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The Beginner’s Guide to Classic Films and Their Directors: Part Two

September 2013

John FordWelcome to the conclusion of this two-part series. In last month's installment, I began with Woody Allen, Frank Capra, Charles Chaplin, and Francis Ford Coppola. As great as that list was, this month’s is even better -- on it are the names of those directors who were, arguably, most consistently excellent: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and Billy Wilder.

John Ford: John Ford is often mentioned as the greatest director in history, and you can count me in on that assessment. I was trying to explain this to my nephew and brother-in-law, and while they knew of Ford, they had no deep understanding of what he means to film. I began with his Westerns. Ford made dozens of them, but seven stand out as some of the best pure cinema ever made: The Searchers, Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy: Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande.

What makes Ford great is his Shakespearian way of dropping in a bit of humor to relieve the relentless hard times. People tend to remember the Indian fights in the Westerns, and Ford had many friends among the tribes in and around Monument Valley who were willing to portray the nobility and horsemanship of their ancestors. Ford does cast Indians as a danger to be dealt with, but in all cases they are honorable, brave, and resolute, which is more than you can say for many of the white characters in his films. In any case, the greatest danger to Ford’s settlers was risky progress, modernization, big government, and the absolute peril of falling in love with a woman. These same principles held true in his non-Westerns, which themselves are timeless classics -- such as How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man, Mister Roberts, and The Grapes of Wrath.

Understanding John Ford takes some effort. He has been imitated so many times that some of what he does may now seem hackneyed, and I admit that not many people appreciate a folk song quite as much as Ford did -- but hang with it and you’ll be stunned by his talent. Orson Welles was once asked to name a few directors he considered to be “the best.” His response: “I like the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”

John Ford

The Searchers (1956): John Wayne plays a bigoted, murderous outlaw with a strong taste for revenge. When a band of Indians kill his brother’s family and steal his niece, he goes on the warpath. But at what price? Ford constructs the film such that you can watch it as a childlike shoot-’em-up or as a surprisingly adult psychological drama.

The Quiet Man (1952): There is no greater assemblage of testosterone in classic films: together onscreen here are Ward Bond, John Wayne, and Victor McLaglen, the little guy at only 6’3”. But the toughest character is Maureen O’Hara, who could probably take all three of these big palookas if she wanted to. Wayne plays a boxer who’s heartbroken about having killed a man in the ring. He returns to his family home in rural Ireland, where all anyone wants to do is fight with him. As with all of Ford’s films, watch the actors’ eyes. Pay special attention to the scene in which Wayne and O’Hara sit by the fire at night, trying to decide whether to take a chance on love.

The Cavalry Trilogy: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). Watch them in order, and don’t get confused by different actors showing up with the same name as a different character. Ford’s direction is poetry (says Orson Welles), as he spends more time on the everyday life of a cavalryman than on battles. Each of these three-dimensional characters is hungry for some form of redemption.

If you like those, try: How Green Was My Valley, Mister Roberts, My Darling Clementine, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Avoid: 7 Women, Donovan’s Reef

Oscars: Ford received six nominations, five for Best Director. He won four Oscars for Best Director, more than any other in the history of the awards. (William Wyler and Frank Capra each received three, and another 16 have received two apiece.) And Ford won two more Oscars, for documentaries he directed during WWII. But who’s counting?

Howard HawksHoward Hawks: Howard Hawks never thought of himself as an auteur -- he was mostly just trying to make a good movie. “I’m a storyteller -- that’s the chief function of a director,” he said. “And they’re moving pictures, let’s make ’em move!” Noted biographer David Thomson writes, in his definitive The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, that “Hawks is at his best in moments when nothing happens beyond people arguing.” That’s an understatement. In the films listed below -- in fact, in any of Hawks’s films -- seek out the moments where there’s a conversation, an argument, or a prelude to a kiss. He has actors talking over each other in, most important, the finest dialogue Hawks could coax his screenwriters to produce. Anyone with a desire to learn the art of great screenwriting should first watch all of Hawks’s films. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, try the scenes in which the girls discuss men and money. Or the hilarious dialogue between Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers in Monkey Business. Even a seeming throwaway like The Thing from Another World has its moments, as when the scientists discover the Thing.

Though it’s perhaps an oversimplification, Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen were bound by their chosen genres, while Ford and Wilder made their greatest with just a few genres. Thomson says that if you had to choose the complete works of just one director to take to your desert island, it should be Hawks, who was seamless in all genres: Westerns, screwball comedies, romantic comedies, thrillers, even sci-fi. French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard said that Hawks was “the greatest American artist.”

Rio Bravo (1959): In Cahiers du Cinema, Godard wrote, “The great filmmakers always tie themselves down by complying with the rules of the game. . . . Take, for example, the films of Howard Hawks, and in particular Rio Bravo (1959). That is a work of extraordinary psychological insight and aesthetic perception, but Hawks has made his film so that the insight can pass unnoticed without disturbing the audience that has come to see a Western like all the others. Hawks is the greater because he has succeeded in fitting all that he holds most dear into a well-worn subject.” Rio Bravo is Quentin Tarantino’s favorite film.

Red River (1948): In a Western that rises to the level of a Greek tragedy, John Wayne plays his most evil role: a cattle baron with no place to sell his cattle. He viciously beats his son in front of his crew, and is so relentlessly despicable that they eventually mutiny. Then it’s time for revenge . . .

The Big Sleep (1946): Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall spark off of each other in what appears to be a crime film -- but watch carefully and you’ll see that Hawks cut the whole thing to allow us to witness a two-hour-long session of foreplay. Yes, many elements of the whodunit are here, but in the end, you’re just waiting for whenwilltheydoit. Perhaps in real life as well. Just after the film wrapped, Bogart left his wife and married Bacall.

Howard Hawk

Ball of Fire (1941): Barbara Stanwyck plays Sugarpuss O’Shea, a lady of independent morals who needs to hide out while her thug boyfriend is on the lam. Gary Cooper leads a group of sheltered professors who are wondering how real people talk. When they accidentally land Sugarpuss as a subject, their two worlds collide with hilarious outcomes.

His Girl Friday (1940): If this isn’t the best comedy ever made, it certainly belongs on the list of nominees. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are simply amazing together. He’s a newspaper editor, and she, his top reporter and ex-wife, is trying to quit the grind and settle down with nice, boring Ralph Bellamy. But Grant and his motley crew of city-hall reporters think they’ve found someone wrongly accused of a crime. Listen carefully -- the best lines are spoken sotto voce in the middle of five people talking at once. Woe to the Academy for not awarding this movie a single Oscar.

Bringing Up Baby (1938): Hawks could make credible the most absurd, preposterous plot line. Here, Cary Grant is a paleontologist who needs money for his research and museum. Katherine Hepburn is rich, available, and weird. Her new pet, Baby, is a 150-pound leopard. Add a few very strange characters and a bone-happy terrier, and everything turns to bedlam. The sight gags are perfect, the dialogue is machine-gun fast, and the impossible story has the ring of truth -- not because of the events, but because of the characters.

If you like those, try: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Land of the Pharaohs, Monkey Business, The Thing from Another World, To Have and Have Not

Avoid: Red Line 7000, Rio Lobo

Oscars: one nomination. Hawks finally got an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, presented by his buddy John Wayne at the 1974 Academy Awards ceremony. The citation read, “Howard Hawks is a giant of the American cinema whose pictures, taken as a whole, represent one of the most consistent, vivid, and varied bodies of work in world cinema.”

Alfred HitchcockSir Alfred Hitchcock: Sir Alfred Hitchcock is often mentioned as one the best directors ever to have worked in Hollywood. Virtually every one of the 34 films he made from 1934 (The Man Who Knew Too Much) to 1966 (Torn Curtain) was a masterpiece, and from 1940 on he spent most of his time in Hollywood. In the 1950s, Hitchcock knocked out an unbelievable 11 classic films. He was definitely bound by the thriller genre, but no one has ever done it better.

Psycho (1960): Destined to worry all women who step into a shower or meet a guy who seems obsessed with his mommy, this film begins as a cops-and-robbers routine; then things go terribly wrong.

North by Northwest (1959): Like many Hitchcock protagonists, Cary Grant is stuck in a maelstrom of mistaken identities, and he’s the only one who can prove himself innocent. Yes, the cornfield chase is iconic, but the scariest scenes take place in South Dakota.

Vertigo (1958): Jimmy Stewart plays a retired detective with a fear of heights. His friend wants him to tail his seemingly crazy wife. From there, the line between sanity and psychosis begins to be drawn a little too close for comfort.

To Catch a Thief (1955): Ostensibly the story of a jewel thief, but actually Hitchcock’s serial visual evocation of foreplay and orgasm. Note the fireworks when Grace Kelly and Cary Grant kiss.

Howard Hitchcock

If you like those, try more, beginning in 1934 with the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and work your way through every film Hitchcock made through 1966, except . . .

Avoid: Don’t bother with anything after Torn Curtain (1966), especially Topaz -- it will ruin your concept of Hitchcock as a great director.

Oscars: Five nominations for Best Director, zero wins.

Billy WilderBilly Wilder: Billy Wilder was born in what is now Poland; when Hitler came to power in 1933, he fled first to Paris, and then to the US. When he arrived here he spoke no English, but ended up writing and directing some of the cleverest dialogue ever to grace films. He worshipped Ernst Lubitsch, who had moved to the US from Germany in the 1920s and whose films were known for grace, style, and a cogent use of language. Wilder was always somewhat suspicious of the goodness of humanity. As he got older and his films raked in kudos, studios gave him more and more leeway, which he used to make ever more pessimistic films. It’s a measure of his quality as a writer and director that Wilder could still draw big audiences and make truly entertaining films. His trick was simple: The audience has to feel empathy for the protagonist, even if that character is daft, inept, and/or weak. Wilder did that by allowing the protagonist to make poor decisions against odds beyond his or her control, then let us watch as the character tries to squirm out of the problem. These problems can range from horniness (The Seven Year Itch) to the mob (Some Like It Hot) to shrewd, hustlin’ babes (Double Indemnity). Those of you who are pleased when someone labels you a “cynic” or “misanthrope” should watch Wilder’s films in reverse chronological order, as listed below; feel free to start with Kiss Me, Stupid (1964).

The Apartment (1960): When The Apartment was released, Fred MacMurray was America’s dad. He’d starred in The Shaggy Dog, and his TV series, My Three Sons, was a hit. So what did Wilder do with this icon of fatherhood? He made him into a conniving, cheating jerk who would ruin an employee just so he and his buddies could bed some party girls without being seen. And it’s a comedy!

Some Like It Hot (1959): Wilder’s most famous film, and a doozy of a comedy -- until you think about what the gender reversals mean, and how (spoiler alert) Wilder’s everyman, Jack Lemmon, finally decides to live as a woman.

Billy Wilder

The Seven Year Itch (1955): My favorite Wilder film has Tom Ewell as a preternaturally horny book publisher whose wife and son are leaving New York for the summer. Then Marilyn Monroe moves into the apartment above his. The title refers to man’s seemingly unstoppable urge to run around on his wife.

Sunset Boulevard (1950): A death occurs. Who is it, who did it, and why are all these very strange people hanging on a washed-up actress’s every word?

Double Indemnity (1944): Fred MacMurray is an insurance salesman. Barbara Stanwyck is bored with her rich husband. She finds out that, under certain circumstances, if her husband dies, she gets double his indemnity policy. But who might be dumb enough to rub out hubby just so she can get rich? How about this weakling of an insurance agent? Edward G. Robinson’s character provides MacMurray with a God step-in and father figure.

If you like those, try: Kiss Me, Stupid (for fans of the darkly cynical); Love in the Afternoon; One, Two, Three; Sabrina; Stalag 17; The Lost Weekend; Witness for the Prosecution

Avoid: None of them. There are good reasons to watch any of Wilder’s films, though many have bitter and angry screenplays acted by harmless characters, which creates a disconnect. But I have to admit, Kiss Me, Stupid takes some stomach.

Oscars: Eight Best Director nominations, two wins. Twelve nominations for Best Writing, three wins.

Further sources of enrichment

In the future, I hope that some of our brightest directors still engaged in making films will warrant a place on this list. Some possibilities include Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan, Baz Luhrmann, and Kathryn Bigelow.

When you’ve worked your way through the directors featured above, check out the ones listed below. Each one has made several films that deserve to be on a list of the best films ever made. I don’t have the space here to fully cover everyone, but I was sad to omit several of these geniuses. In any case, don’t miss:

Orson Welles: Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons
Stanley Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Barry Lyndon
Ernst Lubitsch: Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner
Preston Sturges: Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, Palm Beach Story
George Cukor: Philadelphia Story, Holiday, Gaslight
Robert Altman: M*A*S*H, Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller
William Wyler: The Best Years of Our Lives, Mrs. Minniver, Roman Holiday
Mike Nichols: The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge
Anthony Mann: Naked Spur, Man of the West, Winchester 73
Martin Scorsese: New York, New York; Goodfellas; Hugo; The Last Waltz
Terrence Malick: Days of Heaven, Badlands, Tree of Life
John Cassavetes: A Woman Under the Influence, Faces, Husbands
Ridley Scott: Blade Runner, Alien, The Duelists
Sam Peckinpah: The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Ride the Wild Country
Nicholas Roeg: Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth
Brian De Palma: Carrie, Scarface, Blow Out, Dressed to Kill
Walter Hill: Warriors, Streets of Fire, The Long Riders

As for foreign directors, here are a few we intend to cover in the European and Asian sections of this survey, arriving sometime in 2014: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Luc Besson, Guillermo del Toro, Jean-Luc Godard, Akira Kurosawa, David Lean, Ang Lee, Sergio Leone, Hayao Miyazaki, Jean Renoir, Andrei Tarkovsky, Lars Von Trier, Wong Kar Wai, John Woo, and Yimou Zhang. I have a limited number of slots for film reviews, so this whole process will take some time. We’ll end the series early in 2015 with our picks for the ten best directors of all time, and the three best films of each.

. . . Wes Marshall
wesm@soundstagenetwork.com