To say that Philip French is the doyen of English film critics is, if anything, to understate the case. His wise, penetrating insights into the cinema have been gracing the field of film criticism since the 1960s, always satisfyingly maintaining a balance between the academic and accessible. This latest collection of his writing (the first of a series) contains a striking range of material, all of it immensely stimulating even when (as is inevitable) one disagrees with the conclusions reached – French is nothing if not contentious. Sounding a personal note, I have been reading Philip French’s writing on the cinema since my extreme youth (one wonders how French regards his youthful readers who are now middle-aged men), and several of the pieces here from the magazine Sight and Sound I could quote sections from verbatim, so often over the years have I dipped into them. But it was no chore to read these articles once again in the context of this first of three collections of the author’s writings on film culture.
I Found It At The Movies arrives festooned with encomiums from such filmmakers as Mike Leigh, Richard Attenborough and David Puttnam, and it is only right that the great and good of the cinema world should salute the achievement represented here. But, leaving aside the collection itself, how many writers such as myself were propelled into a career of film and book appreciation by this often infuriating (but always entertaining) critic? Needless to say, some of the essays here have dated, but French has added pithy modern footnotes which are often as entertaining as the original pieces. His celebrated essay Alfred Hitchcock: The Filmmaker as Englishmen and Exile from 1985 is a highlight, as is the 1971 piece, LA: City of Dreadful Joy, which is as much a topographical and societal essay as it is film-related. But it would be invidious to pick out particular highlights – even the more conventional pieces have keen insights to offer. If you’re a cinephile (as French tells us he is in his subtitle – as if we could have doubted it), you need this book in your collection. And I’m sure I won’t be alone in being impatient to read volumes 2 and 3.
Barry Forshaw’s books include British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia, The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, Italian Cinema and The Man Who Left Too Soon, a biography of Stieg Larsson. He is currently preparing for Macmillan studies of British crime film and Scandinavian crime fiction. He edits Crime Time.