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5 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.

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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.
     Resnais' 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.

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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 [1971]) 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 early 1968.
     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 Magic Christian.
     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 deaths.)
     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.

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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 script.
     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 good.
     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 personality.

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1.      John Frankenheimer

    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 [1959]) 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 [1956]), playwright Kenneth Ross (Breaker Morant and the screenplay of Fred Zinnemann's The Day of the Jackal [1973]), 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 [1997]) 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.

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  • 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.