What’s most impressive — and, in many ways, intimidating — about James Agee isn’t just the sheer versatility of his work, from poetry to nonfiction to novels to screenplays. It’s that he was so brilliant at all of them. This wasn’t a writer who just tossed off his side projects; his film criticism, which appeared primarily in Time and The Nation from 1941 to 1948, was far from a paycheck gig. Within the confines of contemporary film writing, Agee not only carved out a voice of his own, but helped establish the parameters of modern film writing. “For aficionados of film criticism,” writes Jerry Roberts in The Complete History of American Film Criticism, “he may well be the greatest American critic, or at least the greatest until Pauline Kael came along in the 1960s.”
When he took on the job of film critic, it was not seen as much of a profession — and movies weren’t seen as much of an art. Most of the daily newspapers assigned movie reviews to staff writers low on the totem pole, and their work often appeared without a byline (frequently attributed to “Mae Tinee” or some similar joke name). But Agee didn’t see the movies as disposable entertainment; he thought them, at their best, to be works of art, as capable of moving and informing viewers as great literature or theater. By the 1960s — shortly after the publication of his posthumous criticism collection Agee on Film — this was not a controversial viewpoint. But in the 1940s, defenders of film art were few and far between, which is part of why his words on the pages of Time, The Nation, and other publications made such an impact.
The other half of that equation is the sheer joy of the prose. Like Roger Ebert’s (who frequently named Agee as an influence), his film writing pulses with something altogether too rare in mainstream film criticism: a genuine love of movies. Much has been written about his humanistic approach, his generosity to the work he reviewed, and some of his detractors consider that generosity to be a negative quality; he was too kind to the movies, they’ll say, particularly to those by his heroes (like Chaplin, Olivier, Billy Wilder, and his eventual collaborator John Huston). But these are not traits unique to Agee — hell, even Kael had her favorites — nor do they make the writing any less eloquent, insightful, or witty. As with most good criticism, what’s interesting is not whether he liked or disliked the film, but how he liked or disliked it.
Which is to say, his film writing is pleasurable to read even when you disagree with the viewpoint — when you haven’t seen the film, even. The turns of phrase are unexpected, sly, and funny; he calls Frenchman’s Creek “masturbation-fantasy triple-fulfilled,” Double Indemnity “very tellable trash,” and Shoeshine “one of the few fully alive, fully rational films ever made.” He predicts — correctly — that Sunset Boulevard will “be looked at and respected long after most of the movies too easily called great — not to mention the ‘heartwarmers’ — have been sat through and forgotten.” And in considering the out-of-wedlock comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, he surmises, “the Hays Office has either been hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked, or has been raped in its sleep.”
But one of Agee’s most notable achievements, as a film writer and historian, was his epic “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” which appeared as the cover story in the September 3, 1949 issue of Life magazine. In it, he paid tribute to the comedians of the silent era, focusing on four key figures: Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. The piece’s impact cannot be overstated: by that point, 20-plus years after the introduction of the “talkies,” these silent comics had been all but forgotten (save Chaplin, whose cultural ubiquity had dimmed yet remained, thanks in no small part to his controversial private life and continued, if sporadic, output). The story resuscitated Buster Keaton’s moribund career and reignited interest in the era.
It was also a key moment in the relationship between Agee and Chaplin, who had become friends and would later work together on a never-realized film project that Agee had written for Chaplin. (That treatment, and the story behind it, is included in the recent book Chaplin and Agee .) But that relationship had begun back in 1947, when Chaplin released a film called Monsieur Verdoux. The story of a modern-day Blackbeard who marries rich widows and murders them for their money, it was Chaplin’s most scathingly received film; the critics loathed it, and audiences stayed away.
But Agee thought it was a masterpiece. On May 31, 1947, he began a “frame-by-frame appreciation” of the picture in The Nation, a lengthy and detailed defense which ran in three parts; the third of them, appearing on June 21, began with a note indicating that the film was no longer even in release. But Agee had to say his peace. “Disregard virtually everything you may have read about the film,” he insists, and if anything, that one line indicates exactly how far ahead of his time Agee was; the defensive posture, naysaying of colleagues, and fierce loyalty for an unloved film shows a writer who might have been at home writing contrarian film criticism for Slate.
When Agee died, at age 45, in the back of a New York cab, he had ceased writing film criticism on a regular basis, though he still wrote occasional pieces for film publications like Sight & Sound. His great success as a screenwriter and novelist might’ve meant he was done writing about film. But film writing was not done with him. His style, passion, and wit would continue to influence film writers for generations, from Farber to Kael to Sarris to Ebert to Schickel to Morris; in many ways, Agee’s decade of work at Time and The Nation would come to define how we think of film criticism, and of film critics themselves.