Film director Martin Scorsese considers the American cinema, divided into short chapters each looking at one aspect of American film, including: the studio system past and present; the question of narrative; technique - both technical and the development of visual literacy specific to films. He also looks at B-movies, films noirs, Westerns, gangster movies and musicals and some of the great figures in American cinema, from von Stroheim and Welles to Kubrick and Cassavetes.
Using as his starting point the film industry's perennial antagonism between art and commerce, Scorsese structures his journey in different chapters, starting with this antagonism which he styles the "Director's Dilemma". He examines strategies adopted by directors for dealing with the problem, first considering the primary role of the "Director as Storyteller", then highlighting the director as "Illusionist", "Smuggler" and "Iconoclast". Under these chapter headings, he features and analyses the works of filmmakers from D.W. Griffith and F.W. Murnau, Jacques Tourneur and Sam Fuller, John Cassavetes and Stanley Kubrick. Illustrated with numerous extracts from a wide range of films, including classics of the silent era (`Intolerance' and `The Crowd') and exemplars of the major American genres: westerns (from `The Searchers' to `Unforgiven'), musicals (Busby Berkeley to `All That Jazz') and gangster films (`Public Enemy' to `Point Blank'). Mould-breaking masterpieces are also saluted, including `Sunrise' `Citizen Kane' and `2001 - A Space Odyssey'.