Sadly, we report the death of the influential writer, teacher, and film critic, Andrew Sarris (31 October 1928 — 20 June 2012). Sarris will be remembered for bringing the auteur theory to American film criticism, the idea that a film’s director is primarily responsible for a film’s artistic worth (if it has any) the way a painter is primarily responsible for a painting, or a novelist is primarily responsible for his or her novel. It’s an idea we take for granted — it seems self-evident now, yet at the time Sarris introduced it, it was enormously controversial.
I was lucky enough to attend his film history class at Columbia University two years in a row, the first year for credit, the second year just to rewatch the films he showed and to hear him lecture.
This is by no means a complete list, but it is a list of films I remember seeing, sometimes for the first time, in Sarris’s classroom, films that he loved:
TRUE HEART SUSIE (D.W. Griffith 1919) — Sarris considered this the most underrated of Griffiths’ features.
SHERLOCK JR. (Buster Keaton 1924).
THE LAST LAUGH (F.W. Murnau 1924).
SUNRISE (Murnau 1927).
THE LOVES OF JEANNE NEY (G.W. Pabst 1927).
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Carl Dreyer 1928).
THE BLUE ANGEL (Josef von Sternberg 1930).
MOROCCO (von Sternberg 1930).
L’ATALANTE (Jean Vigo 1934).
SABOTAGE (Alfred Hitchcock 1936) — Per Sarris, this was the most emotionally complex film of Hitchcock’s British period.
HOLIDAY (George Cukor 1938) — He adored Katherine Hepburn.
BRINGING UP BABY (Howard Hawks 1938).
THE RULES OF THE GAME (Jean Renoir 1939) — Sarris got a lot of flack for once calling Max Ophuls’ LOLA MONTES the greatest film of all time. Truth be told, Renoir’s RULES OF THE GAME was probably the film he admired most.
CITIZEN KANE (Orson Welles 1941).
THE LADY EVE (Preston Sturges 1941) — Sarris argued that Hitchcock’s VERTIGO was a remake of this film, since both movies featured an actress in two different guises who was “Positively the same dame!”
RASHOMON (Akira Kurosawa 1950).
UGETSU (Kenji Mizoguchi 1953) — He preferred Mizoguchi’s camera movements to Kurosawa’s cutting.
HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (Alain Resnais 1959).
LES BONNES FEMMES (Claude Chabrol 1960) — the most underrated director and film of the French New Wave.
Sarris admired a great many other directors: Chaplin, Lang, Ford, Rossellini, Godard, to name a few, although I don’t recall him showing their films. I remember the patient way he responded to his students, no question was too stupid or too opinionated to merit a considerate, well-reasoned reply. I remember his wife, Molly Haskell, a first-rate critic in her own right, standing in the back of his class during many of his screenings. He was a kind man. A gentle man. His book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, was a virtual Bible for film buffs of a certain generation. As a teacher, he was one of the best.