An Expert’s Opinion December 2006

Influential Filmmakers

As we assembled our list of the top 100 influential figures in American history, we asked critic David Thomson whom he sees as America’s most influential filmmakers. Here are his Top Five:

D.W. Griffith (1875-1948)

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Griffith took glimpses and made schemes. He saw that suspense was our reason for watching. His objects of suspense were archaic, trite, and worse (virginity, piety, the South’s nobility), but a business was born with 1915’s Birth of a Nation—along with every warning that the industry might be scurrilous, dangerous, and the province of rascals. President Wilson called the movie “history written in lightning”—so pretentious film criticism was under way, too. Despite attendant geniuses (the Gish sisters, the cameraman Billy Bitzer), Griffith’s movies are hard to watch now. His world of film was perishable—everything goes off fast. He made people sit for three hours, and come back for more. It was the essential principle of American life: keep the public still. (Wikimedia Commons)

Orson Welles (1915-1985)

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Welles believed in being a great man. Therefore if he did films, filmmaking must be a great medium and art—an Art. He went to Hollywood to defy law and order—to make a film his way, in defiance of accepted customs and manners; or better still, to make it about himself. So Charles Foster Kane is less William Randolph Hearst than George Orson Welles. The director fought with the studio system, disdained money, preferred unfettered ego, and demonstrated the great danger of such an artistic soul. Also, his life suggested that charm is a very dangerous thing, and enough to ruin America. The final irony: despite an overwhelming weight of self-delight (and his eventually overwhelming weight), Welles was a real genius. There but for the grace of God goes God. (Wikimedia Commons)

Howard Hawks (1896-1977)

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Hawks said it’s easy, cool, dreamy—you just make elegant fantasies for the folks. For two hours they live in a dream, but the dream is hard-boiled, wisecracking, tough. Hard and soft—you have it both ways. How easy? He could do comedy, Westerns, musicals, screwball, film noir, war. What do you need? Edgy guys and fresh dames: Wayne, Grant, Bogey, Cooper, Cagney, with Bacall, Dickinson, Lombard, Hepburn, Hayworth. The rules: never cry, never sweat, never get an Oscar, never go stale. Hawks is still so fresh, you can’t keep up. (Wikimedia Commons)

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)

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Alfred Hitchcock combined Griffith’s suspense with Hawks’s fantasy, and found voyeurism (we watch, can’t help it, but we feel guilty). His plan: put the audience through it. Make suspense so acute—so storyboarded, so camera angled, so full of piercing sounds—that we’re jumping out of our seats. He began with crime stories (which character is guilty?), then moved on to parables (is the audience guilty?). He made films in his head before shooting, thus stressing the power of the director. Beloved by the French, the auteur theorists, and all would-be tyrants, Hitchcock eventually edged over into horror—see the move from Vertigo to Psycho—and introduced the challenge that led to film’s decline: Can you keep your eyes open if I show you this? (Wikimedia Commons)

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

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Warhol made the great deadpan eye-ronic thought bubble of the ’60s—just in time to ruin film theory and film crit, but not soon enough to slow film’s march into academia. Film is stupid. Anyone can do it. Turn the camera on and go to lunch. Find depraved versions of beautiful people. Have them take clothes off and improvise. Call them stars. He screwed the camera back to the floor—as in the 1900s—and took no interest in the result, but called it “A film by Andy Warhol.” His basic rules: if the exposure came out OK, they will watch; if they are arguing over what it means, it’s a movie. (Wikimedia Commons)

See below for more on America’s most influential musicians, critics, architects, and poets—along with The Atlantic’s full list of the 100 most influential figures in American history, the top living influentials, and more.

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David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. His most recent book is Nicole Kidman.

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