5. Don SiegelSimilar to Curtiz, Chicago native Don Siegel made a career out of pushing the boundaries of onscreen action. But instead of grinning Errol Flynn with a sword, it was wincing Clint Eastwood with a .44 Magnum – the age of vigilante violence. Working a total of five times with the actor, the two men cultivated an entire era of “good” guys with bad attitudes in films like Dirty Harry (1971), Magnum Force (1973) and Escape From Alcatraz (1979). Along with John Wayne’s swan song The Shootist (1976), these films perfectly embodied Siegel’s unpretentious and gritty style.
Though his 70’s run would provide the director with his greatest commercial success, it was a streak backed by several decades of visionary under-the-radar work. Early gems that include The Big Steal (1948) and The Lineup (1958) are filled to the brim with action sequences that escape most classical noir, introducing an element that would eventually spin off into it’s own genre.
Taking this hard nosed approach to the small screen, Siegel’s TV remake of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers (1964) proved too harsh for censors, who promptly dumped it in theaters to wild acclaim. As a brilliant display of banter, brutality, and anti-hero justice, it’s gone on to inspire everything from Point Blank (1967) to Pulp Fiction (1994).
Minor pieces Madigan (1968) and Charley Varrick (1973) continue to solidify Siegel’s deserved reputation as the godfather of action cinema. Stylistically, he often evoked his start as a montage editor during the studio heyday; combining music, imagery, and symbolism in ways that highlighted his immoral protagonists. Never one to be politically correct, Siegel’s leading men had no family or friends – only a purpose, for which they followed to obsessive degrees.
With the exception of Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel was the only filmmaker to arrive in the noir era and ride the wave of increasing brutality into the contemporary age. That he happened to be the one leading the charge is incentive enough for his underrated status. Mentioning he directed the sci-fi masterpiece Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) almost seems like overkill.
4. William Wyler
Like many great directors, William Wyler was famous for being a perfectionist. Take after take, nuance after nuance, his compulsive qualities knew magic when they saw it. And magic was the result for Wyler’s fifty years behind the camera; a career that netted more acting Academy Awards than any director in film history.
Wyler knew how to make his talent look good time and again, be they screen legends (Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Audrey Hepburn) or forgotten performers (Teresa Wright, Herbert Marshall, Jennifer Jones) in a defining role. As a stylist, he embodied the tag of a “studio director,” refusing to indulge at the cost of coherency, often times leaving little trace his films even shared an author. Whether the lamented slums of Dead End (1937), the tropical mist of The Letter (1940), or the bleak precinct in Detective Story (1951), Wyler wiped the slate clean and retreated to source material every time.
This practice led the filmmaker to become Hollywood’s go-to guy for literary adaptations with a staggering string of smashes that included Wuthering Heights (1939), The Heiress (1949), and Roman Holiday (1953). All wildly different in tone, and an indicator of just how varied a keep eye like Wyler’s could be. The films that brought him three Academy Awards for Best Director: Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946), and Ben Hur (1959), thrive off of their acting chops, a commonality that seems to be the filmmaker’s only creative thread.
While matching the success of close friends Billy Wilder and John Huston, William Wyler’s name is lost on the tongue of contemporary audiences. Whether chalked up to a lack of tangible style or what superficially views as “stuffy” source material is tough to say, but those who love cinema would be hard-pressed to ignore Wyler’s well-groomed work.
3. Richard Donner
Richard Donner knows how to make movies that people want to see, it’s that simple. He’s a studio director who came into his own during the auteur age, and as a result, was left behind by the scholars and cinematic intellectuals. In one regard, this judgment makes sense. But conversely, Donner’s resume has amassed such a high pedigree that it’s criminal just how easily he fits into the box of forgotten directors.
Jumping from TV to the big time with stone cold masterpieces The Omen (1976) and Superman (1978), Donner’s directorial talent was immediately evident. Whether addressing the twisted outcome of one of horror’s true masterpieces or the most important superhero movie ever made, his high wire act of artful and commercial was strung up for good. And when taken off of a project, as he was for 1980’s Superman II, the quality would take a severe nosedive.
While Donner would continue to find success in varying genres throughout his career (The Goonies , Scrooged ), he would find his true calling in the form of the action-thriller. Beginning with 1987’s buddy-cop classic Lethal Weapon, and continuing through its three sequels, Donner’s laid back approach to bellylaughs and bullets was refreshing for a genre that often took itself too seriously.
The same can be said for the straightforward thrillers that followed, whether slick updates of Maverick (1994), or star studded pieces like Assassins (1995) and Conspiracy Theory (1997). Though he never penned a script himself, each outing thrives off of a smartass charm that’s unmistakably his.
For a guy who’s still alive and holds several classics under his belt, Richard Donner’s legacy seems to have disappeared with acting muse Mel Gibson. But there aren’t many studio directors who infuse more personality into their films – the perks of an auteur without the stylistic restrictions.
2. Robert Zemeckis
Excluding Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis is Hollywood’s greatest purveyor of romantic filmmaking. His works, unified by an overwhelming sense of faith in the human spirit, have refused to conform to modern cinema’s seemingly ordained sense of jadedness. In this regard, Zemeckis is a successor to the Frank Capra school of thought: keeps things simple and pure. Any technical tricks or fancy camerawork, and it distracts the viewer from the feel-good message at hand.
Under the tutelage of mentor Spielberg, Zemeckis did just that, and hit the ground running with some of the biggest films of the 1980’s. Released in quick succession, Romancing The Stone (1984), Back To The Future (1985), and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) blew the lid off Hollywood and made the director an overnight sensation. Aside from the astronomical box office returns, Zemeckis was also advancing the use of special effects in cinema, be it the time traveling Delorean or Toon Town’s groundbreaking integration.
Thematically, the upright articulation of Zemeckis’ scripts are a key point of focus, especially in drama based fare like Forrest Gump (1994), Cast Away (2000), and The Walk (2015). Each film tenderly follows the exploits of a man who refuses to quit, and in doing so, achieves their underdog goal. It reads like a cliched yawn-fest, but the director’s skilled execution makes all the difference in the world, as Capra’s did so many decades prior.
By pursuing this thematic thread through both live action (1997’s Contact) and animation (2004’s The Polar Express), Zemeckis does what so many were unable to do: appeal to viewers of all ages. Being able to reach children without losing the artistic integrity of adulthood is the gift of a great storyteller. Zemeckis is not only underrated, he is an all time great.
It’s almost comedic that comparing Zemeckis with Steven Spielberg is taken so lightly, especially given their comparable careers. For critics and tastemakers, it took a Nazi drama to legitimize Spielberg’s art as worthy of legendary status. As for Robert Zemeckis, who sports a Best Director Oscar himself, that status has yet to arrive.
1. Robert Wise
That Robert Wise would ultimately be called upon to re-edit The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) in Orson Welles’ absence, is incredibly telling of their artistic differences. One an established independent fighting his corporate shackles, the other an eager to please up-and-comer. The recut release of Ambersons would promote Wise from editor to director, while Welles was promptly booted from the studio. Nevertheless, Welles would go down as the greatest of all time, while Wise, the consummate company man, would go down as the most underappreciated filmmaker to ever grace a soundstage.
In many ways, Wise was cinema’s greatest impressionist, effortlessly channeling the masters of whichever genre he happened to be working within. Whereas Welles left an unmistakable signature on everything he touched, the Indiana native thrived with the advent of change – more often than not crafting his own masterpieces in the process.
With the exception of Howard Hawks, there isn’t a single director who can match Wise’s claim of a classic in every genre: from film noir (1949’s The Set-Up) and science fiction (1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still) to horror (1963’s The Haunting) and war pictures (1966’s The Sand Pebbles). None of these films share a thread of stylistic grace, but perhaps even more impressively, they carve out a magic that’s uniquely their own.
Wise’s greatest commercial success arrived in the 60’s, where Best Picture winners West Side Story (1961) and The Sound Of Music (1965) became some of the highest grossing works of all time. Yet even here, working in the same musical genre, the director managed to break up monotony for singular slices of Hollywood fantasy – the only resemblance between 1960’s New York and 1930’s Germany being the sheer wonderment that’s conjured up.
Supported by high concept adaptations (1971’s The Andromeda Strain) and supernatural thrillers (1977’s Audrey Rose), this decade-spanning career has too many highlights to rattle off in a list this small.
Often relegated to being a top-notch “craftsmen” in Hollywood, Robert Wise gets snubbed of greatness because he didn’t make difficult or obtuse art. Even Alfred Hitchcock, another studio icon, took risks with his work (Vertigo , Psycho ) that payed off when it came to cultural legacy. But this dilemma epitomizes the struggle of every director on the list; those who, for one reason or another, lack the sexiness that inconsistent auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard or David Lynch bring to the table.
These directors are accurately recognized as filmmaking legends, but as such, so should these men. Rounding out the list with an unbeatable body of work, Robert Wise finally takes his well deserved top spot.
Author Bio: Danilo Castro is a freelance writer and editor of the Film Noir Archive blog. He has contributed and reviews to several publications including PopMatters, Noir City, and CinemaNerdz, spending much of his time watching classical Hollywood cinema. But if its not, that’s okay too.