The 20 Most Prolific Directors in Cinema History
14. Satyajit Ray (1955-1991)
Third World film makers often get short shrift in western culture and so India’s Satyajit Ray, one of the truly great film makers ever, is also one of the least known. This is sad any way one may view it but especially so since Ray hit the ground running (with 1955’s Pather Panchali, the first film of his glorious Apu Trilogy) and never was anything less than superb through his finale, The Stranger.
Had Ray been a participant in India’s famed and popular Hindi cinema (Bollywood), he probably would made even more than the 37 on his resume. However, the self-trained and often self-financed (in the early days) Ray wouldn’t go that route, always creating deeply felt, sensitive, and honestly realistic films such as Devi (1960), Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), and The Home and the World (1984).
Many film fans and students may not have seen or even know of these titles. Ray shamefully never won a competitive Oscar and accepted his honorary one literally on his death bed a few days before his demise (and the montage of clips accompanying the tribute seemed to meet with a confused reaction). Hopefully new technologies and interest in non-western cultures will open up greater interest in him in future times.
15. Yasujiro Ozu (1927-1962)
The after-life career of Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu gives hope that Satyajit Ray will one day find his audience and fame. Ozu was also of the world’s great film makers but he didn’t focus on samurais, action film comedy, or extreme adventure.
He was the most Japanese of Japanese directors and screenwriters and skillfully mined all the humor and drama he could out of typical Japanese family life (quite odd in that he never married and had a family of his own). His comedies were warm and humane and his dramas quietly heartrending. Many now think his 1953 film The Tokyo Story, a devastating look at generational relationships, to be the best film of all time (is there truly such a thing?).
However, his 54 film career, stretching all the way back to Japan’s silent era (which lasted far longer than in the west) is full of masterworks. From the silent comedy I Was Born But… (1932) and its sort-of remake Good Morning (1959), the silent A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and its superb remake Floating Weeds (1959), and his “seasonal” films such as Early Spring (1956) and his swan song, An Autumn Afternoon (1962), Ozu’s films are eternal treasures. His output is even more remarkable for some who only lived to age 60.
16. Ingmar Bergman (1946-2003)
It was a dark joke that the Nobel Prize committee announced that they would start awarding achievement in film just before the Ingmar Bergman, the man many believe would have been the recipient, could be chosen due to his death. Long known as one of the Great Directors, Bergman, like Scorsese and his eternal fan/disciple Allen, lived film and lived it to an even greater degree than even his followers.
Those examining his films, consciously or not, know those films’s creator. His history, his loves (and almost all of his lead actresses got involved with him to one degree or another), his thoughts, his dreams, his phobias and his extensive theatrical training are all there on screen in his films. Bergman loved to explore the idea of faith, love or the lack thereof in the relationship between men and women, the effects of human misery and tortured psyches emanating from any and all of the previously listed.
A screenwriter both long before he became a director and long after he announced his retirement, Bergman had a goodly amount of regional success before he won international fame and acclaim with the 1-2-3 punch of Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (both 1957).
After that his work was like a catalog of must see classics for the art house crowd. Out of many fine films, the inquisitive viewer may want to search out The Virgin Spring (1960), Cries and Whispers (1973), the famed Persona (1966) and Fanny and Alexander (1983) but there are many more (67 credits).
17. Jean-Luc Godard (1955-present)
The groups of young critics turned film maker’s from France’s Cahiers du Cinema both loved and lived film. Their theories largely shaped cinema in the modern era and their subsequent works demonstrated that they practiced what they preached.
The group on the whole was a hardy, long-lived bunch (and even the fated Francois Truffaut amassed a healthy filmography) but the biggest survivor of the group, ironically, was the one with the coldest love of his subject/profession: Jean-Luc Godard.
Godard was and is an original thinker. He often (pretty much always) sees film in terms of deconstructing old and false movie myths and replacing them with vital modes of expression which mirror life as its really lived. Starting with his famed debut, 1959’s Breathless, he broke every conventional rule he could. The camera was unchained, the editing deliberately fragmented, the soundtrack haphazard at certain points to convey a world out of kilter.
One may find it more pleasurable to analyze or think back on a Godard film then actually watch the film but there’s no denying his boldness and artistic integrity. Between film, TV and video he has amassed some 131 (!) credits to date with such films as Vivre Se Vie (1962), Contempt (1963), Alphaville (1965) and Weekend (1967).
18. Kenji Mizoguchi (1923-1956)
Japan’s Kenji Mizoguchi had a career which was a testament to perseverance. He had worked his way into the Japanese film industry from lower class roots and started a career which would result in some 101 credits before it ended. The irony was that he was pretty much unknown internationally (as much a fault of his era and world events as anything) when his much admired ghost story/drama/adventure classic Ugetsu Monogatari premiered in 1953.
Critics and audiences everywhere were stunned (though the film looks a bit less so now, its still quite good). Sadly, this film was his eighth to last. However, his studies of Feudal Japan, Shansho the Baliff (1954) and the modern country, The Street of Shame (1956), among others, showed that he wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
Mizoguchi was a most honest and skillful director and could depict even brutal situations with sensitive tactfulness. Though it came a little late for the man himself to appreciate, film historians and fans have begun exploring his earlier works in the years since his death and their findings have revealed a hidden master.
19. Eric Rohmer (1950-2007)
Another Cahiers grad, Rohmer was surely the most self-consciously contemplative. A famous bit of dialog from Arthur Penn’s 1974 neo-noir Night Moves compared watching a Rohmer film to observing drying paint. (It was put in the mouth of a rather obtuse character.) That isn’t, and wasn’t meant to be, a fair observation but Rohmer’s films aren’t for everyone.
A typical Rohmer effort would go like this: the first part of the film would gracefully introduce all the characters, secondly, some major event will take place among them, thirdly, the characters would talk, talk, and talk about the event and one another and their own feelings.
It sounds awful but Rohmer was a master at understanding characters, writing dialog, and exploring situations in a sensitive, realistic manner. He was at his best in the cycle of films now known as the “Six Moral Tales”, with such films as My Night at Maud’s (1969, the script of which resulted in his only Oscar nom), Claire’s Knee (1970), and Love (Chloe) in the Afternoon (1972) being standouts.
He continued in this style with his opened ended “Morals and Fables” series (including such films as 1987’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends and 1990’s A Tale of Spring). Rohmer’s cinema is rare in being so non-commercial (as the improbable remark of Love in the Afternoon, Hollywood’s I Think I Love My Wife in 2007 proved) and so thoughtful.
20. Michael Curtiz (1912-1960)
Behold the auteur set’s worst nightmare! Starting in his native Hungary (as Mihály Kertész), Curtiz directed more films in Europe than most modern film makers will ever get around to creating before journeying to Hollywood and becoming an in-house director for Warner Brothers/First National. It’s impossible to think what classic era Warner Brothers would have been like without his contribution.
According to the auteurist, a film maker must inject his own issues and personality into a film in order for it to be good. Try as everyone might, no one can find such a thread in the Curtiz’ voluminous body of work. He can’t even be pinned down to a certain type of film. The studio through every type of genre at him…and he made terrific films in every category.
He created memorable pre-code films (Mystery of the Wax Museum and Female in 1933), film noir (1945’s Mildred Pierce and 1950’s The Breaking Point), hardy adventure films (most of actor Errol Flynn’s best work including his Hollywood debut Captain Blood in 1935 and the unforgettable The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938), “women’s pictures (Four Daughters in 1938), period drama (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in 1939), westerns (Dodge City, also in 1939), comedy (1947’s Life With Father), and even musicals (1942’s tremendous Yankee Doodle Dandy and Elvis Presley’s favorite of all of his films, 1958’s King Creole).
The topper is a film the auteur set can’t wish away, that pinnacle of studio craftsmanship, 1943’s Casablanca, an Oscar winning best picture which also won an Oscar for the director. Though he declined a bit with age, he remained a top Hollywood professional until virtually the end of his life with an astonishing 175 credits.
Author Bio: Woodson Hughes is a long-time librarian and an even longer time student/fan of film, cinema and movies. He has supervised and been publicist for three different film socieities over the years. He is married to the lovely Natalie Holden-Hughes, his eternal inspiration and wife of nearly four years.