WHEN THE LIGHTS GO DOWN, the latest collection of Pauline Kael's New Yorker writings, brings together her reviews for the past half decade. (An earlier gathering, Deeper into Movies, pulled down a National Book Award six years back.) I expect I am like many New Yorker readers in flipping through the magazine for the cartoons first, then making a beeline for the movie reviews; I rarely get to eavesdrop on the Talk of the Town. "The New Yorker isn't as good as it used to be, and it never was," a captious observer recently cracked. Certainly it hasn't been as good since Kael left; so this fat volume of just under 600 oversized pages reminds us. I had better level with readers and admit straightaway that lots of the over 250 films she writes about I haven't seen. You have to get paid to let yourself in for things like The Incredible Sarah or The Gauntlet or Goin South. They and others live, paradoxically, only because Kael has taken the trouble to squash them.

She gives pride of place not to a review but to "The Man From Dream City," her richly detailed profile of Archibald Alexander Leach, probably better known to most as Cary Grant. Kael fills readers in on his history. The son of a pants-presser (probably, like Douglas Fairbanks' dad, of Jewish extraction) in a Bristol garment factory, Grant early escaped into show biz by joining Bob Pender's vaudeville troupe, found his way with them to New York and the Palace, then fell upon almost obligatory hard times -- for a time he advertised Steeplechase Park as a stilt-walker on the Coney Island boardwalk. Then came the bright lights of Broadway musicals, and, in 1932, his Hollywood metamorphosis into Cary Grant.

He makes a wonderful subject. Grant has outlived Gable and Flynn and other heartthrobs of his generation without ever losing his magic. You don't find him demeaning himself with grandpa parts in made-for-TV movies or swapping pseudo-profundities with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. Nor does he hawk tires or antacids or decaffeinated coffee; not even the Faberge line, although he is an executive with them. Grant doesn't open up to interviewers, even if they happen to be famous film critics; the personal dimension is missing from Kael's profile (as it is not, elsewhere in the volume, from her revealing remarks on bloody Sam Peckinpah). But she analyzes convincingly Grant's wide and lasting appeal to both sexes. "Who else," Kael asks, "could demonstrate that sophistication didn't have to be a sign of weakness -- that it could be the polished, fun-loving style of those who were basically tough?" And for women -- "Cary Grant is your dream date -- not sexless but sex with civilized grace, sex with mystery. He's the man of the big city, triumphantly suntanned."

Along the way Kael gets in lots of movie history -- Grant made 72 films over three decades -- and she is especially good on the rise and fall of screwball comedy. She also commits a howler when she describes Grant as a cockney. Cockney is a London, more especially East End, dialect; Bristol Grant is no more a cockney than are the liverpudlian Beatles, lower class though their origins may be.

The reviews that follow are full of good things, as when Kael says, apropos of The Romantic Englishwoman, that "Losey is deep on the surface," or, of George Burns, as Lewis in The Sunshine Boys, that he has "the repose of a tortoise, his eyes gleaming and alert." I've often wondered why Richard Chamberlain -- a presentable, hard-working actor who has even had to a go at Hamlet -- has never become a star. Kael finds an answer in "the blank, masklike beauty of a face that isn't expressive -- and there's nothing going on when he's on the screen." He's the male counterpart -- although she doesn't suggest that -- of Gayle Hunnicutt. Kael puts her finger on something essential when she notes the undercurrent of silliness in Visconti's movies, a silliness which his solemn pacing kept audiences from cottoning on to. Who but Visconti would have cast Alain Delon as his prizefighter in Rocco and His Borthers?

When movies are based on a book -- Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or Thackeray's Barry Lyndon, or -- less obviously -- Heinrich von Kleist's The Marquise of O . . . -- you can usually depend upon Kael not only to have read it, but also to come up with something perceptive about the book as well as the film. Her special feeling for opera makes her the ideal reviewer of Bergman's film of Mozart's The Magic Flute. On the minus side, I think there's more to Barry Lyndon than she sees in it ("a coffee-table movie"), and doubt that it will ever have, as she tentatively predicts, a camp appeal. Kael also underreacts to Star Wars, a picture she disparages as "synthesized from the mythology of serials and old comic books." With its mode of assimilative allusiveness, Star Wars has a lot more working for it than that. On the other hand, Kael goes all mushy on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, "a beautiful, big, enjoyable film that sends you out happy." I found it a beautiful, big, dumb movie, suffering from narrative malnutrition as it goes about demonstrating its dubious thesis that the crazies are right. Kael of course recognizes the script's thinness, but this doesn't bother her as much as it might.

Never mind. Whether Kael is right or not, she is almost always hugely readable. (I say almost because sometimes she rattles on for too long about dud pictures that aren't worth her -- and our -- time: the phony and crassly commercial Hustle, for example, with Burt Reynolds, to which she gives almost four pages.) Kael has her special idiom, by terms racy or eloquent, pithy or loquacious, that sets her apart from the others. She is a New York New Yorker writer, with a pungent style that includes its leavening of Yiddish: klutzes, schlump, schlocky and schlocked, klunky, twerpy, and crap. Garbagizing I can live without. Burt Lancaster's Professor in Visconti's Conversation Piece is "the ultimate putz -- he's being cuckolded by everybody." Clearly Kael doesn't know what a putz is, and in a family newspaper I don't feel compelled to explain. When she writes putz, is she thinking schnook?

Kael, for her part, feels no compulsion to find space for afterthoughts: There is no previously unpublished material in When the Lights Go Down. Immediacy is her game. In the author's note to Deeper into Movies in 1973, Kael wrote, "I suspect that my reviews gain rather than lose from the speed and urgency of making deadlines and reaching the public before the verdicts are in on a film." No doubt. Yet movies invite re-viewing as well as reviewing. What bowled us over a few years ago may come across as curiously flat the second time around. Afterthoughts, labeled as such, surely don't diminish the authenticity of original responses. An author who merely collects and republishes is producing a new old book; Kael gets another ride on a free transfer. Still, it is hard to begrudge the critic a trip which will give her fellow travelers so many familiar pleasures.

Now and then, Stanley Kauffman, Kael's opposite number on The New Republic, allows himself the luxury of reconsiderations in Before My Eyes, the fourth gathering of his film criticism. (Kauffmann also includes a grab bag of "reviewings" of older movies and pieces on film books, themes, and the like.) His occasional revisions and postscripts help. Thus he has taken the trouble to see Autumn Sonata, by the Bergmans (Igmar and Ingrid), three times, and to examine it twice. Kauffmann responds to the uproar over The Deer Hunter, especially after it won its Academy Awards. Patiently he makes the point that the picture is not about the Vietnam war but about maleness as experienced by a trio of steelworkers from a Russian-American community in Pennsylvania; the denunciations, especially in England, by those who have called the movie "racist" and "a criminal violation of the truth," are beside the point. The argument comes all the more effectively from one whose own antiwar credentials are impeccable. a

Kauffmann has a low disgust threshold. Shampoo he finds "facile, cheap, and dirty." Karel Reisz's The Gambler, with its pretentious and empty script, "ranks with his worst." Malle's Pretty Baby is rotten, the unadmirable Crichton's Coma, "worse than rotten." Lots of people have been offended by Pretty Baby, concerned as it is with a 12-year-old (Brooke Shields) in a Storyville sporting house during the First World War. But Malle's film is also about the photographer E. J. Bellocq, and about the jazz for which New Orleans is famous. Kauffmann notices the jazz strains at the film's beginning, but that's it -- nothing about Bob Greene's incomparable piano arrangements of Jelly Roll Morton on the soundtrack. A pity.

Kauffmann is very good, however, on Woody Allen, whose films from Love and Death in 1975 to last year's Manhattan are here brought together. The critic neatly puts down Interiors as "that tour of the Ingmar Bergman Room at Madame Tussaud's," and takes Allen's measure when he zeroes in on the latter's mode of self-conscious narcissism. Kauffmann is also good on Hitchcock's Family Plot; he resists being intimidated by the master's reputation -- a relief. I think he gets Julia down just right when he describes it as "first-class middle-brow beautiful film-making." The same might be said of other glossy Zinneman movies. They are the cinematic equivalent of Book-of-the-Month-Club main choices. Kauffmann is more a Reader's Subscription type.

This is to suggest that he is highly literate. He writes precisely, not confusing parameters with perimeters; and, while knowledgeable about art directors, editors, cinematographers and the like, he also knows books and plays -- he can drop an offhand but apposite reference to Henry James's "Art of Fiction"; and say, of the narrative in The Passenger, that it is "usable and could make either a neat ironical thriller in the Ambler-Greene vein or a more complex work in Pirandello country."

Kauffmann is a critic worth taking the trouble to disagree with. He isn't swamped by The Godfather, so his dismissal of the sequel -- "a vastly bloated mediocrity" -- is predictable; but I still find the unresponsiveness to Coppola's profoundly popular and popularly profound art disappointing. He condescends to Polanski's Chinatown, which might have been "a good sinister thriller" were it "shorter and less consciously paradigmatic"; also to Mel Brooks; Young Frankenstein, which is "like a sketch from the old Sid Caesar show, for which Brooks wrote, spun out 10 times as long." But Chinatown is rather more than a tolerable thriller, and Young Frankenstein more than a TV revue sketch. I've seen both films more than once over the years, and never have the diverse audiences in this country and in England been even slightly restive.

In the first shot of Taxi Driver, steam billowing out from a manhole cover, "the director, Martin Scorsese, tells us two things: that his film is about the pressures that boil up in a big city today and that the level of his metaphoric invention is low." But that image of gushing steam is infernal: it also tells us that New York is Hell. So maybe the level of Scorsese's metaphoric invention isn't so low. Still, Kauffmann's view of this film is a useful corrective to Kael, who waxes rather overly enthusiastic about Taxi Driver. In fact both critics are extremely welcome. Kauffmann isn't in Kael's class perhaps -- one hasn't the same sense, with him, of untapped reserves; that he'd have much more to say if only he had the space. But both represent humanely articulate voices applying their own rigorous standards, under the pressures of the journalistic moment, to one of the liveliest of the modern lively arts.