Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 14, 2012
Artists of all stripes (writers, painters, filmmakers, musicians) tend to go through different periods of growth. This can produce smooth transitions or jarring discontinuity depending on the artist and the type of experimentation at hand. In the world of film, this often produces two or three distinct sets of films that are of a piece within the director’s career but also seem as different from one another as if they had been done by completely different directors. David Lean is a perfect example, going from smaller, more intimate films, like Brief Encounter, in his first period, to large canvas epics like Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, in his second.
Not all directors have this. Plenty of directors in the golden age of Hollywood worked for the studios and directed whatever they were assigned, producing directors so skilled, so talented, so dexterous at handling different genres that they can never be known for any one type of film but, rather, their amazing skill at all types with Howard Hawks standing out as a shining example of this. Director Michael Curtiz was another, so skilled at different genres that he became known for horror (Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Walking Dead), mystery (The Kennel Murder Case, The Case of the Curious Bride), action/adventure (Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk), noir/melodrama (Casablanca, Mildred Pierce) and even found time for things like Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mission to Moscow, White Christmas and the Elvis Presley movie, King Creole.
But directors with distinct periods usually fuel the more heated debates among cinephiles over which period is their best and picking a side can be met with acceptance, derision or disbelief. Let’s go back to David Lean. He has his small, melodramas and historical pieces of the thirties and forties, culminating in the mid-fifties with Summertime before embarking on his second period, one that produced only five movies, including the great Lawrence of Arabia. And, of course, we all know which period is better, right? The first one. No, the second one. No, wait, the first one. Yes, the first one. No, wait. Let’s start over.
Not every movie David Lean made before the epics or during the epics was great. I’m not too high on Ryan’s Daughter, for instance, and I know not every film from his early period was a perfect success but I must say, I do prefer the films from his early period to the films of his epic period. It’s all personal preference of course, especially considering two of his epic films, Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, are widely considered to be two of the greatest films ever made. And Kwai is one of my favorite movies of all time to boot. So, it’s a tough call but when I think of This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter, Hobson’s Choice or Summertime I see a series of films more tightly told and better suited to my tastes. Your mileage may vary.
Speaking of directors who started out small and ended up big, Cecil B. DeMille is another good example of a director whose later epics found the director his greatest box office successes. Oh, it’s true, DeMille never really had a time when he wasn’t doing debauchery in one form or another, but in the twenties, he managed to keep it a lot smaller if only because large scale epics weren’t as guaranteed to make money as they were in later years when technicolor and sound got into the game. Besides, the monumental box office failure of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance made a lot of studios shy about going too far with both the running time and the budget. So even when Cecil B. DeMille did The Ten Commandments in 1923, for the first time, it came in at barely over two hours and wasn’t even about the biblical story for half of the movie. He did movies like Madame Satan and Godless Girl and westerns, yes, westerns. It’s not a genre one normally associates with DeMille but he did them and quite a few. Heck, he even directed The Squaw Man no less than three times.
But I’ve got to be honest. When it comes to DeMille, I’m with his big sound period stuff all the way. The Buccaneer and Unconquered, yes, but mainly those two biblical epics, Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments, complete with it’s two and a half week running time. The thing is, as far as biblical era epics go, something like William Wyler’s Ben-Hur is much better than either of those but I’ll be damned if those two aren’t a hundred times more entertaining. DeMille knew how to play up the melodrama of the biblical stories better than anyone.
One of the toughest calls for me is Alfred Hitchcock. He has his British film period, the late 20s to the late 30s, and his American film period, from 1940 on. Within that period are several other periods or sub-genres. There’s the early to mid forties that produced his best espionage works (Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, Notorious) or the Hitchcock films that investigated the underbelly of America (Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Psycho) or… well, it just keeps going. Hitchcock may be known as the Master of Suspense but he was really a Master of Everything. If I had to pick, under pain of death, one single ten-year Hitchcock period, I’d have to go with the forties. I love Rebecca, Suspicion, Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, Spellbound and Notorious all for their own merits but I love them as well for being films in the period when Hitchcock was molding his style but had not yet cemented it. Don’t misunderstand me, I absolutely love the fully-formed style and confident bravado of films like Vertigo and North by Northwest, but I prefer the films of the forties that seem somehow smaller, more personal.
I suppose now it’s time to streamline this post before it gets out of hand. Let’s cut to the quick:
John Ford: Early Period (Late 1920′s through Late 1940′s) or Late Period (1950′s on): Late by a nose. I love The Informer, How Green was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath and Stagecoach and I think he had more consistently good movies from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon on back but I love The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance so much, I have to go with them.
Ingmar Bergman: The early period (Sawdust and Tinsel, Wild Strawberries), The Middle Period (Persona, Hour of the Wolf), The Late Period (Fanny and Alexander, After the Rehearsal): Middle Period, wide margin.
Federico Fellini: Early and Late. For me, Fellini is easy: Early equals black and white and small, keenly observed stories of the dark side of life (La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita) and late equals color, excess and nostalgia (Satyricon, Juliet of the Spirits, Amarcord). Early period, big time.
Woody Allen: Early Period (1969-1975), Middle Period (1977-1997), Late Period (1998 – present). I’ll take Middle Period, specifically from Annie Hall through Husbands and Wives with the highlight being Broadway Danny Rose. Least favorite? Eh, I’m not too big of a fan of his early slapstick but the 2000′s haven’t thrilled me at all. I like some of it but not nearly as much as I used to. I’d have to go with Late Period for my least favorite.
Steven Spielberg: Okay, where do his periods delineate? For the sake of simplicity, I’ll say 1993. That year produced Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List so you can take the first (Jurassic Park) and travel back to his Night Gallery work and Duel to form his first period and take the second (Schindler’s List) and travel forward to his less commercial work like Munich and War Horse to form his second period. I’m in the minority here, and I know it, but I’ll take his second.
Martin Scorsese: For me, the movies Scorsese made prior to Age of Innocence had more of an independent feel (true or not, I can’t say, that’s just how I view them) and the movies made after have a more polished studio feel. Again, that’s just how I see it. Nonetheless, first period, by far.
There are so many more but I’ll let that be it for now. I’m sure more will come up and there’s a good chance (more than good, actually – even odds, I’d say) that my breakdown of the periods themselves are highly contentious demarcation points and perhaps different for each person. I do know this: In my own life, I’ve entered my Middle Period, which means I’m given to looking back on favorite directors and breaking their careers down, usually discovering along the way that what I may like in one period of my life is quite different from what I might like in the next. For now, I’ll keep looking, keep digging, keep delineating. The films remain the same but my preference for one director’s period over another is subject to change. Periodically, that is.
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