Friday, July 30, 2010

#1: Alfred Hitchcock

- “Give them pleasure - the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.”

Perhaps it's a cop-out, or maybe I should just delay this posting as I did Billy Wilder's entry, but after the miserable week I have had I am just going forward now. As you'll notice, this is not a completely written out entry as all of the others have been. I had every entry to done well in advance, except for Hitch's, assuming that I would write it this week while posting the first two runners-up. Then I got sick to start the week and am only now beginning to feel human again. Even so, I'm still nowhere near 100% and have an energy level that is zapped very quickly.

Fortunately, though, there was not a whole lot of drama as to who #1 would be once Scorsese and Wilder were off the board. I've waxed lyrical about my love for a number of different Hitchcock films (Rebecca, Rear Window, Psycho), so I'll direct folks there if they want some more in-depth analysis. What I will add is that I tried to play out scenarios where the obvious choice of Hitchcock at #1 wouldn't happen... and I just couldn't do it. He has too many films that I love, a filmography too deep to be matched. I still need to better familiarize myself with his earlier British period, which will likely just increase my love of the Master of Suspense.

Once again, I apologize to end the series like this, but I'm assuming most everyone will understand. The important thing is that I'm on the mend and that everyone can now post their favorite Hitch lists!

1. Rear Window (1954)
2. Psycho (1960)
3. Rebecca (1940)
4. Vertigo (1958)
5. Strangers on a Train (1951)
6. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
7. Dial M for Murder (1954)
8. I Confess (1953)
9. North by Northwest (1959)
10. Notorious (1946)
11. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
12. The Birds (1963)
13. Foreign Correspondent (1940)
14. Frenzy (1972)
15. Marnie (1964)
16. To Catch a Thief (1955)
17. Blackmail (1929)
18. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935)
19. Suspicion (1941)
20. Spellbound (1945)
21. Rope (1948)
22. Saboteur (1942)
23. Lifeboat (1944)
24. The Wrong Man (1956)
25. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
26. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
27. Stage Fright (1950)
28. Torn Curtain (1966)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

#2: Billy Wilder

- “A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”

I love this video and when I saw it for the first time about a month ago while searching for the video I included in the Ernst Lubitsch entry in this series, I vowed that I had to include it in the inevitable Billy Wilder post. For whatever reason, it won't allow emedding, but I encourage everyone to go watch it. It is a great example of that innate gift of storytelling that Wilder possessed – just watch him here, recounting this experience, building it to a climax, but doing so completely off the cuff as if he is just having a conversation with someone. He did the same thing in his screenwriting, effortlessly spinning tales – however believable or not – that are perfectly paced, flawlessly executed and invariably deliver a payoff to live up to any expectations.

While not quite as diverse as the resume of Howard Hawks, Wilder is another classic Hollywood director who tried his hand in a number of genres and hit it out of the park in many different stadiums, so to speak (Hey, the Reds are winning, why not use the baseball metaphor?!). And I don’t mean that he simply made outstanding films in a number of areas, I mean that he helmed movies that are routinely cited as being the best of their kind ever made. Look at the praise they have received. Some Like It Hot was voted the greatest American comedy ever made by the AFI in the year 2000. Double Indemnity is routinely cited as one of the finest films noir ever made. Sunset Boulevard is another classic noir, but transcends such genre classification and is rightly acknowledged as one of the finest movies ever made in Hollywood. With The Apartment, Wilder created not only one of the funniest films of the sound era, but the romantic comedy that countless big budget productions and popular television sitcoms have been mimicking ever since. I could go on with further examples, but anyone familiar with Wilder’s work already knows the score. The man could craft a story in any style or genre and not just make it work, but make it spectacular.

Similar to what I did say for Hawks, though, is that Wilder brought a cohesive vision to each unique project, essentially stamping his own imprint in each genre. Everything Wilder did, no matter how serious, always seems to have been done a bit tongue-in-cheek. Even as Walter and Phyllis were plotting murder in Double Indemnity, the breakneck speed and cadence of the dialog can’t help but make one grin. Ditto for Sunset Boulevard, which at times plays like a black comedy. The outlook that Wilder adopted for much of his work is actually a rather dark, pessimistic one. His films might eventually wind their way to more optimistic territory, but for most of the proceedings Wilder puts on display the sleazy side of human nature. Trysting couples plotting murder for profit. A reporter keeping a man trapped in a cave in order to further is his own career. An insurance man fishing for a promotion by opening his own apartment to company higher-ups to conduct affairs. A down on his luck writer who strings out the money and affection of an ex-star. Initially, these are not immediately likable characters. Yet, Wilder’s wit is enough to keep any of his films from being completely dark. The dialog is so crisp, the situations so entertaining, that eventually you find yourself being won over or rooting for any of them. This of course doesn’t apply to all of his films, but is applicable in many of them.

It must have been easy to impart these themes and views in each of his films, as Wilder co-wrote every film he ever directed. In fact, even after he became one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood, Wilder was still known to view himself primarily as a writer. Just look at his tombstone, which can easily be seen by doing a simple Google search. The only inscription reads: “BILLY WILDER – I’M A WRITER BUT THEN NOBODY’S PERFECT.” Legend has it that Wilder fully threw himself into directing only because he didn’t want to have to hand over his scripts to those that might butcher them. It is thus no coincidence that he co-wrote every film he ever directed. So it is also worth applauding his writing partners I.A.L Diamond and Charles Brackett who worked perfectly with Billy. Even so, while his focus may have been more on the writing process, Wilder was wily enough to team with technical geniuses, resulting in strikingly memorable visuals. Working with legends like John Seitz, Joseph LaShelle, Charles Lang and others meant that all of his films are wonderful to look at. His directorial technique may not have been groundbreaking, but the results were still spectacular.

I still have a way to go before I have made my way through Billy Wilder’s entire filmography. But I can honestly say that I don’t dislike a single one of the nineteen films listed below, which makes me even more excited to finally get to those that I am missing.

1. The Apartment (1960)
2. Double Indemnity (1944)
3. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
4. Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
5. One, Two, Three (1961)
6. Ace in the Hole (1951)
7. A Foreign Affair (1948)
8. Stalag 17 (1953)
9. Kiss Me Stupid (1964)
10. Some Like It Hot (1959)
11. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
12. The Seven Year Itch (1955)
13. Avanti! (1972)
14. The Fortune Cookie (1966)
15. Sabrina (1954)
16. The Lost Weekend (1945)
17. Irma La Douce (1963)
18. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
19. The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)

Monday, July 26, 2010

One day delay...

Unless things change drastically this evening, I am going to push back the countdown by one day and have it resume on Wednesday. I feel absolutely horrible, with what apparently is not official strep throat but feels the same nonetheless, and have no desire to rush the post for tomorrow. It is ready to go, it just needs to be edited, formatted, etc., which isn't an overly difficult task, but just posting this small message is zapping most of my energy. Sorry for the delay, but I just feel like staying in bed all evening and praying I feel better tomorrrow.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

#3: Martin Scorsese

- “Cinema is a matter of what`s in the frame and what`s out.”

The inclusion is no shocker, although the fact that he did not place #1 might be. Just looking at the name of this blog should give away the fact that Martin Scorsese is not only one of my favorite directors, but also one of the most important in my development as a lover of cinema. He was the first director that made me consciously realize that I was watching a man who excelled at making crossover films – entertaining enough to appeal to a mass audience yet weighty enough for serious scholars and critics to sink their teeth into. It is no coincidence that this blog is named after my favorite Scorsese film. I watched Goodfellas as a kid who was obsessed with all things organized crime and was more interested in anything gangster-related than I was in movies. I came away completely obsessed with film. I knew nothing about technical achievements (and I suppose you could argue I still don’t!), but I was aware enough recognize the sensation that some of Scorsese’s skills produced – the legendary tracking shot at the Copa, the use of “Layla” while revealing the dead bodies. Those moments are what drew me toward appreciating films as more than just simple entertainment.

Really, that opening paragraph alone should be enough to justify placement in a personal favorites list. His films – and Goodfellas in particular – were and are that important to me. I relish each phase of his career. I love the early indie feel of Mean Streets and Who’s That Knocking at My Door? The middle period that produced classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The King of Comedy is now the stuff of legend and justifiably so. The 1990s saw him produce what I consider to be the finest gangster film ever made and a number of intriguing genre exercises. Even now, when many are quick to dismiss him as over the hill, I find Scorsese in the last decade to have been spectacular – I still have so much fun watching The Aviator and remain in love with Shutter Island. At no point in my journey through Scorsese’s works have I found myself bored.

Knowing a bit about Scorsese himself, hearing him discuss how he personally fell in love with movies, is also very appealing. Watch any interviews of him discussing his favorite childhood films or admired filmmakers. He gets a glint in his eye when he recalls seeing The Searchers for the first time, or watching a Michael Powell classic like The Red Shoes. Like so many of his contemporaries in the “film school generation,” Scorsese is first and foremost a film fanatic. He loves everything about the cinema and takes great pleasure in drawing attention to his own personal favorites. I love this about Marty. I guess you could argue that this attribute really shouldn’t have an impact in a list like this, but I think it is essential to Scorsese. It fuels that passion that he infuses into all of his work. Someone who didn’t love movies as deeply as does Marty would not be able to keep this up for over thirty years.

His technical chops are well-chronicled, and I touch on just a few of my favorites in that opening paragraph. The talent to combine all of the elements of a movie – camera movement, actors, dialog, soundtrack, pacing – into one cohesive, all-consuming experience is his greatest strength. While this is a series devoted to my favorite directors, Scorsese’s longtime collaborator and friend Thelma Schoonmaker at least deserves credit for an assist, as without her continuing presence Scorsese’s films just wouldn’t feel right. In connection with his long association with Schoonmaker, it is also interesting to note the number of longstanding relationships that Scorsese has developed with various actors and personalities over the years, recalling other great directors that preferred using a stock group of players and associates. It is hard to ponder Scorsese’s career without also bringing to mind personalities like Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci, Paul Schrader, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

This selection was never in doubt. The only drama came from deciding where in the Top 4 he would land. As for my list below, there will be one notable omission from my list – The Last Temptation of Christ. For whatever reason, I still have not seen it and have remained hesitant to do so. I can’t even explain why this has been the case, it simply has. I know many folks consider it be one of Marty’s very best, so I need to make a point of getting to it, which I will eventually. It should also be noted that depending on when you ask me, Goodfellas could be a routine choose as my all-time favorite movie.

Ask me to fiddle with the rankings tomorrow and Scorsese could very easily be #1. So keep that in mind as the remaining two are revealed. Even more so than in the annual countdown and noir series, these rankings are incredibly fluid.

1. Goodfellas (1990)
2. Raging Bull (1980)
3. Taxi Driver (1976)
4. Casino (1995)
5. The King of Comedy (1983)
6. Shutter Island (2010)
7. Mean Streets (1973)
8. The Aviator (2004)
9. Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)
10. The Departed (2006)
11. Gangs of New York (2002)
12. The Age of Innocence (1993)
13. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
14. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
15. Kundun (1997)
16. Cape Fear (1991)
17. The Color of Money (1986)
18. After Hours (1985)
19. New York, New York (1977)
20. Boxcar Bertha (1972)

Friday, July 23, 2010

#4: Preston Sturges

- “The most incredible thing about my career is that I had one.”

If there was a dark horse to sneak up and steal the top slot in this countdown, it was certainly Preston Sturges. As the series has progressed, I have gone back and forth over who will occupy that first position and in all honesty, I could make a case for each of the top four. In fact, at various times, I’ve floated the idea in my own mind of completing the countdown with each of them. In this case, it was hard to resist the temptation after re-watching all ten of the Preston Sturges films that I own. Sturges, Chaplin and Malick were the only directors that I did this for and it is no coincidence that this refresher course in each man’s oeuvre cemented such prominent placements. It reminded me that I have still not seen a single poor Sturges film, and even more importantly that his top eight pictures are infinitely enjoyable. Even having seen each of them multiple times, I never fail to laugh and smile in the same spots every single time and discover jokes that I overlooked in previous go-rounds. The writing is so well-crafted, the humor so witty and sly to try and slip things past powerful censors of the day; they are light comedies that actually reward close repeat viewings.

Sturges the man is almost as fascinating as the spectacular body of work that he created. His career path is a complete anomaly, not only because of the short window of time in which he shined but for how he entered the film business. Sturges began his career on Broadway, but even his stint there is unique in that he didn’t even begin writing plays until he was thirty years-old. After quickly finding success on the stage, movie executives came calling and lured him to Hollywood. Sturges spent the 1930s working as a writer-for-hire, penning a number of outstanding screenplays like Easy Living and Remember the Night. As wonderful as the dialogue and comedy are in those underrated films, though, it was the astounding seven comedies he made between 1940 and 1944 that account for the Sturges legacy. The legend of how Sturges managed to convince Paramount Pictures to let him try his hand at directing is one of my favorites. Knowing that he had penned a great script, Sturges took it to Paramount and offered a deal – he would sell it to them for only $1 on the condition that he would be allowed to direct it. The discounted The Great McGinty script was good enough to earn Sturges the first ever Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and the film itself remains a classic. It kicked off arguably the most productive four year span from a director in Hollywood history.

It could be argued that Sturges is so well regarded more for his writing than his directing. When I consider his films, I think more of the humor and dialog of the screenplays than I do virtuoso camera movements or great visuals. But similar to my feelings toward Charlie Chaplin, I don’t think it’s necessary to separate the two components of his work. As Sturges himself would acknowledge, the fact that he wrote his own material was pivotal to his success. “I did all my directing when I wrote the screenplay. It was probably harder for a regular director,” Sturges would reminisce. “He probably had to read the script the night before shooting started.” So there is no question that the writing is integral. But I don’t think that Sturges the director should be completely overlooked. Aside from the humor of his dialog, his best films display a great deal of wonderfully choreographed physical comedy which would seem to require more than a sharp pen. His later classic (“later” in terms of Sturges’ career) Unfaithfully Yours is magically handled from a technical standpoint, weaving together dream sequences seamlessly.

In the end, it matters very little whether you want to specifically credit Sturges the writer or Sturges the director. He was the man at the helm of eight of the greatest comedies I have ever seen. He took the sophistication of Ernst Lubitsch, combined his own brand of screwball antics and situations, and the result was a uniquely Sturges mixture of laugh out loud hilarity, poignant social statements, startling sensuality, and tongue-in-cheek subversiveness. To me, Preston Sturges is at the very least the greatest writer-director of comedy to work in Hollywood in the sound era – if not in any era. His films never fail to make me smile.

1. The Lady Eve (1941)
2. The Palm Beach Story (1942)
3. Christmas in July (1940)
4. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
5. Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
6. Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
7. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
8. The Great McGinty (1940)
9. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947)
10. The Great Moment (1944)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

#5: Charles Chaplin

- “I went into the business for the money, and the art grew out of it. If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can't help it. It's the truth.”

Even today, his face is one of the most iconic images in the history of cinema. Just saying his name evokes daydreams of vintage era Hollywood and a period of vibrant creativity in the movie industry. People completely unfamiliar with his films or cinema history are aware of the symbols that he made famous – the Little Tramp Character, the trademark mustache, the top hat and cane. Charlie Chaplin’s contributions to the movie industry cannot be overestimated. As an actor and performer, he was the first comedy megastar of the screen, perfecting a brand of slapstick and physical comedy that has never been equaled. As a pioneer in the industry, Chaplin became one of the first stars to gain virtual autonomy over his projects, writing, directing, producing, starring in, and in many cases writing the music for, his greatest accomplishments. Chaplin the businessman was equally as important. Soon after coming to Hollywood he had already worked his way to being the highest paid actor in the world. In 1919, in hopes of gaining even greater control over every stage of his work, he partnered with fellow film veterans Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks to found United Artists. This was revolutionary for the time.

So to call Chaplin a GIANT is to understate his significance. He is arguably _the_ giant of film.

It’s impossible for me to separate Chaplin the director from Chaplin the actor, or Chaplin the all-around creative genius. And I don’t know that it’s even necessary to do so, even for such a list like this. The reason I say this is because his approach to moviemaking, at least through the most celebrated years of his career, centered on his being able to draw on every talent he possessed in the process of filming. Rarely did he write a completed script before beginning shooting. Instead he started with a general premise, acquired the necessary sets and equipment, and then began tinkering as he went. As one idea came on top of another, the general structure of the film would begin to crystallize and everyone would play off of what developed. The Little Tramp is the perfect character for such a style, as his crazy antics come across just as freewheeling as the director’s.

He was one of the rare comedians who could just as easily make you misty-eyed as he could make you laugh. Aside from the hilarious comedy that is prevalent in his films, it is that sincere heart that infuses Chaplin’s work that appeals most to me. Some may argue that things border on overly sentimental, but the amazing thing is that when Chaplin makes such obvious appeals to emotion, the pathos comes across as genuinely heartfelt. Few directors, actors, or artists period can pull that off and Chaplin did it routinely.

I still have many, many Chaplin shorts to get to, but I feel pretty solid on my ranking of his features.

1. Modern Times (1936)
2. City Lights (1931)
3. The Circus (1928)
4. The Kid (1921)
5. The Gold Rush (1925)
6. The Great Dictator (1940)
7. Limelight (1952)
8. Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
9. A Woman of Paris (1923)
10. A King in New York (1957)
11. A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)


1. The Adventurer (1917)
2. The Cure (1917)
3. Easy Street (1917)
4. The Immigrant (1917)
5. Shoulder Arms (1918)
6. One A.M. (1916)
7. A Dog’s Life (1918)
8. Behind the Screen (1916)
9. The Pilgrim (1923)
10. The Floorwalker (1916)
11. The Idle Class(1921)
12. The Pawnshop (1916)
13. The Vagabond (1916)
14. The Count (1916)
15. The Fireman (1916)
16. The Rounders (1914)

Monday, July 19, 2010

#6: Terrence Malick

- “They’re not intellectual so much as they’re visceral. I don’t know how you explain it… they’re like poems, you know. You can analyze it to death, but it still is not going to get to what this poem is doing to you… to your psyche, your body, you know, it’s never going to solve that.”

- Sam Shepard

Trying to find a quote about direction or film in general from the notoriously reclusive Terrence Malick is a nearly impossible task, so rather than scouring the ‘net looking for one, I thought that this statement from Days of Heaven star Sam Shepard would be the perfect opening to this entry. It comes from one of the extras on the recently released Days of Heaven Criterion Collection, as Shepard describes what drew him to working with Malick. Coming into the project as a writer, Shepard talks about how there was something magnetic in the script, something that pulled him to doing the project, and then attempts to describe Malick's films. And in ruminating on what it is about Malick’s work that maintains such a mesmerizing hold on so many people, he offers this fitting thought. It meshes so perfectly with my own feelings toward Malick’s work that I jotted it down the first time I heard it and vowed to somehow work it into this post.

If placing Francis Ford Coppola was the most difficult task of this project, deciding exactly where to place a man with just four total movies to his credit ran a close second. What exactly do you do with someone who has made only four films over the course of a nearly forty year career? On Thursday in the Coppola entry, I even touched on the fact that at this stage in the countdown that consistency and depth of quality films has to play a role. Such diversity is obviously lacking from a man whose workrate equates to roughly averaging one film released per decade. The issue is compounded by the fact that one of his four films is one that I have only recently begun to grow fond of. So while I might not be maintaining consistency when it comes to criteria in evaluating each director, such standards are irrelevant when I assess my passion for the cinema of Terrence Malick. It is a testament to the transcendent experience of his three films that I do love – two in particular retaining the ability to routinely give me chills at times while watching them – when I do not hesitate in giving Malick such a high placement.

Over the short history of this blog, I have written and discussed Malick’s The New World more than any other film. I’ll direct folks here, where The New World was chosen as my top film of 2005, if anyone is interested in seeing my full thoughts on that film. I also produced a similar post for Days of Heaven, which might not be as gushing as the ’05 entry, but also shows the love I have for that film. What draws me to films like this, which the uninitiated or non-Malick fans find so lumbering and inane? To answer this question, I ultimately return to the Sam Shepard quotation above. I’ve thought many times and can never quite put my finger on it. The more I analyze it, the less I feel like I can explain it. All I know is that Malick’s films have the ability to completely, totally transfix me. The incredibly beautiful images virtually hypnotize me. Even that explanation is an evasion, though, as for me it is more than just the gorgeous cinematography. Many people argue that Malick’s narrative technique leaves much to be desired, but the man has created some of the most powerfully moving drama I’ve ever experienced. The plague and wildfire of Days of Heaven; Witt’s death in The Thin Red Line; the reunion between John Smith and Pocahontas in The New World; and, most especially, the closing sequence with Pocahontas’ death – these scenes are so well done they give me chills. And so as Shepard says, no amount of analysis is going to pinpoint what it is.

Regarding the spectacular visuals in his films, I have written elsewhere about Malick concerning the credit he deserves in this area. Not knowing a whole lot about technical production, I’m always a bit hesitant as to who deserves the bulk of the praise for the look of a film – the director or the cinematographer. Malick’s case is unique though, in that he has worked with a different director of photography on all four of his films, yet all four of them look marvelous. This leads me to believe that Malick himself much be a significant factor in achieving these results.

Malick easily could be a Top 5 selection. Trying to separate favorites at this point is excruciatingly hard. Particularly in this instance, where a movie like The New World is continually inching toward being my all-time favorite film. Perhaps one or two more films like his recent releases and Malick will move toward the very top of a list like this. Bring on Tree of Life!

As a postscript, since I haven't talked about Badlands at all in this post, I thought I would pose this question to everyone. I re-watched it specifically for this series, which was probably the fourth time I've seen it. What struck me about it this time around was how dryly funny it can be. Kit's one-liners and retorts, the off the wall things he says out of nowhere, something about the entire storyline makes me view it as some sort of unique dark comedy. I've never viewed it this way before, but that is all I could think about when watching it this time.

1. The New World (2005)
2. Days of Heaven (1978)
3. The Thin Red Line (1998)
4. Badlands (1973)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

#7: Howard Hawks

- “I'm a storyteller - that's the chief function of a director.”

His is the first name to come to mind when I think of the preeminent American-born directors of the classic Hollywood era. Many of his contemporaries, both in terms of time period and actual talent or stature, immigrated to America and then rose to dominate Hollywood – Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak were just a few of many who were born in Europe and rose to prominence in Tinseltwon. There were also many other outstanding Americans rising to prominence around the same time – indeed, other great American directors like Anthony Mann and John Huston have already been featured in this series. But in my mind, when I think of the archetypal American director of the period, it is always Howard Hawks.

What makes this such a natural belief is that Hawks not only dabbled in nearly every significant genre of the 30s, 40s and 50s, he produced all-time classics. His comedies of the 1930s are considered to be not only among the best screwball comedies, but some of the funniest movies ever made. Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday are routinely listed among the greatest comedies. His original version of Scarface in 1932 is arguably the best of the classic gangster films. The Big Sleep is among a handful of absolutely essential films noir that anyone wishing to familiarize themselves with the genre/style must see early in their quest. Air Force is as good as out-and-out propaganda films get. To Have and Have Not is as close as anyone would ever come to matching Casablanca. The Thing From Another World (which he is commonly assumed to have handled much of the directorial duties on) is a splendid piece of 1950s science-fiction and horror. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a musical comedy par excellence, which even someone like myself who normally has no interest in such films finds outstanding. And westerns like Rio Bravo and Red River are as incredible a one-two western punch as any director – Ford, Mann, Leone, Eastwood, anyone – ever made.

I could go on listing examples, but I think you get the point. There are other directors that can match his versatility, but I can count on one hand the directors who can match his mastery of such different genres and styles. Why was he so successful while moving in such varying fields? It might play like a broken record in these parts, as regulars here at Goodfella’s have heard me say it again and again, but Howard Hawks is simply one of the finest storytellers in the history of cinema. He might not have been a writer like other greats such as Wilder, Welles, and others. But he worked with a core group of writers that brought staggering talent to the page – Jules Furthmann, Leigh Brackett, Ben Hecth, William Faulkner – and whose screenplays inevitable possessed the characteristics that have now come to be recognized as “Hawksian.” Themes concerning friendship, professionalism, and seeing a job through to very end regardless of the consequences are the foundations of a Hawks drama. I still maintain that no one, not even the great Sam Peckinpah, ever handled ideas of bonding and close, intense friendship among male characters better than Hawks.

So with such versatility and excellence, it is easy to understand why I revere Howard Hawks. This is a placement that I almost regret, as I want to nudge him just a little higher. For now, I can’t as the competition is getting far too tough. Suffice to say that from this point on, the list could be inverted and I wouldn’t really quibble with the rankings.

1. Rio Bravo (1959)
2. Red River (1948)
3. The Big Sleep (1946)
4. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
5. To Have and Have Not (1944)
6. Scarface (1932)
7. Twentieth Century (1934)
8. His Girl Friday (1940)
9. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
10. Air Force (1943)
11. Monkey Business (1952)
12. The Thing from Another World (1951)
13. El Dorado (1967)
14. The Criminal Code (1931)
15. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
16. Tiger Shark (1932)
17. Sergeant York (1941)
18. Ball of Fire (1941)
19. Rio Lobo (1970)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

#8: Francis Ford Coppola

- “A number of images put together a certain way become something quite above and beyond what any of them are individually.”

Placing Francis Ford Coppola in a countdown of this scope has been, without question, the most difficult task of the entire project. Trying to slot him into a comfortable position made me examine exactly how I was judging and ranking each director, and at the end of it all, I’m still not certain that consistency has been maintained. I say this because, as I have repeated many times in discussions on various blogs throughout the ‘net, I am a person who is much more interested in seeing how high one can reach, rather than dwelling on misfires. I don’t care if a director makes ten duds if he manages to squeeze out one or two masterpieces along the way; I’m much more interested in devoting my time to the great ones than worrying about the stumbles. Considering Coppola’s career in that frame of mind, he could make a strong case for jumping all the way to the top spot. If we’re stacking up irrefutable masterpieces, Coppola in my opinion boasts as many as any other director you will find in this Top 30. In my eyes, Coppola _owned_ the 1970s. I’d be leery of anyone claiming that The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, or Apocalypse Now are not truly great films. I'd personally make the argument of elevating The Conversation to that level as well. On the basis of those four films alone, Coppola would enter this countdown.

And that’s precisely what makes placing him so difficult – it is almost solely because of those four masterpieces that he merits such lofty praise from me. The Godfather Part III and Dracula are very good films, but to me they pale in comparison to Coppola’s best. The conundrum is made even more difficult by the fact that at this stage of the countdown – meaning the Top 10 – every single director has multiple masterworks on their resume. So a certain amount of depth and consistency has to come into play. In that area, Coppola doesn’t quite match up to those ahead of him.

I also am not one of those who constantly cry and lament over the “lost genius” of a once transcendent filmmaker. Make no mistake, I don’t think he has done anything post-Apocalypse Now that comes close to his four masterpieces of the 1970s, but I do still like Dracula the final installment of The Godfather trilogy, and even enjoyed his recent Tetro. Even so, it’s hard not to at least give thought to the “what might have been” scenarios in which he continued making truly great films into the next decade as some of his contemporaries did. Rather than dwelling on such hypothetical situations, though, I instead just return again and again (and again and again…) to my favorite Coppola works. I have yet to tire of The Godfather films. Apocalypse Now arguable trumps them all. The Conversation improves upon Antonioni’s intriguing original vision. For all of the mythology and hoopla that has come to surround his biggest productions - not to mention the seriously grating, conceited personality that he regularly displays - it is important to never forget how great a director Coppola can be.

The top three on my list are completely interchangeable, with any ordering being perfectly acceptable. For now, this is what I will stick with (even though during the 70s poll last year at Wonders in the Dark, I had Apocalypse Now as my #1 for the decade...)

1. The Godfather (1972)
2. The Godfather Part II (1974)
3. Apocalypse Now (1979)
4. The Conversation (1974)
5. Dracula (1992)
6. The Godfather Part III (1990)
7. Tetro (2009)
8. The Outsiders (1983)
9. Rumble Fish (1983)
10. Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
11. The Rainmaker (1997)
12. Jack (1996)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

#9: Jean-Pierre Melville

- "I believe that you must be madly in love with cinema to create films."

I love the title of the Ginette Vincendeau’s biography of Jean-Pierre Melville – Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris. While such an epithet might be a little too constraining in assessing the work of such a great director, I bring it up here because it is one of the qualities that first attracted me to Melville. When I first started to branch out and familiarize myself with films from around the world, Melville was one of the first directors that I turned to. Everything I read about and from the man fascinated me. His obsession and encyclopedic knowledge of classic Hollywood cinema intrigued me, as he was known to worship so many of the same directors, films, and actors that I had grown to love. It wasn’t just cinema either, but his complete love of American culture fascinated me. And in the first films that I watched, I saw the fingerprints of this love of all things American. I was instantly amazed at how he adapted conventions from classic Hollywood noir, gangster films, and crime drama to the streets of his native France – and almost had to pinch myself when I realized that not only did he adapt them, he improved upon them.

But to look at him solely as an American in Paris overlooks how important his French heritage, and the era in which he came of age, is in much of his best work. Melville may be regarded as the greatest director of “gangster pictures,” but his work centered on the French Resistance is just as impressive. Perhaps the two facets of Melville’s work shouldn’t really be separated, though, as he infused a noirish element into these war films, making Army of Shadows an experience unique from any other similar movies of the era.

I began taking stock of all of the Melville that I had seen shortly before this series began, when Doniphon began his wonderful series on Melville at The Long Voyage Home. I encourage everyone to check out Doniphon’s insights into the cinema of Melville, as he provides far more astute observations than you will find in this piece. What I realized in reading Doniphon’s work, and in gathering my thoughts for my own entry here, is why Melville’s work is so durable for me. By durable, I mean the way that it simply stays with you – his are not movies that are viewed for two hours and then cast aside as you move on to the next film. A Melville stays with you, forcing you to ruminate on it, begging you to return to it. Why do his films have such an effect? I attribute it to the unmatched ability of the director to create enveloping moods. There are certainly technically brilliant elements on display in many of his films – the great cinematography in Le Doulos immediately comes to mind, as does the wonderful use of drab colors in Le Samourai – but none of those individual technical achievements are as memorable as the moods and tones Melville creates. Just thinking about Le Samourai makes me think of steamy Parisian streets and a jazz club. Le Doulos instantly has me picturing fedoras and gangsters. Le Cercle Rouge brings to mind the ultimate game of cat-and-mouse. Bob le Flambeur transports me to a casino of some sort. No one has ever been better at creating moods.

There is not a bad movie on my list.

1. Army of Shadows (1969)
2. Le Samourai (1967)
3. Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
4. Le Doulos (1962)
5. Le deuxième souffle (1966)
6. Bob le Flambeur (1955)
7. Le Silence de la Mer (1949)
8. Un Flic (1972)
9. Les enfants terribles (1950)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

#10: Sam Peckinpah

- “I loved Westerns as a kid, and I wanted to see if they held up.”

Like #14 in this series, this is another of my more recent interests. If this countdown had been done just a year ago, Sam Peckinpah would not have been included. My initial reaction to the man known as Bloody Sam, which came from watching his most acclaimed film The Wild Bunch a few years ago, was not as positive as I expected it to be. Perhaps I was still too much in a Howard Hawks frame of mind, as the opinionated director was on record as declaring that he didn’t think too much of the violent and frenzied action sequences that Peckinpah sprinkled throughout The Wild Bunch. Something just didn’t completely click – I liked it, but wondered what all the fuss was about. It’s amazing the transformation that one positive experience can bring about. All it took was one viewing of his notorious Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid to make me a believer. Going into it considering myself at best lukewarm toward Peckinpah, I came away from it completely floored. It still holds the power to transfix me ever time I watch it. That film showed me that the main criticism of Peckinpah’s work – that of it being little more than gunfights and bloodbaths – is completely off the mark. His admitted preoccupation with violence serves a purpose. But even more important, Peckinpah rarely gets the credit he deserves for the subtle, intimate touches he so masterfully intersperses with the violence. There are particular scenes in Pat Garrett and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia that are achingly beautiful in both their visual poetry and content. And these sequences deserve just as much praise as Peckinpah’s chops as a director and editor of action.

This key realization made me not only reassess what little Peckinpah I had seen before PG&BtK, but also to immediately go through the rest of his films. What I discovered was a director that has had me under his spell for months now. Many of his best films are not easy to love, requiring me to watch them multiple times before I felt comfortable with them. Peckinpah has emerged for me as a director with a unique worldview, using almost every filmmaking opportunity to deal with a specific set of ideals. Ideas of fearing death and violence, yet constantly courting it; of the ending of eras; the closing of the Old West; dealing with living past your usefulness. These obsessions constantly return in Peckinpah’s greatest works. Outside of Howard Hawks, no one ever dealt with the strong bonds of friendship between male comrades as did Peckinpah. You will rarely see me use the chic “auteur” label in my writings, but it feels so fitting when discussing Bloody Sam (sorry, I just love that nickname too much not to use it again!).

As you’ll see from the rankings, I’ve come quite a long way from my original assessment of The Wild Bunch. I still don’t rank it at the top of my list as most Peckinpah fans do, but my appreciation of it continues to grow. I wonder how many other people (and would love to hear thoughts on this) change their mind about a film(s) when revisiting it after having delved deeper into a director’s other work? This is precisely what happened with me and Peckinpah’s most famous western. The other thing about Peckinpah’s entire filmography that never ceases to amaze me is that despite how many financial disasters he made, his Top 10 films are consistently outstanding. Ordering may vary, but my guess is that most people will agree with the top ten, and there is not a subpar film in the group. I can’t go so far as to say that he never made a bad film, because later in his career he mailed it on a few duds. But those first ten are all outstanding. A number of them are ridiculously underrated – Major Dundee, even its butchered form, is near great; Cross of Iron is an overlooked war epic; The Ballad of Cable Hogue is irresistible. If I had to the guts to do it, I could easily place Cable Hogue all the way at #3. Before I saw Straw Dogs for the first time, I was led to believe that I might have the same problems I experienced with A Clockwork Orange. I didn’t – in Straw Dogs I actually cared to contemplate why the violence is taking place. The Getaway is sitting at #10, which might come across as a putdown, but it really isn’t. All ten are very good, some flat out great. A few of them I really struggled and went back and forth on while trying to place them. For instance – there were times when I felt both Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Cross of Iron should definitely have been Top 5, but I still don’t feel like I have a complete read on either film, Alfredo Garcia in particular. It is such a beguiling movie, one that left me unsure whether I loved or it hated it after watching it.

So as you can see, the Peckinpah bug has really bitten me. These are movies that reward multiple viewings and that show him to be a much more complex director than he is often given credit for. And I’d give almost anything to be able to seen Noon Wine! Is it even available anywhere?

1. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
2. The Wild Bunch (1969)
3. Ride the High Country (1962)
4. Straw Dogs (1971)
5. The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
6. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
7. Cross of Iron (1977)
8. Major Dundee (1965)
9. Junior Bonner (1972)
10. The Getaway (1972)
11. The Deadly Companions (1961)
12. The Killer Elite (1975)
13. Convoy (1978)

Friday, July 9, 2010

#11: Orson Welles

- “A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.”

Here he is… the three thousand pound gorilla in any list of favorite or best directors. A slight backlash against Mr. Welles has developed from some, due to his constant ranking as the greatest director of all time and the assumption that Citizen Kane must sit atop any ranking of the best films ever made. But if the shoe fits… There is no question that the influence that Welles has had on countless generations of filmmakers to come after him and the technical and structural innovations he used in his work make him a towering figure in the history of cinema. And I admit that the task of placing him in a list like this is difficult after becoming accustomed to seeing Welles unanimously placed at the top of similar projects or pieces about the most important directors of all time.

One thing that I have always pondered is what Welles’ reputation would be like if he had been able to at least moderately adjust to the Hollywood studio system. As everyone knows, the story of Welles post-Kane projects is littered with battles against studio heads and grappling for the final say on editing of his films. The result was that for a bulk of his prime years, Welles was a star without a home. He worked as a freelance director taking the best offers he received. After the war, he directed mostly low budget pictures for studios like Republic and International Pictures. For most of the 1950s he went into self-imposed exile in Europe, picking up money from acting jobs that he used to finance his own directorial projects as best he could. In the 1960s, when he was no longer the boywonder of the entertainment world, he arguably soldiered on to make some of his finest work, even though box office success was a thing of the past. So, the question I often ponder is this: had he been able to fit in better in Hollywood, how would his reputation have been affected? Two interesting options always come to mind. It’s possible that he would have been able to stay in the States for his entire career, resulting in greater exposure for more of his work (outside of Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, the usual suspects) and his status would only increase. On the other hand, I can’t help but thinking that the independent streak that Welles is remembered for can’t hurt in building his legend. There is something admirable about a man who refuses (or at least goes down fighting) to compromise his vision and decides to strike out on his own rather than submit to the whims of executives. I have no answer to this hypothetical, but it’s an interesting “What if?” I’d be interested in hearing the thoughts of others.

Regardless of all of this speculating, the reputation that Welles currently enjoys is justified. He is the greatest actor-director of the sound era, and arguably of all time. I respect his acting ability so much that I’m not sure which of his two talents impresses me more. No actor was better at launching into on-screen monologues like Welles. As a director, I have always admired his choice of material, involving very in-depth character studies. His constant experimenting with abstract visual styles and techniques is probably his greatest contribution. Pulling away all of the acclaim and hyperbole that has accumulated over the years reveals a director who is every bit as good as advertised. There is a reason that the praise has piled up for decades – Welles was simply a great and visionary filmmaker.

1. Citizen Kane (1941)
2. Touch of Evil (1958)
3. Chimes at Midnight (1965)
4. Othello (1952)
5. Mr. Arkadin (1955)
6. The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
7. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
8. The Stranger (1946)
9. The Trial (1962)
10. Macbeth (1948)
11. F for Fake (1973)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

#12: Joel & Ethan Coen

- “One of the pleasures of movies is creating a world . . . it gives you a license to do certain things.”

They may be among the preeminent visual stylists of this era, but it’s hard to deny that the greatest asset the Coen Brothers possess is their unparalleled writing talent. They are equally adept at writing the crass stoner comedy of The Big Lebowski or the casual philosophical wit of A Serious Man. They can write traditional drama equally as well, creating situations and dialogue in Blood Simple and No Country For Old Men. Then, of course, are their famed hybrids, films like Fargo or Barton Fink that aren’t straight comedy but aren’t straight drama either. All of their films have an undeniable “Coens feel” to them, but each one is varied from any of its predecessors. It’s easy to imagine that their scripts are so well written that directors need simply to follow them to a tee and positive results will ensue. In fact, I’ve heard as much in interviews. I remember seeing John Goodman talking about the making of The Big Lebowski and how the screenplay was so spot-on that no one dared change anything about it… even down to following the stutters and cadences that were written directly into the script.

Still, it’s impossible to deny the visual flair that their films boast. And I don’t say this in a Malick-like way, where every film just looks spectacular. Instead, each Coens film is unique, with an appearance that seems to perfectly fit the story being told. Blood Simple captured the gritty, B-noir feel of the murder plot. Fargo lets the snow whites of South Dakota wash over everything. The noirish The Man Who Wasn’t There boasts the best black and white cinematography of recent years. As a modern western of sorts, No Country For Old Men allows the landscape to be shown off through dusk-like lighting and photography. These are just a few examples, but it substantiates what I am saying. They are definitely more than just talented writers who happen to direct/produce.

Even when they are playing it straight though, there is a certain wit or cynicism lying just beneath everything. Like Billy Wilder before them, it’s easy to imagine Joel and Ethan sitting behind the camera with a sly grin on their faces. They are two of the few filmmakers where I have never once thought that they might be taking themselves too seriously. Perhaps they really do, but it never comes across that way to me as a viewer. Their films often seem to aspire toward a deeper meaning – or, perhaps, people are just quickly to look for such interpretations – but they never lose the sense of genuinely enjoying what they are creating.

My top choice is immovable, even if it is far from being their most critically-lauded or brimming with powerful statements. The Big Lebowski is so entertaining, I don’t care, and I still maintain that Walter Sobchak is one of the greatest character creations I’ve ever seen.

1. The Big Lebowski (1998)
2. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
3. Barton Fink (1991)
4. No Country for Old Men (2007)
5. Fargo (1996)
6. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
7. O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)
8. A Serious Man (2009)
9. Blood Simple (1984)
10. Burn After Reading (2008)
11. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
12. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
13. Raising Arizona (1987)

Monday, July 5, 2010

#13: Jacques Tourneur

- "Everything must come from inside. It mustn’t be superficial.”

Jacques Tourneur unfortunately remains a director that is fully appreciated by only a select few. To those that delve deeply into the world of film noir or classic horror films, Tourneur is rightly recognized as being one of the preeminent stylists of either genre. For the general movie fan, though, his name is likely to elicit little recognition beyond Out of the Past. At the risk of sounding elitist, I know that most of those reading this post are much more familiar with the work of Tourneur beyond just his most famous film (I know my readers!). And so I think that I will get little argument from anyone when I give him such a prominent placement on this list.

When I hear the name “Jacques Tourneur” I instantly make the connection to film noir, which is interesting because in my opinion he only made one truly great noir - Nightfall pushes closes, but not quite. That one great noir, though, is the most quintessential film of the entire genre/style. I may have rated Out of the Past at #2 in my noir countdown, but I did so reluctantly, as I made clear in my entry. It should be the first film that any newbie to film noir watches and I have yet to meet a single person who dislikes it. Even with this fact, ranking his films shows what an accomplished director of horror Tourneur was. The movies he made with producer Val Lewton are among the finest horror movies ever made. I prefer I Walked With a Zombie, but I know knowledgeable critics who argue that Cat People transcends the horror label is actually a Top 10 all-time caliber film. What makes Tourneur’s horror films so great – and this includes Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon – is how the scares and horror come not from shock tactics, but from psychological intrigues. Tourneur gets into your mind and plays on universal fears and neuroses. There is no need to for gore or blood; he is talented enough to terrify you without them.

And while he rarely receives recognition for his work with westerns, both that I have listed here are of very high quality. Wichita has recently become available via Warner Brother’s Archive series, which is how I was able to finally watch it. It is a fictionalized account of Wyatt Earp’s (played by Joel McCrea) days in the famed cattle town. I recommend it highly both for fans of westerns and of Tourneur. Canyon Passage is even better and fortunately can be obtained on DVD. I have long felt that if Canyon Passage had a name like Ford, Hawks or Mann attached to it, it would have a reputation as one of the most overlooked westerns of its era. Unfortunately, it has no such reputation, but it should.

1. Out of the Past (1947)
2. I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
3. Night of the Demon (1957)
4. Canyon Passage (1946)
5. Cat People (1942)
6. Wichita (1955)
7. The Leopard Man (1943)
8. Nightfall (1957)
9. Berlin Express (1948)
10. The Flame and the Arrow (1950)
11. Stars in My Crown (1950)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

#14: The Archers - Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

For those that have frequented Goodfella’s since the days of the annual countdown, this one will certainly come as a surprise. Not just the high placement will be a surprise, but the fact that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made the Top 30 at all. As some will undoubtedly remember from the yearly series, I noted that while I did enjoy the couple of Archers films that I had seen, none had really captured me as they had so many people whose tastes my own normally align with. What I also freely admitted at the time, though, was that the sample size I used to base my opinion on was tragically small – I had seen only The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus and parts of The Red Shoes. Black Narcissus was the only one of the three that made me think that maybe, just maybe, I needed to delve deeper. Thinking that perhaps I was missing something, I felt that I owed it to myself to experience more of their work and see what all the hype was about. What ultimately won me over were two films from the classic P&P run, which surprisingly enough, neither of which occupy the top two positions in my rankings below.

Watching A Canterbury Tale for the first time was an experience akin to marveling at a more-charming, innocent Mulholland Drive. It’s a weird comparison, I know, but the indefinable allure of the film drew me in immediately. It is funny, beguiling, innocent, menacing, and haunting all at once. All together, it proved irresistible to me. After watching it, I moved on to A Matter of Life and Death, still reluctantly expecting a nice little bit of patriotic propaganda. Then came the opening ten minutes of what I consider to be one of the finest opening sequences ever put on film. That was it – I had to go back to the beginning and plow through as much of their work as possible. What I found was an unbelievably consistent, impressive body of work. Every film I have listed below is worth seeing, regardless of one’s taste. Keeping in mind that I still have not seen everything they made, I still maintain that there is not a bad film in the bunch.

It should be noted that I am in fact cheating a little bit, as I have listed films that are not actually Powell & Pressburger efforts, but are only films that Michael Powell himself directed. I thought that it was worth acknowledging that he made some worthy films on his own, but none of them for me equal anything that the The Archers did together. I include them in my list, but the true reason that either man has made it into this countdown is their unbelievable success as collaborators. The first eight are the real cream of the crop in my opinion.

What I like most about The Archers work is how the strengths of both men are allowed to be fully utilized – Pressburger supplying imaginative story ideas and tightly constructed scripts, Powell utilizing a fantastic visual sense that is both sweeping in outdoor scenic shots and intimate in tension-filled moments like the A Matter of Life and Death opening mentioned earlier. The two come together and create movies that are bubbling over with emotions – sad, jubilant, poignant, passionate, dark, humorous, and many more. One thing that I don’t see mentioned as much as it should be is the sheer playfulness on display. In much of their work, P&P are dealing with deadly serious issues centered primarily on surviving in the face of horrific warfare or obstacles. And yet, much like Hitchcock’s mischievousness while dealing in murder and mayhem, there is an inescapable sense of good humor dancing around everything. Not so much as to invalidate the seriousness, but enough to generate a definite charm that most other directors would be incapable of producing.

And before going straight to the ranking, I’ll put in a word for what I look to as possibly their most underrated film: 49th Parallel. Scouring the web for reviews and opinions on it, it seems to routinely be dismissed as mere propaganda fluff and just a warm-up to what would come from The Archers in the next few years. There’s no denying its propagandist purposes, but I don’t see this as reason to brush it aside. Many of the greatest films ever made have similar origins (Casablanca, anyone?). Not that I’m ready to anoint 49th Parallel an all-time classic – after all, I place it only at #6 below – but the first half of that film in particular is very strong. It might not manage to maintain that same level for the entire length, but I never tire of watching the camera of cinematographer Freddie Young take in the sweeping Canadian landscapes.

Those top two are unlikely to ever be unseated for me, but A Canterbury Tale pushes close… or perhaps once I get the courage to undertake The Tales of Hoffman, which I purposely have been putting off due to my complete antipathy toward the idea of filming an opera, I’ll be pleasantly surprised!

1. Black Narcissus (1947)
2. The Red Shoes (1948)
3. A Canterbury Tale (1944)
4. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
5. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
6. 49th Parallel (1941)
7. The Small Back Room (1949)
8. I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)
9. The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
10. Peeping Tom (1960)
11. The Edge of the World (1937)
12. The Spy in Black (1939)
13. One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)
14. Contraband (1940)
15. The Battle of the River Plate (1956)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

#15: Buster Keaton

- “When we made a picture we ate, slept and dreamed them.”

Although we have had our spats in the blogosphere, this entry in my favorite directors series owes a nod to Wonders in the Dark’s Allan Fish. Before Allan began his epic countdown of his Top 100 films of the silent era, I wasn’t completely in the dark concerning the cinema of Buster Keaton. I was familiar with some of his more well-known features – The General, Sherlock, Jr., Steamboat Bill, Jr. – but as with most of silent cinema, I hadn’t really taken the time to fully delve into the work. The outstanding series at WitD, and the fantastic reviews posted daily by Allan, were the impetus needed. And while still far from being a Keaton expert, I have at least now made my way through his features and a number of shorts, and come to understand what I had been missing by putting off Buster’s work. I was already a fan of Keaton, and even before diving head-first into the rest of his career, felt certain that Sherlock, Jr. was the best silent film I had ever seen. I still stand by that bold declaration, but realize that he has a handful of features that are nearly just as good, along with an array of shorts that are equally as impressive.

Where does one even begin to praise such a titan of cinema? Keaton’s genius for comedy needs no explanation or analysis and I don’t know if I have enough knowledge to do so anyway. But it is still astounding to watch the physical gags and well-choreographed chases that he performed in his greatest films. Keaton has to be considered the first great stuntman of the screen. Even if his routines are not as harrowing or spectacular as they appear – and I don’t know enough about his production methods to say so – the fact that they come across as magnificently as they do speaks to the unmatched physical gifts he displayed in front of the camera. In an era when technology lacked far behind the creativity of many talented directors, Keaton was able to translate his wildly inventive scenarios into believable adventure-comedies. Watching him do things like clinging to the pistons of a charging train, dodging avalanching boulders barreling down on him, or fighting off deep sea creatures truly separates him from any of his contemporaries. Perhaps other comedians of the era were funnier, perhaps there were adventure stories that provided greater thrills (both debatable points), but I have personally never come across someone who combined the attributes as seamlessly as did Buster. In addition to being one of the greatest comedians of cinema, I think a case could be made for him being one of the earliest action stars.

What ultimately made the greatest impression on me is something that longtime fans of Keaton have probably known all along: for all the praise of his comedy and physical skills, his talent as a director is just as impressive. His films are not just plopping a camera down and taking in whatever the star does in front of it. Although Keaton is quoted as saying that he made his films without any scripts or written direction, I find it impossible to believe that there was not considerable planning and forethought given to how something would play out. If everything was purely off the cuff, then it’s even more impressive. Even so, Keaton clearly understood the possibilities that film provides and made great use of them. The celebrated dream sequence in Sherlock, Jr. feels just as fresh in today’s CGI-dominated movie world as it must have in 1924.

Below, I rate the Keaton that I have enjoyed so far. It clearly is not everything that needs to be seen in Buster’s career – I have seen all of the features where Keaton is generally accepted to have been the director and 14 of his shorts. There are plenty of other shorts that I still need to get to and I look forward to them. It should also be noted, that in some of these films (such as Steamboat Bill, Jr., The Cameraman and Spite Marriage) Buster is not credited as director, but it has been generally accepted that he remained the controlling hand. So perhaps it is cheating a little, but most critical analysis and histories accept Buster as being, at the very least, a co-director in these projects.

1. Sherlock Jr. (1924)
2. The Navigator (1924)
3. The General (1927)
4. The Cameraman (1928)
5. Our Hospitality (1923)
6. Seven Chances (1925)
7. Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
8. Battling Butler (1926)
9. Go West (1925)
10. College (1927)
11. Three Ages (1923)
12. Spite Marriage (1929)

1. The Scarecrow (1920)
2. Neighbors (1920)
3. Cops (1922)
4. The Goat (1921)
5. One Week (1920)
6. Daydreams (1922)
7. The Blacksmith (1922)
8. The Playhouse (1921)
9. The Paleface (1922)
10. The Electric House (1922)
11. The Boat (1921)
12. Hard Luck (1921)
13. The High Sign (1921)
14. Convict 13 (1920)