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Book review: The Big Screen, By David Thomson

The good, the bad and the mediocre stuff of cinema

This book is the magnum opus of a man described as having "a fair claim to be the greatest living writer on film". Ranging from D.W.Griffith's The Clansman (1905) to Ridley Scott's Prometheus (2012), Thomson's "story of movies and what they did to us" is constantly stimulating and often revelatory.

Though his celluloid journey detours to Russia for Eisenstein and Italy for De Sica's Bicycle Thief (which he regards as over-praised), the heart of this book is in Hollywood and "the famous era of panchromatic black and white…the medium for Fred and Ginger, von Sternberg and Dietrich." Thomson derides Casablanca as "fake, foolish and fanciful beyond belief" but The Third Man keeps its place in the pantheon. "There isn't another British film that captures the post-war European mood so well."

Surveying the Sixties "movie brats", Thomson explains why Robert Altman spoke for a generation. "The Long Goodbye, where looking and hearing are muddled, may get us closer to our uncertain experience of life than the emphatic precision of the golden age" (though he might have added that its logic-free narrative has not improved with keeping). The most astonishing film of the era, Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which adopted a similar approach, is merely described as "confused", though esteemed for its "breathtaking sequences".

After praising Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010) for "introducing marvels we had not seen before", Thomson scoffs at the film that dominated the Oscars in that year. The King's Speech is "a pleasant picture about an ordinary king dealing with a small personal problem."

Despite Thomson's prodigious scope, comedy seems to be a blind spot. Ealing Comedies are dismissed in a page, while the sole mention for the Coen Brothers concerns No Country For Old Men, scarcely the most amusing work in their oeuvre. Oddly, Thomson says that Woody Allen's slight but engaging Radio Days "may be his finest work". Though he sometimes seems to be relying on old memories of movies, the scale, energy and approachability of his epic study are splendidly in keeping with the medium it describes.