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Great Non-Auteur Directors


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#1 Izo

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Posted 28 June 2010 - 08:54 AM

Not all great directors are auteurs. Similarly, but less often acknowledged, not all auteurs are great directors. For a convenient and obvious example, I'd present Michael Bay. By all accounts he has a style that is instantly recognizable as his own - if, of course, you don't fly into an epileptic seizure before noticing it. By many standards, this alone qualifies him as being an auteur. Few would call him a great filmmaker, however. One could say the same about Kevin Smith, for another convenient punching bag. Regardless of whether or not I like some of their films, these are not two directors who I consider to approach greatness in any way, shape, or form. But they are not why I started this topic. My concern and curiosity lies elsewhere.

I started this topic for Robert Wise and Sam Raimi. Both are incredibly successful mainstream Hollywood directors who produced Oscar-winning films and in Wise's case won two Best Director awards. I suspect that eventually Raimi will earn one himself, though he'll have to make more award-friendly pictures to do it. In any case, I haven't come across any sort of criticism on either director that refers to them as or implies that they are auteur directors. It's easy to forget filmmakers like this on boards like this that frequently focus primarily (or even exclusively) on capital "A" Auteurs.

Robert Wise, of course, won Best Director Oscars for West Side Story and The Sound of Music. I enjoy both, I love West Side Story despite its flaws, but neither is among the director's very best work. Wise had a career that began with filming the non-Welles sequences of The Magnificent Ambersons. Before that, he'd edited Citizen Kane - for which he earned an Oscar nomination for editing - among others. His proper directorial career began with the Val Lewton productions Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher, which are both exceptional. He'd go onto make several great films throughout his career, some of which I consider personal favorites. His films are as varied in subject and quality as virtually any director I can name. Besides the two Lewton films, here's a sampling: Born to Kill, The Set-Up, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Executive Suite, Somebody Up There Likes Me, I Want to Live!, West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, The Andromeda Strain, The Hindenburg, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There were many others. Not all were great. Not all were good. But there were enough great films that Wise should be considered a major director. I can't honestly tell you the first thing about any sort of directorial style he may or may not have had, as from what I can tell it changed from picture to picture based on the demands of the material.

Two other directors - both more often than not considered auteurs - also spring to mind when discussing directors of this type: John Huston and Don Siegel. Siegel in particular was championed by the Cahiers du Cinema crowd, who had the tendency to proclaim any director who made a film that they even remotely liked an auteur. Both had virtually invisible styles that changed from picture to picture, though they were still more identifiable than either Robert Wise's or Sam Raimi's. Huston worked almost solely in literary adaptations, specializing in particularly difficult-to-adapt work like James Joyce's The Dead or The Bible. Siegel's films had a dark, violent strain to them. Interestingly Siegel, like Wise, also started in editing. Siegel's most widely seen editing work is Casablanca, though he also worked on Nicholas Ray's They Drive By Night and others.

I suppose my question is this: do you think that a great director must be an auteur? Are there any directors you've noticed that made exceptional films but could not be considered auteurs?

#2 marcusbulbous76

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Posted 28 June 2010 - 09:30 AM

I suppose my question is this: do you think that a great director must be an auteur? Are there any directors you've noticed that made exceptional films but could not be considered auteurs?


Absolutely not. I think, as a number of the members here know, that the concept of the auteur is a somewhat artificial construct anyway. Let alone that a film is only great if it's 'authored' by an 'auteur' filmmaker.

In recent years I've come to question whether we can attribute value judgments to films at all. For me, films are more like cultural byproducts whose value lies in their ability to shed light on the human condition. In other words, they all have value, but insofar as they tell us about the peoples who produce them.

#3 Izo

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Posted 28 June 2010 - 09:45 AM

Absolutely not. I think, as a number of the members here know, that the concept of the auteur is a somewhat artificial construct anyway. Let alone that a film is only great if it's 'authored' by an 'auteur' filmmaker.


Absolutely. And yet, the focus of much discussion here revolves around the director. Indeed, it's also the focus of what Criterion releases.

#4 marcusbulbous76

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Posted 28 June 2010 - 11:11 AM

Yeah, Criterion is WAY too auteur-centered. But you have an in with fanboys who respond better to 'the latest John Huston release' than to simply 'Wise Blood'. Auteur-ism appeals to the compulsive hoarder, who has to have everything 'by' a given filmmaker. There's little sound theory behind it, it's just a more effective sales strategy for them.

#5 hal0000

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Posted 28 June 2010 - 12:18 PM

And yet, the focus of much discussion here revolves around the director. Indeed, it's also the focus of what Criterion releases.

I suppose people who collect Criterions--and subsequently most of us here--tend to be those who say they're "into film." Cinephiles/film buffs seem more inclined than the general public to subscribe to the auteur theory because they see a good movie as a work of art "by" a director*; the average movie-goer sees a good movie as good entertainment and generally doesn't care as much about who directed it. I suppose it also sounds cooler to talk about a director's oeuvre than movies with a common theme. Saying "I'm into Stanley Kubrick films" is probably a better conversation starter than "I'm into movies borne out of the post-WWII milieu." Not that the latter isn't cool, just that the former is probably said more often by those "into" film.

*I guess the desire to see a movie resulting from a single mind comes from our preconceptions that art needs a single artist. I would guess that more people think of paintings than cinema when asked to think of "art," and paintings are more often "by" a single person because they don't belong to a collaborative medium--at least more so than movies.

For directors that aren't really auteurs, I would say George Cukor fits the bill. I've heard of him being called a "woman's director" but I think this is more the auteurists trying to stretch their theory.

#6 masterofoneinchpunch

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Posted 28 June 2010 - 12:30 PM

...I suppose my question is this: do you think that a great director must be an auteur? Are there any directors you've noticed that made exceptional films but could not be considered auteurs?


I'm glad you mentioned Robert Wise because I've been a fan of many of the films he directed.

A great director does not have to an auteur and sometimes having an auteur tag can even be a detriment. When a director is focused on a few ideals, has a powerful personality and is indeed an auteur he/she can reuse themes sometimes to their detriment where you don't want to watch another film from this person because you know what your in for. Alfred Hitchcock is like this. If you watch too many of his films in a row it becomes a chore because too much is similar. Wise is a great director because he can traverse so many different genres and be successful at it. He does not always have to impose his will and allows others to work with the material. This is analagous to the CEO who isn't always wanting the spotlight and is able to get people to work best for the company (many studies have shown like in Good to Great and Built to Last that an overly charasmatic CEO is actually a detriment to a company).

Also there are many great films where the director would go on to do only mediocre work both before and after. I absolutely adore A Christmas Story, but do I search out all of Bob Clarks work. Hmm, Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2. I think Three O'Clock High (1987) is awesome, but I don't feel Phil Joanou is an auteur. The jury is still out on Charles Laughton.
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#7 clydefro

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Posted 30 June 2010 - 12:50 AM

Sidestepping the auteur discussion for now, I think the real king of this type of director would be William Wyler. His lack of obvious signatures and mastery of multiple types of films (not necessarily genres) has seemed to hurt his reputation. I'm stumped as to who could have made Dodsworth, Roman Holiday and The Collector - three wildly different movies from different eras - as well as he did. He wasn't a fancy director but he did have some technical prowess (considering the reputation of Ben-Hur, which I've still not seen). Watching a "Wyler film" often means seeing a great picture rather than something that fits inside the same paper bag as others he directed.

Others this label might apply to would be Fred Zinnemann, Sydney Pollack, and even Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who also wrote many of his movies so he ideally should be considered an auteur but the similarities from film to film don't seem always evident.

I'd disagree a bit on John Huston just the same as I would on Louis Malle. Both of them initially seem to have had wildly varying careers but there's a lot of crisscrossing of the same territory over and over again in their films.

#8 masterofoneinchpunch

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Posted 30 June 2010 - 05:03 PM

William Wyler is a perfect fit here. The Best Years of Our Lives has been getting much more recognition from such critics as Jonathan Rosenbaum who recently stated that he moved the status of that film from good to masterpiece in his mind. A similarity between Rosenbaum and Clyde is that both have also stated they have not seen Ben-Hur. I think both that version and the silent version from 1925 are great films (not saying there isn't issues in both) even if you are only into action aesthetics (and/or complete disregard for the stunt-men's life). I've always been a bit puzzled why that has been eschewed by the both of you (unless of course you are Jonathan).

Heck he even directed Funny Girl which I found to be a good film (I haven't seen it in over a decade though). Looking through the films he directed I see several I really want to watch like The Big Country (1958), The Heiress (1949), The Letter (1940).

I think his reputation should be higher than it is now.
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#9 Izo

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Posted 30 June 2010 - 05:06 PM

I confess to not having seen a single William Wyler film. I further confess that the reason why is because he is so frequently lumped into those directors that were so derided by the trendy critics of the '60s and '70s, and their unashamedly auteurist stance on film.

I need to remedy this.

#10 littlefuzzy

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Posted 30 June 2010 - 09:02 PM

Not all great directors are auteurs. Similarly, but less often acknowledged, not all auteurs are great directors. For a convenient and obvious example, I'd present Michael Bay. By all accounts he has a style that is instantly recognizable as his own - if, of course, you don't fly into an epileptic seizure before noticing it. By many standards, this alone qualifies him as being an auteur. Few would call him a great filmmaker, however.

It's funny, Michael Bay was saddled with the "A" word a while back on this forum, as well! :)

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#11 clydefro

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Posted 02 July 2010 - 12:30 AM

The Letter is another good Wyler picture. It and the other three I mentioned earlier are all excellent.

A friendly correction on Don Siegel in that I don't think he was an editor. He was at Warner Bros. doing montage work. There's a really neat sequence of his in Blues in the Night that I like. Also, Ray directed They Live by Night (which didn't involve Siegel) and not They Drive by Night (which did have a montage by Siegel). Sorry for nitpicking.

#12 Izo

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Posted 02 July 2010 - 05:03 PM

The Letter is another good Wyler picture. It and the other three I mentioned earlier are all excellent.

A friendly correction on Don Siegel in that I don't think he was an editor. He was at Warner Bros. doing montage work. There's a really neat sequence of his in Blues in the Night that I like. Also, Ray directed They Live by Night (which didn't involve Siegel) and not They Drive by Night (which did have a montage by Siegel). Sorry for nitpicking.


I get those two films mixed up every damn time. My mistake. Sorry for the errors.

#13 clydefro

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Posted 06 July 2010 - 10:29 PM

I think Sidney Lumet might be another of these. Personally, I see several themes that run through much of Lumet's work (desperation in the protagonist and gobs of sweat) but he's also made several odd ducks that fit in that same universe. Visually, too, Lumet seems to specialize in claustrophobic interiors rather than anything more obviously inventive. I know that Lumet doesn't even consider himself to be an auteur and he thinks that theory is more or less crap so he probably deserves a mention here.

#14 Izo

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Posted 07 July 2010 - 10:23 AM

Lumet definitely. I'd also say Carol Reed, who I can't believe I didn't think of before.

#15 masterofoneinchpunch

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Posted 12 July 2010 - 04:27 PM

Lumet definitely. I'd also say Carol Reed, who I can't believe I didn't think of before.


I was thinking about Carol Reed this weekend so I watched The Agony and the Ecstasy. There is a certain look to his films that sometimes remind me of the other ones I have seen (like use of low camera angles), but the movies I have seen that he had directed (Oliver! (1968), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), The Third Man (1949), The Fallen Idol (1948)) go over many different thematic elements. He handles the musical aspect of Oliver well. The splendor of The Agony and the Ecstasy is fascinating (I do have some issues with the pseudo-documentary at the beginning and the initial battle scenes), The Third Man is one of my favorite films of all time and the Criterion release of The Fallen Idol is excellent.
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#16 clydefro

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Posted 13 July 2010 - 12:34 AM

I'm fine with Carol Reed too. Odd Man Out is deeply, deeply tragic and actually somewhat political in a sense. I'm a huge fan of The Fallen Idol too.

#17 apsyhn

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Posted 16 July 2010 - 02:15 PM

I suppose my question is this: do you think that a great director must be an auteur? Are there any directors you've noticed that made exceptional films but could not be considered auteurs?



I guess I'd toss Hal Ashby out there.

One could argue that his period from 1970-1980 is the single best ten year stretch any director has ever accomplished. Strong statement, yes, but consider: The Landlord, Harold And Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound For Glory, Coming Home and Being There. That's the order Ashby made those pictures in during the timespan I mentioned. Each one is specifically Ashby - meaning all of his creative cues are there. Yet if I were familiar with only a couple, I doubt I would recognize any of the others as being an Ashby film.

On top of the films he directed, he was an award-winning editor on Norman Jewison's (another director for whom a case could be made) The Cincinnati Kid, The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming, In The Heat Of The Night and The Thomas Crown Affair.


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