James Agee wasn't our first serious film critic, nor was he the first to write intelligent film criticism for a lay audience from the perspective of a participant in the film industry. But he was among the first, and most of the better film critics and reviewers who have followed, if they have any sense of history and particularly the history of their field at all, have noted this and studied his work...a music critic could ignore the works of George Bernard Shaw similarly, but why?
For most of what's collected here, he was reviewing for The Nation, the leftist magazine of political and, secondarily but never without some interest, cultural magazine; he moved onto somewhat less engaging reviewing for Time magazine, but those columns are still worth reading as well. As a screenwriter and adapter of others' work (notably David Grubb's The Night of the Hunter and C. S. Forester's The African Queen...though IMDb notes John Collier had a hand in that script, as well) as well as an impressive essayist and fiction-writer on his ticket, he loved film, and brought, as John Simon has been quick to note, a fan's enthusiasm to his subject, while not letting artistic gaffes get by dint of emotional involvement nor condescension; his grace and wit were amply on display as well. The author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family was unsurprisingly engaged by the characters in the works under question, and the verisimilitude brought to the handling of those characters, whether in "problem" dramas such as The Lost Weekend or Val Lewton's fantasy and suspense films, of which Agee was particularly fond (and Agee wrote at least one notable fantasy himself, "A Mother's Tale," aside from the recasting of The Night of the Hunter as more fable than not). Some of his views, such as his lack of absolute enchantment with the work of Billy Wilder, would be heretical if published for the first time today (and are more valuable for that).
While the apparent former companion volume of Agee's scripts was not republished with this edition, it's even more a pity this volume is now out of print as well, but pretty well available secondhand.
Please see Patti Abbott's blog for more of today's books.
The weekly Tuesday's Overlooked A/V roundups of posts on this blog.