Book review: Moments That Made the Movies - Philip French
Critical look at the most magical movie moments
Moments That Made the Movies
Thames & Hudson, €29.46
Born in London in 1941, resident in America since the early 1970s, David Thomson has been one of the liveliest, most literate, productive, provocative and daring movie critics for more than 40 years, his books ranging from a definitive biography of David O Selznick to an intrusively speculative monograph on Nicole Kidman. He has studied whole careers, single films and now he's down to choosing single key moments.
This would have pleased the gloriously named John Bickerson 'Binx' Bolling, narrator of The Moviegoer, Walker Percy's philosophical novel that won the 1962 US National Book award. Binx is a laid-back Louisiana stockbroker from old New Orleans money, and is, he says, "quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie". In fact, movies are more memorable to him than so-called real life. "Other people," he observes, "treasure memorable moments in their lives, like the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise... What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man."
The "moments that made the movies" in Thomson's new book chime with Binx Bolling's, though Thomson's special John Wayne memory is of the final scene in Ford's The Searchers where the Duke is framed in a doorway outside his brother-in-law's cabin. His favourite image in The Third Man is the long take at the end where Holly Martins waits for Anna, Lime's ex-girlfriend, as she walks up the road in the wintry Viennese cemetery. Among the many pleasures in reading this book is when you turn the pages, and wonder what the next film will be and guess whether your cherished moments coincide with his. A fair number of the usual suspects turn up among the chosen films, and inevitably Casablanca is there. But Michael Curtiz's film has a dozen or more scenes he could have picked, and he didn't seize on mine, which is the poignant moment when Humphrey Bogart's Rick nods to Paul Henreid's Victor Laszlo, giving him permission to defy the Nazis and lead the Cafe Americain's band in playing the Marseillaise.
The idea that movies consist of moments strung together (quite literally, if we hold up a reel of film to the light) is now almost the received wisdom among the more reflective movie writers. What we remember are those magical few minutes or seconds that stick in the mind for ever – a place, a landscape, a glance, a line of dialogue, an incident – not the overall movie. James Stewart understood this. Prompted by a fan who'd buttonholed him and spoken of a sequence from a long forgotten film, he recognised the phenomenon. In a conversation with Peter Bogdanovich in 1966, he's quoted as saying: "After you learn – and if you're good and Gawd help ya and you're lucky enough to have a personality that comes across – then what you're doing is... you're giving people little... little, tiny pieces of time... that they never forget." Stewart figures in two movies in the book (Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner and Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder), but oddly, Thomson doesn't mention this support for his thesis.
Statistically the book and its historical balance are of interest. First, only three of the 70 films are from the silent era (Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, FW Murnau's Sunrise, Georg Wilhelm Pabst's Pandora's Box). With characteristic iconoclasm, Thomson remarks of his chosen moment from William Wyler's Dodsworth: "This is just nine years after the laboured and often telegraphed discourse of silent film... This is what movie could do once it had sound. It veered away from theatre and moved towards literature."
Six directors are represented by two of their films (Howard Hawks, Otto Preminger, Wyler, Vincente Minnelli, Jean-Luc Godard, Welles), and two by three films (Alfred Hitchcock, Michelangelo Antonioni).
Seven are from the present century, one of which, the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading, he regards as "one of the funniest films made this century", but refrains from quoting any dialogue because "I don't want to spoil it for you".
Moments involving sex – comic, erotic, masochistic, necrophilic – predominate, ranging from the coarse comedy of Meg Ryan's fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally (which Thomson treats with an affecting tenderness) to the marital lovemaking in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. Thomson brackets the 70 movies suggestively with photographs, also erotic in their way. The book opens with a sequence of two naked young women, one standing, the other seated, taken by Eadweard Muybridge in 1887. It concludes with a curious 2011 photograph taken during a riot following an ice hockey match in Vancouver. In the latter a couple appear to be making love in the street, or perhaps he's tending a wound, and it demonstrates Thomson's interest in ambiguity and disrupted narratives.
Moments That Made the Movies is an elegantly designed and handsomely produced book, the most striking pages perhaps being the final sequence of The Third Man reproduced against a black background, and the double-page spread of Joe Gillis's corpse floating in Norma Desmond's floodlit pool from Sunset Boulevard. It's also witty and full of insights. I especially like an observation on Raymond Chandler's involvement with Howard Hawks in the making of The Big Sleep: "Chandler had been to an English public school – not the best, but it's at schools not quite in the upper crust that people try hardest. So he had an eye for the hills and the rain [of southern California] and how a man might dress, whereas Hawks needed nothing but talking to women and attempting to be cool."
Part of the serious joke resides in the fact that Thomson and Chandler are both alumni of Dulwich college, who settled in California.