Professor Andrew Sarris: Film critic who played a leading role in promoting the ‘auteur’ theory

Pauline Kael opposed him – the two camps were known as the Sarristes and the Paulettes

Tom Vallance
Friday 29 June 2012 19:50 BST

Andrew Sarris was an influential American film critic noted for his leading role in promoting the "auteur" theory that surfaced in France in 1954 and which proclaimed that the director was the key influence on a movie's quality and the dominant creative element. Dismissing the journeyman director whose routine efficiency showed no individual style or thematic unity, the theory propounds that the least interesting work of a Hitchcock, Hawks or Preminger is more worthy of examination than that of a "non-auteur" craftsman. "Only a director could bring to bear the coherence of vision that gives birth to great art," said Sarris, to which his opponents would point out the difficulty of assigning credit when so many individual crafts, such as editing, are in fact involved.

Born in 1928 in Brooklyn to Greek immigrant parents, Sarris graduated from Columbia University in 1951, then served with the Army Signal Corps, contributing a film column for a service magazine. In 1955 he was living with his mother (his father having died) and working with the US Census Bureau when he started contributing to a new film journal, Film Comment, that specialised in avant-garde cinema. He later described himself at this time as "in flight from the laborious realities of careerism".

He spent some time in Paris, where he met François Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard, contributors to the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, proponents of the "auteur" theory and soon to be leading directors in the Nouvelle Vague film movement. In 1960, Sarris was offered the post of film critic for The Village Voice, a Greenwich Village-based magazine with a large circulation and substantial prestige. He provoked considerable comment with his first review, which was for Hitchcock's Psycho. He called Hitchcock "the most daring avant-garde film-maker in America today", stating that Psycho made previous horror films "look like variations of Pollyanna. It is overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain."

Though now acknowledged as one of the director's masterworks, Psycho was initially regarded as a shoddy shocker by many critics. That Sarris should praise so highly a commercial film from a crowd-pleasing director did not sit well with many of the paper's bohemian readers, who demanded his dismissal, but Sarris was to stay with the magazine for 29 years.

He also edited an English version of Cahiers du Cinema, for which Truffaut had written an article in 1954 titled "Une Certain Tendance du Cinema Français", labelling conventional French cinema as pretentious and artificial while exalting the work of commercial American directors and "B" movie action directors. Sarris used the piece as the basis for a 1962 article 1962 titled "Notes on the Auteur Theory", in which he introduced to his readers the term and its meaning, which was predominantly that the best films were works of art, created by their directors, who had an ongoing vision and stylistic approach that was evident throughout their work.

Not surprisingly, screenwriters in particular were incensed at such a statement, while other critics, notably Sarris's rival on the New Yorker, Pauline Kael, thought it nonsense. Kael attacked the auteur theory in a famous article, "Circles and Squares", and opposing admirers formed separate bodies called "The Sarristes" and "The Paulettes". Hackles were raised further when Sarris published a book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, which put directors into categories. List-making always proves provocative, and Sarris's book remains a bible for some, an abomination for others.

Few would dispute more than a couple of his 14 choices who form "The Pantheon Directors" – Robert Flaherty, John Ford, Orson Welles, Charles Chaplin, Fritz Lang, FW Murnau, Howard Hawks, DW Griffith, Buster Keaton, Max Ophuls, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg and Jean Renoir – but more contentious were some of the directors who were listed under "Less Than Meets the Eye", including Billy Wilder, William Wyler and John Huston. Some readers were glad to see him demolish sacred cows, such as placing Stanley Kubrick in a section titled "Strained Seriousness", while others noted the subjective quality of such categorisation.

Sarris was later told that Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was much more enjoyable if watched while smoking marijuana. To prove an open mind, Sarris did just that and confessed that it had been a pleasing experience. In 1998 he graciously admitted he was wrong about Wilder, and raised him to "Pantheon" status. Sarris was writing at a time when film critics were being taken more seriously, European films were being more widely distributed, and at the same time, because of critics like Kael and Sarris, the American cinema was being treated with more respect. In the UK, Dilys Powell had been one of the few critics to champion American films, which too often had been taken for granted.

To further promote the "auteur" theory in the UK, Ian Cameron and Mark Shivas and chums who had been with them at Oxford University, started a magazine called Movie that devoted whole issues to such "auteur" favourites as Howard Hawks, John Ford and Otto Preminger. They met Sarris when he was on a trip to London, and when asked afterwards what they would most remember about the encounter, Cameron replied, "He was a really messy eater of spaghetti." (Sarris, proud of his roots, was more often to be found eating Greek food.) Later, Martin Scorsese would credit Sarris with demonstrating that art could be found in the American tradition. "We were cowed into thinking that only European cinema mattered."

Sarris married the feminist film critic Molly Haskell in 1969, and continued to write pithy film criticism, mainly for the New York Observer, until 2009. A professor of film, he lectured at Columbia University until retiring in 2011. A younger brother, George, died in a 1960 skydiving accident, and Haskell is his only survivor.

Andrew Sarris, film critic: born Brooklyn 31 October 1928; married 1968 Molly Haskell; died Manhattan 20 June 2012.

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