The critic Raymond Durgnat died 20 years ago this month, more than half a century after his first appearance in Sight and Sound. In between he wrote an incalculable number of articles for everything from the British Journal of Aesthetics to the porn magazine Knave, and turned out upwards of 14 books, the last of them, A Long Hard Look at Psycho, in the year of his death.
Eclectic, impressionistic, eccentric, he wrote against the grain but often found himself vindicated later. He had first written seriously about Psycho (1960) when it was new and widely being reviewed as a bad-taste joke. Instead, he characteristically put himself with the audience, which he found to be “shocked and happy, chuckling and still gasping”. Here are nine times Ray Durgnat spoke his truth.
1. Michael Powell
Even before his controversial serial killer thriller Peeping Tom (1960), which Durgnat had praised in the same breath as Psycho, Powell was never the critics’ darling – certainly not among the highbrows, who were steeped in Eng. Lit. but visually semi-literate. Cleaving to a “simplistic distinction between ‘style’ and ‘content’”, they had dismissed Powell as a mere stylist. “To these displaced persons a film’s visual qualities are only ‘style’”, wrote Durgnat. For him, style mattered, and it was only through appreciation of its “visual qualities” that a film’s content could be deduced. In 1965, he wrote the first major critical essay on Powell for the British auteurist magazine Movie, beginning the process of canonisation.
Not that Durgnat was an auteurist. For the critics of Cahiers du cinéma, auteurs were not A-list directors with script approval and final cut, but rather anonymous toilers on Hollywood’s assembly line whose films, when seen in rapid succession, revealed recondite continuities to a cabbalistic elite among cinemagoers. For Durgnat, these continuities didn’t in themselves justify wading through a lot of so-so films, while the intense focus on a select group of directors overlooked the extent to which Hollywood filmmaking was a collective enterprise, and its output constituted a group style with relatively minor variations.
3. Alfred Hitchcock
Unlike most of the auteurists’ favourites, Hitchcock had a distinctive style that was visible to ordinary film fans, and there was no great obstacle to him being considered a major artist. Unless you were Durgnat, whose 1974 book The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock is in some respects the case against. Much of Durgnat’s childhood “was lived in Hitchcock’s London” – he was brought up in Chingford and Walthamstow – “at that social level”, and he saw Hitchcock’s preoccupation with suspense as deriving from his lower-middle-class “fear of non-respectability, fear of falling, morally or socially”.
4. Jean-Luc Godard
Although he wrote one of the first books on the French New Wave, Durgnat was among Godard’s staunchest detractors – or is it more complicated than that? “Godard is of Swiss Calvinist stock,” begins his 1967 listicle ‘Asides on Godard’, and so was Durgnat. The crux of his critique was that Godard “is a systematic doubter” whose “grey, ascetic images reduce the world to a concept of itself”, but Durgnat was hardly an affirmative writer, being drawn to ambiguities and contrarieties. His writings on Godard and his “grasshopper-mind tendencies” frequently verge on self-portraiture – probably consciously. “There’s always an antithesis”, he wrote in one such essay, seemingly about them both.
5. Sight and Sound and the BFI
“Being boycotted by the BFI is a handicap”, wrote Durgnat to his mentor Thorold Dickinson in 1977, “because by not being nominated for film festivals, contacts, etc, I never get to meet people – which was probably largely my own fault in the first place.” He had blotted his copybook in the early 1960s with a critique of Sight and Sound – “What masquerades as vaguely leftish goodness is really middle-class fear of the brutal and licentious proletariat.” His main outlet was instead Films and Filming, now best known as the most prominent gay-coded magazine from the years before decriminalisation.
6. Structural film
Durgnat helped found the London Film-Maker’s Co-op, “an organisation which helps to distribute films that might be too avant-garde, way out, or too simple, to be accepted through the usual channels”, he wrote in 1967. But the filmmakers Durgnat liked, such as Stephen Dwoskin and Jeff Keen, were “loners, not joiners, having little to share with a Co-op or one another”, and soon he and his “motley crew” were ousted. By the 1970s the Co-op had become synonymous with “structural film”, a variant of New York minimalism whose “pure-film formalism” was anathema to him.
Different thing. In the 1970s the nascent discipline of academic film studies became identified with Parisian structuralism and post-structuralism, modes of thought shaped by the influence of structural linguistics, associated with then-fashionable names like Roland Barthes and Christian Metz. Durgnat made himself “public enemy no. 1” (again) by arguing that this purported new dawn in film theory was really yet another instance of the Eng. Lit. brigade coming ill-equipped to deal with a primarily visual medium. There’s always an antithesis: as he wrote in 1975, plenty of his own stuff was proto-post-structuralist.
8. Robert Altman’s Popeye
Altman’s critically maligned 1980 bomb, a kind of live-action cartoon, led Durgnat to write an extraordinary two-part defence that is also probably the most lucid exposition of his ideas on aesthetics, published in Films and Filming’s successor mag, Films on Screen and Video, in 1982. The central question was the nature of the photographic image, which even cinestructuralists tended to treat as straightforwardly ‘realistic’. Drawing on his years of teaching art theory, Durgnat argued otherwise, in ways strikingly relevant to the digital era.
9. Raymond Durgnat
“Ray is perhaps the antithesis of the film critic”, said Stephen Dwoskin, “because he is constantly assessing his own role as a critic, as a writer, in the very same way, and at the very same time, that he assesses a film, or the works of a filmmaker.” For Durgnat himself, “so often it doesn’t matter if a critic is wrong. Just having to adapt to him adapting to somebody else is a very good form of enlargement and learning about how people feel about things.” It isn’t about awarding points, or scoring them.
Psycho is back in cinemas in a 4K restoration from 27 May 2022