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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