10 great directorial debuts of the 1950s

A decade of dazzling debuts, from The Night of the Hunter to The 400 Blows.

The 400 Blows (1959)André Dino-MK2

Shaking the ground at its Cannes premiere in 1959, The 400 Blows has shaped our idea of what a directorial debut looks like ever since. Much more so than the anomaly of Orson Welles’s iconoclastic Citizen Kane (1941), which frightened Hollywood against giving the same freedoms to a first-time director again, François Truffaut’s box-fresh boyhood tale remains the model for your festival-berthed indie debut even now: drawn from experience, as personal as a diary, and shot nimbly on the streets he knew.

A directorial debut can be make or break for a filmmaker these days, but it wasn’t always like that. Back in the assembly-line days of the Hollywood studio system, it wasn’t so crucial to make a flashy first feature. You made your way up through the ranks to directing. Then, if you were capable and under contract, you might get the opportunity to hone your craft on the job, and at the rate of multiple films a year.

The 1950s was the decade when things began to change. The arrival of lighter cameras and the trend towards location shooting would usher in cheaper and more fleet-footed filmmaking practices. The medium inched within reach of many more aspiring directors – those working outside established industries and with considerably smaller budgets. The tripods-on-the-tarmac aesthetic of postwar Italian neorealism inspired landmark debut films as far from Hollywood as Brazil (Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Rio, 40 Degrees), India (Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali) and Poland (Andrzej Wajda’s A Generation).

As The 400 Blows arrives on Blu-ray in the UK, here are some of the period’s most striking calling cards.

Love Letter (1953)

Director: Kinuyo Tanaka

Love Letter (1953)

Kinuyo Tanaka was one of the most celebrated actresses of Japan’s golden age. In a career stretching back to the 1920s, her CV includes work with most of Japan’s finest directors of the era, including Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, Keisuke Kinoshita and Kenji Mizoguchi. Far less well known, however, is her short career as a director herself.

The early 1950s found her riding high as a star in a classic trio of films for Mizoguchi: The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sansho Dayu (1954). How amazing to think that in between these masterpieces she also set out – despite protestation from Mizoguchi – to make her own incisive and affecting directorial debut. Shown at Cannes in 1954, Love Letter is considered to be the oldest surviving Japanese feature directed by a woman. A romantic drama based on a script by Kinoshita, it takes place in the years following the Second World War, when a returning soldier with a broken heart has found a niche writing letters for other people – often abandoned Japanese mothers seeking recompense from American GIs.

La Pointe Courte (1955)

Director: Agnès Varda

La Pointe Courte (1955)

Slow travelling shots through the Mediterranean fishing town of Sète begin Agnès Varda’s first film. Afternoon shadows. Laundry billowing on washing lines. The pungent evocation of place has a kind of ethnographic realism reminiscent of salty neorealist landmarks such as Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema (1948) and Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950). But Varda introduces a new element of austere modernism: like characters from one of the ‘new novels’ of Marguerite Duras or Alain Robbe-Grillet, a husband and wife spend the film wandering the town debating their floundering relationship, their dialogue often poetic and abstract.

When La Pointe Courte premiered at Cannes in 1955, Varda would have been just short of her 27th birthday. In its idiosyncratic style and expressive camerawork, the film has often been seen as a precursor to the French New Wave, though it has none of the pop-art pizzaz of early Godard and Truffaut. Instead, its anguished figures in a landscape anticipate the features of Alain Resnais (who serves as co-editor here) and Michelangelo Antonioni. One of the great careers in film was under way.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Director: Charles Laughton

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Actor Charles Laughton was already long-established as one of Britain’s finest exports when he got his first and only turn sitting in the director’s chair. Critics were unkind, audiences stayed away, and Laughton chose to never direct again. Yet The Night of the Hunter is now remembered as one of Hollywood’s richest films – a one-of-a-kind fusion of film noir, southern gothic and fairytale horror. Not until David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) would another movie compare in its clash between innocence and evil in the American heartland.

The setting is West Virginia at the time of the Depression. Into this rural scene comes Robert Mitchum’s wife-killing ex-convict, in the guise of a preacher. Two young siblings know the whereabouts of a stash of money, and Reverend Harry Powell is hellbent on discovering it. In the film’s most extraordinary sequence, the children flee their home and take a nocturnal journey downriver in a rowing boat. Stanley Cortez’s camera follows them overhead or from the riverbank, and rarely has darkness felt so enclosing.

Pather Panchali (1955)

Director: Satyajit Ray

Pather Panchali (1955)

The Italian neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves (1948) had already inspired Bimal Roy to nudge Bollywood filmmaking in a more realist direction with his socially conscious 1953 drama Do Bigha Zamin. But Roy’s film still included songs and studio shooting. Over in Bengal, Satyajit Ray would push things much further. Filmed purely on location, his classic debut is a coming-of-age story set in a rural village and adapted from a 1929 novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay.

Like Roy, Ray had been fired up by watching Bicycle Thieves, and also by his experiences working as an assistant to Jean Renoir on the French filmmaker’s Ganges-set drama The River (1951). Following the boyhood experiences of young Apu, whose life Ray would follow into young adulthood in Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959), Pather Panchali created a splash internationally when it screened at the Museum of Modern Art and Cannes. It launched his career as one of world cinema’s major humanist directors.

Crazed Fruit (1956)

Director: Ko Nakahira

Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu, 1956)

As the opening credits roll and a skronking saxophone plays on the soundtrack, a teen in a Hawaiian shirt steers a speedboat right for the camera. The sun is hot; the boy looks hungry for excitement. Here comes the ‘Sun Tribe’ generation – those teenage disrupters who took Japanese cinema by storm while the west was still catching up with the classic tradition of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa. Just as teenagers began to take centre stage in American films like Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause (both 1955), Ko Nakahira’s debut feature helped kick off a wave of rude, hedonistic and electrifying youth movies, jacked up on heat stroke, rockabilly and postwar nihilism. 

Released in the US under the title Juvenile Jungle, Crazed Fruit unfolds over a sweaty summer by the sea, when two carousing brothers compete for the attention of an elusive local girl.

12 Angry Men (1957)

Director: Sidney Lumet

12 Angry Men (1957)

Along with Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer and Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet was one of the generation of directors whose talents Hollywood ported over from the booming new world of TV drama. His big-screen debut, 12 Angry Men, was upgraded from a 1954 teleplay by Reginald Rose, and the results remain perhaps the most celebrated of all courtroom dramas – even though we never see any of the action in court. Instead, the drama plays out in the sticky claustrophobia of a jury room at crunch time.

Henry Fonda is juror number 8, the lone voice among 12 who thinks an 18-year-old accused of stabbing his father may actually be innocent. His steady attempt to turn the tide makes for such neat, compulsive drama that the film still wins over audiences in their droves today: it’s the fifth highest ranked film on IMDb. At the time, however, esteemed critic Manny Farber himself stood against the tide. He saw Lumet as an example of the slick new “businessman-artist”, whose film brought “a hundred tiny details of schmaltzy anger and soft-center ‘liberalism’ into a clean mosaic”.

Room at the Top (1958)

Director: Jack Clayton

Room at the Top (1958)

Unveiled at a Luton premiere in the final days of 1958, Room at the Top signalled a sea change in British cinema. Here is the beginning of the British New Wave and the trend for so-called ‘kitchen sink’ realism that would shift the focus of UK film towards northern industrial towns, working-class characters and frank dealings with adult, social themes.

Adapted from a 1957 novel by John Braine, the plot sees Laurence Harvey playing a Yorkshire accountant looking to get a leg up in life by marrying a wealthy factory owner’s daughter, while carrying on an affair with an older woman. Simone Signoret is that woman, and she won prizes at the Oscars, BAFTAs and Cannes for her portrayal of wounded yet passionate maturity. Room at the Top is the feature debut of Brighton-born Jack Clayton, who’d impressed with the Oscar-winning short film The Bespoke Overcoat (1955) and would go on to make The Innocents (1961) and the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow version of The Great Gatsby (1974).

Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

Director: Alain Resnais

Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

Alain Resnais had already made a name for himself by the end of the 1950s. Many of his short films from the period are classics – not least 1956’s Night and Fog, a landmark documentary about the concentration camps. His feature debut grew out of an initial commission to make a similar film about the atomic bomb, but the idea of repeating himself seems to have bored Resnais. Instead, with nouveau roman author Marguerite Duras on board to write a screenplay, a story emerged about the encounter in present-day Hiroshima between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese war veteran (Eiji Okada). 

Like Varda’s La Pointe Courte (which Resnais had edited), it revolves around intensely personal conversations between the central couple, neither of whom are named. Memories and trauma, both private and historical, are hauntingly revisited, Resnais finding a fragmented rhythm and tempo akin to the avant-garde music of the era. There’s daring sensuousness amid this film’s overwhelming gravity.

Araya (1959)

Director: Margot Benacerraf

Araya (1959)

Like The Night of the Hunter, Araya is one of cinema’s great one-offs. The only feature ever made by the Venezuelan director Margot Benacerraf, it made such an impression at Cannes in 1959 that it ended up sharing the International Critics’ Prize with Hiroshima mon amour. Unlike with the Resnais film, however, obscurity beckoned: Araya dropped off the radar until it was restored for its 50th anniversary in 2009. 

The film is remarkable – a dramatised documentary about salt miners working in barren conditions that bears comparison with the later Japanese classic The Naked Island (1960) in its focus on gruelling labour in a remote locale. Araya is the name of a peninsula on the coast of Venezuela, where Benacerraf observes the back-breaking but centuries-old manual method of extracting salt from the land. High-contrast black-and-white cinematography captures the heat, sweat and toil of a vanishing way of life, before a coda announces the arrival of machines.

Shadows (1959)

Director: John Cassavetes

Shadows (1959)

Shot with a raw, grainy, spontaneous aesthetic in the dive bars and jazz clubs of New York City, Shadows was a strike towards a new kind of independent American cinema. Revolving around the lives and relationships of two jazz-playing brothers and their sister, it’s full of the kind of beat attitude found in the pages of Jack Kerouac in the same period; an urban cool that self-consciously announced its apartness from the Hollywood mainstream.

Featuring music by Charles Mingus, this was the first feature by indie rabble-rouser John Cassavetes, an actor who evolved the project out of sketches he’d been improvising at the actors’ workshop he ran near Union Square. Through subsequent features, including Faces (1968) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Cassavetes emerged as a major modernising force in American film, someone edging cinema closer to the messy, fractious and unvarnished textures of adult lives.

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