When the Observer critic Philip French started writing on the cinema in the early 1960s, he once explained in an interview, books about film were a rarity. ‘Now I have three book-lined rooms dedicated just to the cinema, including 50 books on Hitchcock and 30 on film noir.’ I Found it at the Movies (Carcanet, £19.95), a collection of essays and occasional writings about film first published from 1964 up to the present, is intended to ‘throw light’ on the times in which they were written and chart the shifting attitudes to film as entertainment and art.
But it is surprising how little has changed. The 1964 essay ‘Violence in Cinema’, for instance, shows how pioneering French was as a politically minded film journalist, reading films as symptomatic of social shifts. He was as sceptical about claims of a British film renaissance 40 years ago as he is now. In a brilliant polemic first published in 1966 he savagely attacks the new wave of ‘swinging London’ films such as Alfie as ‘among the most tedious ever inflicted on an audience’.
One of French’s major inspirations as a critic is Graham Greene. In ‘A Streak of Malice’ he reflects on the film reviews Greene wrote for The Spectator during the late 1930s in which, when not giving his opinion about the latest movie actresses (he repeatedly referred to Garbo as a filly), he tackled the big film issues of the day: ‘The Hollywood juggernaut crushing all before it, the perpetual crisis of the British film industry.’ It was ever thus.