The following is an excerpt from David Thomson's "Moments that Made the Movies" [Thames & Hudson, $39.95]. The book explores iconic scenes in both classic and contemporary films that were not only enjoyable, but in some way groundbreaking. Below, find six movies that Thomson believes changed film:
"The Lady Eve"
Fonda and Stanwyck had just made The Mad Miss Manton together, and on that film Fonda had been haughty and condescending, failing to see that he was head-to-head with a brilliant comedienne and a very attractive woman. So one way or the other Sturges provided, and Stanwyck relished, a very sexy scene in which Pike hardly knows what is happening to him. He tries to be upright, but Jean is serpentine in her shapes and movement, and very solicitous of the numbing effect on an upright fellow with all that dry past up the Amazon. Later on, seeing how far her restless skirt has risen on her thigh (this was 1941) he makes a nervous adjustment to its hem, and Jean, drily, says, “Oh, thank you.” That may not read hilarious, but on-screen it is a moment to induce bliss, all the more intriguing because you can see how the much more sophisticated woman is beginning to fall for her target, the chump.
Warner Bros/The Kobal Collection at Art Resource, NY
“As Time Goes By,” was written, words and music, by Herman Hupfeld and it figured in a show, "Everybody’s Welcome," that played on Broadway in 1931. But not many people remembered it, despite a recording by Rudy Vallee. Nowadays, it is one of the most famous songs in all the movies, and with its refrain, “You must remember this, / A kiss is still a kiss,” it represents a veil of nostalgia through which “old movies” are seen. […] In this case, I am being very obvious with my moment. I choose the scene, early on at the café, where Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor (Paul Henreid) arrive and Ilsa approaches Sam (Dooley Wilson), the piano player. She asks him to play “As Time Goes By.” Sam is reluctant. He can guess what’s going to happen with that song out of the past. But he knows an irresistible script when it’s given to him, no matter who really wrote this scene, so he starts the song and Rick, back in his office, hears it. How long has he been waiting to hear it? How much anger and recrimination is waiting for those few notes? Sure enough he comes striding onto the café floor, and he looks as mean and ugly as Bogart could manage, until he sees what there is to see and realizes what Sam is doing.
20th Century Fox/The Kobal Collection at Art Resource, NY
Laura Hunt is dead, shot in the face with a shotgun. She was a mess. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is the detective on the job and for thirty minutes or so he prowls around the old life of Laura, examining her unappealing friends and being gradually affected or impressed or impregnated by the atmosphere of Laura. This is what Otto Preminger could do. […] About thirty minutes into the film, McPherson elects to spend the night in Laura’s apartment. There are several rooms—notably, a salon and a bedroom—and a lot of expensive antique furniture with silk lampshades. It’s classy and feminine and the way Andrews or McPherson walks around in it tells us he has some contempt for the place and some yearning. He could tell himself he is looking for clues, of course (and there are clues in the apartment), but it’s clear that he is trying to conjure up the feeling of the dead Laura. The scene is actual, factual (detective on the job), but it is mythic, voyeuristic, too—it’s a man falling in love.
Paramount/The Kobal Collection at Art Resource, NY
For much of the time in "The Conformist," Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is getting ready for a fateful car journey with Manganiello (Gastone Moschin). In other words, he knows where he is going; he is conforming to a plan and a character type he has chosen for himself. One of the things that makes "The Conformist" such a striking examination of the fascist personality is the way Clerici has abandoned human nature to be an actor playing himself. So everything in his life is calculated, apart from those few tragic mistakes he makes—like murdering the chauffeur who seduced him as a child and falling in something like real love with Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda), the young wife of the liberal professor he has vowed to assassinate. […] So the journey, the car ride, meets its destiny, a gloomily dark forest with a winding road. This is where the killers are waiting, where the cars stop and Quadri is butchered. But Anna, in ivory white, runs back to the lurking, parked car and finds Clerici sitting like a toad in its darkness. She had guessed his nature, but she had been seduced by him anyway. Fascism can have an erotic allure. But now she realizes the full wickedness, and her own destruction. She screams and runs away but the anonymous killers—in hats and coats like shrouds—will track her down, and Clerici is fulfilled.
I can say that the most special and indelible and infinite effect in the movie is not made in a computer, it is a shot of the human face when something momentous is happening to that person. You could say that the pressure of the music (the prelude to Wagner’s Die Walküre), coupled with the anguish she feels over the boy Sean [who claims to be the Sean she married and buried ten years earlier], topples Anna (Nicole Kidman) over some kind of edge. Or you could say that she agrees with herself that she needs to believe this story—so she will go sanely mad. Or she might be thinking of the shopping she needs to do tomorrow, or of why [her fiancé] Joseph (Danny Huston) is such a dead weight in bed when they make love so that she begins to feel stifled. Perhaps she is wondering, as she has wondered before, whether Sean, her Sean, was always faithful to her.
"Burn After Reading"
Focus Features/Everett Collection
"Burn After Reading" is one of the funniest films made this century. I have to list its chief assets: Brad Pitt, giving every hint that comedy could be his thing; George Clooney, beginning to get into an exploration of how fake he is—surely his destiny as an actor if he is to avoid being another Robert Redford; Tilda Swinton, possessed by such secret, towering furies; Frances McDormand—enough said; Richard Jenkins, unlucky again; and, of course, John Malkovich, being deeply wronged—that really is the proper use of his unapologetic superiority. I could find moments among that group, and intricacies of plot that would take several hundred words to describe. But what I like most of all, and what goes to the heart of our obsession with “Intelligence” that defies its own name is the final scene involving two supporting actors—if you are still locked into that scheme of labeling. They are David Rasche as a CIA officer and J. K. Simmons as his superior. We have seen them briefly earlier, but this set-piece scene is simply the officer reporting to the superior on how the chaos of the film has been cleared up, and the superior’s weary knowledge that this entire CIA thing might be so much more manageable if there were no people. Human nature is always going to get in the way. The humor springs from Rasche and Simmons both playing the scene dead straight, and I can believe that much of the dialogue could have come from a real conference in that hallowed organization at Langley (if it’s really there).