Monday 23 April 2018

Books: Magic movie moments

Film: Moments That Made the Movies David Thomson Thames and Hudson, £24.95

Are you talking to me?: Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’.
Are you talking to me?: Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’.
Marlon Brando in ‘The Godfather’
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in ‘Casablanca’
Alida Valli in the final scene from ‘The Third Man’

Mark Boland

So The Godfather is one of your favourite movies, but what in particular do you recall about it? The assassination in the restaurant is a standout, but perhaps what you most remember from that scene is the roar of the train as Al Pacino prepares to carry out the execution, or the image of Sterling Hayden clutching at his shirt collar as he's shot through the forehead.

Or how about Heat, which has that ferocious gun battle outside the bank and also the showdown in the coffee shop between De Niro and Pacino, but maybe what has lingered most is Ashley Judd's forlornly warning hand signal to her fugitive husband in the street below her window.

Most of us recall movies through such bits and pieces -- sometimes remembering great set-pieces but often conjuring up fleeting moments that seemed inconsequential at the time but that somehow possess a poetic or otherwise mysterious quality that makes them linger forever in our imaginations.

In the course of a 1966 interview with Peter Bogdanovich, the great James Stewart summed it up perfectly when he recalled being approached by an old man who had a vivid recollection of Stewart reciting a poem about fireflies in a film whose title escaped him.

"And that's the great thing about the movies," Stewart told Bogdanovich. "If you're lucky enough to have a personality that comes across, then what you're doing is you're giving people little, tiny pieces of time that they never forget."

David Thomson's lavishly illustrated and sumptuously produced new book pays eloquent tribute to that basic truth, the author noting in his introduction how American movies in particular tend to feature "knock-out set-pieces that will be treasured long after the rest is forgotten" but also cherishing less flashy movie moments "that have stayed in my memory and which leap on to the screen in my head if the title is mentioned".

Indeed, mention Carol Reed's masterpiece, The Third Man, to most people and they'll immediately think (I do, anyway) of two such moments, both of them involving Orson Welles, who's in the film for less than 10 minutes but whose presence, whether seen or unseen, haunts every frame of it.

There's our first glimpse of him in the shadow of a doorway with the cat at his feet, and there's the great and largely improvised fairground speech he makes to Joseph Cotten about Renaissance painters and cuckoo clocks.

But Thomson chooses to focus on the film's daringly uncompromising final scene as Alida Valli ignores Cotten in her walk out of the graveyard, which Reed filmed in one long shot.

Thomson, who's the best living writer on film and whose bracingly opinionated Biographical Dictionary of Film should be on everyone's bookshelves, is similarly quirky here in his selection of scenes or "moments" -- and indeed of the films from which he picks them.

In his introduction he promises some "offbeat choices", and certainly in a book that focuses on moments from a mere 70 movies some of his inclusions are startling (Arthur Penn's seldom-seen Mickey One and Jane Campion's In the Cut, for instance), while others are perversely personal -- his already famous schoolboyish crush on Nicole Kidman leading him here to rapturous overkill when discussing her role in the 2004 film Birth.

But he's wonderfully good on John Boorman's great 1967 thriller Point Blank, wondering if Walker's enigmatically lethal pursuit of the $93,000 that had been stolen from him is merely "the dream of a dying man in which he proves to himself that he is superb, unkillable and capable of toppling the Organisation. Does he think he's Lee Marvin?"

And he's excellent on Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 masterpiece, The Conformist, where he focuses on its terrifying climactic murder in the forest and notes how "there are so many killings in movies, and so many of them don't bother with the pain, the damage, the evil and the horror, or even notice such things. In The Conformist nothing is omitted".

There are marvellous insights, too, into scenes from such diverse movies as Bringing Up Baby, Casablanca, Meet Me in St Louis, Tokyo Story, North by Northwest, Psycho, Jules et Jim, Don't Look Now, Chinatown, The Passenger, Taxi Driver, When Harry Met Sally, A History of Violence and Zodiac.

I looked in vain, though, for his thoughts on To Have and Have Not, Shane, Vertigo, Les Quatre Cents Coups, Amarcord, Manhattan, Goodfellas, Jackie Brown and other movies that feature some of my own favourite moments. Maybe he'll do a follow-up.

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Irish Independent

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