When the writers (and future film makers) of the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinema formulated what became known as “the auteur theory” in the late 1950s and early 60s, it caused a lot of controversy in cinematic circles. Simply put, it stated that the director was the prime mover, the “author” of the film and that everything in the film flowed from his vision.
For those who had grown up with the Hollywood style, where a director was just a component of the greater package, this idea seemed hard to fathom. Even harder to grapple with was the notion that, if a film maker was considered a worthy “author”, then whatever film he (or she) might create would be a worthy entity.
One might well question that last perception. The British author Somerset Maugham once made the witty (and, like all good jokes, true) remark that only a mediocre person was at his best at all times. The bottom line is that not every film of a great film maker (author) is great.
Some of the best get into repetition and very many made “autumnal” works late in their careers which have to be taken with a measure of kindness. However, it is also true that very few great films have ever been made by film makers who are not great. (Note that film maker is used in place of director here. Most of the men listed below also wrote most of the notable films chosen for them, making them authors in the truest sense.)
Listed below are ten names with more than five excellent films each chosen to represent great works done by these artists. Are these the “best” directors of all time and are these their “best” films? Can there be ultimates in the arts? No, these are creators chosen because they have skill, talent, and a singular vision which marks them as unique and makes a film created by them identifiable as something they alone could produce.
The films chosen are masterful works which express their visions and which have imprinted those cinematic ideas into the viewer’s minds and imaginations for generations and which have also inspired many others to create their own visions.
1. Alfred Hitchcock
His Masterpieces: Notorious (1946), Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960)
For someone who, for many of the years of his long life, let alone, the years he actively created on film, was considered a mere entertainer, the man who makes “those mystery movies”, Alfred Hitchcock made a formidable, if not incredible, rebound. For much of his career he was known as “the master of suspense”, an accurate appellation, if one limiting in its very connotations. Yes, he worked in the suspense genre but his works are far more than just genre films.
Hitchcock did something that few film makers today can claim: he started at the bottom and worked his way up, learning about all aspects of film making on his way. Along that way he met and married jill-of-all-trades Alma Reville, who was an expert in editing, continuity, and smoothing out a script. The two worked closely in unison for all of their remaining careers and Hitchcock proved an apt pupil.
Even those, such as actress Julie Andrews, who had less than triumphant experiences with Hitchcock, acknowledge that they learned more about the inner workings of the film making process from him than they did from anyone and anything else during the balance of their careers.
Hitchcock and Reville came of age during film’s growing and experimental years and absorbed all of the purely visual silent cinema’s great discoveries, particularly the ones advanced by Soviet and German film makers. Married to this immaculate technique were serious themes and explorations of character, which never call attention to themselves but exist within an entertaining story framework.
His best films show how his technique and content complement one another perfectly. While one may marvel at the special effect used in the bell tower when the vertiginous Scotty (James Stewart) ascends, one is more caught in the dilemma faced by Madeline/Judy (Kim Novack) in the once controversial last section of Vertigo.
Likewise, what the leftover Nazi’s may be up to in the Rio of Notorious may be intriguing, the fraught relationships of Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), Devlin (Cary Grant) and Sebastian (Claude Rains) ultimately carry much more emotional weight.
While Bruno’s (Robert Walker) idea of “exchange murders” is a fun plot peg, his character and effects on the conflicted life of Guy (Farley Granger) are of much more consequence ultimately. The neighbor with the sick wife may have indeed killed her but the relationship of Jeffries (Stewart again) and Lisa (Grace Kelly) and how it might be reflected in the many neighboring windows across the courtyard give Rear Window substance.
Finally, the many astounding plot permutations of Psycho are astounding but would the film be remembered if its plot and characters weren’t created to enter the mind at a deeper level? Though he didn’t write much for screen himself, Hitchcock always called the shots on his film and the fact the he welded form and content together so well makes the film and him one of the greats.
2. Akira Kurosawa
His Masterpieces: Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), High and Low (1963), Ran (1985)
One wonders if the British Hitchcock and Japan’s Kurosawa ever met and had a good talk (probably not)? Like Hitchcock, Kurosawa learned from the ground up in his native film industry (where he, unlike the emigrating Hitchcock, pretty much stayed throughout his long career). However, he didn’t start his career until long after the silent period (which did last far longer in Japan than other places) had ended.
He began his film making odyssey during the World War II years and matured in the somewhat chaotic but artistically fertile years that followed. Unlike Hitchcock, Kurosawa can’t be pinned to one genre. While four of the six films cited are period pieces, he was equally at home with stories of the modern world.
Yes, he could create vibrant action films (Seven Samurai and Yojimbo would be great on that basis alone), but even that were informed by the pronounced humanism that marked his every work. Where Ikiru is among the most honestly soul-searching of dramas, Yojimbo can be seen as a comic adventure film, yet one that succeeds because the maker understands human nature so well.
Rashomon, which explores the subjective nature of truth, could be a gimmick film only, but transcends that label by its deep insights into the human psyche. All of this is married to a style which shows that the maker knows the camera, its lenses, and just how to use them (note the use of long lenses in key scenes in Seven Samurai).
Sadly, Kurosawa was thought of as “lesser” in his native land for being too “western” in his film making (and more than one Kurosawa film was successfully remade by Hollywood). No, he didn’t relentlessly explore the character of his country as his equally great contemporary Yasujiro Ozu, but the nay-sayers miss that he depicted a greater humanity with consummate skill and integrity.
3. Andrei Tarkovsky
His Masterpieces: Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), The Mirror (1975), Stalker (1979), Nostalgia (1983), The Sacrifice (1986)
Poets, as such, don’t exist in commercial cinema (certainly not in Hollywood). They may be found in independent and arthouse cinema, but, even then, their existence seemed rather limited.
One of the greatest of poetic film makers, Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, is a grand case in point. The films listed here come close to being his entire filmography. Yes, he, like his far earlier Soviet peer, Sergei Eisenstein, saw his career blighted by government interference, leading to films being censored and long withheld, and long periods of enforced inactivity.
Like the others listed here, Tarkovsky learned his craft from the bottom up and knew how to tell the stories which expressed his heart and mind. However, story might not be the correct word for what he related in his films. Yes, there were plots and characters but a Tarkovsky film seemed always to be trying to express an idea, a feeling, a mood often hard to grasp.
Be the vehicle the autobiographical Ivan’s Childhood (relating a boy’s coming of age in a war ravaged country) or the science fiction oriented Solaris and Stalker, it’s clear that Tarkovsky was really interested in the human soul and spirit. No Tarkovsky film is “easy”.
The films are primarily long, deliberately paced, diffuse in meaning, giving up their secrets stubbornly, if at all. Yet, each film seems to have a life force of its own and leaves the accepting viewer overwhelmed emotionally. Obviously, Tarkovsky was not one for the masses (as the well-intentioned remakers of the Hollywood version of Solaris discovered), but for the adventurous viewer he is endlessly rewarding.
4. Federico Fellini
His Masterpieces: I Vitelloni (1953), La Strada (1954), The Nights of Cabiria (1957), La Dolce Vita (1959), 8 ½ (1963), Amarcord (1973)
Once more, Italy’s Federico Fellini stays in the tradition of those who learned their craft by doing and starting in a less commanding position than directing. In this case the young man from the provinces of Italy began as a screenwriter, notably during Italy’s famed Neo-Realist era (though his eventual films, while incorporating elements of that movement were not of it).
His early efforts as director show some of the charm, wit and skill he would display when his talent fully flowered, but were a bit awkward. However, in 1953, he did what those wishing to become writers are always advised to do: write about what you know.
He took this a step further by writing and directing his first autobiographical film and first masterpiece, I Vitelloni, which adroitly told a lightly fictionalized version of his young manhood days among friends who didn’t possess his talent or drive.
Throughout his career, when Fellini stuck to subjects close to his experience and heart, the films always seem to turn out spectacularly well, with 8 1/2, his film about a film maker very much like himself having a creative crisis, becoming his magnum opus.
Also working well for him were films which showcased his lifelong muse, his actress-wife Guiletta Massina, who had an uncanny knack for blending comedy and pathos and being able to switch from one to another seemingly without blinking an eye (what Jerry Lewis spent his professional life trying to do, she truly could do).
The great vehicles Fellini created for her, La Strada and, her finest hour, The Nights of Cabiria, were among his very best. What makes a Fellini picture distinctive though? He was a master of imagery and could very often summon up a strain of surrealism (quite often comic) which was seamlessly integrated into even his most serious films.
La Dolce Vita, his account of post World War II Rome as seen through the eyes of a newspaper writer much like Fellini himself at one time, could have been just a serious cautionary narrative about a wayward society but for the extraordinary touches Fellini brought to it (think of the helicopter carrying the ancient statue of Christ out of Rome).
Also, Fellini seemed to love people and his warmth informs all of his best films. After 8 1/2, he did seem a bit stymied and made films more and more baroquely surreal, often to diminishing returns. However, his best linger in the minds of any passionate and devoted film lover.
5. Ingmar Bergman
His Masterpieces: The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1972), Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Some love him and some love to hate him but no one ever has accused Ingmar Bergman of not knowing exactly what he was doing. (While panning 1958’s The Magician, eminent critic Pauline Kael did allow that it was the work of a master.)
Like Fellini, Bergman started off as a screenwriter. However, unlike most of the others on this list, he was also heavily involved in the theater, not only at the start of his professional life but all the way through it (even after he supposedly stopped directing films).
Though he didn’t, somewhat oddly, ever adapt any notable plays to the screen (he wrote virtually everything he ever directed himself), there is a decided theatrical quality to many of his films. Like any man of the theater, he loves his players and he got extraordinary work from them, especially the many female players who were muses throughout his creative life (many of whom had personal relationships with him).
Though he did have a fantastic element present in many of his works (Death incarnated in the allegorical Seventh Seal, the disturbing dream sequence at the start of Wild Strawberries), his films were mostly very matter of fact deliberations on life, relationships, human nature and, most of all, faith.
Bergman truly wrestled with the place of God, or the absence of God, in his characters’ lives. Some have felt coldness in his work but a closer look just shows that he is looking at human frailty and the fact that humans have a capacity for cruelty not only to others but to themselves.
Though he could do comedy well (ironically the comic romantic roundelay Smiles of a Summer Night was his international breakthrough), his relentlessly probing dramas are his calling card.
Perhaps the ideal film to demonstrate Bergman’s talents is the two character drama Persona, which also showcases the film maker’s uncanny talent for delineating the psyche of women. Two women (played by Bibi Anderson and Liv Ulmann, among his greatest players), a nurse and a patient who is non-communicative due to a breakdown, are in a remote beach house together. Two characters are fully explored, even though one never speaks, and the conclusions are complex and open to many interpretations.
As with Tarkovsky, Bergman’s films aren’t for everyone, though his theatrical streak made them much more palatable to a larger audience over a much longer period of time. As with Kael and The Magician, one may not like Bergman, but one must give him his due as a skilled maker of notable films.