Philip French, who served as the Observer’s critic for 35 years, has died, two years after resigning his post. The cause was a heart attack. He was 82.
French, who was named the British Press Awards Critic of the Year in 2009 and given an OBE in 2013, was also the author of several books, including “I Found It at the Movies: Reflections of a Cinephile,” “The Moguls: An Informal History of the Hollywood Tycoons,” “Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre,” and “Cult Movies,” the last co-authored with his son, Karl. Even after he retired as the Observer’s chief film critic, he continued to write for the paper, most recently on the Ealing comedy “The Ladykillers.” In an interview conducted on the occasion of his 80th birthday, he selected “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Stagecoach,” “North by Northwest,” “The Lady Vanishes,” “Wild Strawberries,” the Apu trilogy, “Salvatore Guiliano, “Double Indemnity,” “Some Like It Hot” and “The Rules of the Game” as his most essential movies.
In a 2008 essay on his earliest memories of the movies, French wrote, “Cinemas came to be for me what pubs were for boozers, places to celebrate for their character as much as for the quality of the intoxicating fare they provided. The smarter picture houses belonged to the national chains—- the Odeons, the Gaumonts and the ABCs. But I came to prefer the small, sometimes insalubrious independent cinemas, often described as ‘fleapits’, that dotted every town in the country. They offered better value for money and you could always find old flicks, still in distribution in ragged prints after several decades, at these places.”
French’s Observer editor John Mulholland said, “He was a brilliant critic whose erudition and judgement were respected by generations of cinema lovers and film-makers alike. He was also a joy to work with, unfailingly warm and generous to colleagues and to the thousands of readers he encountered. He is revered as one of the most astute critics of his generation, whose love of film shone through his lucid and engaging writing. He will be missed sorely, but he will be remembered with affection and respect by his legion of admirers.” His son, Sean, added, “He was extremely moral about his work. He didn’t see it in any frivolous way. One of the most shocking things to him was the idea of leaving a screening before the credits had rolled. It was one of the worst signs of decadence.”
The news is only a few hours old, but French had been ill for some time, and the tributes to his life and influence are already beginning to pile up. Here’s what some of those touched by his work had to say.
Peter Bradshaw: He was, as they say in literary scholarship, soaked in his source material. When the movie director played by François Truffaut in his 1973 film “Day for Night,” eagerly takes out a batch of new books on cinema that he intends to read, one of these contains an essay written by Philip! (It is a symposium on Godard, whose film “Une Femme Mariée” Philip wrote about.) How many British critics could come up with a comparable claim – now or then?
Tim Robey: Even when thrust into the doldrums, film-wise, he had a way of never seeming jaded. A friend who manages the projection at Soho Screening Rooms, and probably has the distinction of having unspooled more films for Philip than anyone, remembers him glumly exiting something interminable, bad, and British, to find Fred Zinnemann’s “From Here to Eternity” (1953) playing on the foyer TV. The discovery prompted a moment of profanity, almost shockingly out-of-character, but — such was his respect for colleagues — not delivered in anyone else’s earshot. “The question is, if this was on out here, why the f–k were we in there?”
RIP Philip French, a giant of film criticism & a man of immense warmth, wit & good humour. All other critics may now move up one step.
— Xan Brooks (@XanBrooks) October 27, 2015
Philip French’s noble, erudite writing elevated film criticism to the level of art. His judgement was acute yet generous. He inspired us all
— Mark Kermode (@KermodeMovie) October 27, 2015
Very sad at death of the incomparable Philip French, formidably fine critic & wonderful company. Many fond memories of times spent together
— Geoff Andrew (@Geoff_Andrew) October 27, 2015
So sad about Philip French, The Observer’s wonderful, erudite film critic. Will be bowing to his usual seat in Soho Screening Rooms today.
— Kate Muir (@muirkate) October 27, 2015
RIP Philip French, a wonderful man of huge erudition, a loyal colleague and a brilliant enthusiastic critic
— Nick James (@filmnickjames) October 27, 2015
Philip French made his decades of erudition read as lightly as air. A magician of words, a giant of criticism, and an intensely lovely man.
— Robbie Collin (@robbiereviews) October 27, 2015
RIP Philip French, whose writings woke me up to cinema as art form rather then just entertainment
— Isabel Stevens (@IsStevens) October 27, 2015
He was a genuinely lovely, generous man, one who wore his erudition lightly yet was happy to share it when asked. I owe him a lot.
— Hadley Freeman (@HadleyFreeman) October 27, 2015
Philip French wrote beautifully about virtually everything. What else is there to say?
— Norm Wilner (@normwilner) October 27, 2015
French’s writing rigorously engaged with film as visual/narrative form, but also with life and art outside. I often disagreed, always read.
— Guy Lodge (@GuyLodge) October 27, 2015
Oh gosh, Philip French has died. Most dedicated film critic Britain has ever had, & one hell of a nice man. My heart goes out to his family.
— Tim Robey (@trim_obey) October 27, 2015
Saddened by the loss of esteemed critic and BFI Fellow Philip French, who wrote of film as the great art of our time pic.twitter.com/kHGbilClFW
— BFI (@BFI) October 27, 2015