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

March 2014

YojimboIn the first two installments of this series, I discussed filmmakers who primarily worked, or work, in the United States. Part One, in August, covered Woody Allen, Frank Capra, Charles Chaplin, and Francis Ford Coppola. Part Two, in September, included John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and condensed coverage of 17 other directors. As promised, in this installment I talk about some of the world’s finest directors who have operated primarily outside North America.

As Hollywood’s artistic and commercial powers grew, many foreign directors ended up working in Hollywood. Power-hungry politicians are always afraid of artists, and many of America’s finest directors were refugees from fascism, communism, and other forms of dictatorship. So how to choose which directors go in what list? And how to choose who should be included, who left out?

By their very nature, lists of “the greatest” in any field are subjective and idiosyncratic, and my choices are not what is taught in film school. If you want to familiarize yourself with the conventional wisdom about the great directors and the great films, the best resource in the English language is the venerable poll published in Sight & Sound, the scholarly journal of the British Film Institute. Each decade since 1952, S&S has sent questionnaires to the world’s best film critics, asking them to name the Greatest Films of All Time. Later, they asked critics to name the Greatest Director, and also began asking directors to answer the two questions. Statisticians will see a few problems with such lists right away. First, if a director made just a handful of great movies, then his or her top film will get lots of votes; e.g., Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. If a director made dozens of classics, then each film will cannibalize votes for the other; e.g., John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks.

I’m sure some film buffs will be horrified that I pick John Woo and not Satyajit Ray. Italian film critics might assume that I’m off my rocker for including Sergio Leone but not Federico Fellini. It’s not that I think Fellini and Ray aren’t glorious artists -- they are. But for the beginner, a film must deliver more than just great depth and multiple meanings. A film must also leave the neophyte feeling as if they’ve made a fair exchange with the filmmaker. A viewer invests time and hard-earned money, and has the right to expect some entertainment. The best of all possible worlds is a director who can create substantial, stimulating, expressive films that appeal to hardened critics and casual film fans alike. I think the following directors create high art that is also highly entertaining.

Akira KurosawaAkira Kurosawa (Japanese, 1910-1998): Kurosawa began working in films before WWII, but his career took off internationally in 1950, with Rashōmon. He started out with the intention of being an artist, and consequently his films are always gorgeous, even when they’re violent. A great favorite of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Sergio Leone, Kurosawa himself considered John Ford to be the ultimate director. His favorite film was Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), and he borrowed heavily from Ford’s Western model for his masterpiece, The Seven Samurai (1954), which was imitated in turn as John Sturges’s Hollywood Western The Magnificent Seven (1960). (What follows, like all of these lists, begins with the director’s most recent classic, then works back in reverse chronological order.)

Yōjinbō (Yojimbo) (1961): How much of a fan of Kurosawa was Sergio Leone? Kurosawa took Leone to court because he thought the story of Yojimbo was too similar to Leone’s For a Fistful of Dollars. Apparently Leone agreed, and ceded 15% of his film’s profits to Kurosawa. The story of a tough guy playing two rival families against each other has become a classic.

Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (The Hidden Fortress) (1958): If you’re a Star Wars nerd, you probably already know about The Hidden Fortress: George Lucas borrowed the point of view of Kurosawa’s two criminals for the robots R2D2 and C3PO -- the only characters that, a few years from now, will have appeared in all nine Star Wars films.

Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai) (1954): The titular characters are brought in to save a small community from attacks by bandits. Kurosawa’s amazing action scenes really need the full run time of the original version -- 207 minutes -- to allow the film to breathe. Don’t waste your time on shorter versions.

Akira Kurosawa

Ikiru (1952): This deeply philosophical film, about the meaning of life as examined by someone dying of cancer, is also quite sentimental.

Rashōmon (1950): A crime is described by several eyewitnesses, each of whom saw something completely different. Without Rashōmon, many TV police procedurals wouldn’t exist.

If you like my main picks, try: Kumonosu-jô (Throne of Blood) (1957), Tsubaki Sanjûrô (Sanjuro) (1962), and Ran (1985).

Avoid: Dreams (1990).

Sergio LeoneSergio Leone (Italian, 1929-1989): Few critics are wishy-washy about Leone. Famous curmudgeon David Thomson, in his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, spends a grand total of three paragraphs describing Leone as a hack opportunist with no depth of feeling. On the other hand, Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, Rector of the Royal College of Art, Chairman of the Arts Council of England, and author of the definitive biography of the director, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death, spends 592 pages breathlessly covering six films.

Leone’s few films as a director can be divided into three groups. He began with truly awful sword’n’sandals flicks, such as Gli Ultimi Giorni di Pompei (The Last Days of Pompeii) (1959) and Il Colosso di Rodi (The Colossus of Rhodes) (1961), which featured such American stars as Steve Reeves and Rory Calhoun. These actors were well past their due dates in the US, but in Italy, they had just enough name recognition to draw people into theaters.

Leone’s second group of films all centered around Clint Eastwood, who always played the same character, though with a different name in each film: Joe, Manco, and Blondie -- which didn’t keep the films’ US distributor from calling them The Man With No Name Trilogy. The first of these films, Per un Pugno di Dollari (A Fistful of Dollars) (1964), is a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Eastwood arrives in town and finds two families feuding with each other. Rather than get involved with either side, he plays them against each other. Gian Maria Volonté plays the hothead Ramón Rojo. Volonté returns in Per Qualche Dollaro in Più (For a Few Dollars More) (1965), this time playing El Indio (The Indian). This second film also brings us face to face, for the first time in a Leone film, with Lee Van Cleef, as Col. Douglas Mortimer. To make things more confusing, Van Cleef also shows up in the third film of the trilogy, Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) (1966), this time as Sentenza/Angel Eyes. This is considered to be the masterpiece of the three, and is also the first film in which Leone’s attachment to grand opera is clearly revealed, as he creates a Western of a length, tragic underpinnings, and rampant backstabbing that hark back to Mascagni and Boito.

Sergio Leone

Leone spent the rest of his life working on his C’era una Volta (Once Upon a Time) trilogy: C’era una Volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West) (1968), Giù la Testa aka C’era una Volta il Rivoluzione (A Fistful of Dynamite aka Duck, You Sucker) (1971), and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The first and last films are bona fide masterpieces -- if you can find complete editions. All three films were butchered on release by American distributors more interested in squeezing in more theater showings per day than in preserving works of art. Look for respective running times of 175, 157, and 259 minutes.

Avoid: Leone’s sword’n’sandals films; and Giù la Testa isn’t up to the standards of the other five. Sadly, in a directorial career stretching 30 years, that’s all we have.

Hayao MiyazakiHayao Miyazaki (Japanese, 1941-): Asia has a much closer connection to animation than does the rest of the world. That’s especially true of Japan, where it’s not at all uncommon to sit on a Tokyo subway next to a middle-aged businessman reading a manga book -- the Japanese have a special appreciation for artists who are able to tell stories that appeal equally to adults and children. Working in anime style, artists like Takashi Murakami have created entire philosophical constructs, and his artworks have sold in the seven digits. Nothing has helped spread their profound respect for animation more than the films of Hayao Miyazaki. He has the ability to create vast, gorgeous backgrounds and populate them with bizarre, anthropomorphic fantasy creatures -- most of it drawn by hand. Most important, Miyazaki’s stories teach important lessons about humanity.

Gake no ue no Ponyo (Ponyo) (2008): What does it mean to be human? What would the world look like if its ecological balance was ruined? How powerful is love? Lest these concerns sound too weighty, Miyazaki will make you laugh and cry, often at the same moment.

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) (2001): A young girl named Chihiro and her family move to the country, but get lost on the way. They find a tunnel and decide to walk through it. On the other side, they discover a town where all sorts of demonic fantasy creatures live. Chihiro and her parents are in terrible danger, and she must solve the dilemma of their escape. This may be the greatest hand-drawn film in history.

Mononoke-hime (Princess Mononoke) (1997): A powerful meditation on man’s destruction of nature, and an up-close look at the futility of war. And it’s great for little children!

Hayao Miyazaki

If you like my main pics, try anything else by Miyazaki. Avoid nothing -- Miyazaki seems incapable of making a bad film. But if forced to toss a movie to the bottom of my list, it would be his Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle) (2004).

John WooJohn Woo (Chinese, 1946-): John Woo has been making movies since 1968. He began at the world-famous Shaw Brothers Studio, purveyor of high-flying kung-fu flicks. Woo’s life changed when he started working with charismatic actor Yun-Fat Chow, in Ying Hung Boon Sik (A Better Tomorrow) (1986). Thus began a chain of Woo films rich in scenes of balletic violence and storylines built around honor, loyalty, and courage. For six years, Woo turned out one masterpiece after another. Eventually, Hollywood came knocking, and in 1993 convinced him to make his first American film. Sadly, none of Woo’s American films has been better than OK. In fact, the quality of Woo’s films seems inversely proportional to how far away from China they’re made. Nonetheless, Woo has decided to stay in the US, a decision he seems to want to finalize -- the government of the People’s Republic won’t be too happy with his next film, The Crossing, which is about Chinese escaping the mainland, in the 1940s, to form the independent island nation of Taiwan.

Lat sau san taam (Hard Boiled) (1992): If you have even the slightest interest in gangster films, Hard Boiled is required viewing. The first 11 minutes may be the single greatest action sequence in all of cinema. And dig Yun-Fat Chow’s toothpick. Some thought that Woo had begun to parody himself by this film. Don’t believe it. That’s like saying that watching Miguel Cabrera at bat has become boring because he hits the ball so often.

Dip huet gaai tau (Bullet in the Head) (1990): Woo goes to war. As if his other films didn’t have enough gritty violence, why not throw his protagonists into the Vietnam War? Despite all the action, this is Woo’s most powerful rumination on family and friendship.

Dip huet seung hung (The Killer) (1989): Chow plays a hit man who, during a nightclub shoot-out, accidentally blinds a pretty young singer. Guilt forces him to confront his evil ways, and he tries to help the singer regain her sight -- but the only way he can raise the money is to kill again.

John Woo

If you like my main picks, try: A Better Tomorrow (1986), A Better Tomorrow II (1987), and Once a Thief (1991).

Avoid: Woo’s American films, especially Hard Target, Broken Arrow, Face/Off, Windtalkers, and Paycheck.

Further sources of enrichment

This introduction to directors from outside the US is, of course, too short. The works of any of them could fill an entire book, and there are hundreds of others I could have named. Below, in alphabetical order, are 17 more directors who belong on any list of the greatest. As happened to John Woo, many, after succeeding at home, were summoned to Hollywood. A few -- Ridley Scott, Peter Jackson, Alfonso Cuarón, Peter Weir -- continue to grow, but more have been lost in translation. As your interest in foreign films grows, be sure to put these other magnificent tiles on your watch list.

Michelangelo Antonioni: L’Avventura, La Notte, Blow-Up
Ingmar Bergman: Virgin Spring, Fanny and Alexander, Cries & Whispers
Bernardo Bertolucci: The Conformist, 1900, Last Tango in Paris
Luc Besson: The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita, Atlantis, Léon: The Professional
Guillermo del Toro: Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth
Vittorio de Sica: Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan, Umberto D.
Federico Fellini: La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits
Jean-Luc Godard: Breathless, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville
Ang Lee: Eat Drink Man Woman; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Lust, Caution
Wolfgang Petersen: Das Boot, The NeverEnding Story
Satyajit Ray: Pather Panchali, The Music Room, The Big City, Charulata
Jean Renoir: The Grand Illusion, La Bête Humaine, The Rules of the Game
Jacques Tati: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle
François Truffaut: The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim
Wim Wenders: Wings of Desire; Until the End of the World; Faraway, So Close!
Kar Wai Wong: Ashes of Time, Fallen Angels, In the Mood for Love, 2046
Yimou Zhang: Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, Hero, House of Flying Daggers

. . . Wes Marshall
wesm@soundstagenetwork.com