Monsieur Verdoux (1947).
I guess I don’t really like criticism, including my own.
James Agee, 1950
This essay follows on from two previous installments, here and here.
In 1944 a thirty-five year old man wrote about a fourteen-year-old girl he saw in a movie.
She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful. I think she also has a talent, of a sort, in the particular things she can turn on: which are most conspicuously a mock-pastoral kind of simplicity, and two or three speeds of semi-hysterical emotion, such as ecstasy, an odd sort of pre-specific erotic sentience, and the anguish of overstrained hope, imagination, and faith. . . . I think she and the picture are wonderful, and I hardly know or care whether she can act or not.
This review of National Velvet became one of James Agee’s most notorious pieces. That wasn’t because of the mash-note creepiness we sense today, but because it encapsulated, almost parodically, a critical voice that still seems unique. The piece typifies his feverish hyperbole (rapturously, ecstasy, anguish), his back-and-fill qualification (talent, of a sort; mock-pastoral; semi-hysterical), his appeal to noble nouns (simplicity, imagination, faith), and not least his effort to capture the elusive tonalities of an emotional experience. What is overstrained hope? What is erotic sentience when it’s pre-specific? Is the late-phase Henry James writing movie reviews now?
The passage earned a hearty raspberry from Theodore Strauss, who considered it typical of Agee’s notion that a sentence was “the longest distance between two points.” But that was a view from Los Angeles. Agee’s film reviews for The Nation (1942-1948, signed) and for Time (1941-1948, unsigned) won him a cultish reputation in Eastern provinces. He was lionized for his movie columns in a way that he hadn’t been for his poetry or his barely noticed book with Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).
Young people buzzed around him. To Alfred Kazin he personified intoxicating brilliance. “He made everything in sight seem equally exciting. . . . He seemed at any time to be all there and primed to go off.” Dwight Macdonald, an early friend and mentor, considered him “the most broadly gifted writer of my generation.”
He exemplified the Bohemian genius. He was addicted to cigarettes, booze, and philandering. He was unkempt, unbathed, and raggedly dressed. He refused to get his bad teeth fixed. Yet all was forgiven when he started to talk. He could raise a party to an exhilarating pitch. His hands writhed and snapped as the words poured out, and his voice held people rapt. John Huston wrote: “He is smiling. It stops raining all over the world.”
Reviewing movies brought him into filmmaking. When Time agreed to send him to Hollywood in 1944, he filed admiring reports on Selznick and other moguls. His impassioned defense of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) won him an acquaintance with Charles Chaplin, who nonetheless declined Agee’s efforts to provide him a screenplay. A Life profile endeared him to John Huston, who brought him on to write The African Queen (1951). By the time Agee died in 1955 he had stopped writing criticism but two major screenplays, African Queen and Night of the Hunter (1955), carried his name. His most lasting literary fame came with the posthumous Pulitzer-Prize novel A Death in the Family (1957) and the reissue of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1960, which became relevant to the Other America debate about the nation’s poverty.
The National Velvet review nicely exposes not only Agee’s style but his critical sensibility. He’s trying to swallow up the whole Elizabeth Taylor experience, grappling with ways to convey in mere words the incandescence he finds in her. Instead of delivering a final, fixed judgment in a clever epigram, he shares with us his effort, pushing against the limits of language, always approximating, trying to capture hard outlines by lightning sketching.
The task is that of the congenital Romantic, the artist who knows that every experience, every item in the world, flickers with untapped but felt energies. These the artist tries to convey, usually in vain. The privileged vehicle for this nearly hopeless pursuit is lyric poetry, and Dwight Macdonald considered Agee at bottom a poet. Yet Macdonald also thought that Agee’s greatest love, from the start, was movies.
In 1929, when he was twenty, he read Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Both sculpt Southern literary and rhetorical traditions into self-conscious artistic shapes. I have to think that Agee was obliged to face the fact: What more is there for me to do? Part of his task, I submit, was to discover the possibilities of traditional Romantic expression in the young art of the movies.
This blog entry is part of a series on three great American critics of the 1940s: Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. What most readers want to know, as their readers did then, are each one’s personal tastes. What did the critic like and dislike?
Agee’s preferences are fairly clear. He admired films that have a documentary strain, or at least a realist one, though I’ll try to nuance that judgment shortly. Agee entered the middlebrow debate I mentioned in an earlier entry only obliquely, often by castigating the “suffocating genteelism” that was creeping into Hollywood. He usually disapproved of prestige pictures like Mission to Moscow, The White Cliffs of Dover, and Wilson. He praised many foreign imports, such as Farrebique, Open City, Man’s Fate, and Shoeshine (“one of the most fully alive, fully rational films ever made”). Yet he was also suspicious of “pseudo-simple, sophisticated-earthy things from France.” Like Otis Ferguson before him, he tried to keep watch on self-conscious artiness.
Like Ferguson as well, he regarded the director as the major creator of value in a film (reminding us that the auteur theory isn’t wholly new to the 1960s). Among Americans he admired Hawks, Preston Sturges, Hitchcock, Wilder, Carol Reed, and Walsh, as well as Lang, Minnelli, and Welles to some extent. (Citizen Kane left him feeling old.) David O. Selznick wasn’t a director, but Agee realized he might as well have been, so thoroughly did he control what appeared on the screen. He respected Selznick’s grasp of household routines, weather conditions, and what would move his audience.
Early in his reviewing career Agee deplored the shoddy quality of nearly all American studio pictures. He despaired that this art of potentially Shakespearean range was near to self-destruction. But he cheered up in 1947, noting several pictures of importance, and in 1950 he was positively ebullient: “Most of the really good popular art produced anywhere comes from Hollywood.”
We might speculate that the 1944 trip to the coast showed him a new side of the films, or that his brightening prospects of working with Chaplin and Huston made him more optimistic. In any case, he had the sympathetic intellectuals’ hope that this new art’s potential could be realized by people of talent, even occasionally genius.
We can talk about his likes and dislikes for a long time, but as with Farber and Tyler, I’m interested in the standards and ideas underlying their tastes. I’m also curious to tease out what they thought was valuable about cinema in general, and American cinema of the 1940s in particular.
On the rough wet grass
Central to Agee’s perspective on cinema, I think, was a Romantic conception of art. As a person he seems to have tried to be every Romantic poet rolled into one. Drink (Poe), melancholy (Keats), womanizing (Shelley, Byron), thoughts of suicide (many of the above), consuming ambition laced with self-doubt and self-hatred (ditto)—these thread their way through his life. To round off the pattern, he died young, felled by a heart attack at age forty-five.
Like most Romantics, Agee the artist sought a transcendent beauty in the ordinary world. Each moment, no matter how mundane, hums with a vitality that we can sometimes register, especially in childhood or at moments of calm contemplation. Science can’t measure this burning core of life, but art can reveal it to us. The specificity of each thing, the streaks in a tulip or the wrinkles on a face, is to be noted, captured (however imperfectly), and treasured.
Not that we’re stuck on the surface of things. The artist’s imagination turns concrete reality into symbols—not schematic signs but rich, evocative images that throb with emotion. A Grecian urn, a deserted Abbey, a chimney sweep: each becomes a dense cluster of impressions and implications, never becoming merely an abstract idea. Lyrical poetry, Wordsworth noted, is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” The poet tries to capture those elusive feelings, and ideally the poem presents that very struggle as its drama. Keats, writing of the nightingale that awakens him from a numbing stupor, tries to be at one with the bird in his imagination, at once delighting in the prospect and admitting the impossibility of it.
After publishing a book of verse, Agee carried his urgings into lyrical prose. The key example, and probably his most-read work, is “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” As so often in his work and in Romantic writings, the child becomes the privileged point of access to experience, but that response is framed by adult awareness.
We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.
The memoir starts with exact observation. We get the geography of the neighborhood, the habits of the neighbors, the characteristic activities of children and mothers and fathers. The fathers hose their lawns, the gestures that regulate the water (“in a compromise between distance and tenderness of spray”) being described in considerable detail. Then come the dry rasp of the locusts and “the sweet cold silver noise threenoted” of the crickets. Soon the watering is done and families gather on their porches—talking, watching passersby, listening to the streetcar. The text bursts into one-sentence paragraphs, rendering nightfall as “one blue dew” alive with smells and sounds.
In the back yard, the family gathers together on spread quilts, staring up at the stars. Abruptly the lyrical speaker is given a piercing glimpse of how transient this serenity is, and a prayer becomes an apostrophe.
By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.
After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft, smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
A family’s relaxation on a summer night has come to symbolize questions of mortality and identity, mixing love and fear into a childhood epiphany. Or perhaps the epiphany is constructed afterward, by an adult trying to put into words the exactness of a moment’s memory and the yawning mystery that lies beyond.
Man in Suit Jacket and Seersucker Pants. Photo by Walker Evans.
The struggle to expose the heart of reality without wounding it is dramatized more painfully in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In 1936 Agee and photographer Walker Evans were sent by Fortune magazine to document the life of Alabama tenant farmers. After living there three weeks, the pair returned with probably the most famous documentation of poverty in American culture. Agee’s article, “Cotton Tenants: Three Families,” was rejected by the magazine. An expanded version, with Evans’ plainspoken photographs, was eventually published by Houghton Mifflin and was received with widespread indifference.
One of the most ungainly masterpieces of American literature, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men shifts from description to meditation to self-laceration with bewildering speed. Declaring at the outset that this book won’t ingratiate itself with any reader, Agee defies the conventions of reportage that had been consolidated in the 1930s. The historian William Stott has shown that Let Us Now tries to galvanize the reader into awareness by refusing all the clichés of Depression documentary: no dramatization of scenes, no effort to report conversations verbatim, no comparison of the tenants to animals, no effort to win the reader’s favor, and no attempt to call for simple reforms. Agee apparently embraces the case-study model so common in the 1930s but as the book unwinds that form is abandoned because he wants to respect the absolute uniqueness of these people.
It’s one thing to recall a childhood evening on a middle-class Knoxville lawn. It’s another for a Harvard-educated journalist to move in with people whose washbasin is a hubcap and whose children sleep alongside rats gnawing the family shoes. Why should a magazine aimed at the wealthy, staffed by reporters who will return to their comfortable lives, so humiliate a harmless and helpless family? The tone swings from heartfelt confession to bitter irony: the book is “written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance.”
Allie Mae Burroughs. Photo by Walker Evans.
Agee is torn in so many directions by the bad faith behind his assignment, and he records his agony in such painful terms, that the book becomes about a man suffering from hatred for himself, his place in the world, and his efforts to accommodate his obscene job to his liking and respect for the families and humanity in general. In sidewinding, often bewildering sentences, Agee tries to get beyond his awareness of something awful behind the mock good intentions of his project and to see the families and his plight in both concrete human terms and cosmic dimensions. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men reads as if Faulkner’s Quentin Compson had set aside his family obsessions and looked straight at the South he lived in.
Judging by the recently published Cotton Tenants Agee’s original version was a compassionate but drily written account of the round of the families’ lives. The last chapter ends with lapidary accounts of death:
Invariably people work as long as they can stand up to it, and this is much out of tradition and pride as of necessity and poverty. It is the same with death. Frank Tingle had seven uncles and every one but one died with his shoes on, and that one had one shoe on and died trying to pull on the other one.
The book-length version expands the inventories and measurements of the households, the rooms and the possessions and decorations, as well as portraits of the families. As in the short version, Agee includes sexual confessions, erections and such, which alone were probably enough to spike the piece back in Manhattan.
The larger, deeply Romantic point is that facts, even close-up details, don’t automatically deliver truth. At the ultimate extreme, the most adequate account of these people’s lives would consist of a galaxy of facts beyond comprehension.
Here at the center is a creature: it would be our business to show how through every instant of every day of every year of his existence alive he is from all sides streamed inward upon, bombarded, pierced, destroyed by that enormous sleeting of all objects forms and ghosts how great how small no matter, which surround and whom his senses take in as great and perfect and exact particularity as we can name them:
This would be our business, to show them each thus transfixed as between the stars’ trillions of javelins and of each the transfixions: but it is beyond my human power to do. The most I can do—the most I can hope to do—is to make a number of physical entities as plain and vivid as possible, and to make a few guesses, a few conjectures; and to leave to you much of the burden of realizing in each of them what I have wanted to make clear of them as a whole: how each is itself; and how each is a shapener.
This declaration of purpose reads like something out of a preface; actually it comes well into the book. The young man who had admired Proust and Conrad must find a form for his experience. In place of the well-made novel of the early century—Henry James’ circular constructions, with lamps lighting aspects of a single subject—Agee offers a Whitmanesque book that can’t be reduced to geometrical architecture. It’s under revision as you read it, constantly restarting. A first part, listed in the contents but hard to find, gives way to a lengthy Book Two that is a mixture of journal and scrapbook. There are appendices (themselves collages); traditionally placed at the back of the book, here they’re followed by another section, “(On the Porch: 3,” that, like the Knoxville memoir, ends with darkness, nature, and sleep.
The book even rehearses some of the possible ways of organizing it. Addressing the families he has lived among, he writes:
I might suggest, its structure should be globular: or should be eighteen or twenty intersected spheres, the interlockings of bubbles on the face of a stream; one of these globes is each of you.
The heart, nerve, center of each of these, is an individual human life.
It’s easy to mock the DIY indiscipline of this sprawl. But read in your youth, ideally late on a summer night, this roaring and whispering testament, accompanied by Evans’ bone-hard imagery, can make you angry, sorrowful, and drunk with exhilaration. One of the first multi-media experiments, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee tells us, is “a book only by necessity.” That is, it’s struggling to be a film.
Movies on the page
Agee fell in love with film early. Opening sections of the autobiographical A Death in the Family show the boy Rufus (bearing Agee’s middle name and nickname) coming out of a screening of Chaplin and William S. Hart movies. In the late 1920s, Agee was writing to Macdonald praising The Last Laugh, Variety, Greed, Salvation Hunters, and The Battleship Potemkin.
He drafted imaginary screenplays, two of which were published. The House (1937) and a sequence treating a portion of Malraux’s novel Man’s Fate (1939) are exhaustingly virtuoso exercises in prose and film style. Both teem with fancy effects derived from late silent and early sound films, particularly Soviet ones. We get odd angles, fast motion, pulsating cutting, underlighting, looks to the camera, graphically matched dissolves, black frames with sound effects over, rhythmic synchronization of image movement with sound. Dovzhenko is one evident model, and Agee recommends that the cutting for Man’s Fate be like that in Arsenal. When Agee and Farber planned a film in the 1940s, Farber pulled out: “He had so many Russian-type shots he scared me to death.”
Agee’s fussiness is astonishing. In the Man’s Fate scenario, the resonance of a rung bell is expected to match “the rhythm of the grain in the film, as if it produced the sound.” Descriptions of cuts and camera movements in The House go on endlessly and minutely. These texts suggest the world’s most hard-working dilettante, a man playing chess with himself and losing.
Remarkably, Agee’s later Hollywood screenplays often contain the same minute instructions. Here is a comparatively brief instance from The Blue Hotel:
The CAMERA is well toward the front of the room, height of the eyes of the seated men; Scully MEDIUM in r.s., players LONG, down center-to-left.
Scully is half out of his chair at the start of the shot; he stands up fast, his paper floating, forgotten, to his feet making the only SOUND in the room. His spectacles fall from his nose as he gets up but, by a clutch, he saves them in mid-air; the hand grasping them is poised awkwardly near his shoulder. From the moment he is on his feet, a solid two seconds of frozen tableau: the Swede half crouching out of his chair, a huge fist (not shaking) in Johnnie’s face; Johnnie still seated, looking steadily into the blazing orbs of his accuser. The Easterner, gripping the arms of his chair, sits very still and is very pale.
After this 2-second paralysis….
Joseph Mankiewicz is said to have remarked that a director following Agee’s screenplay would have nothing to do. “I think,” Macdonald writes, “he never gave up the dream of becoming a director, of expressing himself with images and rhythm instead of making do at one remove with words.”
Cinema attracted him, I think, because he saw it as a new vehicle for that Romantic vision of life that informed his verse, fiction, and reportage. For an artist in this tradition, all art aspires to the condition of poetry.
Illusions of embodiment
With the Marines at Tawara (1944).
The filmmaker’s problem is the opposite of the one facing the poet. The poet’s words already lean toward the symbolic. Verbal tokens are very good at evoking concepts and emotions. But they are, as Macdonald mentions, “at one remove” from things. The writer’s task, Agee claims, is “to continually bring words as near as he can to an illusion of embodiment.” By contrast, thanks to photography, the filmmaker gets that illusion of embodiment delivered automatically. The creative task therefore is to transcend realism, to retain respect for the way things are while showing the fire at the core of the world.
Georges Rouquier’s Farrebique (1946), a documentary on the life of farmers, must have resonated strongly with Agee’s time in Alabama, but he sees the film as more than mere recording. Rouquier
realizes that, scrupulously handled, the camera can do what nothing else in the world can do: can record unaltered reality; and can be made also to perceive, record, and communicate, in full unaltered power, the peculiar kinds of poetic vitality which blaze in every real thing and which are in great degree, inevitably and properly, lost to every other kind of artist except the camera artist.
Naturally he was sympathetic to many of the combat documentaries, which had the power to capture moments of truth with a piercing immediacy. With the Marines at Tarawa (1944) contains such a moment. Marines troop back from battle, registering no jubilation at their victory.
One gaunt man, his face drawn with sleeplessness and a sense of death, glances up. His eyes reveal both his lack of essential hostility and his profound, decent resentment of the camera’s intrusion. Just as he leaves the picture he makes a face, as a father might make a face at a child. In his eyes, in his grimace, he looks into the eyes of every civilian and whatever face that civilian is capable of wearing in reply. And in the eyes of the camera, with that salute, he meets the eye of history.
As you’d expect, Agee was encouraged by the semidocumentary impulse that created films like The House on 92nd Street (1945). He collaborated on the independent documentaries In the Street and The Quiet One (both 1948). But Agee also thought a worthwhile realism could be achieved in fiction films.
Just showing a real town instead of a backlot set, or nonactors rather than stars, can endow a film with a greater measure of gravity. More profoundly, Agee notes that after years of laboring under a dead tradition of screen acting, some gifted writers, directors, and actors have begun to show how people behave. They are starting to bring realistic gestures and gaits and glances into fiction films. Jean Vigo’s flights of fantasy in Zero de Conduite are tethered to exact observations of how schoolboys scamper and jostle one another and dream of rebellion. Hitchcock is nobody’s idea of a realist, but in Notorious, Cary Grant captures “the cultivated, clipped puzzled-idealist brutality” of a man Agee knows in a similar job. Lifeboat’s confinement to a tiny space is a gimicky premise, but Hitchcock overcomes it by “an implacable physical and psychological realism.” He squeezes “poetic and symbolic power” out of the situation.
Even on a sound stage the filmmaker can create a fictional world that is faithful to the textures of life, and the camera can capture that faithfulness “in the present tense”—that is, give it an immediacy that literature can’t. But that mission demands that filmmakers need to look steadily at the world. Makers of combat movies should study the documentaries for “the faces and postures and total image of actual warfare.” Agee suggests that Wellman’s Story of GI Joe (1945) has done it.
It not only makes most of its fiction look like fact—and far more intimate and expressive fact than it is possible to record on the spot; it also, without ever inflating or even disturbing the factual quality, as Eisenstein used to, gives fact the constant power and meaning beyond its own which most documentors—and most imaginative artists as well—totally lack feeling for. I don’t insist on the word if you feel it is misleading, but most of this film is good poetry, and some of it is great poetry, and all of its achievements, and even most of its failures, are earned in terms purely of moving pictures. The sudden close-up, for instance, of a soldier’s loaded back, solidly intricate with the life-and-death implements of his trade, as he marches away from his dead captain, is as complete, moving, satisfying, and enduring as the finest lines of poetry I know.
Accuracy, authenticity, vitality: these god-words, in Agee’s columns, signify how film can achieve a balance between concrete and abstract, the illusion of embodiment and the ramifying emotional resonance of things. Film has come to fulfill Shelley’s prophecy that poetry turns all things, no matter how base, to loveliness.
Saint James, and one of two, literally
We live in the age of Internet True Confessions. A movie review may begin with the critic remembering something from childhood, or a first visit to a movie like this one, or, if the writer sits high enough on the food chain, a first meeting with a revered director. Even when things aren’t so autobiographical, we expect our critics to be chatty, quick, and “passionate” in a distinctive way. We want snark and smarm, with a dose of vulgarity to show that the reviewer is as hip as we are. And the review must include the first-person pronoun, abundantly.
When Agee came on the scene, arts journalism wasn’t so flamboyant. Your high-level reviewer of art, literature, and drama was an urbane cosmopolitan with a dry wit who expressed himself (almost always a himself) in the most measured of terms. Even if something was exciting, the reviewer kept his poise. Blame and praise were distributed judiciously. I and me and my were seldom used. If you needed a personal pronoun, we and us and our, conveniently vague, settled reader and writer into adjacent easy chairs at the Club.
Here, for example, is Stark Young in the purportedly radical New Republic, on Philip Barry’s play Without Love (1942).
It should be said that Miss Hepburn belongs to the class of players who can never be set in the standard of their execution of a stage performance of a character; they vary from night to night, now excelling, now fading down. This is one of the reasons why, as she herself doubtless very well knows, Miss Hepburn has so shown a certain happy availability, shall we say, for the films; give her the impression, the key, and she may give it back, in a flash, perhaps, and a flash only, not to be repeated, but with something marvelous in the result, some flower and light that are wonderful theatre and that are treasured by us all.
If you are still awake, I think you’ll agree that this is resolutely unexciting. With reviewing dominated by this sort of droning murmur (Young spent twenty-five years writing like this), it’s not surprising that young people were drawn to a different critic—one who has, “shall we say,” some fire in the belly.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, the new Preston Sturges film, seems to me funnier, more adventurous, more abundant, more intelligent, and more encouraging than anything that has been made in Hollywood for years. Yet the more I think of it, the less I esteem it. I have, then, both to praise and defend it, and to attack it.
I don’t think you can stop reading after a lead like that. You want to know not only what the writer thinks, but you want to know him—a man who enjoys a movie on the first pass, rethinks that experience, and musters his intellectual and rhetorical abilities to both support and question his first impressions. Instead of a settled judgment, we get criticism-in-process, the tug-and-shove of a mind considering the contesting appeals of a movie.
And this opening is tactful compared to Agee’s panegyric to Elizabeth Taylor. There he seems to be gushing like a fan, except that the passage, with its hesitant self-interruptions, has that Agee blur of intoxication and the search for the exact word to embody it. A friend is sharing his excitement.
The struggle enacted in the extended Agee review is double. He wants to do justice to the film and his experience of it; and he wants to convey, in the crosstalk of his sentences and paragraphs, the complicated act of judging anything. This means, of course, that he can come off as a contortionist, sometimes resorting to the halt and stammer that we saw in Stark Young. Writing like this, on The Enchanted Cottage (1945), makes you want to outlaw the comma and the concessive clause.
As well as I could see, however, through fears generated chiefly by helpless rage against myself and my merciless assailant [the film], the movie was done quite well for the delicately vulgar sort of thing it is, especially by Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire. I can hardly imagine, for that matter, being seriously offended by Mr. Young; whatever he does, he is honest and sympathetic beyond offensiveness. Although I am happy to have to respect Miss McGuire’s sensitiveness and proficiency, I can’t help feeling sorry to see her use such coarse, all but village-idiot bids for pity-please as the worst she uses to communicate the heroine in her humbler phase.
Macdonald observed that “Jim was always moderate in an immoderate way.”
No wonder that Farber preferred Agee’s writing for Time, which though larded with Lucespeak (cinemaddict, cinemogul), skipped the waltz of introspection. From a Time review of Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep:
She has a javelinlike vitality, a born dancer’s eloquence in movement, a fierce female shrewdness, and a special sweet-sourness. With these faculties, plus a stone-crushing self-confidence and a trombone voice, she manages to get across the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while.
It isn’t very specific as a description of Bacall, I think, but at least it flows under some pressure.
Time editors sometimes recast Agee’s drafts, so we can’t judge any of those pieces to be entirely his. So to be fair, let’s also remember how his Nation reviews could squeeze his vacillations of judgment into the sort of verbal double-takes we associate with Farber. On Old Acquaintance: “What perplexes me is that I could sit through it with some interest.” Complaining of the quality of wartime documentaries: “I can only urge you to write your congressman, if he can read.” He can do paradox too, beginning his review of Open City: “Recently I saw a motion picture so much worth talking about that I am still unable to review it.”
Criticism as remake
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).
Both his windiness and his concision take on poignancy when you realize how compulsively Agee worked. At Fortune, he always overwrote and finished little of what he started. Macdonald, also hostage to Fortune, jotted in 1935: “No interest in his work here and small ability for faking. He spends three times as long on his pieces as he should, and he has a devil of a time with them.” Agee’s work areas were jammed with papers, magazines, clippings, ashtrays, and memorabilia, with whisky and Benzedrine on hand. His abandoned projects filled grocery cartons.
According to his biographer Laurence Bergreen, Agee enjoyed writing for The Nation and was usually on deadline. But turning out ephemeral notices for Time seemed to have been torture. Writing in longhand, he composed as if he were Proust. When Ezra Goodman took over as Time’s reviewer, he made a discovery that was “blood-chilling.” He found over thirty rewritten versions of the opening paragraph of an Agee review, often with only a word or punctuation mark changed.
Long-form prose invited him to exfoliate, as he had with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The novel A Death in the Family was unfinished when he died. On his mass-market think pieces, Agee chronically missed deadlines, and he miscalculated badly when he would be done. He thought he could write his appreciative essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era” in a few weeks; it took him a year.
Still, I think that journalism kept him comparatively on target. Writing to deadline and format channeled Agee’s volcanic energies. On his screenwriting jobs he seems to have been conscientious. Even then, though, he couldn’t do anything by halves. On the African Queen script he wrote through the night, when Huston thought he was sleeping. The ordeal, wholly self-inflicted, contributed to his first heart attack. It seems that he couldn’t go long without writing.
Agee’s frank subjectivity in the Nation pieces yielded a bracing sense of an actual person talking to you. Instead of supplying a fixed assessment, he dramatized the act of wrestling out a provisional sense of the film’s accomplishment. After seeing four or five films a week, sometimes revisiting certain ones, he would crank out a review that tried to sum up several movies. All the while, his rhetoric projected an exquisite sensibility trying to do justice to the film at hand, to his immediate experience of it, and to that experience as recollected in (relative) tranquility.
As the years went by, he became somewhat more object-centered, aiming for more precise description of what was happening on the screen. He was always shot-conscious and he was sensitive to actors’ performances, but the short reviews usually render very general judgments. In reviews devoted to a single picture, he can quicken details, like the backpack in G. I. Joe, so that the generalities (poetry, dignity, human divinity) get some ballast. Often he needs annoyance to rouse his attention, as when he objects to the arty stylization of The Ox-Bow Incident by pointing to the “phonily gnarled lynching tree” and the sound of “angelic soprani” whenever a black preacher appears.
One of his descriptive strategies, and unique as far as I know at the period, involves redirecting the movie. Objecting to a particular handling in a film under review, he provides a new script. He suggests some better ways to shoot and cut scenes in For Whom the Bell Tolls and he wishes that Rouquier had used infra-red film and stop-motion for night scenes in Farrebique. He’s especially pressing on the inadequacies of the treatment of drunkenness in The Lost Weekend. What has Wilder missed? The causes of Birnam’s alcoholism, the many moods of drunkenness, the chronic narcissism, self-loathing, and self-pity, and the “horrible distortions of time” suffered in a hangover.
Agee couldn’t speak with authority about movies showing military strategy, but the drunk’s spectrum of sensation and feeling was vivid for him, and ripe for poetic transmutation. He suggests what might have been done with purely silent pantomime, subjective sound, and other techniques.
Sound and light peculiarities could have been impacted in the film and track by appropriate, dry exaggeration. A knocking radiator, an abrupt auto horn, coupled with the right kind of playing, might have told the audience as much in an instant as an hour of pure objectivity could. The light equivalents of flashing traffic on a sunny autumn day, as Birnam might experience them, might drive an audience moaning from the theatre, unless their exact realism were modified into art.
We are back with the literary scenarios of the 1930s, mental movies stamped onto the page with forbidding specificity.
It’s possible that Agee’s increasing attention to a movie’s look and sound owes something to the influence of his friend and fellow-critic Manny Farber, but just as important was the impact of two filmmakers. Each teased him into the sort of sustained scrutiny that, as I tried to argue in the previous entry in this series, countered critics of mass culture by paying close attention to how a film worked.
Agee considered Charles Chaplin a genius. He felt upon seeing Modern Times “as if Beethoven were living now and had completed another symphony.” Agee began reviewing after The Great Dictator (1940) had come and gone, so his principal encounter with Chaplin’s new work was with Monsieur Verdoux: A Comedy of Murders (1947). He devoted three Nation installments to it, an unprecedented gesture for him, and he uses the space to show in detail how film artistry can create the sort of large symbolic statement we find in poetry and drama. In short, he interprets the movie.
Monsieur Verdoux tells of a discharged bank clerk who, in order to keep his wife and child secure in their country villa, seduces and murders women for their money. He shuttles from city to country, Paris to the provinces, juggling affairs and assuming different guises—an antique dealer, a sea captain, a construction engineer, a bon vivant. With the police on his trail, he escapes them only to lose his wife and son in the early 1930s. He’s recognized by the family of one of his victims and is arrested, sentenced, and hanged. On his way to the gallows, he is serene, even smug, claiming that he is simply conforming to the world he lives in. Murder is business, and he simply operated on too small a scale. “Wars, conflict—all business. . . . Numbers sanctify.”
Verdoux abandoned the lovable Tramp character, begged sympathy for a briskly severe killer, and seemed to confirm Chaplin’s public persona as a skirt-chaser and Communist sympathizer. The mainstream press mostly hated the film, calling it too preachy and lacking in comedy, but some venues, including the New York Times and left-leaning magazines, praised it. After a largely hostile press conference, at which Agee defended Chaplin, Verdoux was withdrawn. A new publicity campaign failed to ignite public interest, and the film became the biggest debacle of Chaplin’s career.
The first part of Agee’s review defends “this great poet and his great poem” by answering critics who declare the film unfunny, immoral, in bad taste, poorly cast, talky, and creakily old-fashioned in its direction. His rejoinders rest on the assumption that Chaplin is parodying clichés, not recycling them. The apparently casual compositions are a “mock formlessness” that have an integral beauty, as in the garden wedding reception. The churning train wheels depicting Verdoux’s commuting are a well-worn transitional device, but by repeating the image so often, Chaplin makes it funnier each time, while suggesting Verdoux’s growing desperation. And there are some visual jokes harking back to silent tradition, such as the ridiculously distant shot showing the rowboat from which Verdoux plans to jettison Annabella.
Agee advances his interpretation in the second column. The irony of Chaplin’s story is that Verdoux is a model of the responsible paterfamilias, seeking to provide for his family after the market crash of 1929. You can take him as standing for the businessman or the war-monger, but Agee suggests that at bottom he displays the split personality that society forces on modern man. His wife and child represent the good in him, his cycle of murders represents the evil. To protect the good he must “exercise all the worst that is in him.” As the film proceeds, his idyllic private life becomes an illusion that vindicates his crimes.
Compartmentalized, as we would say, Verdoux’s life is poisoned not only by the killings he commits but by his secrecy. At home, he’s playing a role no less deceptive than his masquerades for his victims. The frozen bliss of the household grows ever more perfunctory. The wife, saying she would have been happy to be poor, becomes sad and passive. In locking up wife and child in “a shrine and a jail,” Verdoux destroys the happiness they all might have had. Meanwhile, Agee asserts, Verdoux grows correspondingly monstrous, loving his family’s helplessness and savoring “his true marriage, which is to murder. . . . He is the loneliest character I know of.”
Agee’s last column on the film considers the denouement. There are some mysteries here. Why does Verdoux say he “lost” his family? According to Agee, this is symbolically vague: his loved ones died through “segregation and deceit.” Why does he turn from the Girl, now a rich man’s mistress in a limousine? Because long before this, he spared her life, and this one moment of weakness, granting affection to a person outside the family circle, rebuked his single-minded effort to split his life.
Most critics took Verdoux’s suave courtroom and death-house epigrams as Chaplin’s own critique of modern society. Agee, though, reads against the grain, as we’d now say. He sees Verdoux’s banter as more posturing, another masquerade. Verdoux is still asserting “his dream of himself,” his illusion that what he’s done can be justified. Lacking his original domestic pretext for murder, all he can do is shift the blame from himself to society. The Tramp, a quasi-divinity, has been replaced by a deeply secular bourgeois, the essential “upright man” who refuses to face what he has done. Verdoux’s wit as he strolls to the gallows is the final touch of the film’s characteristically brisk and cold “savage gaiety.”
The young Agee spent one summer listening to I. A. Richards, dean of English “New Criticism,” and he came to maturity when this movement was gaining a foothold in both Academe and the literary and political quarterlies. By the late forties, thematic interpretation based on close technical analysis, usually demonstrating some deep irony within a lyrical voice, was emerging as the dominant strain of literary criticism.
A 1940s writer didn’t have the opportunities to examine films as closely as a scholar could pick apart a poem. Still, some intellectuals made a start at finer-grained criticism. Eric Bentley contributed an inspired essay comparing Verdoux to Pirandello’s plays, while Parker Tyler pursued more wayward paths. Perhaps Agee’s imaginary screenplays are a sort of displacement of New Critical scrutiny: microscopic dissection he can’t exercise on an actual film gets enacted with a virtual one.
In any event, the Monsieur Verdoux columns show that when engaged by an artist he adored, Agee could be a remarkable close reader of films. Whatever its shortcomings as an interpretation, his essay suggests that a film needs to be examined patiently, with all the resources of imagination and sympathy that F. R. Leavis or William Empson brought to literature. Farber called Agee “a fine antidote to the paralyzing plot-sociologists who hit the jackpot during the 1940’s.” In one sustained burst, Agee rebutted the critics of mass culture who simply did not know how to watch a film.
A man’s man
Lionel Barrymore, Lauren Bacall, John Huston, and Humphrey Bogart on the set of Key Largo (1948).
Given the fussy flourishes in Agee’s screenplays, you’d expect him to have dug into the style of the films he reviewed. We’ve seen that he does sometimes mention a close-up or a sound effect, particularly in documentaries, and he’s very attuned to actors’ behavior. On the whole, though, he seldom strives, as Farber does, to convey the visual texture of a movie.
An exception is his profile of John Huston. Agee started writing too late to review The Maltese Falcon (1941), and he didn’t review the two other releases Huston signed before leaving for the war (In This Our Life and Across the Pacific, both 1942). But he was very favorable to “the sullenly beautiful documentary Report from the Aleutians  and the magnificent San Pietro .” Primed and ready to go off, Agee wrote after the 1948 release of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that Huston was, “next only to Chaplin, the most talented man working in American pictures.”
He sold Life on the idea of a profile, and delivered it in 1950, two years later than promised. He grew close to Huston and in September of 1950, they began work on the screenplay for The African Queen. Agee’s first heart attack, suffered during his stay with the director, put him in the hospital, but he continued to contribute to the screenplay, which was finished by Huston and the uncredited Peter Viertel. Despite some attempts, Agee didn’t work with Huston again.
The Life piece is part celebrity profile and part appreciative essay. Much is made of Huston’s roustabout past, his adventures in boxing, the Mexican cavalry, and the minefields he filmed in San Pietro. Agee, like Otis Ferguson, likes his movies and movie makers “virile.” Yet Huston is also an intellectual, reading Joyce, Hemingway, and O’Neill in his spare time. He paints, hunts, shoots, breeds horses, and loves to gamble. The image is of a robust, risk-loving artist at home with both action and ideas.
Agee had some reservations about the director’s work, but it took Huston to rouse him to the sort of exactitude of perception on display in “Knoxville,” Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and his essay on silent comedy. The Huston piece was almost the last significant film criticism he wrote, apart from an alert, typically conflicted assessment of Sunset Boulevard published later in 1950.
For Agee Huston’s films reflect his vital professionalism. Huston’s style is immediate, smooth and mostly invisible. It stays, as modern critics would say, in the moment. Yet it can blossom into the sort of poetic implications revered by the Romantic. In We Were Strangers (1949), a student is gunned down at Havana University.
A scene follows which is breath-taking in its surprise and beauty, but storytelling, not beauty, brings it: what seems to be hundreds of young men and women, all in summery whites, throw themselves flat on the marble stairs in a wavelike motion as graceful as the sudden close swooping of so many doves. The shot is already off the screen before one can realize its full meaning. By their trained, quiet unison in falling, these students are used to this. They expect it any average morning. And that suffices, with great efficiency, to suggest the Cuban tyranny.
Like a good poet, Huston discovers both meaning and beauty in the uniqueness of his material, not by imposing abstract ideas. On the set, he offers only a few hints to his performers, letting them find their characters themselves. He suggested that the Mexican bandits in Sierra Madre surround Bogart but stay close to the ground. The result is jittery and fateful, capped by one bandit’s slither to Bogart’s feet in a movement “as innocent as a child’s and as frightening as a centipede’s.”
Huston’s style is versatile, sometimes letting the camera simply run and sometimes using aggressive traveling shots. In close-ups, he huddles characters’ heads to pack the frame; long shots relax the tension. Here are two examples from The Maltese Falcon; next two pairs of examples are also my picks, not from scenes that Agee specifies.
Agee treats Sierra Madre as Huston’s most fully achieved film, where the camera stays in the middle distance and the “clean” and “tight” presentation yields compositions that are well-designed yet seem informal.
Later films are more pictorially ostentatious, but even so each achieves an individual style: sweltering physical confinement to the hotel in Key Largo (1948) and harsh lighting contrasts in We Were Strangers.
At the same moment that Bazin was speaking of Wyler as a director who gave viewers freedom about where to look, Agee celebrates Huston’s ability to arouse the eye. At one moment in Sierra Madre, the three prospectors are compared as men while they discover the corpse of the man who came upon them. The story action—checking Cody’s pockets—continues while the framing supplies a portrait of each man.
Bogart, the would-be tough guy, cocks one foot up on a rock and tries to look at the corpse as casually as if it were fresh-killed game. Tim Holt, the essentially decent young man, comes past behind him and, innocent and unaware of it, clasps his hands as he looks down, in the respectful manner of a boy who used to go to church. Walter Huston, the experienced old man, steps quietly behind both, leans to the dead man as professionally as a doctor to a patient and gently rifles him for papers.
This casually packed composition inspires Agee to invoke, possibly invent, the now-familiar notion of the active viewer.
Huston is one of the few movie artists who, without thinking twice about it, honors his audience. His pictures are not acts of seduction or of benign enslavement but of liberation, and they require, of anyone who enjoys them, the responsibilities of liberty.
Henceforth, the idea of the shot as an open field of information, leaving the spectator to assess what’s important, will be part of the critic’s toolkit.
Coached by Agee, you can see Huston’s movies afresh. Returning to The Asphalt Jungle (1950), I was impressed by a moment in which Dix, ushering the Professor in to deliver the plunder to their backer Emmerich, encounters Bob Brannom. After Emmerich greets them, Bob steps into the foreground ominously. He’s the muscle to protect the boss.
Emmerich leads them into the living room, followed by the apprehensive Professor.
Brannom waits for Dix to pass him, but Huston lets Dix stride to frame center and pause. He towers over Brannom in the low camera angle.
In the test of wills, Brannom caves and goes in. Dix starts after him, briefly twisting his mouth a little, as if to say: “Another fake tough guy.”
As Dix brushes out of the shot, he does something reminiscent of the anonymous Marine at Tawara. His tongue slips out, licking his lips as if in anticipation, but also perhaps mocking Brannom as a sissy.
The confrontation isn’t in the novel or the screenplay. Huston’s staging and camera position let the actors fill out the scene through their bodily behaviors, and the shot ends with a fillip that, a little mysteriously, exposes both Dix’s reaction and his personality. This is, I think, what Agee thinks a poet with a camera can do.
It’s terribly easy to be sentimental about Agee, and almost as easy to be hard on him. (Brutality, as Stroheim and Griffith knew, has its sentimental side.) But I think that reading him can do something rare in film criticism: He calls you to your best instincts. His dithering can be frustrating, and he often snaps open too many pipes in the sonorous organ of that style. Perhaps he’s best read in the adolescent window. Met at any time of life, like all good critics, he teaches us to look, listen, and feel more sensitively. As Parker Tyler put it in 1944, the viewer’s obligation is “to see as much as he can take away with him.” Now, seventy years later, Agee can still help us do our job.
Central to my work here, and for anybody who cares about American film and criticism, is the Library of America edition Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism. The editor Michael Sragow has scrupulously enhanced the 1958 Agee on Film collection with more reviews and essays, as well as a detailed biographical chronology and much more information. We should all be grateful. But my job would have been a lot easier if I could have had a searchable Kindle edition too!
I’ve drawn as well from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in my battered 1966 Ballantine edition, but the Kindle edition let me find connections I hadn’t noticed before. (Shoes, for example.) Very recently we’ve been given access to the limpid original, Cotton Tenants: Three Families (The Baffler/Melville House, 2013). Central to my understanding of Agee and Evans’ enterprise is William Stott’s brilliant Documentary Expression and Thirties America (Oxford, 1973). “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” is included, perhaps incorrectly, in the standard edition of A Death in the Family.
To round out classic Ageeana, there is of course another paperback that was everywhere in my teen years, Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (Bantam, 1963). From the last letter, 11 May 1955: “Nothing much to report. I feel, in general, as if I were dying.”
For Agee’s Hollywood-oriented scripts, see Agee on Film: Five Film Scripts (Obolensky, 1960). His unrealized project for Chaplin, The Tramp’s New World, is included in John Wranovics’ study Chaplin and Agee (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005). The treatments for The House and Man’s Fate are included in Robert Fitzgerald, The Collected Short Prose of James Agee (Calder and Boyars, 1972). Some unpublished treatments are included in Michael A. Lofaro and Hugh Davis, eds., James Agee Rediscovered: The Journals of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Other New Manuscripts (University of Tennessee Press, 2005). Here as well you can find the lacerating text, “America! Look at Your Shame!” On his involvement with Night of the Hunter, see Jeffrey Couchman’s The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film (Northwestern University Press, 2009).
No other American film critic has won so much attention. There are Ph.D. dissertations on all aspects of his work, and scholars have brought out volumes of analysis, historical investigations, and detailed accounts of early drafts, unpublished manuscripts, and other primary documents. (Agee, or his friends and family, apparently kept everything.) I have benefited enormously from Peter H. Ohlin’s Agee (Obolensky, 1966) and Laurence Bergreen’s James Agee: A Life (Dutton, 1984). See as well Neil Sinyard, “The Camera Eye of James Agee” in his Filming Literature: The Art of Screen Adaptation (Croon Helm, 1986) and Hugh Davis, The Making of James Agee (University of Tennessee Press, 2008). An excellent collection is Agee at 100: Centennial Essays on the Works of James Agee (University of Tennessee Press, 2012), which includes important primary research by John Wranovics and Jeffrey Couchman on Agee’s film work.
Crucial to Agee’s posthumous reputation are two Dwight Macdonald memoirs, the 1957 “James Agee” included in Against the American Grain (Random House, 1962), and the 1967 “Agee and the Movies,” in Dwight Macdonald on Movies (Prentice-Hall, 1969). John Huston recalls working with Agee in An Open Book (Knopf, 1980). Theodore Strauss’s comment on Agee’s style is in “No Jacks, No Giant Killers,” Screen Writer I, 1 (June 1945): 8. I take Ezra Goodman’s recollection of Agee as “an over-meticulous stylist” from his jaunty and jaundiced Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood (Simon and Schuster, 1961).
James Naremore provides a sensitive appreciation of Agee’s career in his recent collection, An Invention without a Future: Essays in Cinema (University of California Press, 2014); more on that book here.
You can see the 1955 compilation of Agee’s 1952 TV program on Abraham Lincoln on this DVD set. He introduces it and performs in it as well.
Although the 1960s canonized Agee as our finest film critic, his reputation has always been contested, probably most aggressively by his friend Manny Farber. (More on this next time.) A plus-and-minus assessment is Phillip Lopate’s “Nobility Overload,” published, with an irony its subject might appreciate, in The Nation.
A good overview of the press reactions to Monsieur Verdoux, both in America and abroad, can be found in Glenn Mitchell, The Chaplin Encyclopedia (Batsford, 1997), 191-198. Charles A. Maland provides a detailed account of the United Artists’ press campaign and critical reaction in Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image (Princeton University Press, 1989). Eric Bentley’s essay “Monsieur Verdoux and Theater” is included in his In Search of Theater (Vintage, 1953). Another influential discussion of the film that reflects the influence of New Criticism is Robert Warshow’s 1947 piece “Monsieur Verdoux,” included in his posthumous collection The Immediate Experience. Yet another contemporary review of interest comes from that reformed surrealist J. B. Brunius in “Monsieur Verdoux,” Horizon (March 1948), 166-178.
When I was first reading the critics of the 1940s, it was impossible to see Monsieur Verdooux. Not until its wide re-release in 1972 did I get a chance to discover what everybody had been talking about. (It had had an earlier re-release in 1964, synchronized with the publication of Chaplin’s autobiography.) You can, however, go straight to the handsome Criterion edition of the film. It contains much material of value, including a documentary on Chaplin’s press problems produced by Abbey Lustgarten and a lively essay by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.
I’m grateful to email correspondence with Kent Jones and Jim Naremore. Portraits of Agee shown here are by Helen Levitt.
And of course you will want to hear this. Maybe Agee should have written opera librettos.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947).