Britton on Film
The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton
Publication Year: 2008
Published by: Wayne State University Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, About the Author
I met Andrew Britton only once, and that was just briefly. It must have been in late 1986 or early 1987, when I was visiting Robin Wood and Richard Lippe in their Toronto apartment to deliver (this was before the days of e-mail and the Internet) a final copy of my essay on Tobe Hooper’s remake of Invaders from Mars for publication in their film journal, CineAction....
A s the volume editor, I am grateful to a number of people for helping to make this book happen. Annie Martin, Acquisitions Editor at Wayne State University Press, provided her unwavering support for this project from the beginning. Professors Hilary Radner and Alistair Fox of the Department of Media, Film and Communication at...
Introduction: Andrew Britton and the Future of Film Criticism
Andrew Britton was, and remains, quite simply, the greatest film critic in the English language. But he was not, like Hawks’s monster from outer space, an “intellectual carrot.” His greatness lies as much in his humanity as in his intelligence. His neglect (I am tempted to say “suppression”) within most contemporary film studies programs is easily...
Part One: Hollywood Cinema
Cary Grant: Comedy and Male Desire
Obviously, much might be written on the subjects I have chosen to ignore. A theoretical interest in modes and traditions of performance could find no more complex and rewarding a theme than comic acting in the popular American cinema; and in Cary Grant, we have a striking...
A New Servitude: Bette Davis, Now, Voyager, and the Radicalism of the Woman’s Film
I wish to discuss Now, Voyager (1942) not only because I love it but also because it seems to me to raise a number of important critical issues in a particularly suggestive form. A ere is, in the first place, the question of the political status of popular culture. It is depressingly characteristic not only of the discourse of common sense but also of many supposedly theoretical...
The Devil, Probably: The Symbolism of Evil
Clearly, the concept of evil has always been crucial to the horror film, but its appearance in the form of the devil allows us to focus with a particular clarity the genre’s relation to the Gothic tradition of Romanticism and—more specifically—to a number of cultural problems and contradictions which that tradition has been consistently unable to...
Sideshows: Hollywood in Vietnam
The domestic antiwar protest movement precipitated by the Johnson administration’s decision, after the fall of the puppet regime in Saigon in 1965, to charge Hanoi with aggression and extend American bombing north of the 17th parallel, was unprecedented in its significance. For the first time, an active mass defeatism existed in a Western capitalist country...
Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment
The phrase “Reaganite entertainment” in my title is not to be taken in a strictly literal way. My concern is with a general movement of reaction and conservative reassurance in the contemporary Hollywood cinema, and it will be apparent that the characteristic features of this movement—both formal and thematic—are already substantially developed in films...
Part Two: Hollywood Movies
Meet Me in St. Louis: Smith, or The Ambiguities
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) is set in a precise geographical location at a precise historical moment—1903/4, the turn of the twentieth century—yet the temporal specificity is, instantly, mythic: simply to plot a course within those historical/topographical coordinates is already to proceed across a landscape which has been colonized by mythology, and from which...
Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound: Text and Countertext
One can discern in Spellbound (1945) the elements of three of Hitchcock’s favorite narrative structures: (1) the double‑chase, in which the hero, in pursuit of the real villain, is himself pursued mistakenly by the police (for example, The 39 Steps , Saboteur...
Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) was filmed in six days on a minimal budget. No one noticed its existence when it was released, and although it has since acquired what Leonard Maltin calls a “deserved cult following,” its true stature has never really been appreciated, and such critical writing on it as there is tends to misrepresent it. It is also quite scandalously...
Notes on Pursued
The main concern and emphasis in Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947) might be described as the social determination of neurosis. The film belongs to a key area of Hollywood cinema that embraces films in many genres, from the musical (The Pirate ) to the western (The Searchers ) to the thriller (Shadow of a Doubt ), and deals in the form of symbolic...
The Family in The Reckless Moment
Much recent work on the western—and the reading of Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) by the editors of Cahiers du cinéma has been crucial here—has explored the genre’s Garden/Wilderness antinomy in terms of the attempted exclusion and negation of Desire (sexuality, violence, the “lawless”—classically embodied by the Indian) and its subjection...
Betrayed by Rita Hayworth: Misogyny in The Lady from Shanghai
It has been taken for granted too often in the past that film noir is inherently misogynistic, and even if one disagrees, it can hardly be denied that at the heart of the social and moral darkness into which the noir hero is drawn there does often lurk an alluring, venal, devious, and utterly treacherous woman. In some cases, of which I shall argue that Orson Welles’s...
In an attempt, here necessarily selective, to account for the current diabolism cycle in American movies and its dominant form—the devil as a child whose “innocence” is stressed—the following phenomena seem significant....
The keynote of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws is an immitigable contempt for everyone and everything. It is the post‑Watergate best seller, a novel of complete disillusionment, cynicism, and despair, which arouses and exploits, with dazzling efficiency, every phobia of the middle‑aged, middle‑class, menopausal American male. The mayor has sold his soul to the...
The arbiters of taste have spoken. The critics have indicated their almost unqualified rapture over Robert Altman’s Nashville (the modern, adult American movie) and their unanimous antipathy to Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo (both 1975). If I begin by picking on Geoff Brown’s pocket review in the Monthly Film Bulletin, it is both because that magazine...
Toward the end of 10 (1979), Jennifer (Bo Derek), with whom George Webber (Dudley Moore) has been romantically obsessed throughout the film, seduces him, and they repair to bed to make love to the accompaniment, at Jennifer’s suggestion, of a record of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.” They are interrupted by a telephone call from Jennifer’s husband,...
The Great Waldo Pepper
One wouldn’t have gathered from the way in which the film was discussed when it appeared that The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) amounted to much more than “the same kind of thing” that had been offered already by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973). Both its predecessors achieved an enormous popular success,...
The Other Side of Midnight
From the very outset, The Other Side of Midnight (1977) proposes the investigation of a woman’s guilt (“Innocent or guilty, Noelle?”) as the organizing principle of its dramatic world. The question is germane to melodrama, and not least to one of its most characteristic and durable narrative patterns: the tale of the innocent young woman lured into sexual...
Part Three: European Cinema
Sexuality and Power, or the Two Others
In the context of the coding of “masculinity” prevalent in Western culture—the association of biological maleness with particular codes of behavior and response and particular conventions governing the thinking and presentation of self—male homosexuality can be variously conceived ideologically. It can become the repository of “bad” maleness, whereby...
Their Finest Hour: Humphrey Jennings and the British Imperial Myth of World War II
Humphrey Jennings’s reputation stands as high as that of any director in the history of the documentary, and he is widely regarded, in England at any rate, as one of the two or three greatest artists the British cinema has produced, if not the greatest tout court. Jim Hillier’s judgment of Jennings’s most famous film, Fires Were Started (1943), is perfectly representative:...
Metaphor and Mimesis: Madame de . . .
The booklet on Max Ophüls, which was published to coincide with major retrospectives in Edinburgh and London, is an inept and embarrassing document. Even its editor is not quite convinced by its pretensions and feels compelled to construct elaborate alibis which will allow him to disclaim responsibility for the mysterious process whereby a...
Thinking about Father: Bernardo Bertolucci
B ernardo Bertolucci’s films seem to me to take as their theme a matter which has preoccupied a great deal of recent film criticism: the ways in which the individual is, in Louis Althusser’s phrase, “interpellated as a subject” in ideology, in which the Symbolic Order of the culture is inherited, internalized, perpetuated. In offering various proposals...
Living Historically: Two Films by Jean-Luc Godard
I do not think that the critical problems raised by Godard’s recent films have been faced with sufficient rigor. The purpose of this article is both to suggest their nature and to offer certain qualifications of and disagreements with interpretations which I think misleading. It is obviously of supreme importance in attempting to arrive at an understanding of the nature...
“Foxed”: Fox and His Friends
It was very illuminating—if disconcerting—to see Bob Cant’s review of Fox and His Friends (1975) appearing in the same issue of Gay Left as Richard Dyer’s admirable analysis of “Gays in Film.” In discussing, among other works, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)—also by Rainer Werner Fassbinder...
Part Four: Film and Cultural Theory
In Defense of Criticism
It is nowadays the case, perhaps, that the word criticism tends to sound recherché—to suggest nostalgia for the days before film studies became intellectually strenuous. A few years ago it passed as a commonplace in advanced circles that criticism ought to be, and might become, “scientific,” and the older word evoked in itself the morass of impressionism and...
For Interpretation: Notes Against Camp
One. It almost seems at times to have become a matter of common acceptance that camp is radical, and the play Men by Noel Greig and Don Milligan provides a convenient example of the process by which I imagine that to have come about. Men offers itself as a polemic against “the straight left”...
The Ideology of Screen
The work undertaken by Screen during the past seven years has established itself, clearly, as the most significant development in contemporary film criticism. Equally clearly, it has provoked considerable opposition of an abject and defensive kind, and the period in question has been characterized not simply by the dominance...
The Philosophy of the Pigeonhole: Wisconsin Formalism and “The Classical Style”
The following is an extract from a forthcoming book entitled Reading Hollywood, and it is offered here as an essay on critical method. The nature of my assumptions will be clear enough from the essay itself, but perhaps it will be as well to begin with a brief statement of principle. I assume, firstly, that all works of art represent an intervention in a culture and that...
The Myth of Postmodernism: The Bourgeois Intelligentsia in the Age of Reagan
During the last decade, the concept of the “postmodern” has established itself securely as the reigning bourgeois intellectual fashion. Its empire has expanded as rapidly as Napoleon Bonaparte’s and is ruled, indeed, in rather the same manner: one by one, post- Marxism, post‑feminism, post‑capitalism, post‑criticism, post‑theory, post‑sexuality...
Consuming Culture: The Development of a Theoretical Orthodoxy
In my article on postmodernism, I argued that the analysis of contemporary Western culture advanced by postmodern theorists who think of themselves, and wish to be thought of, as being “on the left” does nothing more than recapitulate, in a fashionable new vocabulary, an argument about the commodity...
The documentary remains unique among the major genres for the relative poverty of the critical work it has inspired. Indeed, given the decisive role played by directors of documentary, or what would now be called “docudrama,” in the early development of serious film criticism—Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, John Grierson, Paul Rotha, Pare Lorentz...