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Classic Film Criticism

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*James Agee* was different than Bosley Crowther and some of the other film critics of his day. He would sometimes reference Crowther and other contemporaries, but for Agee it was a deep-rooted concern that cinema was not always reaching its fullest potential. This is what drove his reviews and what makes many of them so memorable.

 

Like Francois Truffaut would later do, he moved from criticism to actual filmmaking (collaborating with John Huston on THE AFRICAN QUEEN and writing the screenplay for THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER).

 

Some of his reviews are one sentence long (and rather clever) and some go on for pages. I will either condense or serialize the longer excerpts.

 

His essays occurred from about 1941 to 1950, so there is a cornucopia of information about classic 40s cinema-- he covers Hollywood extensively, but he also likes foreign film (British, French and Russian in particular). Plus, he reviews almost every WWII documentary that the U.S. government and its allies produced during the war years. I will post one per day, and I wiill try to mix it up by genre, so it does not get too predictable.

 

Whenever possible, I will include a photo of the film being mentioned. And I will also try to coincide as many of these with actual broadcast dates on TCM.

 

I started yesterday on Fred's thread about MR. SKEFFINGTON. Later today, I will post another Agee gem.

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I've heard of some of the famous film critics from yesteryear (Agee, Crowther, Kael) but have never read any of their work. This should be interesting, Top.

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Well, I think Bosley Crowther probably deserves his own thread and so does Pauline Kael. These are the greats, along with Agee, when it comes to classic film criticism.

 

When reading some of Agee's essays, I have found it interesting that he sometimes digresses and plugs a movie star, a director or a producer. He has a tendency to go a bit Hedda and Louella, but it is usually because he has sought these people out for interviews because he believes they are making cinema the best it can be.

 

I cannot help but think what he would say about films and artists that have come along or really blossomed after his death. For instance, in one column, he interviews Geraldine Fitzgerald. This is in the mid-40s after she has ended her contract with Warners. I think it would've been fascinating to have him interview her again in the 60s after she appears in THE PAWNBROKER. He seems to predict that she will go on to do even greater things, and of course, that is exactly what happened.

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Yes, Bogdanovich's roots were in journalism. He was influenced by Cahiers du Cinema. He also cites Orson Welles as having played a huge part in his transition to directing.

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And what's the critic's name who came up with the auteur theory? Andrew Sarris? I did read something he wrote once. Can't remember what it was about but I do remember being impressed with how insightful he was.

 

 

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Yes, Sarris began to advance the auteur theory in the early 60s. He is married to film critic Molly Haskell. Sarris was usually seen as a rival to Kael, and she would attack the auteur theory in her writings.

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double_indemnity.jpg

 

From Agee on October 14, 1944:

 

In many ways DOUBLE INDEMNITY is really quite a gratifying and even a good movie, essentially cheap I will grant, but smart and crisp and cruel. The James Cain story, under Billy Wilder's control, is to a fair extent soaked in and shot through with money and the coolly intricate amorality of money; you can even supply the idea, without being contradicted by the film, that among these somewhat representative Americans money and sex and a readiness to murder are as inseparably interdependent as the Holy Trinity.

 

But the picture never fully takes hold of its opportunities, such as they are, perhaps because those opportunities are appreciated chiefly as surfaces and atmospheres and as very tellable trash.

 

It is proper enough, for instance, that Barbara Stanwyck should suggest a greatly coarsened Esquire drawing and that her affair with MacMurray should essentially be as sexless as it is loveless. Her icy hair and teeth and dresses are well worked out toward communicating this idea.

 

In Wilder's apparent desire to make it clear that nymphs are cold he has neglected to bring to life the sort of freezing rage of excitations which such a woman presumably inspires in such a fixer as Walter Neff. Wilder has not made much, either, of the tensions of the separateness of the lovers after the murder, or of the coldly nauseated despair and nostalgia which the murderer would feel.

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The *politique des auteurs* originated with the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s. This should probably be translated the auteur *policy*; the policy of the magazine was to treat each film as if it were intended by the director just a novel is the work of its author.

 

Andrew Sarris called this the auteur theory, which is wrong but tactically brilliant, because "theory" sounds more scientific, and this appeals to Americans. The auteurists had a list of the saved and the damned (most established directors in France, England, and America were among the damned), and this worked in their favor when universitites began offering film courses, because here was a ready-made syllabus. As a critic, Sarris often writes well about the films he likes, but almost never writes well about those he dislikes. His writing style improved as he got older.

 

I only like Pauline Kael's writing before she went to The New Yorker in the late 60s/early 70s. Another excellent reviewer of the time was Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic, who could be seen as the successor to Agee's kind of criticism, generally sound, almost never cruel, unlike the talented John Simon, a very eccentric critic who wrote best about foreign films and often insulted actresses he didn't find appealing. He grew up in Yugoslavia speaking Hungarian and later went to an English boarding school--no wonder he had a different perspective. All these critics are worth seeking out.

 

For TCM fans, Jeanine Bassinger's books are great. She's witty, informed, and almost always on target.

 

 

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Sounds like you're not a proponent of the auteur theory, king. Me, I think it depends on the director. Star directors (both past & present) who have final cut I would call auteurs. Even the greatest directors depended on collaborators, I'll grant you. But you can't tell me that at their peak, Ford or Capra or Hitchcock or Lumet were not responsible for every frame that went up on the screen. The auteur theory is probably less true today than ever. Most movies now are made by comittee (which is one of the biggest reasons movies suck nowadays).

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From Agee on October 14, 1944:

 

She is an English noblewoman of the Restoration, and lovely to look at, at that. Her husband is no sacksuited dollar-chaser but a London fop. Her country refuge is a whackingly beautiful mansion on the Cornish coast. Her lover, a local pirate who loves life and lives it as he likes, is more of a composite.

 

None of the unusually resourceful Technicolor or wax-fruit dialogue conceals the fact that this is really just a sordid, contemporary middle-bracket flirtation. But it is told in those terms with the gloves off. And every cowardly emotion and creepy desire and sniveling motive is caught red-handed.

 

As the life of this party Joan Fontaine has a prettiness and vivacity which I had not suspected of her. She also develops, in place of any believable semblance of erotic or emotional passion, a sort of excitement which I find appropriate to the story.

 

As she conducts her discreet little coastal cruise along the coves and peninsulas of adultery, she never once suggests a woman in love or even in confusion; but she does constantly suggest a Vassar girl on a picket line.

 

frenchmans_creek_poster.jpg

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Thanks for these great posts, TopBilled. I discovered the book "Agee on Film" years ago when I was a college student. It parallelled my discovering the criticism of Kael. Together, they helped forge my love of movies, both old and new. And, as a side note, James Agee authored one of my favorite books of all time, "A Death In The Family". This guy could write. There are passages in that book that , I swear, transform the English language.

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I'm not a proponent of the politique des auteurs because I like directors on both sides of the divide, and few directors seem consistent in quality. Auteurists see film as something like tennis, where Nadal and Federer and Djokovic win almost every tournament. I see film as more like golf, where the greatest players have bad days and the least likely contenders hit superb shots on occasion.

 

If the American auteurists like Sarris want the prestige of science by calling it a "theory," then they need to open themselves to evidence both for and against their position. What role did the producer or the studio play in a particular film? How many directors actually worked on a movie, and which scenes did they direct? Few directors in the classic era had the right of final cut, and even the ones who did would lose that right after a flop or two. If you've been following filmlover's great 1939 day-by-day series, you may have read a Hedda Hopper column which talks about the importance of the director over the actor, but takes for granted that the producer has the final cut. This wasn't ignorance on Hedda's part.

 

The best parts of auteurism were the attention drawn to some talented but neglected directors (Anthony Mann is an excellent example) and the recognition of the serious work being done in established Hollywood genres. The worst part was the downgrading of many fine filmmakers just because their work had already been established. According to the early auteurists, for instance, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni, and Satyajit Ray weren't auteurs, which is preposterous.

 

Fortunately, the VHS/DVD era and TCM have allowed movie lovers to see many films on their own and to come to their own conclusions.

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You're welcome. I am obviously quoting him from that book. These writings are all in the public domain now.

 

I was excited when I looked ahead at TCM's schedule through February, because Agee wrote about many of the MGM and Warners films that are scheduled in the near future. So I have mapped it out and I will be timing these posts in a way that coincide with the actual TCM broadcasts.

 

On days, when TCM is not showing any films from the 40s (and yes, there are days like that)...I am going to use essays from Agee that focus on Paramount or Universal films that probably won't get on TCM's schedule.

 

This series will run till December 31, 2012. I have something planned for each day! In 2013, I will probably rerun some of them according to TCM's schedule at that time. Eventually, I want to branch out and get to Bosley Crowther in another thread...and yes, Hedda Hopper, because I love reading her, too!

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I share your enthusiasm for Agee. I guess I was first aware of film criticism, as such, from reading Pauline Kael, who constantly references Agee. She obviously admired him. (She was no slouch!). You mentioned "A Death in the Family," one of the great American novels. I don't know if you're into "classical" music, but there's a marvelous piece by Samuel Barber called "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," which is a setting for soprano and orchestra of the Prologue to Agee's book - the part that all in italics. Check it out - it's gorgeous.

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I've enjoyed reading your quotes from James Agee, who I much admire. I own those books, too! I would be surprised, however, if they are in public domain, as you say. Only 2 or 3 years ago they were reissued in paperback in very nice editions. I was working at Borders at the time, and I could kick myself for not buying up some copies on the spot as gifts for friends - and to replace my rather dog-eared copies. I think I must have been pretty broke at the time!

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gijoeposter.jpg

 

From Agee on September 15, 1945:

 

William Wellman and the others who are responsible for STORY OF G.I. JOE obviously did not regard their job as an ordinary one. They undertook a great subject. It is clear that they undertook it in a determination to handle it honestly and to make a masterpiece.

 

In a film so excellent there are so many things to honor. The picture contains, for instance, the first great triumphs of the kind of anti-histrionic casting and acting which I believe is indispensable to most, though by no means all, kinds of greatness possible to movies. It would be impossible in that connection to say enough in praise of the performance of Bob Mitchum as the Captain and Freddie Steele as the Sergeant, or of Wellman for his directing and, I suppose, casting of them.

 

It is also the first great triumph in the effort to combine fiction and documentary film. That is, it makes most of its fiction look and sound like fact.

 

I imagine that some people, better educated than the infantrymen in STORY OF G.I. JOE, will wish to point out that for all its courage and intelligence as far as it goes, the film is not, in the sense they understand it, an indictment of war. Nobody is accused, not even the enemy. Though every foot of the film is as full an indictment of war as I ever expect to see.

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From Agee on November 4, 1944:

 

SAN DIEGO I LOVE YOU is an easygoing little farce about an inventor (Edward Everett Horton), his daughter (Louise Albritton), a girl-shy financier (Jon Hall) and some pleasant comics (notably Buster Keaton). I can't exactly recommend it, but if you see it by accident it will cause no particular pain

 

sdiloveyou.jpg

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*MESHES IN THE AFTERNOON (1946)*

 

From Agee on March 2, 1946:

 

Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid have made three short films on their own. These are getting no kind of formal distribution, but they were shown recently in New York.

 

Of the three films, one is called MESHES IN THE AFTERNOON. It can roughly be classified as a dream film. The quality seems to me to be impaired by Miss Deren's performance in the central role. I cannot feel that there is anything really original.

 

I don't at all agree with Miss Deren that reality in its conventional camera sense, cannot be turned into a work of art without being turned also into a fantasia of the unconscious. But if you have to believe that in order to try to do it, which I doubt, then I am glad that she does.

 

For I certainly believe that it is worth doing. And I know of nobody else, just now, who is paying any more attention to that great universe of movie possibility than to make safely conducted little tours of the border villages.

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I have christened the poster / entertainment gallery at the Chelsea Rialto MORDAUNT HALL.

 

thanksgiving.jpg

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1the-miracle-of-morgans-creek-012.jpg

From Agee on February 14, 1944:

 

THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK is a little like taking a nun on a roller coaster. Its ordinarily enough subject-- the difficulties of a small-town girl, pregnant, without a husband-- is treated with the giddiness to be expected from Writer-Director Preston Sturges. The overall result is one of the most violently funny comedies, one of the most original, vigorous and cheerfully outrageous moving pictures that ever came out of Hollywood.

 

Morgan's Creek is the hometown of Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), a daftly endearing innocent who gradually remembers one morning that she married a transient soldier the night before. His name was something, she recalls, like Private Ratzywatzky. Presently she also realizes she is pregnant.

 

There is only one thing that Trudy can do: she must marry Norval (Eddie Bracken), her unwanted steady. He is a stammering loon of a 4-F whose stupidity is excelled only by his utterly selfless devotion.

 

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Sturges understands the liberating power of blending comedy and realism, wild farce with cool intellect. But the best part of this domestic and anarchic satire reaches its perfection in William Demarest, whose performance as Trudy's Poppa is one of the few solid-gold pieces of screen acting in recent years.

 

But chief credit for THE MIRACLE must go to Sturges, who has given the slick, growing genteelism of U.S. cinema the roughest and healthiest shaking up it has had since the disease became serious.

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One writer whose criticism I do not like is Graham Greene. Though he excelled as novelist and screenwriter, his film criticism reeks of too much emphasis on the literary; he seemed to have had little appreciation for film as a separate kind of art form as distinct from novel or theater.

 

 

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nightmare-alley-1946_std-original.jpg

 

From Agee on November 8, 1947:

 

NIGHTMARE ALLEY is the story of a cold young criminal (Tyrone Power) who starts as a carnival mentalist, moves on to a Chicago night club, and is on the verge of the big time when two of the women he has used gum up his act.

 

The picture goes careful just short of all that might have made it very interesting. Even so, two or three sharply comic and cynical scenes make it worth seeing, most especially Power's wrangle over God with his wonderfully stupid but not-that-stupid wife (Coleen Gray).

 

The rest of the show is scarcely better than average. Lee Garmes' camera work is lush but vigorous.

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