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Book Review: David Thomson’s ‘The Big Screen’

Book Review: David Thomson's 'The Big Screen'

In the epilogue to “The Big Screen,” his one-volume history of the movies, David Thomson warns the reader:  “You should be ready for the loss of theaters and video stores….Be prepared for the word ‘movie’ being replaced by ‘bits’ or ‘bites’ or ‘viddies’ (a term Anthony Burgess used in 'A Clockwork Orange' in 1962).”

Despite its title, Thomson’s huge book is more than a history of what we have watched on the big screen for over a hundred years. He makes a sly case for Tim Van Patten being “the most effective director of his time.”  Van Patten, hardly the first name that leaps into anyone’s mind, has directed “some of the best material of our time, twenty episodes of 'The Sopranos,' more than anyone else,” he writes.  Between the lines is the certainty that movies are no longer relevant in the way they used to be.

“The Big Screen” encompasses everything from random thoughts on Los Angeles light and Muybridge’s murder of his wife’s lover to musings on Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson resisting temptation in "Brief Encounter" and from that English movie to adultery in movies.  It is full of everything that Thomson knows or thinks or feels about movies — and television and Facebook — a banquet that is best eaten a little at a time.

Anyone who has picked up Thomson’s “A Biographical Dictionary of Film” knows that, unlike most compendiums of actors’ and directors’ careers, it is a book that can be read for pleasure as well as for information.  The same quirkiness fills the pages of “The Big Screen” which moves back and forth in time as, for example, the German cinema in the 1920s evokes mention of "Psycho" and then of film noir.  Of Fritz Lang’s "Dr. Mabuse" (1922), he writes “The good guys in Lang and a thousand other films are so banal, so bland until they are exposed to the temptation of going astray.”  The comparison is to Edward G. Robinson in Lang’s "The Woman in the Window" (1944.)

“The Big Screen” is full of three paragraph sketches of important people and important films.  Much is familiar from other books, but much is unfamiliar, including mention of an essay denigrating movies written by Virginia Woolf in 1926.  He has also woven together from articles, other books, and his own clever mind particularly interesting sections on "Citizen Kane," "I Love Lucy" and "The Godfather."

And Thomson often has unexpected ideas.  On film noir he dismisses the conventional idea that film noir was based on the hardboiled detective literature of, in particular, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, saying that both men were “more robust than the neurotic personality of noir,” and that there was “no real doubt in their books about the place of good and evil,” while there is a “growing uncertainty” in noir over which is which.  He focuses, instead, on Patrick Hamilton whose plays included "Gaslight" (1944) and "Hangover Square" (1945). 

Thomson also often directs the reader’s attention to films that have been overlooked or gone out of fashion.  In a section on films about World War II, he highlights two “unforgettable” movies, Joseph Losey’s "Mr. Klein" (1976) and Robert Bresson’s "A Man Escaped" (1956). Calling Quentin Tarantino’s "Inglorious Basterds" (2009) “one of the first films that didn’t seem to understand what happened in the Second World War but took the crudest films as a matter of record,” he muses about what will happen when no one is alive who was alive during the war years and perhaps the record of the war will depend on films “as mediocre and complacent as 'The Longest Day' (1962), 'A Bridge Too Far' (1977), 'The Guns of Navarone' (1961), 'The Dirty Dozen' (1967), and 'Patton' (1970) instead of, say, 'Bitter Victory' (1957), Anthony Mann’s 'Men in War' (1957), John Boorman’s 'Hell in the Pacific' (1968) or Bertolucci’s 'The Conformist' (1970).”

Thomson gives full credit to his sources in an appendix.  Word to the wise: the book doesn’t have an index on Kindle, so it is not possible to look up all references to a director or a movie.

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Thanks for this review. Always nice to see Harmetz's byline. (I remember when she was a regular contributor to The New York Times.) I want to read this book, but I tend to wait till thick books like this come out in paperback. I hope that's soon. (And no, I'm not an e-book person.)

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