Moments that Made the Movies by David Thomson

Sunset Boulevard (1950). Paramount Pictures
Sunset Boulevard (1950). Paramount Pictures

The film critic David Thomson was all over Northern California this past month (including the Mill Valley Film Festival), promoting his latest book, Moments That Made the Movies. Mr. Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and has written several books, chiefly on American cinema (he himself is British) and the unique trajectories and stories that make up American film history and production, particularly during the early Hollywood studio age.

Moments include many from classic and beloved films, including Casablanca, When Harry Met Sally, The Godfather, Psycho, and L’Eclisse, and some from perhaps lesser-known films beloved by cinéastes, like Sweet Smell of Success, Tokyo Story, and The Blow-Up. These moments, which in Mr. Thomson’s view shifted the craft of film-making toward an interesting direction or else served as a perfectly framed capsule of the prevalent mood or aesthetic of the time, have carefully been selected and reveal not his personal tastes in film, but rather his preoccupations with certain cinematic gestures. These include the vulnerability of women to the male gaze (Psycho, Lola Montés, Klute); the perfection of an ambiguous/unexplained moment (Zodiac, Morocco, Infamous); the anti-hero with a heart of gold (The Big Sleep, Chinatown); and, stylized violence or menace (M, Strangers on a Train). Some of these moments, which are incredibly personal to Mr. Thomson, are “obvious” in that they have entered the collective lexicon of classic moments (the diner scene in When Harry Met Sally), but much more are subtle, reflecting his thorough knowledge of the technical aspects of film-making and each moment’s contribution to a larger picture of cinematic history.

As a critic and avid film-goer, I particularly enjoyed learning about these moments which I may not have considered. However, the overall tone of the book seemed to be occasionally (and unnecessarily) grumpy, especially when mixed with some very serious and technical considerations. For example, of Infamous:

“Truman and Babe react as if they feel very lucky to be there hearing Kitty Dean, though I am bound to say—and I don’t mean to be churlish—that the person looking like Gwyneth Paltrow is not the greatest singer I’ve ever heard (I could imagine Simon Cowell being quite brusque with her.”

This is followed later by:

“A man falls out of a window; a car bursts into flame; it starts to rain. Movies do not often entertain those out-of-the-way things, and that’s why movies sometimes feel claustrophobically organized. Most films don’t want rain, or won’t trust the real thing….That’s a pity, and I like this opening of Infamous because [the director] McGrath never stoops to explaining it.”

Perhaps Mr. Thomson has been around for so long that he doesn’t care to play the aloof role of the film critic—he tells it like it is, and I can hear his voice clearly, especially in those movie moments of gossip.

Listen to his lively interview on Forum.

David Thomson, Moments That Made the Movies. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2013.