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10 Films That Marked The Decline Of Legendary Filmmakers’ Careers

09 July 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Jerome Blanchet

filmmaker decline

In the cinema industry, decline can start for several reasons, such as financial failure, bad reviews from international critics and/or audiences, technological change, end of artistic era, political context, bad luck and controversial subject in film. These difficult times can be overcome, but once decline has started; success is hardly likely to ever be the same.

Even though praised as great contributors of the seventh art, it is quite hard to believe that some international legendary filmmakers’ careers had to move from a beginning, to a growing, expansionary and innovative era, sustainable success period then eventually, decline and in a few cases, a fall.

But what are those movies that mark the beginning of a decline period and what do they have that is so particular to be recognised as such? This article presents ten movies that marked the decline of legendary directors’ careers.


1. Free and Easy, Buster Keaton, 1930, United States

free and easy 1930

Reason for decline: technological change, end of silent film era, new production company and alcoholism.

From 1920 to 1929, Buster Keaton starred in and directed many silent burlesques classics films including masterpieces such as Sherlock, Jr (1924), The Navigator (1924) and The General (1926). Despite being successful, he was in competition with actor Harold Lloyd and actor/director Charlie Chaplin, his greatest rival of all times.

Like many other people in the cinema industry, a lot of changes happened to Keaton around 1930. Firstly, technological change announced the end of the silent film era. Economically speaking, technological change is always tricky and requests rapid adaptation.

Secondly, his new contract with Production Company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) contributed in reducing his artistic independence and is considered today as one of Keaton’s greatest mistakes. At this time, Keaton had also major alcoholism problems which gave a lot of preoccupations to his family.

Consequently, Keaton’s Free and Easy (1930), his first speaking asset, can be seen as a film that started his decline both as a director and an actor. During the thirties, Keaton had never again directed a motion picture and was generally cast in Edward Sedgwick’s films, although Keaton directed a lot of unsuccessful short films never lasting more than 20 minutes.

Interestingly, Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950) cast Keaton as a depressive character that reflect Keaton’s intensive decline since the end of the silent film era.

While Buster Keaton made many mistakes in the early thirties, the one that never worked with his public is to cast himself, a long time silent film actor, in a fully speaking movie.

On the other hand, Chaplin got luckier and smarter choosing strategies that allowed him to progressively cast speaking characters. Therefore, we remember him with great masterpieces like City Lights (1931, no speaking actors), Modern Times (1936), which include a song and few words and The Great Dictator (1940), his first fully speaking production.


2. Journey to Italy, Roberto Rossellini, 1954, Italy

Journey to Italy

Reason for decline: unsuccessful motion pictures and end of the Italian neorealist era

Roberto Rossellini is one of the few legendary filmmakers of the Italian neorealist era and he is mainly famous for his trilogy of war which include classics films such as, Rome, Open City (1945), Paisà (1946) and Germany, Year Zero (1948). In the early fifties, Rossellini directed a new trilogy casting his wife as the main character, the talented and internationally praised, Ingrid Bergman.

While the first two films, Stromboli (1950) and Europe’ 51 (1952), are pure examples of the Italian neorealist cinema, they were not very successful. The third film, Journey to Italy (1954), was also not successful even though French filmmaker Francois Truffaut proclaimed it as the first modern feature film.

Journey to Italy, or more generally, Rossellini’s Ingrid Bergman trilogy, can be seen as films that marked decline for the filmmaker. The trilogy fit also with the end of the Italian neorealist era which lasted from 1944 to 1952. Since 1954, Rossellini directed generally minor features films while the Italian director Federico Fellini was just starting his successful and highly artistic period.

Today, the Ingrid Bergman trilogy is generally praised and is part of the Criterion Collection. Legendary Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami give tribute to Journey to Italy with his film Certified Copy (2010), starring Juliette Binoche.


3. Peeping Tom, Michael Powell, 1960, United Kingdom


Reason of decline: controversial subject in film

Michael Powell is probably the greatest British filmmaker along with David Lean. His legendary and prolific career lasted all along the forties and include masterpieces such as 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). The British film institute’s top 100 greatest British films of all time include five of his films while ten are part of the Criterion Collection.

Peeping Tom (1960) marked the end of the filmmaker’s career by its controversial subject and the negatives reviews from critics. The movie tells the story of a serial killer who used to record the death of his victims with a portable camera.

From 1961 to 1978, Powell directed only six films which are minor motion pictures and never got the critical acclaims of the forties. With time, Peeping Tom got praised and is largely considered as a cult film along as a masterpiece of cinema. Critic Roger Ebert added the movie in his great movie list.


4. Playtime, Jacque Tati, 1967, France


Reason for decline: high production cost and bankruptcy

Legendary French actor/filmmaker Jacques Tati created an unique cinema which shares some subtle similarities with Burlesque actor/director Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Pierre Étaix and actor Harold Lloyd. Tati directed only six films in his whole career which lasted 25 years from 1949 to 1974.

His second and fourth films, respectively Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and Playtime (1967) are generally regarded as masterpieces of world cinema. Monsieur Hulot, play by Tati himself, is a recurrent character in Tati’s filmography and appear in the two films.

One of the main differences between the two motion pictures is that Playtime was critically acclaimed but revealed itself to be commercially unsuccessful which gave no choice to the filmmaker but to declare bankruptcy. Playtime is well known for its high production cost.

Tati’s dream was to create a giant city named ‘Tativille’ which contributed in giving an exceptional visual style to the movie. Tati’s decline can be related to director Michael Cimino with his film Heaven’s Gate, who supported high cost and failed to make it commercially successful.


5. Zabriskie Point, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970, Italy

Zabriskie Point

Reason for decline: bad reviews from critics and commercial failure

Michelangelo Antonioni is one of the legendary Italian directors of the sixties as were De Sica and Rossellini for the Italian neorealist era in the forties. Antonioni redefined the concept of narrative cinema and created a new and subtle language, a new way to show emotions that goes beyond a simple close-up of a sad face dropping a tear.

Besides, the director is well known to be one of the cinema’s master visual stylists. His master works include l’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), l’Eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964) and Blow Up (1966). Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s more recurrent actress got international recognition. Great actors such as Jeanne Moreau, Alain Delon, David Hemmings and Francisco Rabal also contributed to the hypnotic and complex works of the director.

Unfortunately, the filmmaker’s artistic decline started in 1970 with Zabriskie Point. The film got more than bad reviews from critics and is widely known to be “one of the fifty worst films of all time” or “The worst film ever made by a director of genius”. Besides, the film was a commercial failure. Late works such as The Passenger (1975) and Identification of a Woman (1982) got some recognition but are generally not considered in the same league as the director’s sixties masterpieces.



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  • gustavomda

    Franklin J Schaffner did Patton, not Coppola.

    • Michael Brooke

      But Coppola wrote it, which I suspect was the writer’s point – it was a major career breakthrough for him.

      • Jérôme Blanchet

        I am the author and yes, it was my point, thanks for your comment

  • Carsten Nilsson

    Unbreakable, Nightly M. Shambalatayalaltlala

    • Jérôme Blanchet

      M. Night Shyamalan is not legendary

  • Chris Cooke


  • Ted Wolf

    Cimino always seemed like a flash in the pan as opposed to some of these directors with a solid body of work.

    • Jérôme Blanchet

      I agree with you, Cimino is not really a legendary director, he is by far the weakest filmmaker in the list, I am the writer of the article, thanks for your comment

  • Jennifer H

    Always good to see a Keaton mention, but this one is so rife with inaccuracies I’m not sure where to begin. I guess I’ll go chronologically.

    Keaton’s works would never be classified as “burlesques”. Burlesques are parodies or raunchy. He did very little parody and zero raunchy. Keaton joined MGM in 1928 at the advice of Joe Schenck, thus ending his status as a filmmaker. MGM promised that what he had been doing, he would continue to be able to do. This was not at all the case. MGM took over everything. They didn’t allow him to write or direct- they only wanted his physical presence. Keaton was excited about doing talkies, in fact, his second MGM film, Spite Marriage, he begged to make a talkie. Instead, however, MGM kept the dialogue silent and added a soundtrack- a very very bad soundtrack complete with sound effects that would make a 70’s sitcom producer cringe.

    Keaton was a drinker, but his drinking was exacerbated by his loss of creative control, not the other way around.

    He did not “cast himself” in these films; MGM did. And they didn’t really care about making Keaton-calibre films. They just wanted the money his name would bring in and never considered the fact that if they turned out crap, his name would stop bringing money in. Chaplin and Lloyd both advised Keaton against signing with MGM.

    Sunset Boulevard is not about Keaton at all. The only time he is even in the film is when he is playing cards at Gloria Swanson’s character’s house. So there was no way the above assertion about his decline could have been portrayed.

    The reason Keaton made short films in the 1930’s is because that’s what he started out doing in the first place. They were called “two-reelers” and were the format that the majority of early comedies were in.

    There was nothing wrong with Keaton’s talking. He grew up on the stage, so talking was not a problem. The problem was the writers and producers that MGM sicced on him. When MGM made a bad movie, they blamed the star, when they made a good movie, they took the credit. Louis B. Mayer was notorious for “punishing” his actors when a film did badly by putting them in more bad films. So that’s what happened to Keaton. Almost none of what you said was the problem.

    Forgive me if this was worded strangely, I am in a hurry.

    • Jérôme Blanchet

      Thanks for your constructive comment but I disagree on several points.

      • Michael Brooke

        I’d be interested to know which these points are, as Jennifer’s account is far closer to the Keaton story that I’m familiar with.

        Although it’s worth adding that another reason for Keaton’s personal decline was that the MGM talkies, despite being far worse artistically than the great independent silents that preceded them, typically made much more money at the box office – thus “proving” to MGM that they were doing the right thing. Keaton knew they weren’t, and that their success had far more to do with heavyweight marketing muscle than anything else, but there was little that he could do.

  • Ahmad J. Farhat

    Tarkovsky and decline cannot co-exist in the same sentence. Psh.

    • Andreah Schultheis

      ^my sentiments exactly.

    • Dagarar


    • Black

      I’m with you brother.

    • Waseem Zomlot


    • San

      I’ll triple that, Amen.

    • Carl Edgar Consiglio

      I think he’s good, but over-rated.

  • David

    Tarkovsky? You are a disgrace to mankind.

  • Cosmin Radu

    His (Tarkovsky) last two films are considered parodies of his own films? By who?! By you? Any cinephile or critic with taste in cinema would not agree!

    • Sometimes I debate on my own about Stalker or Nostalghia as my favorite Tarvkosky’s film.

  • email_mike

    Nah, nope, no, The Sacrifice is also a masterpiece.

  • The Man Who Wasn’t There

    I actually feel very sad for Michael Cimino. Heaven’s Gate butched by the producers, and his career died at the same time. The movie was one of the most beautiful movies ever made.

  • donreplies

    “Parody of himself”, “Lack of creativity”… Are you out of your fucking mind? go watch sacrifice and Nostalghia another ten times before you write another word about Tarkovsky.

    • Black

      That’s right! Tell em! TELL EM!

  • Carl Peter Yeh

    Sorcerer/Wages of fear, by William Friedkin

  • Josh Jisco Schasny

    Very interesting perspective on these legendary careers and the valleys they encountered. This article brings up many topics of discussion. Very well done. It does beg the question of the validity of these films nowadays too. Like the Heaven’s Gate example. I for one think Zabriskie Point is a fantastic film but would I have thought that in 1970? I’ll never know. Good job!

  • Marco Il Sagace

    This may become #1 in: “10 lists that made you reconsider following a cineblog”

  • Suddho Mukherjee

    Please do yourself a favor and remove Tarkovsky from this list. You are embarrassing yourself.

  • Venkat Siddareddy

    What an useless article. TOC really pissed me off with this article.

  • Venkat Siddareddy

    Seriously? I am unfollowing TOC.

  • Chandradeep

    ‘Therefore, Tarkovsky’s decline has to be seen partially as a lack of creativity.’

    Whoever has written this should perish immediately. Nostalghia is one of the greatest films of all time. Stalker marked a decline?? Do articles on hollywood makers please. Leave out Fefe, Tarkovsky, Bergman et all. 7 films, 7 masterpieces. Equally brilliant works of art. That’s Tarkovsky. I’m refraining from any use of foul language but must admit this article gave a terrible urge.

    • Noah Garner


  • Stephus

    I don’t think Tarkovsky ever declined every movie he made is amazing.

  • Cebrail Bağdatlı

    Batman begins, Nolan ends.

    • Cebrail Bağdatlı

      By the way a request to site administrators: The photo (or avatar) on the right side is not mine. Could you please remove that?

  • kinch’s edge

    I can understand one not feeling The Sacrifice is up to par with Tarkovsky’s earlier films, but honestly, I’d say the (frequent) charges of derivation from Bergman are overblown.

  • Abhishek

    I thought I would see Hitchcock after may be mid 60s

  • David Morgan-Brown

    but The Sacrifice is Tarkovsky’s best film

  • Franco Gonzalez

    Another estupid post, how the fuck you include Tarkovsky here?

  • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

    Wait, who has Zabriskie Point in their 50 worst movies of all time?

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    City Of Woman is such a rich experience, how dare they? So much better than La Dolce Vita.

  • BK207

    “Tarkovsky’s artistic career kept growing with remarkable films such as Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972)….”
    Imo Solaris is bad, even Tarkovsky’s and Lem thought the same…an example(for me?) would be when the “psychologist” enter’s the “base”; while speaking with Dr. Snaut he sees something moving in the hammock as a psychologist who went to “investigate” a psychological breakdown in a “space-station” does he cares that maybe theres another person in hammock behind him NAH he doenst give AF…when a dwarf shows up behind Dr. Sartorious does he cares and goes like WTF dude? or what was that?? NAH ID GIVE AF and I’m psychologist……