Between 1942 and 1948, Agee juggled regular film critic chairs for Time and this periodical, sometimes filing conflicting reviews of the same film. His reviews in The Nation tended to be lengthier and more essayistic; those for Time were shorter, breezier and more pinned to celebrities. Before he quit to write Hollywood screenplays, he left a substantial record of moviegoing that has inspired many reviewers since, while irritating the hell out of others.
I consider Agee one of the five major American film critics, the others being Otis Ferguson, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. He is always stimulating to read on the movies, but of the five I disagree with him the most. It may well be a mistake to evaluate a critic on the basis of whether we share his judgments today, since we tend to forgive, in the name of period charm, certain melodramatic or sentimental false notes that would have rubbed a discerning contemporaneous viewer the wrong way. Still, again and again, he seems to get it wrong: "Welles has little if any artistry," Billy Wilder makes pictures that are like "a good Ph.D. thesis," Ida Lupino's great performance in The Hard Way has an "expression of strained intensity [that] would be less quickly relieved by a merciful death than by Ex-Lax." He has little of Farber's visual/formal acuity. Compare Farber's and W.S. Poster's complex appreciation of Preston Sturges with Agee's schoolmaster grading of Sturges as "a never-quite-artist of not-quite-genius."
Agee was always on-the-one-handing/on-the-other-handing in his movie reviews. His torturous judgments, particularly on the typical Hollywood product, became almost comic in their whirling-dervish pivots. Frequently he would settle the matter with a series of fuzzy, decorous moral encomiums such as "noble," "healthful," "pure." For instance, take this assessment: "I very much like Olivia de Havilland's performance [in The Dark Mirror]. She has for a long time been one of the prettiest women in movies; lately she has not only become prettier than ever but has started to act, as well. I don't see evidence of any remarkable talent, but her playing is thoughtful, quiet, detailed, and well sustained, and since it is founded, as some more talented playing is not, in an unusually healthful-seeming and likable temperament, it is an undivided pleasure to see."
Agee could never quit bemoaning the sorry state of filmmaking in the 1940s, which in retrospect looks like a pretty good era. He lacked Otis Ferguson's savvy enthusiasm for the collective craft of the well-made studio picture. More and more, Agee seemed dead set against commercial filmmaking, period. "Quite a few Hollywood people amused themselves as best they could in their captivity by making such nostalgic and amusing, if far from original, melodramas as The Killers, The Big Sleep, and The Dark Corner. Such harmless little slumming parties were treated by a number of critics, reviewers, and editorial writers as if they were a sinister mirror of American morals, psychology, society, and art." So much for film noir.
While reviewing the film at hand, Agee always seemed to be willing another kind of movie into existence. He wanted, he said, to see pictures "made on relatively little money, as much at least by gifted amateurs as by professionals," shot on location, using nonprofessional actors, eschewing music scores, not "hindered by commercial work in studios." Impatient with set-building artifice, he became the prophet and avatar for a shoestring, independent cinema of social themes, which he found at the time in war documentaries and Italian neorealism. (He also lent his energies to this type of filmmaking, participating in Helen Levitt's In the Street and Sidney Meyers's The Quiet One.) Not surprisingly, Agee championed Open City and Shoeshine when they first debuted, mounting a very high horse indeed for the latter: "The elementary beginning of true reason, that is, of reason which involves not merely the forebrain but the entire being, resides, I should think, in the ability to recognize oneself, and others, primarily as human beings, and to recognize the ultimate absoluteness of responsibility of each human being. (I can most briefly suggest what I mean by a genuine recognition of human beings as such by recommending that you see the Italian movie Shoeshine and that you compare it in this respect with almost any other movie you care to name.) I am none too sure of my vocabulary, but would suppose this can be called the humanistic attitude."
It's astonishing that he could get away with this arch, Elizabethan style in a movie review. W.H. Auden famously applauded Agee's column in The Nation as "the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today," while acknowledging that "I do not care for movies very much and I rarely see them." No doubt Auden liked it that Agee was sticking it to Hollywood, while sustaining a formidably literate tone that the great poet placed "in that very select class--the music critiques of Berlioz and Shaw are the only other members I know--of newspaper work which has permanent literary value."
Agee thus became the darling of an educated middle-class readership that was suspicious of popular culture and cinephilia. He had little feeling for genre and little willingness to make excuses in its name. Nowadays, we might judge Minnelli's The Clock to be as fine a humanistic statement in its way as Shoeshine. But Agee, while pulling for it, could only see its virtues as hopelessly compromised and derided the "softness" of its intrusive music score and a romance plot he judged safe and saccharine.