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
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
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
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.