other via the mind's eye of the movie beholder.
What constitutes a film scene and how do they communicate with us? How much pace, movement, texture and context need to be blended together to produce a "movie moment?"
There are no clear answers to these questions. But we don’t need a list of ingredients to know that the crop-dusting scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s North-by-Northwest is an iconic "movie moment."
Thomson regards North-by-Northwest as a "perverse comedy." He could just as accurately have described it as a "screwball" drama. North-by-Northwest, released in 1959, is in many ways a reprise of Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, an earlier political thriller with generous helpings of humor. Foreign Correspondent appeared in 1940, the year before The Lady Eve.
North-by-Northwest and The Lady Eve both require the audience to suspend judgment and join in the story. All films do. In North-by-Northwest, the viewer is required not to raise the obvious question, as Thomson does, why a spy organization would try to kill Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) with a strafing biplane when a trained-assassin could do the job so much more economically with a stiletto or a silencer-gun. Once the audience agrees to suspend belief – an unconscious act - then the film director can get on with his or her job crafting scenes to suit the circumstances of the story line, however improbable that may be.
Thomson notes that some films are so taunt, so tightly focused that they "may be construed as an extended moment, a piece of unbroken duration, and a kind of narrative momentousness." High Noon, the gripping frontier drama starring Gary Cooper from 1952, is a case in point. The fast-paced action takes place in a single day, yielding no "case study" scenes for Thomson to analyze.
Two years earlier, Billy Wilder directed Sunset Blvd. which took post-World War II film noir into the sacred precincts of the Hollywood "dream factories." Sunset Blvd., which the German-born Wilder also co-wrote, is replete with "movie moments." It almost defines the characteristic structure of American films which, "by and large, do look to have sensational events, knock-out set pieces." These, in turn call out for the kind of commentary of which Thomson is such a master.
In the case of Sunset Blvd. that is literally the case. As Thomson points out, the key to this film is its use of voice-over, a film technique that has gone out of favor. But in the capable hands of Billy Wilder and actor William Holden, voice-over was never used to better effect.
Thomson relates that the role of Joe Gillis, a down-at-the-heels Hollywood screen writer, was originally to have been played by Montgomery Clift. But Clift, a year after appearing in The Heiress, backed-out because he feared that he would be typecast if he starred in a similar role of a "kept man." This left the field to Holden, a master at portraying jaded cynics, who narrates his on-screen death in Sunset Blvd. with what Thomson describes as "one of the finest dry, ironic voices in American culture ..."
The central drama of Sunset Blvd., of course, is the relationship of Joe Gillis (Holden) and Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the faded queen of the silent movie era. Thomson, a little surprisingly, selects few of the great silent films for consideration. The Passion of Joan of Arc and F.W. Murnau's Sunrise make the cut. But Thomson, in another personal aside, says that "I don't know that I would ever have fallen in love with silent cinema."
It is the singular "voice" of a motion picture that grabs our attention and deals us in. And when the story being told is set in an exotic realm, filled with menace and forbidden "allure," then we are really hooked.
One of the key insights of the great directors, Alfred Hitchcock especially, is that we, the audience, don't mind going to such dangerous, unsavory places at all. There is a visceral thrill to "being there" in a place of peril or horror, of witnessing a cheating wife like Miriam (Laura Elliott) in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train get her come-uppance. Justice will eventually be served and then we will leave the theater, safe and sound, to go home after a stop for a snack.
But that's just where we, observant movie viewers, have missed a vital point. These great film scenes draw us in and get us "to witness them and feel them" in Thomson's words. We are given an opportunity to visit our own dark side. And more and more films in the 1960’s and 70’s, following in the footsteps of Hitchcock’s Psycho, drew the chilling conclusion that justice is not always forthcoming by the time the credits role at the end of the picture. And explorations into the recesses of our inner selves may not have happy endings either.
Thomson is particularly impressive in his analysis of two of these unsettling dramas from the 1970’s, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) and Roman Polanski"s Chinatown (1974).
Both of these films take place in the 1930's, the golden-age of the Hollywood hero. Both films have male protagonists, smartly dressed-dressed and topped-off with fedora hats, like the attire that Humphrey Bogart wore in The Maltese Falcon. But there the similarities end.
Clerici, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is not a hero at all in The Conformist. He is a fascist hit-man who seduces the wife of an opponent of Mussolini and then orchestrates his assassination. The murder of the liberal professor is an appalling act and Clerici, as Thomson writes, is "one of the most hateful, yet warning figures in the movies."
In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson's character, Jake Gittes, is a deliberate throwback to Humphrey Bogart's Philip Marlow in The Big Sleep. He is a tough guy and a good detective but - unlike Bogart - he can't beat the system.
Gittes takes on a loathsome land dealer, Noah Cross, played by John Huston, who is trying to corner the rights to water for the burgeoning city of Los Angeles. Cross is a close second to Clerici as a movie monster. He raped his own daughter, Evelyn, played by Faye Dunaway, who is desperately trying to stop him from gaining control of her - and his - daughter.
John Huston's smooth-talking character is the kind of villain that traditional Hollywood screenplays would go to any length to defeat. With a savvy detective like Nicholson and a gutsy heroine like Faye Dunaway, justice in a 1937 drama would triumph without fail. But in a 1974 film like Chinatown, the "Thirties" hero and heroine don't stand a chance. By then, as Thomson notes perceptively, "the code of Philip Marlow was a dusty relic."
Thomson's text is filled with such provocative insights. Thomson is often profound in his commentary, challenging readers to respond to these "movie moments." We re-wind and replay these scenes on the movie screen in our heads - with often startling results.
Thomson pays increasing attention to international cinema from the 1950’s onward. His essay on the French New Wave film, Vivre Sa Vie, directed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1962, is notably perceptive. In an otherwise grim depiction of the life of Nana, a Parisian prostitute portrayed by Anna Karina, Thomson focuses upon a remarkable scene that is both life-affirming and an unsettling, cautionary tale.
As her pimp talks "business" with another hustler, Nana pops a coin into a juke box to pass the time. The music, a forgettable European riff on American jazz, begins to play. Nana gets into the mood and begins to dance by herself. For a brief moment, Nana ceases being an "object of desire" and has regained her full humanity. The scene is directed and acted to perfection, exuding a naturalness and simplicity that is far more affecting than a more lavish production number would have been.
Thomson movingly describes Nana's dance as "your girlfriend doing Cyd Charisse..." Earlier in his book, he presents a spirited essay on the Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse dance film, The Band Wagon (1953). By evoking the romantic partnership of Astaire and Charisse in terms of Anna Karina's solo performance, Thomson enables two totally dissimilar films to play-off each other. It’s a double feature on the movie screen in our mind.
The Band Wagon, 1953
Dance films like The Band Wagon represent the epitome of escapism in films. Astaire, Thomson writes, was an auteur who "had a very simple code: that dance could solve everything." Nana’s dance, by comparison, is a truly heartbreaking moment, a stay of execution rather than an escape into bliss. Yet as Thomson shows, Nana's embrace of life in that wonderful display of joie de vivre highlights the humanity of people everywhere trapped in lives of suffering and desperation.
Looked at in this unconventional way, these great film scenes are powerful assertions of human emotions. They allow us to look at ourselves in ways that otherwise we could never do.
With its superb interplay of image and text, Thomson’s book rekindled my long, if recently smoldering, passion for films. But Moments that Made the Movies is more than just a "movie book." The personal, profound touch that infuses Thomson's commentary quietly nurtures a sense of empathy for our fellow beings. And then, like Gene Tierney in Laura, "character" is no longer just a picture on the wall. It is a deeply-felt set of values, helping us to feel and act more truly alive.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Images courtesy of Thames & Hudson
Moments That Made the Movies, 2013 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson
Casablanca, 1942 (page 69) Image credit: Warner Bros/The Kobal Collection at Art Resource, NY
David Thomson (author photo) Photo: c. Lucy Gray
The Lady Eve, 1941 (page 65) Image credit: Paramount/Photofest
North by Northwest, 1959 (page 153) Image credit: MGM/The Kobal Collection at Art Resource, NY
Chinatown, 1974 (page 227) Image credit: Paramount/Photofest
The Bandwagon, 1953 (page 118-119) Image credit: MGM/Everett Collection
Laura, 1944 (page 72-73) Image credit: 20th Century Fox/The Kobal Collection at Art Resource, NY