Commentary Magazine

The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, by Andrew Sarris


The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968.
by Andrew Sarris.
Dutton. 383 pp. $2.95.

The title of Andrew Sarris's new book is really a misnomer. The appropriate title (although more awkward) would be The English-Language Cinema, for the book has individual sections not only for more than 160 basically American directors, but also for some English directors (Reed, Lean, Clayton, Richardson, Reisz, and a dozen others) and for several directors (Renoir, Ophuls, Clair, Bunuel, Clement, Antonioni, Truffaut, Polanski, et. al.) who, although basically foreign, have made one or more English-language films. But the main emphasis of The American Cinema is in fact on Hollywood. The book is a new version, greatly expanded and with many revisions, of a survey of directors which Sarris (now film critic for the Village Voice) published in Film Culture in 1963.

“King Vidor,” writes Sarris, “is a director for the anthologies. He has created more great moments and fewer great films than any director of his rank.” Something similar could be said of Sarris: he is a critic for the anthologies. At his best, in isolated paragraphs or, more often, sentences, he is a good critic or a good writer, and sometimes both at the same time. He can be very witty, as when he calls Mae West “a female impersonator who just happened to be a woman on the side.” And many of his remarks can be quoted for their perceptiveness, accuracy, or even beauty: “[Roman Polanski's] Repulsion contains too much undigested clinical material for comfort”; “It is possible that Victor Seastrom was the world's first great director, even before Griffith and Chaplin”; “With Chaplin and Keaton we feel that we shall never see their like again. [Harold] Lloyd's spiritual facsimile is an even money bet to turn up at the next convention of the Shriners, the Rotarians, or the Elks.” Sarris also has helpful things to say about the films of Chaplin, George Cukor, and Samuel Fuller, among others,, and a few sections of the book—such as those on Tony Richardson and the Marx Brothers—seem to me excellent almost from beginning to end.

Yet for every sentence which can be quoted for its perceptiveness, clarity, grace, wit, or good sense, there are, I estimate, at least two which can be cited for the absence of these qualities. Here are a few examples: “[Hitchcock's] objects embody the feelings and fears of characters as object and character interact with each other in dramas within dramas”; “Paranoia is provided by Humphrey Bogart at the emotional expense of Gloria Grahame in In a Lonely Place”; “The mark of genius is an obsession with irrelevant detail” (my italics); “[Mankiewicz's] vibrant women—Susan Hayward . . ., Bette Davis, . . . Anne Baxter . . . [et. al.]—shine with special brilliance from midnight to the three o'clock in the morning of the soul.”

Sometimes the writing is governed more by sound (i.e. alliteration, punning, and near-rhyme) than by sense: John Ford “made his movies both move and be moving”; “Elemental but not elementary, Boetticher's timing of action is impeccable”; “Garbo's pixilated speech in Ninotchka is pitched delicately between the comic and the cosmic, and in one breathtaking moment, Garbo and Lubitsch sway on the tightrope between grace and purpose.”


It is true that Sarris stands out among film critics—and especially among reviewers—for his willingness, even eagerness, to inquire into the relationship between a film's visual components (composition, editing, camera movement) and its meaning. But even here he is much more useful for the questions he implicitly raises, and for some of the “evidence” he brings in, than for his conclusions, which either are obscure or oversimplified or simply don't go very far. He tells us, for example, that Howard Hawks “consciously shoots most of his scenes at the eye-level of a standing onlooker” (the kind of information which, surprisingly only a very few critics besides Sarris care to, or have the knowledge to, give us) but then is lazy and half-hearted about showing us what this “means.” He is much more illuminating on the relationship between Max Ophuls's camera movement and his world-view. But he doesn't acknowledge how limited and superficial Ophuls's world-view can be—or how the camera movement, when used on a banal un-Ophulsian Hollywood screenplay like the one for The Reckless Moment, becomes an empty mannerism which, far from bestowing profundity, simply dissipates the force of the melodrama (though it does make an unusual film).

Similarly, when Sarris writes: “The aesthetic of camera movement over montage implies the continuousness of a visual field outside the frame of the film,” he is grappling with a central yet largely unexplored question of film aesthetics. But at best he is unclear and grossly incomplete; at worst he is wrong. In fact it would be more true to say something close to the opposite of what Sarris seems to be saying: that camera movement shows us the continuousness of a visual field, whereas montage (or at least cutting within a single location) implies “the continuousness of a visual field outside the frame,” since it does not show it.

The kind of careless, sloppy thinking and writing found in some of the above remarks characterizes, as one might expect, large parts of the rest of the book. Indeed, when we have culled out our little anthology of The-Best-of-Andrew-Sarris-In-This-Book, we are left with a much larger section which, although usually lively and provoking, is almost incredibly illogical, confused, wrong-headed, or nonsensical.


A good deal of the trouble with Sarris's writing, it seems to me, lies in his use of the auteur theory, the avowed guideline of his criticism. Growing directly out of la politique des auteurs (a theory of film criticism which was conceived in the mid-50's by several French critics of the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, in particular François Truffaut), the auteur theory is so elusive and in some ways so complex that any summary of it is bound to be oversimplified and perhaps unfair. Like a good many other slogans and rallying cries, the auteur theory can vary considerably in meaning depending upon the person using it and the context in which it's being used; and like most slogans, it has its good side and its bad side.

On its good side, the auteur theory tries to distinguish between two kinds of directors: on the one hand, those directors (the “auteurs”) who are in control of their material and who, through film, present—like the good and great poets, novelists painters, and composers—a unique, recognizable, personal style and world-view, and, on the other, those directors who simply serve (maybe competently but nevertheless impersonally and anonymously) the conception of another or several other people (novelists, screenwriters, et. al.), thus putting out an impersonal, factory-made, highly perishable product. In this respect, the auteur theory honors the film medium by asking and expecting as much of it as people have asked and expected from other media. As the late André Bazin (the founder of Cahiers du Cinéma) suggested, the French auteur critics were trying to find the Shakespeares and Rembrandts of film.

This is to look at the auteur theory in theory and in the best possible light. But if the auteur theory is admirable in theory, in practice it is often arbitrary or absurd. For instance, in dealing with American films, the auteur critics tend to separate style from content and then to exalt style as an independent entity. Indeed, these critics are so hard up for any kind of personal expression in Hollywood that the mere presence of a personal style or “signature” in a director's films is sufficient to designate him as an auteur and to make his films automatically good (if not great). Often little or no effort is made to evaluate or judge what this style is in fact expressing (whether the director's supposed world-view is really coherent or not, whether it is original or derivative, mature or puerile, healthy or, say, sadistic, and so on). Nor is there much effort to evaluate the style itself, to ask whether or not it's vulgar, whether (like that of Bresson) it amounts to a modest and beautiful subservience to the material or (like that of Welles) it ostentatiously calls attention to itself and often goes against the grain of the material.


Another fault of the auteur critics is that they are both dogmatic and arbitrary in deciding who is an auteur and who isn't. Especially in Hollywood, the question of directorial control, of “auteurship,” is often more one of degree than of kind. But the auteur critics tend to view the matter in black-and-white terms. A director is either an auteur or not, and once it has been decided whether a director belongs in the auteur or in the non-auteur category, he is likely to remain in that category on a permanent basis. To put it more crudely, but only a little unfairly, directors are either In or Out. Sarris indulges in this kind of fixed categorization in many instances—notoriously in his treatment of John Huston.1

Although the auteur critics do make distinctions within the work of particular directors, a kind of stigma is automatically attached to even the best films of a director who is not an auteur just as, conversely, even the worst films of an auteur are redeemed by their significance within the oeuvre and by the apparently unmistakable stamp upon them of the auteur's style and personality. And not only are the preferences of Sarris and the French auteur critics often highly debatable; but their way of talking about the directors they admire is often absurdly inflated and inappropriate. Sarris calls such men as Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang “Pantheon Directors”; a literary critic who spoke of poets like Dryden, Hopkins, Ransom, and Frost as “Pantheon Poets” would sound excessive. The auteur critics are so eager to find the Shakespeares and Rembrandts of film that they have led themselves to believe that they have already found them, in fact seven times over.

Yet for all its absurdities, the auteur theory has been beneficial, even if not exactly in the ways the auteur critics would claim. It did bring about a generally salutary re-examination of Hollywood films—and especially of certain kinds of Hollywood films—which snobbery and prejudice had prevented most people from looking at with an open mind. And it has uncovered examples of personal expression where most people least expected to find it: in Hollywood, and in Hollywood “B” films. It showed, for example, that the Hollywood action films of Samuel Fuller (a director whom the French auteur critics and Sarris virtually rescued from total anonymity outside of Hollywood) were not just Hollywood action films: they stood out for their control, their feeling for their characters, and their distinctive tight style. (In fact the Metro scenes in Bresson's great Pickpocket bear such a close resemblance to the brilliantly-edited subway pickpocket scene which opens Fuller's Pickup on South Street, made seven years earlier, that it is almost impossible to think that Bresson did not learn from Fuller in this case.)


By and large, however, the auteur theory has been detrimental, especially to Sarris. Sarris may talk as though the theory serves him as a shortcut, as though it increases his chances of arriving at true perceptions and judgments and saves him time, but the exact opposite is true: not only is Sarris best when he leaves his theory furthest behind (which may explain why, on the whole, his reviews of individual films in the Voice are better than this book); he also tediously wastes large parts of his book either using his theory to prove his judgments of individual films or, conversely, using his preferences among individual films to bolster his unstable, forever-crumbling theory. And the lengths to which he'll go to try to prove his theory are sometimes extraordinary. Thus the section on Charles Laughton as a director is little more than the occasion for an incredibly illogical defense of one aspect of the auteur theory.

Elsewhere, in the course of defending the auteur theory, Sarris makes a remark which is, perhaps inadvertently, extremely revealing of his own distorted approach to looking at films. “Obviously,” he writes, “the auteur theory cannot possibly cover every vagrant charm of the cinema. Nonetheless, the listing of films by directors remains the most reliable index of quality available to us short of the microscopic evaluation of every film made.” The assumption behind this statement is that the only way we can evaluate a single film—without knowing something about the director or his other work—is microscopically (presumably by repeated viewings or perhaps by a more controlled examination in a Movieola). But most films—certainly most Hollywood films—don't call for a microscopic evaluation because they can be experienced fully on one viewing. I might go back to see an ordinary Western like The Naked Spur two, three, or four times if I wanted to study in detail the direction, the editing, the camera work, etc., of an average Hollywood film; or if I were writing a monograph on the films of James Stewart, or on the films of Janet Leigh, or on the films of Anthony Mann. Such close examination would give me a greater understanding of how it was put together; it would make me more able to talk or write about the film; it would give me a greater appreciation of the film (its virtues and its faults and limitations). But it would not, to any significant degree, change my estimate of the stature or the depth of the film. Routine two-dimensional films like The Naked Spur can be seen through, and seen “around,” right away. There are films (Muriel, 8 ½ , The Life of O-Haru, Los Olvidados, Children of Paradise, etc.) which—after initially engaging our emotions, curiosity, and interest—invite us, by their richness, complexity, resonance, or difficulty, to explore them again and again. (On the whole these are, of course, the greatest films.) But it is the richness and resonance and force of the films which makes them important—and invites and “justifies” our research—not the other way around.

One's overall impression upon reading Sarris's explorations into some of the darker corners of Hollywood culture is that a kind of reverse principle is operating: instead of the films being examined because they're important, they are considered important because Sarris has researched them so heavily. It is true that with some seemingly totally negligible films, Sarris occasionally comes up with a little touch we would not have noticed and which we must grant a certain value. But why should we comb thousands of haystacks for a few rusty needles When we can get all the shiny new needles we want by going around the corner? The less successful the whole work of art is, the harder it is for any one facet to shine beautifully in it. And if the work is too bad, to talk about beauties of individual parts becomes almost meaningless. But it's easy to imagine Sarris as the judge of a beauty contest, giving the prize to the hideous Katisha of The Mikado on the basis of her “left shoulder-blade that is a miracle of loveliness.”

The result is that a lot of the book seems not so much wrong or right as, simply, absurd—because the discussion of films is taking place in a kind of vacuum, without any consideration of whether the films have any meaning to anybody, whether they have any use. Sarris writes, for example, that the director Jacques Tourneur “brings a certain French gentility to the American cinema” and that “Out of the Past is still Tourneur's masterpiece, a civilized treatment of an annihilating melodrama.” (Annihilating what? Itself? The characters? Our interest?) Well, Out of the Past (which I saw recently) is a film which never had any use as art and now has practically none even as entertainment. James Agee gave it about four lines in the Nation, along with two dozen other films, the month it came out in 1948. In his review he said little other than that it wasted the talents of the cameraman (Nicholas Musaraca) and of Kirk Douglas. Tourneur, who made about thirty films in Hollywood, could certainly appropriately get some kind of comment in a book called The American Cinema. It may even be true that in some way he brought “a certain French gentility” to Hollywood. But any discussion which goes happily along talking about Tourneur's “sensibility” and style, his “French gentility” and his “masterpiece” Out of the Past, without even dealing with the question of whether Tourneur's films have—or could have—any meaning or relevance to anyone, is simply absurd. In the sections on Tourneur and a dozen other Hollywood directors, The American Cinema is like an elaborate tourist guide—complete with maps and detailed descriptions and evaluations of restaurants and night spots—to some obscure Midwestern city where no tourist would ever go, or want to go.


One could forgive Sarris his absurd inflation or benign acceptance of so many unworthy films and directors if he did not also try to put down so many worthy films and directors by comparison. I want to quote his section on Jack Clayton, partly because it's relatively short, but mainly because Clayton was one of the most unappreciated directors alive even before Sarris got to him, and because it's a good example of Sarris at his most superficial, prejudiced, and blindly theoretical. Clayton is probably the most talented and the most underrated of the generation of English directors (Richardson, Reisz, Lindsay Anderson) whose first features came out in the period 1959-63. One of his films-his first feature Room at the Top—is well-known in this country, but he is not. Here is Sarris: “Jack Clayton represents the last word in academic direction. Every project must find its appropriate style. Room at the Top was nervously angry-young-mannish, The Innocents fluidly Jamesian, The Pumpkin Eater palpitatingly Pinteresque and Our Mother's House Gothic-ally Dickensian. The only Clayton constant is impersonality, but such studied impersonality seems out of date.” The first thing one may notice is that, to make the comments on individual films in the third sentence, one would hardly have had to see the films at all: the lowliest and most venal Time-writer, hurriedly trying to meet a deadline for a survey of the English cinema, could have come up with these observations almost on the basis of the credits alone (Room at the Top adapted from a novel by “angry young man” John Braine; The Innocents adapted from James's Turn of the Screw; The Pumpkin Eater with a screenplay by Harold Pinter). Sarris is too busy trying to fit Clayton into his theoretical Procrustean bed, and damning him to hell because he won't fit, to be concerned about Clayton's films, which—on the evidence of this paragraph—he has hardly looked at. You would never guess from Sarris that Room at the Top and The Pumpkin Eater (despite their occasional slickness) are among the few genuinely moving and exciting English-language films of the past decade. And if Sarris gave Clayton's films the sympathetic viewing he has given to the oeuvres of many lesser directors, he would find that, although Clayton's work may seem “impersonal” (and why “studied impersonality” was apparently once OK but is now “out of date” I have no idea), it has recognizable concerns and stylistic traits running from one film to the next. Clayton's sins in Sarris's eyes have much less to do with the quality of his films than with the presence of well-known writers among his screen credits and with the fact that (like Kubrick and Louis Malle) he usually tries something new and different with each film.

Yet The American Cinema not only will be bought by most film lovers; it should be bought by them. It has more information—more useful information—on English-language films than any book available. (It also has, at the end of the book, an 83-page directorial list of English-language films which must be the most comprehensive ever made. But even this list, culled from fifteen sources, is missing—I discovered at random—such not-exactly-obscure films as Suddenly and Theodora Goes Wild.) It is the first history of American cinema since Lewis Jacobs's The Rise of the American Film (1939) and it is likely to remain the most up-to-date book on English-language films for some time. Yet if this were a book on literature or music or history or painting, it probably could not have been published—certainly not without very heavy revisions. Which is one indication of how far writing on film, on the Whole, is still below, or behind, writing in other fields.


1 See “Circles and Squares” in Pauline Kael's I Lost It At the Movies. Extremely one-sided—dealing only with Sarris's faults and never acknowledging his virtues—her article is nevertheless probably the best criticism of Sarris and of his use of the auteur theory. Inevitably some of my points take off from some of hers. For interesting further contributions to the auteur controversy, see the remarks by James Stoller and Donald Phelps in Moviegoer No. 1 (Winter 1964). For an informative survey of the controversy—written appropriately as comedy—see Marion Magid's “Auteur! Auteur!” (COMMENTARY, March 1964). And for an article which helps explain and clarify the theory by going into its French origins, see “The Auteur Theory Re-examined” by Donald E. Staples (in The Emergence of Film Art, edited by Lewis Jacobs).

About the Author