The First Films of Great Directors: Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Tarantino & Truffaut

Great directors — unless they’re Orson Welles — rarely start off making masterpieces. Their craft evolves, reminding us that great filmmaking (like everything else) takes talent, but also hard work. In case you’re doubtful, we’re presenting the first films by five iconic directors, all featured here before, but never brought together into one place. Some first films are downright choppy; some are workmanlike; some are more refined. But none exactly soar to cinematic heights. Above, we start you off with Quentin Tarantino’s 1987 debut film My Best Friend’s Birthday, a choppy production that has something unmistakably Tarantinoesque about it, according to Colin Marshall.

In some sense, [My Best Friend’s Birthday] bears an even deeper imprint of Tarantino’s personality than his subsequent films [Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs], since he stars in it as well. To behold the early-twentysomething Tarantino portraying the good-hearted and aggressively enthusiastic but jittery and distractible rockabilly DJ Clarence Poole is to behold the Quentin Tarantino public persona in an embryonic form, a distilled form — or both.

Long before Francis Ford Coppola shot Apocalpyse Now and The Godfather in the 1970s, he made his real directorial debut with a 75-minute, black-and-white psychological horror film called Dementia 13 (1963). He had made a couple of small-time nudie films before that. But this was his first mainstream, legit effort.

As Colin, our resident film critic has noted here, “To watch Dementia 13 now is to witness Coppola’s control of tension and darkness in its embryonic — but still impressive — form. Nobody involved in the production could have deluded themselves about its goal of shooting a few maximally gruesome axe murders as quickly and cheaply as possible, but even such straitened circumstances allow for pockets of artistry to bubble through.”

When you think Coppola, you think Scorsese too, another director who put his stamp on 1970s and 1980s cinema with Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. We recently revisited Scorsese’s NYU film school days during the early 1960s, when he first cut his teeth as a director. We showed you several of his early shorts (find them all here), but highlighted one of his earliest works, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This (1963). Scorsese would later describe the film as “nine minutes of visual nonsense,” while also saying “it had no depth at all, but it was a lot of fun. And it won me a scholarship, so my father was able to use it for the tuition for the next year.”

Whereas Martin Scorsese went to NYU and leisurely studied the history and aesthetics of cinema, Stanley Kubrick, a poor student, skipped college, started working as a photographer for Look magazine, and eventually began making movies to eke out a living. In the early 1950s, Kubrick started shooting newsreel documentaries, hoping to turn a tidy profit. And here you’ll find his first effort, Day of the Fight, a 1951 noirish documentary on middleweight boxer Walter Cartier and his match with Bobby James. It’s a workmanlike film, yes. But not exactly an obvious prelude to 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. Mike Springer has more on Kubrick’s early documentaries here.

The 1957 film, Les Mistons (The Brats), was technically François Truffaut’s second film but the first that ever satisfied him. Senses of Cinema has elsewhere called it “the director’s first short film of any real consequence.” Relative to the early efforts of other directors, this short demonstrates a more mature set of filmmaking skills, the kind that would be on display two years later when Truffaut released Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows), one of the defining films of French New Wave cinema. Colin Marshall takes a closer look at Les Mistons right here.

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