Vincent Canby, who died October 15 at age 76, lived in the same modest brownhouse as my two seamstress aunts on New York's Upper West Side. But I was always too timid to go hammering at his door. What would I have said if he answered it? "Hello, Mr. Canby, I just came by to say how much I admired your New York Times film reviews. I enjoyed their modesty, their steady tone, their unpretentious intelligence. And it's amazing how, year in and year out, you could keep your standards high and maintain your civility, without seeming to get angry about the increasing dumbing of cinema."
So I never met Canby, the senior Times film critic from 1969 to 1993, before he transferred to the drama desk. But I was not surprised at any point by the descriptions of him in Janet Maslin's liesurely, gracious October 16 obituary. Maslin, who was his second-string critic before inheriting his job, talked of "a Dartmouth grad who forever dressed the part in tweed jacket, oxford shirt with button-down collar, gray or khaki trousers and striped tie," and whose writing was "conversational prose that conveyed a bracing disdain for sentiment... His scholarship and cultural perspective were never flaunted but were as solid as his journalism."
His point of view? He was agreeably disposed to European modernism, with the late German filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a particular favorite. His critical judgment fled him when it was a picture made by fellow New Yorker Woody Allen, and he highly praised even Woody's worst. As for his character? "His dignity and stature were effortless," said Maslin.
In his vacation time, Canby wrote several novels and plays, but that modesty again he balked at anthologizing a collection his film reviews. "I don't think they would read very well," he told Cineaste magazine. "I'm not a pace-setter, as far as critical ideas go. I know that. So there's not much point in publishing mine."