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Six Great Classic Movie Directors

Men Who Made Masterpieces

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Oh, Marilyn!

Billy Wilder's Seven Year Itch

(c) 20th Century Fox
We all have favorite actors, actresses and film styles, but sometimes the most satisfying find for the classic movie fan is a director whose work consistently hits the mark. Here are six of the finest directors of classic American film. Try some of the suggested movies below, and if you find one you love, seek out the rest of the director’s work. You’re sure to find some undiscovered gems.

Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder made great movies in three languages. Born in what is now Poland of Jewish heritage, Wilder was directing films in Germany when Hitler came to power. He fled to Paris, directed films there, and eventually landed in America without knowing a word of English – yet promptly became one of the most successful directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. His films are marked with wit, cynicism, irony and comedy that ranges from biting to effervescent. Above all, Billy Wilder’s films are richly entertaining. For comic fluff, see Some like it Hot or The Seven-Year Itch, both with Marilyn Monroe. For great film noir, don’t miss Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity.

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Frank Capra

An immigrant from Sicily, Frank Capra lived the American Dream, and wove its substance into enduring films about the lives and times of ordinary Americans. He did odd jobs and manual labor to pay for his education, served in the military and was often flat broke. Yet he became one of the most successful directors of the ‘30s, and made propaganda films for the government that built popular support for the American entry into World War II. While some derided his inspiring, patriotic movies as “Capra-corn,” the stories of upright, decent men struggling against corrupt forces are quintessentially American, and audiences loved their idealism. For a great screwball comedy, take on It Happened One Night, or Arsenic and Old Lace. For inspiration, go to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or the holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.

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John Ford

John Ford won more Oscars than any other director – four for feature films and two for documentaries. He made dozens of films, both silent and sound, and many brilliant directors, including Orson Welles and Steven Spielberg, cite him as an influence. He described himself as a plain-spoken man who made westerns, and there is a rocky point named for him in Utah’s Monument Valley, backdrop to many a western film. Famously prickly, and disliked by actors for his inability to give them clear direction, he nevertheless drew great performances from his players and produced several masterpieces - and not only westerns. Try The Searchers, How Green Was My Valley, or the Grapes of Wrath.

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William Wyler

The German-born William Wyler didn’t win quite as many best-director Oscars as Ford (Wyler got three), but Oscars and Oscar nominations rained down on his films and the actors he directed. “Willi” got his break during an early reign of nepotism at Universal, which once employed more than 70 members of his extended family at one time, but he proved his mettle early on as one of the finest directors Hollywood ever produced. He was an innovator who could never be pinned down to a single genre or style, and he made beautiful movies that are still beloved by millions, including Ben Hur, Mrs. Miniver, and Roman Holiday.

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Alfred Hitchcock

The “Master of Suspense” embossed his matchless style on every movie he directed, just as he inserted his unmistakable portly profile into every film with a sly cameo. Hitchcock’s movies were always fresh, even as he used the same themes and archetypical characters again and again: ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, mistaken identity, espionage, murder and madness. His movies were marked with sly wit and moments of macabre humor, strong sexual themes, explorations of the darkest corners of the human mind – and always knuckle-whitening “Hitchcockian” suspense. You can hardly go wrong with Hitch, but some of his best are North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, Notorious and Vertigo.

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John Huston

Flamboyant, larger-than-life John Huston was a boxer, painter, macho outdoorsman, sculptor, actor and screenwriter, but above all, a director. Son of a Hollywood star, Walter Huston, John’s directorial debut remains one of the finest film noir detective stories ever screened: The Maltese Falcon. The movie was the first of a fruitful collaboration with star Humphrey Bogart that included the rip-roaring adventure The African Queen, the romantic thriller Key Largo, and the unforgettable Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in which he also directed his father. He left Hollywood in disgust after the red-baiting of the McCarthy era, but came roaring back in the ‘80s, directing his daughter Angelica to an Oscar in the operatic mob saga Prizzi’s Honor.

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