How to Watch a Movie

by David Thomson

Movie coverDiscerning, funny, and utterly unique, How to Watch a Movie is a welcome twist on a classic proverb: Give a movie fan a film, she’ll be entertained for an hour or two; teach a movie fan to watch, his experience will be enriched forever.

From one of our most admired critics, brilliant insights into the act of watching movies and an enlightening discussion about how to derive more from any film experience we present Chapter Two for your pleasure.

Since first publishing his landmark Biographical Dictionary of Film in 1975 (recently released in its updated sixth edition), David Thomson has been one of our most provocative authorities on all things cinema. Now he offers his inventive exploration of the medium: guiding us through each element of the viewing experience, considering the significance of everything from what we see and hear on-screen—actors, shots, cuts, dialogue, music—to the specifics of how, where, and with whom we do the viewing.

With customary candor and wit, Thomson delivers keen analyses of a range of films from classics such as Psycho and Citizen Kane to contemporary fare such as 12 Years a Slave and All Is Lost, revealing how to more deeply appreciate both the artistry and (yes) manipulation of film, and how watching movies approaches something like watching life itself.


Screens are strange tools; they display and they conceal. After all, film screens are the bearers of revelation, and so we get most of our murders and our naked people on them like omelettes we cannot eat. But sometimes in life as much as in movies, a screen is the means of dainty concealment where women retreat to disrobe. In Rio Bravo, Feathers (Angie Dickinson) goes behind one to take off the tights her sheriff disapproves of. Screens are equivocal as furniture and inflammatory safeguards. And they are increasingly present in our lives. Ask yourself how many hours a day you are dealing with a screen, and remember how shocked we were to learn that our children were taking in six hours of television a day by 1960.

sullivans cartoonIf you’d seen Sullivan’s Travels [1] in 1942, it would have involved walking to a movie screen in your neighborhood. You knew what was playing because you had passed the theater itself, the shell that held the pearly screen. You might have read advertisements in local papers, or had a film recommended by word of mouth. So you went out, and to this day the archaic business hopes that audiences are still lured by that impulse, no matter that many of us carry a screen around in our pocket and have a far more complicated sense of being “in” or “out.”

So you went to purpose-made buildings called cinemas. They had names like Palace, Plaza, Regal, Odeon, Astoria, Lux, Imperial, Electric, Granada, and they were lustrous, seductive, romantic, comic. (Those names are full of nostalgia now—whereas if the movies were a brand-new business, the venues would have different names: the Cut, FX, Scream!, Murder, Chase, Naked, iScreen . . . all suggestions welcome.) The old movie houses were the most gaudy and enticing premises on the high street when I was growing up in England. Most shops were drab after the war, while the churches were reproachful. The cinema was fragrant—there was perfume in the air, though maybe that was meant to kill the germs. The place was fulsomely designed: there were Egyptian, Aztec, Moroccan, Oriental, Spanish moods, and they were as inaccurate historically as the costume romances and adventure pictures that were playing — Captain from Castille, Son of Ali Baba, The Flame and the Arrow.

In the bigger urban theaters, in America as well, there was carpeting on the floor and the seats were upholstered. In the evenings especially, you had to be there early if you wanted to get in. About half the population went once a week. Every moviegoer of that era knew the experience of being turned away; it was a disappointment but it made the picture show more desirable. Most of the time until at least the early 1950s, the place seemed packed. Usherettes with flashlights might have found you the odd single seat, so you sat in dense rows, among strangers, united by the cigarette smoke and the palpable anticipation.

Granada-collageThe prize theatre in my part of south London was the Granada, [2] in Tooting, which had grottoes and chapels fit for Moorish Spain (or a Hollywood Moorish Spain). I would have guessed that theatre held 2,000 people, and I was there often when every seat was sold. But I looked it up and the actual capacity was 3,000. So I saw the daft, bronze statue named Victor Mature and the writhing, devious Hedy Lamarr as Samson and Delilah there (and became anxious about going to the barber), with 2,999 strangers, and we were—more or less—as one. That is a hard ecstasy to abandon.

I do not know the exact dimensions—I am estimating them from an old photograph. But I am guessing that the curtained screen at the Granada was thirty feet high by sixty feet wide, bigger than houses in the surrounding streets. From a booth high up in the back of the auditorium reels of film were projected onto this white screen using a high-power carbon arc lamp. A reel ran for ten minutes, so two 35 mm projectors stood side by side, and relied on a projectionist who saw the reel-change blobs in the top right-hand corner of the image and knew to start the second projector. It was a feat of magic, technology, and craft to run a movie smoothly and keep it in focus without a projector bulb burning out. These projectors now are scrap, and the profession of projectionist is dying away. You knew this, but you may not know the love or pride that went into it, or the rapture that gripped the crowd, whatever the film was.

Cinema was a light show, no matter the stress on stars and stories, and that’s not so different from the technologies it yielded to. When television came along, it was a light that was turned on. You could walk down a suburban street at night and see the same steely glow of attention or worship burning in so many houses, without burning them down. Even at a cinema these days, with a fair to middling crowd, you may see downcast faces lit up by glowworm iPhones everywhere. We love the light — just think of the distress to the culture at large, let alone the individual, if the light didn’t come on. This reliance leaves us so vulnerable. The frustration in a movie theater if a film “breaks down” is one thing. But if all our computers and iPhones failed to ignite, the terror of being “down” and of an ensuing chaos is such that we may realize why so many of us have guns. (I mean Americans.)

Audiences told themselves they were seeing stories couched in an astonishing lifelike illusion, but the technology was as profound as fiction’s magic. That truth has become more pressing as screens have become ever more active and assertive. The modern acceptance of IMAX and 3D has surpassed the way, for decades, 3D was offered by the business but dismissed by public confidence that stories counted. Yet watching Derek Jeter on YouTube in 2014 is not so different from watching Sullivan’s Travels at the Palace in 1942. The same curious and largely unexamined role of the screen obtains. Jeter is small — I said three inches by four — but kids seem captivated by smaller images still. Is it possible that they are not quite looking, but feeling “in touch”?


When I look at YouTube I am trusting to an invisible agency. If I had to explain it to you in the way I explained movie projection, I would sound vague: I turn on my machine, my computer; I punch in YouTube, and ask for “Derek Jeter Gatorade,” [3] and his little movie leaps into being. I might tell you or a young child, well, it’s instant electronic communication, it’s tapping into a data bank, it’s the Internet. I don’t know how it really works; that’s why I’m in trouble if it ever goes wrong. But it also means I am cut off from the process itself. You may say I’m too old or too dumb to possess a complete explanation, but I don’t think I’m alone. And that mystery is significant. When I first went to the movies, I was entranced by the “reality” on screen. I believed there must be people behind or within the screen. My father made an airy, passable explanation of what was happening. He pointed to the window in the projection booth and the beam of light aswirl with cigarette smoke. I could trace the physical process—and I have never lost my affection for projectionists. Whenever it was possible, I loved being in the booth, seeing the cans of 35 mm film, looking at the fleshy celluloid loops in the projectors, and feeling the heat and energy of those machines.

Projection-BoothThere is so much more absence and liberty with YouTube (or its variants). I get through to what I want (as if making a telephone call), but I don’t have to watch or attend to it. I can take a phone call, eat a slice of pizza, romance my girl (or the dog). The film is my plaything or my pet, whereas a movie was like a beast that dominated me. An old movie was a matter of size and illumination in which faces might be thirty feet high (and watching movie is a face-to-face interaction, so don’t for-get the disparity of scale). The film had a life or momentum of its own. It drove on relentlessly, and I soon realized that the image could change from x to y quicker than I could close my eyes, when x might be John Sullivan in his elegant Beverly Hills home and y was something closer to the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. In all likelihood, I was in a row of occupied seats: if I was distressed (and I was often upset and in tears when I first went to movies), it was fuss and embarrassment to get up, to say excuse me to all those strangers, and try to get out of that place.

There are other liberating limitations to Jeter on YouTube, or whatever you have selected there. When my choice comes up, it is one among so many other things the system says it can show me. So I am distracted as I start to watch. I may give up Jeter after twenty seconds and move to some of the other resources and opportunities my very basic computer can bring me. It’s churlish of me to complain, because I know the Internet is my window on the wide world. And it’s not as if I haven’t had happy or diverted hours flitting from Kim Kardashian to Susan Sontag. I don’t decry the infinity of a civilization where I can summon up Derek Jeter, the text of a story by Borges, the latest piece of hardcore pornography, the vital statistics of Sierra Leone, or that diner conversation between De Niro and Pacino in Heat. But the sheer range can be disturbing or depleting. The determining impulse in marriage, say, or falling in love, lies in meeting one person at a time. But when so many possibilities exist, then maybe marriage and love itself come to be less urgent or convincing.

If we lament attention deficit disorder in our children, we should admit the dissolution of attention (or watching) in our own technologies. If that sounds too general, think of the agencies—from individuals and businesses to governments and ideologies — that would prefer us not to attend with too much critical concentration, but let the passing spectacle swim by without challenge.

This is where watching cannot rest with mere sight. It waits to be converted into aesthetic judgment, moral discrimination, and a more intricate participation in society. That sounds ominous, I suppose, and part of a creeping unease at how the Internet can be a spectator sport that condones our lack of concentration and begins to deepen feelings of futility over dealing with the world. In that mood, there are film commentators who lament the loss of the large screen, the locomotive of the movie, and our amazed attention to it all. Things have been lost, but now I have to make the most challenging point — that cinema, film, movie (whatever) always had the seed of dislocation about it.

The novice at the movies is often overwhelmed by the reality of it all. When Auguste and Louis Lumière showed pieces of film to a paying audience in Paris in December 1895, it is said that some customers ran from the salon screaming because they believed a steam engine coming gently toward the camera would break out of the screen and strike them. Were they pretending? Perhaps they were unsure. “Primitive” peoples shown close-­ups of the face are sometimes fearful that decapitation has occurred. When I saw Olivier’s Henry V at the age of four, I “saw” the faces of page boys in the English camp at Agincourt on fire. It was one of the occasions on which I had to be carried away in tears. Later on, I realized I was reacting to a dissolve — the faces and the fire had been laid together. Anyone poised on the edge of a miracle is “primitive” and vulnerable to the uncertainty: is this the real thing or a trick?

The spectacle of real shock never loses its power — those piled corpses at Dachau and their helpless abandon are testament to that, along with our creepy readiness for real disaster (so long as it stays on the screen). That first Lumière film show was a treasury of ordinary events being brought to the eyes of millions: the train entering a station [4]; workers leaving a factory; a family having a picnic. The films made by Georges Méliès in France after 1895 are from another reality — that of imagination. They have enormous charm, still, but I don’t think they match the unconsidered naturalism of the Lumière films. Whereas Méliès had the cunning ingenuity of a stage magician who had discovered film as a new toy, the Lumières had no other plan except to prove that their machine, the cinematographe, worked.


In 2014, the British Film Institute put together a collection of bits and pieces an audience might have seen at the movies in 1914. [5] That was an age of fragments, shorts, snippets, jokes, mere observations, snaps, and “Look!” items. There was everything from the Perils of Pauline serial and a bit of Chaplin to scenes of the uneasy Hapsburg royal family and views of cheery soldiers marching somewhere. Pauline looked fussy and foolish. Chaplin seemed calculating and unkind. The marching soldiers were probably under orders for the film. There is no clue how close they were to the Western Front. There is no hint of war. But you don’t forget the long-suffering lean faces of the soldiers, just as the impatience of the Hapsburgs is a clue to their disastrous superiority. There are views of Egypt and the Pyramids, as ravishing as the footage Herbert Ponting shot in 1911–12 when he accompanied Captain Scott on his expedition to the South Pole. “Ravishing” does not mean simply that those compositions are beautiful—though they are a picturesque vision of Antarctica waiting meekly for man’s conquest (which was not how it turned out, as Scott and four others perished). What is most arresting is how people had never seen such things before. There is wonder, information, and relationship in seeing an emperor’s pale, pinched face, the North African desert, or the surreal devastation at Fukushima in March 2011. Do you remember the flooded multistory car park there and the automobiles reversing in the rush of water like obedient toy cars? In such cases, the horror and the beauty are closely aligned. In the Dachau footage, the obscenity of those reduced human corpses does not erase the sheer beauty of any body. The scene is one of torture and murder, but it might make Francis Bacon or Egon Schiele giddy.

The honesty of that complicated response stemmed from the immediacy of photography, and for several decades little got in the way of that transaction. Audiences were dazzled to see the elemental life of an eskimo in Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty’s pioneering documentary, to see the mute grace of Gary Cooper in so many films, and to observe the delicate tour de force of Fred Astaire in which this very modest man was able to do such difficult things with grace and unbroken fluency.

The awe-inspiring circumstances in which cinema was enjoyed only added to the overwhelming illusion of a reality to be beheld and participated in vicariously. It was an open and largely unexplored question how audiences were meant to reconcile that level of reality with the apparatus of fantasy. Yes, Fred could dance like that — but we couldn’t. De Niro and Pacino might chat forever over coffee, liberating our fantasy that cops and hoods are brothers from the same acting school. John Wayne could be the indomitable heroic figure in so many adventures — in the West, in the war, even in the green fields of Ireland — but we had a harder time sustaining the heroic interpretation of our own lives. We were encouraged to make a contract in our lives in which hard times were offset by fantasy success. Wayne’s glory was our ghostly purchase, and it was only later that we learned how thoroughly he had missed war service.

That screen contract began in the movies and became the engine of advertising. For there is a dreamed assumption in the Jeter Gatorade ad not just that Derek walks like a god on earth (he may not share that feeling — we don’t care), but that ordinary people in the Bronx will be beatified and saved by contact with him. In Triumph of the Will, when Hitler is driven in an open car from the airfield through the packed streets of Nuremberg, his car halts and a mother and child come forward from the crowd to greet him. This was meant to seem spontaneous or natural, yet plainly it was staged. Then, as the humble couple meet the Führer and step back they go from shadow into sunlight. Their radiance is real—just a mother and child on the street in the sun—but they existed then, and now, in the theater of fascism. [6]

Riefenstahl understood how these mechanisms worked. If that is her largest “crime” or cynicism, it’s one she could have learned from American films, where the use of light to ennoble some characters was automatic and constant. It’s a lesson in the DNA of those who made the Jeter ad, too, yet few of the audience know how to read the contrivance and the manipulation of what seems like wholesome imagery. We have been fools not to teach this way of reading in a culture in which for decades most children have spent more time watching moving imagery than reading books.

But a change has occurred, in which the technological impediments in film have compromised our contact with reality. This subversive force cannot be omitted in any talk about how to watch a movie. Yes, the screen seems to be a window on paradise in which we are the beneficiaries. But context has been betrayed. We are not there, with the spectacle; we are in this odd, privileged position of secret onlookers. We are in a dark and an isolation which suggests our weakness for fantasy. The screen is a window, but a barrier, too, and one that consigns us to a kind of purposeless oblivion.

heatLet me explore the existence of Heat (1995), [7] on screen a little further. As written and directed by Michael Mann, it is an absorbing picture, a suspenseful narrative for its full 171 minutes. I watch it a lot, and I can tell myself it is for the craft, the art or the performances (it is one of De Niro’s last good pictures). But I know I am drawn to it by the licensed fantasy of watching alleged cops and robbers strutting their stuff—with guns, but with talk, too. It is a potent male dream. The women in the film are often intriguing, but they are not permitted to rival the male ideology. And Heat is a fire that doesn’t burn me. I can watch its immense street gun battles with excitement; I can be carried away by the notion that De Niro and Pacino are alike in their characters. But my wife once was mugged and I know that that suggestion of parity is insane. A brush with violent crime in life can be searing and traumatic. Yet on screen it is indulged. Film only works in the dark, and because of that safe distance from life.

buster looksThe intrinsic deal in the movies was to say, Look, for a very modest sum — a nickel, say — we’ll give you an opportunity to see not just the wonders of the world, not just people who are beautiful beyond your dreams, but a set of conditions to which we know you aspire: sexual splendor, thrilling violence, clothes, décor, space, timing, and ultimate happiness; in short, the chance to bathe in the light. It’s the treat of the new age, and here’s the kicker: you can watch the sex and violence with-out ever being identified, or known. The beautiful men and women will come right up to the screen and gaze into your darkness alight with desire and availability. They may start to slip off their clothes and their inhibitions. But they won’t notice you. They won’t cry out, “Peeping Tom!” and shame you. Your voyeur rapture will be condoned. You can cough or sigh and the music of the movie will smother the guilty sounds. There’s only one drawback: you can’t come up on screen or pass through the window. You stay in the dark. You are invisible, anonymous; you are part of the mass for a medium made of light.

At the San Francisco Silent Film Festival; Photo by Tommy Lau.

At the San Francisco Silent Film Festival; Photo by Tommy Lau.

Historically, it is still a great puzzle, yet one can try to track the consequent disillusion. I suspect it started with sound, for that enhancement of the love of reality does seem to have wiped out a great deal of innocence. Consider Fritz Lang’s first sound film, M (1931).

Lang was a visionary of silent cinema, audacious and ambitious, and possessing one of the greatest composing eyes the medium has ever known. He had done Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge as parts of Wagner’s Die Nibelungen; in Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler he had created one of the most spectacular mad genius criminals of the age; in Metropolis, he had delivered a future society in which the precious few lived in penthouse light while the masses labored underground. In Woman in the Moon he had broken into science fiction. Then in 1931, he and his wife, the screenwriter Thea von Harbou, noticed a rash of serial killings in Germany. They asked themselves, How can you make a movie about a serial killer?

Lang remembered a stage actor he had seen a few years earlier in Berlin in Wedekind’s Spring Awakening. He was short, squat, and so far from conventionally handsome it was disturbing. You could not take your eyes off him, just as his own popping eyes seemed to feed on anything he looked at. He was close to grotesque, and yet he was funny, amusing, dreamy, and in some lights he had the face of a wounded angel. He was a phenomenon; Lang had seen no one like him, and cinema has always wanted to show us things never seen before. His name was Peter Lorre. Lang approached him and asked, “You have done a movie?” Lorre said he had not, and the director made him promise he would not do a picture before Lang put him in one. “Of course,” said Lorre, “but what film is this?” I don’t know yet, said Lang.

Lorre mirrorSo Lorre became Hans Beckert in a film intended to be called “Murderers Among Us” until Lang had the brainwave of branding simplicity — call it M, for that insolent panache refused to be daunted by the dark material. Wasn’t there a key moment in the film when a blind beggar identified Beckert — because he was whistling a theme from Greig’s Peer Gynt (this was a sound film) — and then another street criminal scrawled a white chalk M on the palm of his hand and slapped it on Beckert’s shoulder? That allowed one of the famous shots in film history where Beckert looks in a mirror and sees the M on his back (like a frightened man gazing at a screen).

MM is a classic now, among our great films, but it was unprecedented in pushing the regular process of audience identification to a new limit. Beckert kills children. You know you are against that. In 1931, it was not possible for a movie to show that action — today, we have become more sophisticated and tolerant. But there is an alarming moment in Lang’s film where he cuts to a sudden close-up of Beckert taking a knife from his pocket. He flicks it open — and peels an orange for a little girl. Even now, it’s ample suggestion; in 1931, it must have been more frightening still (we all know that moment when we guess a film is going to show us something so awful we may not be able to watch).

MknifeIn the 1931 movie, the child killer is such a disturbance to organized crime that the underworld hunts the killer along with the police. He is captured at last and accused in a mock trial staged by the criminals. Beckert breaks down and admits to his irresistible impulse—he is crazy, but he can explain it. He may be the most appalling movie killer shown to that time, but he is the one who makes the most insidious appeal for sympathy in which the pathology of the murderer is infernally tangled with Lorre’s eloquence as an actor.

I suspect the piercing shot of Beckert seeing himself in the mirror (or on a screen) was instinctive on Lang’s part, but he was a fervent psychologist of screen dynamics, and he created imagery with the spontaneity of a poet — albeit a cold one. The image speaks to the new ambiguity that M has uncovered and the way we are gazing at, and beginning to want to understand, a figure who would be alien and alarming in most circumstances. Suppose at a screening of M in Berlin a man had been caught attacking a child in the audience, mob fury would have descended on him without mercy (and Lang was very good on mob fury). But that same audience is breaking perilous ground in contemplating Beckert’s justification. The “ordinary” status of reality is being undermined by a new detachment. The dilemma will recur throughout this book, but M is one of the first times the slippage was clear. And it is a great film, as beautiful as it is sinister. Is that mix really possible? Or is it something cinema invented? Everyone liked M, from Graham Greene to Joseph Goebbels, who wrote in his journal, “Fantastic! Against humanitarian soppiness. For the death penalty. Well made. Lang will be our director one day.”

The consequences are as fascinating as the film itself. For Peter Lorre, it was a breakthrough and a curse. No one in the business ever forgot his performance, or believed he should depart from it. He felt imprisoned by the assumption that he was perfect casting as a murderer. About two years after the movie was made, in the spring of 1933, Lang was called in for an interview by Goebbels. The new head of propaganda and the Führer himself had been thrilled by Lang’s pictures. So they wanted him to take charge of film for the Third Reich. Not long thereafter (though not as swiftly as he claimed later), Lang left Germany (Lorre quit, too). They went their separate ways to Hollywood, yet never worked together again. As for M, it was some time before its insights flowered—for censorship stood in the way to protect us. But over time the medium shrugged that off, and so we were in for a run of extraordinary films and shows: Psycho (no director learned more from Lang than Hitchcock), The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo . . . The Sopranos, Dexter, Breaking Bad.

That’s too dark a view? How many real killings have you seen? I’m guessing and hoping very few—zero perhaps. And how many have you seen presented and pretended to on some screen? Well, if you’re thirty and American, the number is around thirty thousand. Does that imbalance amount to an attention disorder?

(Reprinted with permission from Borzoi Books, Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright ©2015 by David Thomson.)

EDF FilmStrip

[Editor’s note: EDF has added the photos and posters in this article. They are not in the book. Additionally we offer video clips relating to some of the films and places discussed.]

  1. The power of the screen in Sullivan’s Travels

  1. The fate of the Granada Theatre, Tooting is discussed

  1. Derek Jeter Gatorade commercial.

  1. For the Lumière train film see Eat My Shorts– Trains on Film.

  1. A Night at the Cinema 1914 trailer

  1. Hitler meets the crowds in Nuremberg

  1. Action scene from Heat

Thomsonphoto Michael Lionstar

photo by Michael Lionstar.

David Thomson has written about film for The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times, The New Republic, Salon, Movieline, Film Comment, and Sight & Sound. He is the author of more than thirty books on film, including The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, Moments That Made the Movies, The Big Screen, Have You Seen?, Moment of Psycho, Suspects, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, and Why Acting Matters. He lives in San Francisco.

Thomson’s books are popular at your local book store and can also be purchased from independent book store via Indiebound or Amazon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s