10 ‘Debut’ films by Top Hollywood Directors

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Tis always interesting to take a look at the origins of talent, so to speak, so here’s a retrospective that clears away all the tinsel to reveal the true artists among some of Hollywood’s big-wig chair-men.
“The Debut” – It’s a somewhat random list of films from some of the most successful and recognizable directors to grace Hollywood’s silver screen. Admittedly, once or twice I took liberties as some directors did quite a bit of work before they made the big splash, so see this list as recognizing the projects that really got them noticed. There are of course a host to choose from, some young, some old, so to make my selection I chose those which really have interesting debuts. It also serves as quite a relevant reminder as to how these professionals may have gone astray – in one or two cases it shows the direction they might have taken if their artistic flair were allowed free reign by executives and money makers.
*Note: to further narrow the list down, I’ve zeroed in on the projects these directors had a hand in WRITING as well as directing, simply because it reveals more about them and their ‘artistic vision’ for the film.
A little reminder though, it’s hard to judge a film by trailers from way back when, so bear that in mind; sometimes brilliant films looked average by their trailers (but that applies to today as well I suppose)
So, to the list then:

Martin Scorcese
Technically, Scorcese also had writing credits for ‘Boxcar Bertha’  as well as “Who’s that knocking at my door?” but for the sake of entertainment, and the fact that creatively Mean Streets (Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel) represented his true arrival in a more cohesive film with a louder message. (Some say that “Who’s that…” is simply a rough dress rehearsal for Mean Streets, filmed over a couple of years on a shoestring budget and featuring a then unknown Harvey Keitel.)

‘Mean Streets

This is a story about sin and guilt as a low level hood in little Italy aspires to be a respected gangster while keeping his morals intact.

 

Steven Spielberg
This one’s a little harder to narrow down because Spielberg did extensive TV directorial work in the 60’s and 70’s while his first film (credited with both writing and directing) is “Firelight”(1967), but footage of that film is exceeding hard to come by. The other film I considered was ‘The Sugarland Express’ starring Goldie Hawn in her 70’s heyday.
But for the purposes of film significance (and this list), the one everyone will most recognize as his modern day origin or career defining landmark film, is this:
Close Encounters of the Third kind(1977)

A genre cornerstone, ‘Close Encoounters’ was also the first film to illustrate “peaceful” or passive aliens.

 

Michael Mann

This is one consistent director with only one real blemish on his card – Miami Vice (movie).
‘Thief’ (1981)
This is one of those films that keep escaping my grasp. Basic principle: Michael Mann plus James Caan, equals a ‘must-see’. It’s based on Frank Hohimer’s novel “The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat burglar”. A professional thief must align with a local crime boss in order to achieve his wish to settle down and get out of the game.

 

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan
I was going to look at his first feature length film (only 80 min long) called ‘The Following’, but it is somewhat obscure and was a limited release; what really announced his (and brother Jonathan’s) arrival on the international scene, was Memento. Most of you should already be acquainted with this mind job of a film…
‘Memento’

A man suffering from short term memory loss struggles to get out of a daily loop to find his wife’s murderer.

 

Sam Raimi
There’s nothing like a good genre defining film to kick off your directing career. Raimi has struggled (or perhaps he hasn’t really tried that hard) to come close to causing a stir like did with his first gig,
‘The Evil Dead’ (1981) – Red Band trailer

One of the true original ‘cabin in the woods’ horror films; dark, very darkly comedic undertones, involving the Naturon Demonto, the ‘Book of the dead’.

 

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Quintin Tarantino
A director with (largely regarded as) a knockout blow for a debut, Reservoir Dogs.
Pulp Fiction is really the definitive Tarantino film (of the his early career anyway) – and though I’m not his biggest fan – you either love or hate him/his style – the two films mentioned here certainly had the desired effect in carving out his own relatively large niche, and cult following. (I will say though that Bruce Willis’ Butch Coolidge segment was my favourite storyline/character.) For me Reservoir Dogs was just an uncomfortable watch; I never got used to the jerky narrative – just when the action picks up, they cut to an earlier dialogue piece. It does build well in tension, but those trademark dialogue sequences are an acquired taste. I am however comfortable being in the minority with this one.

Reservoir Dogs – (Red band trailer)

A darkly comedic gritty and bloody crime drama, tracking 8 criminals before and after a botched heist, but not actually showing the heist itself.

 

Guy Ritchie
Some say that he’s never quite replicated the work he did on his first film, he’s certainly come close now and again (Snatch)… will be interesting to see what he does with the project currently in development – “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” a spy movie based on the early TV series.
Lock, Stock and Two Smokin’ Barrels’ (1998)

A group of 4 friends in the grimy cockney rich East end of London, hatch a plan to get rich quick via a poker game organized by local porn and crime Kingpin Hatchet harry. The game is rigged and they inevitably find themselves in debt to Harry. It’s dark, dirty and very funny.

 

Joel and Ethan Coen
A truly consistent directorial pair – before hitting pay dirt with Fargo, these two had quite few excellent films in the repertoire. “Miller’s Way” 1987 (which I will admit, I still haven’t seen *head in my hands*), starring Gabriel Byrne, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi and Albert Finney is one of them. Here though, is their 1984 debut starring Francis McDormand, (the underrated) Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh:
Blood Simple’ (1984)

A neo-noir visceral crime drama about a Texan private eye hired by a bar owner (Marty) to kill his unfaithful wife. This trailer is haunting enough in true Coen Brothers style, which is borderline cowboy-horror.

 

George Lucas
Before the holy grail of sci-fi landed, the executives entrusted/allowed him a lesser known and comparatively tiny project to better grasp his vision. it had been in pseudo development for some years and is a quiet yet crucial stepping stone in his greater vision. It’s also a science fiction tale, but a lot more personal. Not an easy watch with a pacing all its own and strictly for genre fans, this films shows the initial direction he was going… the technology may be outdated, but the storytelling is good, along with an excellent turn (as usual) from Robert Duval. It’s also constantly on ‘underrated sci-fi movies’ lists.
THX 1138′

Set in distant future where humans are controlled to have little or no emotion and interaction with fellow humans are limited. An engineer of sorts, number THX 1138 strives to escape, whilst avoiding the attention of pre-Starship trooper-esc guards/warders.

 

Frank Darabont
Okay, so I was swayed by my fandom of The Walking Dead and the role he played in bringing it to TV (He directed the pilot episode), but, his feature length directorial debut (to which he’s also credited with writing the screenplay) is of course none other than this, a front running contender for one the best films NOT to win the Best Film Academy award (it went to Forrest Gump),
The Shawshank Redemption’  (1994)

Andy Dufresne is convicted of a double murder and sentence to life in Shawshank prison where he befriends fellow lifer Red. Aside from his professed innocence, he then also needs to contend with a corrupt prison warden, ruthless guards and the lascivious attentions of inmate Bogs and his gang.

 

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Notable omissions:
James Cameron – People know him and (falsely) accept that his first bona fide offering was The Terminator, but regrettably, it wasn’t, no it was 1981’s “Pirahna II: The Spawning” which he wrote and directed as well.
Stanley Kubrik – “Killer’s Kiss” 1955.
Oliver Stone – “Salvador” – I prefer this to his actual writer/director debut, the less-than-spectacular “The Hand” starring Michael Caine.
Francis Ford Coppola – “Tonight for sure” (1962)
Spike Lee – “Do the right thing” 1989 – I suppose he can feel agrieved to missing out on this list(!)
James L. Brooks – “Terms of Endearment” (1983).
Alfred Hitchcock – “The Ring” (1927) a silent film about two boxers competing for a woman. Not sure if they made trailer’s back then… plus it doesn’t really give an indication as to the creative route he would take later in his career (although in his later years he rarely wrote his original work,but rather adapted other stories).
Director’s who do not write their own screenplays:
Ridley Scott
David Fincher
Sam Mendes

Have excluded anyone that should definitely be on this list? Or maybe just a personal fave – let me know…

  • Terrence

    Great article! Such a fantastic selection of films deserves a marathon repeat-viewing.

    • http://stevenbenjamin.weebly.com/ Steven Benjamin

      Thanks Terrence, totally agree, its like a comprehensive list across so many genre’s… a total film experience!

  • Ilan Preskovsky

    Great list, but for Spielberg, shouldn’t the major breakthrough award go to Jaws, which came out two years before Close Encounters?

    • http://stevenbenjamin.weebly.com/ Steven Benjamin

      Hi Ilan, I chose Close Encounter’s because it was written by
      Spielberg… Jaws would be the natural break out film but it was Peter
      Benchley’s material (novel and screenplay), so creatively ‘Close Encounters’ was kind of (more
      so) Spielberg’s baby – which is what swayed my decision. Great films
      though!

      - like I said, I did take a few liberties…

      • Ilan Preskovsky

        Fair enough. Though, to be fair, Spielberg has never been known as a writer – much like Scorsese, in fact.

        • http://stevenbenjamin.weebly.com/ Steven Benjamin

          True.
          I just used the ‘writer’ angel to narrow down the list, plus, being a writer myself, always looking at the mechanics of storytelling, I was admittedly biased in this regard.