Sarris rose to prominence in the 1960s, when he became a critic for the Voice and published a series of essays and books popularizing the French auteur theory of film criticism, the belief that a film was the work of the singular vision of its director. “Ultimately,” Sarris once wrote, “the auteur theory is not so much a theory as an attitude, a table of values that converts film history into directorial autobiography. The auteur critic is obsessed with the wholeness of the art and the artist. He looks at a film as a whole, a director as a whole.”
The directors Sarris obsessed over most were his so-called pantheon, fourteen filmmakers who, in Sarris’ mind, were the greatest of all time; they included Charlie Chaplin, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, and Orson Welles. Sarris’ theories and rankings were hugely influential and highly controversial, and his battles with New Yorker critic Pauline Kael over the validity of the auteur theory, and in particular over Welles and the ultimate authorship of “Citizen Kane,” were legendary.
Sarris’ 1968 book “The American Cinema” remains one of the cornerstones of auteur theory criticism, and an essential part of any cinephile’s library. He wrote for the Voice for 29 years, and remained a working critic at the Observer until he was laid off in 2009. A fixture in the world of criticism for more than four decades, Sarris penned hundreds of superb articles, essays, and reviews. Over the next couple days at Criticwire, we’re going to try to honor his remarkable legacy.
Read more of “Andrew Sarris, Influential Film Critic, Dies at 83” and the Associated Press’ obituary of Andrew Sarris.