That bit when...

By choosing his favourite movie "moments," David Thomson is just looking for pretext: He can't resist telling us everything he knows about film
November 14, 2013

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.

As with most people who have enjoyed the witty lines of When Harry Met Sally, the line I actually remember comes (as it were) after the climax (as it were again) of that scene: “I’ll have what she’s having.” You don’t have to remember who said it (it was Rob Reiner’s mother) but you do have to remember it was said.

The initial premise of Thomson’s book might have been that a key moment in a movie is the moment you have to remember, but he seems to find something repellent about the compulsory nature of that idea; so he soon becomes engaged in sabotaging his own plan. When he occasionally overcomes his reluctance to state the obvious, he is strangely unforthcoming with the details that might have made the choice of the obvious interesting.

He is more or less compelled to cite the great highway coffee-shop face-off between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. Having seen that movie far too often, I could name other moments, because a chain of intense moments is the only thing that holds the screenplay together. But without a doubt, the scene where Pacino and De Niro battle to out-ham each other for minutes on end is the moment of moments.

Yet Thomson, presented with the spectacle of two sitting ducks, tells us nothing about their mannerisms. He doesn’t even tell us anything about the way Pacino’s hairline describes a straight line across his forehead, a spectacle which raises the question of whether the actor is wearing a rug that we are supposed not to notice, or whether he is playing a man who wears a rug. Film critics in their old age should feel free to deal with such metaphysical subjects: the stuff of eternity.

From James Cagney’s classic mad gangster performance in White Heat, Thomson picks two moments, but since he is right both times there is not much point in the reader’s plaintively asking why two could not have been whittled down to one. The first moment is when Cagney, in prison, gets the news of his mother’s death, and goes berserk. The second is from the last scene, when Cagney, high up on top of the gas bubble (“Top of the world, Ma!”) is vaporised when the thing explodes.

But when you pick two moments from a movie instead of one, you are well on the way to accepting that the whole movie is made of moments; and it might not be much good if it isn’t. Thomson tacitly admits this when his admiration for Barbara Stanwyck’s bewitching wiles in the first seduction scene of The Lady Eve spreads to admiration for everything else she does in the movie. Henry Fonda falls clunk, and so does Thomson, whose weakness for a beautiful actress is one of his strengths. Longing makes him receptive. Unfortunately it plays hell with his theory that a movie can have a single, typical point of concentration.

Perhaps it can, but usually the universally recognisable moment will function like a trailer, arrestingly announcing something that you might want to see more of. When Thomson gets too far from that simple interpretation, he is off and running into territory more vague, and the reader is bound to go mad with impatience. Thomson goes on for some time about various supposedly magic bits in The Third Man; goes on long enough for me to remember the moment—the single instant—when Orson Welles, framed in a doorway in a darkened street, moves forward into the shaft of light and we at last see the face of Harry Lime. Why doesn’t Thomson remember that?

But of course he does. It’s just that he prefers to remember other things first. A proper critic with a lifetime’s experience of exploring complex works in all their subtlety, he can no more remain satisfied with a simplistic approach than he can give up wearing shoes. Nothing can stop him writing a whole essay, however brief, about a whole movie, however big. So really, in choosing a moment, he is just looking for a pretext.

Personally, if I had wanted to write a couple of pages on Lee Marvin, I would have abandoned the quest to pull a moment out of Point Blank and switched my attention to that great scene at the end of The Killers when Marvin the assassin, after being gut-shot, can’t stop assassinating, and keeps staggering towards the target with his index finger pretending to be a gun. Finally he falls sideways, still startled that such weakness should have entered into a body as big and strong as his.

But that’s just me, and other readers will find other entries where they want to get in and help. Perhaps Thomson was afraid of just that response, and therefore was determined to outfox the reader’s knowledge; this being a field, of course, in which almost all readers are knowledgeable. Nowadays you can find utter imbeciles who have seen every Quentin Tarantino movie. In fact, unless you are careful, they will find you.

Sometimes the outfoxing manoeuvre is clever. For Hitchcock’s Psycho, the obvious moment to pick is Janet Leigh’s death in the shower. Thomson prefers to choose the scene just before that, when she forms a friendship with Anthony Perkins, so far the only kind person she has met. In view of what will soon happen, this is a masterfully well-directed piece of misdirection. I doubt if anyone except Thomson remembers it as a specific moment; but if you know the movie well, and remember as hard as you can, you just might find it in your memory banks. I, for one, am more likely to find that scene than to find the shower scene, which I have never actually watched, owing to cowardice.

Sometimes, the clever degenerates to the cute. It’s true that the opening scene of Touch of Evil is not the only long-take miracle in the picture. There is another such technical triumph later on, when the complicated action in the Sanchez apartment—14 pages of script, we are told—is all caught in one go. But to suppose that the later scene is more likely than the earlier scene to live in the memory is surely perverse.

One of Thomson’s abiding quirks is that he will go out of his way to be weird. He loves The Band Wagon as much as you and I do, but surely the dance sequence at the end (“The Girl Hunt”) knocks spots off his chosen moment, in which Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse plight their troth to “Dancing in the Dark.” It’s a number sweet enough to make you forget that Charisse is dancing it in flat shoes, but Thomson’s own vocabulary, when it first formed in his mind, should have tipped him off that he was on a crooked trail. He says the number is “akin to ballet.” Indeed it is; whereas the climactic number, choreographed by Michael Kidd, is akin to nothing else on earth.

Just as old men ought to be explorers, old critics ought to write strange things. It’s a requirement easily met, because the ageing critical brain will probably go haywire anyway, from having too much in it. I speak as an old critic of poetry who is currently working on a book devoted to the necessarily fragmented nature of memory. Some critics of poetry can recite Paradise Lost on their death beds but most of them merely recall fragments of poetry from all over the place, with perhaps a few poems got by heart from very early on. One hopes that seniority can be a rich phase.

Certainly it is for David Thomson. In this book his tone control is sometimes ropey, but then it always was. Of the silent star Louise Brooks, he says: “Her dress is so relaxed it nearly reveals her breasts.” Of her famous hairstyle, he says: “That haircut has become chic for decades.” Odd syntax both times, but perhaps she scrambles his brains, like Nicole Kidman.

Thomson falls for the people up there on the screen, so really it’s quite astonishing that he has enough intelligence left over to appreciate a whole movie. This book is bent out of shape by his urge to talk about everything, and not just about the moment, but the resulting distortion probably makes it more interesting instead of less. My only regret is that he doesn’t consider which movies would be ruined if you left a certain moment out. For years, the BBC, when it screened Bullitt, left out Steve McQueen’s one-word response to Robert Vaughn’s opportunism: “Bullshit.” Today, the word is back in, and a great movie has been completed by the moment that helps to make it.

Moments That Made the Movies by David Thomson (£24.95, Thames & Hudson)