The name of David Thomson’s new book is “Moments That Made the Movies” (Thames and Hudson, 302 pages, $39.95).
His basic premise in this beautifully illustrated book is sound – that it is moments from movies that we retain rather than the whole things. Or, as he puts it at the outset, “Can you recall the intricate plot of ‘Laura,’ or do you simply see Dana Andrews falling asleep beneath the portrait on the wall?”
That is the most rhetorical of questions in a book that otherwise begs for argument.
Here’s one “great movie moment” that I’d have included that Thomson didn’t. It’s from Don Siegel’s 1956 B-movie horror classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”: The town doctor in Santa Mira, Calif., and his elegantly beautiful girlfriend are frantically on the run from the townsfolk, all of whom have been transformed into cold, communal, emotionless pod people – i.e., blooming, unfeeling plant versions of themselves that take over their human bodies completely when they’ve slept near one of the pods.
The doc is played by Kevin McCarthy, and his girlfriend by Dana Wynter, as elegant a presence as any B-movie ever had. They’ve been awake all night – at least – as fugitives from their transformed and now-malevolent neighbors. They’ve found momentary refuge in a wet, dank cave whose last-resort status is made doubly obvious by the splendid black and white noir cinematography.
To ascertain just how safe they really are, the doc tells his girlfriend he’s going to check the cave’s mouth again. Whatever she does, he says, she can’t fall asleep, no matter how exhausted they both are. That’s when the nonhuman pod versions of your body take over.
He checks and comes back to her, satisfied with their momentary safety. At long last, they’ve found a place that’s safe from the people who were once their friends and neighbors. He looks into that beautiful face and, now that they’re alone, kisses it as he hasn’t been able to do in hours. He needs the moral reinforcement that only love – in gorgeous close-up – can provide.
As their lips part and they come up for air, we see her disengaging face from his point of view – cold, unfeeling, smugly accusatory (“Why don’t you join us?”), just like everyone else in town.
She, too, had fallen asleep for just a few seconds and become one of them. He might as well have been kissing a rubber tree plant.
One of the greatest close-ups in American movies, I think. It’s that rare, perhaps singular, moment that is genuinely chilling to watch, rather than metaphorically so.
The moment Thomson chose from “The Godfather” is the scene in which Michael – then the family college boy and war hero – shoots corrupt cop McCluskey in the throat and snakelike rival Sollozzo in the center of his forehead.
The one I would have chosen: Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) in his faltering old age in the backyard with his grandson. He chases him through the tomato plants. You see the difference between the way an old man moves and a quick, squealing, delighted little boy.
The Don takes an orange peel and puts it in his mouth to become a makeshift play monster for the little boy’s benefit. It works. The actual kid playing the role is too young to act. He’s genuinely startled (And he was, too; Brando sprung it on him without warning.).
Then, after more chasing, the Don collapses amid the tomato plants. His heart gives out. He’s dead. The boy, for a second or two, squeals, thinking it’s still part of the game of playing dead – grandpa’s newest cool trick on him.
It’s the greatest moment in “The Godfather” to me because, amid all the violence and conniving and power-grabbing, it conveys the film’s most important triumph which is its portrayal of “famiglia” – that thing that comes before everything else. To the Don, a grandfather who can’t entertain a grandson among the tomato plants isn’t a man. It may turn out to be a life trauma for the kid but, for him, it was a perfect way for a sick old man to die.
Anthony Gounaris played the little boy. He was 3 when the film was shot.
Those are just two of my many hearty disagreements with David Thomson in his newest book. But then that is the probably the very great critic’s chief purpose in American film’s ongoing life: to give us eloquent and brilliantly observed judgments that either persuade us or sharpen our own arguments in dispute.
The great Thomson books – the ones I would submit no movie-loving American home should ever be without – are the latest (fifth) edition of his great “Biograpical Dictionary of Film” and his mammoth compendium of thumbnail (actually, they’re full hand-size) recommendations, “Have You Seen?”
The judgments and choices here are among his most arguable ever: the Coen Brothers’ “Burn After Reading?” included alone among all their films? Jane Campion’s “In the Cut”? (Over, say, “Silkwood” or “Moonstruck?” Or the original “Roller Ball?” Or “Out of Africa?” Or Bob Rafelson’s “The King of Marvin Gardens” over “Five Easy Pieces?”)
Ladies and gentleman, start your engines. Let the arguments commence.
By all means, though, read Thomson first. Your own contradictory thoughts will be that much sharper and more incisive if you do.