1. Alfred Hitchcock (1899 – 1980)
Alfred Hitchcock did not invent modern cinema, but for much of the past century he has defined it. Inarguably the most imitated motion picture artist of all time, a slew of spine-tingling hits including Rebecca, Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest brought international acclaim to the London-born director, earning him the moniker “The Master of Suspense.”
While Hitchcock’s work certainly tended toward the thrilling, it was not as much his ability to keep audiences on the edge of their seats as it was to pull them out of their chairs that made him a legend—drawing moviegoers into his films and challenging the role of viewer as detached spectator. Widely hailed as his masterpiece, 1960’s Psycho took audiences into the recesses of a disturbed mind, making use of a fast-paced, adrenaline-inducing editing style and a succession of POV shots. With a perfectly measured combination of style and innovation and seamlessly blended bits of humor and romance throughout his work, Hitchcock’s films are a whole experience, usually playing upon a variety of human emotions.
Though he was considered a legend in his own time, making more than 65 films in a career that spanned over half a century, the only Academy Award Hitchcock ever won for directing was an honorary one given in 1976, when he made history once again by uttering the briefest speech in Oscar history: “Thank you.”
2. D.W. Griffith (1875 – 1948)
There are two sides to every film—the story, and the technique used to tell it. While success on both parts is the test of any director’s talent, it’s not always the case that even the most influential directors triumph on both counts. While the techniques employed by D.W. Griffith serve as the foundation of moviemaking, for many critics of cinema the stories he told are now best forgotten.
Considered the father of modern moviemaking, Griffith made over 450 short films while employed at American Biograph in the early 1900s. With this prolificacy came the opportunity to experiment with the mechanics of film. His collaborations with cinematographer Billy Bitzer yielded the discovery of such editorial innovations as crosscutting and flashbacks, elevating the medium of film to one of true storytelling capabilities.
With 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, Griffith made the film that would change his career. Though audiences poured into theaters to see it, the film’s overt racism and heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan were deemed inappropriate, and the film was banned in eight states. Though the controversy continues today (in 1999, the Directors Guild of America renamed the D.W. Griffith Award, their highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, because Griffith “helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes”), there is no denying his impact on the industry.
Says critic David Sterritt: “He made many a bad movie, and his career petered out when his storytelling sense failed to keep pace with his formal ingenuity—and with new generations of spectators bored by the Victorian formulas he obstinately mistook for real experience. Still, his name remains solidly linked with techniques and devices taken for granted to this day, from the artful use of close-ups and flashbacks to the complexities of parallel editing and multiple narrative. His most ingenious movies, from the best Biograph shorts to features like Intolerance and the notorious Birth of a Nation, remain a source of ideas and inspiration for open-minded auteurs as different as Oliver Stone and Wong Kar-Wai, to mention just two who have clearly benefited from his brilliance.”
3. Orson Welles (1915 – 1985)
What D.W. Griffith invented, Orson Welles perfected. With no previous film experience, Welles was given a contract with RKO Pictures (that included final cut) when his 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast sent radio listeners into a state of panic. The result: Citizen Kane, the most studied film in the history of cinema.
Unlike the innovators before him, the techniques employed by Welles and his Kane team (including DP Gregg Toland and editor Robert Wise) seem contemporary even by today’s standards. The film’s unique cinematography, accomplished through the use of a “deep focus” lens created by Toland specifically for the film, reevaluated the impact a single image could have. Bringing every person, prop and nuance of a scene into focus, deep focus widened the canvas on which Welles could paint his picture, so that each viewing could offer up something new for the audience.
For the larger part of his post-Kane career Welles floundered. He pushed several ideas to various stages of development, but ran into walls each time when he couldn’t find the financial backing. Though a pariah in Hollywood, Welles has continued to influence each new crop of moviemakers, regardless of genre. Documentarians Albert and David Maysles were struck by Welles’ philosophy of film when they spent a week with him in Madrid in the early 1960s. Their nine-minute recording of that time shows Welles talking about an upcoming project (that would become The Other Side of the Wind). He tells the Maysles that “Some of the greatest moments in film have been divine accidents.” Recalls Albert today, almost 30 years after the taping, “As documentarians, that hit us right between the eyes. I’ve always remembered that.”
Regardless of the place he came to hold in an industry always looking for the next big thing, the interminable influence of Citizen Kane is no accident. Even if Welles’ legacy is defined by that first brilliant film, the influence of Kane is so vast that the director’s place in film history is guaranteed for the generations to come. Each viewing of Citizen Kane yields a new cinematic innovation and a deeper understanding of a genius at work.
4. Jean-Luc Godard (1930 -)
He wasn’t the first of the French New Wave directors, but he was the most celebrated. His 1960 film Breathless heralded a new kind of moviemaking—one that was free from studio constraints and continues to permeate the very heart of independent film today.
Armed with an exhaustive knowledge of film history and a 16mm camera, Godard gave permission to later moviemakers to break the rules when it came to story, structure and process. Says Toronto Film Festival Director Piers Handling: “Godard challenged the accepted notions of how a film was constituted. His innovations included jump cuts, direct address to camera, the long take, disjunction of sound and image and an innovative use of the actor—all of which have become completely integrated in a variety of ways into contemporary film, music videos and commercials. His famous statement ‘A film should have a beginning, a middle and an end—but not necessarily in that order’ revealed his modus operandi. He had an enormous influence on the emerging national cinemas of the ’60s in Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe, and no major filmmaker in America or Europe could ignore his radical challenge to established film grammar. Quentin Tarantino named his production company A Band Apart after Godard’s Bande à part, while Aki and Mika Kaurismäki’s unit was called Villealfa after Alphaville.
Jason Kliot, of Open City Pictures and Blow Up Films, puts it more succinctly: “Godard to modern film is what Picasso is to modern art—the ultimate daredevil and pioneer, the man who had no fear, the man willing to try anything in any genre and push it to its limits.”
5. John Ford (1894 – 1973)
John Ford was a man of few words. Honest and straightforward in personality and technique, he was an all-American director who influenced a diverse slate of moviemakers from Martin Scorsese to Satyajit Ray. With film school not an option until much later in the 20th century, John Ford’s films became moviemaking class for budding directors the world over.
Ford was one of the most prolific directors in the history of cinema, and one of the few to be just as successful in the silent era as he was in the talkies. Though many consider his crowning achievement to be The Searchers, nearly his entire filmography attests to his genius. Primarily remembered for his westerns, Ford tried—and succeeded—at various genres. Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are considered great westerns, but his romance The Quiet Man, his adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and his documentaries The Battle of Midway and December 7th were also widely revered.
Technically, Ford was the master of the long shot. His long, sweeping epics helped establish setting as a primary character. Says director Allison Anders: “For me the impact of seeing John Ford’s westerns was the use of space and American landscape. And presenting the land itself as powerful as it is on the screen, he was forced to also reveal several things: American mythology, the existential condition of the individual and, eventually and inevitably, the relationship of the Native American to the land we call America. That impact—his use of space and landscape and how that alone spoke volumes for the core of the American experience and myth—continues to be felt in every filmmaker who attempts to create a film about non-urban America.”
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