From an auteurist standpoint, the great directors have the power to transform bad, lackluster, or cliched material into great art. But even the mightiest directors have had a few duds. Robert Altman’s Quintet is ignored by almost everyone; stalwart Fordians do not look kindly upon Born Reckless; even the hardcore Hawksians consider Trent’s Last Case to be without merit. (There is also some disagreement regarding A Song is Born.) Hitchcock had Juno and the Paycock, and Michael Mann probably doesn’t like to think about The Keep.
It’s quite rare, then, that a filmmaker (or, occasionally, a filmmaking team) should pitch a no-hitter, from start to finish. Here’s a list of ten. For sanity’s sake we are grading on a slight curve: feature filmmakers only, their documentary work (if any) doesn’t count, nor do their shorts, TV episodes, and “etc” work.
2. Fritz Lang
In his first ten years as a director, Lang came to represent the pinnacle of German silent cinema. The next ten years saw him become one of the first masters of the sync sound process (with M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse), flee Nazi Germany to France, make a few of the most incendiary and emotional masterpieces of Code-enforced Hollywood, then begin what cynics might describe as a slow, 17-year descent into for-hire work on westerns, action movies, and noirs. The last part is deadly bullshit: as minor as his Hollywood work might seem thematically, compared to the epic, timeless stories of Die Nibelungen and Metropolis, a careful examination will reveal that “minor” is the last word appropriate to describing films such as The Big Heat, While the City Sleeps, Ministry of Fear, Woman in the Window, House by the River, to name only a few. There’s no break in the thematic-aesthetic connective tissue between the German period and the Hollywood period; if you stand Die Nibelungen alongside a near-unknown quantity such as American Guerrilla in the Philippines, for example, this becomes quite apparent.
After his long absence, Lang returned to Hollywood to make the mighty “Indian Epic,” a triumph in color, eroticism, and architecture imbued with the stuff of myth. His final film was The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, a gear shift from the diptych of The Indian Tomb and The Tiger of Eschnapur, but also a summary work, and one of the greatest.