NEW YORK — Stanley Kauffmann, whose literate, tightly constructed movie reviews appeared in The New Republic for more than a half-century and set a standard for critical ease and erudition, died Wednesday in New York City. He was 97.
Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, said the cause was pneumonia. Mr. Kauffmann continued to write for the magazine until his last months.
Mr. Kauffmann’s varied careers included being an actor and a stage manager with a Manhattan repertory company, and as a book editor and a writer of vaguely philosophical novels, before he was named film critic at The New Republic in 1958. His reflective, highly wrought essays appeared weekly for the next 55 years, with a break in 1966, when he was briefly the chief theater critic for The New York Times.
He also doubled as the theater critic for The New Republic from 1969 to 1979, but it was as a film critic that his influence was felt, even if it was hard to define, since he belonged to no camp. His abiding interest in such theatrical givens as theme, story, dramatic construction, and character could make him seem old-fashioned and set him in direct opposition to the auteur school, with its emphasis on the formal aspects of film. Readers came to him for reviews that read like mini-tutorials, the product of a deeply literary mind and a graceful pen.
Although resolutely high-minded, with a strong bias toward foreign art films, he was not elitist. He championed Jane Fonda as an actress early in her career and preferred Britain’s lightly satirical Ealing comedies, such as “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” to the kitchen-sink realism of the early-1960s British New Wave. He forgave many sins in otherwise negligible films if they had a progressive social message.
“He was a literate, quarterly sort of writer, and to the extent that he had disciples, they wrote in quarterlies,” Phillip Lopate, the essayist and editor of “American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now,” said in 2011. “He had a good influence on film criticism by pushing it away from teenage gaga enthusiasm for the joy ride and toward adult responsibility.”
Stanley Jules Kauffmann was born in Manhattan. His father was a dentist, and the family was well off. He attended New York University, where he studied drama, and received a bachelor’s degree in 1935.
At the university he published dozens of one-act plays — potboilers with such titles as “Father Spills the Beans” and “Right Under Her Nose.” He also became an actor and stage manager with a repertory company affiliated with the university.
Internal dissension and the outbreak of World War II led to the company’s demise, and Mr. Kauffmann turned to novels, beginning with “The King of Proxy Street” in 1941. His abiding themes were free will and moral choice, explored in “The Hidden Hero,” “A Change of Climate,” and several other works, many of which he wrote while he was an editor at Bantam Books, where he discovered the Walker Percy novel “The Moviegoer.”
In 1944 his children’s play “Bobino,” about a child who can understand the language of animals, was produced at the New School for Social Research and transferred to Broadway. It was notable chiefly for being Marlon Brando’s first professional engagement; he played a guard who gets hit on the head and falls down.
“He was wonderful,” Mr. Kauffmann said of Brando in 1979. “He had a way of falling that made you know that he’d thought about how to do it a different way from the way every other actor had ever done it, and yet his fall fit into what was going on. It wasn’t merely freakish.”
In 1943, Mr. Kauffmann married Laura Cohen, who died in 2012. He left no immediate survivors.
An avid moviegoer, Mr. Kauffmann awoke to the possibility of film criticism in the early 1930s, when he read a review in The Nation by William Troy that compared scenes in two films stylistically. Suddenly, he wrote in an introduction to his anthology “American Film Criticism: From the Beginnings to Citizen Kane,” he realized that film could be criticized as an art in the same way as literature or theater.
“I’m not sure that my jaw actually dropped, but that’s the feeling I remember,” he wrote.
In the late 1950s he began writing reviews for The Reporter. When one failed to run, he sent it to The New Republic, which soon offered him a permanent post. He found the magazine’s smallish but earnest and well-educated readership ideally suited to his cool, intellectual style and literary grounding.
Reviewing “L’Avventura,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 tale of two wealthy Romans drawn to each other as they search for the man’s missing lover, he wrote: “The theme is upper-middle-class morality — not low enough to be corseted by suburban respectability, not high enough to be subject to noblesse oblige. These are Chekhov’s people in Italy today; and, like Chekhov’s people, we see them overripening before they drop. It is no accident that much of this film takes its indolent way across Sicily (Danilo Dolci’s Sicily! — with disease and rooted poverty screaming just offstage).”
Lopate called him “the only film critic who did not take sides in aesthetic debates,” adding: “This is peculiar. He did not align with the auteurs or the anti-auteurs, and he was far too gentlemanly to side with a critic like John Simon. He didn’t play favorites or fall in love the way Pauline Kael’’ did.
He could, however, deliver a tart putdown. He called the director Robert Altman “a walking death sentence on the prospect of American film,” dismissed “Casablanca” as “a slushy romance,” and called Luis Buñuel “a highly resourceful technician and a highly neurotic adolescent.”