Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Philip French moves on from The Observer

One of the UK’s greatest film critics retires after half a century in the dark

Sun, May 5, 2013, 18:24


A few weeks after Roger Ebert passed on, Philip French OBE, the most distinguished UK film critic still working, announces that, after 50 years, he is to retire from reviewing duties at The Observer. He didn’t actually become the main critic at the paper until 1978. But his first piece did indeed appear in 1963. In today’s paper, he reveals that it concerned an Anthony Newley film called The Small World of Sammy Lee.

So, growing up in a house that took that paper, I have been reading Philip French all my life. The Sundays that did not involve (at the very least) a cursory glance at a French column were rare indeed. He defined the job for two generations of readers.

Like all of us, he had particular enthusiasms. He always perked up when Hollywood made one of its rare returns to the Western. That passion even led him to write a rave review of the recent console game Red Dead Redemption. You should seek out his small book on Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. His study of the movie moguls is also a storming read. But there is, perhaps, in all his work, nothing so surprising as his pondering of RockStar’s free-rolling cowboy game. Here’s what he said:

“They’ve studied the exterior and interior lighting of influential cinematographers like Winton C Hoch, Tonino Delli Colli and Bruce Surtees, and produced a lovely pastiche of an Ennio Morricone score. The dialogues are convincing and, in the case of an elegiac exchange on the dying of the old west between the hero and a feisty cowgirl, touchingly eloquent. I haven’t felt as excited, so utterly enveloped, since the first time I drove into Monument Valley after decades spent watching movies set there.”

For all this late embrace of contemporary technology, I feel that he was, in recent years, not always well served by the modern way of doing things. It always struck me as unfair to open up French’s reviews to comments from readers. As is often the case, a disproportionate numbers of posts came from young idiots who had no respect for their elders. People would slag him off for issuing “spoilers” and would wonder how he ever got the job. Though an endlessly patient and charming fellow, French eventually revealed signs of a certain weariness at this gesture towards online democracy (if that word covers baying rabbles). Last summer, in his review of Searching for Sugarman, he wrote: “Some people believe that references to the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima in a review of Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers or the revelation by a movie critic that HM Stanley met David Livingstone in the film that bears their names constitute unforgivable ‘spoilers’.”

You tell them, Philip. Now he can rise above it all in peace. You are the man.