A Very Acute Watcher: A Conversation with David Thomson

By Jonathan KirshnerMarch 23, 2021

A Very Acute Watcher: A Conversation with David Thomson
FILM HISTORIAN AND CRITIC David Thomson is the author of more than 25 books, including “Have You Seen…?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 FilmsThe Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, and A New Biographical Dictionary of Film, currently in its sixth edition. Thomson describes his new book, A Light in the Dark: A History of Movie Directors, as “an attempt to make readers think about the task of directing, the shape of careers, and the ways personality and obsession get on the screen as style.” He engaged these topics and more — his personal favorites, the book’s unspeakable oversights, and how “the business” has shaped (and will change) our relationship with films and filmmakers — in a long (virtual) discussion with Jonathan Kirshner. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.


JONATHAN KIRSHNER: What got you thinking about writing a book like this?

DAVID THOMSON: Well, I felt that film and film studies needed a significant change in what we think directors were. I came of age in what we call the auteur period, when it seemed proper, comforting, and enjoyable to say to ourselves that films are made by directors, and that they are the equivalent of artists. Because once [the academy] had that scheme in place, we could be published, we can get tenure, we can get jobs, and we’re okay through to the end of the line. And it’s not that there isn’t great truth in the theory, but it has always been the case that films are made by a strange, hard-to-define gathering of forces and the director is just one of them. And I’ve also had the feeling, increasingly, in the last 10 years or so that directorial style is no longer observable in the same way. It made me think a change was occurring.

You have written extensively about performers and producers, giving them agency at the center of the screen. And that makes A Light in the Dark particularly interesting, because it is a book about directors from, perhaps, a post-auteurist perspective. It’s as if you’re saying, “Well, I’m not an auteurist, we’re kind of beyond all that, but nevertheless, here’s a book about a bunch of directors and, they were, in their own ways, interesting in the contributions they had to make to this collaborative enterprise.”

Yes. When I started to do this book, the first chapter I wrote was on Fritz Lang. In doing that, I sort of worked out that Lang in Germany is a very important figure, not just in the German film industry, but in the culture, and he makes extraordinary films. Then he goes to America, and he was never the same again. Some of the American films are quite good; a lot of them aren’t. But he’s going to be remembered for that body of films in the late ’20s and early ’30s that he did in Germany. Somehow, he was able to assert himself in that situation, and I’m interested in directors who assert themselves. The thing I learned from being on the edges of the business in this country was that there were certain people who could persuade everyone else that they were in charge, because they had a vision. I don’t think they always did have a vision, but they had the confidence or the arrogance, whatever you want to call it, to assert that.

I suppose Hitchcock is the classic example. Hitchcock’s arrogance consisted of not saying very much. I mean, he did not direct actors in a sort of Kazan-like way. He didn’t get into motivation. He cast them, and he photographed them, and if they had questions, he would try to answer them, but I don’t think he ever talked about what the films were about while they were being made. I think he would have thought that was undignified. But when you look at them, when you look at the body of them later, you say to yourself, By god, this was a true obsessive, this was a man who had a vision based in anxiety or fear, whatever you want to call it, and he had a very complex attitude to his actors and his characters and to the audience.

Let’s dive into Hitchcock. I hear you saying that he was one of the great formal stylists in the history of cinema. But he was also, I’m going to go so far as to use the word … indifferent toward his actors, casting them with an eye toward type and commercial viability. When he was confronted with a wildly ambitious actor, say a Montgomery Clift in I Confess, he had no idea what to do with them because they were, if anything, getting in the way of his vision of the structure of his shots.

I think that Hitchcock was very good when he came to America, particularly in identifying “type” actors who bring a lot of familiarity to everything they did, because the audience felt they knew them, and then playing off that. And I don’t think he talked to them. I think he believed the casting had done the job, and it’s a measure of his effectiveness, his brilliance. You raise Clift and I Confess, which is a good case. Most of the time, you come away from his films feeling that they have been very well cast — exactly cast. The casting in Vertigo you can argue is perverse and insane. But actually it makes the film sicker than it might be normally because Stewart is too old. And Novak is too numb. If you could imagine Grace Kelly, say, in the Judy/Madeleine part the film changes immediately because Kelly can’t do a thing without showing you that she understands what she’s doing, whereas Novak’s great quality is that she’s sort of helpless. So the Judy/Madeleine figure becomes pathetic and tragic and it makes the anguish in the film all the more strained. And there’s James Stewart, who is 50-plus and who seems, when you think about it, never to have had a sexual relationship. Dig deep into that and you see what a really extraordinary film Vertigo is. Normally, and certainly when you use Cary Grant, Hitchcock sort of knew who Cary Grant decided to be, and he was happy with that. He went along with it, and he knew the audience was happy with it too.

He took performers and embraced the personalities that they were known for, something that was easier to do in the studio days. But I don’t think he elicited great performances.

Great performances, probably, you’re right, except that I think Anthony Perkins is amazing in Psycho. And there he’s dealing with a much more method-y actor.

But Perkins gets away with murder — I mean, as an actor — in Psycho. He’s chewing those seeds, playing with his hands, and doing all these quirky little things that — if you look at Hitchcock’s films — actors don’t get to do those things, all those mannerisms, all those brilliant little actor’s tricks that Perkins deploys. It’s atypical for a Hitchcock film, where normally the performances are very controlled.

Hitch is much more naturally himself when people are being the type, but in being the type, he puts them under pressure; that’s particularly true with the women. He enjoyed putting his female characters in anxiety-ridden situations, and that goes through his whole work. And I think that he approached filmmaking as a way of looking at women he couldn’t have — which is not that far from the way millions of people have always gone to the movies.

There’s a notable absence in the book, in the Hitchcock chapter — his British period. You know, there used to be barroom brawls over whether the British period or the American period was his superior era, and here you — a transplant — have obviously placed the flag firmly in the American years.

Well, I do think that. I like some of the British films, they’re fun to look at, but they do not have the depth. I’ve seen some Hitchcock films a lot; I know some of them by heart. But a film like Rear Window, I could keep watching because somehow the performance of the film brings something fresh out every time. I don’t feel that about the English films. I do think that when Hitchcock came to America, he found a kind of technology, and he found an army of stars and supporting players that he could really exploit and develop.

How dismissive would you be of following statement? In The 39 Steps (1935), Hitch was as good as he ever would be.

It’s an intriguing statement, because The 39 Steps is brilliantly made, and it has a great deal of what interests him, although it’s a rather Hawksian film. I would say that the dilemmas in which his characters find themselves in the American films are explored more deeply. He begins to turn his people from rather nonchalant characters into more neurotic figures, and that’s why I find more interest in the American films.

You mention in the book the influence of Hitchcock on a director like Scorsese — I wondered if you had something specific in mind. I’ve always thought of one very specific shot that links the two directors: in Taxi Driver, when Scorsese is the passenger in the backseat, and he tells Travis to look at the window. The camera goes up the side of the building, and then slowly across, and then stops at the window with the silhouette — and I think it’s the most beautiful homage to Hitchcock I’ve ever seen, and almost moving in its embrace of what Rear Window was.

It’s a great example and a great sort of insight into Scorsese. I think in that very intense, trembling film about Travis Bickle, there is that moment, where the guy in the back of the cab, who was never named, becomes the dominant figure in the film. He eclipses Travis. He is, if you like, the most frightening person in the film. Obviously he is some kind of a reference to the whole idea of watching and imagining in Scorsese’s mind.

My own little theory is that character doesn’t actually exist in reality — that he is a projection of Travis’s mind in that moment.

Oh, that’s very interesting. The next time I look at it, I will certainly keep that in mind.

There’s an incongruous shot in that scene. There's a shot which cannot be from anyone’s point of view, where you get right at the back of Travis’s head — but Scorsese’s character is actually sitting in the other seat. And I thought that was almost like a tip that there was something a little amiss in the structure of that of that scene.

You are a very acute watcher. I will try to inhabit your eyes when I see it again.

Let’s move on to Welles. One thing that caught my eye in the book is your emphasis on sound in his films, which was so important to him. And let me note your sentence that ends with the reflection, “how little Kane ever loved Susan,” which is both a sharp observation, but also, as a sentence, is a nice way to underscore the importance of sound and rhythm more generally — especially for Welles.

Well, Welles was made in radio as much as in theater. He had probably worked more in radio than he had done on the stage, and you can get quite a lot of the radio shows and listen to them and the sound effects — it’s not just that they're quite good. He loves the idea of having silence, then giving you a sound that tells you something. And I think that obviously he worked wonderfully with Gregg Toland and Stanley Cortez, and cameramen. There’s much less commentary in all the stuff on Welles on how he worked with his sound engineers, but I bet you those sound engineers knew that they were dealing with a man who knew radio inside out, and a man who was in a state of adoration over his own voice.

A huge part of the ego of Welles is his voice and the way he used it. As a man in his early 20s, he had a baritone voice of extraordinary beauty. There was a time in his life when he was, not handsome, but good looking, in a sort of boyish way, but the voice never deserted him. Have you ever heard the recordings where he’s doing commercials for garden peas and so on? He goes from the sort of full-bodied, you’ve got to have these peas kind of thing to his cynical, sardonic voice about the crap he’s having to do. And the voice can switch from one to the other in such fascinating ways, and I think probably for me, he was a voice actor more than an appearance actor.

And yet I’ve always sensed a great ambivalence in your writing about Welles more generally.

That’s very observant. I think he is The Great Director, still. I believe Kane is an absolutely astonishing film. And there was something resolutely depressive and self-destructive about him that I find understandable but frightening. I’ve never been able to look past the way in which he both adores and despises himself. I think he’s a man in intense conflict and that side of him has not been as thoroughly explored as it might be.

Nevertheless, I’ve often wondered if you take some of this too far. I mean, sure, don’t lend Orson Welles money, and sure, don’t have him for a father. But on the other hand, he had a rich, full life. He was publicly and bravely on the right side of every major political issue in his lifetime. He produced many great works of art across multiple media. I mean, I take a step back and say, “Wow, not bad.” 

Don’t I say that?

I just always sense this ambivalence where you’re kind of … you know, you open with, “Orson Welles is the, this, this, and this” — towering praise — and then you kind of slowly walk it back with, “but, well…”

You may have put your finger on a quality I have: finding someone to admire very much and then beginning to look for problems. Welles is instrumental in my life. Seeing Kane when I was 15, and then living with him, in the sense that he was always in my mind, I’m obsessed with him, and if I see difficulties, problems in his nature, it’s probably because I feel there are in my nature too. In a certain way, he is sort of a father figure for me — but the kind of father that gives you a great deal of trouble, a complicated, misleading figure that you can’t get out of your head. I think that he and [Jean] Renoir and [Howard] Hawks are probably the directors I feel most intensely personally about, as if they’ve been companions in my life.

Speaking of companions, as you mentioned a different context, this book is not, of course, designed to be comprehensive — it’s episodic. But reading it with some familiarity of your writing, I wondered about the choices you made regarding who to include who not to include. I must say I was astonished not to see, from your perspective, Theo Angelopoulos in the mix. You’re probably one of his great champions, and he is plausibly a great filmmaker. And for me, of course, my beloved Jean-Pierre Melville goes unmentioned. I don’t want to pick a fight over the specifics, but I do want to hear more about how you went about choosing which of these figures you would select for close attention.

Well, I talked to the editor in the book, the editor of the book in England, because the book originated in England, to a man named Alan Samson, and he was understandably in favor of people that a lot of readers would know about. I don’t think Angelopoulos ever came up.

You make great claims about Angelopoulos.

No question about it, and I believe in them still. But the answer to your question about how this book was assembled, it was to have most of the people fairly well known to likely readers and therefore to be people who had functioned in English-speaking cinema. Now, you know, if I had picked my favorites, then Angelopoulos would have been in it, Bresson would have been in it, Mizoguchi would have been in it — and many others. And —

Mizoguchi over Ozu?

For me, yes. But it’s a close call. That would have been a book that I think would have been a lot harder to market and you know I’m in the life — I call it the business, but it’s much more a life than a business — of trying to survive on what I do. So that was a fairly calculated sense for me and for the publisher on picking people that a lot of readers know about or felt they knew about, so there are horrible omissions. Melville is a good case in point, because — you know this, but a lot of people don’t — before he made very commercial policier films, gangster films. He made films like The Silence of the Sea, which is absolutely stunning — one of the great war films ever made, and Les Enfants Terribles which I think are better than the later films that came on —

With the exception of Army of Shadows.

Army of Shadows is a wonderful film, Le Samouraï is wonderful — he made lots of really good films. You have every reason to grieve over him not being in the book.

And I cannot leave this part of our conversation without mentioning the name Ingmar Bergman, who graces the pages of your book for one paragraph.

Well, I think I was afraid of doing Bergman at this sort of length, 7,000 words — they’re essays — and Bergman is so extraordinary, I didn’t think I believed I could bring it down to that size.

Most directors have, from a professional perspective, unhappy final decades. I can think of only a handful who thrived in their late careers. I was wondering what you thought about that observation and whether it’s true.

There are a lot of ways of approaching that question. If you’ve never made a movie, you will never understand the extraordinarily draining work that it is. To be in charge of a movie and to be making it work and to be satisfying all the pressures that are upon you, is crazy and destabilizing, and it helps explain why our directors can turn into rather unpleasant people. It also illustrates what you’re talking about — how they burn out. There is a marked line of people who never were better than in their first film. It’s not an old man’s medium. I mean, you won’t get any sleep while you’re making a movie, you will be living maybe in very difficult locations. You have to keep so many things in your head, you have to answer so many questions. I think that explains it in part.

Another thing is that the pulse of what works at the movies changes rapidly, and you can lose touch with the way the audiences will think. Hitchcock lived most of his life on the brink of censorship, and a lot of what he did was founded upon the idea that censorship would stop him from going too far. So he would sort of say to you, “Do you see that? Can you imagine if I went just a step further?” Knowing he's never going to be able to do it has a lot to do with how the suspense of these films is being established. In the ’60s, when he has become all powerful, censorship is breaking down. So he easily thinks, “Oh, I can do anything now.” And he’s lost. He can show innuendo better than maybe anyone, but he can’t show the real thing. So when he tries in a film like Frenzy, it’s a very uncomfortable, awkward result.

And then there’s Godard. Whatever you think about him, Godard for the first part of the ’60s, was so on about what film meant in the culture — that everything he did was fascinating. Quite quickly, everything he did became doctrinaire, and now, I think for the most part, most of us would feel that if we don’t see the new Godard film, well, it’s all right. But in the early ’60s, you had to see every Godard on film. And he was on the pulse.

If you’re looking at the period from, say, 1960 to 1967 — Godard has a run of 15 or so films and assorted shorts — as astonishing as any run in film history. But history doesn’t stop in 1967. We move forward with the decades. In the moment, you had to see every one of them — and don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen every damn one from that period, and it’s amazing and there are some great ones in there. But now, we’re 50, even 60 years later. And if you say to me, “Whose films do you want to live with?” I think over the many years, for me at least, you drift toward figures like Rohmer and Chabrol. I mean, if I’m going to spend the rest of my time watching the movies of only one of these people … it’s not going to be Godard.

The director I would want to live with, and this is, for me, a real omission from the book, would be Jacques Rivette —

Yes! Another one I expected to hear from you about in the book —

My editor said, “Who?” And that happens these days, you know? If you answer, well, go and look at Out 1 — that’s more than most people are willing to try.

Out 1 is a daunting assignment. But Rivette illustrates well a larger point. Consider two films he made in late career: Secret Defense with Sandrine Bonnaire and La Belle Noiseuse with Michel Piccoli. I prefer either of those to the ones we were just gushing over that Godard made. I think those latter films will be enduring monuments, whereas I think Godard’s films were thrilling but more in their moment.

I agree. I would rather spend time watching Rivette films and others we’ve not mentioned, because they mean more to me. Godard is in the book because there was a moment in film where, as much as anyone, he redefined what the medium was and what a director was. Yet, that chapter isn’t just called Godard. It’s called Godardian because of the large influence he had. But if there’s one film to watch tonight, it's [Rivette’s] Celine and Julie Go Boating.

Celine and Julie is … not for everybody. I wonder if it could get made today. Nowadays, all this new, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive equipment means that anybody, technically speaking, can be a filmmaker. But more generally, it is still the case that film is the one art form in which most individual artists do not have the means to command their own resources necessary to produce their art. It’s very distinct in that way.

Absolutely, and I talk about that in the book. I could have talked about it more, because I think that the agony that some people have had, in getting the chance to make the film is quite amazing. Some people pull it off. I mean, Terrence Malick, for me, made some pretty bad films not long ago, but then he makes A Hidden Life, which is a straight masterpiece. It reminds you of the man who made Badlands, The Thin Red Line, other films. That’s a career that has fluctuated in such intense ways, but somehow this man, who is very self-effacing, very quiet, very academic in many ways, has been able to get people to put up large sums of money to make films that anyone in the business could tell you wouldn’t return a cent. I don’t know how he pulls that off, and I would love to know.

A Light in the Dark starts with the dawn of cinema and sweeps all the way to the present. There are thrilling aspects about contemporary cinema, most notably, as you reflect in the book, with the opportunities increasingly available to a much broader range of filmmakers that were long withheld. At the same time, as you noted at the start of this conversation, our relationship with directors is changing. One reason for that, I think, is that, paradoxically, we now have access to so much content available on so many platforms. Last week in my house, we were streaming obscure Korean art films. Because we could. Next week will probably be very different. But this embarrassment of riches also makes it hard to imagine that most films and most filmmakers will ever be afforded the concentration of attention that was more common to earlier eras.

I think there’s an excitement in film as a mass medium. The idea of everyone seeing a film is a very thrilling thing, and it’s really not there anymore. And it may be nostalgic and naïve of me to say, but a part of me would like it to come back. Even through it surely will not — and if it does, I probably won’t be here to enjoy it. Don’t you hate denied pleasure?


Jonathan Kirshner is professor of Political Science at Boston College. He is author of numerous books, including American Power after the Financial CrisisHollywood’s Last Golden Age: Politics, Society and the Seventies Film in AmericaAn Unwritten Future: Realism and Uncertainty in World Politics, and the novel Urban Flight.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Kirshner is a professor of political science at Boston College. He is the author of numerous books, including An Unwritten Future: Realism and Uncertainty in World Politics (2022), American Power After the Financial Crisis (2014), Hollywood’s Last Golden Age: Politics, Society, and the Seventies Film in America (2012), and the novel Urban Flight (2015).


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