Thursday, November 26, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Directorial Debuts

Many great directors start from humble beginnings. Many of my favorite directors of all time are not on this list, because their first feature film was not exactly a masterpiece. But these 10 directors came out swinging, and in their debuts made great films. Some never topped their initial success, but many went on to even greater things. These are my 10 favorite debut films of all time.

10. Blood Simple (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1985)
Right off the bat, the Coen brothers established themselves as two of the best filmmakers in the world. Their dark, neo-noir about a young wife (Frances McDormand) having an affair with the bartender (John Getz) employed by her much older husband (Dan Hedaya). Hedaya hires a Private Investigator (M. Emmet Walsh) to catch them in the act, and when he does things get messy in a hurry. What starts out as a fairly simple plan by all involved, turns into a convoluted mess of double crosses and mistrust. Highlights of the movie include Getz disposing of a body, and finding it much dirtier than he expected, and the classic final showdown between McDormand and Walsh, where he fires bullets through the wall into the neighboring apartment, causing bolts of light to flash through the darkness. From the beginning, the Coen’s show visual flair, and a wonderful mixture of thriller elements, and pitch black comedy. A great film.

9. Ossessione (Luchino Visconti, 1943)
Unlike many of his Italian neo-realist compatriots, Visconti was born an aristocrat, and although he embraced neo-realism for a while, his best films are probably his lush epics like The Leopard. But it all started with Ossessione, his 1943 debut, an unauthorized adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. The movie stars Massimo Girotti as a wandering tramp who starts up an affair with the wife of a restaurant owner – played by Clara Calamai. The two conspire to kill her husband, and when the deed is done, what they pictured as a guilt free, happy life becomes riddled with guilt, and their consciences come back to haunt them. Like the novel, the movie ends with an ironic twist as the tramp is cleared of the murder he did commit, but caught for one he didn’t. The argument about whether this is the first neo-realist film or not does not really bother me. It’s true that Visconti certainly focuses more on the day to day lives of his characters then Cain did, but the film still retains its pulp roots. Although Visconti went onto to make undeniably better movies, Ossessione is still a masterpiece – and may just be my personal favorite of his films.

8. The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959)
One of the defining films of the French New Wave, was Truffaut’s first feature, and the first film in which he featured his iconic character Antoine Doinel (Jean Pierre Leaud). Antoine is a young teenager, with problems both at school and at home. At school, his teacher singles him out for criticism and scorn, while at home his family is poor, forcing him to sleep on a small cot, not to mention the fact that his mother and stepfather are constantly fighting, and his mother is having an affair. Antoine gets into trouble more and more frequently – with escalating seriousness and consequences – as he always gets caught, and is eventually sent to a juvenile detention center, then to a work camp by the sea. He admits to a physiatrist that he was essentially raised by his grandmother, as his own mother never really wanted him, and in fact planned to get an abortion. The final haunting shot of the film as Antoine looking directly at the audience, daring them to look away from him. The film is an autobiographical character study about Truffaut, and announced the arrival of one the world’s best filmmakers. It may in fact be the best film Truffaut ever made.

7. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1978)
Undeniably one of the strangest films in history, Eraserhead was Lynch’s first foray into the world of feature films. It took him years to finish, yet the end result shows no trace of compromise or those difficulties. The movie takes place in a strange industrial landscape ripe with decay. The films protagonist is Henry (Jack Nance), with huge hair, who finds out that his estranged girlfriend has had a hideously deformed baby. He marries her, but she runs off, and leaves him to take care of the child by himself. Along the way he has strange encounters with the Woman in the Radiatator – a small woman who literally lives in his radiator and does song and dance routines and the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, as well as experiencing visions of the Man in the Planet, who seems to control everything. There are more strange things in this movie, and I doubt that I will ever truly understand what the hell it all means, but Eraserhead is a surreal masterpiece of the cinema, and announced to the world the arrival of one of its greatest director.

6. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)
One of the most iconic film noirs, was this adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel written and directed by newcomer John Huston. Huston’s film follows Detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), as he tries to unravel a mystery that involves his dead partner, a femme fatale (Mary Astor), and a missing “black figure of a bird”. Bogart was great in these types of roles, never better than he was here. The supporting cast, including Astor, Peter Lorre, as a scummy bad guy and Sydney Greenstreet, as “the Fat Man”, who has a lot of money and could be pulling the strings. The twists and turns in the movie come fast and furious, and Huston handles it all effortlessly behind the camera. Huston went on to direct many other great films, but The Maltese Falcon remains one of his very best.

5. Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski, 1962)
In Polanski’s first feature film, all of his major themes were already present. A young couple is heading for their boat and a day of sailing. They pick up a young hitchhiker, and invite him to come along with him. The husband taunts the young hitchhiker, who knows nothing about sailing, and the two men compete for the attention of the beautiful young wife. When the husband finds the hitchhiker’s beloved pocketknife, and it accidentally goes into the water, a fight ensues, and the hitchhiker goes overboard, and does not return. Convinced that the young man has drowned, the couple argues as to what to do, and the husband eventually jumps into the water and swims to shore – at which point the young man returns. Knife in the Water is a tense movie, in which the sexual tension simmers just beneath the surface for the entire movie. Polanski never goes overboard with the dramatics, or visual flourishes, but shows supreme confidence for a director making his first feature. Although Polanski would go onto to make even better films than this one, it ranks among his masterpieces.

4. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
I’m not a big fan of most of Godard’s work. I find most of his films overly pretentious, and think that he is far too amused with his own “cleverness” and “importance”. His films in the 1960s are undeniably his best, but for the most part, they work best as a time capsule to a bygone cinematic age rather than great films in their own right. One of the only exceptions though is his first film, Breathless, which is one of the most influential films in history, and one of the best debut films ever. The film is about a low level French gangster who has modeled himself after Humphrey Bogart (Jean-Paul Belmondo), hiding out from the police with his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg). Most of the movie takes place in her apartment, as the two endlessly talk – much like many Godard films. This time however, all of Godard’s dialogue works, his visual style, including one of the first extensive uses of jump cuts, works well with the story. The iconic finale of the movie, which sees the police gun down Belmondo, who has a protracted death scene, is among the most brilliant in all of film history. Although in general, I don’t much like Godard, in the case of Breathless, I think that he made the one film of his career that is a timeless classic.

3. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
I remember watching Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs as 13 year and being completely blown away because it was so different then anything I had ever seen before. All these years later, I now know that in reality, Tarantino took elements from many different films and filmmakers for his debut film, yet that has not lessened my love of the film one bit – if anything, it’s actually added to it. Tarantino’s film is about a bunch of diamond thieves hired to pull off one major job. They don’t know each other, only their employer, so they all have to call each other by the colors they are assigned. The movie flashes back and forth in time, as we learn almost right away that the diamond heist was botched, so we see everything that lead up to the heist going wrong, and the bloody aftermath – never the robbery itself. The cast is uniformly excellent – Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen and the rest are brilliant, and Tarantino’s trademark dialogue is humming at full force, as is his style in the extreme. I’m not certain about this, but I think I may have watched Reservoir Dogs more than any other film I have ever seen. I love it to death.

2. Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
Charles Laughton was a great, Oscar winning actor, yet he only ever directed one film. That the film is a masterpiece means that Laughton probably has the most perfect track record of any filmmaker in history, but also makes one sad to consider how many great films he could have directed if he chose to. Robert Mitchum gives his best, and most frightening, performance as Preacher Harry Powell, who learns from his cellmate that he told his children where he hid the money he is about to be executed for stealing. When Powell is released, he woos and marries his cellmate’s widow (the always great Shelley Winters), and questions the children at every opportunity about the whereabouts of the money. When Winters figures out she is being used, Powell slits her throat, and dumps her body in the river. The children take off with the money, with Powell in hot pursuit. Mitchum towers above everyone in the film. The tattoos on his knuckles that read “LOVE” and “HATE”, his false religious righteous, and his ever creepy voice are all unforgettable. Laughton’s expressionistic style, inspired by the German films of the 1920s, is visually marvelous, and have helped to make Night of the Hunter one of the most influential films in history. Night of the Hunter is a masterpiece. It’s a shame that Laughton never directed again.

1. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
There really is no other choice to make here, is there? Citizen Kane is often called the greatest film ever made, and with good reason. Welles was the boy genius brought to Hollywood, and decided to make his debut with this epic tale of newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane, based on William Randolph Hearst. The result is a movie that is brilliant in its scope, magnificently directed, written and acted and has become the standard for all other films made since then. This is perhaps the only film Welles ever directed that was not marred by either studio interference or money problems. Here, he had everything that he could possibly want or need to make a movie, and the result is one of the best films in history. It is impossible to imagine movie history without it. I can think of nothing of value to add to this film, as so much has already been written about it. If you are one of those poor souls who have still not seen this film, I pity you.

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