Today runs the gamut. Hollywood to indie art house, female perspective to male, screwball comedy to chamber drama. The odyssey from Ernst Lubitsch to Kenji Mizoguchi will provide illumination on how film’s first special effects were used, how two brothers presciently preceded reality television in the Hamptons, and why some directors prefer to work about once a decade on average…
(1892 – 1947)
Three Key Films: Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Underrated: One Hour With You (1932) Lubitsch wielded an unusual amount of power at Paramount, briefly serving as head of production, though power never dinted his popularity with his actors and colleagues (indeed, he might have been the best liked of all the great directors). The film is decidedly pre-Code, about a Parisian doctor (Maurice Chevalier) who is successfully seduced by Mitzi, the best friend of his wife (Jeannette MacDonald). A highpoint comes when the good doctor, trying to justify his infidelity, looks at the audience, and in a song asks them what they would do if a woman like Mitzi were to use her wiles on them. He sings: “If her head was on your shoulder / And she grew a little bit bolder / Now I ask you what would you do with a girl like that? / … Now I ask you what would you do?/That’s what I did too.”
Unforgettable: In To Be or Not to Be, that “great, great Polish actor” Joseph Tura (improbably but brilliantly portrayed by radio comedian Jack Benny) is playing Hamlet. Coming to the front of the stage he pauses, with the prompter absurdly whispering, “To be or not to be,” as if anyone could struggle with the line. Joseph ignores him, looks at the audience, and begins the famous soliloquy, only to see a man on the second row dressed in an officer’s uniform stand up and noisily leave his seat. He works his way down row, and walks out of the auditorium, much to the consternation of the actor. The icing on the cake is that the officer is leaving to visit backstage actress Maria Tura (Carole Lombard), the actor’s wife. The gag is repeated two more times, with no diminishment of our joy.
The Legend: The greatest comedy director in the history of film, his films were famously known for “The Lubitsch Touch”. What was it? The truth is that it was originally a label created by the Paramount publicity department, but in fact his films are indeed genuinely unique and his colleagues knew it. Billy Wilder kept a sign on his desk throughout his career that read, “How would Lubitsch do it?” while Orson Welles said in an interview, “Lubitsch was a giant… his talent and originality were stupefying.” Legendary screenwriter Samson Raphaleson, who wrote several of Lubitsch’s greatest scripts, added, “I worked with Hitchcock, I worked with Cukor… Lubitsch towered above anyone creatively.”
Lubitsch’s influence on Hollywood is enormous but unrecognized. He is not just one of the movie’s greatest directors; he was the first star European director to come to Hollywood. He introduced a Continental sense of playfulness about sex that Hollywood sorely lacked at the time and gave film a sheen of sophistication it completely lacked prior to his introducing it.
Lubitsch was born to a tailor and his wife in 1892 in Berlin. Instead of following in the family business he became an actor, eventually joining Max Reinhardt’s theater company. After starring in a string of comedy films built around pratfalls, he switched to directing, and unexpectedly became one of the great directors of the early Weimar period, leaving for Hollywood in 1923.
In a way Lubitsch never really came to America. In his films he created his own world that many have dubbed Lubitschland, filled with wealthy sophisticates, wise-cracking waiters, rakish officers, adorable scoundrels, and slumming royalty. The films were set in places with real names — Paris, Monte Carlo, and Warsaw — but the locales were as fictitious as Shangri-La. He made sex comedies, though never vulgar ones; his treatment of sex was always elegant and sophisticated.
In 1934 the new Production Code went into effect. In Trouble in Paradise there is a shot of a couple embracing and kissing on a couch. In a dissolve they disappear and the couch is shown empty. The lights darken and the arm of the man reaches out to place a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the hotel door. The implication was clear: they had gone have sex on the bed. But what was possible in 1932 was impossible after 1934. The effect on Lubitsch was significant. His films had been built around sex, but sex was forbidden. But also the Code meant that none of his films made prior to 1934 could be shown. Films like One Hour with You would not be shown again for decades. Older film fans would remember the genius of his early movies, but new fans were not created.
In the ’60s and ’70s it became possible to view his films again, his reputation began gradually to recover. But even with the advent of VHS and DVD versions of films, many of his films remain difficult or impossible to see. He should be remembered as what he was, not merely the greatest director of comedies cinema has known, but the equal of the greatest of great Hollywood directors. Robert Moore
(1924 – 2010)
Three Key Films: Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976)
Underrated: Running on Empty (1988) No one mentioned this film when Lumet passed away a few months ago, and I wasn’t surprised. It has slipped into obscurity, partly due to the shiny brilliance of his bigger pictures from the ’70s and partly due to its profoundly uncomfortable politics in a post-9/11 America. But, this gorgeous, sensitive, and profound study of former domestic terrorists on the run from the FBI while trying to hold their family together is among the most daring works of art in his filmography. The film humanizes a pair of 60s-era radicals (masterfully played by a never better Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch) and asks us to confront and sympathize with the horror of their situation. If they turn themselves in, face up to their crimes, they will never see their children again. But, if they stay on the run, what kind of life are they giving their children anyway? Never shying away from the wrong that they committed, and never engaging with the politics that had driven them to this desperate end, the film studies the harmonics of a loving family facing the catastrophe of fracture. It’s a tough, tough film on a terrifically complicated subject, and among the most heartbreaking I have ever seen.
Unforgettable: “They’re real big drinkers all of them, by nature!” — 12 Angry Men (1957). This early tour de force from a young, angry Lumet, is a claustrophobic work of genius through and through, even if it might over-rely on frequent speechifying to drive the dialogue. This classic scene, in which the kingpin racist in the room stands up and finally speaks his mind, fully and completely, about what his reasoning is behind his conviction that the accused, a minority, is guilty. It’s in his nature. As his hot-blooded speech grows in intensity, relying on stereotypes, guesswork, and soaked in racist absurdities, one by one several of the men at the table stand up, walk to the extreme edge of the shot, and turn their back on him. “What’s happening in here? Listen to me!” Henry Fonda: “I have. Now, sit down and don’t open your mouth again.” Thrilling.
The Legend: When Sidney Lumet passed away on April 9th of this year, Hollywood lost one of the great political filmmakers in its history. Born in 1924 in Philadelphia to Yiddish entertainers, he began acting as a child and continued onstage until joining the Army in 1939. Following the war, Lumet began to direct plays in New York, before finding his way behind the camera for early television programs. By the mid-1950s he was looking for a way to break into Hollywood, and he found it with 1957’s 12 Angry Men, then as now among the most auspicious directing debuts in film history.
A classic of the social justice, “social problem” film tradition, 12 Angry Men was a great success with both critics and audiences alike. From that moment on, Lumet barely stopped for a breath — over the next 50 years, Lumet managed almost one film every twelve months, a breakneck pace that is all the more astonishing when one considers the amount of utter masterpieces he managed to produce along the way. Though unfailingly entertaining, his films have always hewed toward the social consciousness of Stanley Kramer than the street poetry of Scorsese, though he is best understood as a kind of bridge between these two approaches. From his harrowing (if perhaps over-didactic) early work 12 Angry Men (racism and justice), The Fugitive Kind (existential alienation) to his much-vaunted mid-’70s masterpieces Serpico (police corruption), Dog Day Afternoon (post-Vietnam ennui), Network (news as entertainment), through to his more recent examinations of post-9/11 American disappointment and paranoia in Strip Search (2004) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), Lumet has rarely strayed far from his social message purview. When he has, however, yikes. Perhaps best exemplified by the bloated mess that was The Wiz (1978 in every way), Lumet was startlingly out of his depth when he stepped out of his wheelhouse. Still, the bright spots in his more than 50-film career are positively blinding. Stuart Henderson
(1918 – 1995)
Three Key Films: Outrage (1950), The Bigamist (1953), The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Underrated: Though Lupino’s film directing career, when she was actually allowed to direct features, was interesting and propulsive, this veteran artist’s prolific, pioneering years of television work are rarely commended. Helming episodes of such seminal series as The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, Bonanza, The Fugitive, and Bewitched, Lupino’s versatility as a director for hire kept her constantly working through the late 1970s and she has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for television and one for motion pictures, to prove it.
Unforgettable: Actor William Talman’s terrifying portrayal of infamous spree killer Emmett Myers in The Hitch-Hiker. After kidnapping two friends on a road trip, monster Myers cruelly terrorizes his victims well into the night. The men can’t tell if he is awake or asleep because of his constantly-open bad eye. The deformed killer then taunts them to go ahead and try to get away, if they can, but threatens that if he’s not actually sleeping, he will kill them. Talk about a captive audience…
The Legend: As an actress, Lupino might have joked that she was “the poor man’s Bette Davis”, but her reputation in Hollywood as a skilled creator of strong, tough women with distinctive voices would eventually be her ace in the hole as a film director. Cited by Martin Scorsese in his documentary Century of Cinema (1995) as an early inspiration, Lupino lands on our list of essential directors not only for her gloriously lean, mean economical use of mise en scene and of the technical side of the medium, but also for breaking down gender barriers that, at the time, prevented other women from directing.
It should not be forgotten that Lupino was a pioneer in her directorial career, in the driver’s seat of noirish, rough and tumble films such as her indelible portrait of random violence on a desert road in The Hitch-Hiker. A taut, nasty chiller that doesn’t waste one second or frame, the film is a shot of blustery masculine adreneline from the opening scene to the denouement. In this respect, working in the male-dominated American film industry, within the microcosm of the patriarchal Hollywood studio system in a time when no other woman, let alone an actress, was given such a privilege, Lupino’s work has accrued significant appreciation, particularly those who see her as a proto-feminist working slyly in a typically-male purview. Critic Carrie Rickey once said that “not only did Lupino take control of production, direction and screenplay, but each of her movies addresses the brutal repercussions of sexuality, independence, and dependence”, confirming the palpable, feminist-minded social consciousness that Lupino seemed to so effortlessly — and subversively — bring to the table.
Lupino often downplayed the importance of her gender in relation to her director’s career, but did cite the permeable differences between men and women within the profession: “I’d love to see more women working as directors and producers. Today it’s almost impossible to do it unless you are an actress or writer with power.” Lupino is the only female film director on our list to be lauded as one of PopMatters’ 100 Essential Female Film Performances, where she is cited for directing herself to a triumphantly acerbic performance as Phyllis the waitress in the second of her 1953 features, The Bigamist. Matt Mazur
(1946 – present)
Three Key Films: Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Underrated: Lost Highway (1997) Predating/predicting Hollywood’s neo-noir trend and time travel/alternate reality chic, Lost Highway is both jagged and jazzy, a Möbius strip built from a man’s paranoia concerning his mysterious wife. As the couple, a perfectly cast Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette navigate the labyrinthine plot, which also includes manic, startling supporting turns from Robert Blake and Robert Loggia.
Unforgettable: In Blue Velvet, the terrifying and explosive Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) holds Dorothy and Jeffrey hostage during a meeting with his strange collection of friends. One of these friends, Ben (Dean Stockwell) reveals the one key to Booth’s black heart: Roy Orbison. Stockwell’s lip-sync showstopper (one of many similar scenes in Lynch’s movies) casts a permanent pall over “In Dreams”. After seeing Blue Velvet, this is the soundtrack for a nightmare.
The Legend: David Lynch’s bare-bones biography reads, “Filmmaker. Born Missoula, MT. Eagle Scout.” Regardless of the many accolades and acolytes he’s collected over the years, there’s something fundamentally simple and straightforward about Lynch’s public self. During the past few years, one favorite manifestation of this quality was his daily Internet weather report, which consisted of looking out the window and reporting what he saw.
But most audience members who have taken in a Lynch film, and taken it seriously, must know there is all sort of activity happening under the surface. Much has been written of Lynch’s fixation with the dark and strange undercurrents of middle class or otherwise mainstream existence. We see this in Blue Velvet’s introductory, subterranean camera shift and concluding mechanical robin, in Lost Highway’s cocktail party-turned quantum quandary, and in Inland Empire’s (2006) many veils and portals.
Given all of the comparisons of dark and light — and most are intentional, as with the films’ fetishistic value system of blondes versus brunettes — it would be easy to slap the Manichean label on Lynch and call it a day. Yet what gives his films their lasting power is the synthesis of these mundane and nightmarish qualities. He’s not simply presenting “A” and “not-A” and inviting us to compare. At their best, Lynch’s films stir quantum reality and ask the audience to ponder the nature of existence.
Lynch defines his spiritual practice of Transcendental Meditation as “diving within”. His films have long done the same, with the camera at times mimicking a physical penetration of the body. The most potent moments of Lynch’s movies are those that provide the shock of recognition that the visible world is only the surface of existence. For example, seemingly physical enigmas such as Eraserhead’s Lady in the Radiator and Twin Peaks’ (1990) Black Lodge are encountered through emotional trauma.
Mulholland Dr., the pinnacle of Lynch’s career, turns on such a moment. Just as the film’s first half threatens to become inscrutable, Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring) make a middle-of-the-night pilgrimage to a place called Club Silencio. During Rebekah Del Rio’s recording of “Llorando” (which she crucially lip-syncs in the film), Betty and Rita are forced to confront the façade in which they exist. As this scene triggers the film’s biggest narrative transition into Betty’s actual life (the tortured experience of failed actress Diane Selwyn), it creates a profound unity of structure, plot, staging, and subtextual/extra-textual motivation. Or, to use the director’s TM language, scenes like this reveal “infinite oceans” of consciousness from what previously looked like ill-fitting pieces of a puzzle. The realization of all-knowingness is both the journey and the reward of any great Lynch film. Thomas Britt
(1943 – present)
Three Key Films: Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998)
Underrated: The New World (2005) Of his five films, the only one to receive anything approaching mixed reviews has been his 2005 re-imagining of the old Pocahontas legend/history, all shot through with the heavy imagery of colliding worldviews, invasion and disease, nature and civilization. It is a long, meditative, and often troubling work, relying as it does on apparently outmoded ideas about the “noble savage” and a kind of “pre-post-colonial” approach to the trauma of contact. But, it is thoughtful, gorgeously shot, and hauntingly mysterious.
Unforgettable: The cellar in the field, Badlands. As a Bonnie and Clyde remake without any of the fun-loving countercultural spirit, Badlands asks viewers to get really comfortable with two impossibly appalling people. Martin Sheen (as a James Dean-wannabe serial killer) and Sissy Spacek (as his slow-witted but game companion) rustle through the film living out a kind of fantasy of outlaw freedom. They kill, they hide out, they kill again, and none of it is for anything, none of it matters, all of it is as empty as the great wide plains of the title. There is no scene in Badlands that better exemplifies the desperate psychopathology that motivates these characters than the amazingly mundane murder of two young people in a cellar in an empty field. They are herded into a hole in the ground, and then, after the lid is shut tight above them, Sheen just slips his gun barrel through an opening and fires a couple times. “Think I got ‘em?”
The Legend: Terrence Malick, Hollywood’s greatest recluse, was (possibly) born in Ottawa, Illinois, and was raised in a variety of mid- and southwestern locations before heading into work on oil fields in his late teens. A terrifically clever young man, Malick attended Harvard and eventually Oxford University (though he failed to complete his degree in contemporary philosophy), and taught for a time at Massachusetts Institute of Technology while working as a journalist for several major national magazines. He turned to screenwriting, but directors failed to translate his work to screen in the manner he envisioned.
His first film as a director, 1973’s Badlands, was independently produced on a small budget. A startlingly confident debut, Badlands met rave reviews upon its first public screenings, and went on to become one of the standout films from the early 1970s, one of the greatest periods in Hollywood history. But, for this most revered of contemporary filmmakers, less has always been more. Since 1973, Malick has made just four more pictures. Thankfully, each has been a remarkable piece of work. Like Kubrick, with whom he shares more than just a few similarities, his films tend toward the meditative. They are all languidly paced, short on dialogue, exquisitely shot, and thematically dense. While never openly referencing his philosophical influences, one finds occasion to consider great and weighty ideas at every turn.
Evocative and highly cerebral, Malick’s films all play with the overlapping, competing, and troubled relationship between the natural and the constructed worlds. Prone to very long films — the original cut of Thin Red Line has been gauged at over ten hours, for example, and Malick shot over a million feet of film for The New World — he has always appeared to privilege atmosphere over narrative. Indeed, Malick’s pictures ask a lot of their audiences, but the rewards are so rich that one should never hesitate to dive in. A Pynchon-esque fame-shy loner, Malick disappeared for almost 20 years between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, but has since amped up his output considerably. The Tree of Life (2011) was awarded the Palme D’Or this year but the film virtually polarized American audiences. Time will tell where this mystical, staggering work will place in the auteur’s canon. An as-yet untitled picture, a romance, which may or may not be about Frank Lloyd Wright, is in the can but will likely not be released for awhile yet if we know Malick. Stuart Henderson
(1932 – 1995)
Three Key Films: Elevator to the Gallows (1958), My Dinner With Andre (1981), Atlantic City (1981)
Underrated: Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), Malle’s muscular final film, a riveting adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, starring Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore.
Unforgettable: In The Lovers (1958), a haunting, sensual Jeanne Moreau virtually floating through a sequence set in an estate’s garden in the midnight hour like a nymph with glowing wings. The film was later brought up on obscenity charges in front of the Supreme Court of the United States in part for being the first to dare to show a close-up of a woman achieving orgasm. Quel scandal!
The Legend: Malle’s preoccupation with the upper-crust of France is born from his direct involvement with high society in real life: he was the heir to a sugar empire born into a world of tremendous privilege and power. One could argue that without this upbringing, and access to this world, Malle as an artist might not have had such a strong point of view. At age 24, he was the co-director of Jacques Cousteau’s deep sea feature The Silent World (1956), and in essay packaged with Criterion’s edition of The Lovers, King’s College film studies professor Ginette Vincendeau points out that Malle often drew upon real-life experiences, preferring to reflect, much in the style of a documentarian, on what he was most familiar with.
Many of Malle’s filmic endeavors explore the sexuality and mystery of women, the allure of wealth, and the existential dilemmas of the bored rich class and what damage their decisions, often made on whims, can do to others. In The Lovers, there is no conscience to answer to, which is nice; to not be weighted down by a heavy-handed director’s personal sexual morality. Flash forward 34 years and the same can be said of his English-language stunner Damage (1992), in which the morality of the characters can be viewed as slippery at best. Malle, as a director examining human behavior, is expertly detached, as interested in spectatorship as the audience.
Last year, I asked Damage‘s Oscar-nominated star Miranda Richardson about working with the legendary director and his way of side-stepping over-moralizing in the film’s explosive key scene:
“We were supposed to have rehearsal the day before but that was kiboshed. We came to the morning of and he said (in a Louis Malle French accent) ‘you know, I don’t want to do too much. What do you think?’ And I said, I feel so at a loss that I need to do what the British do, and that is make a cup of tea. And so, I put the kettle on. He said ‘good, good, good.’ The handle, just from me putting it on the stove, the handle came away from the kettle, and I was like ‘what is going on?’ And I said I don’ t think I am going move very far. Its that thing of keeping going. If you see someone nervously dusting a table or dusting their clothes, its actually not what they’re thinking about. I think the scene was very well-written,which helps. And the audience is desperate for that, at that point. They’re desperate to feel what she feels, that somebody has got to pay for this and be told off, you know? That’s the moral center of the piece, and its kind of an amoral piece. That is the morality of the piece.“
Throughout his career, Malle often struggled with classification, and where he fit in the directorial style scope. His placement in the category of “auteur” was challenged by most critics of the time, who interpreted his work as neither singular enough to be considered a true auteur nor bombastic enough to be considered a tyro of the burgeoning New Wave, though his intimate articulation and interpretation of lived experiences insured his films would be distinctly his own, and not simply the product of privlege and influence. Films that directly reference and process Malle’s childhood years and World War II, such as Lacombe, Lucien (1974) and Au revoir les enfants (1987), are in every way equally as essential as his daring cinematic works of fiction,Murmur of the Heart (1971) and Pretty Baby (1978), which explore taboo sexualities. Coupled with his strength as a documentarian (see Calcutta aka Phantom India, the director’s personal favorite film), Malle proves to be a searingly versatile director with a distinct cinematic legacy left behind. Criterion’s recent release of Malle’s lyrical Black Moon, shot by Ingmar Bergman’s great cinematographer Sven Nykvist, simply confirms this. Matt Mazur
Albert and David Maysles
(1917 – 1973)
Three Key Films: Le Samouraï(1967), Army of Shadows (1969), Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
Underrated: Le Doulos (1962). As with any first forays into a specific genre, Melville can be excused for not fully realizing his later film neo noir brilliance here. After all, this story of a master thief out to unmask the associate who is selling him out to the police is far from perfect — and yet, everything we will come to expect (and worship) about the director’s style is in near full flower: the meticulous mood and attitude of the characters; the attention to old school Hollywood gangster detail; the moral ambiguity of the players; the faultlessness of the casting; the subversive storyline that keeps important pieces of information close the vest, waiting for the audience to catch up and figure things out. As he would throughout the rest of his career, Melville manages to make the small seem massive, the incidental appear near epic. He can turn a simple showdown into a primer on personal ethos and reconfigure a revenge plot so that it comes out more judgmental than justified. “Le Doulos” may translate into a kind of hat typically worn by a ‘stool pigeon’ but in this regrettably overlooked early gem, it’s a crown that Melville is just learning to wear… and wear proudly.
Unforgettable: The interconnecting narratives of Le Cercle Rouge: Like Blow (2001), Pulp Fiction (1994), and/or Goodfellas (1990) afterward, Melville’s complicated approach to storytelling would remain endemic. Indeed, Rouge is a film told in sections, each movement adding to the suspense and complexity of the film’s plot and narrative themes. At first, the scenes are all subtle precision, slow and near static, building one on top of the other to lay foundations and create dynamics. The second section begins as the plans for the heist commence. The use of wipes and dissolves speeds up the sequencing of events, showing us that, while the devil may be in the details, those specific elements are going to be assumed here. The final portion of the film is far more swift and scattered. The interlinking storylines and characters converge and crash into one another as we jump from the police station to the gangster bar to a quiet and serene Yves Montand and then back to the cops. All the while, the tension is wound tighter. After the pins and needle necessities of the jewelry store heist, this randomized approach throws the audience off its guard, tossing us into the aftermath where anything can happen, anyone can drop dime and well constructed plans fall apart — pure Melville.
The Legend: Considered by many to be the godfather of the Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Pierre Melville epitomized ’60s French cool. He was cinematic swagger, the international man of mystery making movies instead of deals with equally sophisticated and evocative underworld figures. His was an art as purposeful artifice, of discovering the truth by skimming the surface and never taking sides. At the height of his popularity, writer Raymond Durgnat pertinently suggested that “Melville has a way of watching, rather than sharing, his characters’ perplexities. He seems not to mind what they do, provided it suits them. He is not unkind, but feline.” It’s a great way of placing his otherwise limited and yet highly voyeuristic oeuvre alongside those of his equally famous countrymen (Truffaut, Godard, etc.). Though he only made 13 films in 25 years, his stamp on both the artform and specific genres lingers throughout today’s glamorized and glorified gangster dramas. Indeed, his mob movies had an almost fetishistic insistence on the trapping of archetype — trench coats, fedoras and finely rolled cigarettes.
Adopting the nom de guerre “Melville” during his time in the French Resistance during World War II (an experience which would inform his most personal — and perhaps greatest — film, 1969’s masterful Army of Shadows), Jean-Pierre’s entry into the film industry was hard fought. Initially denied membership to the French Technicians’ union (he sought to be an Assistant Director), Melville set up his own production company and began making films outside the system. Thus began a strange dichotomy. Many only remember Melville for his work in noir, his crime tropes outranking the rest of his catalog. But that is an unfair description, since some of his best work was directly inspired by the French Occupation. Yet because of the iconic nature of his arch anti-heroes in Le Samourai (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970), he was purposefully pigeonholed, for better and for worse.
Though he would eventually reject the notion that he was any sort of patriarchal figure to the Nouvelle Vague, titles like Les Enfants terribles (1950) and Bob le flambeur (1956) were undoubtedly inspirations for the many New Wavers who followed in his footsteps. In fact, the latter would be viewed as an example of the burgeoning auteur theory (especially its use of perspective and individual narrative POV) while the former found its novelty in the knowing details of pre-adolescence and locale. When he adopted the name of the famous American novelist, he did it as both a tribute and a test. Melville one day hoped he could match the beloved author with his own contributions to his craft. Clearly, he did his namesake very proud indeed. Bill Gibron and John Sciaccotta
(1903 – 1986)
Three Key Films: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Band Wagon (1953), Some Came Running (1958)
Underrated: Though sometimes characterized as pure fluff, The Pirate (1948), remains an underrated addition to Minnelli’s musical canon. Over budget and originally overlooked by audiences, this pirate musical featuring Gene Kelly and Judy Garland is surprisingly humorous even by today’s standards and has had a growing appreciation over the years. The Pirate also features one of the most visually splendid ballet sequences of any classic Hollywood musical, to be outdone mostly by only some of Minnelli’s own films.
Unforgettable: The magical 16-minute ballet sequence of An American in Paris (1951). The ballet sequence, usually a major stop in the plot of the film to showcase outlandish musical numbers, was a staple of the musical genre of the time. However, no ballet is no spectacular or beautiful than Minnelli’s in An American in Paris. In a perfect blend of music, light, choreography, and classic Gene Kelly charm, Minnelli creates one of the most visually dynamic musical sequences in film history.
The Legend: Vincente Minnelli can be credited with being one of the most influential figures of the American musical film. With Meet Me in St. Louis, his second film, Minnelli helped move the genre out of the Busby Berkeley style spectacle and into a place of emotional depth and a more narrative-driven spirit. Not surprisingly, the director started off in the theatre, working in the Chicago and New York scenes. His first film was the Faust-inspired musical, Cabin in the Sky, made with an all African American cast in 194Minnelli didn’t look back, immediately releasing I Dood It the same year, and one of his most popular films, Meet Me In St. Louis, a year later. From there on, Minnelli made a film almost every year, sometimes two per year.
Although Minnelli is most best known for his musicals — Gigi (1958), An American in Paris, and The Band Wagon being among his most acclaimed — he also directed several critically acclaimed melodramas: the Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life (1956), the post-World War II coming home film Some Came Running, and the excellent Texan family epic Home from the Hill (1960). These melodramas are equals, if not superior, to his musicals.
While most of Minnelli’s musicals don’t have the emotional resonance or psychosexual underpinnings of his best melodramas, they are among the most visually stunning of all time. A master of mise en scène, each and every of Minnelli’s frames are as carefully constructed as a painting, a visual artist as much Gauguin or Picasso. The charge of being substance over style is something that likely wouldn’t have offended him; his films are as much about light, color, and movement as anything else. For all the charges of being infatuated by only the visual nature of his films, it is often ignored that Minnelli directed seven actors to acting nominations and two to Oscar wins: Spencer Tracy (Father of the Bride ), Gloria Grahame (The Bad and the Beautiful ), Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn (Lust for Life), and Arthur Kennedy, Shirley MacLaine and Martha Hyer (Some Came Running), with Grahame and Quinn nabbing the statues in their respective years and Margaret O’Brien winning a special juvenile Oscar for Meet Me in St. Louis. Minnelli himself would go on to win Best Director for the eye-popping kaleidoscope of Gigi.
Minnelli continued this breakneck filmmaking pace until 1965, though he would release On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) and his last film, A Matter of Time, in 1976. Minnelli, though by many accounts gay or bisexual, was married four times to different women. The first time, most infamously, was to queer icon Judy Garland, who gave birth to their daughter Liza Minnelli, a beloved LGBT ally and activist in her own right . Vincente would work with Garland on seven films and with Liza once: 1976’s A Matter of Time.Minnelli died in 1986, only weeks after being named a Commander Nationale of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian honor. Joshua Jezioro