The Creeping Death of the Signature Film

I was scrolling online through movies to watch last week when I came upon Defending Your Life, written and directed by Albert Brooks.   Even though I have it on DVD, I considered watching it right then and there online (it’s free for Amazon Prime members) because I like it so much.  Then I got to thinking about Brooks and his directorial career and how his 1985 film, Lost in America, is always cited as his best.  It’s the film people think of when you mention Brooks as director and, yet, I thought (and think) that Defending Your Life is better and the more complete Albert Brooks movie.   The problem is, once a movie comes to define you as a director, a lot of other very good stuff  often gets pushed aside while your “signature” film gets endless mentions and props.  The rest of your catalogue?  It falls into the foggy, vague netherworld that resides in the shadow of your “greatest work” where it and your reputation are mercilessly pounded into submission at the hands of “the masterpiece.”  Let’s call it the slow creeping death of the signature film.   And let’s call it a day on the practice, the sooner the better.

The practice has long since bugged me and perhaps nowhere more than Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.  First, for the record, Allen is one of my favorite film makers ever.  I love most of his pre-2000 work but have seen very little of his post-2000 work (because the few I saw did nothing for me).  Second, I love Annie Hall.  I think it’s a wonderful film, filled with great writing, terrific performances and many genuinely brilliant moments but I tire of always seeing that Allen film and only that Allen film make Top 100 This or Top 100 That lists.   From the director that gave us Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives and, perhaps most of all, Broadway Danny Rose, it seems like an awful case of neglect to keep name-checking Annie Hall in the face of everything else.

It’s not like the origins of the matter are even in dispute at this point.   Allen was known as a clever stand-up comic, burst into movies in the sixties making silly slapstick-style movies and in 1977 released Annie Hall which represented a new period for Allen and showed his tremendous growth as a film maker (though that should have been more than clear with the superb Love and Death two years earlier).  So, in other words, Allen had now become a kind of semi-serious film maker and could be taken seriously by the Hollywood and critical establishment.  And Annie Hall is the film that got him there.  Okay, fine.  But can we acknowledge the many Allen films (for me, the ones I mentioned above) that are better?

Of course, no one knew this little pigeon-holing trick better than Orson Welles.  In This is Orson Welles, the book based on the series of interviews Welles had with Peter Bogdanovich, a story is related of Welles meeting Norman Mailer and Mailer saying enthusiastically how much he wanted to discuss Citizen Kane to which Welles moaned and gave an “Oh God, no!” type response.  Mailer nodded and said he understood because all anyone ever wanted to talk about with him was The Naked and the Dead.

Surely, Citizen Kane is the biggest “signature” film of all time.  And I’m not going to tell you it’s not a masterful work of cinema on every level, just mention that Welles did an incredible amount of other amazing work and because of Citizen Kane’s standing, things like The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil, though mentioned on “Greatest of All Time” lists here and there, never really get their proper due.  I would place all three so close together quality-wise that any difference from one to the other would be negligible.   And isn’t Ambersons, with its source-basis intertwined with Welles own family history, more of a Welles signature film than Kane anyway?  Or maybe Macbeth or Othello?  They may not be as well-loved or admired but given Welles’ love of Shakespeare, those might be considered films much closer to Welles’ heart.

Recently, another director with a stunning array of talent at hand and masterworks under his belt has come to be associated primarily with one film despite all the other great works in his catalogue.  I’m speaking of Alfred Hitchcock and with Vertigo‘s assent to number one on the Sight and Sound Poll, it has become the movie most associated with Hitch, despite the seemingly endless list of great titles to his name.  Oh sure, he’s known for Psycho, The Birds, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Rebecca, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window and a host of others, too, but Vertigo, you see, is his most personal film (deep sigh).  It’s ready-made to be plotted into a Hitchcock connect-the-dots graphing kit (icy blond, dominant male making over blond, blah, blah, blah, Zzzzzzzzz) and is so to the point where I want to scream, “Okay, but what about the rest?!”

Or how about Ingmar Bergman?  Being a big fan of his for years, I can’t imagine ever listing The Seventh Seal as his signature film but, hey, the movie personifies Death and has him play chess with Max von Sydow so it’s got to be his signature film, right?  Bergman thought his signature film was Persona and I agree with him but for most of the world, if they’ve even heard of him at this point, it’s The Seventh Seal.  Even if they don’t know what that movie is they would probably associate the Death playing chess image with Bergman (or “art film” at the very least) and nothing else.

And the list goes on.  Akira Kurosawa, The Seven Samurai.  For me, Ran.  Jean Renoir, The Rules of the Game.  For me, Grand Illusion or Boudu Saved from Drowning.  Sergei Eisenstein, Potemkin.  For me, Alexander Nevsky.  Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  For me, Barry Lyndon.

Or several others for all these directors.  The point isn’t to pick one other film but to recognize that there are so many other films just as good, or better, than the one damn film everyone keeps listing for them.  Take Stanley Kubrick, the last one I mentioned.  He’s got Barry Lyndon and The Shining and Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange and despite all that, it’s 2001, admittedly great, that keeps getting all the mentions.  Frustrating doesn’t begin to cover it.

Fortunately, many contemporary directors have yet to have the signature film selected for them.  Ask someone for Scorsese’s or Spielberg’s signature film and you might hear any number of titles, from Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or goodfellas for Scorsese to Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. or Saving Private Ryan for Spielberg.  In fact, for either of those directors you could pretty much throw in almost any other title of theirs and it would work, too, within reason.  And that’s a good thing, quite frankly.

Let’s appreciate and celebrate the whole career, not just one movie.  Let’s talk about all the movies and all the meanings and all the great moments.  We can only do this by not affixing a signature at the bottom of the page of any one director’s career but, rather, leaving it blank.   Studying the whole catalogue of a director instead of focusing on one single work?  That’s something I’ll sign off on every time.

0 Response The Creeping Death of the Signature Film
Posted By swac44 : November 28, 2012 9:56 am

Wow, are we ever in alignment on these films. I’ve always been about Love and Death over Annie Hall, or Touch of Evil over Citizen Kane, or Ran over The Seven Samurai. But more than that, it’s more about the body of work, especially with my favourite directors, and ones whose work I keep discovering, like John Huston or Michael Curtiz (or even, as per another recent Morlocks post, Gregory La Cava or Roy Del Ruth). And there are some like Kubrick where I couldn’t pick just one film anyway, they’re all too distinct and enjoyable to have one rise to the top above the others.

Posted By swac44 : November 28, 2012 9:56 am

Wow, are we ever in alignment on these films. I’ve always been about Love and Death over Annie Hall, or Touch of Evil over Citizen Kane, or Ran over The Seven Samurai. But more than that, it’s more about the body of work, especially with my favourite directors, and ones whose work I keep discovering, like John Huston or Michael Curtiz (or even, as per another recent Morlocks post, Gregory La Cava or Roy Del Ruth). And there are some like Kubrick where I couldn’t pick just one film anyway, they’re all too distinct and enjoyable to have one rise to the top above the others.

Posted By Brian : November 28, 2012 11:33 am

I second swac44′s point about enjoying the body of work. Just to take one of your examples, I’ve found myself filling in the gaps on Martin Scorsese this fall, and it’s the documentary stuff that I’m really drawn to; I knew he’d made several, of course, and that its influence on his fiction films was profound. But to actually watch movies like ITALIANAMERICAN, NO DIRECTION HOME, SHINE A LIGHT, and so many others, was a revelation and a pleasure– seeing how pieces fit and influence one another in a really vibrant way is one of the pleasures of being a cinephile. If there’s a filmmaker I really love, I want to see it all, even the stuff I end up disliking.

Posted By Brian : November 28, 2012 11:33 am

I second swac44′s point about enjoying the body of work. Just to take one of your examples, I’ve found myself filling in the gaps on Martin Scorsese this fall, and it’s the documentary stuff that I’m really drawn to; I knew he’d made several, of course, and that its influence on his fiction films was profound. But to actually watch movies like ITALIANAMERICAN, NO DIRECTION HOME, SHINE A LIGHT, and so many others, was a revelation and a pleasure– seeing how pieces fit and influence one another in a really vibrant way is one of the pleasures of being a cinephile. If there’s a filmmaker I really love, I want to see it all, even the stuff I end up disliking.

Posted By Brian : November 28, 2012 11:36 am

Also, re: Hitchcock– what about UNDER CAPRICORN, which is a gorgeous, moving melodrama? Or the verite sadness of THE WRONG MAN? Or Clift’s performance in I CONFESS? Or the enjoyable twists of STAGE FRIGHT? And you don’t even have to go to the less well-known stuff: why don’t more people mention NORTH BY NORTHWEST as his greatest film, which it undoubtedly is?

Posted By Brian : November 28, 2012 11:36 am

Also, re: Hitchcock– what about UNDER CAPRICORN, which is a gorgeous, moving melodrama? Or the verite sadness of THE WRONG MAN? Or Clift’s performance in I CONFESS? Or the enjoyable twists of STAGE FRIGHT? And you don’t even have to go to the less well-known stuff: why don’t more people mention NORTH BY NORTHWEST as his greatest film, which it undoubtedly is?

Posted By Kingrat : November 28, 2012 1:53 pm

Good post, Greg. I immediately thought of Fred Zinnemann, always pigeonholed by HIGH NOON and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, whereas I have no doubt that his best films are THE NUN’S STORY and ACT OF VIOLENCE, and his most personal film is THE SEARCH, because he searched for his own parents after WWII (they had died in a concentration camp).

Posted By Kingrat : November 28, 2012 1:53 pm

Good post, Greg. I immediately thought of Fred Zinnemann, always pigeonholed by HIGH NOON and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, whereas I have no doubt that his best films are THE NUN’S STORY and ACT OF VIOLENCE, and his most personal film is THE SEARCH, because he searched for his own parents after WWII (they had died in a concentration camp).

Posted By Nick : November 28, 2012 3:11 pm

You make a great point here, but I find it a bummer that as a Woody Allen fan (A passion you and I share) you haven’t paid attention to Woody Allen after 2000 — there are some great ones. Match Point, Vicki Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, Melinda and Melinda are all very good Allen films. Check em out.

Posted By Nick : November 28, 2012 3:11 pm

You make a great point here, but I find it a bummer that as a Woody Allen fan (A passion you and I share) you haven’t paid attention to Woody Allen after 2000 — there are some great ones. Match Point, Vicki Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, Melinda and Melinda are all very good Allen films. Check em out.

Posted By swac44 : November 28, 2012 3:59 pm

I almost feel like Hitchcock might be the exception to this sort of thing, his signature film seems to change over time. For a long time Psycho would have had that title, especially during the years that Vertigo was out of public circulation, even though it’s an atypical film for him overall. But maybe some would have considered Rebecca in that slot, since it won the Oscar, or maybe Shadow of a Doubt, since Hitchcock himself declared it his personal favourite and it proves so richly rewarding on repeat viewings (as pointed out in a recent Morlocks post).

As for North By Northwest, I’ve often considered it the ultimate Hollywood entertainment, in terms of its sheer enjoyability. Star power, energy, momentum, imagery, subtext … it can be enjoyed on so many levels and it has so few flaws (I have to confess, I’m not the biggest Eva Marie Saint fan, but she’s not a huge a detriment here), I’ll take it over Casablanca any day.

Posted By swac44 : November 28, 2012 3:59 pm

I almost feel like Hitchcock might be the exception to this sort of thing, his signature film seems to change over time. For a long time Psycho would have had that title, especially during the years that Vertigo was out of public circulation, even though it’s an atypical film for him overall. But maybe some would have considered Rebecca in that slot, since it won the Oscar, or maybe Shadow of a Doubt, since Hitchcock himself declared it his personal favourite and it proves so richly rewarding on repeat viewings (as pointed out in a recent Morlocks post).

As for North By Northwest, I’ve often considered it the ultimate Hollywood entertainment, in terms of its sheer enjoyability. Star power, energy, momentum, imagery, subtext … it can be enjoyed on so many levels and it has so few flaws (I have to confess, I’m not the biggest Eva Marie Saint fan, but she’s not a huge a detriment here), I’ll take it over Casablanca any day.

Posted By John Mundt, Esq. : November 28, 2012 4:09 pm

Thanks, Mr. Ferrara, for another excellent post. Looking at which motion pictures become “signature” films, I think you hit upon the main reason while talking about The Seventh Seal. Even someone who has never seen the film has some concept of it’s iconic elements and director’s name. Maybe “signature” movies, then, are those which most impact the “larger world.” Call it Pop Culture, call it The Collective Unconscious, call it Crossover – whatever. There is something (or, perhaps, several somethings)extremely memorable in each “signature” film that seems to have struck some kind of resonant chord with the wider culture, leading these particular movies to become something like effigies of the careers of their famous directors. For cinefiles, who delve more deeply and explore more thoroughly, these choices are often just a little “off,” but for my rarely-moviegoing Mom, all she knows of Martin Scorsese is Travis Bickle asking “You talkin’ to me?”

Posted By John Mundt, Esq. : November 28, 2012 4:09 pm

Thanks, Mr. Ferrara, for another excellent post. Looking at which motion pictures become “signature” films, I think you hit upon the main reason while talking about The Seventh Seal. Even someone who has never seen the film has some concept of it’s iconic elements and director’s name. Maybe “signature” movies, then, are those which most impact the “larger world.” Call it Pop Culture, call it The Collective Unconscious, call it Crossover – whatever. There is something (or, perhaps, several somethings)extremely memorable in each “signature” film that seems to have struck some kind of resonant chord with the wider culture, leading these particular movies to become something like effigies of the careers of their famous directors. For cinefiles, who delve more deeply and explore more thoroughly, these choices are often just a little “off,” but for my rarely-moviegoing Mom, all she knows of Martin Scorsese is Travis Bickle asking “You talkin’ to me?”

Posted By Emgee : November 28, 2012 4:52 pm

John Ford- The Searchers.
David Lean-Lawrence of Arabia.
Fritz Lang-Metropolis
Michael Curtiz-Casablanca
Robert Wise- West Side Story, or is The Sound Of Music?

Posted By Emgee : November 28, 2012 4:52 pm

John Ford- The Searchers.
David Lean-Lawrence of Arabia.
Fritz Lang-Metropolis
Michael Curtiz-Casablanca
Robert Wise- West Side Story, or is The Sound Of Music?

Posted By YancySkancy : November 28, 2012 5:26 pm

I think John Mundt, Esq., hit it: a filmmaker’s signature work seems determined as much by the perception of the general public as anything else. Critics often, but not always, argue for other works, especially underrated ones.

When Bill and Ted played chess with death, you knew that THE SEVENTH SEAL was set in stone as Bergman’s signature film, even though he made a score of films equal to it or better.

I always thought Albert Brooks’ signature work was MODERN ROMANCE. It’s easily his best film, IMO, and I like ‘em all quite a lot (didn’t see his most recent one though).

Posted By YancySkancy : November 28, 2012 5:26 pm

I think John Mundt, Esq., hit it: a filmmaker’s signature work seems determined as much by the perception of the general public as anything else. Critics often, but not always, argue for other works, especially underrated ones.

When Bill and Ted played chess with death, you knew that THE SEVENTH SEAL was set in stone as Bergman’s signature film, even though he made a score of films equal to it or better.

I always thought Albert Brooks’ signature work was MODERN ROMANCE. It’s easily his best film, IMO, and I like ‘em all quite a lot (didn’t see his most recent one though).

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 28, 2012 11:58 pm

swac, I love Love and Death. What a great movie. While I enjoy many of his early comedies, from Take the Money and Run to Sleeper, it was Love and Death that really made me think, “hey, this a superb piece of work.”

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 28, 2012 11:58 pm

swac, I love Love and Death. What a great movie. While I enjoy many of his early comedies, from Take the Money and Run to Sleeper, it was Love and Death that really made me think, “hey, this a superb piece of work.”

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 29, 2012 12:05 am

Brian and swac, I have heard a lot of people, including multiple commenters here in the past, refer to North by Northwest as Hitchcock’s finest. It’s about as good as it gets for a thriller but, for me personally, I still hold Psycho, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt and, yes, Vertigo in higher esteem. And even though you wouldn’t agree with that (if I can take your comment about NBNW at face value, that you think it’s his best) you would acknowledge that any one of those titles could easily be argued for as his best. Think about that. While most film makers never, ever, EVER make a movie as good as North by Northwest, Hitchcock had at least four or five or six that could be plausibly argued to be better than North by Northwest. What an extraordinary catalogue of quality.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 29, 2012 12:05 am

Brian and swac, I have heard a lot of people, including multiple commenters here in the past, refer to North by Northwest as Hitchcock’s finest. It’s about as good as it gets for a thriller but, for me personally, I still hold Psycho, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt and, yes, Vertigo in higher esteem. And even though you wouldn’t agree with that (if I can take your comment about NBNW at face value, that you think it’s his best) you would acknowledge that any one of those titles could easily be argued for as his best. Think about that. While most film makers never, ever, EVER make a movie as good as North by Northwest, Hitchcock had at least four or five or six that could be plausibly argued to be better than North by Northwest. What an extraordinary catalogue of quality.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 29, 2012 12:10 am

John, all a movie needs is a moment or catchphrase to enter the lexicon and it’s a sure bet it becomes known to the great popular subconscious. That moment in Taxi Driver is such a scene. The phrase, “You talkin’ to me?” has become so ubiquitous that I doubt most people know where it’s from. Others might know it’s associated with Robert de Niro but think it’s from Analyze This or something. It’s amazing how this stuff perpetuates long after the surrounding context has been forgotten.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 29, 2012 12:10 am

John, all a movie needs is a moment or catchphrase to enter the lexicon and it’s a sure bet it becomes known to the great popular subconscious. That moment in Taxi Driver is such a scene. The phrase, “You talkin’ to me?” has become so ubiquitous that I doubt most people know where it’s from. Others might know it’s associated with Robert de Niro but think it’s from Analyze This or something. It’s amazing how this stuff perpetuates long after the surrounding context has been forgotten.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 29, 2012 12:14 am

Emgee, almost included John Ford in this but didn’t want to run too long. However, he’s a classic example. Boy, talk about a catalogue of great films and yet, despite having things like Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence to his credit, The Searchers always, and I mean always, gets the mentions on the polls.

For Wise, probably The Sound of Music. And definitely the overhead silent aerial shots cascading relentlessly to a final tight shot of the protagonist on the ground, used in the opening shots of both West Side Story and The Sound of Music, is the closest thing to a motif that Robert Wise ever got close to so, sure, I’d say both.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 29, 2012 12:14 am

Emgee, almost included John Ford in this but didn’t want to run too long. However, he’s a classic example. Boy, talk about a catalogue of great films and yet, despite having things like Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence to his credit, The Searchers always, and I mean always, gets the mentions on the polls.

For Wise, probably The Sound of Music. And definitely the overhead silent aerial shots cascading relentlessly to a final tight shot of the protagonist on the ground, used in the opening shots of both West Side Story and The Sound of Music, is the closest thing to a motif that Robert Wise ever got close to so, sure, I’d say both.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 29, 2012 12:15 am

Yancy, Bill and Ted playing chess with Death would never exist without The Seventh Seal and while most of the sudience for Bill and Ted probably didn’t know that, they might have had a sense that, yes, this is from some art movie, years ago.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 29, 2012 12:15 am

Yancy, Bill and Ted playing chess with Death would never exist without The Seventh Seal and while most of the sudience for Bill and Ted probably didn’t know that, they might have had a sense that, yes, this is from some art movie, years ago.

Posted By Tom S : November 29, 2012 5:20 pm

Is Metropolis widely considered Lang’s signature film at this point? If so, that’s interesting, because it certainly wouldn’t have been ten years ago- M has historically been considered his masterwork, and it was always the movie he cited as his favorite. Metropolis is much more in the public eye at this point, though, due to the several restorations and the Argentina footage- but it’s something of a strange thought that someone’s signature could change decades after their death.

(Lang’s got kind of a strange situation in any case, as I think a lot of people fall in love with some of his American films- The Big Heat, Scarlet Street, or Fury, say- without necessarily realizing it’s the guy behind Metropolis, Mabuse, and M.)

Posted By Tom S : November 29, 2012 5:20 pm

Is Metropolis widely considered Lang’s signature film at this point? If so, that’s interesting, because it certainly wouldn’t have been ten years ago- M has historically been considered his masterwork, and it was always the movie he cited as his favorite. Metropolis is much more in the public eye at this point, though, due to the several restorations and the Argentina footage- but it’s something of a strange thought that someone’s signature could change decades after their death.

(Lang’s got kind of a strange situation in any case, as I think a lot of people fall in love with some of his American films- The Big Heat, Scarlet Street, or Fury, say- without necessarily realizing it’s the guy behind Metropolis, Mabuse, and M.)

Posted By Seaview : November 29, 2012 5:32 pm

Hi TCM I heard about the passing on actor Larry Hagmann, I remember many of the movie’s & tv shows he did from late 60;s on to Dallas.I want him on the list of TCM REMEMBERS so other will know & remember what go time & said time he Shard,especially I dream of Jennie.
He will saidly miss as good guy and bad guy.
Sign Seaview

Posted By Seaview : November 29, 2012 5:32 pm

Hi TCM I heard about the passing on actor Larry Hagmann, I remember many of the movie’s & tv shows he did from late 60;s on to Dallas.I want him on the list of TCM REMEMBERS so other will know & remember what go time & said time he Shard,especially I dream of Jennie.
He will saidly miss as good guy and bad guy.
Sign Seaview

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 29, 2012 11:39 pm

Kingrat, for Zinneman, definitely High Noon although I haven’t seen The Search. I think his best big, recognizable film for me is A Man for All Seasons which oddly mimics the one man against the world motif of his other big films (Kane in High Noon and Prewitt in From Here to Eternity).

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 29, 2012 11:39 pm

Kingrat, for Zinneman, definitely High Noon although I haven’t seen The Search. I think his best big, recognizable film for me is A Man for All Seasons which oddly mimics the one man against the world motif of his other big films (Kane in High Noon and Prewitt in From Here to Eternity).

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 29, 2012 11:41 pm

Nick, I saw Midnight in Paris and liked it very much. I found Matchpoint good but found the characters rather dull, something I wasn’t used to with Woody Allen characters. And starting off the decade for him, I disliked Small Time Crooks, Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending enough that I kind of gave up on him but I’ll try out some more, definitely.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 29, 2012 11:41 pm

Nick, I saw Midnight in Paris and liked it very much. I found Matchpoint good but found the characters rather dull, something I wasn’t used to with Woody Allen characters. And starting off the decade for him, I disliked Small Time Crooks, Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending enough that I kind of gave up on him but I’ll try out some more, definitely.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 29, 2012 11:44 pm

Tom!!! Damn, it’s good to see you here again, I’ve missed you.

Metropolis, yes, definitely identified with Lang by so many and it is damn odd because I am so enthralled by his M and his American films (especially Scarlet Street – which I got to see on the big screen last year -, Fury and The Big Heat) that I forget he made Metropolis because it seems so unlike him to me.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : November 29, 2012 11:44 pm

Tom!!! Damn, it’s good to see you here again, I’ve missed you.

Metropolis, yes, definitely identified with Lang by so many and it is damn odd because I am so enthralled by his M and his American films (especially Scarlet Street – which I got to see on the big screen last year -, Fury and The Big Heat) that I forget he made Metropolis because it seems so unlike him to me.

Posted By Tom S : November 30, 2012 11:14 am

Yeah, I felt like I was being too aggressive and unhelpful in my comments, so I wanted to stay away for a little while.

At any rate, it makes sense that Lang’s silent movies are hard to recognize by watching the sound ones. He’s one of the only prominent silent directors to make that leap successfully, and most of the others that come to mind, Charlie Chaplin or Hitchcock or Ozu- are either so automatically recognizable that the silent to sound leap couldn’t hide it or aren’t that well known for their silent features at this point or both.

I really hope Robert Wise isn’t primarily remembered for The Sound of Music- he’s one of those directors with such an anonymous, adaptable style that the whole idea of him having a signature movie is as odd as saying that Casablanca is Curtiz’s signature, and at any rate he’s the guy who made Curse of the Cat People, The Set-Up, and the Haunting. The Haunting in particular seems like a good candidate, since that’s a movie people actually remember for its direction and not just for having a good cast or whatever.

Posted By Tom S : November 30, 2012 11:14 am

Yeah, I felt like I was being too aggressive and unhelpful in my comments, so I wanted to stay away for a little while.

At any rate, it makes sense that Lang’s silent movies are hard to recognize by watching the sound ones. He’s one of the only prominent silent directors to make that leap successfully, and most of the others that come to mind, Charlie Chaplin or Hitchcock or Ozu- are either so automatically recognizable that the silent to sound leap couldn’t hide it or aren’t that well known for their silent features at this point or both.

I really hope Robert Wise isn’t primarily remembered for The Sound of Music- he’s one of those directors with such an anonymous, adaptable style that the whole idea of him having a signature movie is as odd as saying that Casablanca is Curtiz’s signature, and at any rate he’s the guy who made Curse of the Cat People, The Set-Up, and the Haunting. The Haunting in particular seems like a good candidate, since that’s a movie people actually remember for its direction and not just for having a good cast or whatever.

Posted By jojo : November 30, 2012 2:12 pm

I don’t think the concept of a signature film is always a negative thing, as these sort of touchstones make nice entry points for those just discovering a certain film-maker.

For example, you have someone who wants to see something by Bergman. Well, he has 64 titles to his directorial credit. Where does one begin?? But, since The Seventh Seal and/or Persona are so commonly associated with him, it gives the noob a good place to start, to see what Bergman does, and to perhaps seek out other titles.

I’ve probably seen 12 films by Godard, but I started with Breathless because that seemed to be the film most commonly associated with him. And while I later discovered it wasn’t his best, it did serve as a good introduction.

Posted By jojo : November 30, 2012 2:12 pm

I don’t think the concept of a signature film is always a negative thing, as these sort of touchstones make nice entry points for those just discovering a certain film-maker.

For example, you have someone who wants to see something by Bergman. Well, he has 64 titles to his directorial credit. Where does one begin?? But, since The Seventh Seal and/or Persona are so commonly associated with him, it gives the noob a good place to start, to see what Bergman does, and to perhaps seek out other titles.

I’ve probably seen 12 films by Godard, but I started with Breathless because that seemed to be the film most commonly associated with him. And while I later discovered it wasn’t his best, it did serve as a good introduction.

Posted By Emgee : November 30, 2012 5:11 pm

I think the reason Lang’s American movies are so different from his European films is that he tried to adapt his style to his new situation as an immigrant. In Germany he had almost total autonomy and unlimited funds, in the US he had to start from scratch and adapt to a different culture for his movies to be accepted. BTW I heartily recommend The Testament of Dr Mabuse, IMO better than Metropolis.

To me Robert Wise made his most enjoyable movies early in his career, with Val Lewton and movies like Born To Kill and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The Haunting was a brilliant return to the Lewton style.

Re Casablanca; i mentioned it just because that’s the movie he’s most famous for. Signature? He did all genres effortlessly.

Posted By Emgee : November 30, 2012 5:11 pm

I think the reason Lang’s American movies are so different from his European films is that he tried to adapt his style to his new situation as an immigrant. In Germany he had almost total autonomy and unlimited funds, in the US he had to start from scratch and adapt to a different culture for his movies to be accepted. BTW I heartily recommend The Testament of Dr Mabuse, IMO better than Metropolis.

To me Robert Wise made his most enjoyable movies early in his career, with Val Lewton and movies like Born To Kill and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The Haunting was a brilliant return to the Lewton style.

Re Casablanca; i mentioned it just because that’s the movie he’s most famous for. Signature? He did all genres effortlessly.

Posted By Tom S : December 1, 2012 1:06 am

Testament is my favorite Lang- and Morlock David Kalat has a great commentary on the Criterion edition of it. And yeah, Lang rarely or never got the kind of artistic control on his American films that he did in Germany, with a few exceptions- and even on those exceptions he never got anything like an unlimited budget.

I hadn’t noticed that you mentioned Casablanca earlier, I just brought it up as a germane example of a famous movie that doesn’t seem to reflect the director’s personality much. It’s the textbook exception to auteur theory.

Posted By Tom S : December 1, 2012 1:06 am

Testament is my favorite Lang- and Morlock David Kalat has a great commentary on the Criterion edition of it. And yeah, Lang rarely or never got the kind of artistic control on his American films that he did in Germany, with a few exceptions- and even on those exceptions he never got anything like an unlimited budget.

I hadn’t noticed that you mentioned Casablanca earlier, I just brought it up as a germane example of a famous movie that doesn’t seem to reflect the director’s personality much. It’s the textbook exception to auteur theory.

Posted By Jenni : December 1, 2012 2:08 am

Curtiz-I always link him to Robin Hood, not so much Casablanca.

Posted By Jenni : December 1, 2012 2:08 am

Curtiz-I always link him to Robin Hood, not so much Casablanca.

Posted By Richard B : December 1, 2012 2:32 am

Casablanca actually does have Curtiz motifs you may have noticed throughout his work: those Expressionist shadows of course, and the camera swooping in for a close-up of a character’s face deep in thought.

I’m glad for the mentions of Wise’s The Haunting, my own personal favorite (althought aside from his direction I feel it has one of the all-time great film performances in Julie Harris). If you’re going to take his two big Oscar-winning hits as his signature films, it’s worth noting he didn’t exactly direct a slew of musicals. Why not The Day The Earth Stood Still? Or go entirely left-field and pick one of his noirs, The Set-Up (early period) or Odds Against Tomorrow (somewhat later period)?

It is indeed bizarre that filmmakers who’ve produced a surprisingly large number of exceptional films, such as a Ford or a Hitchcock, should be identified with a “signature film,” although I think that’s commoner to cineastes such as ourselves. The general public, although they may always think of “Orson Welles = Citizen Kane Guy,” are also as familiar with the concept of “John Ford Western” or “Alfred Hitchcock Movie” (or even “Hitchcockian” for anything involving twisty suspense plots or big knives) as they are with any individual title. It’s also worth noting, as swac44 notes regarding Hitch’s signature film changing over time, that these things are pretty transitory. Vertigo, The Searchers, and Touch of Evil were all reviled by critics in their day. Heck, Pauline Kael walked out on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.

And for the record, my favorite uber-personal Woody Allen is Radio Days, even if I don’t expect to wake up twenty years from now and find out this view has prevailed.

Posted By Richard B : December 1, 2012 2:32 am

Casablanca actually does have Curtiz motifs you may have noticed throughout his work: those Expressionist shadows of course, and the camera swooping in for a close-up of a character’s face deep in thought.

I’m glad for the mentions of Wise’s The Haunting, my own personal favorite (althought aside from his direction I feel it has one of the all-time great film performances in Julie Harris). If you’re going to take his two big Oscar-winning hits as his signature films, it’s worth noting he didn’t exactly direct a slew of musicals. Why not The Day The Earth Stood Still? Or go entirely left-field and pick one of his noirs, The Set-Up (early period) or Odds Against Tomorrow (somewhat later period)?

It is indeed bizarre that filmmakers who’ve produced a surprisingly large number of exceptional films, such as a Ford or a Hitchcock, should be identified with a “signature film,” although I think that’s commoner to cineastes such as ourselves. The general public, although they may always think of “Orson Welles = Citizen Kane Guy,” are also as familiar with the concept of “John Ford Western” or “Alfred Hitchcock Movie” (or even “Hitchcockian” for anything involving twisty suspense plots or big knives) as they are with any individual title. It’s also worth noting, as swac44 notes regarding Hitch’s signature film changing over time, that these things are pretty transitory. Vertigo, The Searchers, and Touch of Evil were all reviled by critics in their day. Heck, Pauline Kael walked out on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.

And for the record, my favorite uber-personal Woody Allen is Radio Days, even if I don’t expect to wake up twenty years from now and find out this view has prevailed.

Posted By Richard B : December 1, 2012 3:25 am

Jenni: The ironic thing about Robin Hood is that Curtiz was brought in to finish the film after the first director proved unsatisfactory. It’s also ironic that he’ll also be forever associated with Errol Flynn although by all accounts the two couldn’t stand each other.

Posted By Richard B : December 1, 2012 3:25 am

Jenni: The ironic thing about Robin Hood is that Curtiz was brought in to finish the film after the first director proved unsatisfactory. It’s also ironic that he’ll also be forever associated with Errol Flynn although by all accounts the two couldn’t stand each other.

Posted By Jenni : December 1, 2012 8:50 am

Interesting Richard, a fact I didn’t know about, Curtiz and Flynn not liking each other. You mentioned Radio Days-that is my favorite of all of Allen’s films, too. I appreciate his fond looking back at his family and the obvious love he had for them. I confess I am not much of a Woody Allen fan, but that movie is great.

Posted By Jenni : December 1, 2012 8:50 am

Interesting Richard, a fact I didn’t know about, Curtiz and Flynn not liking each other. You mentioned Radio Days-that is my favorite of all of Allen’s films, too. I appreciate his fond looking back at his family and the obvious love he had for them. I confess I am not much of a Woody Allen fan, but that movie is great.

Posted By Emgee : December 1, 2012 10:06 am

I don’t think many people have fond memories of working with Curtiz. Apart from the fact they had trouble understanding him because of his thick Hungarian accent, he had a knack of pushing actors and crew to the point of exhaustion. Lunchbreaks he considered a waste of time. “Why eat? I don’t eat!”
It looked that way, until somebody found out he hid his sandwiches underneath the camera; when he wanted a bite he pretended to watch a scene through the lens. What a character!

Posted By Emgee : December 1, 2012 10:06 am

I don’t think many people have fond memories of working with Curtiz. Apart from the fact they had trouble understanding him because of his thick Hungarian accent, he had a knack of pushing actors and crew to the point of exhaustion. Lunchbreaks he considered a waste of time. “Why eat? I don’t eat!”
It looked that way, until somebody found out he hid his sandwiches underneath the camera; when he wanted a bite he pretended to watch a scene through the lens. What a character!

Posted By Tim Peddicord : December 1, 2012 6:48 pm

For the life of me, I can’t understand why Lost in America is so highly rated. Albert Brooks at the height of his most obnoxiousness is a total turnoff. Kathyrn Harold is barely visible as his long suffering wife since Brooks is in virtually every frame. You do get to see a lot of the back of Harold’s head. This film was completely underwhelming for me. I did like Brook’s work in Drive. he was a little over the top but it was an excellent performance overall.As for Lost in America, I’m still lost.

Posted By Tim Peddicord : December 1, 2012 6:48 pm

For the life of me, I can’t understand why Lost in America is so highly rated. Albert Brooks at the height of his most obnoxiousness is a total turnoff. Kathyrn Harold is barely visible as his long suffering wife since Brooks is in virtually every frame. You do get to see a lot of the back of Harold’s head. This film was completely underwhelming for me. I did like Brook’s work in Drive. he was a little over the top but it was an excellent performance overall.As for Lost in America, I’m still lost.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : December 3, 2012 12:01 am

I felt like I was being too aggressive and unhelpful in my comments

Tom, you just described a good two-thirds of my existence online. Sometimes I can get touchy as hell on certain topics and have to pull back some, too.

@everyone – Interestingly, I became such a fan early on of Doctor X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum that I still think of those first when I think of Curtiz. Signature films? Hardly, since he really didn’t do much else like them but that’s how most of his career was.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : December 3, 2012 12:01 am

I felt like I was being too aggressive and unhelpful in my comments

Tom, you just described a good two-thirds of my existence online. Sometimes I can get touchy as hell on certain topics and have to pull back some, too.

@everyone – Interestingly, I became such a fan early on of Doctor X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum that I still think of those first when I think of Curtiz. Signature films? Hardly, since he really didn’t do much else like them but that’s how most of his career was.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : December 3, 2012 12:03 am

I watched Radio Days again about two months ago for the first time in years and it held up tremendously well. Me, I like the comedy/dramas of Allen (Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives) more than anything else but for absolute perfection, I think Broadway Danny Rose is my favorite Allen movie.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : December 3, 2012 12:03 am

I watched Radio Days again about two months ago for the first time in years and it held up tremendously well. Me, I like the comedy/dramas of Allen (Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives) more than anything else but for absolute perfection, I think Broadway Danny Rose is my favorite Allen movie.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : December 3, 2012 12:05 am

JoJo, I agree, a signature film can lead interested people down a path of discovery so I shouldn’t complain so much. It’s a fine line and unfortunately, most of the general public never ventures down that path but then they probably don’t bother seeing Vertigo, Citizen Kane or Persona either so it makes little difference either way.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : December 3, 2012 12:05 am

JoJo, I agree, a signature film can lead interested people down a path of discovery so I shouldn’t complain so much. It’s a fine line and unfortunately, most of the general public never ventures down that path but then they probably don’t bother seeing Vertigo, Citizen Kane or Persona either so it makes little difference either way.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : December 3, 2012 12:08 am

Tim, don’t get me wrong, I like Lost in America a lot, I just like Defending Your Life more. Now, Kathryn Harrold is in Modern Romance with Brooks and Julie Haggerty is in Lost in America so I’m wondering if you’re thinking of that instead (although I like that one, too).

Posted By Greg Ferrara : December 3, 2012 12:08 am

Tim, don’t get me wrong, I like Lost in America a lot, I just like Defending Your Life more. Now, Kathryn Harrold is in Modern Romance with Brooks and Julie Haggerty is in Lost in America so I’m wondering if you’re thinking of that instead (although I like that one, too).

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