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

Photo of Aljean Harmetz By Aljean Harmetz | Thompson on Hollywood December 31, 2012 at 1:55PM

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).”
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The Big Screen
The Big Screen

“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.

This article is related to: Reviews, David Thomson, Classics, The Big Screen


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.