David Thomson (film critic)

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David Thomson
Thomson speaking in New York, 2013
Thomson speaking in New York, 2013
Born (1941-02-18) 18 February 1941 (age 83)
London, England
OccupationFilm critic

David Thomson (born 18 February 1941) is a British film critic and historian based in the United States, and the author of more than 20 books.

His reference works in particular — Have You Seen...?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (2008) and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (6th edition, 2014) — have been praised as works of high literary merit and eccentricity despite some criticism for self-indulgence.[1] Benjamin Schwarz, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, called him "probably the greatest living film critic and historian" who "writes the most fun and enthralling prose about the movies since Pauline Kael".[2] John Banville called him "the greatest living writer on the movies" [3] and Michael Ondaatje said he "is our most argumentative and trustworthy historian of the screen." In 2010, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film was named the greatest book on the cinema by a poll in Sight and Sound; his novel Suspects also received multiple votes.[4][5]


Thomson was born in London. He taught film studies at Dartmouth College, and has been a regular contributor to The New York Times, Film Comment, Movieline, The New Republic,[6] and Salon. Thomson has served on the selection committee for the New York Film Festival,[7] and scripted an award-winning documentary, The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind.[8] In 1975, he published A Biographical Dictionary of Cinema, now in its sixth edition as The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.

Thomson helped to revive interest in the director Michael Powell (along with Emeric Pressburger, one half of the film duo known as the Archers.) Roger Ebert writes that "Powell was rescued from obscurity and relative poverty first by the film critic David Thomson, whose Biographical Dictionary of Film contained a glowing entry about the director. Powell wrote thanking Thomson, who invited him to teach at Dartmouth College. The trip to America led to Powell's meeting Martin Scorsese, a devotee of the Archers films since he was eleven or twelve years old, and Scorsese's editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, who eventually became Powell's wife."[9] With Ian Christie, Thomson edited Scorsese on Scorsese (1989), a book of conversations with Scorsese. He went on to edit Levinson on Levinson (1992), a book of conversations with Barry Levinson.

Thomson has written several biographies, notably Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles. In 1985, he published Suspects, a metafictional novel that imagines the secret histories of film noir characters like Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond and Chinatown's Noah Cross.[10] Charles Champlin called Suspects "the wildest and most imaginative use of the movies as material I have ever read."[11] Graham Fuller named it one of his favorite books on film, saying "Thomson was a historian writing like a novelist and so it was logical that he would eventually weave fiction with history in the serpentine Suspects, from which one can learn more about the iconography of film noir than from many worthy textbooks." In 1990, he followed this with Silver Light, which mixes real and fictional people from the history of the Western; Publishers Weekly notes that the “cast includes Willa Cather, Montgomery Clift, Charles Ives, Judge Roy Bean and numerous characters smuggled in from such movies as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”[12] Thomson has written screenplays, including Fierce Heat, which was to be produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Stephen Frears.[13]

Thomson has written books that combine biography and fiction, such as Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes, which combines a biography of Warren Beatty with speculative fiction. Publishers Weekly wrote that "Thomson's analysis of Beatty's work is perceptive" but criticized the "silly futuristic story of a California peopled with earthquake survivors."[14] Champlin called the book "stunning and unprecedented." He has also written a controversial book about Nicole Kidman, which Peter Conrad wrote "slithers from critical observation to subjunctive daydreaming", including ventures into "territory best left to pornography."[15] Lawrence Levi, in The New York Times, called it a "weird and unseemly mash note."[16]

In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Thomson memorializes his friend Kieran Hickey, a documentary filmmaker. Thomson wrote some of Hickey's films, including Faithful Departed, a short documentary on the Dublin of James Joyce's Ulysses.[17] Thomson credits Hickey with shaping his book: "I do not mean to shift the responsibility. Kieran helped in the research on all editions of this book; he commented and improved it at every page. But his deepest contribution was to the years of talk, the climate of taking pictures seriously, that made me think this book possible. If you feel the urge to talk back to this book, then know that Kieran paved the way." Hickey died in 1993, and Thomson writes that "in a way I feel the movies are over now that he's gone."[18]

He has confessed that he prefers writing books to film writing.[19]

Thomson lives in San Francisco with his wife and sons. In 2014, the San Francisco International Film Festival announced that Thomson would receive the Mel Novikoff Award at their 57th annual festival.[20] This is given to those making significant contributions to the Bay Area's film community.[21] He has turned his interest to television, writing Breaking Bad: The Official Book (2015) and Television: A Biography (2016).

Favorite films[edit]

Thomson participated in the Sight and Sound poll in 2002, 2012 and 2022. In 2002, he prefaced his list with a "Love You, Too" to Sunrise, The Passenger, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, In a Lonely Place, L'Atalante, Madame de..., The Red Shoes, Point Blank, Persona, The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth, The Shop Around the Corner, Rear Window, Meet Me in St. Louis, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Night of the Hunter, The Eclipse, Providence, Belle de Jour, Chinatown, Mulholland Drive and "just about everything by Howard Hawks except the one I will come to, eventually" before naming his top ten.

2002: Blue Velvet, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Citizen Kane, The Conformist, His Girl Friday, A Man Escaped, The Rules of the Game, Pierrot le Fou, That Obscure Object of Desire and Ugetsu Monogatari.[22][23]

2012: Blue Velvet, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Citizen Kane, The Conformist, Hiroshima mon amour, His Girl Friday, Pierrot le Fou, The Rules of the Game, The Shop Around the Corner and Ugetsu Monogatari.[24]

2022: The Big Sleep, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Citizen Kane, Fists in the Pocket, Magnolia, A Man Escaped, Pierrot le Fou, The Shop Around the Corner, The Underground Railroad and The Vietnam War.[25]


  • Movie Man (1967)
  • A Bowl of Eggs (1970)
  • Hungry as Hunters (1972)
  • Wild Excursions: The Life and Fiction of Laurence Sterne (1972)
  • A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975; 6th ed., 2014)
  • Scott's Men (1977, reissued in 2002 as Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen)
  • America in the Dark: Hollywood and the Gift of Unreality (1978)
  • Overexposures: A Crisis in American Filmmaking (1981)
  • Suspects (1985)
  • Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes (1987)
  • Silver Light (1990)
  • Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick (1993)
  • 4-2 (1996)
  • Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (1997)
  • Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts (1998)
  • The Alien Quartet: A Bloomsbury Movie Guide (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999), ISBN 1-58234-030-7, as The Alien Quartet (Pocket Movie Guide), 2000 ISBN 0-7475-5181-2
  • The Big Sleep (BFI guide) (2000)
  • In Nevada: The Land, The People, God, and Chance (2001)
  • Hollywood: A Celebration (DK, 2001)
  • Cinema: Year by Year (Intro only) (DK, 2005)
  • Marlon Brando (2003)
  • The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (2004)
  • Fan Tan (introduction; a novel written by Donald Cammell and Marlon Brando) (2005)
  • Nicole Kidman (2006)
  • "Have You Seen...?": A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (2008)
  • Try to Tell the Story (2009)
  • The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder (2009)
  • Humphrey Bogart (Great Stars) (2009)
  • Ingrid Bergman (Great Stars) (2009)
  • Gary Cooper (Great Stars) (2009)
  • Bette Davis (Great Stars) (2009)
  • The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us (2012)
  • Moments That Made the Movies (2013)
  • Why Acting Matters (2015)
  • How to Watch a Movie (2015)
  • Breaking Bad: The Official Book (2015)
  • Television: A Biography (2016)
  • Sleeping With Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire (2019)
  • Murder and the Movies (2020)
  • A Light in the Dark: A History of Film Directors (2021)
  • The Fatal Alliance: A Century of War on Film (2023)


  1. ^ Emerson, Jim. "Nicole Kidman: David Thomson's plaything | Scanners | Roger Ebert". Rogerebert.com.
  2. ^ The Atlantic, November 2002 issue.
  3. ^ John Banville, in Read all about it: NS Books of the Year 2012, The New Statesman, 29 November 2012.
  4. ^ "Sight & Sound's top five film books". Sight & Sound. June 2010.
  5. ^ "The best film books from 51 critics". Sight & Sound.
  6. ^ Thomson, David (14 September 2012). "American Movies are Not Dead: They are Dying". The New Republic.
  7. ^ "David Thomson". British Film Institute. Retrieved 30 June 2022.
  8. ^ "The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind (TV Movie 1988)", IMDb, retrieved 27 June 2022
  9. ^ Ebert, Roger (1997). Roger Ebert's Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the Finest Writing From a Century of Film. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 452.
  10. ^ Smith, Kevin Burton (2018). "David Thomson's Suspects". Thrilling Detective.
  11. ^ Champlin, Charles (1987). "Warren Beatty & Desert Eyes". Los Angeles Times.
  12. ^ "Silver Light by David Thomson". www.publishersweekly.com. 1990. Retrieved 10 February 2023.
  13. ^ "The men with the megaphone | Christopher Silvester". The Critic Magazine. 21 April 2021.
  14. ^ "Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes". 1987.
  15. ^ Conrad, Peter (24 September 2006). "His object of desire". The Guardian.
  16. ^ Levy, Lawrence (17 September 2006). "Star Struck". The New York Times.
  17. ^ "Faithful Departed". IFI Archive Player. 22 August 2016.
  18. ^ Thomson, David. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Fifth ed.). p. 447.
  19. ^ Thomson, David; Teodoro, José (11 March 2009). "The 21st Interview: DAVID THOMSON". Stop Smiling. Retrieved 4 August 2010.
  20. ^ D'Arcy, David (24 April 2014). "How Can the Nation's Oldest Film Festival Survive? With New Leadership, San Francisco Looks to the Future". IndieWire. Retrieved 27 June 2022.
  21. ^ "j. | S.F. film fest honors famed Jewish film restorer". 29 September 2011. Archived from the original on 29 September 2011.
  22. ^ Thomson, David (2 June 2002). "David Thomson: My Top Ten". The Independent.
  23. ^ "BFI | Sight & Sound | Top Ten Poll 2002 - How the directors and critics voted". old.bfi.org.uk. Archived from the original on 25 June 2012.
  24. ^ "David Thomson". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on 18 August 2016. Retrieved 20 February 2017.
  25. ^ "David Thomson | BFI". www.bfi.org.uk.

External links[edit]