Top positive review
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An insightful and witty book on film history
on 5 November 2012
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.