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The Big Screen

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Watching, and the close connection between watching and desire, are the twin themes Thomson returns to again and again, particularly in the context of the films he considers at some length. These include F. W. Murnau's "Sunrise" (1927), Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane" (1941), and David Lean's "Brief Encounter" (1945). "Sunrise" is one of the greatest of silent films and remains, to this day, a nearly unanimously acknowledged masterpiece. Thomson sees it as a precursor to film noir, and although he sees noir as being about more than crime -- "Noir meant an existential agony; not just the underworld as metaphor for human fate" -- "Sunrise" does have a crime, or at least a contemplated crime, at its heart: it is about a husband who plans to murder his wife, though he does not go through with it and, in the end, falls back in love with her. In finding ways of being cinematic that previous movies had not managed to discover, "Sunrise" implicates us, as watchers, in an unprecedented manner:

The husband goes to meet the City Woman in a marsh, with the moon hanging in the night sky like a scaffold. The marsh is a set with an atmospheric richness and botanical detail not attempted in America before.… The marsh is a state of mind; the lighting is mannered, moody, and strictly controlled. You feel you are there, hesitant and anxious to see what will happen -- whereas with so many American silent films, we are witnessing a tableau, a staged event, limited to a single emotional attitude. It is the difference between feeling you are at the theater and inhabiting the lifelike illusion of the movies.

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