Philip French

Film Critic

Born: August 28, 1933

Died: October 27, 2015

Philip French, the film critic who has died at the age of 82, estimated that he had watched more than 14,000 films in his lifetime. He could be relied on to have something interesting and insightful to say about nearly all of them.

A reviewer who gave equal weight to arthouse and genre movies, with a particular passion for the Western, French was the Observer's film critic for 35 years before retiring in 2013 (although even then he continued to write DVD reviews until shortly before his death). "Whenever I read Philip French's elegant and thoughtful criticism," the director Martin Scorsese said in 2013, "I felt like I was in the company of someone who not only loved cinema but who felt a sense of responsibility toward it as an art form."

Born in Liverpool in 1933, the son of an insurance salesman, he was educated at Bristol Grammar School. After national service (part of which he served at the Suez Canal Zone), he studied law at Oxford before becoming a reporter on the Bristol Evening Post. He then joined the BBC as a producer and took over the programme The Critics, a forerunner to Radio 4's Saturday Review. On air the stutter that afflicted him never manifested itself.

The BBC also allowed him to write on his first love film (initially under a pseudonym), initially for the Observer in the early sixties, then with the New Statesman and the Times.

One of his first reviews for the Observer saw him praise Joseph Losey's political thriller The Damned which had been released as the bottom half of a Hammer double bill. His enthusiastic words prompted the film studio to open the film in the West End. Other critics picked up on it and Losey later told French his review had helped pave the way for the director to make his highly regarded film The Servant.

French became the Observer's chief film critic in 1978 and for the next three and a half decades brought an enviable breadth of knowledge to the task (his review of David Lynch's Blue Velvet references film noir, the author Sherwood Anderson, Peyton Place, the directors Luis Bunuel and Kenneth Anger, The Wizard of Oz and Lincoln's assassin), as well as a waspish wit.

In his time he wrote a number of books on cinema, served on the Cannes jury in 1986 (persuading his fellow jurors to give the short film prize to a new Australian director Jane Campion which in turn led the Australian Film Commission to finance her first feature film) and was awarded an OBE.

On his retirement he was asked about the future of criticism. "Many newspapers in America now think they can get along perfectly well without them," he admitted. "But of course, most of them manage to get along without decent writing, too."

He is survived by his wife Kersti and his three sons Karl, Sean and Patrick.