10 great overlooked films by master directors

From Hitchcock to the Coen brothers, even some of the greatest directors have films that deserve a boost to their reputation.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

The Touch (1971)

The Touch (1971)

Look a little closer: there are masterpieces hidden in plain sight. Or, if not fully seaworthy, copper-bottomed masterpieces, then at least second-tier movies made by master filmmakers that deserve a better share of the limelight.

Those slimline outputs of geniuses like Kubrick (13 features) or Tarkovsky (seven features) are relatively easy to get a handle on. The gold has all been discovered. But with more prolific filmmakers, long and winding careers can conceal neglected treasures nestled in-between the good, the great and the indifferent.

Ingmar Bergman left behind close to 50 features, including half a dozen of the finest anyone’s done. He’s one of film history’s most written about figures. Even so, the imminent rerelease of his 1971 film The Touch is being hailed as a major rediscovery.

His first partly English language film, The Touch came in the middle of a world-beating run that he made with actor and ‘muse’ Liv Ullmann in the late 1960s and early 70s. Little seen for decades, it stars Bergman regulars Bibi Andersson and Max von Sydow as a married couple, and American actor Elliott Gould – hot off the success of MASH (1970) – as the visiting archaeologist who comes between them.

Receiving mixed reviews, it sunk at the box office, and when his subsequent film, Cries and Whispers (1972), had the exact opposite effect, it was easy enough for everyone to forget about The Touch. Bergman had moved on.

Now that this autumnal tale of passion and infidelity has been restored and reissued, new audiences will be able to judge for themselves where this “misunderstood masterwork” fits in the Bergman canon. To herald its release, we rounded up other interesting cases of works by major directors that could do with a leg up.

The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946)

Director Jean Renoir

The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946)

Jean Renoir had one of those long old movie careers that risks being eclipsed by its own supreme achievements. Beyond La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Règle du jeu (1939), which have spent decades bothering the upper reaches of best-film-ever polls, there are a couple of handfuls of second-tier masterpieces that are left out of the limelight.

The Diary of a Chambermaid represents the peak of his Hollywood period (although 1945’s Steinbeckian The Southerner runs it close). The second of four movie adaptations of Octave Mirbeau’s saucy 1900 novel, it stars Paulette Goddard as the conspiring new maid at a country house, where she attracts the lust of the bumbling patriarch, his dashing but sickly son, their flower-eating neighbour and the ruthless valet. Subverting the upstairs-downstairs dynamics of La Règle du jeu, Renoir offers up a febrile atmosphere of perversity and surprising cruelty, which culminates in violence during a Bastille Day parade.

Under Capricorn (1949)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Under Capricorn (1949)

Alfred Hitchcock left us so many indispensable films, it’s probably greedy to go looking for more. But keep going after the major thrillers and you’ll get to Under Capricorn – an anomaly, but a frequently brilliant one. A costume picture set in Australia, it’s no one’s idea of a Hitchcock movie, though it contains major thematic continuities with Rebecca (1940) and Notorious (1946), hinging as it does on a wife who’s driven to the point of delirium in her husband’s vast old house.

The husband in this case is Joseph Cotten’s ex-con-turned-wealthy-businessman, while the wife is magnificently essayed by Ingrid Bergman, in her third Hitchcock film. Alcoholic and withdrawn, she’s maliciously fed booze by another of the director’s sinister housekeepers (Margaret Leighton), who also stoops to leaving nightmarish shrunken heads in her mistress’s bed. As in many such overheated melodramas, there’s a mystery in the past to be unlocked, while Hitchcock continues his experimentation with unbroken takes by roaming the house in long, flowing shots.

Gone to Earth (1950)

Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Gone to Earth (1950)

Few can rival the run of films that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made together in the mid-to-late 1940s. Masterpieces all, they’ve tended to cast shade over the pair’s patchier 50s work. But if you came to 1950’s Gone to Earth fresh, it could take your breath away. Set in Shropshire towards the end of the 19th century, it’s a Hardy-ish tale of an impulsive country lass (Jennifer Jones) who catches the eye of dastardly squire and upstanding minister alike, both of whom in turn attempt to possess and control her wild nature.

American producer David O. Selznick, likewise protective of his wife in the starring role, slashed nearly half an hour from the original running time ahead of release – a butchering that led to neglect. But seen in its restored version, put back together by the BFI in 1985, Gone to Earth looks a worthy successor to the pair’s A Canterbury Tale (1944) in its mystical evocation of the strange energies in the English landscape. Shot in flame-visioned Technicolor, it’s a film in which you can smell the soil and heather.

The Immortal Story (1968)

Director Orson Welles

The Immortal Story (1968)

Orson Welles made films as rich as fat novels (Citizen Kane; The Magnificent Ambersons) and as compulsive as pulp fiction (The Lady from Shanghai; Touch of Evil), but one of his least-seen pictures is more like a well-thumbed novella – a miniature mood piece and anecdote that he made for French TV at the tail end of the 1960s.

At 60 minutes, The Immortal Story is the shortest film he completed, done cheaply but in colour (a Welles first), with Madrid standing in for 19th-century Macao. It’s based on a story by Karen Blixen, with Welles himself, vast and whiskered, playing a wealthy merchant, Charles Clay, who becomes obsessed with an old maritime legend about a rich man who pays a sailor to impregnate his wife. Jeanne Moreau plays the woman Clay employs to help recreate the myth, while Fernando Rey also pops up in a cameo as a yarn-spinning merchant. With haunting use of Satie’s piano music, there’s something bewitching and transportive about the snowglobe world that Welles creates, with so little means but so much imagination.

Fedora (1978)

Director Billy Wilder

Fedora (1978)

Billy Wilder has a handful of golden-age Hollywood’s most beloved films to his name. Double Indemnity (1944), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960) – all as caustic as they are quotable. From the autumn of his career, however, two movies offer a warmth and compassion that’s rare in his work: his romantic Conan Doyle mystery The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and this underrated Hollywood story from 1978.

With William Holden in the lead, Fedora has inevitably been seen as an outmoded attempt to redo his movie-industry satire Sunset Blvd. (1950), with Holden playing a producer who travels to Corfu to seek out a has-been star living out her life in mysterious exile. Yet, post-New Hollywood, and with the studio system disappearing in the rear-view mirror, Wilder’s tragic tale about the ravages of both stardom and the ageing process has a richly elegiac tone that’s all its own. Not that Fedora is without its flag-wavers. Time Out once called it “one of the most sublime achievements of the 70s”.

One from the Heart (1982)

Director Francis Ford Coppola

One from the Heart (1981)

We’re living through the great new dawn of the streaming era, but when it comes to film history, it seems online viewers are meant to be contented with the tip of the iceberg. Take One from the Heart. This is not an obscure movie. It’s Francis Coppola, and it cost $26m. It has a Tom Waits soundtrack, and Nastassja Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton are among the cast. Yet you can’t watch it on Netflix or Amazon or iTunes, nor yet on more cinephile-friendly platforms. In this sense, you start to wonder if cinema’s entire back catalogue could be called ‘overlooked’.

To be fair, Coppola’s Las Vegas-set musical was a notorious failure, recouping less than a million from that budget. It helped kill off the song-and-dance movie for a couple of decades. But, after the adoration heaped on the very similar La La Land 35 years later, surely the time has come for this full-hearted, aesthetically dazzling marvel to be rediscovered.

River of Grass (1994)

Director Kelly Reichardt

River of Grass (1994)

Like many low-budget indie debuts, River of Grass edged its way into a film festival or two, had a small-scale release in the States, but then got all but forgotten. It took 12 years before its director, Kelly Reichardt, re-emerged with a second film, but Old Joy (2006) proved the critical breakthrough that River of Grass wasn’t. The likes of Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Certain Women (2016) all followed, Reichardt’s seat at US indie cinema’s top table now secure.

What of River of Grass then? A 2015 Kickstarter restoration brought Reichardt’s debut closer to the spotlight. Unlike the Pacific Northwest-set dramas that made her name, it’s set in Florida, the title referring to the Everglades. Yet it has the same absorbing attention to the details of lives on the margins, setting up a haltering Thelma & Louise-style couple-on-the-run narrative that comes as close to the thriller genre as her later eco drama Night Moves (2012) – which is to say, not that close. It’s flavourful and distinctive, and well worth hunting down to see where it all started.

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)

Director Hou Hsiao-hsien

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)

Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s stock is at an all-time high after 2015’s The Assassin, but his previous film came and went in UK cinemas without much of a ripple – despite the starry presence of Juliette Binoche in its lead. Empire magazine affirmed that “nothing much happens”, the Guardian called it “supercilious”, while the Observer’s Philip French branded it “slightly pointless”.

All in all, an ignoble fate for a film that casts a deep spell of ambient enchantment if you can dial in to its quiet frequency. It’s a Paris story, a kind of tribute to Albert Lamorisse’s renowned short film The Red Balloon (1956). Binoche plays a puppeteer who hires a film student to play nanny to her young son. She’s otherwise engaged producing a new play, while the student, in turn, is working on a film project. Amid these layers of self-reflexivity, and with the sporadic appearance of the titular inflatable bobbing above the rooftops, Hou’s film gently urges our attention. Even the installation of a piano becomes a moment you can’t take your eyes off. 

Everyone Else (2009)

Director Maren Ade

Everyone Else (2009)

Is it too soon to talk of Maren Ade as a master director? Anyone who’s seen Everyone Else and Toni Erdmann would probably be happy to make the wager. Yet while Toni Erdmann reaped wild acclaim both here and abroad (it was named best film of 2016 in the annual Sight & Sound poll), the earlier film is all but unknown and invisible in the UK. Despite winning the Silver Bear at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival, it was never picked up for British release, and remains available only on import DVD.

That’s a shame because we’re missing out on a great modern relationship movie, a film to shelve next to classics Journey to Italy (1954) and Le Mépris (1963) for the way it reveals intimacy souring under the summer sun. Gitti and Chris are holidaying in Sardinia when the cracks in their romance start to appear, but Everyone Else never descends into a shrill slagging match. Through an accumulation of acutely revealing behaviour, Ade arrives at something altogether more idiosyncratic and nuanced.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Tricky one this. On the one hand, critics by and large loved the Coen brothers’ affectionate tribute to the Hollywood studio system in its faltering 1950s phase. On the other, the wider internet was less keen. Hail, Caesar! rates 6.3 on IMDb, with an audience score of just 44% on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s an ironic destiny for a film that’s explicitly about the precarious business of creating movies that connect with the public.

While ostensibly linked to the Coens’ earlier Hollywood satire, Barton Fink (1991), the generous tone and colourful spectacle of Hail, Caesar! are closer to Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Like that legendary musical, it joyously simulates the bustle and bedlam of the dream factory, putting us right on the sound stages as Biblical epics, synchronised-swimming musicals and screwball farces all go before the cameras. Packed with jokes, tour-de-force parodies and larger-than-life supporting turns, it’s truly what critic Pauline Kael – in a different context – once called an “orgy for movie lovers”. Maybe the narrative line through all this needed to be stronger? In any case, time looks likely to remember Hail, Caesar! as mid-table Coens, or worse.

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