Mr. Sarris had been a critic at the Village Voice for only two years when, in 1962, he wrote one of the most influential essays in the history of film, “Notes on the Auteur Theory.”
Published in the magazine Film Culture, the essay maintained that a director is responsible for the vision of a film and, by extension, for its artistic success or failure. (“Auteur” is French for author.)
The idea originated in an essay in 1954 by French director Francois Truffaut, but Mr. Sarris’s essay gave the notion critical momentum in the United States. He helped establish the primacy of the director in the minds of filmgoers and critics, as the idea of the auteur became a central organizing principle of film history.
Mr. Sarris also was known for interpreting films along the lines of literature. Where many earlier critics had analyzed the political, social and Freudian implications of film, Mr. Sarris was more interested in its expressive possibilities.
In his first review for the Village Voice in 1960, he brought a fresh perspective to film criticism by single-handedly raising the reputation of Alfred Hitchcock, who had often been dismissed as a commercial director of formulaic potboilers. Mr. Sarris declared Hitchcock “the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today.”
Mr. Sarris voiced early support for Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman, as well as American directors Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and Samuel Fuller. There had always been exceptions, of course, but throughout Hollywood history directors had largely been seen as hired hands who jumped from one project to the next, shouting “Action!” Largely because of Mr. Sarris’s influence, directors came to be seen as having a coherent body of work that built from one film to the next.
“What Andrew did, especially for young people,” director Martin Scorsese told the New York Times in 2009, “was to make you aware that the American cinema, which you had been told was just a movie factory, had real artistic merit. He led us on a treasure hunt.’’
In 1968, Mr. Sarris expanded on the auteur theory with his book “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968.” In the hugely influential book, he boldly named 14 directors to a pantheon of all-time greats and banished everyone to lower rungs of moviemaking greatness.
Hitchcock, John Ford, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir and Orson Welles were included among Mr. Sarris’s 14 all-time greats — but the arbitrary nature of his list led to fierce arguments among film buffs.
It also exacerbated a running feud between Mr. Sarris and Pauline Kael, the longtime film critic of the New Yorker magazine.