Over the years, The New Republic has employed some distinguished film critics, including Otis Ferguson, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael (very briefly) and… 23-year-old Philip Roth, recruited to fill a vacant slot in June 1957.
TNR’s last movie review, published in the March 4, 1957 issue, had covered Martin Ritt’s liberal waterfront film, Edge of the City; the critic Arthur S. Barron was identified as “a Soviet expert with a taste for films.” Roth was teaching freshman English at the University of Chicago. According to his biographer Claudia Roth Pierpont, the young professor got $25 per review which he put towards the purchase of a used car.
Roth first reviewed the Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn musical Funny Face, directed by Stanley Donen, which he analyzed in terms of Hepburn’s faux innocent persona. He subsequently wrote, mainly unfavorably, on Robert Rossen’s Island in the Sun (a movie that “dares to present what it does not understand”), Henry King’s The Sun Also Rises (in a parody of Hemingway’s style), Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon (also with Hepburn, “certainly a handsome young woman, but there continues to be something a bit wearing about an elf that knows it’s an elf”), Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Richard Brooks’s Something of Value, Fred Zinneman’s A Hatful of Rain, Edward Dmytryk’s Raintree County, George Cukor’s Wild is the Wind (“sharp, sensible drama”), David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (“engrossing and stirring”), the Charles Vidor remake of A Farewell to Arms, and two more musicals, George Sidney’s Pal Joey and Cukor’s Les Girls. I mention the directors although with one exception Roth never does.
Roth also covered TV, with perhaps greater enjoyment, writing parodies of newsmen Mike Wallace and Edward R. Murrow, an ambivalent appreciation of Sid Caesar, and a satire of Miss America. It’s worth noting that Roth was either assigned or gravitated to “serious” Hollywood melodramas with big stars. Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, a movie employing a metaphor he might have appreciated, had just departed theaters when he began reviewing. Notable movies released during Roth’s tenure include Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, Douglas Sirk’s Tarnished Angels (adapted from Faulkner’s Pylon), and three Sam Fuller films (China Gate, Run of the Arrow, and Forty Guns), along with Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria and Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night.
Two masterpieces, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, were poised to open (as was Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali) but Roth left his reviewing gig when he departed Chicago for New York in the spring of 1958, replaced at TNR by Stanley Kauffmann. Save for the eight month Kael interregnum in 1966 when he was appointed chief drama critic at the New York Times, Kauffmann held the spot for 45 years until his death in 2013.