(1) John Ford — In the 1970s, long after the death of D. W. Griffith, many of the best film directors were asked who among them was the greatest living director. According to Kurosawa, Welles, Renoir, Fellini, and many of the others, the answer was John Ford. Consider the movies he made over just a three year period: Stagecoach (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Long Voyage Home (1940), and How Green Was My Valley (1941).
Some might dismiss Ford’s films, especially the later lesser films, as being overly sentimental. In an age of ironic and often brutal themes, you have to approach Ford on his own terms. Once you clue into the subtlety and insight of his storytelling, and the fact that his films tend to merge together into one massive narrative, you’ll find yourself confronted with a body of work that stands unequaled in film and with few equals anywhere else.
Not all Ford films are great films. To survive creatively within the studio system, he agreed to direct films he didn’t care about in order to direct films he did care about. Fortunately, for every Mary of Scotland (1936) and Wee Willie Winkie (1937), you’ll find a much-more personal The Informer (1935) and The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).
Be sure to see The Informer (1935), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), Stagecoach (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Long Voyage Home (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), They Were Expendable (1945), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagonmaster (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
(2) Orson Welles – Only one of the films Welles directed was completed as he intended. That film was Citizen Kane. The other films were altered by the studios or compromised from lack of funds. That doesn’t mean that his only great film is Kane — far from it. Even with the sudden and out-of-place ending, and unfortunate edits throughout, The Magnificent Ambersons is a remarkable and innovative film. In many ways, it’s even better than Kane. Touch of Evil was so forward looking, we’re still trying to catch up with it. Even the no-frills The Immortal Story and illusive F for Fake are far more rewarding to watch than you might assume at first glance.
Be sure to see Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Lady from Shanghai (1948), Macbeth (1948), Touch of Evil (1958), Falstaff [a.k.a. Chimes at Midnight] (1967), The Immortal Story (1968), and F for Fake (1975).
(3) Akira Kurosawa — Just as John Ford is often written off as a mere director of westerns, Kurosawa is often dismissed as a mere director of samurai films. Yet his films set in contemporary times are just as good — taken as a group — as his samurai films. His post-war urban crime dramas show a knack for rich characters and flowing narrative that would serve him later in such outstanding films as Ikiru, Red Beard, and Dersu Uzala. His final film (Madadayo), generally underrated, is remarkably polished in its simplicity and assured storytelling. Like Buñuel (and unlike Griffith and Ford), Kurosawa was able to stay fresh and interesting as an aging director, even into his 70s.
Be sure to see Stray Dog (1949), Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Lower Depths (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961), High and Low (1963), Red Beard (1965), Dersu Uzala (1974), Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985), and Madadayo (1993).
(4) Jean Renoir — Like Ford, Renoir is a people person. Narrative and film technique serve to reveal what they can about the characters. Also like Ford, Renoir is an optimist. Neither director dismisses the power of personal corruption, but both are more concerned with the rich rewards of human relationships and how they play out against dramatic circumstances. Renoir’s best films play like the best novels with rich characters that are instantly recognizable and likable, despite their obvious flaws. If you prefer films that offer deep insights into the human condition, Renoir’s films (along with Ford’s films) are a good place to start. In case you’re wondering, Jean Renoir is the son of the famous Impressionist painter, August Renoir.
Be sure to see Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), Toni (1934), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1935), La Bête Humaine (1938), Grand Illusion (1938), Rules of the Game (1939), The Southerner (1945), Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), The River (1951), French Cancan (1956), and The Little Theater of Jean Renoir (1969).
(5) D. W. Griffith — Yes, Birth of a Nation is a racially naive film. Does that mean we should reject everything Griffith accomplished? Probably not. Many of Griffith’s earliest films survive because the Library of Congress required film production companies to submit paper prints to protect their copyrights. Converting these paper prints back into film prints, we can see Griffith experiment with a wide range of photographic and narrative techniques, as he invents (along with others) the film vocabulary we use today.
Be sure to see Birth of Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), True Heart Suzie (1919), Way Down East (1920), Dream Street (1921), and Orphans of the Storm (1922).
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