Raymond Durgnat

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Raymond Durgnat
Born (1932-09-01)1 September 1932
London, England
Died 19 May 2002(2002-05-19) (aged 69)
London, England[1]
Occupation Film critic
Nationality British
Alma mater Pembroke College, Cambridge, Slade School of Fine Art

Raymond Durgnat (1 September 1932 – 19 May 2002) was a British film critic, who was born in London of Swiss parents. During his life he wrote for virtually every major English language film publication. In 1965 he published the first major critical essay on Michael Powell, who had hitherto been "fashionably dismissed by critics as a 'technician’s director'", as Durgnat put it.

His many books include Films and Feelings (1967), A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence (1970), and The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock (1974). He wrote principally for Films and Filming (in the 1960s), Film Comment (in the 1970s) and Monthly Film Bulletin (in the 1980s), and taught at various art schools and universities, notably St Martin's College and the Royal College of Art, where his students included Tony Scott. Toward the end of his life he was visiting professor at the University of East London.[2]


Durgnat was born in London in 1932 to Swiss parents who had emigrated to England in 1924.[1] Durgnat's family was of French Huguenot descent, and he was raised in a religious Calvinist household.[3] Durgnat's father worked as a window dresser but lost his job in 1932; afterwards, he opened a drapery shop.[3]

He was educated at the Sir George Monoux School, a state grammar school in Walthamstow, before serving his statutory two years of National Service, which he spent in the Education Corps in Hong Kong,[3] then a British possession. After leaving the army in 1954, he studied English Literature at Pembroke College, Cambridge.[1] With the filmmaker Don Levy, Durgnat became one of the first post-graduate students of film in Britain, studying under Thorold Dickinson (director of Gaslight and The Next of Kin) at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1960. The thesis he wrote there provided the source material for a number of his books.

In the early 1950s, he had written for Sight and Sound, but fell out with this British Film Institute publication after the exit of Gavin Lambert in 1957, often accusing it of elitism, puritanism, and upper-middle-class snobbery, notably in his 1963 essay "Standing Up For Jesus" (which appeared in the short-lived magazine Motion, which he co-edited with Ian Johnson) and in his 1965 piece "Auteurs and Dream Factories" (an edited version of which later appeared in Films and Feelings). From 1960 he was a regular presence in the monthly Films and Filming, writing reviews and serial essays.

In 1966–7 he was a major player in the nascent London Film-Makers' Co-op (LFMC),[4] then based at Better Books on Charing Cross Road, a hub of the emerging British underground. As the LFMC's chairman he was instrumental in promoting filmmakers such as Jeff Keen and Stephen Dwoskin, writing the first articles on both.

The rise of structural film (at the LFMC) and of structuralism (in the journal Screen) – and the far-left politics which accompanied the latter – saw Durgnat become an outsider figure within British film culture. In 1973 he moved to Canada, beginning a peripatetic teaching career in North America which took him to New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In the late 1970s he taught film at the University of California, San Diego alongside Manny Farber, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jonathan Rosenbaum.[5]

Returning to London at the close of the decade, he launched a series of withering assaults on the linguistics-based film theory that had come to dominate film academia over the previous decade; perhaps as a result, he did not published another new book until 1999. He did, however, return to write for the BFI publication Monthly Film Bulletin in the years before its merger with Sight and Sound in 1991, and contributed to that publication again later in the 1990s.

His last two books, including A Long Hard look at Psycho, were also published by the BFI. The Essential Raymond Durgnat, published in 2014 – again by the BFI – contains previously unpublished work, including a translation of an essay originally published in Positif on Michael Powell, on whom Durgnat began but did not complete a full-length book. It also includes such rare pieces as "Standing Up for Jesus". The collection was described by Adrian Martin as "the essential film book of this or almost any year".

Durgnat's socio-political approach – strongly supportive of the working classes and, almost as a direct result of this, American popular culture, and dismissive of left-wing intellectuals whom he accused of actually being petit-bourgeois conservatives in disguise, and dismissive of overt politicisation of film criticism, refusing to bring his own left-wing views overtly into his writings on film – can best be described as "radical populist".



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