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The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us Paperback – 3 Oct 2013

4.2 out of 5 stars 53 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (3 Oct. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141047127
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141047126
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2.7 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 260,797 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Probably the best overview of the cinema ever written. It sparkles with insight, is packed with anecdote, and pulses with passion ... a glorious celebration of one of humankind's great inventions (John Banville Guardian BOOKS OF THE YEAR)

A devilish, dazzling, out-there divination ... Criticism is rarely this passionate and brilliant. You come away wanting to watch it all (Empire)

David Thomson is a giant in the world of film criticism, and his book is the chest-crusher you might expect: erudite, delightfully tangential and surprisingly polemical (Kate Muir The Times)

Thomson has composed a grand aesthetic, spiritual, and moral account of cinema history assembled around the movies and artists that have meant the most to him. As Thomson reconstructs film history, movies bring us close to reality and deliver us into ecstatic dreams. A pungently written, brilliant book (David Denby (author of SNARK))

The theme of The Big Screen is the weirdness of desire ... Drawing on his vast stock of knowledge, Thomson takes us on a meander through Nouvelle Vague and Italian neorealism; Coppola and Scorsese; MGM musicals and film noir. He always comes back in the end to the kind of fun it is possible to have only at the movies, sitting in the dark, staring at the light ... Line by line, Thomson is still the greatest biographical writer about film of all time ... to read him on his favourite films is to be sent back with renewed yearning to that land of Californian light and loveliness (Sunday Times)

Subtle, erudite and entertaining (Economist)

Fascinating ... a loose-limbed, conversational narrative, moving fitfully through time, dawdling over directors and films that interest ... crackling with ideas and vivid impressionisms ... Thomson's stylish prose, simultaneously erudite and entertaining, captivates as it informs ... Buffs and casual fans alike will enjoy this extra-large serving of popcorn for thought (Publishers Weekly)

The greatest living writer on the movies ... The Big Screen is surely his magnum opus (John Banville New Statesman BOOKS OF THE YEAR)

Rigorous and rewarding, and a page rarely passes without insight (Independent BOOKS OF THE YEAR)

Nobody else would match its sweep, its erudition, its discernment or its warmth (David Hare Guardian BOOKS OF THE YEAR)

There are always irreverent arguments about the status of filmmaking in David Thomson's writing: "Story ideas hang around in Hollywood longer than some marriages or buildings." Or "It would be said of British cinema that it was nothing until a band of Hungarians took it over." This goes alongside his real passion for the art: On Sweet Smell of Success - "The film was shot in a glittering harsh black and white by James Wong Howe and looked like the hide of a crocodile in the moonlight." On Colonel Blimp - "There is one scene of Deborah Kerr with auburn hair and in a cornflower blue dress, in shadow and firelight, that must be among the most romantic shots made during the war. No one in Britain before had seen that you could make a film because you were crazy about a girl."

David Thomson is, I think, the best writer on film in our time. If Have you Seen? was his most succinct and entertaining book, The Big Screen is a large and vivacious map on the history of 'the screen': beginning with Muybridge and then tracing careers ranging from Korda to Renoir to Hawkes to Mizoguchi, to David Lynch and Tarentino, then swerving over to television shows such as I love Lucy and The Sopranos. He has found and created a marvellous plot for the history of film with insights and revelations on every page, as well as a few mcguffins. He is our most argumentative and trustworthy historian of the screen

(Michael Ondaatje)

A great critic cuts both ways - he nudges you into reconsidering the films you love, as well as the ones you dislike. David Thomson's sensual prose has always amplified the imagination of a great critic. In broad outline, The Big Screen is a history of the movies, a wide-ranging task which usually carries with it a certain amount of connect-the-dots tedium. But Thomson's emphases are typically fresh and often ecstatic, even when he's disparaging a film you love. Nobody does it better (Scott Eyman (author of EMPIRE OF DREAMS and LION OF HOLLYWOOD))

Of the medium's many distinguished critics, none is better informed or more authoritative than David Thomson ... [The Big Screen is] part film history, part thesis, part love letter and lament ... genuine insights abound ... Like any great work of criticism, the book is essentially an education in good taste, and crucially it sends us back to the movies. Thomson's montage of ecstasies and laments re-awakens in us the thrill and wonder of moving images and the need to know what happens next. In that, it is as close to definitive as any book on film can be. Just as we look at the movies, we should listen to him (Spectator Life)

David Thomson is a metaphysician of the movies ... Thomson's brain is the ultimate repertory theatre, perpetually rerunning our favourites and allowing us to wonder at them all over again. The highest praise I can give him is to say that the images he treasures are just as alive on his pages as they were on the big screen (Peter Conrad Guardian)

A love letter to a dying art, [The Big Screen] is also a scathing indictment of its legacy. In over 500 pages of breathtaking criticism, [Thomson] seeks to understand the impact of the screen upon our collective consciousness (Sunday Telegraph)

A cultural overview of the past, present and future of the movies (Sunday Times BOOKS OF THE YEAR)

This is a wildly seductive love letter to what Thomson concludes is a 'lost love' ... he rapturously recalls a lifetime's enchantment with the big screen (Metro)

A startling analysis of what happens to us in the darkness as we dream with eyes open (Observer BOOKS OF THE YEAR)

There's one standout in this year's slew of film literature, The Big Screen written by David Thomson, a giant in the world of film criticism. His book is erudite but readable, delightfully tangential, and surprisingly polemical. He provides a fascinating ride through the past century of mostly American cinema and posits a theory that 'the shining light and the huddled masses' of yore will be replaced by digital anomie, as the big screen is replaced by YouTube on an iPhone (Kate Muir The Times BOOKS OF THE YEAR)

[The Big Screen] works both as an engaging primer on film history and as a map for more numinous shifts in the path of popular art ... Thomson offers a nuanced portrait ... the details of his narrative glimmer with offbeat insight (Nathan Heller New York Times Book Review)

About the Author

David Thomson has a fair claim to be the greatest living writer on film. His major works include The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its 5th edition, and Have You Seen...?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films including Masterpieces, Oddities, Guilty Pleasures and Classics (with Just a Few Disasters). Thomson was born in London, and now lives in San Francisco. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Inside This Book

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
David Thomson is sometimes referred to as the world's best (or greatest, or most famous) film critic. He is really more of a film writer, who does criticism (or "reviews") as a part of that. A Londoner who long ago fled to California, he has written over 20 film books of various kinds. He is a witty writer with some refreshingly idiosyncratic views.
I usually like to get a flavour of the writer's particular likes when reviewing film books, and Thomson's choice of "top ten" films, as part of Sight and Sound magazine's recent critics' poll, reveals nothing later than 1986 (Blue Velvet) and a particular fondness for films from around 1940. Most of his choices are among my favourites too.
The Big Screen originated, we are told at the back, from a suggestion of a one-volume history of film. It is actually more, and less, than a history. More, because Thomson devotes many pages to other types of screen, whether TV, computer, or mobile phone, and to the effect of film on the wider society. Less, because he has chapters on specific subjects within film history (noir, war movies, Renoir and Welles, the cinema of several countries such as France and Italy, various Hollywood "movers and shakers") and tends (inevitably perhaps) to gloss over some other topics. There is far too much gossip about the sex-lives of actors; I am of the same generation as Thomson (he was a year below me at our South London school) and I find such gossip tedious and unnecessary. That's why I mark the book down to 4 stars (though 4.4 might be better if it were an option).
Thomson is truly a mine of information and of insights; for example he gives a convincing explanation of why Americans, even cineastes like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, refer to the famous Italian film Bicycle Thieves by the total mistranslation "The Bicycle Thief". For movie buffs like myself this is a book not just to read but to keep for future reference, despite the aforementioned reservation.
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Format: Hardcover
David Thomson is nothing if not very well informed about films. This book displays that understanding and learning to advantage.

However, it was written for an American readership -- Thomson has lived there for many years -- and it shows, especially in the section on television.

But his comments and nuggets of information about individuals and films are very entertaining -- although sometimes slightly quirky. The book is not supposed to be an authoritative history (for that you want The Story of Film) but it is an erudite essay on screens -- mostly big, but also little, portable, personal and communal -- and how what they display affects us in ways we might not imagine. for the reader with a passing familiarity with most of the films and individuals Thompson mentions it will be a very good read -- but about a quarter is written from a standpoint that contemplates American culture in a way that might not fully engage with British experiences.

Thompson tries very hard to link the mini-essays that form each chapter together -- sometimes in too contrived a way so that he signals a gear change to talk about a different film or a different individual. And because of this slightly precious approach the book doesn't have the effortless fluency of The Faber Book of French Cinema or I Found it at the Movies: Reflections of a Cinephile (Carcanet Film). Thomson is just a little bit too keen to demonstrate that he knows everything.
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By ... TOP 500 REVIEWER on 28 Oct. 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is a true history of film. Right from the book's first chapter I am hit by the little vignette of Eadweard Muybridge, a man who died in 1904. He was the brains behind those first pictures that proved a horse was off the ground when trotting. At these fledgling stages of films science and fiction were separate. That the same man killed his wife's lover adds extra spice. That he had previously suffered a head injury, like your loving reviewer, put my enjoyment of reading this vast, fascinating text into overdrive. And it has not stopped.

The author writes this history by giving the main players real character. Whether that is the ego of Louis B Mayer or the non-Jewishness of Cecil B. DeMille or the 18 year old Gladys Smith who gave up the theatre in 1911 to get into 'moving pictures.' The stories are woven into a narrative that always includes you. Its about you and the screen. That is what made Mary Pickford.

Fascinating to understand how the role of director was initially 'a stooge's job' became the central figure and now is once again peripheral in the making of film. As Mr Thomson rightly asks: do you know who directed which episode of The Sopranos? I loved the chapter on British film and how it morphed into television. The relationship between the American idea of fun and the British view of what is proper is particularly intriguing.

12 November: just finished reading the book. It did keep me reading though at some point about three quarters through the author did get into film criticism mode. It is at its best when the narrative is broader, indeed 'narrative' itself would be analysed as something which is dying. Would love to know what the author thinks of my review of the new James Bond film? 'I left as 007, hands in pockets, ready for anything.
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