Directorial Debuts: Part III (1960’s)

Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sydney Pollack, Francis Ford Coppola, Norman Jewison, Brian De Palma, Werner Herzog…just a small handful of the legendary directors who made their screen debuts in the decade of turbulence — the 1960’s. Talents like this went on to helm some of the finest films of the 70’s, 80’s and even today. But did their first films make a dynamic splash in the cinematic waters? After posting my Top 5 directorial debuts of the 2000’s and the 1970’s, here are my Top 5 Directorial Debuts from the 1960’s. Of course, this is not a list of the best directors to come out of the decade…this list is based on the filmmakers’ very first films and the impact they had on the world of movies. Take a look — and let me know who you would put on the list!

5. Pier Paolo Pasolini (Accattone, 1961)

A feel good film, this ain’t — but it remains a startling debut from one of Italy’s finest directors.  A sort of second-wave of neorealism filmmaking, Pasolini’s focus here (as in almost all his works) is on peasant culture and the people who inhabit that world. As he always did, Pasolini hired non-actors from the area to play the roles, giving the film a genuine look and feel. Accattone (meaning “beggar”) revolves around a pimp who loses his income when his main prostitute is roughed up by rivals. Vittorio (Franco Citti) discovers a new girl and slowly lures her into her seedy new profession. The movie is beautifully shot and filled with such fascinating faces to examine. An ugly and unsettling experience, but poetic and a sure work of art. Controversial from the start, Pasolini would go on to explore the very real and very poor side of Italy’s streets in works such as the powerful Mamma Roma, Medea, and Salo.

4. Mel Brooks (The Producers, 1968)

I’m not really much of a Mel Brooks fan at all, but I do love this movie. Before it became a Broadway mega-hit years later, this wonderfully funny film went on to win Brooks an Oscar for Original Screenplay. Zero Mostel is pitch-perfect as Max Bialystock, the aging producer who woos older rich women for investment money and bullies poor Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), a feeble accountant, to try and produce the biggest flop the Broadway stage has ever seen. What’s the project? Only a love letter to Hitler, featuring the now infamous song “Springtime for Hitler.” After selling 25,000 percent of the play to investors, hiring the world’s worst stage director, and casting a bunch of misfits, Bialystock’s plan ultimately backfires and the musical is a smash. A delightful comedy classic and an impressive debut, to say the least. I may not appreciate his movies as others do, but Brooks went on to direct some classic comedic films such as  Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and yes, Spaceballs.

3. George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, 1968)

The Godfather of all zombie movies and one of the most influential horror films ever made — Romero’s debut has since spawned five sequels and two remakes…but none would come close to this stunning debut.  Made on a shoestring budget (which adds to the crude and eerie feel on screen), Romero’s classic created prototype for other zombie films to follow, featuring the rural setting, young outsiders in a small group, and the political statements made in the form of allegory. The movie clearly critiques American society at the time, but it also creeps the fuck out of you. With this debut, Romero was able to define an entire genre of film — not the horror film per se, but the subgenre falling beneath it. 40+ years later, it is still gruesome, still terrifying, and still smart movie-making.

2. Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, 1969)

The quintessential biker flick, Easy Rider became a huge box-office success and quickly became famous for representing the 1960’s counterculture generation. Because of its enormous success, it also sparked a new wave of filmmaking that would lead well into the 1970’s. Hopper’s love letter to hippies was shot with barely any script at all, with most of the dialogue being ad-libbed.  The film follows bikers Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) as they travel America’s South trying to make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Characters are met along the way – most who look down on the long-haired bikers. When thrown in jail for parading without a permit, they are helped out by a local attorney (Jack Nicholson), who decides to join in their travels. The film marked the “coming out” for Nicholson who received an Oscar nom. The soundtrack here is filled with staples of some great 1960’s rock and folk artists including The Band and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hopper’s statement on America during that time — certainly a bleak and demoralizing one — is made all too clear. He would later direct Colors, which was a very good film and a handful of others — not so good. But this, his first film, goes down in history as helping to define a generation. A brave and sincere work.

1. Roman Polanski (Knife in the Water, 1962)

One of cinema’s most accomplished directors made a most extraordinary debut with this Polish drama consisting of only three actors. A young husband and wife drive to a lake so they can spend the day leisurely sailing together. On the way, they almost hit a young man — who is then invited to hop in and later, is even asked to join them on the boat. Not a great idea.  But really, when is a hitchhiker ever a good thing? Power struggles and sexual tension between the trip ensue and Polanski gets to play with some themes that he will examine in later films in more detail. This is a remarkably intense film and no surprise that the newbie director would go on to make some of the very best films over the course of the next 40+ years, including Repulsion, Macbeth, The Pianist, Chinatown, and Rosemary’s Baby. Looking at the entire decade, this choice was a no-brainer for me — and if you’re a film buff who hasn’t yet seen it, this is a must-see.

NEXT UP: ‘DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS PART IV’ will give us the Top 10 best debuts from the 1980’s and 90’s.

Click HERE to read DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS: PART I (2000’s)
Click HERE to read DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS: PART II (1970’s)

Directorial Debuts: Part II (1970’s)

The 1970’s is my favorite decade of cinema by far. Most of my most admired directors had their heyday during this ten-year period, and the majority of films I consider my all-time favorites came out here as well. In Part I of this series, I concentrated on the dearth of great film debuts since 2000 and I suppose there are a few reasons for this. And though the 1970’s brought us the debuts from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Wim Wenders, Ron Howard, Adrian Lyne, Catherine Breillat, and a host of other notable talents, I wouldn’t necessarily classify their first efforts as being overly impressive. Here are my Top 5 Directorial Debuts from the 1970’s. Again, this is surely not a list of who I believe the best directors are to come out of the decade…I’m just judging first films here and the impact it had on cinema and the rest of their careers. As always, I’d love to see who you might include.

5. Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974)

One of the most influential horror films in cinema history, without question. And a film that will always freak me the fuck out. I’m not sure if it’s because Hooper’s film is so low budget (less than $300,000), but the quality of it gives the feeling of a snuff film that only adds to the fright factor. The aesthetic quality of the film is impressive and he does manage to get solid performances from a cast of complete unknowns. The irony with this horror flick is that it got an R-rating (though Hooper was fighting for a PG) and even Roger Ebert cited the movie “as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises,” when in fact, there is very little blood or gore at all. A testament to the power of the mind and Hooper’s strong work here. Leatherface, inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein, is without a doubt, one of the most terrifying and haunting figures in movies, as he waits for his prey in his dilapidated home in the middle of nowhere. Hooper would go on to direct the ill-fated sequel and a host of other horror flicks, but has never managed to outdo this first grand effort.

4. David Lynch (Eraserhead, 1977)

Um…yeah. Not really sure what to say here. Perhaps Entertainment Weekly said it best when they wrote, “Eraserhead is about that which can’t be described.” I could not have put it better myself. Since its initial release, the film has become one of the all-time great cult classics and is the epitome of “the midnight movie.”  Those familiar with the extraordinarily remarkable resume of Lynch, will surely be able to see a number of his favorite themes being introduced here for the first time. Lynch started work on the film when he was given a small grant by the AFI Conservatory, but the money of course ran out and it took him over 5 years to shoot — in spurts. Eraserhead is certainly not for everyone…in fact, it’s not for most. However, you can surely see the singular artistic vision that is David Lynch’s — his style, pacing, use of music, visuals, are all on display, and if not for this work, Mel Brooks would have had nothing to be so impressed by to hire him to helm The Elephant Man.  One significant sidenote – the US Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2004. So there’s that…

3. Clint Eastwood (Play Misty for Me, 1971)

The Oscar-winning director behind such mighty works as Mystic River, Million Dollar BabyUnforgiven, and A Perfect World began his filmmaking career with this gripping psychological thriller. here, Eastwood plays a late-night disc jockey who has a brief fling with Evelyn Draper (a frightening Jessica Walter), an obsessed fan of his. It doesn’t take long for Draper to become more than a little obsessed with the DJ and eventually becomes quite the deranged stalker. The film was released before many stalker films of its kind began to come out, and, rarely seen, showcased a psychotic female villain. Fatal Attraction, anyone? After years and years of working in front of the camera, it is clear that Eastwood picked up a lot from working with great (and not-so-great) directors and puts that knowledge to most impressive use here. A sign of wondrous things to come from this mighty artist.

2. Erroll Morris (Gates of Heaven, 1978)

The movie that launched the career of one of America’s premier documentarians. Of course, the main focus of the film is about the pet cemetery business, but the way Morris frames the work, it becomes about so much more than that. Themes of the afterlife, the inevitability of one’s own mortality, what pets mean in our everyday lives seep through and stay with you long after the film ends. There is no narration at all — unlike some of today’s “documentary” filmmakers, Morris refuses to editorialize for us and tell us what to think. It’s a fascinating film that many — most notably Werner Herzog — thought would never see the light of day. Herzog famously wagered that he would eat his own shoe if the movie was ever completed. True to his word, the great director consumed his own footwear, and became the subject of the delightful short 20-minute film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The score…Morris 1, Herzog 0.

1. Terrence Malick (Badlands, 1973)

Not simply a magnificent directorial debut, but one of the best movies to come out of the 1970’s, period.  Made for around $300,000, Malick began working on Badlands after his 2nd year at AFI. The film revolves around the cross-country killing spree of sociopathic Kit (Martin Sheen) and young Holly (Sissy Spacek), after he charms her away from her dead-end South Dakota town.   The film managed to steal the limelight from Scorsese’s Mean Streets when it played at the New York Film Festival and critics were unanimous in their praise for the new filmmaker who depicted the violence in a very cold and remorseless way rather than with brutality and gore. Using America’s Midwest as the backdrop, Badlands plays a bit like Bonnie and Clyde (and perhaps a forerunner to Stone’s NBK), but the characters seem more real and the acts, more haunting than Penn’s piece. This film will surely be on any “Best Debut” list, but there is surely a reason for that. Malick, one of cinema’s most visionary directors with a painstaking eye for detail, cemented his reputation at the onset here, prompting his star Spacek to say (after working with him), “The artist rules. Nothing else matters.” Amen.

NEXT UP: ‘DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS PART III’ will give us the best from the 1960’s. 

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