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Gilbey on Film: in praise of Peter Yates

He was no auteur, but the veteran director should be fondly remembered all the same.

Auteurs are all very well, but what happens to those directors who don't quite fit the bill? Well, the answer is simple. They fall through the cracks in cinema history, and don't really get noticed until they're gone forever.

Did anyone ever look forward with excitement to the next Peter Yates film? I mean no disrespect to Yates, the British director who died last Sunday, aged 81. We don't really have any words to describe the sort of director he was, and the ones we do have (pro, journeyman) sound like euphemisms for "hack", which would be selling him terribly short.

Yates was a steady hand with an attentive eye for human behaviour; having started out in 1963 with Summer Holiday, he peaked in 1979 with one of the most winning of all American coming-of-age movies, Breaking Away. He also notched up some memorable thrillers: Bullitt (1968) , The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), which used Robert Mitchum's plangent weariness as judiciously as any of that star's more well-known pictures, and The Janitor (1982), known outside the UK as Eyewitness, which featured a terrifying scene in which William Hurt is attacked by his own Doberman, which has been fed cocaine by the bad guys. (Okay, it sounds funny written down; on film, it's anything but.)

In an industry where critical appreciation is as predicated on brand loyalty as its commercial equivalent - the column inches, arthouse screens and big-splash interviews going to an Almodóvar or a Haneke as automatically as the school-holiday crowd flocks to anything with the words "Harry" and "Potter" in the title - there is no way to sell the non-auteur to either the press or the public (not unless that filmmaker's last film was a smash, in which case the posters can proclaim: "From the director of..."). It would have meant nothing when promoting Krull, Yates's 1983 bandwagon-jumping science-fiction fantasy, to herald it as "From the director of Breaking Away" since there's no helpful continuity there.

Wide-ranging directors like Michael Winterbottom, Danny Boyle or Roger Michell, to take three British examples, are equally eclectic, but they have a sensibility that connects their genre-hopping movies, as well as a cachet to ensure press coverage (though Boyle has moved way beyond that niche since Slumdog Millionaire's Oscar trawl). Even Blake Edwards, who also died recently, at least had the tag of being the Pink Panther guy. Peter Yates, in the absence of an auteurist sensibility, can only be cast more as a man simply doing his job, neither showbizzy nor rarefied.

I say this not to mourn or rail against the way things are now, more than half a century on from Truffaut's 1954 auteurist essay "Une certain tendance du cinema Français", but simply to point out that if a director is to have a shot at artistic longevity, he or she needs to build a fanbase as loyal as that of any pop group. No wonder so many filmmakers have taken to social networking sites to shoot the breeze with their fans; keep your friends close and your potential future income-generators closer, as the saying almost goes.

Not that all directors even crave the auteurist tag. Winterbottom, even as a devotee of Bergman and Fassbinder, has no time for it. And I once tried to claim for the auteur cause the great Australian director, Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation, Last Orders). He was having none of it. "Auteur theory just denigrates everyone else's job," he sniffed. That told me. For the record, I think he was wrong about that. But everyone else seems to agree with him, at least in regard to himself: he's slipped through the cracks of critical opinion.