Spiritual possession, screwball comedy, German kinks, and the quintessential American Western genre are among the disparate characters we shine a light on today as PopMatters counts down the 100 Essential Film Directors. Today we look at George Cukor through John Ford. Who falls in the middle might surprise you…
(1899 – 1983)
Three Key Films: Dinner at Eight (1933), The Philadelphia Story (1940), A Star Is Born (1954)
Underrated: Love Among the Ruins (1975) This made-for-TV movie starred Laurence Olivier and Katherine Hepburn in their only pairing, as an aging lawyer and actress who find love. Although a bit sentimental at times, it is Cukor’s last homage to legendary actors, while still including Cukor’s sharp sense of humor and gentle style of storytelling.
Unforgettable: Cukor crafted numerous classic scenes, but the one that truly represents his skills with actors is the gin game between Billie (Judy Holliday) and Harry (Broderick Crawford) in Born Yesterday (1950). While the scene has little dialogue, it allows two great actors to rule the screen in one of film’s funniest sequences. As was often the case, Cukor got out of the way and let his stars do what they did best, while framing them to perfection.
A Star Is Born (1954)
The Legend: Cukor has always been identified as an actor’s director, more specifically, a “woman’s” director. Understandable, considering that in The Women (1939), not a single man appears onscreen, and looking at the titles in his filmography indicates how frequently his movies were women-centric. Yet, such a classification demeans Cukor’s skills as a director, one who directed three men to Oscars (Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Coleman, Rex Harrison), but only two women (Ingrid Bergman, Judy Holliday). Cukor’s homosexuality and femininity have been credited with providing him a penchant for telling women’s stories, yet most every female lead in Cukor’s films had a strong male lead to play off. With films such as A Double Life, the tale of an actor’s Othello-inspired descent into madness, Cukor proved he could dive into the male psyche with equal skill.
Cukor honed his talent in New York, directing on the Broadway stage before his childhood friend and mentor, David Selznick, helped him establish himself in Hollywood. So deep was his love of the stage as a child in New York that he frequently skipped school to attend plays, and his first job was as a supernumerary at the Metropolitan Opera. The family plans for George to continue in his father’s law practice were interrupted by WWI; after serving in the army, Cukor decided to pursue his own dreams in the theatre instead of continuing his education. Recognizing he didn’t have the looks for a life on stage, Cukor felt most comfortable working behind the scenes, although it was in the theatre that his love of actors developed.
Still, it is a disservice to classify Cukor as an actor’s director, since his use of setting and camera angle, which foretell how audiences are to perceive characters and action, and his challenges to the dominant male hierarchy show Cukor to be a man with a vision, most clearly presented in his earlier works, but evident throughout his 51-year career. If anything, Cukor was a writer’s director, one who placed story above all else, and he emphasized those stories through ideal casting. Each film lets the story unfold on its own terms, without the dramatic excesses other directors indulge. His romances feature no torrid or scandalous love scenes, his thrillers little to no violence. A good story didn’t need sensationalizing, he felt. Cukor knew how to tell a good story and how to get actors to invest wholly in those stories. Michael Abernethy
(1944 – present)
Three Key Films: Something Wild (1986), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Underrated: Beloved (1998). Most critics dismissed Oprah Winfrey’s passion project, an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s classic, and audiences weren’t buying either, but the growth and maturity Demme shows as a craftsman and artist in this film is unmissable. Tackling an epic story that travels through time periods and supernatural planes, illuminating the after-effects of slavery on African American women with blunt succintness for perhaps the first time in film, Demme’s mastery of mise en scene, and of the rhythm of Morrison’s poetic language reveals his dreamy Terrence Malick-esque auteurist leanings as Demme marries nature, violence, drama, history and literature in a beautiful, intimate ceremony. He directs Winfrey, Kimberly Elise, Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Thandie Newton, and Beah Richards to soaring heights.
Unforgettable: Clarice Starling’s blind search of Buffalo Bill’s basement, as the serial killer turns off the lights and she is left in the blackness, virtually defenseless. Shot in terrifying green night vision, from the POV of the killer himself as he taunts the fledgling, terrified agent with the barrel of a gun, the climax to this Oscar champion creates an almost unbearable tension by preying on our fear of the dark.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Legend: Some might argue that without The Silence of the Lambs, Demme may not have made this list. Yes, he has made a surplus of outstanding films, including quite a few unjustly ignored documentaries such as The Agronomist (2003), but initially, the now 67-year-old director was most known more for his first two critical successes in the early 1980s ending up as box office duds (Handle With Care and Melvin and Howard). Despite the excellent Talking Heads doc Stop Making Sense (1984), the quirky masterpiece of Something Wild, and the Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle Married to the Mob (1988), Demme flew mostly under the radar for the rest of the Me Decade. That is, until he paired up with Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, and screenwriter Ted Tally in 1991 to create the definitive portrait of a serial killer, the film that defined the psychological thriller/horror film hybrid for modern audiences.
From the Oscar-winning follow-up Philadelphia (1993) to the Oprah-starring adaptation Beloved, and, most recently, with a successful foray into hand-held directing with Rachel Getting Married, Demme proved one thing for certain over three decades of incredible work: his adaptability. If you ask him to direct an intense and complex human detective story, he can do it. Ask him to arrest viewers with Philadelphia, a courtroom drama that uses AIDS in America as a lens to uncover homophobia and discrimination (one of the first substantial American films to do so), and he’ll deliver. Ask him to adopt a new technical style into his directing repertoire while broaching the delicate subject of a child’s death during a complex wedding celebration, and Demme will produce a gem. Complicated is his middle name.
Remakes are almost never a good idea, but remaking a classic like John Frankenheimer’s taut The Manchurian Candidate borders on preposterous. Demme did it anyway, and in many respects, he out-directs Frankenheimer and his original with a slick, captivating, and unnerving modern political charge that recalls the paranoid political conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s. With The Truth About Charlie (2002), a remake of Charade (1967), bombing so badly only two years earlier, the (relatively) few of us who gave his remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate a chance ended as thrilled as we were initially appalled.
Demme seems to thrive on cinematic challenges, and is as valued a member to this list as any other auteur — with or without the juggernaut of The Silence of the Lambs. We just wish he would make more movies! Matt Mazur and Ben Travers
(1948 – present)
Three Key Films: Beau Travail (1999), 35 Shots of Rum (2008), White Material (2009)
Underrated: The Intruder (2004) “Your worst enemies are hiding inside. Hiding in the shadows. Hiding in your heart.” Denis’ most obscure and inscrutable film deeply divided audiences and critics, some viewers considering it to be a profound treatise on identity, life and death, and others attacking it as an impenetrable tone poem that fails to add up despite scattered striking images. Initially baffling it might be, but The Intruder is a movie that, even more than Denis’ other films, richly repays and rewards repeat viewings. Inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy’s book, the film is at once a metaphysical exploration, a travelogue, and a quest narrative of sorts, tracking its “heartless” protagonist, Trebor (Michel Subor), as he journeys from Jura to Pusan in South Korea and finally to Tahiti, undergoing a heart transplant and attempting to seek out his estranged son. As a story in which, in Denis’ words, “everything is broken,” The Intruder doesn’t need to add up, and for all its opacity, the film remains an indelible, haunting experience — a trip, in two sense, at least.
Iconic moment: Endings in Denis’ cinema are invariably memorable and surprising, and none more so than Denis Lavant’s extraordinary acrobatic solo dance at the conclusion of Beau Travail, a moment that at once underscores the movie’s exploration of the male body and space and blows it all to pieces. Previously depicted as the controlled military man, Lavant’s Galoup lets rip with a frankly astonishing display of moves in this scene: twirling, flailing, leaping, rolling on the floor, and finally propelling himself out of the frame. “I wanted to show that Galoup could escape himself,” Denis has commented. And you’ll never hear Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night” again without seeing these images.
White Material (2009)
The Legend: “I always freak out when I hear people opposing sensation to story-telling,” Claire Denis has said. “A great story-teller always gives you that sense of warmth or cold… [Sensation and story-telling] are not opposed … Why deprive a film of what belongs to cinema?” Perhaps more consistently than any other contemporary filmmaker, Denis’ movies work to make sensation into story-telling, and vice versa. Elliptical and fragmentary, sometimes oblique to the point of opacity, Denis’ films re-write the rule-book in terms of narrative content and characterization, her stories often emerging through an intense focus on the bodies of her actors and a moody, sensuous evocation of places and spaces. The result is a cinematic style that, in its combination of discretion and ellipsis with moments of confrontational, sometimes brutal directness, is one of the most distinctive in modern French cinema.
Born in Paris, Denis was raised in colonial West Africa, where her father was a civil servant; she went on to study at the IDHEC, the French film school, and served as an assistant to directors including Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. This background finds its way into her films in ways that vary from the obvious to the indirect. Elements of autobiography would certainly seem to inform her debut film, Chocolat (1988), in which a white French woman returns to Cameroon, where she recalls her childhood as the daughter of a regional administrator and her relationship with the family’s servant, Proteé (Isaach de Bankolé). Issues of “race” and the fallout of colonialism remain pertinent in Denis’ cinema, and in its exploration of the experiences of white characters in Africa (Beau Travail and White Material) and African and Caribbean immigrants in France (No Fear, No Die ; 35 Shots of Rum ) her work can certainly be seen to engage with the complexities and uncertainties of our post-colonial world.
But Denis’ movies are too subtle and impressionistic for crude polemics around racial politics. Rather, her films approach such issues in more abstract terms, charting what the director herself calls “movement[s] towards the unknown Other and toward the unknown in other people.” Indeed, the notion of “movement” is particularly key to Denis’ cinema which brings a choreographic sensibility to its presentation of bodies at rest and in motion, and also makes spectacular use of rock and pop music ranging from Neil Young to the Beach Boys and the Commodores. An invigorating tactility, an effort to make her movies felt in the body of the spectator, characterizes her film-making practice.
Denis frequently works with the same colleagues, including actors (de Bankolé, Grégoire Colin, Alex Descas, Nicholas Duvauchelle), musicians (the British band Tindersticks) and the cinematographer Agnés Godard. The contributions of such collaborators clearly play a part in the distinctive ambiance that her films create even as her work moves from the gore of the horror film Trouble Every Day (2001) to the warmth and sensitivity of an Ozu-inspired family drama (35 Shots of Rum). But what defines Denis’s cinema most is the liberating amount of interpretive space that it gives to the audience. In the words of Ryland Walker Knight, Denis “captures life’s richness by observing behavior, and then lets us develop the picture.” Ultimately, it is nothing less than the mystery and materiality of human experience which is conveyed with such bracing insight and feeling in Denis’ dynamic work. Alex Ramon
Brian De Palma
Brian De Palma
(1940 – present)
Three Key Films: Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983)
Underrated: Femme Fatale (2002) Rebecca Romijn stars as Lily, a jewelry thief who inexplicably runs into her doppelganger, who then proceeds to kill herself giving the other a chance at rebirth. De Palma’s obsession with reinvention is never more obvious than in this bizarre, surprisingly entertaining sexual thriller. He constantly places Romijn’s characters in situations that can be interpreted as baptisms (there is lots of water in this movie) and through the films he references (from Double Indemnity (1947) to To Catch a Thief(1955) ) he reminds us that the arts are the closest mankind has come at achieving rebirth. Antonio Banderas plays De Palma’s alter ego, a paparazzi who is trying to decipher Lily’s secrets through pictures he is far from fully comprehending.
Unforgettable: The “Be Black, Baby” sequence from Hi, Mom! (1970). In a career filled with outstanding set pieces (the Union Station shootout in The Untouchables (1987), the prom scene from Carrie, the climactic bloodbath of Scarface), this one tops them all. Robert De Niro reprises his role as Jon Rubin, the conflicted young man of De Palma’s Greetings (1968), who this time around has decided to become a filmmaker. He shoots people from his apartment, giving De Palma one of his many camera-as-gun metaphors, and seems to be at odds in this new career path as well. His fortune changes when he runs into a troupe of black actors who put together a documentary called “Be Black, Baby”. The strange film includes audience members in black face being menaced by black actor in white face and De Niro as a policeman that weirdly feels like a premonition of his Travic Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976). This movie within a movie isn’t so much about social changes or “being black in America”, it’s a challenging aesthetic project that took guerrilla filmmaking to the next level: it announced the movie camera as the weapon of choice for future revolutionaries.
The Legend: The most polarizing — and under-appreciated — director of the New Hollywood, Brian De Palma’s ultimate legacy may be that of being the first post-modernist director in American cinema. While the so-called “movie brats” of the 1970s may have reveled in their cinematic upbringings, none did so more explicitly than De Palma. Referencing movie lore visually and orally may be business as usual in 2011, but back in 1973, when De Palma made the Hitchcockian Sisters, more than a few eyebrows were raised. He did himself no favors by continuing to draw comparisons to the Master of Suspense, and the primary argument by De Palma detractors is that he is simply an imitator, as opposed to an innovator. De Palma would probably never deny this as he has made a point out of exploring the nature of copying and doubles in films like the claustrophobic Body Double and the erotic thriller Femme Fatale. Throughout his career he has shown a fascination with what can only be deemed as “possession”. Whether it be the cross dressing killer of Dressed to Kill (1980) (which not coincidentally features a now iconic shower scene with Angie Dickinson) or the identity disorder of Mission: Impossible (1996), De Palma seems mystified by the idea of taking over someone else’s life. His “imitation” therefore should be studied as a symptom of post-modernism: who are we really in a world largely influenced by the media?
His films are filled with camera tricks like split screens that irk some who find his film making as “too gimmicky”. However with an empathic attitude you will discover a man hard at work trying to dissect the essence of being through cinema. Even his most controversial works, like the misunderstood Mission to Mars, do more than just act as a mere Kubrick-redux, they challenge the very notions of what the movies are all about. Watch how he constantly features and fetishizes elements of filmmaking as protagonists in his movies: from the camera of Hi, Mom!, to the sound recorder of Blow Out (1981), to the Cannes Film Festival mise en scene that opens Femme Fatale. Heck, even the knife in Dressed to Kill (which could work as an instrument for editing), his explorations of life as a big movie are perhaps what has defined his entire filmography. De Palma’s works are nothing less than master film classes, disguised as trashy, self indulgent entertainment. Jose Solís Mayén and John Sciaccotta
(1917 – 1961)
Three Key Films: Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Meditation on Violence (1947), The Very Eye of Night (1959)
Underrated: Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1981). Thanks to a Guggenheim fellowship, Deren traveled to Haiti to film voodoo rituals from 1947 to 1954, publishing a book on the subject, Deren wouldn’t live to finish the film, but 20 years after her death, her former collaborator Teiji Ito would complete it. In the footage that Ito compiled, we see that Deren was creating an important historical and cultural document, not to mention the fact that she herself was seen participating in the ceremonies. As admirable as Ito’s work is, we’re still left wondering what Deren’s own final cut of her own footage would have looked like.
Unforgettable: Three minutes into Meshes of the Afternoon where we see the Deren’s character falling asleep and then the second (but not last time) she runs up a path home, leaving us wondering what we’re really watching (dream, hallucination, artistic statement). The scene keeps getting replayed throughout the 14-minute film, changing each time in more disturbing ways, as later seen in films like Groundhog’s Day, Mulholland Drive and Last Year at Marienbad. It’s as important a moment insurrealistic cinema as the eye-slicing scene in Un Chien Andalou; unlike Bunuel’s extreme imagery, Deren went for a more subtle type of mind bending, also breaking apart the narrative thread of cinema. We also see Deren as the ravishing exotic beauty she was, not to mention that mirror-faced hooded figure and reappearing knives, keys and multiple Deren’s.
The Very Eye of Night (1959)
The Legend: On March 7, 2010, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally recognized a woman as being worthy of the title ‘best director’ for the first time in the 81-year history of the Academy Awards. Even as a constant Hollywood critic, Deren would have loved to have seen that moment, if not receive an achievement award from the Academy (which should happen). Originally from the Ukraine, her family came to America five years after her birth. After college, she made her way to New York City where she did a thesis on poetry, worked as a photographer and assisted a choreographer. She then made her way out to Los Angles, finding a kindred spirit in Czech Alexander Hammid, who became her second husband and collaborator on Meshes of the Afternoon, which alone would have assured her place in film history.
Deren would go on to make five more short films (including the space ballet The Very Eye of Night, done with the Metropolitan Opera), as well as leaving behind almost as many unfinished projects after a combination of brain hemorrhage and malnutrition took her life tragically early at 44. Because her films were all in short form, her collected work fit on one DVD, the highly recommended Experimental Films (Mystic Fire). The 2002 documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren is also a valuable resource. Jason Gross
Carl Theodor Dreyer
Carl Theodor Dreyer
(1889 – 1968)
Three Key Films: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Ordet (1955)
Underrated: Gertrud (1962) Dreyer’s final film, and only truly underrated if one posits it in comparison to his other more canonically revered earlier features, Gertrud is in many ways an apotheosis of Dreyer’s style and themes, and unquestionably as devastating as his other “key” films. Following the titular heroine, played with moving delicacy by Nina Pens Rode, as she searches in vain for an impossible ideal love. Sober, static, and so subtle that its full impact might not reach the viewer for days, Gertrud quietly matches The Passion of Joan of Arc in its commitment to an idealistic, independent, uncompromising female martyr. Gertrud does not burn at the stake, but her tragedy cuts open the viewer with the same blunt force.
Unforgettable: The word “miraculous” gets thrown around increasingly often as a lazy way to build up a film’s hype, but if there’s any scene in cinema it genuinely applies to, it is the finale of Ordet (1955), Dreyer’s monolithic exploration of faith and intolerance. A miracle, in the most traditional sense of the word, does occur in this scene, but it’s the way Dreyer stages it — in signature long takes, without a single trick or wink, in a somber crescendo of exposed emotion — that makes the moment so staggeringly powerful. As much a paean to the power of film as the power of faith, the scene demands to be seen with fresh eyes, so I will say no more: just make sure your schedule allows you at least an hour of meditation following your screening — it’s very likely you’ll need it.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Legend: Despite a relatively small filmography, Carl Theodor Dreyer is truly a revered figure in cinema history; his emotionally draining storytelling and mysteriously slow output rate have afforded him an almost mythic status. The illegitimate son of a Swedish housekeeper, Carl Dreyer would pass through multiple foster homes before his placement in the care of Carl Theodor and Inger Marie Dreyer, around the same time as his biological mother’s accidental death. Dreyer would later estrange himself from his adpoted family as a teenager, and though dismissive of the impact of his childhood in interviews, his past seems unquestionably tied to his cinematic ruminations of sorrow, interpersonal disconnect, and martyrdom.
Dreyer’s first forays into film were with the Danish Nordisk company in the 1910s; work from this period includes The President (1915) and The Parson’s Widow (1920). These early features show a concern for the suffering of women that would culminate in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), a film any cineaste should be intimately familiar with. That film’s mystical power derives from Dreyer’s marriage of religious and spiritual tropes with intensely visceral depictions of torture — a marriage of the holy and human that defines Dreyer’s entire oeuvre. Renee Maria Falconetti’s legendary performance as Joan adds to the emotional depth: shot almost entirely in extreme close-ups, Falconetti’s bare, tear-stained face is one of cinema’s truly iconic images; her portrayal belongs not in the category of “performance” but instead “possession”.
Following Joan of Arc, Dreyer’s output pace slowed considerably; over the next four decades he would release only four features. The atmospheric Vampyr (1932) was met with mixed reviews upon its release, but its surrealist imagery and expressionist construction has since made it a genre classic and an essential piece of Dreyer’s oeuvre: thematically and stylistically it bridges Dreyer’s earlier output with his later work by showcasing an interest in the darker side of spirituality as well as pushing the boundaries of realist representation. Day of Wrath (1943) continues to explore the intermediary space between darkness and light, demons and angels: here we see Dreyer’s trademark tonal and sensory austerity in full effect.
His final films abandon the occult elements of the previous two works, but retain their austere style and emotional nakedness: Ordet (1955), based on the play by Kaj Munk, unfolds slowly but rigorously in its depiction of religious intolerance among a Danish farming community. Dreyer documents the various crises of the film’s central family with such sobriety and empathy that once the narrative content turns increasingly urgent, the viewing experience nearly turns physical. The same can be said for Gertrud (1962), Dreyer’s final film, which also uses long takes and carefully-constructed mise-en-scene to heighten the power of its emotional crescendo.
Despite tackling such disparate subject material, Dreyer’s films all feature a striking, overpowering understanding of what it means to suffer: their humanity and humility are the traits that have come to define Dreyer and his oeuvre, and indeed he remains untouchable when said subject matter is concerned. Lee Dallas
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
(1920 – 1993)
Three Key Films: La Strada (1954), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 ½ (1963)
Underrated: Satyricon (1969). Sure, Fellini received his third Best Director Oscar nomination for his adaptation of Petronius’ satire about imperial Rome, but this was also the same movie that had Richard Corliss declare Fellini was reaching his decline while Pauline Kael labeled it as “terrible”. At first glance Satyricon might look just like an oversexed, overindulgent experiment through which Fellini added nothing new to his oeuvre; however, taking into consideration the year when it was released, the film can be seen as a compromise between an up and coming rebellious generation (i.e. hippies) and an artist who wanted to remind them where they came from.
Unforgettable: A Swedish bombshell Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) arrives in Rome to the delight of the paparazzi who follow her all over town. However it’s only the lucky Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) who gets to witness what has become one of the most sensual scenes in film history. As Sylvia becomes lost in the narrow Roman streets, she discovers the Trevi Fountain and decides to have a bath. Marcello watches from the distance as she invites him “Marcello, come here!”. He doesn’t get in. We would’ve in a heartbeat. From La Dolce Vita.
La Dolce Vita (1960)
The Legend: A master of image, form and story, Federico Fellini’s career could very well serve as a representation of cinema’s evolution. From his early work as a cartoonist and screenwriter, to his eventual worldwide recognition as one of the masters of the medium, he wasn’t afraid of experimentation. During the 1940s he attempted to make films that adjusted to the postwar reality that was pushing European cinema into a style that recalled nonfiction filmmaking. After works like Variety Lights (1950) and his contribution as a writer to the seminal Rome, Open City (1945), but Fellini found his voice when he made La Strada. The film starred his wife Giulietta Massina as Gelsomina, a simple minded woman who joins a traveling circus act led by the savage Zampanó (Anthony Quinn).
While the film stuck to the aesthetics of neorrealism, much like Nights of Cabiria (1957), plot-wise it touched the oneiric territory that would characterize Fellini’s further work. It’s this combination of harsh reality with melancholy and fantasy that defines some of his greatest films, from Juliet of the Spirits (1964) to Amarcord (1975). “Talking about dreams is like talking about the movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams” he once said and proof of this is his 8 ½ which deftly, if almost by accident, penetrates the creative mind and its complexly mysterious nature.
Fellini wasn’t a big fan of “the truth” and his biographers usually point out the way in which his life story changes according to the listener. His one true purpose was to tell stories and entertain. In Amarcord (1973), film for which he received a record breaking fourth Oscar nomination for Best Director (no other foreign language filmmaker has achieved this), he remembers his childhood but filters it through a nostalgic, fantastic lens which makes it one of the most endearing coming-of-age films ever made. He told them, like he wished they would’ve happened. Jose Solís Mayén
(1894 – 1973)
Three Key Films: Stagecoach (1939), Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Searchers (1956)
Underrated: Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) Boasting a list of film credits as long as your arm, Ford was bound to have several overlooked gems in his oeuvre. But this alternative Western stands atop the pile with its mixture of historical drama, gorgeous early Technicolor, and standout performances from Henry Ford and John Carradine (as an eye-patched badass Canadian! Sort of.). Though its white vs. “Indians” racial politics don’t feel too comfortable anymore, and its gender relations are stereotypes all the way, it all works without slipping too far into formula in an era when formula often got in the way.
Unforgettable: The “you pick it up” scene from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). In his early ’60s elegy for a genre in decline, brilliantly constructed as a lament for an idealized American West, there are at least a dozen unforgettable moments. Indeed, in many critiques of the film, this is the central problem: that the film itself feels more like an homage to the great genre pictures that have come before, many of which starred the same actors in their younger days. Well, sure. But, isn’t that clearly the point of the exercise? A film about aging, about the end of an era, and about the ways legends are constructed around myths to serve as signposts in an uncertain future, Liberty Valance is supposed to feel familiar and comforting. That’s the reason it is so heartbreakingly nostalgic and evocative. Anyway, this is the best scene from one of the best films I can name. In it, the two soon-to-be anachronistic cowboys are arguing about nothing, ready to kill for it, and standing between them it’s the future in the person of James Stewart, a peaceful, rational, “Eastern” problem-solver. How the west was won, indeed.
The Legend: 140. That’s how many movies are attributed to John Ford over his 50 years in Hollywood. It’s an absurd number, almost impossible to imagine. How does one compare a filmmaker who was prolific to this extreme to someone as stingily unproductive as Terrence Malick? Indeed, and this is the most amazing part, even though most of us has never seen even half of these films (many are lost), what we are left with are at least a few dozen unassailable masterpieces. For a man who was tireless, obviously overworked, tied to a studio system which had him churning out picture after picture at breakneck speed for decades, John Ford managed to compile an unparalleled list of unqualified successes.
Born in 1894 in Maine, John Feeney moved to California in 1914 to begin a career in film production. His older brother had already established himself in Hollywood, and John was able to walk into a job. Before long, however, his brother’s star began to fade and John (now John Ford) took up the reins, transitioning to directing silent films at a breakneck pace. Highly respected by his colleagues for both the quality of his films and his astonishing work ethic, Ford would become president of the Motion Picture Director’s Association (today known as the Director’s Guild of America).
Though most often remembered for his Westerns — indeed, any short list of the best this genre has to offer will be overrun with John Ford pictures — Ford made something like 35 films between his last silent Western (3 Bad Men (1926)) and his triumphant, genre-defining Stagecoach (1939), so he clearly had other interests as well. Indeed, Ford was amazingly successful at translating major literary works onto celluloid. Though more commonly trivialized by film fans for having beaten Welles’ Citizen Kane , his only Best Picture Oscar was for the wonderful How Green Was My Valley in 1941. An inveterate weirdo, famous for his idiosyncrasies like munching on handkerchiefs while he worked (to the point that he started each day with a dozen fresh ones that he would set about gnawing to smithereens), his sporting of an unnecessary eye-patch, his solitary post-production days-long drinking binges, and his driving of a car so ramshackle that he was once refused entry to his own set because the guard refused to believe that the great John Ford would own such a piece of shit. The great poet of the American landscape, a master of the long shot, and perhaps the most influential American filmmaker one can name, Ford died in 1973 at the age of 79. Stuart Henderson