Screenwriters and producers may have thought they wielded the most influence. But Sarris, inspired by what Francois Truffaut had called the "politique des auteurs," introduced to America the controversial notion that, despite the collaborative nature of filmmaking, some directors are the "authors" of their movies and that the best directors, by imbuing a movie with their personal vision, make the best films.
"The art of the cinema is the art of an attitude, the style of a gesture. It is not so much what as how," Sarris later wrote in his landmark 1968 book "The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968," which has been called the bible of the auteur theory.
Sarris, who elevated the status of film directors and molded a generation of movie makers and reviewers as the leading American proponent of the auteur theory, died Wednesday at a hospital in New York City. He was 83.
The cause was complications of a stomach virus, said his wife, film critic Molly Haskell.
Sarris was the longtime critic for the Village Voice and later the New York Observer. He also taught film for many years at Columbia University.
"He was the most influential American film critic of his time, and one of the jolliest," Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert wrote Wednesday. "More than anyone else, he was responsible for introducing Americans to … the belief that the true author of a film is its director. Largely because of him, many moviegoers today think of films in terms of their directors."
Sarris first set out his ideas in "Notes on the Auteur Theory," a 1962 article in Film Culture magazine. It created a stir in film circles, most famously spurring a barbed attack in Film Quarterly by critic Pauline Kael, whom Sarris later referred to as his "arch-antagonist."
In the 1968 book, Sarris evaluated scores of directors and ranked them in importance, a method that led Kael to deride him as a "list queen."
Included in "The Pantheon" — "directors who have transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world" — were filmmakers such as Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles.
Among those Sarris included in "The Far Side of Paradise" — those who fell short of The Pantheon — were Frank Capra, George Cukor and Samuel Fuller.
Other categories included "Expressive Esoterica," "Lightly Likable," "Strained Seriousness" and, perhaps most controversially, "Less Than Meets the Eye." The latter category was for directors whom Sarris deemed to have "reputations in excess of inspirations," such as John Huston, David Lean, William Wyler and Billy Wilder. (Sarris later revised his opinion of Wilder and apologized to him.)
The auteur theory, said Jeanine Basinger, head of the film studies program at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., "made everybody reevaluate [American cinema] as an art form and take it seriously for the first time. The idea was that masterpieces could actually be made in Hollywood commercial cinema."
Basinger was one of the nearly 40 film scholars, critics and filmmakers — including Ebert, David Thomson, Leonard Maltin, Richard Schickel, Budd Boetticher and Peter Bogdanovich — who contributed essays to "Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic," a 2001 tribute book edited by critic Emanuel Levy.
"I consider Andrew Sarris to be one of the most fundamental and valued teachers," director Martin Scorsese wrote in the book's foreword. "His writings led me to see the genius in American movies at a time when the cinema was considered a mindless form of entertainment, worthy of serious attention only if it came from Europe or Asia."
A self-described cinema "cultist" with a deep passion for — and an encyclopedic knowledge of — the movies, Sarris had, as Schickel wrote in his essay, "a gift for contextualizing movies, placing them accurately in the long run of a director's or actor's career or a genre's development."
"I have nearly always learned something I needed to know — indeed, should have known — from Andy's reviews."
The son of Greek immigrants, Sarris was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 31, 1928.
He received a bachelor's degree from Columbia College in 1951 and served two years in the Army Signal Corps, during which he wrote seven movie columns for the Fort Devens Dispatch.
In early 1955, Sarris later wrote, he was taking a night class in film appreciation at Columbia, "between meandering through graduate English and malingering in Teachers College," when the film teacher sent him to meet with Jonas and Adolfas Mekas.
The Mekas brothers, who had just launched a new magazine called Film Culture, took on the 26-year-old Sarris as an unpaid associate editor and reviewer.
Sarris had been a reader for 20th Century Fox and was working for the U.S. Census Bureau in 1960 when Jonas Mekas asked him to fill in for him reviewing movies for the Village Voice.
Sarris' first Village Voice review — of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" — got him off to a controversial start at the publication.
"I wrote a review that treated Hitchcock as a serious artist, and it got a tremendous amount of hate mail," Sarris recalled in a 2003 interview with the Westchester County, N.Y., Journal News.
"At that time," Sarris said, "everybody liked Hitchcock, but his reputation was as a minor entertainer. People objected to the fact that I treated him as a major artist. It outraged people." But the controversy launched Sarris' career with a bang.
No one at the time, he said, "would have thought of writing a serious critical study of Alfred Hitchcock, except in France. In fact, I'd written an anti-Hitchcock article a couple of years earlier, as my enemies pointed out at the time. But the French turned me around. The French had a huge influence on me."
As he wrote in his seminal book, "The American Cinema," the auteur theory he began to promote set off "a spark … in far-off San Francisco by a lady critic with a lively sense of outrage."
That lady was Kael, who began her career in Berkeley and became a dominant voice in film writing through her reviews in the New Yorker. She attacked Sarris and auteurism in a famous essay, "Circles and Squares," in which she said the auteur theorists never say "by what divining rods they have discovered the elan of a [Vincente] Minnelli or a Nicholas Ray or a Leo McCarey."
Sarris later wrote that he and Kael became "a virtual figure of speech, like Cain and Abel" as a result of their feuding.
"He and Pauline Kael locked horns, but they locked horns because people were so interested in the films that were being made at that time," film historian David Thomson said Thursday. "So it was a very lively, rich time. It was a moment in which the movies took on a sort of cultural-intellectual importance in America that they didn't have before and they don't have now."
Sarris' association with the Village Voice, for which he wrote the Films in Focus column, ended in 1989 when he became a critic for the New York Observer.
He left the Voice, he told the San Jose Mercury News in 1994, because he was "tired of that atmosphere. It was too political, too radical, for my taste. I've always been sort of a centrist, an anomaly."
Sarris, who was editor in chief of the English-language version of the influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema from 1965 to 1967, was a founding member of the National Society of Film Critics.
When he married Haskell in 1969, Basinger said, "we were all thrilled for him: He found a mate worthy of his grace and intelligence."
Among Sarris' books are "The Films of Josef von Sternberg," "Interviews With Film Directors," "Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema, 1955-1969" and "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film: History and Memory: 1927-1949."
He left the Observer in 2009 but continued teaching full time until 2010, when he suffered a fall "and realized he couldn't do it anymore and retired," said Haskell, his only immediate survivor.
Times staff writer Elaine Woo contributed to this report.