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.

For instance, there has possibly never been a better scene in any movie than the Odessa Steps sequence, but is Potemkin as a whole a great film? Again, there’s a sublime scene with the great white whale in Huston’s Moby Dick but the film is certainly not a great film. Above all, there are fabulous song-and-dance numbers in any number of musicals, but how many musicals are great films? Or, speaking of moments, the killing of Jack Palance by Alan Ladd in Shane is exquisite, but Shane as a whole is a phoney. (But its director, George Stevens, did direct a musical that’s a serious candidate for greatness: Swing Time.) And the problem of evaluating the makers is vastly complicated, as it is with the Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, by the fact that the creation is usually collaborative and that, even when names are named, outsiders don’t know precisely who did what.

The confusion that pervades the evaluation of films and their makers was manifest in the published results of a recent Time Out poll to choose the ‘100 Best Films’ and with them a ‘Best Director’, ‘Best Actress’ and ‘Best Actor’. (‘Best Female Star’ and ‘Best Male Star’ might have been apter: one might say that films are about stars and actors are strictly for the boards.) The invited participants were asked to nominate ten films and then one individual in each of the personal categories. The voters were to be ‘movie-makers, programmers and critics’. Over sixty directors agreed to vote (including Boetticher, Boorman, Frears, Fuller, Greenaway, Polanski, Wilder and Zinneman), as did about twenty producers; only one actor agreed; in the spectator class there were about ten programmers and nearly forty critics, all of them contributors to Time Out. The results were published last month.

The list of best directors, 14 of them, includes neither Buñuel nor Rossellini nor Godard nor Mizoguchi and the list of the best films, 107 of them (20 came out equal 88th), includes not a single example of Buñuel or Rossellini or of Cocteau or Fritz Lang or von Sternberg or Arthur Penn or Pasolini or Warhol or Woody Allen, nor a film directed or choreographed by Busby Berkeley, nor, amazingly, a film starring either Garbo or Fred Astaire, nor Shoah. Instead, it finds room for The Quiet Man and The Bridge on the River Kwai, three films by Nicolas Roeg and four by Powell and Pressburger, with A Matter of Life and Death sharing 13th place with Les Enfants du paradis and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp sharing 23rd place with Some Like It Hot and Taxi Driver.

Part of the blame for the oddity of the Time Out poll can probably be put down to a lack of knowledge in depth of the material on the part of a high proportion of the voters, especially as we are told that 30 per cent of them were young or youngish critics. A shortage of memory could explain the choice of Polanski’s Chinatown rather than his Repulsion, of Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia rather than Great Expectations. And there are signs that the selection could have been unduly influenced by what has been promoted on television in the last three or four years. On the other hand, Woody Allen has not been invisible there. By and large I’m fairly sure that the reason the list is so muddled is that the choice is deeply middlebrow. This shows in the choice of musicals above all. The only musicals to get in are Singing in the Rain and West Side Story rather than films starring Ginger Rogers or Judy Garland or Rita Hayworth or Barbra Streisand, or films choreographed by Busby Berkeley, with his unique combination of low popular appeal and high cinematic art.

Thomson is passionately anti-middlebrow:

The loveliness of Merchant-Ivory gives me the creeps. Their audience, I suspect, is that of people who have lost the habit of going to the movies – and why not? – but who have not read the books they adapt. Perhaps the team is a boon to book sales, to libraries and literacy, and to students who have too little time to read. Perhaps some people have read some of these books because of the films. In which case, why do they say ‘lovely’ and pass by? Why do they not cry out that Henry James is much more? Even that there is distress, irony, doubt and mystery in the voice of E.M. Forster that these films miss?

Thomson’s anti-middlebrow fervour also seems to me to come into play in the contrast between his distaste for John Ford and his love of Howard Hawks, perhaps the perfect no-brow.

The clue to Hawks’s greatness is that this sombre lining is cut against the cloth of the genre in which he is operating. Far from the meek purveyor of Hollywood forms, he always chose to turn them upside down. To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, ostensibly an adventure and a thriller, are really love stories. Rio Bravo, apparently a Western – everyone wears a cowboy hat – is a comedy conversation piece. The ostensible comedies are shot through with exposed emotions, with the subtlest views of the sex war, and with a wry acknowledgment of the incompatibility of men and women. Men and women skirmish in Hawks’s films on the understanding that an embrace is only a prelude to withdrawal and disillusion. The dazzling battles of word, innuendo, glance, and gesture ... are Utopian procrastinations to avert the paraphernalia of released love that can only expend itself. In other words, Hawks is at his best in moments when nothing happens beyond people arguing about what might happen or has happened ...

The ‘style’ of Hawks rests in this commenting astuteness; no other director so bridges the contrived plots of genre and the responses of a mature spectator. And because there is such emotional intelligence, such witty feeling, the camera is almost invisible. It is insufficient to say that Hawks put the camera in the most natural and least obtrusive place. The point is that his actors played to and with him, as he sat to one side of the camera that recorded them. His method involved the creation of a performance in rehearsal for which the script was merely an impetus. Whatever the script said, Hawks always twisted it into those abiding tableaux. It was a requirement of the method that he selected actors and actresses who responded to this sort of badgering companionship and whom the audience accepted as being grown up. No wonder then that Cary Grant is so central to Hawks’s work. But notice how far Rio Bravo shows us a Wayne and Dean Martin hardly recognised by other directors. And do not forget the list of people either discovered or brought to new life by Hawks: Louise Brooks (chosen by Pabst for Pandora’s Box after seeing A Girl in Every Port): Boris Karloff; Carole Lombard; Rita Hayworth; Richard Barthelmess; Jane Russell; Lauren Bacall; Dorothy Malone; Montgomery Clift; George Winslow; Angie Dickinson; and James Caan.

The optimism derived from a delight in people expressed in the finding of new faces and the production of new expressions on old faces. In that sense Hawks blended classical narrative cinema and cinéma vérité. After all, The Big Sleep was like a home movie, made amid the dark interiors of a Warners studio; that view of intimacy has time and again shattered the supposedly imprisoning circumstances of entertainment movies. Hawks is the supreme figure of classical cinema. Because he is so unassuming an innovator, so natural an entertainer, his work has still not been surpassed.

The Ford philosophy is a rambling apologia for unthinking violence later disguised by the sham legends of old men fuddled by drink and glory. The visual poetry so often attributed to Ford seems to me claptrap in that it amounts to the prettification of a lie – Fonda in the chair in Clementine, the lines of cavalry in so many films, the lone figure in Monument Valley, the homestead interior, as airy and vulgar as gravure advertisements for kitchenware. It is worth emphasising how far Penn, Anthony Mann, Fuller, Nicholas Ray and Peckinpah have disproved those rosy, statuesque images. Could Ford match the harrowing historical perspective of Little Big Man, the moral ambiguity of The Far Country, the painful violence of Run of the Arrow, the passion of Johnny Guitar, or the unsentimental veterans of The Wild Bunch?

But if the Westerns are fraudulent, what of Ford’s other movies? When diverted to literature or socioreligious gravity he is as bad a director as Kramer. The Grapes of Wrath is an appallingly hollow posture of stoicism; The Informer risible; How Green Was My Valley a monstrous slurry of tears and coal dust; Tobacco Road meandering nonsense; Three Godfathers shameless; and The Fugitive inane. Mister Roberts is pious; Gideon boring; The Long Gray Line monotonous. Stagecoach is sometimes cited for its masterly construction. But it stresses narrative sequence and visual prettiness to the disadvantage of character, action and the out-of-doors. The assembly of stock caricatures, the ritual images of Monument Valley – of Wayne firing into the back projection and of Indians tumbling in the dust – are as mechanical as the supposedly more reflective ‘human’ touches: Mitchell’s alcoholic doctor being regenerated, for instance. As for the very striking interior compositions – at the prairie way station – next year, in The Long Voyage Home, Ford innocuously indulged Gregg Toland’s deep-focus studio photography in as senseless a display of beauty as Hollywood ever achieved ... Ford is walled up in a tradition of helpless, rosy lament, the cinema of distracting pipe dream.

Even at his most prejudiced, Thomson isn’t blind. Having just said of Ford that ‘no one has done so much to invalidate the Western as a form’ he affirms that The Searchers ‘is a very moving and mysterious film that does not cheat on a serious subject, and that it beautifully relates the landscape to its theme.’ Incidentally, The Searchers provides a classic instance of how middlebrow critics get films wrong. When it was issued in 1956 a film that was clearly Ford’s masterpiece was believed by Penelope Houston and her ilk to be a sad decline from kitsch such as Stagecoach. Happily, Time Out has The Searchers as Ford’s best film, at equal 20th in the list, and leaves Stagecoach out.

If Hawks can do no wrong for Thomson and Ford can do little right, he is fascinatingly ambivalent on the subject of the director who emerged as victor in the Time Out poll.

The critical dogfights over Hitchcock’s status were fought at a crucial time, in the early Sixties, to assert the value of his greatest works – Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds. And these films are without equal for the way they adjust the cinematic image to our expectations. They are deeply expressive of the way we watch and respond to stories. Their greatness is often employed to explain the nature and workings of cinema. Thus Hitchcock became a way of defining film, a man exclusively intent on the moving image and the compulsive emotions of the spectator.

Ignorance and fear are the abiding impressions left by his films. Just as his suspense works through deliberately withheld knowledge – and withheld from the hypersensitive voyeurist curiosity that he has aroused – so he teaches us to share the fear of the world that he always owned up to. Why not face the implications of his two celebrated admissions: that he feared, above all, arrest; and that his aim in cinema was to put the audience through it? I would not deny that his films can lead to great insights of an intensely pessimistic vision. But I do not see how a man so fearful, and so chronically adept at conveying fear, can be judged as a profound artist. Suffering in his films invariably depends upon the victim’s being unbalanced or demented. The pain felt by Perkins in Psycho or Stewart in Vertigo is savage, yet it is more limited than that in Renoir, Mizoguchi or Welles because of Hitchcock’s resort to mania and melodrama.

Hitchcock’s most profound subject and achievement is the juxtaposition of sanity and insanity, of bourgeois ordinariness and criminal outrage. The crisscross motif, derived from thriller fiction, is itself a map of the way audiences willingly cross over from their seats to involve themselves in a film. James Stewart being drawn into Kim Novak in Vertigo is a model of the way we are sucked into films. Charming Robert Walker and boring Farley Granger make a trap for our need to identify. The method of Rear Window – a voyeur in the dark inspecting other lives – is the principle of cinematic spectacle. Hitchcock’s best films all grow out of his instinctive employment of our impulses and fantasy life in the cinema. And his moral seriousness consists of showing us the violent, psychotic fruits of some of those impulses and shyly asking us to claim them as our own. I say ‘shyly’ because Hitchcock did not properly own up to his seriousness. It is not enought to paint Hitchcock the interviewee as a sly legpuller who teased earnest questions. The truth may be that he did not fully grasp his own films ...

His great films are only partly his; they also belong to the minds that interpret them. There is an artistic timidity in Hitchcock that, having put the audience through it, must allow them to come to terms with the experience. But his own personality is withdrawn, cold, insecure and unchaitable. The method, despite its brilliance, is equally private and restrictive. To plan so much that the shooting becomes a chore is an abuse not just of actors and crew, but of cinema’s predilection for the momentary. It is, in fact, the style of an immense, premeditative artist – a Bach, a Proust, or a Rembrandt. And beside those masters, Hitchcock seems an impoverished investor of thumbscrews who shows us the human capacity for inflicting pain, but no more. Such precision can only avoid seeming overbearing and misanthropic if it is accompanied by creative untidiness. In the last resort, his realised blueprints affirm film’s yearning for doubt and open endings.

Who, then, are the directors other than Hawks whom Thomson admires most unreservedly? They would seem to be Renoir, Buñuel, Godard, Ophuls, Dreyer, Bergman, Rossellini, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Warhol and Welles. He has the courage to single out one of them, Renoir: ‘He is the greatest of directors; he justifies cinema.’ Now, the Hitchcock profile seems to me to reveal very clearly that Thomson, like other great critics before him, is essentially a moralist and that his critical assessment of an artist’s worth is often, not always, tangled up with views about him as a human being. And Renoir, on the strength of his writings and his reported behaviour, seems an exemplary human being, compassionate, decent, intelligent, honest, generous, humorous. I suspect that as a critic Thomson is too much on his side.

His favourite Renoir seems to be La Règle du jeu. It also seems to be one of everybody’s favourite films: it came third in the Time Out 100, behind Citizen Kane and The Godfather and in front of Vertigo. As it happens, it was one of three films chosen haphazardly which I watched on video last weekend. The other two were also black and white films, one made seven years later (that is, in 1946), the other six years earlier: The Big Sleep, starring Bogart and Bacall and directed by Hawks, and Footlight Parade, starring Cagney, Blondell and Keeler and directed by Lloyd Bacon, with dances by Busby Berkeley, including the aquatic ‘By a Water fall’, one of the most shamelessly voyeuristic and deliriously geometric of all his imaginings. La Règle du jeu did not stand out much, if at all, from the others: it gave me personally less delight than they did and objectively it seemed in some respects the least strong of the three. Despite admirable performances by both Dalio and Modot, and despite the miscasting of Frank McHugh in Footlight Parade, the general level of performance in the Hollywood films is higher. (What a pity that Simone Simon, having been asked by Renoir to play the female lead – as she had in his wonderful La Bête humaine – asked, according to Thomson, ‘for an American-scale salary and was abandoned’.) And then, in regard to the script – and Renoir was his own scriptwriter – the wit is sharper and the characterisation more economical in the Hollywood films. Furthermore, the social criticism explicit in Footlight Parade, implicit in The Big Sleep, is more telling than it is in La Règle du jeu because there it is so laboured – though it must be acknowledged that La Règle du jeu is more radically and riskily critical in taking on French anti-semitism.

Perhaps the prestige of the film derives largely from its last half-hour, which is so magical in its irony and momentum that everything else is forgiven. La Règle du jeu, then, is a film exceptionally rich in great scenes. But the reputation it enjoys needs to be considered, as it so rarely is, in relation to the most brilliant of the social comedies Hollywood was making at that time – films such as Jack Conway’s Libelled Lady, starring Loy, Harlow, Powell and Tracy. I do feel that with his favourite director Thomson loses his usual magnificent asringency. I wish he would see that Jean Renoir is only the Auguste Renoir of motion pictures and that the Degas is Buñuel. (The Cézanne has not appeared.)

Despite his great love of Buñuel’s work, Thomson is not at his most penetrating or scintillating when writing about him. But one of the sadnesses of being a critic is a frustration analogous to the fact that we do not necessarily write our best love letters to those we love best. However, I recently came across a magazine article of Thomson’s about Buñuel which ended with two paragraphs that throw a great deal of light on most of the matters I have been touching on. The article (carried in the Independent on Sunday in January) was occasioned by an imminent season of Buñuel films.

I am curious a to how the films will play now. Before writing this piece, I looked at a few of them again and I was dazzled by their simplicity and depth. They are like dark, deep pools in the forest, lovely but ominous. There has never been a master of film so indifferent about mastery. And that austerity is out of fashion: young people today might look at Buñuel and deem him ... ordinary or unspectacular. Whimsical even, but not serious, not sincere. They may be put off by the ruthless lack of claims of ‘identification’. So much of film magic now is all on the surface. Do people know how to look beneath the top of the image? Do they know that film is the real magic, not the special effects?

There’s virtually no tradition today of movies made out of a personal, visionary obsession – as opposed to a commercial ambition. So it wouldn’t surprise me if few people got the point of Buñuel now. Too many films are ingratiating and flattering: Buñuel used the medium to kick us in the pants. That audacity slipped away from film in late Seventies, just as he was doing those last films. Now, a director of that stealthy force seems like someone from another century.