5 Phenomenal Directorial Debuts


Sometimes it takes a director a few movies to really hit their stride. On the other hand sometimes directors knock it out of the park on their first try. This week I’m looking at five phenomenal directorial debuts. Now I have to admit as I was doing research for this list I was really surprised at some of the first efforts of some of the directors I came across. Many were extraordinary, others not so much. But one thing’s for sure, with so many directorial debuts throughout film history this certainly isn’t the definitive list. But after seeing these five directorial debuts, I can boldly say that they’re absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “THE 400 BLOWS” – Francois Truffaut

400 blows
Acclaimed director François Truffaut’s first film is arguably his very best. “The 400 Blows” is a 1959 French drama that was a pillar of the French New Wave movement. It was such a key film in defining a movement that was steering away from the traditional moviemaking of the time. Truffaut not only directed the film but wrote this semi-autobiographical story of a young boy’s hard life growing up in early 1950s Paris. Even with the movie’s sometimes heartbreaking subject matter, “The 400 Blows” is a beautiful film and it’s clearly a deeply personal work from Truffaut. I can’t say enough about this picture and it’s amazing that such an accomplishment could be a director’s first effort.

#4 – “BLOOD SIMPLE” – The Coen Brothers

Blood Simple
While Joel Coen was listed as director and Ethan Coen as producer we now know how the Coen brothers work. “Blood Simple” was the brilliant directorial debut from arguably the best directing team of our time. The Coens also wrote this modern-day film noir that gave us a new way of looking at crime thrillers. We get our first look at several of the reoccurring themes that the brothers would revisit in their following films as well as their own quirky sense of dark humor and unique style. Overall this is a fabulous movie and a great debut for the Coen brothers. It certainly set the table for the many wonderful pictures the Coens have given us since.

#3 – “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD” – George Romero

My favorite horror movie of all time is “Night of the Living Dead” from director George Romero. I’ve always been impressed with how the film used a minuscule budget and no-name performers to create such a wonderfully eerie atmosphere around a groundbreaking story. Even more impressive is the fact that this was Romero’s directorial debut. There are so many director’s touches that make this such a classic movie. But it’s really cool that Romero’s first film essentially launched the zombie craze that is still going strong today. “Night of the Living Dead” is a fascinating bit of filmmaking and an incredible first effort from George Romero.

#2 – “CITIZEN KANE” – Orson Welles

You know it’s an amazing accomplishment when a director’s first film is considered by many to be the greatest movie of all time. Such is the case with Orson Welles and the phenomenal “Citizen Kane”. The movie underwhelmed at the box office but critics adored it and over time both it and Welles’ stellar direction have received well deserved praise. Welles also produced, co-wrote, and starred in the film. “Citizen Kane” had its share of controversy and obstacles while it was being made, but the finished product is an absolute masterpiece and it’s a master class on strong and visionary directing. It’s a true cinema classic.

#1 – “THE MALTESE FALCON” – John Huston

Being such a huge fan of Humphrey Bogart I knew a lot of cool tidbits about one of his biggest movies “The Maltese Falcon”. Yet one big and well known fact escaped me until a few years ago. This was the directorial debut for the brilliant John Huston. He also wrote the screenplay for this fantastic film noir that remains one of the greatest films of all time. It’s said Huston had envisioned and setup in his mind the entire film frame by frame before he ever started shooting. His intense preperation and incredible detail enabled him to shoot the entire film in order. The result was a seamless and fluid movie filled with great characters and some brilliant camera work. Huston would go on to make several more classic films but his career started here with the search for the “stuff that dreams are made of”.

And there they are, 5 Phenomenal Directorial Debuts. I know there are several that could have made the list. What are you thoughts? Feel free to leave your comments and share your favorites.

5 Phenomenal Actors Who Never Won an Oscar

A few weeks ago I looked at 5 phenomenal actresses who were never given an Academy Award despite their incredible talent and strong careers. Today we are focussing on the men. I found this to be a much tougher list to put together. The number of great actors that never won the highest acting award would surprise you. And I found it incredibly difficult to leave certain names off this list. But I think a great case can be made for the five that made the cut. Now, as with the ladies, Lifetime Achievement Oscars don’t count. I’m talking about men who never received the heralded Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor awards. With such a healthy selection, it would be silly to call this the definitive list. But it’s clear that these 5 Oscarless actors are certainly phenomenal.


While I’ve never been a huge fan of musicals, I’ve always appreciated the amazing contributions Fred Astaire made to the once flourishing genre. So it came as a big surprise to see that Astaire never won an Oscar. Now he did receive an honorary Academy Award after one of his retirement stints. But he was never recognized for his acting. Astaire was an amazing talent both with his dance and with his voice. But he was also a talented and always likable actor who made many quality films. There was a lot of doubt about whether he would make it in the movie industry but he would end up putting that to rest. He will always be recognized for his collaborations with Ginger Rogers. The two made a total of ten movies together including “Top Hat”, “Swing Time”, and “The Barkleys of Broadway”. He was superb in “Holiday Inn” alongside Bing Crosby. He would also make many well-received movies with the likes of Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn. Fred Astaire made many films that should have garnered some Oscar attention. And this is coming from a guy not that crazy about musicals.


From an early age, Leonardo DiCaprio defined himself as an exceptional actor through several incredible performances. He first caught the attention of movie fans with his portrayal of a mentally handicapped boy in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”. This would earn him his first Academy Award nomination. He would star in several recognizable films before making his big splash (pun intended) in James Cameron’s mega-hit “Titanic”. Following it, he began a defining collaboration with Martin Scorsese in films like “Gangs of New York”, “The Aviator” (which earned him his second Oscar nomination), and “The Departed”. Hey would then earn a third nomination in “Blood Diamond”. He would continue to do top-notch work particularly in “Shutter Island”, his fourth movie with Scorsese, and the fantastic “Inception” with director Christopher Nolan. DiCaprio has an impressive resume and several intriguing roles lined up. He’s earned his numerous nominations but cases could be made that one or more of them could have translated to wins.


It’s hard to believe that an actor who was so highly revered and with so many good movies on his resume never received an Academy Award for his work. Such is the case with Robert Mitchum. Mitchum really made a name for himself in the film noir genre with movies like “Crossfire”, “Out of the Past”, and “The Big Steal”. He also starred in “The Story of G.I. Joe”, a solid picture that would earn him his one and only Academy Award nomination. After playing in a variety of roles, Mitchum would give a mesmerizing and menacing performance in “The Night of the Hunter”. The rest of Mitchum’s career would feature numerous Oscar worthy performances in some really good films such as “The Sundowners”, the creepy “Cape Fear”, “The Longest Day”, “El Dorado”, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, and “Ryan’s Daughter”. Mitchum had a recognizable look and unmistakable voice. But he also had a booming screen presence that made his performances all the more memorable. It’s truly amazing that the Academy never recognized him for his work.


Joseph Cotten had a long film career that spanned over five decades. He was an actor that was always working but was never quite as popular as many of Hollywood’s big names. But personally I loved Cotten and he starred in some of my favorite classic movies. You know things are good when one of your very first feature films in the beloved “Citizen Kane”. Cotten’s performance as Leland stands out and it’s one of the film’s many strong points. After another wonderful collaboration with Orson Welles in “The Magnificent Ambersons”, he would star in one of my very favorite Alfred Hitchcock pictures “Shadow of a Doubt”. In it he delivers yet another true Oscar-calibur performance. The 1940’s were a great year for Cotten as evident by his work in “Gaslight”, “Portrait of Jennie”, and a spectacular movie that I think may offer his very best performance “The Third Man”. While not as strong as the 40’s, the rest of his career would offer several memorable roles in films like “Niagara”, “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”, “Soylent Green”, and “Airport ’77”. It’s stunning to me that Cotten never garnered any recognition from the Academy especially for his early work.


It almost doesn’t seem possible. Has Cary Grant really never won an Academy Award especially when considering his brilliant resume? Nope, he never won an Oscar and he was only nominated twice! In 1970 the Academy did give him a “We Feel Terrible for Always Passing You Over” honorary Academy Award, but that doesn’t make up for the shunning. Cary Grant’s career stands on its own and it goes without saying that it was a great one. Grant’s good looks and undeniable charm always translated well to the big screen. He gave so many brilliant and charismatic performances from the 1930’s until his retirement in the mid-60’s. Instead of giving a history, let me just name some of the wonderful films he’s been in and you explain to me how he never won and Oscar – “Bringing Up Baby”, “Gunga Din”, “His Girl Friday”, “The Philadelphia Story”, “Penny Serenade”, “The Talk of the Town”, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “Notorious”, “To Catch a Thief”, “Houseboat”, “North By Northwest”, “Operation Petticoat”, “Charade”. There are several other great Cary Grant pictures but I think you get the point. He was a wonderful actor who always commanded the screen. He also gave us some of cinema’s greatest films.

There you go. Those are my five phenomenal actors who have never won an Oscar. What say you? Agree or disagree with my list? Please take some time to share your thoughts on this week’s Phenomenal 5.

REVIEW: “The Third Man”

“The Third Man” is a stunning British film noir from 1949 directed by Carol Reed and starring Joseph Cotten. It’s a film featuring a tight Hitchcockian story and some extremely clever uses of cameras and lighting. Novelist Graham Greene wrote the screenplay that takes place in a battered post-World War 2 Vienna. The city has been broken up into sectors, each owned by different countries. This plays a big part in Greene’s story. Throughout the film we see shells of buildings, burnt out cars and piles a debris left from the war and it creates one of the most believable atmospheres. This is in large part due to the incredible cinematography from Richard Krasker but more on that later.

This is the Vienna that novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) enters into. He arrives there at the request of his friend Harry Lime who has offered him a job. But he finds out that Harry had just been killed after being struck by a car. Curious about the circumstances surrounding his death, Martins begins to suspect that Harry was murdered. Along the way he runs into several characters including a cryptic British military policeman (Trevor Howard), Harry’s girlfriend (Anna Schmidt), a couple of Harry’s suspicious “friends” (Ernst Deutsch & Siegfried Breuer), Harry’s doctor (Erich Ponto), and an eyewitness to Harry’s death (Paul Horbiger). Martins sets out to piece together the tidbits of information he gets from each of these people and soon finds out that the truth may be a hard thing to handle.

The story moves at a perfect pace while nicely delivering all the elements you would expect from a high quality mystery and film noir. Cotten is fabulous as always and the supporting cast does a marvelous job of creating the shady and hard-to-read characters that give a movie like this such energy. It’s also necessary to mention that Orson Welles has a small but pivotal part in the movie and, just as you would expect, he is superb. The story never hits a lull nor does it ever overplay it’s hand. It’s intelligent and well constructed and I was consumed by both the narrative and the environment in took place in.

Getting back to Krasker’s cinematography, it’s impossible to watch this picture and not be struck by it. His work was ahead of its time and serves as an object lesson on creative camera angles and the use of lighting. The film was shot almost entirely in Vienna. Krasker goes to great lengths to capture the historical beauty of the city although it’s often shrouded in the darkness of night. But his impeccable use of lighting and shadows draws out the attraction of the statues, architecture, and cobblestone streets as well as the devastation left by the war. Also, you can’t talk about the presentation without mentioning the lovely score by Anton Karas. It features some great tunes none better that the beloved “Third Man Theme”.

I love “The Third Man”. Everything from its production value to the performances to the mesmerizing story works for me. This is great example of classic film noir and it had me hooked from the opening moments until that perfect final shot. This is a film that may have slid under some people’s classic movie radar. But this film excels in both visual presentation and intelligent storytelling. “The Third Man” is a real gem and it’s a movie that simply must be seen.




REVISITING A CLASSIC: “Citizen Kane” (1941)

You may have heard by now that Sight & Sound Magazine recently announced the results of their The Greatest Films of All Time poll. If you’re unfamiliar with the poll, it’s a worldwide survey of critics that has been conducted every 10 years dating back to 1952. Since 1962 “Citizen Kane” has been at the top of this pretty prestigious list, at least until this year. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” has dethroned “Citizen Kane” which has launched a ton of great discussions on both of these films. Personally, “Vertigo” isn’t the greatest film of all time. In fact, for me it isn’t even the best Hitchcock film. And for my money, even though I like “Vertigo” a great deal, it can’t beat “Citizen Kane”, a movie that is a lesson in quality filmmaking starring, directed, and co-written by Orson Welles.

Last night I had the opportunity to revisit this cinema classic and it’s amazing how it truly seems to get better with each viewing. “Citizen Kane” is a film that has aged like the finest wines and there are so many reasons for it. The more I watch the movie the more I can appreciate the skilled filmmaking and risks taken to bring the movie to life. The film certainly had its share of struggles particularly when trying to find an initial audience. William Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper giant who is the clear inspiration for the movie’s main character, was infuriated by the movie and took huge measures to keep “Citizen Kane” from reaching an audience. Fear of his power kept the film out of many newspapers and out of many theaters. But after all these years, it’s the movie that has come out with the better reputation.

While there has been some controversy over who was the driving force behind the movie’s screenplay, Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz are credited with its authorship. It tells the story Charles Foster Kane, an immensely wealthy newspaper mogul, who lies on his deathbed, alone within the closed isolation of his mammoth Florida estate known as Xanadu. We watch as Kane utters his final word “Rosebud” and then dies. This opening event catapults the entire story forward. In fact, the entire narrative is driven by one incredibly clever device – “Rosebud”. Kane’s final word becomes a huge topic of interest especially for investigative reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland). Thompson is convinced that there is a deeper secret meaning to Kane’s final word and he sets out to uncover it by looking into Kane’s past and interviewing those closest to him.

This points to one of the things that makes this movie so special. There’s no straight-line, uninterrupted narrative. Instead the story is told through well placed flashbacks from the points of view of several different people. Through their eyes we learn about Kane’s impoverished childhood. We learn about his leap of faith into the newspaper business at a young age. We see his political ambitions. But we also see the story of a man whose motivations fester into those of power and self-promotion. We watch as his ego and self-indulgence destroys every nonmaterial thing in his life. He’s the epitome of gaining the whole world but losing all that’s important. It’s a fascinating study of a man who, regardless of his wealth, power, and influence, is unable to overcome the greatest obstacle to true happiness – himself. This all unfolds through the words of Kane’s guardian, ex-wife, business partner, butler, and best friend. Now as someone who isn’t always attracted to the use of flashbacks, I’m really impressed at just how well they work here. Welles is truly laying out a man’s life before us and I was enthralled not only in his story but also with the small question behind it all – just who or what is “Rosebud”?

While many love the story and the storytelling behind “Citizen Kane”, it is equally or maybe even better known for its ambitious visual presentation and stylistic techniques. Welles was given tons of liberties from RKO Pictures when it came to making the film and that’s all the more surprising considering that this was his first feature film. He took his creative control and mixed it with a young man’s enthusiasm that resulted in a visual style significantly different from anything else in Hollywood. I can still name numerous carefully framed shots and brilliantly conceived camera tricks. There’s also Welles’ penchant for placing his camera at ground level and shooting up at his characters. This is ever so effective particularly in one extended take featuring a crucial conversation between Kane and his long-time friend Jedediah Leland (played wonderfully by Joseph Cotton). There are several other cool camera techniques and special effects along with some impressive makeup work that still influences a host of modern filmmakers.

I worry that newcomers or even those who haven’t seen “Citizen Kane” in years will approach the film from the “So this is the greatest film of all time?” perspective. That’s a bad way to approach any film especially considering how subjective these lists are anyway. Instead, this movie should be approached as its own creation – enjoyed and measured within those bounds. Welles’ accomplishment with the film cannot be overstated. The direction is brilliant, the screenplay is fantastic, and he gives a thundering performance and all within what was his first feature film. “Citizen Kane” was a critical success at its time but struggled to gain a huge following. But as years have passed, the movie has risen to be appreciated as a monumental film in cinema history. I tend to agree. And while “Citizen Kane” wouldn’t be my personal “greatest movie of all time”, there’s no denying it’s inventiveness, it’s influence, and its overall excellence.