The Real Magic

David Sylvester

  • A Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson
    Deutsch, 834 pp, £25.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 233 98859 9

I probably wouldn’t have chosen a work of criticism rather than Proust if the Bible and Shakespeare weren’t already there, but for some years now I have taken the view that my ‘Desert Island’ book, if I were asked, would have to be David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema. First published in 1970, it has just re-appeared as A Biographical Dictionary of Film in a third edition that is revised and considerably enlarged. Despite its titles it is indeed a work of criticism: ‘each of the thousand profiles,’ as the blurb says, ‘is a keenly perceptive, provocative critical essay.’

On the island the book could serve either of two possible purposes. If allowed my preferred ‘luxury item’, which would be a video recorder with a generator and a library of tapes, I could continue to use Thomson as I do now: each and every time I see an old film on the TV screen I look up his entries on the director and stars; I have thus read many of those profiles dozens of times without wearying of them. If I were not indulged in my choice of ‘luxury item’, then Thomson would be my consolation for having no access to films.

I am saying, then, that Thomson’s criticism is both highly illuminating and highly evocative. Here are two instances of the latter.

Although endlessly associated with the supposedly ‘brutal’ and ‘realistic’ qualities of the gangster film, Cagney is one of the most stylised of actors. Look past that familiar belligerence and you will find a compressed gaiety and a delight in outrageous, inventive movement. His reputation for slugging women on the screen needs to be compared with Dietrich’s man-eating act: in both cases, there is an innate tenderness and a real sexual inquisitiveness that makes the action ambiguous. Cagney is charged with restlessness, and yet he always contrives to discharge the agitation daintily or with conscious style. Watch him listen to other players and you will realise how often other actors cruised. If he is frightening it is because of that attentiveness and the feeling that what is being said or done to him may provoke extra-ordinary and unexpected reactions. No one could move so arbitrarily from tranquillity to dementia, because Cagney was a dancer responding to a melody that he alone heard. Like a sprite or goblin he seemed to be in touch with an occult source of vitality. What a Bilbo Baggins he would have made, or imagine his Hyde to Fred Astaire’s Jekyll.

Novak was a big shy blonde, diffident about her beautiful body and forever trying to speak up and project. Many critics saw this tense endeavour and concluded that she was not an actress. But film sometimes flinches at the expertise of actresses, and the sympathetic viewer may come to realise that there was a mute honesty in Novak: she did not conceal the fact that she had been drawn into a world capable of exploiting her. Filming seemed an ordeal for her; it was as if the camera hurt her. But while many hostile to the movies rose in defence of the devastation of Marilyn Monroe – whether or not she was a sentient victim – Novak was stoical, obdurate, or sullen. She allowed very few barriers between that raw self and the audience and now looks dignified, reflective, and responsive to feeling where Monroe appears haphazard and oblivious. Novak is the epitome of every small-town waitress or beauty contest winner who thought of being in the movies. Despite a thorough attempt by Columbia to glamorise her, she never lost the desperate attentiveness of someone out of her depth but refusing to give in. Her performances improve with time so that ordinary films come to centre on her; even Vertigo, Hitchcock’s masterpiece, owes some of its power to Novak’s harrowing suspension between tranquillity and anxiety ... Vertigo contains a very subtle analysis of the ordeal and the self-obliteration in acting, and it works all the better because Novak was so direct, unschooled and slavelike. There are actresses whose intelligence always shows – like Katharine Hepburn, Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, or Dietrich in the Sternberg films. Then there are actresses who seem stripped of any chance of control. They are simply there, caught in the lights by the camera and the movie – like Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Karina in Pierrot le fou, and Novak in Vertigo.

Those last lines exemplify the neatness with which Thomson is always slipping, as critics should, from the particular into the more general. (It also exemplifies his charm with paradox that he puts Louise Brooks in both camps.) Again and again observations which epitomise the art of film come in as asides, as when, writing about Michel Simon, he invokes ‘the special mingling of self and character that is so necessary (and dangerous) in screen acting’. (This, by the way, is a rewrite. In the previous edition it read: ‘the special mingling of self and character that is so hallucinatory in screen acting’.)

Critics of Thomson’s calibre are more urgently needed for dealing with film than for any other medium. The art is in rather the same sort of stale as the theatre was in the days of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy and comedy: many hundreds of great scenes had been written and many thousands of great lines, but very few great plays – in the sense in which Ibsen and Chekhov wrote great plays – and those were probably the work of only two authors, Shakespeare and Jonson. It was easy to spot the great scenes, but the work still had to be done of identifying the truly great plays. By the same token, we can all have very clear ideas of what are the great scenes in cinema – and they’re innumerable, of course – and what are the great moments – the equivalents of the great lines – usually moments of kissing or killing or recognition. But we’re still floundering over deciding what are the really great films, the films that hold together as intense artistic entities.

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