Play It Sam: Moments That Made The Movies

Chances are that any movie that endures contains a moment or more — a line, a look — that people talk about, imitate and repeat. Host Scott Simon talks to film critic David Thomson about his new book, Moments that Made the Movies, which looks at the signature scenes from some of our greatest films.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Movies are moments. They're whole stories, of course, often lasting three and four hours. But chances are that any movie that endures contains a moment or more; a line, a look that people talk about, imitate and repeat - sometimes until it drives people out of their minds. David Thompson, film critic of The New Republic, has a new book out in which he chooses dozens of movie moments that stay in our minds, become a part of our language and the way we can see the world. His new book is "Moments that Made the Movies." David Thomson joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID THOMSON: Well, thank you for having me.

SIMON: It's hard not to begin with "Casablanca," isn't it?

THOMSON: You can begin there, certainly, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yeah, you wouldn't take the bait.

THOMSON: It's full of lines. It's full of lines. And it's a film that is remembered, I think, principally now as quotations. It's sort of like a Shakespeare play. It strings together. And if you ask people to actually sit down and write out a synopsis of the plot, I think they'd have trouble. But they probably could remember 10 or a dozen lines or moments or looks from the film.

SIMON: Let's try and describe your moment: Ilsa and her husband, Victor Laszlo, walk into Rick's Place.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CASABLANCA")

INGRID BERGMAN: (As Ilsa) Hello, Sam.

DOOLEY WILSON: (As Sam) Hello, Miss Ilsa. I never expect to see you again.

BERGMAN: (As Ilsa) It's been a long time.

WILSON: (As Sam) Yes, ma'am. A lot of water under the bridge.

THOMSON: It's the most famous of all. It's the playing of the tune, and it's Dooley Wilson at the piano, and it's Bogart - Rick - hearing the song; and she's had it played to lure him out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CASABLANCA")

BERGMAN: (As Ilsa) Sing it, Sam.

THOMSON: And it's the look between them when they confront each other; and we're off into a romance that remembers their past, and poses the great question of what is going to become of them, what will happen in the course of the film?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CASABLANCA")

WILSON: (As Sam) (Singing) ...as time goes by...

SIMON: You say, at one point, that movies can be out of the control of the several people making them.

THOMSON: Yes.

SIMON: May I get you to expand on that?

THOMSON: Well, I think that the people who make movies are very proud of their power. I think very often, the public makes the movie in that the public identifies something and says that's what the movie is really about, whereupon everybody on the movie sort of falls in place and says, well of course, that's what it was about. We always intended that.

SIMON: I want to ask you about Hitchcock's 1960 film, "Psycho." As a matter of fact, let's cue the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM THEME MUSIC)

SIMON: But we're not going to play the shower scene. (Laughter) Let's assure people that. You'll be able to shower safely this morning. Tell us about this scene, 'cause you don't choose the shower scene.

THOMSON: I didn't. I've always had the theory that the shower scene works as well as it does because just beforehand, you have this quite long supper conversation between Normal Bates and Marion Crane - Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh - which is the quietest, calmest moment in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PSYCHO")

ANTHONY PERKINS: (As Norman Bates) You, you eat like a bird.

JANET LEIGH: (As Marion Crane) And you'd know, of course.

PERKINS: (As Norman Bates) No, not really. Anyway, I hear the expression eats like a bird is really a false - false - falsity because birds really eat...

THOMSON: And it lulls you and it prepares you for the shocking, violent moment that is to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PSYCHO")

PERKINS: (As Norman Bates) I don't really know anything about birds. My hobby is stuffing things.

THOMSON: And so I went for that scene because I think it's a beautiful, beautifully acted scene and really, the heart of Anthony Perkins' performance. And I think that sometimes, an actor is essential. I don't know who else could have played that part.

SIMON: That's interesting. So it's not the stab in the shower or the bridge blowing up that stays with us.

THOMSON: Well, I guess it depends on the temperament of the viewer. And obviously, there are very violent moments that are crucial. I think quieter moments, sometimes they're the moments we carry away. I think there's a very romantic attraction - still - between audiences and movies. And part of the romance is thinking yourself into the scene. And I think it's easier to get into a scene when it's not a huge, violent encounter but when it's a conversation in which something significant is happening in the way minds are being changed.

SIMON: I've held myself back, in a sense, asking about "The Godfather," which I put right up there with "Casablanca" for being known by its lines. Tell us about the moment you choose.

THOMSON: Well, quite early on in the film, Michael, who is the good boy in the family - he's Al Pacino at his most boyish - he's the member of the family that Vito Corleone has tried to keep out of the dirt. He happens to be present at the hospital when his father is there, and when people are coming to kill his father. And he guards the father. And he's with another man. And they take a cigarette together. And Michael notices that his hand is rock-steady while the other man's hand is shaking.

And it's the first moment where he realizes that perhaps in his genes, he has the hardness that could be the material of a godfather. And right after that, he decides that he - not Sonny, not the others in the family - he will avenge the attack on his father. And he sort of half-organizes this meeting at an Italian restaurant, with a gun waiting for him in the lavatory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GODFATHER")

AL PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) What I want, what's most important to me, is that I have a guarantee: No more attempts on my father's life.

THOMSON: And he goes to the lavatory and he comes out, and he shoots...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GODFATHER")

THOMSON: ...McCluskey and Sollozzo - the crooked policeman and the gangster. And it's the moment at which Michael becomes the godfather.

SIMON: David, you must go to hundreds of movies a year. Can you turn to somebody who sees a film with you - maybe it's other critics, or a civilian - and say, "that's a moment"?

THOMSON: Sometimes. There are moments when anyone who's in the film business senses, that going to be remembered long after the film has passed away. But then other films, the moment sinks in gradually. It's a weird business. But time, and the audience, own films as much as the people who made them.

SIMON: David Thompson, in San Francisco; his new book, "Moments that Made the Movies." Thanks so much for being with us.

THOMSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AS TIME GOES BY")

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