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How the 1950s changed the face of filmmaking

Cahiers du Cin'ema, the 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, edited by Jim Hillier. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 312 pp. $22.50. A good case, or at least an interesting one, can be made for the 1950s as the most exciting decade in film history.

This is especially true of Hollywood, for a couple of reasons. First, old masters like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock were still active, setting a lofty standard for younger filmmakers. Second, the now-defunct studio system was still in place -- providing the best financial and technical resources in the world, and starting (for fear of TV stealing its audience) to loosen its tight-fisted grip on the creative process.

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A good case can also be made for the 1950s as the most stimulating decade in the annals of film criticism. Credit for this goes largely to the French journal Cahiers du Cin'ema, which nurtured and published a small band of iconoclasts who later moved into active filmmaking and became the core of the influential New Wave group. Jean-Luc Godard and the late Fran,cois Truffaut were probably its most important members, with Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol right at their heels.

The key innovation of the Cahiers critics was the so-called auteur theory, which radically shook up traditional ways of seeing and evaluating movies. According to this view, true cinematic art doesn't spring from haphazard collaborations by studio-hired writers, performers, directors, cinematographers, and so forth. Rather, on those happy occasions when a film is manifestly a work of art, it's because a single creative personality (the ``author'' of the movie) has shaped it according to a special insight or vision.

That creative personality, moreover, is usually the director of the film, since the director has immediate control over the most important dimension of cinema: the visual dimension.

This theory caused quite an uproar at first. For one thing, it overturned the common-sense idea that scriptwriters (behind the camera) and actors (in front of the camera) are the primary figures in the movie-creative process. More important still, it suggested that directors might have individual styles and points of view, just as novelists and composers do.

Mainstream critics were willing to buy this in the case of directors like Orson Welles and Charles Chaplin, who wrote their own screenplays. But it seemed ornery to ascribe a ``personal'' creative style to a Ford western like ``The Searchers'' or a Hitchcock thriller like ``Rear Window,'' much less the weepy soap operas (``Imitation of Life'') or the flighty entertainments (``Monkey Business'') of a Douglas Sirk or a Howard Hawks, whose films had long been rejected or ignored by ``serious'' reviewers. Debate continues today over the more flamboyant Cahiers notions.

And the idea that cinema can serve as a medium for visual self-expression has encouraged a whole generation -- including the Cahiers critics themselves -- to approach filmmaking with an aesthetic and philosophical seriousness that had hitherto been rare in movies.

Jim Hillier's collection of Cahiers articles -- the first of four planned volumes -- concentrates on the '50s, assessing the pre-New Wave cinema of France, as well as classical Hollywood film and Italy's neo-realist school. It also treats such technical issues as the essence of mise en sc`ene and the advent of CinemaScope.

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In choosing not to include important articles that are available elsewhere, Hillier puts himself in the awkward position of eliminating the most celebrated and influential writings of all, such as Truffaut's polemic against the ``tradition of quality'' in postwar French film. That problem aside, however, this is a fascinating and provocative book that casts a keen light on the ideas (and by extension, the films) of such astonishing cin'eastes as Godard and Rivette, while also showing their affinities with the incisive thought of Andr'e Bazin, the group's mentor.

Compared with the majority of today's film critics, the Cahiers writers were giants, boasting a knowledge of literature, art, and music -- not just modernist, but classical as well -- that puts most of their followers to shame. This collection deserves a wide readership among casual and committed filmgoers alike.

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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