At this year’s annual awards dinner of the New York Film Critic’s Circle, former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman delivered a eulogy for his Voice colleague of a decade, Andrew Sarris, who died in the summer of 2012. Hoberman recalled how, among his cinephile friends, Sarris’s The American Cinema was of such prime importance that Hoberman and company referred to it simply as ‘The Book.’ Still an acolyte at heart, he then kissed his dog-eared copy and held it skyward.
“Andrew showed us that art was all around us,” Martin Scorsese said of Sarris, proselytizer for our indigenous movies, “and that our tradition, too, had much to offer.” More than any single figure, Andrew Sarris was the American intellectual who illuminated the poetics of popular American cinema for his countrymen, thereby ennobling the best of Hollywood. This is not to suggest that Sarris was some kind of aesthetic America Firster; he was always attentive to voices from abroad, and his conviction that the director could (and should) be a film’s presiding genius and author was affirmed by contemporary French criticism.
Sarris was a first-generation American, born into a family of Greek immigrants on Halloween, 1928, and raised in Ozone Park, Queens, not far from the Kerouacs. After a hitch in the Army Signal Corps, while “meandering through graduate English and malingering through Teachers College” at Columbia, the amateur cinephile began to write for Anthology Film Archives founder Jonas Mekas’s Film Culture magazine, where he would eventually publish the outline for The Book. Sarris also contributed to The Voice, a stint which began by filing a heretical rave for 1960’s Psycho in this paper’s then staunchly Underground film section.
“Andrew Sarris: Expressive Esoterica,” a thirteen-film program at Anthology guided by Sarris’s connoisseurship, overlaps with the Anthology’s salute to another influential, recently departed critic, Amos Vogel, and his own signature work. And while Sarris’s The American Cinema doesn’t have as sexy and gauntlet-throwing a title as Vogel’s generally left-wing, anti-Hollywood Film as a Subversive Art, it is every bit as provocative in its way. Valuing form over content, Sarris seriously considered, and so elevated, a vast range of condescended-to movies that didn’t have the pedestal of Important Subject Matter to stand on.
The American Cinema corrals the history of the talking-picture period up to ’68 into 11 categories of filmmakers, with titles like “Pantheon Directors,” “Strained Seriousness,” and “Lightly Likable.” Each category files directors’ alphabetized names and filmographies with analysis of the distinctive personality—or lack thereof—of each director’s body of work. Anthology’s program is culled from the chapter “Expressive Esoterica,” a home for “unsung directors with difficult styles or unfashionable genres or both.”
One “Expressive Esoterica” resident is Robert Mulligan, auteur of 1965’s Baby the Rain Must Fall, a Texas-set drama tracking a honky-tonker fresh out of prison (Steve McQueen) as he reunites with his toddler and young wife (Lee Remick, giving a delicate performance in which you can see hope rise and fall in her eyes.) The film displays much of what To Kill a Mockingbird director Mulligan does best: smothering small-town stillness, unaffected child performances, emotional states illustrated through nuances of light and shadow.
Rain had pristine B&W photography and, being based on a play by Horton Foote, some literary pedigree. But Sarris could appreciate the same level of craft, the same attentiveness to gradual shifting of sympathies and revelation of character, when it showed up in a tacky DeLuxe Color package like 1957’s The River’s Edge, a no-frills outdoor thriller, in which old-pro Allan Dwan used the CinemaScope frame to cleanly diagram the relationship between Ray Milland, Anthony Quinn, and Debra Paget.
Many of his contemporaries were prone to sweeping dismissals based on entrenched “cosmopolitan genre prejudices.” Sarris had the patience and discrimination to pan the gold from the muck—and his estimations hold up. There are everyday westerns, and then there’s 1955’s Joel McCrea vehicle Wichita, in which Jacques Tourneur practices his gift for crepuscular atmosphere while cataloging the entire social ecosystem of a barbaric trail town. There are gangster pictures, and then there’s 1957’s character study The Brothers Rico by Phil Karlson, with Richard Conte sweating through a chain of dialogue negotiations with a life-or-death outcome, all boiling down to a brutal climax.
Where others saw “cheap,” Sarris could recognize the resourcefulness of something like Joseph H. Lewis’s My Name is Julia Ross, 1945’s “sleeper of the year.” Chuckling at the quick-and-easy “Let’s get married!” resolution does nothing to dispel the film that’s preceded it, in which a young woman is drugged and hijacked by a family who attempt to convince her that she’s married, mad, and has a name that’s not her own—not far from the disorienting morning-after that many impulsive newlywed wives might have had but hesitated to speak of.
In his entry on Lewis, Sarris riposted an unnamed critic who had mocked as madness the raised estimation of the Gun Crazy director: “Madness is always preferable to smugness.” In re-reading Sarris, what shines through is his good faith—that art and commerce are not by nature antithetical, that talent and vision will always find a way. Rather than accepting the received wisdom that American directors were hapless pawns of the system, Sarris insisted that no artist worthy of the name could be bound by something so petty as a mere system—or, as The Book puts it: “No artist is ever completely free, and art does not necessarily thrive as it becomes less constrained.”
The slightly contemptuous spirit of “fun trash” fatuity infests our contemporary relationship with pop culture—not without reason—but Sarris could be dead funny without trivializing. (Obits dwelled on Sarris’s “feud” with Pauline Kael, but he was at his best when arguing with himself.) Altogether the most likable of our great critics, Sarris took intelligence, rather than rampant idiocy, as the rule. He credited the audiences that flocked to Hollywood movies as something more than a great unthinking mass, saw art in filmmaking that had largely been dismissed as hackery and opportunism, and believed above all in his readership. This beautiful optimism is his legacy, and long may it stand.