Monday, August 10, 2015

The Mount Rushmore of Film Directors

Hitchcock on Mount Rushmore--from
the North By Northwest poster.
If there was a Mount Rushmore of great American directors, who would you put on it? I pondered this question recently and then posed it to three other classic movie bloggers whom I admire. I gave them two criteria: (1) They could only pick four directors...because it's Mount Rushmore; (2) Their decisions had to be based on the directors' American-made films (after all, we're talking about an American monument here). Thus, directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang could be considered--but not international greats like Federico Fellini, Luis Bunuel, and Akira Kurosawa. (And, yes, when I say "American," I am referring to the   U.S.--not all of North and South America.)

The Master of Suspense.
Personally, I had little trouble in coming up with three of my four choices. I consider Alfred Hitchcock to be the greatest film director...period...based on his storytelling skills, the complexity of his film's themes, and the body of his work. I don't think another director will ever be able to replicate the astounding number of superb films he made between 1940 and 1964--a period that included RebeccaNotorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, and Marnie. My second choice is Billy Wilder, possibly the most versatile of all filmmakers. He made classic film noirs (Double Indemnity), sophisticated comedies (Some Like It Hot), screwball comedies (One, Two, Three), and courtroom dramas (Witness for the Prosecution). His best films integrated drama and comedy so expertly that they created something uniquely Wilder (e.g., The Apartment, Stalag 17). That brings me to my third choice, a director whose films gave rise to a now common adjective "Capraesque," which one online dictionary defined as "of or evocative of the movies of Frank Capra, often promoting the positive social effects of individual acts of courage." Capra's film's restored faith in human nature when America needed it most--during the Great Depression and after World War II. He also helped make stars out of Gary Cooper and James Stewart. That brings me to my final spot and I struggled mightily here. I considered Richard Brooks, Samuel Fuller, Michael Curtiz, Robert Wise, and Otto Preminger. In the end, though, I went with Anthony Mann. A versatile director like Wilder, Mann helped define film noir in the 1940s with tough, dark films like Raw Deal and T-Men. In the 1950s, he reinvigorated the Western genre with five superb films starring James Stewart. Mann's protagonists were cynical men with violent pasts who found redemption, often by becoming part of a forgiving community (The Far Country, Bend of the River). In many ways, Mann's protagonists paved the way for the flawed "heroes" that dominated American cinema in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ernst Lubitsch.
The Lady Eve, Lady Eve's Reel LifeIf not Mount Rushmore, these four filmmakers at least deserve to have their faces carved in stone on the hillside under the Hollywood sign. Here’s why: Alfred Hitchcock was a master of the art of what he called “pure cinema”-- visual storytelling (consider the famed crane shot in Notorious that zooms in on the key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand). And no one has surpassed his ability to draw the viewer so completely into a film or, at times, to identify with the villain (Robert Walker retrieving his lighter in Strangers on a Train, Anthony Perkins sinking a car into a swamp in Psycho). Long touted “the master of suspense,” Hitchcock was, more than anything, a cinematic genius (see also Rear Window and Vertigo). The comedies of Ernst Lubitsch literally sparkle (even the screen itself seems luminous). Brimming with charm and sophistication, his films offer a knowing yet sympathetic glimpse into human yearnings and foibles. His best work (the likes of Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be) has rightly been likened to the soufflé, a deceptively lighter than air concoction that is also deliciously rich and deeply satisfying. "Screwball" comedy existed before Preston Sturges started writing and directing his own films, but he took the concept into another realm. Original and decidedly eccentric, his best films neatly weave sly commentary on social values into byzantine plots involving cockeyed characters who rattle off snappy/smart dialogue at a mile a minute. Unique barely describes The Great McGinty, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, Unfaithfully Yours.... Billy Wilder, like Hitchcock, was a top filmmaker from the ‘40s to the ‘60s. But Wilder began his career as a journalist and so, naturally, his films are marked by strong screenwriting and fine-tuned dialogue. His cynical world view made him a natural for noir, and Double Indemnity stands as a pillar of the genre. But Wilder wasn’t one to be pigeon-holed, as his wild, satirical romp Some Like It Hot would prove. Noir, farce, drama or “dramedy,” Wilder had as much range as he had skill.

Frank Capra.
Annmarie Gatti, Classic Movie Hub Blog:  If I could put four American directors on Mount Rushmore, who would they be???  Well, that's a really tough question...and one that will probably have me second guessing myself for quite some time--but, that said, after much "agony" and deliberation, my picks would be Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. Here's why:  Frank Capra--for creating some of the most beloved 'feel-good' films of all time that champion the common man and the basic goodness of human nature. Billy Wilder -for his use of script to drive the story (vs elaborate cinematography) and his ability to push the boundaries of mainstream entertainment by expanding the range of acceptable subject matter. Alfred Hitchcock--for his belief in the superiority of suspense over surprise, and his cinematic approach to filmmaking that communicates via images and editing to maximize fear and anxiety. And, last but not least, John Ford--for his sweeping visuals and dramatic vistas, master storytelling, and iconic portrayals of heroes and anti-heroes of the American West. 

D.W. Griffith.
Cliff Aliperti, Immortal Ephemera:  My Mount Rushmore of American directors? Difficult. I approached my selections thinking not necessarily of my favorites, but of the four I'd consider most iconic in their representation of America and the American film industry, while being among my favorites. Faces I'd carve in stone and be happy to leave there forever. That has to start with D.W. Griffith. For all of the issues over the content of The Birth of a Nation (1915), at least the movie is strong enough to warrant our talking about it a hundred years later, fighting over the same issues that incensed a hundred years ago. Griffith's early features that follow Birth are reliably accessible, well-told stories that at least perfect technique if not actually innovating it. If there were no Griffith, silent film would have been a much tougher sell for me during my formative movie-watching years, so Griffith gets the first nod just for all that he’s responsible for exposing me to. It gets more difficult from there because I've seen so many more films in the decades that follow, but two directors whose work I think of as intrinsically American are King Vidor, whose stories are so wonderfully visual while being grounded by the American Dream, and Frank Capra, who relied more on situation and dialogue to show the everyman overcoming bigger challenges. If Vidor had only done his war, wheat, and steel trilogy—The Big Parade (1925), Our Daily Bread (1934), and An American Romance (1944)—he'd have done enough, but that doesn't even include his best film, The Crowd (1928). Capra kept telling the same story by the time of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941), with his underdogs fighting for their place in so many of his other films as well. If Griffith led me to enjoy more silent films then it was Capra, even earlier in my film watching years with titles like Mr. Smith and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), who allowed me to accept “old” black and white movies as if they were no different from last week’s release. A similar underdog spirit goes to the fourth face on my Rushmore, William Wellman, who could masterfully handle topics from any genre no matter the size of the movie and always seemed to have a great time doing it. A working-class director in that he reveled in the work, Wellman's characters could be as light as his subject matter was heavy. Out of his Great War experiences, he was dedicated to portraying male camaraderie, but I think he had an even keener insight into female characters, especially during the Depression years.

16 comments:

  1. Glad that you at least considered Curtiz and Robert Wise, two of the greatest "invisible" studio directors - made classics in all genres, yet remain ignored in critical studies.

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    1. So true, Bill, they are both vastly underrated. Yet, when you start listing the great films of American cinema, their names pop up a surprising number of times.

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  2. What no love for the two directors that could and did direct all types of films and had a wide range of work? I ;m talking about Howard Hawks and Henry King. Nice to see that 'Wildman " Willy Wellman who's range was as large got some love.

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  3. Here in Japan, there's four film directors that everyone knows: Ford, Welles, Hawks, and Hitchcock. If you need the bare basics of learning how to construct cinema, that's not a bad place to start.

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    1. I probably should have given Welles greater consideration. I think he made three great films (KANE, AMBERSONS, and TOUCH OF EVIL)--plus a number of interesting ones. It's a shame that his cut of AMBERSONS will never be seen.

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  4. Just four? Almost impossible. But: Hitchcock, Hawks, Kubrick, and Lynch.

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  5. I absolutely love this post! I knew it would encourage commentary because our cinematic experiences are quite personal. I could easily place two directors, Hitchciock and Capra, but then would find too many wrestling for the remaining places. This is an extraordinarily thought-provoking post!

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  6. I have been thinking about this since I first read your post this morning. It turned out to be tougher than I thought. First thing I had to do was separate favorite filmmakers from those who truly made an original and creative difference in cinema. That left out favorite artists like Wilder, Hawks, Wyler, Ford and many others. Once I did that I found the four who I felt made a difference I thought deserving. 1) D.W. Griffith - the father of cinema. He created and or was the first to use cinematic language, that today we simply take for granted, in a creative way. Birth of a Nation has its racial issues, but there are so many of his other early shorts that are amazing in their artistic use of cinema’s visual language. 2) Charlie Chaplin – a pioneer in comedy. His comedic talent expanded the boundaries out further than any other (arguably the same can be said for Keaton). One of the few true genius’ of cinema (again the same could be said for Keaton). 3) Alfred Hitchcock – Hitchcock proved you can be both a commercial artist and a sensitive serious artist. His complete control over his films at a time when Hollywood was ruled by studio and producers reflected a talent who knew how to work the system and create art. 4) Orson Welles – his output was small, compared to the others, but his visual sense, was one of creative elegance and design. Need proof? Just look at the opening sequence from Touch of Evil.

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    1. FIne picks, John, and your justifications are very strong. For me, the challenge with Chaplin is--as you mention--including him and not also Keaton. SHERLOCK JR. is a brilliant slice of cinema.

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  7. Oh boy, this is a tough one. I would say Wilder, Huston, Mankewicz, Anthony Mann – only because I like the way they tell stories. However, if any of the other directors mentioned in the post or in the comments "beat out" my brilliant choices (ha ha), I wouldn't object. Happily, there are soooo many great directors from which to choose.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

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    1. It's been intriguing to see the support for Joseph L. Mankewicz. As a director and writer, I think he is a true film auteur. I'm always puzzled that one of his best films, PEOPLE WILL TALK, seems to attract very little attention.

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  8. Tho PEOPLE WILL TALK was the title of his bio - for his verbose screenplays. Movie itself may be diff enough from his more quotable , works with more irascible characters speaking them.

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  9. I go with -

    Ford
    Wyler
    Hitchcock
    Hawks

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  10. Wonderful picks, Rick, and actually everybody else! I would have to add John Huston -- I'm a huge fan of his movies, and he is larger-than-life enough for any monument!

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  11. Becky, Huston was one of those vying for a place on my list. And Ford. As many have commented, there is no shortage of great directors to choose from. Thankfully.

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