Influential American Filmmakers: Hitchcock to Spielberg

Jan 10, 2020 | Film

In this lesson, we will meet a few of America’s most famous filmmakers. We will look at the accomplishments of Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and several other influential directors who have changed the movie industry.

The People Who Tell the Stories

Filmmakers are some of America’s most influential storytellers, and their task of translating a story into a film is complex and demanding. Before their movies ever reach an audience, filmmakers must collaborate with writers to get the script just right; help select the cast; approve locations, music, sets, and costumes; direct the daily activities of the cast and crew as they shoot the film; and work with cinematographers and editors to produce the final product. The greatest filmmakers do all of this so well that they produce a body of work that expresses their personal vision, passes the test of time, and changes movie history. In this lesson, we’ll meet a few of these great filmmakers.

Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock is often called the ‘Master of Suspense’ and with good reason. His movies explore the deep, dark recesses of the human mind in a manner that keeps audiences at the edge of their seats. In films like Psycho, Vertigo, The Birds, Rear Window, and The 39 Steps, Hitchcock brings tension and suspense to the big screen through a fast-paced style, plots full of twists and turns, clever camera angles, startling point-of-view shots, and abrupt sounds. Hitchcock made 65 movies in his career over 50 years.

Orson Welles

Like Hitchcock, Orson Welles knew how to keep an audience in suspense. His dramatic 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds terrified listeners who thought that the earth was really being attacked by Martians. The stunt earned Welles his first movie contract, and he made good in a hurry. His first film, Citizen Kane, has become a classic. With its unique use of the ‘deep focus’ lens, every aspect of this film stands out vividly, and meaning practically gushes out of each line and scene. Welles created other film masterpieces, too, including Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight, and The Magnificent Ambersons.

Walt Disney

Our next filmmaker has become a household name. Walt Disney‘s animated and live-action film creations have entertained children and adults alike for many decades. Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Friends appeared on the scene in the late 1920s, and Disney has been going strong ever since. Film historians point to Bambi, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Fantasia as Disney classics, but nearly everyone has one, two, three, or more favorites from the more than 100 films produced by the Disney studios. Even though Walt Disney passed on in 1966, his legacy continues and flourishes today.

John Ford

John Ford is mostly known for his westerns, including the classic flicks Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In these movies, the western landscape itself almost becomes a character, for Ford was an expert at using long shots that capture the power of the environment. Furthermore, Ford actually discovered and introduced the famous western actor John Wayne. Westerns weren’t Ford’s only film genre, however. His dramas The Grapes of Wrath, The Informer, and How Green Was My Valley have also become movie classics.

Howard Hawks

Filmmaker Howard Hawks was also comfortable crossing genres. His movies include comedies like Bringing Up Babyand His Girl Friday; westerns like Red River; war movies, including Sergeant York; film noir detective pieces like The Big Sleep; adaptations of literary works, including Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not; and gangster flicks like Scarface. Hawks created character types that became standard in the movie industry, including tough females and active male heroes.

Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola also knows a thing or two about creating powerful characters. Starting in the 1970s, he began reviving the genres and characters of Hollywood’s earlier days. These results include war films like Patton and Apocalypse Now and gangster movies like The Godfather trilogy that made Coppola famous. Coppola’s later works include The Outsiders and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

George Lucas

Anyone who has ever seen the Star Wars series or the Indiana Jones movies already knows something about filmmaker George Lucas, who is a master of bringing science fiction epics and adventure sagas to the big screen. Lucas’ first successful film, American Graffiti, appeared in 1973 and was followed by a string of successes, including numerous films in the two series just mentioned, as well as the World War II drama Red Tails about the famous Tuskegee Airmen.

Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg is one of the best-known filmmakers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His movies include a long list of modern classics like Jaws, Schindler’s List, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, The Color Purple, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, and Lincoln. As this list shows, Spielberg doesn’t hesitate to cross genres, and as he does, he creates meaningful stories, deep characters, technological marvels, and films that will continue to stand the test of time and make their director one of the most popular filmmakers of all time.

Lesson Summary

We’ve met quite a few famous filmmakers in this lesson, so let’s review. Filmmakers are some of America’s most influential storytellers, and their task of translating a story into a film is complex and demanding. The greatest filmmakers do their job so well that they produce a body of work that expresses their personal vision, passes the test of time, and changes movie history. Some of these great filmmakers include:

  • The ‘Master of Suspense’ Alfred Hitchcock, whose movies explored the deep, dark recesses of the human mind
  • Orson Welles, whose first film, Citizen Kane, was also his first masterpiece
  • Walt Disney, whose dozens of animated and live-action film creations have entertained children and adults alike for many decades
  • John Ford, who is mostly known for his westerns and his attention to landscapes but who also produced classic dramas like The Grapes of Wrath
  • Howard Hawks, who worked successfully in many genres and created types of characters that became standard in the film industry
  • Francis Ford Coppola, who revived war films and gangster flicks to create movies like Patton and The Godfathertrilogy
  • George Lucas, who is a master of bringing science fiction epics and adventure sagas like the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series to the big screen
  • Steven Spielberg, who is one of the best-known filmmakers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and is responsible for a long list of modern classics, including Jaws, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan

No one can really know much about a filmmaker without watching his movies, so the next step for any film student is to watch the great works of these filmmakers. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy some classic films.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you should have the ability to:

  • Describe the many roles of a director
  • Identify several important directors, their movies, and their contributions to the film industry
Influential World Filmmakers: Kurosawa to Bergman
Introduction of Sound to the Film Industry