Britain lost one of its longest-serving and most influential critical voices this morning, as Philip French, former chief film critic for The Observer, passed away aged 82. French’s death, caused by a heart attack following a period of ill health, comes two years after he stepped down from the prized position at The Guardian’s Sunday sister paper, where he had written on film for 52 years.
The news was greeted with palpable sorrow in the international critical community; closer to home, French’s former front-row seat at London’s Soho Screening Rooms was left pointedly empty at this afternoon’s press shows. Meanwhile, many of his colleagues took to Twitter to share their tributes. Chief among them was French’s own successor at The Observer, Mark Kermode, who described him as “simply the finest film critic in the world.” “His noble, erudite writing elevated film criticism to the level of art … he inspired us all.”
Kermode speaks for many critics and readers alike. Elastically literate yet never exclusively high-minded, French’s prose engaged rigorously with film as a visual and narrative form, while demonstrating an understanding of humanity, philosophy and art that lay well beyond cinema culture. A man of catholic tastes and broad ability, he maintained a successful parallel career as a BBC radio producer from 1959 to 1990. But it was film that remained his first love, fostered from early childhood through wartime years via weekly cinema trips in his hometown of Liverpool. His favorite films, as listed in his contribution to Sight & Sound magazine’s 2012 Greatest Films of All Time poll, included Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” Vincente Minnelli’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” and Louis Malle’s “Au revoir, les enfants.”
An Oxford law graduate who earned a journalism scholarship to Indiana University, French began his career modestly as a reporter at the Bristol Evening Post in 1957; five years later, he was appointed The Observer’s deputy film critic, ascending to the chief role in 1978. He also wrote for outlets including the New Statesman, The Times and Sight & Sound, and penned several books on film, including 1973’s “Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre” — as authoritative a study of the oater as has ever been published.
It is French’s reliably incisive, witty reviews of the week’s new releases, however, for which he will be most fondly remembered by film lovers. He was to Britain as trusted and treasured a film guide and educator as Roger Ebert was to America, rewarded with both an Order of the British Empire and a BAFTA Fellowship. It’s the kind of sustained, storied career that hardly seems imaginable in the current climate of film criticism, continuing even after his official retirement: After handing the reins to Kermode, he continued to pen a weekly Classic DVD column for The Observer, revisiting and appreciating the films that had marked and highlighted his life and career. His very last published words, posted on Sunday, were in celebration of the delicious 1955 Ealing comedy “The Ladykillers” — as fittingly bright and British a note as French could have hoped to go out on.
French is survived by his wife, Kersti, and their three sons, Karl, Patrick and bestselling crime writer Sean.