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By Martin Keady · March 22, 2023
The greatest directorial debut films were all instant classics, almost immediately establishing their directors as formidable new forces in cinema. However, that does not mean that they were all instantly widely appreciated or instantly commercially successful; far from it, some great first-time directors attracted such hostility for their first films that they never directed again. Nevertheless, history is the ultimate judge, and history has ultimately judged that their work was of the highest order.
Let’s uncover ten directorial debut films spanning much of the history of cinema. Each one invented a cinematic style or language that had never been seen before. Their innovations were often imitated to the point of becoming almost ubiquitous, and they remain so to this day. From Welles to Godard to Ramsay, the directorial debut films of these directors often landed with the biggest splash imaginable, and their ripple effect continues to be felt.
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Citizen Kane remains one of the greatest directorial debut films ever made. That is due to the enduring influence of its radical cinematography, which introduced deep-focus photography to cinema, and its radical storytelling/screenwriting, which introduced novelistic complexity to cinema.
For all its intrinsic greatness, however, Citizen Kane must also be seen in the context of Orson Welles’ own greatness over the previous decade. In the 1930s and early 1940s, he reinvented three different art forms: theatre, with his “Voodoo Macbeth” in Harlem; radio, with his adaptation of The War of the Worlds, which legend has it (and Welles may have started the legend himself) terrified millions of listeners into believing it was an actual report of an alien invasion; and, finally, cinema with Citizen Kane.
Read More: Citizen Kane: A Film of Mythological Proportions
Conventional wisdom has it that Welles encapsulates the inherent danger of making a great debut, namely that it is impossible to match it, let alone exceed it. That may be true, but it is also to overlook the greatness of so many of his later films, from the (admittedly mangled) The Magnificent Ambersons to Chimes at Midnight. And the deeper truth may be that Welles was at his best when he took new or relatively new media, like radio and cinema, and reinvented them.
After completing his artistic hat trick with Citizen Kane, he ran out of new media to reinvent. (He always regarded television with relative disdain, viewing it as vastly inferior to cinema). The 21st century will likely produce a new Welles, one who can take emerging media such as XR (Extended Reality) and make it their own, just as Welles made the great story-telling media of the 20th century his own.
To this day, the only studio (at least in the English-speaking world) to have perfected a genre to the extent that its name is synonymous with that genre is Ealing, the little British studio that redefined cinematic comedy after WW2. Notwithstanding the many delights of Passport To Pimlico, which was made and released a little earlier, the film that really kickstarted Ealing was Alexander “Sandy” Mackendrick’s sublime Ealing comedy, Whisky Galore!
Whisky Galore! is set on a remote Scottish island far away from Ealing’s “home turf” of London, where Passport To Pimlico took place. The movie depicts how the islanders acquire a shipload of whiskey after a shipwreck when Britain was under rationing due to World War II. Despite this geographical difference, the film established the typical Ealing pattern of a group of determined individuals who confront bureaucratic systems that lack empathy and critical thinking and still manage to emerge victorious. This philosophical theme resonates with the Ealing style, which emphasizes the triumph of the human spirit over challenging circumstances.
Tragically, The Night of the Hunter is both a great first and last film by Charles Laughton because after directing this dark, expressionist masterpiece about a murderer pursuing two children to find the location of the fortune their father has hidden, Laughton never directed another film again. That was because for all the plaudits it has rightly received since its release, on release, it was a commercial and even critical failure, with many contemporary audiences and critics neither understanding nor appreciating its “nightmarish Mother Goose story,” as Laughton himself famously put it.
Laughton’s direction was realized by the brilliant cinematography of Stanley Cortez, which gave a frightened-child’s-eye view of the world. However, much of the artistic success of The Night of the Hunter is down to the screenplay by James Agee. Although he is largely forgotten now, from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s, Agee was one of the most gifted American writers in any medium. In addition, he was the only screenwriter other than William Goldman, who was sufficiently good-looking to have been a film star himself.
Agee wrote the text for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), Walker Evans’s great photographic depiction of The Great Depression, and co-wrote the screenplay to The African Queen (1951), in addition to writing film criticism and A Death In The Family (1957). This novel would be published posthumously, after his early death from alcoholism, to great acclaim. However, his script for The Night of the Hunter, which effectively retraced his journey through the poorest parts of America with Walker Evans nearly two decades earlier, is arguably his finest literary achievement.
1955 was a great year for directorial debut films, as it saw the release not only of Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter but Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. Fortunately, Ray did not emulate Laughton and quit directing after his initial masterpiece, which is a source of joy for cinema enthusiasts. Indeed, Pather Panchali was not only the first part of Ray’s “Apu Trilogy” of films, which followed his young hero on through life, but the start of one of the greatest of all directorial careers.
Although it was made in the 1950s, India’s first decade of independence after the end of British rule, Pather Panchali looked back to the 1910s, when India’s riches effectively made Britain King of the World. It portrays the struggle for survival of a young boy, Apu, and his impoverished family, as they live in a small village, a world away from the riches of the British Raj. In its examination of how farmers are often forced to abandon unprofitable agriculture for urban life, it foresaw humanity’s great flight from the land throughout the second half of the 20th century, which continues – indeed, has accelerated – in the 21st century.
Cinema’s most important national renaissance, which eventually led to a global cinematic renaissance, is the nouvelle vague or French new wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s.It marked a departure from the conventional, restrained, and studio-restricted filmmaking of the past. It paved the way for a more individualistic, autonomous, and authentic style of filmmaking in the future. This trend continues today, where almost anyone with a phone can envision themselves as a filmmaker.
The film that really launched the new wave was not Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless) (1960) but Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatres Cents Coups (The 400 Blows), which was released a year earlier. It was Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical drama about a young boy whose desperately hard upbringing is summed up by its title, which refers to the physical abuse he has received, mainly from his stepfather. And when he tries to run away, he only becomes more entrapped in a borstal-type prison for young adolescents. Truffaut portrays one of the greatest endings in cinema history as the protagonist finds a sense of tranquility only after fleeing to the ocean from his juvenile detention center. It’s the cinematic equivalent of his compatriot Claude Debussy’s La Mer, a musical evocation of the restorative power of water written more than half a century earlier.
If Les Quatres Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) launched the French new wave, A Bout De Souffle (Breathless) took it global. It is Godard’s complete remaking of the American gangster movie, in which the man on the run is not so much a criminal as a criminal philosopher who muses (amusingly) on the essential meaninglessness of existence between seemingly endless cheroots.
The seminal influence of A Bout De Souffle (Breathless) hardly needs restating, especially so soon after Godard’s death last year, when it was rightly described as being his greatest film. It is certainly the only serious rival to Citizen Kane for the title of the greatest debut movie of all time.
What is more interesting to consider is the brilliant early careers of both Truffaut and Godard. After making such superb debuts, they could both easily have rested on their laurels. Still, instead, they both embarked on glittering golden runs that produced arguably the finest opening series of films by any pair of filmmakers ever. Within seven years of his debut film, Truffaut had also made Tirez sur le pianist (Shoot the Piano Player) (1960), Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim) (1962), and Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Not wanting to be outdone by Truffaut, within just five years of his debut, Godard had also made Contempt (1963) and Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou (both 1965).
In this way, Truffaut and Godard, who were not so much the Shakespeare and Marlowe of the nouvelle vague as its twin Shakespeares, showed triumphantly that the best way to follow up a great debut is to make a great series of films straight off the bat.
Duel is the de facto debut of Steven Spielberg, who, of course, would become the most commercially successful filmmaker of the late 20th century. Although it was nominally a “TV movie” (a genre traditionally regarded as the lowest form of film-making, as epitomized by Pulp’s classic song of that name), Duel was so good that it was eventually released in cinemas. It is certainly a far better film than Spielberg’s actual debut film, The Sugarland Express (1974).
So many of Spielberg’s trademarks as a filmmaker are evident in Duel’s story of a motorist being pursued by an unseen truck driver for the heinous crime of overtaking him. There is the apparently ordinary but, in reality, troubled hero, who would be recreated in Roy Scheider’s small-town policeman in JAWS. Even more importantly, there is the hero’s unseen and apparently unknowable enemy. The truck in Duel is arguably even more terrifying than the shark in JAWS. This is because the technical difficulties of operating a robot shark meant that it was only fully seen at the end of JAWS, whereas the truck in Duel is a brooding, indeed evil, presence throughout.
Read More: Close Encounters with Greatness: Steven Spielberg’s Lifetime of Achievements
Killer of Sheep is arguably the greatest debut film by an African-American director. With the possible exception of Pather Panchali, it is probably the greatest debut film by any BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) director.
“Killer of Sheep” was a film that almost acted as an antidote to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. These films provided African-American directors, writers, and actors the first opportunity to make films en masse. However, they usually did so at the expense of creating crime and drug-ridden films. These films perpetuated damaging myths about African-Americans that Hollywood had been guilty of creating throughout the 20th century. By complete contrast, Killer of Sheep was a black-and-white, documentary-like tale of apparently ordinary African-American life, which in reality was extraordinary in its depiction of the everyday degradations that almost all African-Americans endured.
Besides David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), which only narrowly escaped inclusion in this list, arguably the greatest cinematic debut of the past half-century is Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino’s screenwriting has rightly been lauded, as it effectively introduced post-modernism to mainstream cinema. Still, his directorial style, which is as fast, fluid, and flashy as his writing style, is also superb.
Indeed, Tarantino virtually introduced post-post-modernism to cinema by showing how reality and film (and to a lesser extent, television) have become almost interchangeable. There was a reminder of that recently when it was announced that the actor Robert Blake had died. Blake had played the lead in the 1970s cop show Baretta, whose USP was that Baretta was a master of disguise who could impersonate almost anyone, including criminals. Reservoir Dogs, of course, centers on a cop who has infiltrated a criminal gang planning a jewelry heist. To prove he is legitimate (or rather illegitimate or illegal), he tells the story of how he was nearly caught while carrying drugs by using a public toilet at the same time as a uniformed policeman. He invokes his own inner “Baretta” to style things out and convince the real criminals that he is one of them. In this dizzying mix of film, TV, and real life, QT virtually invented post-modern or even post-post-modern cinema.
Read More: The Defining Scripts of Tarantino
There are many fine debut films by female directors, including Jane Campion’s Sweetie (1989) and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006). However, arguably the finest of them all is Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999), which in some ways is a Scottish Killer of Sheep, although, given the subject matter, it would be more accurate to call it a Scottish Killer of Small Boys.
Ratcatcher is one of the finest film depictions of Britain, specifically Scotland, in the 1970s, showing a country and a culture still emerging from WW2 (as, in many ways, Britain is still emerging from WW2). Its lyrical depiction of a young boy’s seemingly ordinary working-class life is as unflinchingly powerful as Truffaut’s Les Quatres Cents Coups (The 400 Blows), with the wondrous addition of mice (not rats) on the moon.