Fritz Lang: Searing pessimist

The men with the megaphone

A new history of movie directors is full of insight, felicitous phrases and subtle put-downs

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

And I say it’s the doggone most fascinating game there is — directing motion pictures,” pioneering director Allan Dwan told fan magazine Photoplay in August 1920. “It’s a sense of power and a sense of creation in one. It’s a gamble. Even if you know something about it, you’re not sure you know anything about it at all.”

A Light in the Dark: A History of Movie Directors
by David Thomson, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20

In the beginning, the movie director was the man with the megaphone, barking instructions at a camera operator and a troupe of actors. Before long his audience on the set had grown to become an army of technicians and, as the cliché has it, a cast of thousands. D. W. Griffith was a “crowd-pleaser” whose 1915 masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation, is virtually a white supremacist tract and so Griffith is “now an outlaw or a genius we cannot own up to”.

Erich von Stroheim, whose Greed (1924) was edited down by MGM from his director’s cut of ten hours to a mere two, is the prototype of the out-of-control artistic genius of cinema. Indeed, David Thomson argues that one of the most powerful urges behind becoming a film director is the “opportunity to be out of control, and then rewarded for it. Directors cannot get over the urge to be an outlaw.”

This short book is a complement to Thomson’s ground-breaking A Biographical Dictionary of Cinema, first published in 1975 and now in its sixth edition, notable for its trenchant opinions and striking prose as well as its encyclopedia information. Here, Thomson devotes a chapter each to around a dozen directors, although within each chapter he might digress about other directors, and there are a few chapters which are more general in theme, for example one about the female gaze and another about directors from ethnic minorities.

Fritz Lang was “the first searing pessimist in a medium given over to crowd-pleasing and sentimentality … I suspect he regarded himself as a failure, and he made a lot of films which upheld that view.” While Jean Renoir continues to be the model of humanist cinema, the Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel ’s “rating on the movie stock exchange is slipping … Perhaps his insights are too unsettling for a community content with dreams and white lies.” Howard Hawks was the professional American director par excellence: “all he cared about was ease” and he was “a lifestyle model for succeeding generations”.

Hitchcock “established the model of a film director as a cold, taunting genius who knew so little about the world because he was afraid of it and preferred his lurking role as voyeur and surveillant”. Psycho was the film that crowned his reputation as a gleeful trangressive showman.

Whereas Hitchcock was a commercial storyteller, Orson Welles, the boy genius behind Citizen Kane, never felt bound by the job description of film director. (One volume of Simon Callow’s biography shows Welles gearing up to become a politician in the late 1940s.) “Nothing in Orson caused more upset in the picture business than his glorification of failure,” says Thomson. “He resisted success or regularity but was a master of the disorganised moment.” More famous for his chat-show appearances in America and his sherry commercials in Europe, Welles is the average undergraduate’s notion of the great film director. (Which is not to say that he wasn’t great.)

Nicholas Ray was “ardent and gloomy, creative and self-destructive, and he was a test case at a crucial moment of turmoil in the status of the film director”. He was a hero to younger directors — idolised by Wim Wenders, who made a feature documentary about him — though nonetheless a wounded animal.

For a film critic of Thomson’s generation, the 1960s is the key inflexion point in this history. That was when publishing houses began issuing books about directors, explaining their bodies of work, their favoured themes, and, principally, their stylistic attributes. The first such book Thomson identifies was Richard Roud’s book about Godard, and this was followed a year later by Andrew Sarris’s American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 which imported the auteur theory from France to America.

In the 1970s, “it was not just possible — it became necessary — to believe in American movie directors”

Once transplanted, auteurism prompted “directors to become more arrogant or pretentious, just as it encouraged the Village Voice [where Sarris worked] and other places to hire pulpit-ready film critics, while schools knew they had to have film courses, publications and tenure”. Then, in the 1970s, “it was not just possible — it became necessary — to believe in American movie directors. They were heroes in the culture, storytellers and prophets”. Bogdanovich, Altman, Coppola, Malick, Polanski, Cimino and Scorsese are all checked off.

Every chapter of Light in the Dark is full of insights, felicitous phrases, and that Thomson speciality — the subtle put-down or bathetic compliment. Thus, in the chapter on Jean-Luc Godard, Thomson dubs David Lean a “dour perfectionist” and says of his Oscar-winning Doctor Zhivago that it featured Julie Christie “like a Lara from South Kensington, and a relentless musical theme for elevators . . . It was the Soviet Union fit for Surbiton or Pasadena. Whereas [Godard’s] Pierrot le Fou was offhand, indelible and a summer rapture.” And in the chapter on auteurist American directors of the 1970s Thomson describes Peter Bogdanovich as “an American Godard (for a few years)”. Those brackets are lethal.

There is a warm-hearted chapter about Stephen Frears. Thomson doesn’t mention it here, but he once wrote a screenplay, Fierce Heat, which was to be produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Frears, who is more craftsman than auteur, a modern version of the Hollywood contract director who is not afraid to revert to television “angling to make it different and worthwhile, instead of behaving like a grand movie director doing shameless, epic rubbish”. Frears, Thomson concludes, is untypical of most directors in that “he has never seemed persuaded that a movie — much less one of his — could change the world”.

He acknowledges Tarantino’s talent and cult status, but feels that in his later films — at least before Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood — his talent was “being smothered by undigested adolescent dreams”.

There are gaps here. In an afterword, Thomson says he doesn’t feel qualified to write about the great director Kenji Mizoguchi (“I feel too ignorant or distant from Japan”), and he has nothing to say about Soviet or New Asian or Latin American or African cinema. There is nothing about Italian neorealism, which so impressed the French film critic André Bazin, but he jumps to Fellini and Antonioni.

Even as encylopaedic a critic as Thomson is constrained by personal knowledge and taste. He is “not bowled over” by Spike Lee’s films “despite believing in him as a public example”, and prefers another African-American director, Carl Franklin. “Mere liking or opinion should not be important, but it is a habit we should not give up.”

In the old days, directors graduated from television to movies: think of Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet, and John Frankenheimer. Since the emergence of cable TV and now streaming platforms, directors move in the opposite direction. Take, for example, the minor cult director John Dahl, who directed three well-received neo-noirs culminating in The Last Seduction (1994) before becoming a prolific TV director who has since worked on numerous cable and streaming series.

Thomson doesn’t mention Dahl, but he does namecheck Michelle MacLaren, who has been as prolific and mechanical as Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, who “directed as if he were driving a dodgem car on a crowded rink, perfectly and impersonally, and as if the whole venture was what one of its screenwriters would call ‘slick shit’”.

What might spell the end of the cult of the director? Perhaps as we throw off the tyranny of the male gaze, this quintessentially masculine role will die. Film books, once a thriving genre, have fallen prey to the DVD extra. Technology has overtaken artistry as such, and the great craftspeople (women as much as men) are now to be found in the field of long-form television, where director credits are not emphasised to the viewer.

Nobody has sought out The Wire because Polish director Agnieszka Holland directed three episodes. “The stream is the auteur” now, Thomson asserts. I’m not so sure. Christopher Nolan is as much of a crowd-pleaser as Griffith, as much of a purveyor of spectacle, and the subject of a lavish and reverential 2020 book by critic Tom Shone. For the time being, the film director remains a combination of cultural pathfinder, confidence trickster, and hubristic overreacher.

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