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Robin Wood, 78; film critic respected work of Hitchcock

ROBIN WOOD ROBIN WOOD (Harry Oldmeadow/ File 1992)
By William Grimes
New York Times / December 24, 2009

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NEW YORK - Robin Wood, a film critic who published the first serious work in English on Alfred Hitchcock and who applied formal rigor and moral seriousness in his book-length appraisals of Howard Hawks, Arthur Penn, Ingmar Bergman, and other directors, died Friday at his home in Toronto.

He was 78.

The cause was complications of leukemia, said Richard Lippe, his longtime partner.

Mr. Wood, who was British by birth and education but spent much of his career teaching in Canada, made a remarkable debut as a critic. While teaching English at a secondary school, he placed an article on Hitchcock’s “Psycho’’ in Cahiers du Cinema, the celebrated journal associated with the French New Wave and auteur theory. With this validation, he began writing for a variety of British publications and followed up with a series of influential studies of important directors.

Influenced by the Cambridge critics F.R. Leavis and A.P. Rossiter, whose morally committed approach to literary criticism galvanized a generation of British university students, Mr. Wood never lost sight of the ethical and political aspects of film. This tendency became more acute after he came out as a gay man in the 1970s and took a sharp turn to the political left.

He had come to believe, he told the reference work Contemporary Authors in 2005, that there was only one defensible motive for writing about film: “To contribute, in however modest a way, to the possibility of social revolution, along lines suggested by radical feminism, Marxism, and gay liberation.’’

Robert Paul Wood was born in Richmond, Surrey, on Feb. 23, 1931.

A fractious child, he was often taken by a maid to the movies to get him out of his parents’ hair and soon developed an infatuation with the Hollywood comedies of Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, and Cary Grant.

After receiving a degree in English from Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1953 and a diploma in education a year later, he taught English at secondary schools in Britain and France. At one, he started a film society and encouraged students to write critical appraisals of the films they watched.

Following his own advice, he wrote an essay on “Psycho’’ and submitted it to the British journal Sight & Sound, whose editor returned it with the comment that Mr. Wood had failed to see that the film was intended as a joke.

Infuriated, Mr. Wood sent the essay to Cahiers du Cinema, which, despite its contempt for British film criticism, accepted the article, a careful teasing out of the themes of sex, death, money, and compulsion in the film. The Cahiers cachet afforded him instant entree to the British journal Movie, to which he began to contribute in 1962.

“I began to realize that all of these films that I had loved in the past could be taken seriously, that some real artistic claims could be made for them,’’ he told Your Flesh magazine in 2006. “That was a revelation, and really all I needed to understand. So it was purely from that article in Cahiers that I became a film critic. I think if they had turned it down, I probably wouldn’t have written about film anymore, and I would probably still be an English teacher today.’’

Mr. Wood, a penetrating critic with a graceful prose style, soon emerged as one of Britain’s most influential film writers, a reputation enhanced by the groundbreaking “Hitchcock’s Films’’ (1965).

“A lot of people thought it was ridiculous, this idea of taking Hitchcock seriously,’’ he told Your Flesh. “He was seen as simply an entertainer; one was merely amused by his films, had a few shocks, a few laughs, and that was it.’’

A series of important monographs followed: “Howard Hawks’’ (1968), “Arthur Penn’’ (1968), “Ingmar Bergman’’ (1969), and “The Apu Trilogy’’ (1971), which dealt with Satyajit Ray’s work. With the critic Ian Cameron he wrote “Antonioni’’ (1968), and with Michael Walker he wrote “Claude Chabrol’’ (1970). Many of his essays were collected in “Personal Views: Explorations in Film’’ (1976).

In 1973 Mr. Wood was invited to create a film studies program at the University of Warwick, in Coventry, where he lectured until accepting a post as professor of film studies at York University in Toronto in 1977. He retired in 1990.

In addition to Lippe, he leaves his children, Simon, Carin, and Fiona, and five grandchildren.

In his later film criticism, Mr. Wood concentrated on politics, specifically sexual politics. A 1977 speech to the British Film Institute, “Responsibility of a Gay Film Critic,’’ gave notice of his new critical program, which he pursued in “Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan’’ (1986) and “Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond’’ (1998). With colleagues at York, he started a radical film studies journal, CineAction, in 1985.

His enthusiasm for Hitchcock never flagged. In 1989 he returned to the subject in “Hitchcock Revisited,’’ appraising the director from new angles but maintaining his admiration. “I think the best of Hitchcock films continue to fascinate me because he’s obviously right inside them, he understands so well the male drive to dominate, harass, control, and at the same time he identifies strongly with the woman’s position,’’ he told the World Socialist website in 2000. Hitchcock’s films, he continued, “are a kind of battleground between these two positions.’’