The 20 Most Prolific Directors in Cinema History

7. William Wyler (1925-1970)

On the other hand, no auteurist ever championed William Wyler and Orson Welles once sniffed that he was a fine producer but not much of a director.

The ideas behind those attitudes may have some pertinence and film makers such as Wyler indeed personified what Welles and his like were rebelling against, but he deserves his due as a fine director/producer of the old school. He arrived from Europe and, being one of the countless relatives of Universal head Carl Laemmle, began his career at that studio (becoming one of the few good arguments for nepotism).

Most Wyler films were stage and/or literary adaptations. In the vast majority, the very carefully place camera would record rich, finely produced sets (those of producer Samuel Goldwyn and, later, Wyler’s own productions most notably) which would be inhabited by the finest of professional actors would politely take turns saying their, mostly, finely crafted lines.

Wyler’s best films were almost always like an evening at a superior Broadway dramatic show of an earlier era. Yes, there were such big epics as 1959’s Ben-Hur (a record 11 Oscars, often sneered at thereafter) but those weren’t’ the norm.

Though he had a reputation as the actor’s worst, most tyrannical nightmare, he directed 13 Oscar winning performances in his 79 film career and lead scores more to nominations (he himself had more as director than anyone and three Oscars). Looking at such memorable films as 1939’s Wuthering Heights, 1940’s The Letter, 1949’s The Heiress, and 1951’s Detective Story, one sees that he also had passion and pace and commitment, qualities his detractors often overlook.


8. Woody Allen(1966-present)When Woody Allen was really riding high from the mid-1970s to roughly the mid 80s, it often seemed annoying that he routinely snubbed the Oscars and every other one of the numerous honors bestowed upon him (and he still gets and snubs them, just not quite so often).

It looked high handed then but, genius that he is (if an often nerve wracking one), he surely knew that one day a backlash would develop. In recent years he has been plagued with some pretty unattractive personal woes and a decline, which may or may not be related, in the perceptions of the quality of his films.

Many now think that he has become repetitious or, even worse, derives ideas from other film makers (which may well be valid). However, in his half century career as writer-director (always both) he has created an average of at least one film a year. To be fair, no one could produce that heavy volume of work for that long a period and have it all be great (yes, even Ford had his off days, especially in later years).

Yes, there is a typical Allen film profile: for many years all films were set in or around his beloved New York City, the New Yorkers would includes some lower ethnic types (usually subsidiary) and mainly focus on upscale, highly educated, wildly loquacious, quite neurotic Manhattanites (not Allen’s native part of the city originally, but his favorite) with endless neuroses.

That he managed to make the same elements, used over and over again, stay so fresh for so long is a miracle. See 1977’s Annie Hall, 78’s Manhattan, 88’s Hannah and Her Sisters, 89’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and any of the “early, funnier ones” (his bête noire) and the quality becomes evident.


9. Martin Scorsese (1968-present)

New York City is a big, diverse, culturally rich place and there can be no better proof of that than the fact that it could produce two such similar, yet profoundly different and great cinematic artists in the same period as Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. Both grew up as little in stature and unprepossessing boys in respectively, the Jewish and Italian ghettos of that city. Both used their early experiences in their early films (Scorsese to stunning effect with such films as 1973’s Mean Streets, 1980’s Raging Bull and, 1990’s Goodfellas). Both loved culture that existed somewhat outside their own native experience.

While Allen gravitated to highly intellectual art and literature, often European, Scorsese was enraptured by the movies as few have ever been (even if he were not a film maker, he would still be one of the world’s great film authorities).

He has kept up the quality of his 50 plus filmography with such excellent later day films as 2004’s The Aviator, 2011’s Hugo, and 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street (though, typically, his long delayed Oscar came for 2006’s The Departed, a favorite of few). He lives film, both as a subject of study and as a creative life style. Many consider him the best director currently working.


10. Billy Wilder (1942-1981)

Austrian born Billy Wilder, almost everyone’s favorite acerbic Hollywood wit, is a monument to quality and perseverance over unevenness. Looking over his almost four decade long career as director-writer-producer (and about a decade longer as just writer, though a top screen scribe), there were lots of highs…and lots of lows.

The miracle is that the highs were so high that they made vast numbers forget the lows. No Wilder films from 1963’s Irma La Douce to his swan song, the lamentable Buddy, Buddy in 1991 was both a critical and commercial hit. Honestly, many weren’t either.

However, who could harbor any ill will for the creative genius who gave the world such sharply satirically funny films as 1960’s Oscar winning The Apartment, 1955’s The Seven Year Itch and 1959’s peerless Some Like It Hot, along with such film noirs milestones as 1951’s Ace in the Hole, 1950’s legendary Sunset Blvd. and the greatest of them all, 1944’s Double Indemnity (and they all had darkly funny moments as well). Any one of those (among his 27 films) would cause one to be remembered but that many makes their creator one of the great ones.


11. Alfred Hitchcock (1925-1976)

What is there left to say about the “master of suspense”? Hitchcock is still surely the most famous director in cinema history and likely to remain so. His sophisticated humor in the service of tension and thrills combined with one of the most skillful uses of camera placement and movement married to matchless editing and wrapped in the most slickly commercial packaging is uniquely his own…no matter how many seek to imitate him (and there have been MANY who have). The surprise, looking over his career, is that he didn’t always hit it just right in his 53 films.

After his first film, 1925’s The Lodger, he didn’t make another truly Hitchcockian film until 1929’s Blackmail (Britain’s first talkie). He went through a pretty dry time in the late 40’s and very early 50s (after leaving producer David O. Selznick’s stifling influence) and his post-Psycho (1960) career has always been a matter of critical questioning. However, anyone who has seen Psycho, Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954), Strangers on a Train (1951), Notorious (1946), Shadow of a Doubt (1942) and many others can never forget them or him.


12. Luis Bunuel (1928-1977)

If ever there was a film maker with an excuse for having a truncated career it would be Luis Bunuel, the Spanish director who may well be cinema’s greatest surrealist. Initially working with a friend and colleague, budding artist Salvador Dali (the art world’s greatest surrealist), they produced a small handful of extreme, dreamlike films.

Unfortunately, 1930’s L’Age D’or so skewered political and, especially, religious mores that the government-church combo declared that he was banned from film making…for life! In Catholic countries that was a very real threat and Bunuel escaped to Mexico (another Catholic country).

It took some twenty years, even in that then out of the way place but he got back to directing and writing and almost single handedly put the Mexican film industry on the map which such films as 1950’s Los Olvidados, 1953’s El, and 1959’s Nazarin and eventually got back to Europe for such masterworks as Belle de Jour (1967), Tristana (1970) andThe Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972’s Oscar winning foreign film). His 35 films may be a fraction of what could have been (though some of his very best came towards the end of his career) but for a survivor, that’s a terrific career.


13. Robert Altman (1957-2006)

Luis Bunuel and Robert Altman might well have had a lot to discuss. Many think of Altman’s career as beginning in the 1970’s, and he was one of the brightest lights of the New Hollywood, but he had been at it since the 1950s, first as an industrial filmmaker and then, eventually, as one of the top directors of TV’s early decades. (The date of 1957 cited is that of his first indie, low budget feature, The Delinquents, though he had been working a long time even then.)

However, unlike Bunuel, the ones keeping his career on the big screen at bay weren’t political or ecclesiastical men of power but myopic film execs who objected to the very things that would one day make Altman famous and acclaimed. He believed in capturing the quality of life, albeit heightened to find the comic, absurd, and wry, in his films.

An Altman film would typically have a large cast, overlapping dialog, hand-held camerawork, and a sort of carnivalesque ambiance. Some old-line studio professionals, critics and viewers never warmed to him but many more did. He scored a huge commercial/critical hit with the anti-war black comedy M*A*S*H in 1970 (his only big box office hitand a welcome miracle).

That film set the stage for even finer films such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Thieves Like US (1974), and the New Hollywood masterpiece, Nashville (1975). A long barren spell ended with The Player (1992) and paved the wave for such later successes as Short Cuts (1994) and Gosford Park (2003). Not bad for such a late bloomer (with 89 film and TV credits).