The work of James Agee (1909–1955) remains one of the touchstones of American movie criticism. An extraordinarily versatile writer, he won acclaim as a novelist, a poet, and a screenwriter (his scripts for The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter were career highlights), but perhaps his most lasting legacy lies in his pioneering achievements as a reviewer for Time and the Nation, in which he brought a level of perceptiveness and curiosity to the analysis of cinema that was remarkable for the period. During his tenure at those publications in the 1940s, he used his crystalline prose to explore a wide range of films, championing everything from mainstream Hollywood hits and the B movies of Val Lewton to the eccentric masterpieces of auteurs like Jean Vigo. In this collection of articles, critics Michael Sragow, Farran Smith Nehme, and Geoffrey O’Brien, and scholar Charles Maland, the editor of an anthology of Agee’s work, take a close look at the style and the critical insights of some of his most enduring pieces.
“Extra Imagination and Perception”: On The Asphalt Jungle
By Michael Sragow
Before the word auteur crossed the Atlantic, James Agee viewed directors as the driving creative force behind great movies. Of course, cineastes from the silent days had treated giants like Griffith and Eisenstein as visionary artists, and in the early sound era, even a brilliant generalist like Dwight Macdonald compiled “Notes on Hollywood Directors.” Agee’s closest predecessor as a regular weekly critic, Otis Ferguson of the New Republic, decreed that “the director is the man in the movies” before writing a keen appreciation of William Wyler as a master craftsman. But Agee was the first professional critic who consistently compared directors to poets, painters, composers, and novelists—Griffith to Walt Whitman, Dreyer to Rembrandt and Beethoven, and, in a mixed review of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Preston Sturges to Dickens and Céline. While analyzing their talents for shaping performances, imagery, and story, he reckoned not just with their craft but also with their sensibilities. He depicted their battles with studios, commissars, censors, and the marketplace as part of an essential modern struggle to achieve “the utmost type of heroism . . . integrity.”
No filmmaker excited his eye and ignited his critical gifts more than John Huston, whom he profiled for Life magazine under the headline “Undirectable Director.” In the article he quotes Huston’s statement of his aesthetic principles, which mirror some of Agee’s own: “On paper, all you can do is say something happened, and if you say it well enough the reader believes you. In pictures, if you do it right, the thing happens, right there on the screen.”In this excerpt, Agee defines what goes into the making of a Huston shot, then conjures one from the director’s milestone crime movie The Asphalt Jungle (1950):
“Much that is best in Huston’s work comes of his sense of what is natural to the eye and his delicate, simple feeling for space relationships: his camera huddles close to those who huddle to talk, leans back a proportionate distance, relaxing, if they talk casually. He loathes camera rhetoric and the shot-for-shot’s-sake; but because he takes each moment catch-as-catch-can and is so deeply absorbed in doing the best possible thing with it he has made any number of unforgettable shots . . . . Sometimes the shot is just a spark—a brief glint of extra imagination and perception. During the robbery sequence in Asphalt Jungle there is a quick glimpse of the downtown midnight street at the moment when people have just begun to hear the burglar alarms. Unsure, still, where the trouble is, the people merely hesitate a trifle in their ways of walking, and it is like the first stirrings of metal filings before the magnet beneath the paper pulls them into patterns.”
Even as a movie critic, Agee is still a poet, a novelist, and a journalist. He’s lyrically analytical. In his charged, evocative words, we can’t separate description from analysis. What permeates the prose is his alertness to experience, whether in the cinema or out. Sometime in the near future, when people become so cemented to their smart phones that they forget what conversing in person is like, a line like “his camera huddles close to those who huddle to talk, leans back a proportionate distance, relaxing, if they talk casually” will bring it back.
Seminal critics like Agee influence moviemakers as well as movie lovers. Not long after this article, Agee worked with Huston on the script for The African Queen. Two decades later, in an interview with Louise Sweeney for the Christian Science Monitor, Huston explained his editing techniques using similar human analogies: “Look at that lamp. Now look at me. Look back at the lamp. Now look at me. Do you see what you did [the second time]? You blinked. Those are cuts. Your mind cuts [the scene]. You behold the lamp. And you behold me. So in cutting the scene you cut with the physiology.”
Beyond his lucidity and sensitivity, as well as his grasp of cinema as both a modern art and a primal force, Agee’s peerless ability to capture the look and feel of a film in images of his own makes him a critic of genius. I first devoured “Undirectable Director” as a young teen in a college reading room while I was waiting for my mother to finish a night course. Then I pored through all of Agee on Film, focusing particularly on his reviews of Huston’s movies. No other critic had engaged me so completely—emotionally, intellectually, and viscerally, all at once. His perceptions and his genius at expressing them seemed to get at the core of movies and moviemaking. I don’t think there’s a single more eloquent expression of what a great writer-director can do than the idea that he can focus every element of a film “as simply as rays in a burning-glass”—as Agee wrote Huston did in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Agee possesses what directors like Huston have: a vision of movies that sticks. His criticism takes in a film whole; it awakens readers to all the feelings, impressions, and fleeting realizations that make up our experience of a real live movie. His writing also reverberates with the arguments and actions going on outside the theater’s doors. Read it at an early age, and it becomes a passion for life.
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