It’s happening
at this very moment. Somewhere
in the world, Manhattan or Tehran, Los Angeles or Taipei, a young
moviemaker who has struggled, scrimped and saved is now about to
direct his or her first full-length film. The moment is fraught
with anxiety—tension stimulated by high hopes and a low budget.

The results of these first efforts are often disappointing. “Contrived,” the
critics say. “It’s clichéd” or “It lacks originality.” Other
moviemakers wonder “How’d
that talentless schlub get to make a feature?”

On rare occasions, though, lightning does strike, the stars are
propitiously aligned and a moviemaker’s first at-bat is a home
run by nearly every standard.

First films bear an unpredictable relationship to a moviemaker’s
work to come, however. Some of the directors on the following list
never matched their virgin achievement, and one could easily craft
a list of the greatest moviemakers of all time consisting solely
of those whose initial efforts were unimpressive. Aspiring moviemakers
take heart: this list does not include the first films of John
Ford, Howard Hawks, Jean Renoir, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman,
Yasujiro Ozu, Federico Fellini, Michael Powell, Stanley Kubrick,
Abbas Kiarostami… the list could go on indefinitely. Consider this
an argument-starter, then; one critic’s selection of the 20 greatest
first films of all time.

The Kid (1921)
Director: Charles Chaplin
Warner Home Video, $29.95
Chaplin was already a worldwide star, famous as the baggy-pants-wearing
Tramp, when he made The Kid, his first feature film,
in 1921. Featuring child star Jackie Coogan, Chaplin’s Tramp finds
an abandoned child and raises him alone. Chaplin steps beyond the
slapstick humor of his one-reelers toward the darker tones and
larger ambition of later works such as City Lights and The
Gold Rush
. Featuring the sweet-and-sour mixture of pathos and comedy that
was his secret sauce, The Kid is a film “with a smile and a tear,” as
Chaplin later described his work.

Nanook of the North (1922) 
Director: Robert Flaherty
The Criterion Collection, $29.95
His detractors will tell you that the work of pioneering documentarian Flaherty
is not “>documentary enough,” because he dressed his subjects in costumes,
created situations for dramatic effect, etc. Watch the films, though, especially Nanook of
the North
, and see all these concerns fall away like a useless second skin.
Regardless of authenticity-seeking nitpickers, Nanook is the
drama and burden of our collective existence, as revealed through the travails
of one Inuit family over the course of an entire year.

Un chien andalou (1929)
Director: Luis Buñuel (with Salvador Dali)
Kino Video, $24.95
The opening salvo of Buñuel’s monumental career, >Un chien
proceeds on the dream logic of surrealism, and unabashedly seeks
to undermine the bourgeois placidity of its viewers. Remarkably, 75 years after
its initial release, the film retains its capability to shock; just try to
watch the eyeball being sliced by a razor without cringing in your seat. Buñuel’s
film is much more than that one shot, though; as a provocation, no contemporary
movie can match it.

Citizen Kane (1941)
Director: Orson Welles
Warner Home Video, $26.99
Welles, fresh from the success of his “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast,
famously directed Kane at the tender age of 25. Citizen Kane remained
mostly unseen upon its initial release, faced with enormous pressure from media
magnate William Randolph Hearst, whom gossips speculated was the basis for Kane‘s
heartless mogul. French critic Andre Bazin lauded Welles’ collaboration with
cinematographer Gregg Toland for its pioneering use of deep focus and the long
take, the two touchstones of realist practice. Citizen Kane‘s dazzling
technical virtuosity and its remarkable attention to narrative detail make
it not only one of the greatest debuts of all time, but one of
the greatest films—period.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Director: John Huston
Warner Home Video, $19.98
Released the same year as Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon marked
the emergence of two cinematic trends that would profoundly affect every film
that was to follow: the notion of the writer-director (with Huston joining
Welles and Preston Sturges as the first to wear both hats) and the bruising,
tough-guy persona of Humphrey Bogart. The Maltese Falcon remains a blast
for its marvelous supporting cast of Warner Brothers contract players like
Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook, Jr. and the astoundingly creepy Peter Lorre,
as well as Huston’s crackling dialogue, taken from the Dashiell Hammett novel,
as well as Bogart’s iconic, career-making performance.

Force of Evil (1948)
Director: Abraham Polonsky
Republic Studios, $14.98
Polonsky’s career, so full of promise at its outset, was destroyed by his refusal
to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Blacklisted from
Hollywood, Polonsky did not receive a film credit for the next 20 years, and
only directed two more films. Upon seeing Force of Evil, one can almost understand
HUAC’s disquietness; Polonsky’s debut is a scathing indictment of capitalist
excess, and a scornful rebuke of post-war materialism. Polonsky’s lost career
is one of the tragedies of American film history, and Force of Evil is
a testament to his astounding vision.

Pather Panchali (1955)
Director: Satyajit Ray
Columbia TriStar Entertainment, $29.95
The first film of Ray’s acclaimed Apu trilogy (Aparajito and The
World of Apu
followed), Pather Panchali was the first Indian
film to attract the attention of a worldwide audience. The story of an impoverished
family struggling to better themselves>,  the film ably depicted the growing
pains of a country transitioning to modernity. Ray also blew the doors wide
open for moviemakers from outside the North American-European axis, helping
to create the globalized cineaste’s world in which films from Iran and China
sit comfortably next to those from Hollywood and France.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Director: Charles Laughton
MGM Home Entertainment, $14.95
Laughton, the brilliant, portly star of such films as Mutiny on the Bounty and Ruggles of
Red Gap
, only directed one film. After seeing The Night of the Hunter,
you’ll understand what a shame that is. Featuring the best performance of Robert
Mitchum’s career, this story of a criminal minister, a hidden fortune and children
on the run achieves the timelessness of myth. Mitchum’s knuckles, tattooed
with “Love” and “Hate,” are the best-remembered image from this film. But Mitchum
and Lillian Gish’s ghostly duet on the old hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting
Arms” is one of the most astounding, searing moments of spiritual intensity
in American film.

Breathless (1959)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Wellspring Home Entertainment, $24.98
Starring New Wave icon Jean-Paul Belmondo and American ingénue Jean
Seberg, Godard’s film is a pastiche of the American gangster films he loved,
transplanted to contemporary Paris. The combination proved felicitous and kicked
off Godard’s dazzling 10-year run as the world’s most phenomenally gifted and
intellectually-engaged moviemaker. Belmondo’s lip-caressing imitation of Humphrey
Bogart is worth the price of admission alone, but Godard also shows a deep
concern with the dynamics of male-female relationships (as seen in the extended
argument scene that serves as Breathless‘ middle section), that bore
further flower in such later films as Band of Outsiders (1964) and Pierrot le

The 400 Blows (1959)
Director: François Truffaut
Wellspring Home Entertainment, $19.98
Another debut of the French New Wave, Truffaut’s film is a miraculously apposite
evocation of youth, featuring a marvelous performance by Jean-Pierre Léaud. The
400 Blows
is saved from sappiness by Truffaut’s light-hearted touch and
his ability to incorporate charming asides into the main body of his film.
Watch for the scene of schoolboys on a field trip sneaking away one by one
from their teacher, or the whirling carnival ride sequence. The 400 Blows also
features one of the most famous endings in film history, and the source of
many lesser imitators’ use of the freeze frame as cinematic punctuation.

Shadows Rediscovered

Film buffs and scholars have long known about the original
version of indie pioneer John Cassavetes’ first
film, Shadows. Shot in 16mm in 1957 and 1958, the original
by many to be substantially superior to the released
version—had long been thought “lost.” But
professor Ray Carney of Boston University, a Cassavetes scholar and author
of five books on the moviemaker, as well as proprietor of the Website,
succeeded in tracking down a print of the original Shadows.

After a 17-year search, he found two fragile reels in a
family’s attic.
The newly discovered version of Cassavetes’ debut is composed of approximately
half previously unseen footage, and half footage that made its way into the second
version of Shadows, released in 1959. “Even in the overlapping material,
you get very different meanings,” Carney points out. “It shows to
me a very deep realization about the way he made films. He discovered the meaning
of his films through editing. It’s entirely different from the Hollywood

The newly discovered version of Shadows was screened to
rapturous acclaim at the Rotterdam Film Festival, but plans
for its release, either theatrically or on DVD, appear dim. “Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’ widow) has expressed
a desire to suppress or destroy the film,” Carney says. “She
thinks the only version should be the released version.”
(MM attempted to contact Gena Rowlands for this piece, but, according to
her publicist, she does not comment about her late husband.) —Saul

Shadows (1959)
Director: John Cassavetes
Pioneer Entertainment, $24.98
The first of the American >indies, Cassavetes’ stripped-down ethos and mining
of raw emotion has had an enormous impact on contemporary American moviemakers.
His debut, of which a long assumed lost version has been discovered (see
), paved the way for generations of >indies to come, from Martin
Scorsese to Jim Jarmusch to Paul Thomas Anderson. Its jazzy soundtrack and
unblinking eye make Shadows an American analogue to the simultaneous
innovations of the French New Wave.

Paris Belongs to Us (1960)
Director: Jacques Rivette
Out of Print
There’s a reason why the French New Wave is still a major topic of discussion
among cineastes today. Rivette was an editor of the influential film journal Cahiers
du Cinema
before becoming a moviemaker, and Paris Belongs to Us reveals
the impact of the filmmakers he celebrated in print (particularly Fritz Lang,
whose Metropolis is screened by characters in the film). Rivette’s debut
is far less well known than those of his Cahiers compatriots Godard
and Truffaut, but Paris is simultaneously a creepy suspense thriller and a
documentary portrait of Parisian alienation.

Lola (1960) 
Director: Jacques Demy
Wellspring Home Entertainment, $24.98
Demy was one of the wooziest stylists of post-war French moviemaking, and his
reputation rests on the two musicals he made with Catherine Deneuve, The
Umbrellas of Cherbourg
and The Young Girls of Rochefort. His debut,
starring a luscious Anouk Aimée, is the story of a dancehall girl who
pines for the man who left her seven years prior. Musical in its elegance and
rhythm, if lacking actual songs, Demy’s film is a paean to his wholly imaginary,
wholly wonderful France.

Badlands (1973)
Director: Terrence Malick
Warner Home Video, $19.98
The first film by the famously reclusive Malick reveals at a glimpse why so
many film buffs are passionate about his skimpy body of work. Based on the
life of noted serial killer Charlie Starkweather, Badlands utilizes
Malick’s trademark voiceover and Tak Fujimoto’s gorgeous photography to create
a timeless aura of teenage anomie and restless violence.

Killer of Sheep (1977) 
Director: Charles Burnett
Out of Print
Part of the group of African-American moviemakers that emerged in the mid-1970s,
Burnett’s debut investigated a segment of life in LA long ignored in favor
of Hollywood glitz: working-class African-Americans. Killer of Sheep is
remarkable for its patient attention to detail, where the salvaging of a car’s
engine, or the work of a slaughterhouse, is as deserving of time onscreen as
any fireball or nude scene. It is this dedication to the realist tenet of equal
time for the dramatic and the mundane that makes Burnett one of the great realist
moviemakers, and Killer of Sheep is his (sadly little-known)

sex, lies, and videotape (1989)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Columbia TriStar Entertainment, $14.95
Soderbergh’s film about the joys and terrors of intimacy, and the liberating
power of the image, won the Palme d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, and
kick-started the independent film boom of the 1990s. Soderbergh wrote the script
in eight days while on a trip to Los Angeles, but rather than possessing a
harried or unfinished feel, sex, lies, and videotape is the outcome
of a terrifically inventive moviemaker working from one of the best scripts
of his career.

Hoop Dreams (1994)
Director: Steve James
New Line Home Entertainment, $19.98
Following two budding basketball stars on and off the court for four years,
this astonishing documentary achieves the minor miracle of bringing real life,
as it is lived and felt, to the screen. Reality, it turns out, does not stick
to the script: game-winning shots clang off the rim, brilliant plans come undone,
NBA stardom remains an unclaimed prize in the distance. To watch Hoop Dreams is
to understand the disappointment of a dream deferred, but it is also to experience
the enormous exhilaration of great art.

Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål) (1998)
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Strand Releasing, $29.99
Swedish director Moodysson’s tender, touching and funny lesbian love story
is one of the sharpest films ever made on the subject of young love, and on
the overwhelming malaise of adolescence. Moodysson’s rapport with his actors,
and openness to experimentation, gives the film a remarkable freshness and
authenticity. And setting your pivotal scene to Foreigner’s “I Want to Know
What Love Is” is a pretty ballsy move, in my opinion.

American Beauty (1999)
Director: Sam Mendes
Universal Home Video, $19.99
Mendes, a successful theater director, made a splash with his Academy Award-winning
cinematic debut. American Beauty is anchored by Kevin Spacey’s remarkable
performance as a harried suburban cubicle-dweller who drops out of the rat
race to appreciate the world’s small glories. Mendes’ assured and stylish direction,
along with a superb script by Alan Ball, gives
this meditation on contemporary American mores the heft of prophecy.

The Dreamlife of Angels (1999)
Director: Erick Zonca
Columbia TriStar Entertainment, $27.95
This little-seen French film about two young women struggling to make ends
meet in an industrial town is one of the most quietly affecting films in recent
memory. Directing his first feature-length film at age 43, Zonca brings a maturity
and wisdom to his material that renders his narrative a powerful document of
life on the margins. In addition, Dreamlife is one of the best films ever made
on the subject of work, a central aspect of all our lives, but one that is
elided in most mainstream films. MM

Do you have your own vote for a best first film? Let us know what
it is—and why—at [email protected].
We will include selected reader submissions in the Spring 2004
edition of MM.