Looking back from the present, when serious film critics are more embattled than ever before owing to the egalitarianism of the internet, we can see that Raymond Durgnat was a unique voice. Born in 1932 to Swiss parents, he became one of the first post-graduates of film in Britain. Thorold Dickinson, the director of Gaslight, acted as his mentor, and Durgnat began to write for the major film publications, although he fell out with Sight & Sound (after Gavin Lambert left to head for Hollywood), accusing the magazine of elitism, overt politicisation, snobbery and pretentiousness – charges which still arise against it today.
Durgnat believed that film was a populist medium at which Americans excelled, feeling that it had the power to speak to all classes, being especially suited to working-class audiences and sensibilities. The Crazy Mirror is a brilliant study of American comedy, from the crude early slapstick of Chaplin and Lloyd, to comedies of social observation in the Fifties. Films and Feelings examined the emotional power of the moving image, but he also tackled the dynamics of sexual freedom portrayed on film, and wrote film biographies of Robert Bresson, Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Samuel Fuller, Michael Powell, King Vidor and Greta Garbo.
To my mind, his best book is A Mirror for England, which studies British movies in the post-war years, from an era of austerity to one of affluence. Here, he looks at how the British way of life was portrayed on film, veering between stoic contentment and idealistic anger. Fair-minded but with the clarity of well-reasoned opinion, Durgnat took a scalpel to the middle-classes in a way that no film critic ever had before. He saw no aesthetic difference between Hammer horrors and the films of Noel Coward, and his findings changed perceptions, even accusing Jason and the Argonauts of misogyny through its dominant father-figures and its sinister whispering goddess “rising like a cobra from the sea”.
Durgnat never lost the power to surprise. In 2002, the year of his death, his masterpiece was published; A Long Hard Look at Psycho, which breaks down every single shot of the film, using his observations and opinions to take us inside the images themselves. It’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to being inside a director’s head. Along the way, he touches on everything from teen violence to parallel worlds and phallic symbolism. This and A Mirror for England have now been made available by the BFI press.