Cinematic Violence

Talking to David Thomson about Murder and the Movies

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in Features • Illustrated by Nina Pagano

Movie titles are attention-grabbing by design, but never more so when the story promises the illicit thrill of decadent behavior. Just for a start, there’s Murder, My Sweet; Dial M for Murder; Murder on the Orient Express; Murder by Numbers; Manhattan Murder Mystery; Murder by Death; Anatomy of a Murder; How to Murder Your Wife; A Perfect Murder; Witness to Murder; and plain old Murder! which adds a quivering exclamation point just for good measure.  

Shifting the motives and/or alibis around a bit, there’s also The Killers (with two different versions of the same Hemingway story); Kill Bill parts 1 & 2; The Killing of a Chinese BookieThe Killer Inside MeThe Killing of a Sacred DeerKill ListA Time to KillLicense to KillA View to KillKiller Clowns from Outer SpaceKilling Them SoftlyThe Killing; and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!  

Of course, there are plenty more where that came from; and you can always add your favorites. You know you’ve got them.  

David Thomson’s new book Murder and the Movies investigates how the movies present to us the not-so-simple art of murder. He’s the ideal guide through the labyrinth of cinematic mayhem and morbidity —the massive Biographical Dictionary of Film provides a learned, informal, and novelistically insightful tour through film history that is probably much more fun — and definitely cheaper — than going to film school. 

What I especially love about Thomson’s approach to film writing is that he isn’t afraid to wax lyrical about “the frenzy on the screen.” Why shouldn’t we get poetic when talking about the movies? Very few writers see as Thomson does: he once memorably compared Richard Gere’s face to “a wind tunnel at dawn . . . all sheen, inner curve, and posed emptiness.” Peter Lorre is “the squat, wild-eyed spirit of ruined Europe, shyly prowling in and out of Warner Bros.’ shadows, muttering fiercely to himself, his disbelief forever mislaid.”  

Murder in the Movies explores how our willingness to be spectators toes the line, which is often as thin as the screen itself, between the humdrum lives we actually live and what we consume when we’re alone in the dark. Analyzing the legendary scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone murders the cop and the rival gangster in the restaurant, we don’t necessarily know if we could be that lethal. “Sometimes we get fired up by a screen situation, but we do not carry guns, do we? And we do not believe in violence, even as we give it our energy on screen? But we get a kick out of guns and movies, we have learned to do their murders with panache. Imagined firing can be an acquired habit.” Given our culture’s ingrained fascination with firearms of all kinds, and the kick we seem to get out of it, the last point seems undeniable at this point in history.  

Of course, our fascination with murder in the movies isn’t just about those eerily shiny weapons; in some ways, it’s about a lurid engagement with our own mortality. Seeing death portrayed onscreen gives us the vicarious shudder that we unconsciously realize could come for us at any time and certainly will someday. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining gets a rediscovery, especially the eerie scene when Jack Torrance encounters a mysterious naked lady who emerges from the shower in the blood-colored bathroom and who lets Jack kiss her, only to inexplicably turn into a cackling crone. “The beauty in the bath is suddenly a portent of death. In embracing Jack she is foreplay to his grave. That is the horror he feels.” And maybe, on a certain frequency, so do we. 

At one point he writes in the immediate aftermath of the Santa Fe High School shootings, where eight students and two teachers were killed in cold blood. He makes the glum but accurate observation that the public response to recurring tragedies like this seem like “a script we feel we know by heart” where everyone quickly blames everyone else for the crisis for all the predictable reasons. Passing the buck in terms of responsibility is part of the cultural cowardice in the response to that horror, but perhaps there’s more to it than that; Thomson poignantly wonders, “can’t we admit that we are afraid?”  

It is interesting how the conservative culture warriors of the ’90s tended to moralize about the dangers of video games and violent media. Now it’s the right-wing that embraces crassness, celebrates guns, and encourages overt aggression. These days, the left is often more concerned with the implicit ways that culture affects individual behavior. As the old cliché goes about beauty, murder —especially the onscreen variety — is in the eye of the beholder.     

Thomson quotes David Brooks’s warning about “the lonely man” in America that “fell through the cracks of society, who lived a life of solitary disappointment” and who ends up acting out in an all-too-familiar way. We can trace this archetype back to the movies like, say, Taxi Driver or Rebel Without A Cause as well as the manic 21st Century versions of DC’s Joker character. 

Maybe it is the imbalance in society and our politics. That speaks to a loss of faith in the American dream, the pursuit of happiness, and the promise that everything would be OK. That dismay is not crazy. It grows out of the experience and calm observation.

That kind of observation may begin with the movies, but it inevitably spreads to everything else.

I called Thomson at his home in San Francisco to discuss how the nature of movie murder has changed over time, how the big screen fetishizes guns and gunplay, what Hitchcock and The Godfather satisfy our unconscious desires for thrills and chills, and how it all relates to political speech. 

Matt Hanson: What inspired you to write this book? 

David Thomson: For a long time I had been intrigued by the way decent, law-abiding, non-violent people — like you and me — loved murder movies. Just to consider that was to get into the whole, fascinating matter of real experience and fantasy and how the battle between them is at the heart of our involvement in movies. This is part of my feeling in recent years that commentary on film style and directorial personality can lose sight of what is happening with the subject matter. So here was a topic that led to our startling modern acceptance of violence and cruelty.  In addition, I was interested in how the cult of murder was a way of fending off the plain fear of death. 

MH: Do you think that murder in movies has changed over time? How? Is it more prevalent, or more artful, or more vivid now than in decades past?  

DT: Yes. It really is frightening to see how matters of tact, censorship, and restraint have been abandoned.  You can see this in how guns are celebrated in films, how shooting has become nearly instinctive.  You have to be pretty stupid or optimistic not to see the impact on our behavior.  

For example, from the ’50s onward, where the titles of films are gun-related, like Winchester 73, the idea of the gun was creeping out from the screen and into the dark. If you’re keeping track, it’s not hard to see how gunplay has continued since then. The violence in Bonnie and Clyde shocked people at the time, but you might look at it now and say it’s such a piece of art and wonder why people were shocked.  

It’s rash to ignore the glamorization of guns; the sound, the way they look, is hard to separate from the way we feel about them. Part of what I’m trying to do in the book is to come away from the dramatic and glamorous use of weapons in some films, which is beyond a doubt, and go down to the level of the kid at Sandy Hook who was living in an armory at home and had no propriety about being able to use weapons.  

I have a hard time separating that potential from the role that the gun plays in people’s lives. And because I’m not American by birth, and certainly wasn’t raised in America, it seems particularly strange to me. I never knew anybody growing up who had a gun in their house. I’m nearly 80 and I’ve never held an actual gun. I don’t know what will be done about it, politically. But that’s no reason not to recognize the way that society is ready to use them.  

MH: Can you say a little bit about the distinction you make in the book about the difference between murder and killing?  

DT: We have increasing ways of legitimizing or condoning killing — not just in war but actually in our policies for treating the poor, and outsider figures. In a way, the parents separated from their children have been killed off in the kids’ eyes in that we have agreed to do these things.  This sort of indifference is likely to happen more and more, and I think in scenarios of the end of the world, the citizen is armed and committed to violent self-defense. So the gap blurs, and it may be that murder will be ushered in increasingly by being viewed as killing. 

MH: At one point, you write: “our movies have always been close to television commercials for corrupt luxury. They are serving up the meat for our fantasies — and in that process, they are licensing and indulging taboos against ravishing or murder.”  Does that suggest, as the culture warriors in the ’90s used to insist, that movies really are corrupting the moral standards of society?    

DT: Yes, I’m afraid so. I think movies in general have been misleading advertisements for how we may fantasize over our lives instead of facing the reality. You can be solemn about this — or you can laugh at it.  But the influence has been profound, and I think it has demoralized our sense of humanism. 

MH: Do you think the movies (or is it better to say the media?) have played into that and it’s coming into its highest point — or is that just sort of a perpetual human characteristic? 

DT: The movies, among other things, offered an alternative reality. Offering a world that we said was lifelike. Photography used to be a record of real life, of what was actually there. The movies offered us a dream alternative, making it easier for someone to overlook the failings of the real. One great shortcoming of US political life is that it lets you live in an unreal world, so you don’t put as much of your energy as you could or should into repairing the real world.  

When I lived in England, I lived in a world that truly was centuries old. There were buildings, fields, families that went back centuries. The sense of a persistent reality. It could be claustrophobic and depressing at times, but at least you had a very firm sense of where you came from. Remember that America is inhabited by people who had given up that previous reality and ventured into making a new reality into this beautiful, seemingly vacant space. Our screens have been filled by the sense that everything can be re-made. There’s a sense of reality that is hypothetical, that you can remake it to suit yourself. People call it the American Dream, but it’s a new way of making it a reality for yourself.

MH: At one point you discuss the idea of aloneness, of certain people being so alienated and despairing that they turn to violence. “A culture of death cannot be separated from our difficulty at believing in life. And it is idiocy to blame that on insanity.”  I thought of the Joker movie, with Joaquin Phoenix, which you comment on briefly in the book, calling it “so boring but so piercing.” I wonder why you had that reaction to the film, and if the fact that there is now a slang term describing that mentality as getting “Jokerfied” suggests that the movie might have touched a certain kind of nerve.   

DT: I don’t like the film or think it is very good. But to see it with an audience was to be amazed at the celebration of alienation. Thus Phoenix was adored as an actor, so we didn’t have to take responsibility for the character. 

MH: You mention Michael Corleone in The Godfather quite a bit, here and elsewhere. I think the idea of Michael savoring the idea of making people offers they can’t resist is interesting. I used to think that it was more about how Michael has gotten used to the world being like this, given the way he grew up.  How do we see Michael Corleone differently if he’s more sadistic? 

DT: He is probably the key character in modern cinema and a portent of how we might be ready for efficient evil in our leaders. 

MH: Do you think that’s because he is charismatic? Seductive? Enviably in control? Is it just Pacino’s acting? 

DT: I think it’s more about the efficiency, the capability. And Pacino is a great actor though sometimes he overdoes it. Michael gradually becomes a cold fixture in the films. He’s so effective without big scenes, and I think we’re seduced by him. With older gangsters, like James Cagney for example, we know that they would die at the end. But Michael doesn’t die, he just gets bigger and bigger. He dresses better, sits in silence, and quietly gives orders that A or B should die. He’s a presidential figure. Young men in the Hollywood business world have modeled themselves on Michael. They dress like him. He’s become a role model of a very rare kind. 

MH: You know, in the scene where he tells Kay about how his father does his business I usually read that as Michael being matter-of-fact; I didn’t notice Michael’s subtle relish of that kind of violence at first.  

DT: I think we can see how Michael is planning to take over the family from the start. And I suspect that when he was in college and the Marines, he was a real prick! (laughs) 

MH: At one point in the book you suggest about Alfred Hitchcock, who was certainly a connoisseur of a finely observed murder, “if he had slept around, he might not have been the intense filmmaker. Had he been one of the lads, he might not have contemplated murder so much.” Is the key to watching Hitchcock’s work that he was living most fully through the movies? 

DT: Well, I think the malice and murderousness in Hitchcock is related to the barely restrained lust.  Hitch is maybe the first movie director in whom we have to recognize the force of lust as a spectator sport.  He is a great artist but a very suppressed man.  The voyeur leading us on.  

MH: I have heard a quote of his that says, “Some films are slices of life. My films are slices of cake.” So do you think Hitchcock was consciously entertaining people by giving them what he himself wanted, or what he thought the audience wanted? 

DT: My take is that it’s a mixture of the two. I think he was a man who was truly obsessed with the engineering of voyeurism. He deeply thought about cinema as much as any director of his time. He understood the separation of reality and fantasy. It was all a manifestation of his own psyche. I think he was a very repressed, very guilt-ridden man, who had endless dreams, and the endless capacity to enact them on screen. And they are frightening, disturbing. Psycho is the point where he made an artistically great film and had one of his biggest box office successes.  

Hitchcock was a man who, for decades, said to the audience I could show you, but I won’t show you, but I can make you imagine it. The violence happens in the mind. But then he gets to a point where the cinema says, well, you want to show a knife killing a naked woman, you can! And he says, Oh Really! And that changes something for him.  

MH: At one point in the book, you muse that “a lot of people who frequent the movies are aware of having dull and disappointing lives, with some pain or unhappiness. Sitting in the dark they feel anonymous and insignificant.” I’m not sure I agree with that — I tend to think of movies as a way of enhancing life, making me see entirely new worlds or see the ones around me in new ways. But I’d be curious what you would have to say about whether going to the movies is fundamentally about escape or something different.  

DT: I agree with what you say, and I think movies do enlarge our sense of life in many wonderful ways. But don’t forget how they detach us from life and experience and change citizenship and responsibility to chilly spectatorship. 

MH: I’d be curious if you think there’s a political dimension to this notion of spectatorship — we are so accustomed to spectacle and bread and circuses that a reality TV star is President. And he’s definitely into talking about violence, threatening it, celebrating his macho attitude. I wonder how much his rise is a product of that kind of violence.  

DT: He talks like a hoodlum in an old fashioned film! He’s kind of out of date in that way. We can get an idea of the kinds of movies that he might have liked in his youth. And he’s no fool; he’s worked out how that appeals to the people who are called his base. And the kind of alliance that he’s propped up is appallingly dangerous. If an economic slump turns into climate disasters, if the California fires got just a little bit more out of hand, you could have real chaos in this state.  

With the Coronavirus, I think it highlights the fact that once upon a time we felt like we were living in a reasonable enough world, where there certainly were problems, but we could at least agree on specific things. I think people now feel a lot closer to chaos than they used to.

It’s conceivable that chaos might be a larger problem today. And if you factor in climate change, the chance of a climate catastrophe could be a very frightening situation. And the economic disaster — the feeling of poverty breaking out in the streets, in what used to be a bastion of liberalism is very frightening. I can’t walk to the post office, which is where the Jim Jones temple used to be, without walking through a tent city, and that’s very disconcerting.  

The thing about the homelessness on the streets here in San Francisco, if you walk by it every day you realize that you and your society don’t know how to handle the problem. The automatic response is that the city should deal with it — well, the city can only deal with it if it’s got the money — and the money supply is getting shorter and shorter. And I’m not sure that Biden can get us out of it. And he’s going to have a much harder time, especially if we have another earthquake. Everyone who studies this kind of thing will tell you we’re on borrowed time.  

MH: I do think it’s pretty self-evident that Trump supporters (and conservatives in tabloid mode generally) are letting loose with Trump — they are enjoying the transgression, the trash-talking, the vicarious wish fulfillment. It’s not that far removed from rooting for the bad guy in the movies.   

DT: And he appeals particularly to people who feel like failures, who really HAVE been left out, and they really have very little going for them on their side.  

MH: How much of Trump is a performer and how much do you think is really his true self coming out?  

 DT: I think he’s a total performer. My picture of him is that when he’s alone he’s sitting and talking to the TV set, yelling back at it, and he talks to the public like he’s yelling at the TV set. I don’t think it’s coming from a deeper place in his heart or in his head, it’s a drunken shout back at the TV that he’s really mastered. He’s much more of a sophisticated performer than Biden. 

People like us, we always say that he lies, but his supporters love it! American society has been so committed to a world where you could reinvent yourself, and reinvent your reality, that it didn’t matter if you lied all the time. Some 20th Century philosophers say that all people are lying all the time, they just don’t ever tell each other the truth. People don’t believe that Trump is telling him the truth, but they love to hear him talk!   •