Recently director Spike Lee posted online what he calls his “Essential Films List.” It’s a list he gives to every Master’s student graduating from the film program at New York University where he teaches. He then made an interesting statement in an accompanying video as to why he gives out this list. He said, and I quote, “It’s been amazing to me how a lot of young filmmakers, not just students, have not seen work from early years.” So he sees the need to supply such a list for their basic film education. He certainly is standing by that thought in looking at the films listed where quite a number of them are from the 1940’s through the 1960’s.
That got me to thinking about directors of the classic period and many young filmmakers today. There’s an old saying that goes this way: “In order to know where you’re going, you have to know where you came from”, and that can certainly apply to aspiring and even some working moviemakers today. The basic storytelling skills that quite a few directors from yesteryear were gifted with appear to be sorely lacking today, and that would have a lot to do with what they’re familiar or not familiar with. So, since there seems to be such a dearth of essential knowledge of movies and moviemakers from times past, in line with Lee’s Essential List, I’d like to add this one. Not a comprehensive list by any means, but just a basic grouping of some of the finest filmmakers that ever lived and what made them so great or what they specialized in that could prove useful to any young filmmaker today in developing the art of true visual storytelling. The listing, in no particular order, is as follows:
(1) Nicholas Ray-Specialty: Creating complex characters (with Elia Kazan a very close second). The famous French director Jean Luc Goddard was once quoted as saying, “Nicholas Ray is cinema!”, or something to that effect, and his sentiment, though a little overstated, had a lot to do with Ray’s intrinsic ability in every movie he made to create real characters out of whole cloth. He allowed the motivations, desires, and feelings, whether positive or negative, to come to the surface in each character in such a way that the average viewer could either sympathize with, relate to, be repelled by, or at least know that they were looking at a flesh and blood person on screen and not a caricature of one. Though he was good at both, in looking at his work it seems that he focused more on character than story, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and allowed the story to serve the characters rather than vice-versa, making for some truly great pieces of work.
Examples: They Live By Night, In A Lonely Place (pictured above, possibly Bogart’s greatest performance), Rebel Without A Cause, Bigger Than Life
(2) John Ford-Specialty: Framing a shot. Without question, a master at this, though a gifted director in many other ways. Ford was truly a master of composition in the camera frame with a painterly eye. He knew, either through experience, instinct, or sheer confluence of circumstances, how to get the most out of every shot and how to use individual shots to tell a story unto themselves, to appear like paintings come to life. In learning where to place a camera, there would be no better place to start than examining his work.
Examples: The Searchers (opening and closing shots-pure visual poetry), How Green Was My Valley (wedding scene outside the church among others), Stagecoach, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (thunderstorm), The Long Voyage Home
(3) Alfred Hitchcock-Specialty: Individual scenes. He was probably the best director of individual scenes that has ever lived. What I mean by this, and not to take away from his complete command of the medium as a consummate filmmaker, is that he could take one scene and build or create mood or suspense through camera angles, lighting, shadow, camera movement, cutting and cross-cutting, etc. to completely control the reaction of the audience. This is partly how he became known as ‘The Master of Suspense’, not just because of the stories he chose to tell but how he chose to shoot those scenes within the story that would create the right amount of tension for maximum effect. When it came to creating scenes for pure visceral impact, no one has done it better.
Examples: Silent period-The Lodger, Blackmail. For the sound period, except for The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn, The Trouble With Harry, Rich and Strange, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, everything else he has done is an example of this
(4) Orson Welles-Specialty: Innovative use of cinematic technique. You name the technique and Welles, if not the first one to use it, used it the best or at least popularized it. Deep focus, unusual camera angles, spare lighting and shadow, extreme tracking shots or camera placement-it was all done by him but not just for show. In doing these things they always served a specific purpose-to create mood, heighten the drama, or tell something about the characters. Though in his later period his work became more baroque, his mastery of cinematic technique never wavered and many a filmmaker today owes a debt of gratitude to him for the innovation that he brought to the medium.
Examples: Citizen Kane (just about every scene a moviemakers workshop), The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady From Shanghai, Othello (shot like a Shakespearean film noir!), Touch Of Evil
(5) William Wyler: Specialty: Getting great individual performances. Though there may have been other directors with a more pronounced style such as the ones mentioned above, his ability to get great performances out of his actors was almost unparalleled. In movie after movie he had a knack for eliciting honest, heartfelt portrayals from his actors which has allowed his work to gain legendary status. A lot of this was due to what is called mise-en-scene, or “putting in a scene”, which is a single shot sequence without cuts to another camera or transition to another scene. Wyler used this quite a bit in his work and what it did is allowed his actors to breathe and give a full-bodied performance in scene after scene, almost like theater, which in turn made for a stronger movie overall. Truly one of the greats, his work has stood the test of time on this basis alone and is certainly worth seeking out.
Examples: Counsellor at Law, Dodsworth, Dead End, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Letter, The Little Foxes, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Heiress, Carrie (probably Laurence Olivier’s greatest performance on film), Detective Story, Roman Holiday, The Desperate Hours, etc.
This list, as I said at the beginning, was not meant to be all inclusive, but to at least provide a starting point for those interested in seeing masters at work and what made them so, and also provide another reason to examine the rich legacy of film history these moviemakers and movies provide, true visual storytelling at the highest level. Seek out and enjoy.