The Actor’s Cheat Sheet: 5 Classic Directors You Should Know

Article Image
Photo Source: Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock

Want to impress your erudite film brethren on X (formerly Twitter), classmates from acting class, or even your know-it-all relatives? It’s time to expand your classic film knowledge past 1990. Here are five of the greatest film directors of all time and the perfect ways to jump into their wide-ranging filmographies. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how these movies still hold a mirror to issues we’re dealing with right now. Plus, there’s nothing like looking smart in front of people who think they’re smarter.

Charlie Chaplin

There’s debate to this day as to whether the Little Tramp was cinema’s greatest clown. But one thing’s not up for debate: Chaplin’s film imprint is deeper than a T. rex’s stomper. For almost a century, his work has sparked imitations galore and inspired filmmakers to weave together physical comedy and well-earned sentiment.
Where to start: Begin with “Modern Times” (1936)—and not merely because it’s part talkie and, thus, more accessible to those resistant to silent film. The theme of blue-collar workers as cogs in a larger machine is as relevant today as it was nearly 100 years ago. Plus, the set pieces are dazzling, especially one where Chaplin is literally a cog in a machine.

Alfred Hitchcock

The “master of suspense” earned his moniker by scaring people, slowly; and even the most casual glance at one of Hitchcock’s classic films proves his influence on later imitators. Homages from filmmakers such as Brian De Palma and David Fincher have their own unmistakable allure, but there’s only one Hitchcock.
Where to start: This is a hard one, as just about any of the director’s films work as a solid introduction to his technique. But “Rear Window” (1954) is a great mix of all of Hitch’s obsessions: romance, thrills, voyeurism, and big-name actors who look incredible. Fortunately, the horror threshold of this film is much lower than some of his other classics, such as “Psycho” or “The Birds” (but see those, too!).

John Huston

The Hustons are an acting and directing dynasty, and John himself is the paterfamilias with the largest reach. (He’s also an incredible actor; see 1974’s “Chinatown.”) His dad, Walter, was classic film star; his daughter is the legendary Anjelica; his son is the versatile Danny (“The Constant Gardener,” “American Horror Story”); and his grandson Jack continues to appear in compelling film and TV roles (“Ben-Hur,” “Boardwalk Empire”).
Where to start: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) remains about as crackerjack a film noir as has ever existed. It thrives on unique, kinetic energy—with much of it coming from the cool-as-ever Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade sleuthing like a beast.

Stanley Kubrick

The NYC-born game-changer is known for his minute precision and multiple takes to get the perfect moment in the can (he wasn’t every actor’s cup of tea), but his output remains visually stunning. There is hardly a modern dramatic filmmaker in sight who doesn’t owe Kubrick some kind of tip of the hat.
Where to start: For a potent dose of Kubrick’s otherworldliness, throw on the one that’s literally otherworldly: 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The technique in this film continues to amaze and fire up the imagination (some of its camera equipment was even created by Kubrick). Plus, you will know where the opening scene of “Barbie” owes its origin.

Billy Wilder

Wilder remains one of cinema’s greatest writer-directors, and his work continues to be ahead of its time and ultra-durable. His influence even reaches all the way to Broadway, with “Promises, Promises,” “Some Like It Hot,” and “Sunset Boulevard” among his most successful musical adaptations. 

Where to start: Any of the above-mentioned titles can be classified as an all-time great, but we’ll pivot and throw “Ace in the Hole” (1951) in there. The Kirk Douglas–starring drama about a cynical newsman who’ll stop at nothing to be the apple of the media eye is so timely it’s scary.

Jason Clark has over 25 years of experience in the entertainment and media industry covering film, television, and stage. He comes to Backstage from the Wrap, where he worked as an awards reporter since 2021. He also has bylines in Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, Vulture, the Village Voice, All-Movie Guide, and Slant Magazine. Clark received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in cinema studies from New York University.

Jason Clark
Jason Clark (he/him) has over 25 years in the entertainment and media industry covering film, television, and theater. He comes to Backstage from TheWrap, where he’s worked as an awards reporter since 2021. He also has bylines in Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, Vulture, the Village Voice, AllMovie, and Slant Magazine, among many others. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in cinema studies from New York University.
See full bio and articles here!

More From Backstage Experts

Recommended

More From Actors + Performers

Now Trending