There are over 100 filmmakers in this category and I aim to do major write-ups on at least half of them before the grim reaper carries me away. For some of these guys—I’m looking at you, Lloyd Bacon—-it just ain’t gonna happen. Sorry. Film ratings for each director are located on the left sidebar.
Notes on the American directors who didn’t make the Masters/Majors cut and whatnot.
I’ve always liked Woody Allen more as a New York character than as a filmmaker. He’s made plenty of enjoyable entertainments. I seem to prefer the ones no one else likes. But can everyone please own up to the fact his recent “British” films are just plain awful? Talk about a fish out of water! Nevertheless, there’s always a few good zingers in every one of Woody’s films and that, as they say, ain’t chopped liver.
Robert Altman‘s films don’t date particularly well. To these eyes the classics from his major period (1970-’75) look more diminished as the years go by. I’m really not a hater, I used to be a fan! Anyway, after Short Cuts he really began to mail it in. To give Altman his due, actors adored him and he continued to direct movies even after a heart transplant. A truly astonishing feat.
Wes Anderson has an exquisite visual sense but fifteen years after Rushmore he still hasn’t developed much of a feel for narrative. I’m beginning to think that ship has sailed.
Hal Ashby is as underrated as Robert Altman is overrated but like the similarly talented Alan J. Pakula and Robert Mulligan his career hit the skids during the insipid 1980s. Ashby didn’t survive to see a better day but I’m not sure a second act was forthcoming.
Lloyd Bacon was a decent Warner Brothers hack. He was the equivalent of W.S. Van Dyke at MGM, but at least Bacon could list 42nd Street and Footlight Parade among his credits. Still, the worthiness of those estimable early musicals had more to do with Busby Berkeley’s contributions than anything Lloyd could bring to the table.
It’s time we recognize Peter Bogdanovich as national treasure. With the possible exception of Andrew Sarris nobody has championed the cause of the American Cinema with more eloquence and intelligence. It’s a true shame most of his interview books with great directors have fallen out of print, but with a little perseverance his chats with the giants of cinema are web retrievable. Youthful hubris sidetracked his promising career as a director all too soon, but both Targets and The Last Picture Show remain among the most interesting works of a volatile and transitional era.
John Brahm seemed to be the next big thing at 20th Century Fox in the mid-1940s but his career went into decline after the early death of his favorite muse Laird Cregar. The Locket proved an aberration but he never recaptured his early magic.
For a couple years Mel Brooks was the hottest, and most emulated, comedic director in Hollywood. But, like most schtick comedians Brooks was only as good as his material and after Young Frankenstein the well went completely dry. Taking into consideration the enormous popularity of Airplane and the Naked Gun series Brooks’ zany influence lived on long after he faded from the scene.
In retrospect Richard Brooks‘ career as a film director was pretty dreary beyond Elmer Gantry. But, boy, what a segue that turned out to be! Brooks coerced great performances out of Burt Lancaster and Arthur Kennedy in a brilliant bookend to Capra’s Miracle Woman. Brooks showed some flair for melodrama and Tennessee Williams adaptations during the 1950s and ’60s, but for some reason this liberal filmmaker never gained much traction once the studio system broke down.
Clarence Brown is best known for being Garbo’s favorite director but his presence on the set never seemed to inspire her much. His films pulled in a lot of dough for MGM but, all in all, it’s a boring, middlebrow body of work.
The classic horror flicks of Tod Browning don’t quite hold up to those made by James Whale. Would Browning have had a more interesting career if he worked exclusively at Universal instead of MGM? Perhaps, but maybe not as much as one would like to think.
John Carpenter was an artistically ambitious and commercially successful genre director for ten years in Hollywood before flaming-out almost overnight. Did the well suddenly go dry or was he a victim of the cost-conscious MBAs brought in to run the studios during the 1990s?
John Cassavetes came of age as a filmmaker during the 1970s when critics cut endless slack for free-flowing self-indulgence. Cassavetes was certainly a charismatic performer, sincere director, and an icon of the era. But beyond the riveting A Woman Under the Influence his earnest body of work feels more strained than profound.
The Coen Brothers might be the most exciting American filmmakers who have come into their own during the last twenty-five years but yet they are maddeningly elusive. The admiration for mavericks like Capra, Sturges and Peckinpah is obvious but unlike their mentors they seem reluctant, or unwilling, to embrace their foolhardy protagonists.
Francis Ford Coppola was arguably the most talented director to have matriculated from an American film school and one can make a case his body of work trumped Martin Scorsese’s throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The very real distractions of trying to keep his production studio (Zoetrope) afloat led to a disconnect from his craft in the 1990s and Coppola’s penchant for movie-making never recovered. At this late stage it seems unlikely he’s got another great movie left in him but, to his credit, he remains committed to being an independent voice when he could have easily cashed-in his chips.
John Cromwell was a very tasteful and intelligent filmmaker who seemed to have been David O. Selznick’s director of choice during the late 1930s. To his credit he tended to thrive when the material was more esoteric or emotionally demanding (Algiers, Since You Went Away, The Enchanted Cottage, Caged), but like many of his 1930s and ’40s directing peers he lost much steam in the post-war years.
It could be argued Michael Curtiz made as many first rate entertainments as any director during Hollywood’s Golden Era. But alongside Casablanca, Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk and Mildred Pierce sat some duds even his greatest champions would have a hard time explaining away. As Andrew Sarris pointed out Curtiz’ career pretty much went in the tank when he went to Paramount in the 1950s. His intelligence and elegant visual style found a perfect home at gritty Warner Brothers and when Curtiz was given great material and star power he usually delivered the goods. He is closer to an inspired craftsman than a true artist but his impressive contributions to the American cinema make him a “subject for further research”.
I have to admit I don’t get the recent groundswell of love for Jules Dassin. His noirs (Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves Highway and Night in the City) are more force-fed than fluid and certainly don’t hold up next to those directed by the true masters of the genre (Mann, Siodmak, Tourneur, Walsh and Ulmer). I sense some critics feel an intriguing career was nipped in the bud by the Hollywood blacklist, but Dassin’s subsequent work in Europe makes the case there wasn’t much there in the first place.
It’s nice Delmer Daves found a champion at Criterion but are Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma really worth much critical reconsideration? Why no love for the far superior westerns of Jacques Tourneur? Martin Scorsese makes a winning argument for The Red House, but Dark Passage would have been so much better without the POV camera. Talk about a missed opportunity! Still, Daves’ anti-westerns are probably the best of their lot and I feel sorry for anyone who can’t enjoy the campy fun of Rome Adventure and Youngblood Hawke.
Roy Del Ruth turned out some snappy early talkies at Warners but his career faded once the Production Code was enforced in 1934. While his WB cohorts Curtiz, Leroy and Wellman moved on to become major industry players Del Ruth did little to distinguish himself in a series of dull programmers and B-pictures.
Did success spoil Jonathan Demme? This graduate of the Roger Corman production team certainly began with a bang as Citzen’s Band and Melvin and Howard (one of the finest films of the 1980s) could attest. But after completing the charming Something Wild Demme got prestige-happy and the early magic was lost.