The Best Directorial Debuts: Pre-1990

A director is the heart and soul of a film; a director decides on the pace, the tone and the visual style of a film, and no doubt has one of the most pivotal roles on set. As a follow-up to Dom Shaw’s The Best Directorial Debuts: Post-1990 article, here I delve into the greatest directorial debuts before the nineties:


Holy Grail7. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, 1975) 

“I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”

Often considered a British comedy cult classic, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the directorial debut of Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. The film follows the quest of King Arthur (the late Graham Chapman) who recruits the Knights of the Round Table to find the Holy Grail: Sir Lancelot the Brave (John Cleese), Sir Galahad the Pure (Michael Palin), Sir Bedevere the Wise (Terry Jones) and Sir Robin the Not-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot (Eric Idle). Obviously this film is not one to be taken too seriously; it’s a thoroughly silly and barmy affair, filled to the brim with memorable dialogue and hilarious scenarios. Following the film, Terry Gilliam continued a comedy and directorial career with the cult 1985 film Brazil whereas Terry Jones recently directed the science-fiction comedy Absolutely Anything (2015).


This Is Spinal Tap6. This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)

“Dozens of people spontaneously combust each year, it’s just not really widely reported.”

1984 saw the directorial debut of American filmmaker Rob Reiner. Reiner both directed and starred in the satirical rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap which follows a hopeless English glam rock band as they travel across the USA on an atrocious tour.  Reiner observes the band as a fictional filmmaker, Marty Di Bergi, whilst lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) hilariously clashes with lead singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean). This Is Spinal Tap must have been a tall order to succeed as Reiner continued his career with moderate hits such as romantic-comedy When Harry Met Sally (1989) and comedy-drama The Bucket List (2007).


The 400 Blows5. The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959) 

“Oh, I lie now and then, I suppose. Sometimes I’d tell them the truth and they still wouldn’t believe me, so I prefer to lie.”

The 400 Blows, directed by François Truffaut, is one of the leading films of the French New Wave movement. A semi-autobiographical film based roughly on Truffaut’s childhood, The 400 Blows follows a troubled young boy, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who quits school and runs away from his parents. Antoine is caught by his stepfather and is handed over to the police. Truffaut’s direction is vibrant and superb, making The 400 Blows one of the best classic coming-of-age dramas. His vibrant directorial style can be seen in his other films like Jules et Jim (1962). Truffaut’s aim was to make at least thirty films but sadly died at the age of fifty-two; he was five films short of his goal.


Citizen Kane4. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) 

“There’s only one person in the world who’s going to decide what I’m going to do and that’s me…”

Bickering often ensues as film buffs try to decide whether Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made; Orson Welles’ 1941 drama spent fifty years at the top of Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time poll, only to be ousted by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in 2012. Citizen Kane follows reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) who investigates the meaning behind the mysterious last words of public figure Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles). Orson Welles is often praised for his use of deep focus and long-angle shots, providing him with one of the most successful careers in Hollywood as a director, writer and actor.


Virginia Woolf3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)

“Martha, in my mind you’re buried in cement right up to the neck; no, up to the nose, it’s much quieter.”

My film studies credibility is on the line, as it is embarrassing to admit this, that until a few days ago, I had been deceived by the title all my life and was under the impression that this 1966 critically acclaimed film, was in fact a biopic of the English writer Virginia Woolf with Elizabeth Taylor donning a fake nose. Turns out it isn’t.

Mike Nichols’ directorial debut is a catty and back-biting black comedy that echoes the works of Noël Coward. The film follows the viciously tongued college associate professor George (a fine Richard Burton) and his alcoholic wife Martha (a magnificent performance from Elizabeth Taylor). The couple return home from a faculty dinner one night, and they soon arrange to entertain a  younger professor, Nick (George Segal), and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis). During the film, Mike Nichols’ direction exercises several close-ups, making George and Martha’s living room feel intensely claustrophobic. Nichols went on to have a successful career, best known for directing The Graduate (1967) and a number of Broadway stage productions.


Easy Rider (2)2. Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) 

“What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about.”

Easy Rider is one of the definitive film of the sixties. Released during the same period as The Graduate (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969), it helped kick-start a new wave of filmmaking across Hollywood in the late sixties and seventies. Dennis Hopper directs Easy Rider, and stars as motorcycle rider Billy, a freewheeling hippie who treks across the USA (usually to the the belting sounds of Steppenwolf) with fellow hippie Wyatt ‘Captain America’ (Peter Fonda). The film also saw the debut of Hollywood acting legend Jack Nicholson, starring in a supporting role as hopeless lawyer and drunk George Hanson; George befriends Billy and Wyatt, and briefly joins them on the road. Dennis Hopper struggled to match the success of Easy Riderperhaps due to a difficult personal life, but his career was finally revived when he portrayed Frank Booth, the iconic villain, in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).


Breathless1. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)  

When the French say a second, they mean five minutes.”

Breathless is the directorial debut of French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. The film sees criminal Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) kill a policeman on a country road. Soon, Michel arrives in Paris, on the run and penniless, and turns to his American love interest, Patricia (Jean Seberg), for shelter and comfort. What makes Breathless a number one entry is that Jean Luc-Godard was not afraid of doing things differently; he used unconventional jump cuts that gave the film a bold unusual visual style, thus bringing worthy international attention and acclaim. Having enjoyed a continuously lengthy and successful career in film, Jean Luc-Godard has created some of the most bold and daring films that explore themes of politics, ideology and war.


Do you agree with the entries to this list? Would you add any pre-1990 directorial debuts?

Comment with your thoughts.

Anna Richards

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