Directors You've Never Heard Of
I assume that, as a fully functioning American if not a film
fanatic, you've at least heard of such noted auteurs (that's a fancy word
for directors) as Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Francis Ford
Coppola, Spike Lee, and Martin Scorsese, not to mention such popular favorites as Steven
Spielberg and George Lucas. I also assume that you are familiar with such
notable international film figures as Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jean Renoir
of France, Ingmar Bergman of Sweden, Federico Fellini, Vittorio de Sica, and Michelangelo
Antonioni of Italy, Akira Kurosawa of Japan, Luis Buñuel of Spain and Mexico,
Andrei Tarkovsky of Russia, and Satyajit Ray of India. Of course, if you
haven’t heard of them, that’s okay. Just keep in mind that this
discussion will not focus on the traditionally “great” directors, even if
their names are totally unfamiliar to you. As a result, I will also ignore such
noted Hollywood directors of the past as Frank Capra, George Cukor, George Stevens,
William Wyler, Billy Wilder, John Huston, and several others, although they have all
made noteworthy films. I am also not including, for the
purposes of space, such talented directors as Ken Russell, Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks, Oliver Stone, and
Tim Burton, whose films I definitely admire. I am not including them because
I have seen too little of their work to know their specific sensibilities and whether
I can wholeheartedly recommend even their misfires (and all directors have
misfires) as worth watching, based on what I know of there talents. Finally,
of course, I am not including such cinematic pioneers as D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein,
Jean Vigo, F.W. Murnau, Carl Dreyer, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati,
because quite frankly I am completely unfamiliar with most of their work. Hopefully,
that will change in the future.
The 5 directors that
I will discuss on this page are not necessarily the 5 greatest film directors of all time.
I am not a devotee of the auteur theory, and I believe in evaluating
films, not directors. Still, these directors have consistently produced work
along thematic lines that I strongly identify with, and all of their films that I have
seen have impressed and/or fascinated me to some degree. Not every film has
been a success, but nevertheless I would be interested any movie where one of
these five is credited as the director, and I would highly recommend any of
their films (although some more than others) to you.
5. Robert Altman
Robert Altman was born on February 20,
1925, in Kansas City, Missouri. As a young man, he attended Catholic, public,
and military schools. He was a fighter pilot for a short time after World
War II, and first got interested in filmmaking after his discharge, as an employee of
the Calvin Co. After a series of unnoticed independent films, he got his
first break in the world of television, directing episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock
Presents." From there he went on to other television shows, including
"Peter Gunn," "Bonanza," and "Route 66." His big break in terms of filmmaking
came in 1969, when he became the fifteenth director approached to do a film version of
Richard Hooker's novel MASH, from a script by former blacklistee (and Oscar
winner) Ring Lardner, Jr. (The novel itself had been turned down by about
13 publishers.) Altman's eventual movie, which mixed slapstick comedy and
bloody violence indiscriminately in order to drive home its message of the pointlessness
of war, was a huge hit. Lardner won his second Oscar (and first since the
blacklist), and the film received four other Oscar nominations at the 1970 Awards,
including one for Altman as director. It also won the Golden Palm at Cannes, a
Golden Globe for Best Musical/Comedy Picture, and the National Society of Film Critics'
Best Film Award. Altman re-used many members of his MASH stock company
for his next two films, Brewster McCloud (1970) and McCabe & Mrs. Miller
(1971), the latter earning Julie Christie her second Oscar nomination. But
although these and several of Altman's other early-'70s films were critically praised,
Altman did not strike gold again until 1975, when Nashville was released to almost
unaminous critical acclaim. This mosaic of interconnecting lives was a
free-form meditation on music, politics,
fame, women, and many other things. Though considered by many to be the
archetypal Great American Film, it lost the Best Picture Oscar to Milos Forman's One
Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Sidney Lumet's excellent Dog Day
Afternoon came out the same year, as did Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon,
Steven Spielberg's Jaws, and Ken Russell's Tommy - what a year for movies!)
Altman, however, was not shut out; he picked up two more Oscar nomations - for
producing and directing - as well as awards from the National Board of Review, the
National Society of Film Critics, and the New York Film Critics Circle.
Unfortunately, this creative high point also marked a downturn in Altman's career.
His next film, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson
(1976), was a dud, and he gradually slipped out of Hollywood favor after a string of
critical misfires such as Quintet (1979), H.E.A.L.T.H. (1979),
Popeye (1980), and his segment of the anthologized opera film Aria (1987).
He then returned to television, directing a praised TV-movie adaptation of Herman
Wouk's play The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial in 1988. The same year,
he collaborated with Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau on the HBO television
series "Tanner '88," a political satire. Altman returned to filmmaking with
a vengeance with The Player (1992), a blistering Hollywood satire, which earned him
his fourth Oscar nomination. He picked up a fifth the following year with
the Raymond Carver adaptation Short Cuts (1993). In recent years, Altman
has also acted as a mentor to director Alan Rudolph, producing his films Mrs. Parker
and the Vicious Circle (1994), Afterglow (1997) - which earned Julie Christie
her third Oscar nomination - and Trixie (2000). At the age of 75,
Altman is still going strong.
There are many
trademarks which mark Altman's work. His films come in two "flavors" - "small" and
"large." His "small" films are often intimate character studies, such as Brewster McCloud or Secret Honor (1984). As a matter of fact, the latter, an unusual film by anyone's standards, contains exactly one character: Richard Nixon. Philip Baker Hall, who plays the former president, essentially delivers an extended 85-minute monologue. At the other end of the spectrum, Altman's "large" films, such as M*A*S*H and Nashville, cover a much more sizable canvas, using bigger-than-usual
ensemble casts that play off of each other. Much of the dialogue is improvised, since Altman
wants to get a sense of how the characters behave in everyday life. Plot
machinations are kept to a minimum - the flow is determined by the ordinary lives of the
characters. A typical Altman film uses long tracking shots, overlapping
dialogue, and a song-heavy soundtrack. Altman watches his characters with
a Renoir-like detachment and takes a similar seemingly non-judgemental view of their
actions. A final Altman trademark is the use of black comedy and satire to
make his points about human nature, as well as such human institutions as the military,
the political system, the music industry, and Hollywood.
Other Notable Films
4. Alain Resnais
Alain Resnais was born on June 3, 1922, in Vannes, France.
In 1947, he directed a series of short biographical documentaries on famous artists.
He remade one of these, Van Gogh, the following year under the same title.
This Van Gogh won its screenwriters, Gaston Diehl and Robert Hessens, a 1949
Oscar for Best Short Subject. Resnais first gained international attention
for his 32-minute documentary about the Holocaust, Night and Fog (1955).
Resnais' first feature film, Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), also dealt with a
tragedy related to World War II, as can be inferred from the title. This
film, which in many ways revolutionized the art of cinema, was the result of a
collaboration between Resnais and novelist Marguerite Duras, and earned Duras an Oscar
nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Resnais followed this up with Last
Year at Marienbad (1961), a similarly groundbreaking narrative experiment, which
earned scenarist Alain Robbe-Grillet an Oscar nomination. Resnais' next two
films, Muriel (1963) - his first film in color - and La Guerre est finie (1966), were similarly complex
and rewarding, and the latter earned Jorge Semprun a Best Original Screenplay Oscar
nomination. (Seeing a pattern here?) Stavisky... (1974), also
scripted by Semprun, featured one of Charles Boyer's last performances, one of Gerard
Depardieu's first, and Stephen Sondheim's first original film score.
Providence (1977), Resnais' first film in English, offered John Gielgud one of his few leading roles in film, and he made the most of it, winning the New York Film Critics
Circle Award for Best Actor. Mon oncle d'Amerique (1980) used the
stories of three fictional characters to demonstrate the psychological theories of Henri
Laborit, best known as the developer of Thorazine. The pattern continued at
the Oscars, as Resnais was once again shut out while screenwriter Jean Gruault picked up a
nomination. Gruault and Resnais next collaborated on Life Is a Bed of
Roses (1983), an original fable that once again used parallel storylines, this time
as a way of contrasting the past and present. Resnais' subsequent projects,
including L'Amour a mort (1984), I Want to Go Home (1989), the 5-hour
long Smoking/No Smoking (1993), and the musical Same Old Song (1997),
have been acclaimed abroad, but they have not been able to find much distribution in the United States, perhaps
because they are considered to somewhat less "serious" works.
trademarks as a director include a preoccupation with the past, memory, and time. His films
often deal with abstract issues, but dramatize them in recognizable human terms.
His films are formally quite complex, and use nontraditional nonlinear narratives -
usually, though not always, in an attempt to replicate the human thought process.
(It might be fair to say that what Proust attempted to do with the novel, Resnais
attempted to do to with film.) Additional trademarks of Resnais include
beautiful cinematography and haunting scores, making many of his films a pleasure for the
senses as well as for the mind.
Other Notable Films
Most Recent Film
3. Roman Polanski
Roman Polanski was born on August 18, 1933, in Paris, France.
His parents moved back to their home country, Poland, in the late 1930's.
If you saw Schindler's List (1993), you saw Roman's childhood. Although
his mother died in a concentration camp, Roman somehow survived and found his only escape
from the harsh reality of the war at various local cinemas. After the war, he
attended technical school but his love of film led him toward a career in acting.
He appeared in Andrej Wajda's seminal postwar film A Generation (1955).
The same year, he co-starred in his own short film, Bicycle.
He made several more early short films, including the surrealistic Two Men and a
Wardrobe (1958). His first feature, Knife in the Water (1962),
was made in black-and-white on a low budget with only three actors. (It
was co-scripted by another noted Polish director, Jerzy Skolimowski.)
Although it had a very simple story, Knife in the Water displayed Polanski's
fascination with unconvential relationships and toyed with the conventions of the
suspense thriller in a way that would become his trademark. It was an
international success and put Polanski on the map as one of Poland's most noted
filmmakers. He promptly left for France, where he met collaborator Gerard
Brach. The two of them teamed up with New Wavers Jean-Luc Godard and Claude
Chabrol for the anthology The World's Most Beautiful Swindlers (1964).
Repulsion (1965), an unsettling horror film starring Catherine Deneuve as a
beautiful virgin driven mad by the combined forces of urban blight and sexual repression,
was the pair's next collaboration, and Polanski's first film in English. Then
they did Cul-de-sac (1966), a blackly comic thriller starring the sinister British
actor Donald Pleasance as a decidedly non-sinister henpecked husband. The
pair's fourth collaboration, and Polanski's first film in color, was the horror-comedy
The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967).
This one starred Jack MacGowran as a vampire hunter and Polanski as his bumbling
assistant, Alfred. Polanski wanted Jill St. John (who would later play the
Bond girl in Diamonds Are Forever ) to play the role of Sarah Shagal, but
executive producer Martin Ransohoff insisted that he use Ransohoff's discovery, a young
actress named Sharon Tate. Polanski and Tate fell in love and were married in
1968 also marked a turning point in
Polanski's career - he received his first Oscar nomination that year, for the now-classic
Rosemary's Baby. New in Hollywood, Polanski did not realize how many
liberties the purchase of a property allowed him to take, and thus his Oscar-nominated
screenplay hewed extremely closely to Ira Levin's popular horror/suspense novel.
That was okay, however, since Levin was an extremely good storyteller, and
Rosemary's Baby is, next to A Kiss Before Dying, probably his best work.
1968 also marked Polanski's return to acting in other director's films - he took a
cameo role in Joseph McGrath's adaptation of Terry Southern's black-comic satire, The
1969 marked another turning point in
Polanski's life, and one that was not nearly as happy. Growing up in
Nazi-occupied Poland, young Roman must have faced horrors and atrocities every day, but
it is difficult to say if that could have prepared him for the truly horrific event that
took place in the early morning hours of August 10, 1969. Sharon Tate, three
of her friends, and an innocent bystander where brutally slaughtered at the Polanskis'
home in Beverly Hills by followers of Charles Manson. (For a truly chilling
account of the incident, visit the Crime Library on
the Web.) Polanski, who was in Europe at the time of the killings, was
distraught at the news, and his grief was aggravated by the popular press, which
mistakenly tied the murders to the presumed drug-abusing lifestyle of Tate, Polanski, and
their friends. (Although Polanski and the others undoubtedly experimented with
drugs - it was, after all the '60s - there is nothing to suggest that their lifestyle was
extremely decadent and it in any case, it was most certainly not the cause of their
Humor was completely absent from Polanski's next
film - a dark, violent, and controversial adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth
(1971) which was co-scripted by noted critic Kenneth Tynan. By 1973, however,
he seemed to have come around, artistically. He reteamed with Brach to produce
the X-rated comedy What?. What? is generally considered one of
Polanski's few failures, but he followed it up with what is undoubtedly his masterpiece -
Chinatown (1974). This neo-noir is a rare example of several talented
artists - Polanski, writer Robert Towne, cinematographer John A. Alonzo, art director
Dick Sylbert, composer Jerry Goldsmith, and performers Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and
John Huston - all coming together while at the top of their respective games.
The result is one of the few unquestioned masterpieces of American cinema.
Polanski's next film, The Tenant (1976), was a return to contemporary horror, this
time the story of a timid man (played by Polanski himself) driven mad after occupying the
apartment of a woman who attempted suicide. This bizarrely cast French-language
film (scripted by Brach and Polanski from Ronald Topor's novel) sharply divided audiences,
with the majority hooting at a story that they found far-fetched and scenes - like the
one where Polanski dresses in the clothing of his apartment's previous tenant - that they
found ridiculous. Still, the critical drubbing was nothing compared to the
disaster that would befall Polanski next.
Ever since the
death of his wife, Polanski had been trying in various ways to find sexual fulfillment.
One day in 1977, he approached the 13-year-old daughter of a woman he had befriended
and asked her to pose for some photographs. He took her to the house of his
good friend Jack Nicholson (who was away at the time), where, under circumstances that are
not entirely clear, they had sex. Shortly thereafter, the girl's mother pressed
charges of statutory rape against Polanski. Polanski was advised to plead
guilty, but the judge swore to put him away for many years. Justifiably
afraid of incarceration, Polanski fled the country, assuming French citizenship.
To this day, he cannot set foot on American soil without being under threat of arrest.
Polanski's next project, co-scripted with Brach and John Brownjohn
and produced by noted French director Claude Berri (Jean de Florette and Manon
of the Spring [both 1986]), was an English-language adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel
Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Clocking in at nearly three hours,
Tess (1979) won Polanski his third Oscar nomination (he was also nominated for
directing Chinatown). Unfortunately, his career quickly took a downturn
after this success. Polanski only made two films during the 1980's - the
mediocre Pirates (1986) and Frantic (1988). Emmanuelle Seigner,
who played a featured role in the latter, married Polanski in 1989. (She is
well over 30 years his junior; in 1999 his age was exactly double hers.) In
Polanski's next film, the highly personal Bitter Moon (1992), Seigner was cast as
sexually voracious monster who cripples her husband (Peter Coyote) and then sets her
sights on an English tourist (Hugh Grant). Polanski's next film, Death and
the Maiden (1994), was a generally well-received adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's
supense play/character study. Although Polanski remains a rather non-productive
exile, he still, at the age of 67, remains capable of produce profoundly unsettling works
of art. He also continues to act. In the past decade, he has
appeared in Deran Sarafian's sloppy Back in the U.S.S.R. (1992), Giuseppe
Tornatore's maddening A Pure Formality (1994), and Michel Blanc's truly odd comedy
Dead Tired (1994).
Polanski's one undeniable
strength is his ability to create an atmosphere that is always both genuinely unsettling
and completely appropriate. He is constantly drawn
to the dark side of human nature, as evidenced by his favorite genres: suspense, horror,
and mystery. He appears extremely interested in human relationships, especially
bizarre ones with overtones of sadomasochism. Yet at the same time, all of his
films are marked by his own personal brand of black humor, which often manages to increase
the tension rather than lighten it. The fact this sense of humor still exists
is a tribute to a man who, whatever his personal failings and oddities, has suffered much
more over the course of his lifetime than most people could ever imagine.
Other Notable Films
Most Recent Film
2. Sidney Lumet
Sidney Lumet was born on June 25, 1924, in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania. Coming from a stage family, he made his stage acting debut at
the age of 4. He appeared on Broadway as a child actor in the '30s and was
one of the Dead End kids in the original production of Sidney Kingsley's social
drama (which was later made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart). Lumet also
did a bit of film acting as a youth, appearing in the film One Third of a Nation
(1939). He first rose to prominence as a director at CBS in the early 1950's,
where he helmed episodes of "Danger," "You Are There," and "The Alcoa Hour."
His first feature was the critically acclaimed Twelve Angry Men (1957), based on
Reginald Rose's contrived but dramatically effective teleplay. This success was
followed in 1958 by two made-for-TV adaptations of famous novels
- Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning All the King's Men (already filmed by
Robert Rossen in 1949) and Alexandre Dumas' classic The Count of Monte Cristo.
Lumet's next feature was an unsuccesful remake of Morning Glory (1933) called
Stage Struck (1958). This was followed by another remake: The
Shopworn Angel (1928 and again in 1938) as That Kind of Woman (1959).
He next adapted Tennesee Williams' play Orpheus Descending as The Fugitive
Kind (1959). 1960 saw two television films - Eugene O'Neill's The
Iceman Cometh, starring Jason Robards, and Michael and Fay Kanin's play
Rashomon, based on the same stories that inspired the classic 1950 Akira Kurosawa
film. In 1961, Lumet transferred Arthur Miller's play A View from the
Bridge into French, making Vu du pont his only foreign-language film.
Lumet finally struck dramatic gold in 1962 when, with the help of producer Ely
Landau, he made a theatrical version of Eugene O'Neill's landmark drama Long Day's
Journey Into Night, starring Katherine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards (repeating his role from the original Broadway production), and Dean Stockwell.
This black-and-white, 3-hour-long, almost unbearably stagy production somehow
manages to transcend its flaws and become a masterpiece. Most of the credit for
this goes to O'Neill, but Lumet must also be commended for not messing the play up.
Long Day's Journey was Lumet's last big-name adaptation for
a while. His next project, Fail-Safe (1964), was a serious treatment of
the same subject matter - nuclear war - that Stanley Kubrick had mocked just a few months
earlier in his classic Dr. Strangelove. Lumet's film understandably
suffered in comparison. The Pawnbroker (1965), brought Rod Steiger an
Oscar nomination for his role as a Holocaust survivor in the first of many gritty dramas
Lumet would make in New York City. The Group (1966), based on Mary
McCarthy's memoir, was Lumet's second film in color, after Stage Struck.
The late 1960's were a rather disappointing period for Lumet, but his career picked
up in the '70s with his first documentary, King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to
Memphis (1970). This film, which Lumet co-directed with Hollywood legend
Joe Mankiewicz, earned producer Landau (who also founded the American Film Theater
project) an Oscar nomination for best feature-length documentary. King
was followed by the commercially successful thriller The Anderson Tapes (1971).
Serpico (1973) teamed Lumet with Al Pacino in the first of a quartet of
urban dramas examining police corruption in the NYPD. Next came a big-budget
glossy adaptation of Agatha Christie's immortal whodunit Murder on the Orient
Express (1974), with an all-star including Ingrid Bergman, who won her third Oscar
for her role.
Lumet's second masterpiece (after
Long Day's Journey, which really wasn't his work anyway) came out in 1975.
Dog Day Afternoon starred Al Pacino as a man who robs a bank with an accomplice
(played by John Cazale, an actor who was woefully underused by Hollywood before his
premature and unfortunate death) in order to pay for the sex-change operation of his
transsexual lover (Chris Sarandon). From this unlikely plot (based on a true
story), Lumet created a hyperrealistic, almost unbearably intense film which manages
to be funny, sad, thought-provoking and heart-poundingly suspenseful - all without once
dipping into the sentimentality that Lumet has become noted for avoiding. All
in all, an excellent movie, and I for one wish that Hollywood had at the very least
adopted a few of Lumet's realistic tenets.
Lumet followed up Dog Day with the enormously overrated Network (1976).
Paddy Chayefsky wrote this bizarre right-wing fable about the television industry
and how it has completely eroded the ability of everyone in this country to feel.
Everyone, that is, but Paddy Chayefsky. Chayefsky's brand of right-wing
Judaism did not mix well with Lumet's liberal Judaism, and it was a far-fetched,
overwritten, and pretentious script anyway. So says me. The Academy
thought differently, voting Chayefsky his third (!) Oscar and giving Lumet his third
nomination (after Twelve Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon). Lumet
also won his only Golden Globe to date for Network, although he lost the Oscar
to John G. Avildsen for Rocky.
Next for Lumet was
a stagebound adaptation of Peter Shaffer's play Equus (1977), which earned stars
Richard Burton and Peter Firth Oscar nominations. 1978 saw the extremely
prolific Lumet direct The Wiz, a musical version of The Wizard of Oz (1939)
with an all-black cast. Lumet adapted Jay Presson Allen's novel Just Tell
Me What You Want (1980) to the screen next, then re-teamed with her for Prince of
the City (1981), based on the true story of an NYPD informer. Prince
is in many ways a mirror image of Serpico, also a true story. While
Serpico is the one honest cop among numerous corrupt ones, Danny Ciello (the protagonist
of Prince) is a corrupt cop himself, and the reason for his corruption are
spelled out - he is, to some extent, justified. Both movies, however, deal
with the enormous emotional price their respective protagonists pay when they decide
to come clean and talk to the authorities, thus breaching the "code of silence" among
all cops in the department. Both films feature large casts with many standout
performances in supporting roles - attention to supporting players and the
ability to handle large ensembles have always been among Lumet's instinctive strengths.
Lumet and Allen shared an Oscar nomination - Lumet's fourth - for their
1982 saw two Lumet films. One was an
adaptation of Ira Levin's stage play Deathtrap, which bears more than a passing
resemblance to Sleuth, the hit play by Peter Shaffer's twin brother Anthony which
was brought to the screen by Lumet's old collaborator, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, back in 1972.
The second was the courtroom drama The Verdict, based on a rather far-fetched
script by the enormously overrated playwright David Mamet (who was adapting, most
likely badly, Barry Reed's novel). Despite its flaws, The Verdict did
have a compelling story (the most compelling one of all - the story of redemption), some
interesting plot twists, and a crafty supporting performance by that old pro, James Mason. The Academy went to town on this one, nominating it for Best Picture, Best Actor
(Paul Newman), Best Supporting Actor (Mason), Best Director (Lumet, giving him a total
of 5 nominations and no wins), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Mamet). Luckily,
when it came to actually giving out the awards, the Academy recovered its senses and
honored a much, much, much better film, Richard Attenborough's Gandhi.
Much of Lumet's subsequent work has been overlooked.
Daniel (1983) was an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel, scripted by the author
himself. The Morning After (1986) earned Jane Fonda what proved to be
her final Oscar nomination. Running on Empty (1988), which earned River
Phoenix his only Oscar nomination before his untimely death, was something of a
return to form, earning Lumet his fifth Golden Globe nomination. Q &
A (1990) and Night Falls on Manhattan (1997) completed Lumet's quartet of NYPD
dramas. His most recent film, Gloria, was a generally badly received
remake of the 1980 John Cassavetes film. Upcoming projects include The
Beautiful Mrs. Seidenmann, the story of a woman trying to survive the Holocaust, and
Whistle, a David Mamet-scripted adaptation of the James Jones novel.
Whistle is the concluding part of Jones's World War II trilogy, which is comprised
of it, From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line. The other
two have both been successfully filmed: the former by Fred Zinnemann in 1953 and the
latter by Terrence Malick in 1998. It remains to be seen whether Lumet can
complete the hat trick, but with Mamet doing the script, I'm afraid the prognosis is not
Although Lumet's work is extremely varied, there
are a few broad categories that his projects can be grouped into. The Tennesee
Williams and Eugene O'Neill adaptations are one such category. The urban NYC
dramas are another. Still another category would be the "just-for-fun" projects
like The Wiz, Murder on the Orient Express, and The Anderson Tapes.
In addition, certain thematic strains often appear in Lumet's work.
Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker, and Network all deal with dehumanization
and the ability (or lack thereof) to feel. Long Day's Journey,
Daniel, and Running on Empty all deal with families in torment and the idea
that the deeds of parents are visited upon their children. And, of course, many
of Lumet's films deal with justice, law enforcement, and the judicial system. One
final note: special mention must be made of Lumet's 1995 book, Making Movies.
This book is an invaluable guide to
filmmaking techniques, and it also offers several valuable insights into Lumet's work and
Other Notable Films
Most Recent Film
John Frankenheimer was born on February 19, 1930, in New York City.
Like Sidney Lumet, he got his start as a live television director at CBS in the 1950's - in fact, both he and Lumet worked
on the television series "Danger" and "You Are There." Frankenheimer also directed episodes of
"Playhouse 90" and "Climax!," receiving an Emmy nomination for an episode of the latter entitled "Portrait in Celluloid."
His first feature film was The Young Stranger (1957), a sincere drama about juvenile delinquency.
(Frankenheimer would return to social themes in many future projects.) Frankheimer was not pleased
with the result, as he was unused to working with just one camera. He would gladly have remained in
live television, but the field itself ceased to exist in the 1960's. So he returned to feature filmmaking with
The Young Savages (1961), starring Burt Lancaster as an idealistic district attorney who investigates a racially-charged gang-related slaying. The Young Savages began a cycle of highly-praised black
and white dramas that Frankenheimer would direct in the 1960's. The next was William Inge's follow-up to Splendor in the Grass (1961), All Fall Down (1962), which was a family drama starring Eva
Marie Saint and Warren Beatty. 1962 also saw two other Frankheimer movies, both of which would become enduring classics. Birdman of Alcatraz starred Burt Lancaster in the title role, and earned Oscar nominations for him and co-stars Thelma Ritter and Telly Savalas (the latter had previously worked with Frankenheimer and Lancaster in Young Savages). However, it is the other 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate, on which Frankenheimer's current popular reputation almost entirely rests.
The Manchurian Candidate, which was based on a novel by Richard Condon, works on many levels. On one level, it is a surrealistic Cold War thriller which is extremely suspenseful. On another level, it is a brittle social commentary which satirizes McCarthyism (something which was taken extremely seriously at the time). On yet another level, it is a parable of dehumanization. And so on. It also features complex, well-drawn characters and a Golden-Globe winning performance by Angela Lansbury, who had previously worked with Frankenheimer in All Fall Down. Because Manchurian Candidate dealt with political assassination, and because it had the bad luck to be released around the time of the actual assassination of John F. Kennedy, it was quickly withdrawn from circulation by star and co-producer Frank Sinatra (a personal friend of JFK). When it was released 25 years later, it was hailed as a long-lost classic, causing screenwriter George Axelrod to remark, "The Manchurian Candidate is the only film to go from being a flop to being a classic without ever having been a hit in between."
Frankenheimer followed this creative and artistic, if not commercial, success with Seven Days in May, another political thriller and his third collaboration with Lancaster. This film, which was scripted by "The Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling, earned Frankenheimer his only Golden Globe nomination (he has never been nominated for an Oscar). Frankenheimer and Lancaster teamed up again for The Train (1964), a World War II action picture with an unusual theme. Lancaster and Albert Remy (Antoine Doinel's father in The Four Hundred Blows ) play French resistance fighters who are trying to protect a shipment of valuable French art from being shipped to Germany by a Nazi officer (brilliantly portrayed by Paul Scofield) at the tail end of the war. While it is for the most part a routine (if well-made) action film, The Train is distinguished by its incredible closing sequence, which critic Stanley J. Solomon called "the equivalent of ending a sentence with five exclamation marks" in its emphatic effect. After having sat through two hours of typical action-movie sentiments and heroics (albeit filtered through Frankenheimer's unique artistic sensibility), the audience is sent out of the theater with some serious and profound thoughts on the nature of art and its value in a society that, for the most part, no longer appreciates it.
Frankenheimer made two films in 1966. One of them, Seconds, was a haunting study of identity featuring John Randolph as a middle-aged man who is given a chance to reinvent himself as Rock Hudson. The brilliant camerawork of legendary Chinese cinematographer James Wong Howe was a standout feature of this film, which, like The Manchurian Candidate, was a commercial failure upon release but has since been hailed as a classic. Unfortunately, Frankenheimer's other 1966 film, Grand Prix (his first film in color), marked the beginning of a downturn in his career. Although the film won 3 technical Oscars and featured exciting and well-done scenes involving Formula 1 car racing, the human characters and their interactions were generally considered to be uninteresting. Frankenheimer's next two films, The Fixer (1968) and The Gypsy Moths (1969), were conscious attempts to get away from the action genre, but the former - a Dalton Trumbo-scripted adaptation of Bernard Malamud's classic novel - was generally considered to have little going for it other than Alan Bates's Oscar-nominated lead performance, while the latter, despite well-filmed skydiving scenes and an evocative portrayal of small-town life, had a plot that was strictly soap-opera. A series of mediocre films - as well as the bomb The Extraordinary Seaman (1969) - followed. Frankenheimer seemed to get back on track with a 1973 adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, produced by Ely Landau for the American Film Theater project, but this was immediately followed by his career nadir, 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974), and then a 1975 sequel to William Friedkin's overrated Oscar-winner The French Connection (1971), which suffered critically by comparison to the original.
In 1957, Robert Evans was cast as legendary MGM executive Irving Thalberg in the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces, starring James Cagney. A decade later, he found himself a movie mogul in real life, having been named head of production at Paramount. While there, he oversaw production of, among others, Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), Arthur Hiller's Love Story (1970), and Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972). In 1974, he struck out as an independent producer, and promptly hit pay dirt with Polanski's Chinatown, earning himself an Oscar nomination. He followed this up with John Schlesinger's suspense thriller Marathon Man (1976), a commercial hit starring Dustin Hoffman as a Jewish college student and Laurence Olivier as his nemesis, a sadistic Nazi dentist. Now, looking for a follow-up, he decided to turn to a man who was known for his skill in directing both actors and action: John Frankenheimer. The result of their collaboration was Black Sunday (1977), based on the first novel of Thomas Harris, who would later author the Hannibal Lecter trilogy (Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal, all of which have been made into movies). Evans pulled out all the stops on the film, hiring as screenwriters Oscar nominee Ivan Moffat (Giant ), playwright Kenneth Ross (Breaker Morant and the screenplay of Fred Zinnemann's The Day of the Jackal ), and top Hollywood writer-producer Ernest Lehman, whose credits include such classic movie musicals as Walter Lang's The King and I (1956), Robert Wise's West Side Story (1961), Wise's The Sound of Music (1965), and Gene Kelly's Hello, Dolly (1969), as well as such classic non-musical films as Wise's Executive Suite (1954), Billy Wilder's Sabrina (1954), Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success (1957) (based on his own play), Mike Nichols' ground-breaking Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) (based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning play by Edward Albee), and Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) and Family Plot (1976).
In addition to the writing and directing talent and international cast (led by Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, and Marthe Keller [Marathon Man's female lead]), Evans secured one more major coup. For the film's final sequence, a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl, he was able to secure permission to photograph Shaw at the sidelines of Super Bowl X in Miami, and to use the bowl game's players, commentators, cheerleaders, and audience as extras. The result is one of the most exciting, suspenseful, and above all else realistic action sequences ever filmed. Frankenheimer's masterful blending of reality and fiction is rivaled by only one other Hollywood film: Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool (1969). Frankenheimer, however, did not have to deal with the production and budgetary constrainst's that Wexler's film did, and thus his film is unique among non-independent studio productions. Not only that, but it is remarkable for being able to squeeze a remarkable amount of political commentary into its subtext. While its hero is Israeli and its villains Palestinian, the film subtly critiques Israeli policy toward the Palestinian minority in its midst. Also, by presenting a strong, intelligent, dedicated female character who is nevertheless a villain, the film attacks both the patriarchical view of women held by reactionary conservatives and the angelic view of them taken by modern radical feminists. In addition, through the use of the Goodyear blimp to symbolize commercialization and Jimmy Carter to symbolize ... Jimmy Carter (not terribly subtle, I know) the film manages to comment obliquely on the state of American capitalism and politics. It also takes the time to develop its characters to an extent that most of today's action films would never dream. The sympathetic villain played by Dern, who was driven mad, emasculated, and essentially destroyed by his experience fighting in Vietnam, is a sad reminder of the price that we continue to pay for that conflict.
The roller coaster that is Frankenheimer's career took another dive with his next film, the horror film Prophecy (1979). It stayed down for about 15 more years, although 52 Pick-Up (1986), based on a novel by Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and the book that became Quentin Tarantino's film Jackie Brown ) did receive limited acclaim in some quarters. But in the end it would be, fittingly enough, Frankenheimer's old home of television that would end up rejuvenating his career. His first return to the medium came in 1982 with an TV-movie adaptation of N. Richard Nash's play The Rainmaker, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Tuesday Weld. (The play had previously been filmed in 1956 by Joseph Anthony, with Burt Lancaster and Katherine Hepburn in the lead roles.) This was Frankenheimer's first TV movie since an adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play The Browning Version in 1959, starring John Gielgud. Frankenheimer's next TV movie was Riviera (1987), which ended up being so distorted from his original intention that he had his name removed from it and replaced with the ubiquitous "Alan Smithee" pseudonym. But after the commercial and critical failure of the theatrical film Year of the Gun (1991), Frankenheimer found himself contemplating, as much as he dreaded the prospect, early retirement. It was at this point that he met Robert Cooper, who worked for the cable channel HBO and offered him a chance to direct a made-for-TV movie called Against the Wall, about the 1971 uprising and subsequent riot in Attica prison. The 1994 telefilm, which earned Samuel L. Jackson a Golden Globe nomination, was followed by another movie for HBO, The Burning Season (1994). This movie, which starred Raul Julia in the true story of assassinated Brazilian activist Chico Mendes, earned 6 Emmy nominations, including 2 for Frankenheimer. Frankenheimer ended up winning his first ever Emmy for The Burning Season (Julia won also), and he followed this up with back-to-back Emmys for his next two TV projects, Andersonville (1996) and George Wallace, both of which were miniseries made for the cable channel TNT. (He was also nominated for Emmys for producing all three films.) Unfortunately, it was also during this time that he was tapped by New Line Cinema to take over The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), an adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel starring a reclusive and corpulent Marlon Brando. This film was a negative experience for all involved, and Frankenheimer refuses to talk about it in interviews. His next two theatrical films, Ronin (1998) and Reindeer Games (2000), were not outstanding successes, but both did receive some good reviews. Despite the jibes of those who refer to him as "the former John Frankenheimer," it is certain that John Frankenheimer will still be making films until he is "the late John Frankenheimer."
Of Frankenheimer's trademarks, one of the ones that stand out the most is his deep commitment to social issues. Nearly all of his films have some sort of sociocultural subtext, even if they are not overtly social or political in subject matter. But this recurrence appears to be intuitive. When it comes to selecting material, Frankheimer looks for, above all else, "a good story, really good characters, and serious subject matter" (his words, from an interview which can be found here). These elements have marked all of his best work, while his lesser work can often be chalked up to the failure of a writer to provide him with a story or characters capable of carrying a film. Nevertheless, his output has been quite uneven, due in large part to the projects he has had to do hack work on during his lean periods. Frankenheimer is a man who loves filmmaking, and he cannot bear to not do it, even if it means producing bad films. But in spite of this and the fact that he has been unjustly overlooked by the Academy (he and Resnais are the only directors on this list who have never been Oscar-nominated, and he, unlike Resnais, is not foreign), he can in many ways be called the American Master of Suspense, just as Hitchcock was the British one. Like Hitchcock, he has been able to use lowbrow genres - the big-budget action film, the suspense thriller - to explore important social and personal themes, while at the same time delivering entertaining stories filled with excellent acting, colorful characters, and plausible situations. And that is why he deserves to stand at the top of this list.
Other Notable Films
Most Recent Films
- For further comments on Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, click here.
- For further comments on Roman Polanski's Chinatown, click here.
- For further comments on Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon, click here.