Fifty years ago, this cover story would have been unthinkable. Directors weren’t stars in the days of the old Hollywood studio system. Stars were stars. Directors were the employees who made sure everyone did his or her part and got out, within the budget and on time. Any director who insisted on artistic control — that crackpot Welles, say — was a troublemaker.
How did we get from there to here: Scorsese, Spielberg, and Stone inspiring passionate debate in video-store aisles, Tarantino garnering as much ink as James Dean once did? Some of the credit has to go to film critics who, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, pioneered the auteur theory — the idea that the director is the primary author of a movie. But the shift has come from the audience, too. These days, when we watch a tape of Jaws or The Birds or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, we know we are privy to one person’s way of seeing the world — one that has the power to change the way we see the world.
And what gets a director on our list of the 50 Greatest? A consistent body of work or a handful of great movies; a compelling vision; a groundbreaking style; above all, a personal stamp that cuts across films, genres, and decades. We tried to balance the home team against directors from other countries and geniuses past against prodigies present. If the list is glaringly made up of white guys — an inescapable fact of movie history — that’s because it’s still too early to reflect the different voices starting to be heard.
Here are the artists who made the cut — in every sense of the phrase.
1. ALFRED HITCHCOCK
Like the nettlesome corpse in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, he keeps popping up: in reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in the pages of the long-running Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, wielded like a billy club by critics whenever a filmmaker apes his style. Hitchcock remains the quintessential brand-name director — a testimony to both his silents-to-swearwords longevity and his prescient gift for publicity. But that’s not why he’s at the top of this list. Hitchcock stands here for two reasons: the sheer brilliance of his craft and the profound darkness of his themes.
The secret’s in the shots. His movies unfold with such confidence that we delight in trusting the teller — even when he betrays that trust by killing off the heroine in the first hour. Hitchcock’s outre set pieces — a swooping crop duster in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, a sea of umbrellas disgorging an assassin in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT — have the inevitability of the movies’ closest relative: dreams.
Or nightmares. Everybody’s a sinner in his movies, especially the characters who haven’t done anything. His public persona — that droll ghoul comparing actors to cattle — was a dodge; underneath was a shy fat boy who feared the police, who knew that anyone could be guilty, at any time, of anything. Even us. Hitchcock understood (and showed, in REAR WINDOW) that since we watch movies for voyeuristic thrills, we’re implicated in the crime as well. That’s a harsh message, but — further proof of genius — we loved the messenger. Must-sees: STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, Robert Walker (1951, Warner); REAR WINDOW, James Stewart (1954, MCA/Universal, PG)
2. ORSON WELLES
He changed the movies. With one genius stroke, his first film, CITIZEN KANE, inaugurated a new depth — both visually (Gregg Toland’s deep-focus camera work made previous movies look 2-D) and emotionally (Charles Foster Kane was the most complex hero-villain in American cinema). Washed up at 27, Welles had one incontrovertible masterpiece left in him (TOUCH OF EVIL); a mangled thing of greatness (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS); a bundle of shimmering close calls (THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, his Shakespeare films) — and a voice that paid the bills until he died. By then he had become his own Rosebud. Must-sees: CITIZEN KANE, Welles (1941, Turner); TOUCH OF EVIL, Charlton Heston (1958, MCA/Universal)
3. JOHN FORD
For all the hardass on-set stories (”If an actor started to ask questions,” recalled Henry Fonda, ”[Ford would] either take those pages and tear them out of the script or insult him in an awful way”), Ford was the great sentimentalist of Hollywood’s classic era. Themes of honor, duty, and patriotism percolate through his war films, dramas, Lincoln biopic — even a comedy like THE QUIET MAN. Above all, he codified the Western with the textbook STAGECOACH, plumbed the dark side of the genre with THE SEARCHERS, and enshrined Utah’s Monument Valley as the only playground for an icon like John Wayne. Must-sees: STAGECOACH, Wayne (1939, Warner); THE SEARCHERS, Wayne (1956, Warner)