Thomas Sutcliffe: Don't sneer at the honest reviewer

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We are always happy to see egg on other people's faces - and when it ends up on a critic's face, the appreciation of yolk trickle and albumen smear is particularly intense. It is a special case of schadenfreude I suppose - and its popular appeal is surely the only explanation for the widespread coverage of the discovery of a collection of film reviews written for an agency that offered commercial advice on new releases to Britain's cinema managers.

Most coverage headlined on the rather haughty dismissal of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. "It defies all the canons of popular box-office entertainment," wrote the anonymous surveyor, and had "little to recommend it outside of the specialised hall". He also noted that "the genius of Orson Welles is somewhat warped when applied to films. His ideas and the box office are poles apart".

At first glance, it looked as if we could file this alongside other famously risible failures of sensibility - such as The Daily Telegraph review that dismissed Ibsen's Ghosts as "an open drain... a loathsome sore unbandaged... a lazar house with all its doors and windows open", or Bernard Levin's lofty anathema against Waiting for Godot: "Mr Samuel Beckett (an Irishman who used to be Joyce's secretary and who writes in French, a combination which should make anybody smell a rat) has produced a really remarkable piece of twaddle". It looks like a jewel of philistinism, in short - and we treasure such gems because they reassure us that we know better. We don't really. If we were faced with contemporary works that rewrote the rule books, or challenged conventions we have come to rely on, at least 99.9 per cent of us would react with hostility or bafflement - and we would probably spin the latter into bad jokes. Hindsight makes aesthetes and connoisseurs of us all.

When you look a little closer at the McCarthy agency reviewer's response, you can't really say that he got it wrong. It might have been a self-fulfilling prophecy in Britain (since his Don't Buy recommendation would naturally lead to disappointing box-office performance if followed). But Citizen Kane didn't do very well in America either - and though part of that can be put down to William Randolph Hearst's furious attempts to stifle the film, he can't take all the credit. Despite regularly topping film critic lists and Hollywood polls, Citizen Kane has never featured in any box-office top 20, adjusted for inflation or otherwise.

The agency reviewer's job wasn't to give odds on a film making it to canonical greatness. All he was interested in was the likelihood that it would fill a cinema's seats and - judging from the few examples of his work - he was pretty good at it. When he strays into aesthetics - as in a brief remark about Gregg Toland's groundbreaking cinematography in Citizen Kane - he can't really be accused of inaccuracy either: "The photography is clever as far as the camera angles go, but bizarre." It's a little too offhand to suit the more reverent film buffs, perhaps, but not actually wrong.

You could go further and say that, even when they are passing comment on artistic merit, a surprising number of the lines sometimes quoted as howling errors of judgment get to the heart of the work. Take this reader's report on a classic of English literature: "The pieces of writing and the thoughts are all in pieces and they fall like damp, ineffective rockets." That was a description of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man - and the first clause undoubtedly recognises Joyce's unnerving novelty as a writer. It might almost be a recipe for the collage of impressions and refined memories that Joyce serves up, and although "fall like damp, ineffective rockets" has hostile intentions, it also captures what it must have been like to encounter Joyce's daringly open-ended narrative cadences for the first time. If all you're used to is Victorian literary technique, a lot of Joyce makes you think: "Is that it? Did the fuse go out?" It's only because we've lived with a century of Joyce's imitators that we can't see how bold that was.

Even that critical dry heave about Ghosts conceals a recognition in its insults. A "loathsome sore unbandaged"? Well - healing exposure was part of what Ibsen was about, after all. The Telegraph's much mocked reviewer didn't agree with the procedure, but he essentially understood its principles. Having looked at it from every unlovely angle, I've decided that Bernard Levin's Little England sneer at Beckett is probably beyond redemption. But we shouldn't sneer too casually at his colleagues in critical dismissal. They truthfully record what the fence-sitters and the second-guessers make invisible - the shock of the new.