The Many Sides of James Agee

The Many Sides of James Agee

On Film / Features — Nov 23, 2018

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.


The Asphalt Jungle

“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.


Monsieur Verdoux

In His Defense: On Monsieur Verdoux
By Charles Maland

Charlie Chaplin was always in James Agee’s pantheon of movie directors and actors. In “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” a 1949 Life magazine essay, Agee wrote that the final scene in City Lights “is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.” His admiration for Chaplin was also made clear when in his 1942 end-of-the-year column for the Nation, he named the rerelease of The Gold Rush “the best picture I saw this year.”

Yet during Agee’s tenure as a movie reviewer at Time and the Nation between 1942 and 1948, only one new Chaplin feature appeared: the dark satire Monsieur Verdoux. When it was first released in New York in April 1947, the film received mixed-to-negative reviews, in part because of bad publicity surrounding a press conference at the Gotham Hotel on April 14. Chaplin was pummeled with hostile questions about his alleged leftist political views and his failure to become an American citizen, and Agee was famously the only person to defend him, questioning how his detractors could “congratulate themselves upon this country as the finest on earth and as a ‘free country’” while they simultaneously “pry into what a man’s citizenship is, try to tell him his business from hour to hour, . . . and exert a public moral blackmail against him for not becoming an American citizen, for his political views.” Although Agee’s own leftist views had shifted to the center and become more pessimistic after the atomic bomb had been dropped and details about the Nazi concentration camps had become clearer after the end of World War II, he retained his support for original filmmakers who—like von Stroheim, Eisenstein, and Chaplin—often conflicted with the film industries in which they worked.

Agee subsequently came to Chaplin’s (and the film’s) defense in his reviews. Readers may find it interesting to consider his May 5 Time review, in which he wrote—partly hamstrung by Time’s conservative political bent—“Monsieur Verdoux has serious shortcomings, both as popular entertainment and as a work of art. But whatever its shortcomings, it is one of the most notable films in years. It is not the finest picture Chaplin ever made, but it is certainly the most fascinating.”

Contrast that to his detailed defense of the film in the Nation, a journal more receptive to critiques of Western democracies, including the U.S., than Time. Agee’s editor at the Nation, Peggy Marshall, was less likely than Time editor T. S. Matthews to interfere with his copy or try to shape his perspective. For the first and only time during his entire tenure there, Agee devoted three entire columns to a single film. By the time the third had appeared, the film had been pulled from release by United Artists to develop a new ad campaign, which would launch in Washington, D.C., on the eve of the Hollywood Ten’s HUAC hearings.

Agee’s first review was a point-by-point rebuttal of the criticisms that had been lodged against the film in the press. This was an unusual move for Agee: on rare occasions he might refer to another critic he agreed with, but he almost never spent extended space defending a film against its critics. After rebutting the critiques in that first review, he focused on why he thought Monsieur Verdoux was important: “Chaplin’s theme, the greatest and most appropriate to its time that he has yet undertaken, is the bare problem of surviving at all in such a world as this.” Clearly the experience of living through the Depression, the Second World War, the explosion of the atomic bomb, and the emerging Cold War weighed heavily on Agee, and it was in that dark context that he understood Chaplin’s story of a bank clerk who is fired after thirty years and turns to murder to support his invalid wife and son.

Agee had written the Time cover story on the dropping of the atomic bomb, and it affected him deeply. One of the reasons for his intense engagement with Monsieur Verdoux was that he saw the film as a metaphor for the postwar human condition. Peering deeply into the movie, Agee describes how Chaplin develops his theme of survival in the cruel world “chiefly as a metaphor for business. But the film is also powerful as a metaphor for war: the Verdoux home as an embattled nation, the wife and child as the home front, Verdoux as expeditionary force, hero in the holiest of causes, and war criminal.”

It was a courageous defense of a film that was such a departure for Chaplin that many viewers found it easy to dislike. Chaplin so appreciated Agee’s voice in the wilderness that he wrote him a letter of thanks after reading the reviews. In turn, the two men became friends while Agee was spending more time in California working on screenplays, and the night before Chaplin and his wife, Oona, left the U.S. in 1952 for the premiere of Limelight,  they dined with the Agees in New York. Chaplin recalls in his autobiography that Agee came down to see the Chaplins off the next morning, and although Chaplin saw Agee from his porthole and waved his fedora to him, Agee never saw him. “That was the last I ever saw of Jim, standing alone as though apart from the world, peering and searching.” It’s a fitting image, for in his movie reviews, as in much of his other work, Agee spent his career peering and searching for creative achievement.

Great Expectations

Pleasure of the Text: On Great Expectations
By Farran Smith Nehme

About six years ago, I wrote a long essay on my blog in which I tried to explain, to myself as much as anybody, why James Agee is my favorite critic. My first encounter with him must have been childhood viewings of The African Queen, although I didn’t know it at the time, as I wasn’t yet in the habit of reading credits all that closely. Later, I read and marveled at A Death in the Family, and in college I acquired Agee on Film simply on the theory that a prose style that enthralling would be worthwhile on any subject; plus, his years as a working critic, roughly 1941 to 1948, spanned a film era I dearly love. For years afterward, until I lost that first copy, I would dive in, either at random, or to discover whether Agee had written about a movie I’d just seen. It seemed to me, then as now, that Agee had all the qualities I wanted in a critic: strong tastes, razor wit without meanness or spite, and faith in movies as an art, even when they let him down. (And they nearly always did, somehow, even a movie he was recommending to his readers.)

When I wrote my blog post, however, I had just reread Agee on Film, cover to cover. For me at least, that is an unusual way to experience a critical collection, but I discovered it is ideal for Agee. That way, you can see the workings of his mind—zigging and zagging, working through his thoughts week to week at the Nation, dropping in references to his rent, his schedule, his second job. He is, I wrote at the time, “quite like a blogger, albeit one with perceptiveness and a prose style most of us would sacrifice virgins to acquire.” But more than that, Agee is alive to everything on the screen. You never know what will send his imagination off on an expedition.

In this instance, it was David Lean’s darkly brooding version of Great Expectations, from 1946:

“The first few reels, on Pip’s childhood, are especially well done, one strangeness and surprise unfolding from the center of another without flurry or overemphasis, with something of the cool enchantment there has always been in sped-up shots of the blooming of a flower. It looks as if the director, David Lean, and his associates have understood Dickens’s novel as a work of literature and as a literary but good motion picture and also with the help of Freud and perhaps to some extent of Marx, and have had the wisdom not only to get guidance and leverage from these kinds of knowledge but also never to urge them on to the screen or the audience. Whether or not they went about it in this way, the picture has a good deal of the tone and the extra resonance of dreams, legends, or fairy tales. I thought it very provocative, for instance, as a symbolized intuitive image of nineteenth-century England, with the century (Pip and Estella) moving as if hypnotized by the vengefulness, gratitude, and deviousness of great ancestral forces: Magwitch as the archetype of the nameless swarm; Miss Havisham as the embittered Virgin Queen; the sinister-benign Jaggers as Law and Government.”

So much of what I love in Agee is there. First, his prose style. I had an online conversation the other day with a couple of writers and editors, about how spare, even stingy modern writers are with their clauses and punctuation. Agee’s commas are a source of acute pleasure to me, appearing where you don’t expect them and then, as in the second sentence of this passage, disappearing from places where you do, one clause clacking after another like the rhythm of railroad cars at a crossing.

And there are his perceptions, fused with the sensations the film prompts. The childhood scenes of Great Expectations are the finest in the film, and no critic described the feel of them better than Agee: “one strangeness and surprise unfolding from the center of another.” He mines the magic that Lean brings to the strange events of Dickens’s novel and connects those events precisely to what the movie evokes. Thus warmed up, he falls into one of his frequent movie-inspired reveries, casting the famous characters in an allegory about “the vengefulness, gratitude, and deviousness of great ancestral forces.” Agee, whose noncritical writing often veered into flights of lyricism, was always keenly in tune with movies that did the same.

The key revelation of this review, slipped in so fast you could read past it, is that he’s already seen Great Expectations twice. Agee is always ready for a film to give him something more. In this case, he wanted more of his vision of Dickens, wishing for something closer to Phiz’s illustrations, “a kind of india-ink darkness, psychologically as well as visually: for it seems to me they had hold of a story much more cruel and mysterious than the one that got told.” Agee never had any compunction in comparing a film’s effectiveness to that of its literary source. If a movie fails to re-create something essential in the book, that isn’t because the two art forms are eternally distinct. Agee always believes the possibility is there, it is only a matter of finding the way to use cinema; as he says, “a transfiguration rather than a translation.” This stubborn belief may be why Agee’s first draft of The Night of the Hunter ran to nearly 300 pages.

Charles Dickens is my favorite novelist, and the 1946 Great Expectations  is my favorite adaptation of his work. I don’t share Agee’s suspicion that somehow a more artistically perfect movie lurked behind the one that David Lean and his colleagues made. But then I go back to Agee’s evocation of “sped-up shots of the blooming of a flower,” and his implicit comparison to the film’s Pip, who begins as a frightened child and emerges some reels later as a yearning but selfish man. Film can’t bring an audience all of a novel’s effects, but at his best, Agee could bring his novelist’s range to criticism.

L’Atalante

Premonitions of a Future Cinema: On Jean Vigo
By Geoffrey O’Brien

James Agee’s love of movies is nowhere more evident than in how scrupulously he takes note of whatever moves him, however slightly, in even the most trivial pictures: the way he acknowledges, in The Lash of the Penitentes, “some genuine and interesting shots, suspended in an aspic of terrifying pitiful and funny ineptitudes,” or salvages, from Show Business, “a few bits of archaic vaudeville which give off a moderately pleasant smell of peanuts and cigar smoke.” Correspondingly rare, however, is all-out praise even for films he professed to admire greatly. There are not more than a handful of unqualified raves in his critical corpus, and of these his two-part 1947 review of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite and L’Atalante occupies a special place. It is as if in Vigo, and most especially in the first of these two films (“one of the most visually eloquent and adventurous movies I have seen”), he has for once found someone making the very film he himself might have dreamt of making.

His review of Zéro opens with a proem in which he stakes out a position distinguishing himself both from “foreign film” fans in search of easygoing bawdy French fare and from knee-jerk avant-gardists contemptuous of popular taste, and conjuring an ideal viewer whose “eye is already sufficiently open so that you don’t fiercely resent an artist who tries to open it somewhat wider”—even while emphasizing, almost as a disclaimer, that even such a viewer is unlikely to share the “specialized” and “subjective” reasons for Agee’s enthusiasm. It’s as if the film has permitted Agee to offer a candid self-portrait as someone who shares “Vigo’s peculiar kind of obsession for liberty and against authority,” and is drawn irresistibly to “the enormous liberating force of its quasi-nihilism, its humor, directness, kindliness, criminality, and guile.”

But this too is only prelude to further meditation on the workings of Zéro and of a director “not worried about transitions between objective, subjective, fantastic, and subconscious reality,” who “mixes as many styles and camera tricks, as abruptly, as he sees fit.” Agee vents his frustration at the cautiousness of most filmmakers who restrict themselves to “fragments of the movie alphabet which were mostly shaped and frozen by around 1925.” Vigo in this light is not a marginal experimenter but someone who for once has ventured onto “the full ground on which further work can be done.” More clearly than elsewhere Agee articulates his sense of a future cinema—even if embodied in a film already fourteen years old—of which most of what he has seen in his reviewing years has offered only fragmentary premonitions.

That imagined future has to do with liberation, and very much with pleasure: Vigo’s devices are means “by which enjoyment could be enlarged.” To reinforce the point about pleasure, he brings in Chaplin and Groucho Marx as analogues for some of Vigo’s characters; and as for liberation, he gives the film about the highest praise one could give anything in 1947, calling the schoolboys’ final insurrection “an image of millennial, triumphal joy [that] has only been equaled on film, so far as I know, by newsreel shots of the liberation of Paris.”

Agee always writes as a poet—as a maker, not a consumer of images. He appreciates craft but gives it a very subordinate value, since he is always looking for signs of irreconcilable life, no matter how anarchically expressed. Fiercely judgmental, he is never snobbish in his condemnations. He can despise the corrupt and manipulative aspects of Hollywood filmmaking while cherishing the poetry that may surge up at the most unlikely moments. If his writing on film continues to inspire, it is because far from merely describing, however brilliantly, the movie he is watching, he is always feeling his way toward the movie behind it or within it, the not quite visible film that he creates by imagining it. His strongly favorable review of Georges Rouquier’s documentary Farrebique, for instance, culminates in the detailed description of two shots that do not occur in the film but that Agee’s viewing of it has inspired him to conceive.

Liberation  is indeed the key word that he returns to again and again, as when he writes of John Huston: “His pictures are not acts of seduction or of benign enslavement but of liberation, and they require, of anyone who enjoys them, the responsibilities of liberty.” Since a poet for Agee is a fully engaged actor in the world, bent on the work of transformation, his notion is as much political as aesthetic, even as Agee resists being corralled by the tenets of any easily identifiable ideology. Vigo makes a perfect symbolic figure for him, as the son of a revolutionary who “learned to walk in the prison in which, as Vigo put it, his father was suicided.” To direct a movie is to participate directly in the making or unmaking of the world, and the choices directors make have existential consequences beyond the screening room. When his deepest enthusiasms are stirred, whether by Chaplin or Vigo or Rossellini, it is because he senses world-changing possibilities opening up in the relationship between filmmaker and spectator, an explosion of the reigning passivity. He looks ahead toward the movies of the future, which we may take to be realizations of the movies that were already playing in his head:  “works of pure fiction, played against, and into, and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality.”