Top Ten: Directorial Debuts

Every director starts somewhere. There’s always that first picture. For many directors, their first movie is either a trial-by-fire (see David Fincher and Alien3), a promising start (see Neil Marshall and Dog Soldiers) or something that they, and we, would rather forget ever happened (see James Cameron and Piranha II: Flying Killers).

There are some debuts, however, that announce a new talent completely. These are not just first movies, but manifestos. They scream out ‘this is what I can do, keep watching this space’. After this, the filmmaker either makes good on his promise or spends his career struggling to escape the shadow of it. That is the double-edged sword of a great debut. It really can be a blessing or a curse.

Here, for your delectation and sport, are my ten favourite directorial debuts. It was a tough one to whittle down. What would you have added, or subtracted, from the list?


10. Night of the Living Dead

George A. Romero (1968)

The movie which, along with Psycho, is credited with giving birth to the modern horror film, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a master class in low-budget success. With its simple premise and unpretentious style, Romero creates a gripping, chilling experience which has influenced every zombie movie since. Made for only $114,000, Night of the Living Dead was also one of the first movies to feature a black lead actor in a predominantly white cast.

Romero has continued adding to the zombie movie canon with no less than six entries in his ‘Dead’ series, inspiring the likes of Edgar Wright who paid homage with Shaun of the Dead.

Went on to make: Dawn, Day, Land, Diary, and Survival….of the Dead


9. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

George Clooney (2002)

When original director Bryan Singer dropped out of making this story of the life (fictional or otherwise) of game show host, and CIA spy, Chuck Barris, actor George Clooney stepped in. Clooney brought to the movie not just a keen eye for a shot, and a some entertaining panache with his scene changes, but also a refined sense of 60s and 70s period detail brought with him from his childhood spent with father Nick Clooney, who actually had his own game show during that period. Look out for the quick, very funny, cameo appearances from Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.

Clooney followed Confessions of a Dangerous Mind with the equally accomplished Goodnight and Good Luck, again paying homage to a magic era of television.

Went on to make: Goodnight and Good Luck, Leatherheads


8. This is Spinal Tap

Rob Reiner (1984)

Rob Reiner, son of director Carl, didn’t just direct his debut movie, but also shared the writing credit with its three stars as well as taking a lead role. The now legendary mockumentary follows fictional English band Spinal Tap on tour in the US to promote their album ‘Smell the Glove’. Along the way the pretentious, dim-witted trio paint an hilarious picture of the shallowness and ridiculousness of the music industry. With endlessly quotable dialogue, mostly ad-libbed, This is Spinal Tap is the very definition of ‘cult movie’.

Reiner enjoyed a fantastic spell for the next decade, but his output has waned in the last ten years.

Went on to make: The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery


7. Citizen Kane

Orson Welles (1941)

Having terrorised half of America with his radio production of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles turned to cinema and produced what has become the default No.1 in many a movie critic’s list of top movies. The tale of a fictional newspaper magnate, Citizen Kane is an astounding debut feature. Welles’ extensive use of deep-focus and low-angle shots was innovative, as was the non-linear narrative told from multiple viewpoints. And, despite the real-life magnate William Randolph Hearst’s attempts to kill the project through his own media empire, Citizen Kane has gone on to become one of cinema’s greats.

Although Welles made some other great movies, topping Citizen Kane was a very tall order. A lot of crap followed.

Went on to make: The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil


6. Airplane!

Jerry and David Zucker, Jim Abrahams (1980)

An extremely rare triple debut here, with the two Zuckers and Abrahams (or ZAZ) sharing both writing and directing duties on their hugely successful and influential comedy. Spoofing the disaster movie genre in general, and the 1957 movie Zero Hour! in particular, ZAZ created one of the most popular and oft-quoted comedies of all time. Featuring inspired turns from an array of 60s and 70s icons and a joke at least every 30 seconds, Airplane! has an inexhaustible energy which doesn’t let up until the credits have stopped rolling.

The movie set the pattern for the bulk of ZAZ’s work, but only Jerry Zucker achieved the same level of success again with Ghost.

Went on to make (between them): The Naked Gun movies, Ghost, Hot Shots


5. Night of the Hunter

Charles Laughton (1955)

Actor Charles Laughton’s one and only movie still counts as a debut. And what a debut it is. Dark, brooding and nasty, Night of the Hunter features a career best performance from Robert Mitchum as the psychopathic Reverend Harry Powell, who charms his way into the family of widow Willa, in an attempt to locate the whereabouts of her executed husband’s stolen loot. Heavily influenced by German expressionism, Laughton paints stark, surreal vistas and fills the movie with a cloying sense of paranoia and fear.

Poorly received on its release, Laughton never made another movie and died seven years later. This was a real loss to the medium, such is the wealth of talent on evidence here.

Went on to make: Nothing


4. The Evil Dead

Sam Raimi (1981)

It’s amazing what you can achieve with just $375,000, a swimming pool worth of fake blood and Bruce Campbell. In Sam Raimi’s case you can achieve one of the most successful, and creative, horror movies of the 80s. When five friends go to stay in an old cabin in the woods, they become possessed by demons, one by one, until only one of their number remains to survive until morning. With no access to expensive special effects or equipment, Raimi demonstrates remarkable ingenuity with his camerawork.

The Evil Dead gave cinema its first glimpse of Raimi’s love for over-the-top, slapstick violence, dizzying camera movement and torturing Campbell.

Went on to make: The Spider-man trilogy


3. Donnie Darko

Richard Kelly (2001)

Given his big break by Drew Barrymore’s production company, Richard Kelly produced one of the most original movies to have come along for years. Donnie Darko is a strange brew, mixing time-travel, high-school angst, 80s nostalgia, existentialism and Patrick Swayze in a haunting, complex and sometimes downright bemusing tale. This was Jake Gyllenhaal’s breakout role and he’s the perfect fit for the troubled, intense and disjointed Donnie. Kelly later released a Director’s Cut which didn’t really improve on the original.

Kelly’s penchant for inscrutable storytelling continued with his next two movies, but escaping the shadow of his debut has proven difficult so far.

Went on to make: The terrible Southland Tales and the intriguing The Box


2. Withnail and I

Bruce Robinson (1987)

Bruce Robinson’s 1987 directorial debut is one of those that can curse a subsequent career. Not because it is bad, but because it is brilliant. An extremely tough act to follow. Based on Robinson’s unpublished novel, which in turn was based on his own experiences as a young actor, Withnail and I is without doubt one of the best British comedies of all time. Anchored by a magnificent performance from Richard E. Grant as the manipulative, drunken Withnail and littered with an array of bizarre characters, Withnail and I has since gathered a huge cult following.

Robinson reunited with Grant for 1989’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising but, as yet, has not achieved the same success as he did with his debut.

Went on to make: Very little.


1. Duel

Steven Spielberg (1971)

Fresh from directing stints on various TV shows, the young Spielberg was handed his first feature-length assignment, a made-for-TV movie based on a Richard Matheson short story, which was in turn based on the writer’s own experience with a particularly nasty truck driver. Spielberg took the story of a travelling salesman’s (Dennis Weaver) relentless pursuit by a truck and crafted a tense, stylish movie which was eventually rewarded with additional shooting time and a cinema release.

Duel demonstrates much of the themes that would become signature for the director; the everyman protagonist in an extraordinary situation, action scenes on the move and the relentless, pursuing monster. It is to the movie’s credit that you never see the face of the truck’s driver.

Went on to make: Everything




34 people thought reading “Top Ten: Directorial Debuts” was a good idea. They even said stuff about it.

  1. rtm on

    Great idea for a list, Richard, a lot in here I have no idea were directorial debuts (especially Citizen Kane). I think I’d add Ben Affleck’s debut Gone, Baby Gone. Even his impressive sophomore effort The Town is still not as good as that one.

    • Richard on

      Gone, Baby, Gone was in the shortlist right up until the end. Affleck is definitely better behind the camera than in front of it and that was a great movie. Looking forward to whatever he does next.

  2. Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

    Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue. Airplane was one of my favorites.

    What I love about your blog, Rich, is that it’s not just movie reviews. There’s always great trivia and tidbits of information that a casual movie viewer like myself wouldn’t necessarily know. I never heard of the movie Duel, but now I’ve got to see it…to see where it all began.

    I agree with your comment above about Ben Affleck. I’m not crazy about him as an actor. Matt Damon is so much better.

  3. Custard on

    Love this list. Really different idea.

    Got to love Donnie Darko. It is in my Top 10 of all time!

    You have really opened my eyes with this one. I had no idea some of them were directional debuts.

    You are right in saying that sometimes it can be a curse too. A lot to live up to.

    Thanks for putting it together, Great read

  4. Helen on

    Good list, I especially like the inclusion of “Night of the Hunter.” It’s such an amazing and distinctive film. It’s hard to imagine Laughton could have topped it, or even equaled it, but it’s our loss that he didn’t get the chance to try.

    As an Asian film fan I have to give the nod to Wong Kar-Wai’s “As Tears Go By” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Sanshiro Sugata” as two of the greatest directorial debuts. To quote you, these are not just first movies, but manifestos. The closest analogy in your list is Spielberg’s “Duel.” You have a talented first-time director taking a studio assignment and working under time and money constraints (and in Kurosawa’s case, wartime rationing of film stock). Yet they turn out films that are not just accomplished and entertaining, but that introduce a distinctive visual style and thematic preoccupations that would be developed in many great films over a long career.

    • Richard on

      Ooh, thanks for the suggestions, Helen. I haven’t seen Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata and that’s definitely a gap in my viewing, right there. 🙂

    • Richard on

      Apologies, Derezzed, but I’m not a big fan of Tarantino. However, I did consider Reservoir Dogs simply for its impact alone. There’s no arguing with its success.

      Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  5. joem18b on

    Nice list.

    I’d leave off Laughton cause it was his only one. I’d leave off Clooney just cause it’s no big deal.

    I might add the first efforts of Clint Eastwood (Play Misty for Me), Roger Corman (Five Guns West), and, say, Vincenzo Natali (Cube). I wasn’t crazy about Cube or Splice, but I liked Cypher and Nothing, and I’m definitely interested in Natali’s next projects.

    Oh wait. Speaking of being interested in next projects, ahead of all those I just named I’d put Christopher Nolan (Following).

    • Richard on

      Hey, a debut is still a debut even if you don’t actually follow it with anything.

      I liked Cube more than Cypher, but thought Splice was disappointing. I haven’t seen Nothing.

      Good call with Following. Not sure it would have made the list, but I did overlook it.

  6. Anna on

    I’ve been seeing Airplane everywhere today, weird!
    Cool list, I had no idea Citizen Kane was Welle’s debut it seems like a lifetime project.

  7. Colin on

    Technically speaking Citizen Kane wasn’t Welles’ debut, but it was the first of his that became a hit. Nice list, and I’m pleased to see Clooney on it. He knows his subject, and envokes the period perfectly (I adored Good Night, and Good Luck, and I wouldn’t put Confessions a million miles behind it).
    Cory Fukunaga might be a decent addition, and topical too with the recent release of Jane Eyre which wildly differs from the frankly awesome Sin Nombre.

    • Richard on

      I was under the impression it was his first feature length movie, and those are the debuts I’m discussing. Apologies if I am in error. 🙂

      Glad to meet another Clooney fan. I absolutely love Goodnight and Good Luck. One of those movies that I can watch over and over. It was a masterclass in using the past to illustrate the present.

      Fukunaga was a good suggestion. I overlooked him.

      Thanks for stopping by, Colin.

  8. Dan on

    Terrific list Richard. It’s quite unbelievable that these films could be the debut of their respective directors. In several cases you could argue that these debuts are actually the director’s greatest work – Bruce Robinson is a definite candidate, most people agree Citizen Kane is the finest of them all so that would be Orson Welles too, and the Zucker/Abrahams team never surpassed Airplane.

    As yet, Richard Kelly hasn’t surpassed Donnie Darko either.

    Rob Reiner, Spielberg and Romero would go on to better things but not by much.

    • Richard on

      Hey, Dan. Long time, no see.

      Glad you liked the list. I knew you’d appreciate the inclusion of Withnail and I. 😉

  9. Dan O. on

    Great List! It’s sad to see that some of these directors never really went on to make anything great after their debuts, but I guess just after the first, all the others just seem like imitations.

  10. Eric on

    Very interesting list! I am slightly embarrassed to say I have only seen three of these movies. Thanks for reminding me that I need to finally watch all of This Is Spinal Tap — I have seen bits and pieces of it over the years, but I never actually sat down to watch all of it.

    I am surprised no one mentioned 12 Angry Men, that is one of the all-time greats.

    • Richard on

      Hey, Eric. Thanks for reading. 12 Angry Men did make the shortlist. Well, I say ‘shortlist’ but it was actually huge. 🙂

      Ah, to watch Spinal Tap for the first time. You’re in for a treat.

    • Richard on

      Thanks, Kai! ‘Fraid I’m not much of a Tarantino fan and I knew I’d cop some stick for leaving out Reservoir Dogs.


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