Review: I Found It At The Movies

Clive Sinclair's French toast


By Philip French
Carcanet, £19.95

Back in the day, a New York detective's station boss was known - in the jargon - as his rabbi. Well, when it comes to the movies, Philip French is mine. Okay, his reviews, which have appeared regularly in the Observer for longer than I can remember, are not holy writ, but they are surely talmudic.

Like every great sage, he knows the sources, as will quickly become apparent to any reader of the essays that constitute I Found It At The Movies (the title itself being a joke at the expense of Pauline Kael's I Lost It At The Movies).

The first of which is a tribute to French's own rabbi (My Mentor), the critic David Sylvester, who proposed a new taxonomy for humanity: everyone, regardless of birth, being either Greek, Roman or Jewish. I have it on good authority that Sylvester placed French firmly in the third category. This is apparent not only in his love of pilpul, but also not infrequently in his subject matter.

For example, his thoughtful review of Graham Greene's own movie reviews does not shy away from the fact that this otherwise exemplary writer had a streak of malice when it came to matters Semitic.

French places Greene's description of watching the "dark alien executive tipping his cigar ash behind the glass partition in Wardour Street", in the same league as T S Eliot's infamous Bleistein with a Cigar. But French is a generous man, and he chooses to end his essay on a note of reconciliation.

It seems that, in post-war years when he had already begun to edit out his pejorative references to Jews, Greene teamed up with Alexander Korda (a prime pre-war target) to produce one of the all-time greats: The Third Man.

In the essay on Hollywood and the Holocaust, French is equally open-minded: he lists Claude Lanzmann's Shoah as "among the greatest films ever made" but he acknowledges that Spielberg's Schindler's List also has an important role to play in keeping alive the memory of that unparalleled catastrophe.

I noticed one misprint in the book: "ethnics" instead of "ethics", perhaps in unconscious acknowledgement of Sylvester's thesis. But even though French clearly justifies his status as an honorary Jew, he is also a man of devoutly catholic (with a small "c") tastes.

I Found It At The Movies contains further essays on favourite directors including Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, and - of course - John Ford. Britain may be deficient when such lists are compiled but, when it comes to movie critics, we have in Philip French one of the finest.

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