My Dozen Favorite Filmmakers

January 15th, 2019 by Max Allan Collins

Here’s just what no one’s been asking for – my list of favorite film directors and why!

First, let me say that some of my favorite films are by directors not on this list – Anatomy of a Murder, Groundhog Day, Army of Darkness, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Harvey, Chinatown and The Maltese Falcon, among others. Blake Edwards and Robert Aldrich gave us The Great Race and Kiss Me Deadly respectively, but also some (let’s face it) real turkeys. Budd Boetticher directed several of my favorite westerns, but his fairly small overall output also included some not terribly interesting films – he should be applauded, however, for doing the first several episodes of Maverick and defining the great James Garner-starring series.

But that’s TV. We’re talking film today.

These are directors who almost always interest me, whose work I collect on Blu-ray and/or DVD, and who have each given me a number of my favorite films. This is a list of a dozen, so don’t look for a lot of detail.

Also, you may be surprised to see me looking at film as if it’s the director who’s responsible, not the writer. Keep in mind a good number of these filmmakers also wrote or co-wrote the films in question. But having both written and directed films, I can tell you the thing writers don’t want you to know (and some of them don’t know themselves, because they have been limited to the writing side): it’s the director, if he or she is any good, who creates the film. A script is a hugely important part, but executing that script – particularly when the director is involved in editing, where the movie is really made – is what it’s all about.

1. ALFRED HITCHCOCK. When I made my little movie Mommy almost twenty-five years ago, and suddenly had the directing chore dropped in my lap, I felt overwhelmed, not having prepared for that job. I was just supposed to co-produce. We made a sequel a year or two later, during which time I watched every Hitchcock film available – all the sound ones, and a good number of the silents. Hitchcock is a school any maker of narrative films can go to and should. Vertigo is only one of half a dozen masterpieces, and plenty more are merely great.

2. JERRY LEWIS. Lewis was the great comedy director of the mid-20th Century. He was not the greatest director of comedies – that was probably Billy Wilder – but the greatest director of a star comedian…and he filled both roles. The Ladies’ Man and The Nutty Professor are both stellar works; so is The Bellboy, and The Patsy is also good. He made some truly terrible films as well – for example, Three on a Couch and Which Way to the Front? – but they were the terrible films of a real filmmaker and unique genius. Yup, the French were right.

3. JOSEPH H. LEWIS. This Lewis is the greatest B movie maker of all time, even better than Ulmer, who was damn good. While Gun Crazy and The Big Combo are the clear masterworks, many other Joe Lewis films – My Name Is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night come to mind – are also first-rate. Unlike Sam Fuller, Lewis tended not to do as well when given an A-film budget.

4. HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT. While his body of narrative film is relatively small, Clouzot’s list includes masterwork after masterwork – Le Corbeau, Manon, Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques among them. Probably the only real competition Hitchcock ever had – both in terms of thrillers and sheer filmmaking skill – Clouzot was controversial because of movies he made during the Nazi occupation (subversive though they were to his masters). He also notoriously treated his actors harshly, to get the right feeling out of them on screen. He would on occasion slap an actress. When he tried this with Brigitte Bardot, she kicked him in the balls.

5. JACQUES TATI. Tati made an even smaller handful of films than Clouzot, but they are all wonderful, and Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle and Playtime are utter genius – comedies quietly satirical, sly and affectionate toward a France that’s slipping into the past and galloping into the future, making you have to pay attention to know how truly great, and funny, they are.

6. DON SIEGEL. Siegel is to the pure crime film as Hitchcock is to the thriller and Ford to the Western. His years as an editor made him the best in the business at putting together shoot-outs and other action sequences. He was another B-movie master, although he slid effortlessly into a later A-movie career, thanks to his Clint Eastwood relationship. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Hell Is for Heroes (with Bobby Darin!), The Killers, Dirty Harry…those are the work of a great filmmaker.

7. BRIAN DEPALMA. DePalma has always had his detractors, and some of his films have been less than great, but even those are of interest. For me, it’s the period of Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise and Obsession that seal the deal. But much of what followed, starting with Carrie, demonstrated that you can study Hitchcock and still be joltingly original. I usually do not like camera work that calls attention to itself. But DePalma makes the technique intrinsic to the storytelling.

8. HOWARD HAWKS. Hawks was more concerned with good scenes than good stories, and that should bother me, but damn! Are you kidding? That overlapping dialogue, the strong man/woman relationships, the well-staged action scenes. We’re talking His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep, Red River, Rio Bravo…the guy justified his time on the planet, all right.

9. JOHN FORD. Do I need to say anything more than THE SEARCHERS? Okay, if you insist: Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Grapes of Wrath, The Quiet Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance…and on and on.

10. JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE. Clouzot was the great French thriller director, but Melville was the great French crime film director. My favorites are Bob le Flambeur, Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge, and Un Flic. His is a world of cool professionals of crime – some crooks, some cops.

11. JOHN WOO. The great Hong Kong film director (and writer) has been little heard from lately, and none of his Hollywood output has compared to the HK masterpieces – A Better Tomorrow, A Better Tomorrow 2, The Killer, Hardboiled. But his distinctive stamp on action scenes, and his mingling of seemingly mismatched influences – Sam Peckinpah, Douglas Sirk, Jean-Pierre Melville (him again) – make a unique contribution to the world of narrative film.

12. SAM FULLER. Fuller was a lunatic, but what a lunatic. He could get so wrapped up in his tabloid approach that the B-movie attitudes of even his A productions could become over-the-top cartoons. And it’s true that even his best work for the major studios – Forty Guns, Pick Up on South Street, House of Bamboo – had over-the-top aspects, making them memorable and distinctly his. He didn’t call “action” on set, he fired off a gun. How can you not love that?

These, and a few other directors, are on my shelves the way writers like Spillane, Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Stout, Thompson and Christie are. They influenced my fiction writing just as much, too.

Please, in responding (and you are welcome and even encouraged to) keep in mind these are personal opinions, matters of taste, not a listing of what I feel you should like or think.

* * *

Here’s a lovely latterday review of the first Nathan Heller novel, True Detective.

The opening paragraphs of Girl Most Likely are teased here.

Finally, Girl Most Likely is discussed as one of the most talked about forthcoming crime novels of 2019. You’ll have to scroll down some – a lot of crime novels are being talked about, apparently!


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16 Responses to “My Dozen Favorite Filmmakers”

  1. David Madara says:

    Kurosawa didn’t make a mention? For “Rashomon” alone he should have been mentioned…

  2. Just not a favorite of mine. It’s a list of favorites, not a “best of.” Of course I admire and respect Kurosawa, though for me it’s “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo,” more than “Rashomon.” But if I added anybody to this list, it would be Sergio Leone. What I did in putting this list together was just to sit and think, “Who are my favorite directors?” I jotted them down, without a ton of reflection, and wrote this week’s entry.

  3. Thomas Zappe says:

    When I bought my first VCR the first movies I rented were Alfred Hitchcock and Mel Brooks.

  4. My first two purchases — Betamax pre-records, outrageously expensive — were “Chintatown” and “Vertigo.”

  5. Thomas Zappe says:

    Mel Brooks HIGH ANXIETY was a complete homage to Hitchcock. This kind of parody can only be done by someone who loves and truly understands the work being played with.

    To me, the essence of humor is Irony [which is probably why we don’t see much religious humor]. The closest thing I have to religion these days is that the funniest, most ironic scene in BLAZING SADDLES was not the Bean Scene but rather Cleavon Little riding through the sagebrush on his Gucci attired horse not to the sounds of your traditional clippity-cloppity horse music, but instead to the sounds [and guest appearance] of the Count Basie Orchestra plalying “April in Paris”.

    Just like Pornography, I know Funny when I see it.

  6. Sean Kelly says:

    I was taken to see Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday by my host family in Germany. The father loved this movie and knew it would translate well to a foreign speaker. It remains one of my favorites to this day.

    I agree with all of your choices and my list probably would include Miyazaki or Takahata, Yasujirou Ozu, Seijun Suzuki and Walter Hill.

    Hill was the action/crime director of my youth. The Getaway, 48 Hrs, The Long Riders, The Driver and Streets of Fire remain favorites.

    I really like the old Japanese crime movies (Criterion put out some nice sets featuring Suzuki) and made my Japanese class watch them to help us with our language studies.

    Miyazaki and Takahata made great stories that transcend generations.

  7. I like both Miyazaki and Seijun Suzuki, although my favorites list is…well, it’s like what songs and bands you like best. Again, it’s not a best of list, but favorites. I almost did project with Walter Hill, whose work I like very much. Got to have lunch with him at the Berverly Hills Hotel!

  8. Neal Alhadeff says:

    I’m with you on almost all of these directors, especially Hitchcock, Clouzot, Fuller. My own list would also include Kubrick (rewatched The Killing and Paths of Glory over the last couple of weeks), Huston, Eastwood, and Scorsese. I also agree about movies being a director’s medium. I’ve long felt that writers drive television, though.

  9. I certainly acknowledge Kubrick as one of the greats, but I find his coldness offputting. I tend not to like what I’m supposed to of his (2001) and to really like what I’m not supposed to (THE SHINING). I love LOLITA but despise A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, for another instance. My favorite remains DR. STRANGELOVE, which I first saw on its initial release. PATHS OF GLORY and THE KILLING (Jim Thompson contributed to both) I like very much.

    I’m that way about Scorcese, too…the things I like are not considered his best work. I dislike RAGING BULL, but like AFTER HOURS, for example. MEAN STREETS does nothing for me, but I like KING OF COMEDY (hey, it’s got Jerry Lewis in it). I don’t claim to be rational about this — I just know what I connect with.

    Eastwood is incredibly uneven, though there’s plenty of good stuff, including the current THE MULE.

  10. Regan MacArthur says:

    That creaking sound you hear is my mind opening up to some “new” movies. Thanks for sharing this list. I think your opinions on pop culture have always been worth a listen.

  11. Thanks, Regan.

    I value favorites lists over best lists, because they do open doors onto new possibilities.

  12. EdmundTeabs says:

    Hey a angelicoffer
    Reasonable click

  13. Chris Coats says:

    I very much prefer a “favorite’s list” to a “greatest list.” 2001 might be great, but I much prefer The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes..or even Star Trek II for that matter! That said, all of the directors you listed are masters. I personally would have included Sergio Leone, the guy who made me recognize directing, Fritz Lang, and Anthony Mann as worthy considerations.

  14. Chris, in one of my responses above I did mention that the next name on my list would have been Leone.

    I suppose the limited number of films he was able to do in his brief life time contributed to my leaving him off in the first place. And I think ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA’s final section was so pretentious, it did not bode well for the future. I do like that film, but found the rape scene oddly unmotivated and just head-scratchingly wrong.

  15. Chris Coats says:

    I think I understand that motivation of that scene: the main characters in the movie all self destruct through their own greed and self gratification. However, that scene, much like a similar scene in A Clockwork Orange, is so repellent that it really takes me out of the movie. I look backwards for most of my filmmaking heroes, but crime novelist turned writer/director S Craig Zahler has really surprised me with his recent output. He only has two films, Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, but both are well worth watching.

  16. Regan MacArthur says:

    Update no one asked for: I have now seen The Bellboy. I laughed a lot and I was impressed by the direction and editing in those vignettes. Seeing all those people trying to open their hotel-room doors is easy to write in a script but it takes real talent to make that gag come off as funny as it did. Thanks again.