Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon (1953): “the climactic number, choreographed by Michael Kidd, is akin to nothing else” © Everett Collection/Rex
Movie critics in old age can be excused for remembering a moment from any given movie, rather than the whole thing. They might even decide that they never experienced anything except as a collection of fragments, and that all those old coherent memories were an illusion. Certainly I, when I learned that David Thomson had written this book, thought he might be on to something. Just recently I switched to the Film4 channel and found the screen full of a man’s thigh. I knew immediately it was Brad Pitt in Troy.
You get to where your capacity for recollection is like a bin full of charged particles. Let’s call them moments, as Thomson does. The question his book raises is whether or not the moments he has chosen from 70 films are always the right ones. But I should say in advance that this very question might guarantee a big sale: people will want to argue about the choices, just as they argue about the teeming judgements in his most famous book, A Biographical Dictionary of Cinema, first published in 1975 and since several times revised, while never ceasing to be slightly crackers.
David Thomson believes that Blue Velvet is one of the 10 greatest movies ever made. I believe that it is a bunch of fish heads wrapped in newspaper. Therefore it is a miracle that I agree with anything he says. It is a relief, when paging through this splendidly produced new book, to be able to agree with him at least sometimes. In Bringing Up Baby, directed by Howard Hawks, the movie is undoubtedly made by the moment when Cary Grant, on a formal occasion, accidentally rips Katharine Hepburn’s skirt off and must usher her out of the crowded room with his top hat concealing her behind.
You don’t have to do much work in your head before you remember that the same movie is packed with other moments. (The dinosaur collapsing, the professor imitating the leopard’s call, and so on.) But you remember the skirt-ripping scene without doing any work at all. Surely that should be the criterion: the moment that makes the movie is the moment you can’t help thinking of.
As long as he sticks to that elementary plan, Thomson gives us some good stuff. He is full of apologies for picking out the crop-dusting scene from North by Northwest, but why be apologetic? Everyone remembers that scene. Thomson has his doubts about its logic. So do I—why go to such lengths for an elementary assassination?—but the scene has already grabbed you well before the crop-dusting aeroplane (dusting where there are no crops) turns towards Grant with the clear intention of ruining his suit for keeps.
Similarly, everybody remembers Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. Thomson says that what this merry moment really makes us feel is the pathos of the actress, because 18 years later she will star in a much better movie, In the Cut. I agree that Jane Campion’s movie is very good, but I would rather be damned than go along with the dippy idea that when I watch Meg Ryan yelling for pleasure in the café I should really be thinking about another movie she made almost two decades later.