It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, Orson Welles, and Martin Scorsese were not considered artists—or at least not the in way they are today. But it took a critic to argue that a movie director could call a work his own in the same way any poet or novelist or painter could. And for this, American filmgoers should thank Andrew Sarris, who died today at 83.
Sarris didn’t invent this notion—now called auteur theory—but he did bring it to American shores, and in the United States he gave it its name. Taking his cue from Cahiers du Cinéma critics like François Truffaut, Sarris argued loudly for the primacy of the director as the creator of a film. In 1968 he laid out his judgments on each of these artists in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions (1929-1968), still one of the most influential books on the way we think about the movies.
While widely accepted by American movie lovers and critics today, Sarris’s ideas and arguments were at first quite controversial. In the 1960s film fans paired off between Pauline Kael’s Paulettes, who found the theory too reductive, and Sarris’s Sarristes. The rivalry was vicious; Kael called the auteur theory “ an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence, that period when masculinity looked so great and important.” While battles about authorial intent have since fallen out of fashion across the arts, Sarris’s ideas helped legitimize the cinema as a great art form, and animated many of the directors of the New Hollywood.
In addition to popularizing these ideas, Sarris will be long remembered for the pointedness of his pen. Simply look to Sarris’s first review for the Village Voice, of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. While New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote a review that now seems square and even tone-deaf—he criticized the film’s lack of subtlety, and found its shocks to be a bit juvenile—Sarris found the art in Hitchcock’s commercial effort, wasting no time before declaring, “A close inspection of Psycho indicates not only that the French have been right all along, but that Hitchcock is the most-daring avant-garde film-maker in America today.”
While Sarris’s fights with Kael, and these historic debates as a whole, would soon cool down (Kael, who later became less resistant to auteur theory, died in 2001), Sarris remained combative into his 80s. He left the Village Voice for the Observer in 1989, and continued to review films there until 2009. He also remained married to fellow film critic Molly Haskell for over forty years. After he was laid off by the Observer in 2009, he told The New York Times, “I don’t approve of Woody Allen’s view of death. I acknowledge it, but I hope there’s more time, as there’s a lot of movies I’d like to see and think about.”