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David Thompson’s ‘Moments That Made the Movies’ a film buff’s treasure album

Dennis King Published: November 19, 2013
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Merely mention the title of an iconic movie, and any film buff worth his popcorn salt can easily conjure up vivid images of a signature scene from that picture. A body floating facedown in an illuminated swimming pool (“Sunset Boulevard”), a man being chased down a dusty road by a menacing crop duster (“North By Northwest”), a snow globe shattering onto the floor (“Citizen Kane”), a woman loudly describing an orgasm in a New York deli (“When Harry Met Sally …”).

For celebrated film critic and scholar David Thompson singular scenes such as these help define deeper meanings and interpretations of the films. In his sumptuous, entertaining, deep-dish coffee table tome “Moments That Made the Movies” (Thames & Hudson, $30.95), Thompson highlights and analyzes key scenes from 70 movies, and in the process encourages us to find new angles and greater wells of meaning in those films.

Thompson, film critic for The New Republic and author of the seminal book “The Biographical Dictionary of Film” (now in its fifth edition) and the recent “The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies,” is, as always, unpredictable in his choices.

Certainly he pays homage to some of the obvious classics (“Psycho,” “Casablanca,” “The Searchers,” etc.). But as he notes in his introduction, the book contains “surprises, offbeat choices, perhaps even capricious or provocative selections, as well as plenty of films you might have guessed would be included – though not always with the moments you anticipated.”

For instance, for “Psycho,” he eschews the famously lurid shower scene and instead focuses in on the scene in which Marion (Janet Leigh) and Norman (Anthony Perkins) converse as she checks into the Bates Motel. It’s a scene, Thompson suggests, that reveals Norman as “shy, polite and engaging,” and as much more than a sick, deranged killer. “This is not just the more absorbing personal conversation in the film,” Thompson writes, “it is one of the most searching talks in all of Hitchcock.”

Each essay, lushly illustrated with color and black-and-white photos (frame enlargements rather than publicity stills), stands on its own as a provocative, insightful work of critical journalism. But reading them chronologically is like a master class in film analysis.

It’s Thompson’s range, scope and idiosyncratic insight that make the book such a unique treasure. Extending from an 1887 series of stills by Eadweard Muybridge of two nude women sitting in a wooden chair to such contemporary  works as Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Burn After Reading,” Thompson’s choices might seem aggressively wonky and odd at times. But they’re just as often startling and expansive and hugely entertaining.

Whether he’s breaking down moments in obvious favorites such as “When Harry Met Sally …” (a film he doesn’t particularly like) or finding unexpected scenes of grace in foreign classics such as “Jules and Jim” or “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and lesser known titles such as “Mickey One” or “The King of Marvin Gardens,” Thompson is a wise, companionable and admirably eccentric guide to the finer details and expansive subtexts of some pretty great movies.

- Dennis King