16 Unexpectedly Influential Film Directors of the 20th Century

Tobe Hooper, one of the 16 on this list, directed Texas Chainsaw Massacre. See more movie making pictures.
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Many celebrated film directors have influenced their peers and artistic descendants, and even casual film fans know their names: Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas, Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, and D. W. Griffith, just to name a few. The following is a list of some noteworthy directors who are considerably less well known, yet played a significant role in inspiring future directors.

In this article you will discover great film directors you may have overlooked.



Oscar Micheaux

Before Oscar Micheaux, African-Americans had only a marginal presence in American movies, and only then as figures of menace or derision. In 1919, Micheaux made a film of his book The Homesteader, and followed it with Within Our Gates in 1920, a tough-minded drama designed to expose the ugliness of racism. For the next 30 years, Micheaux wrote, produced, and directed nearly 40 films that portrayed the difficulties of black Americans. Hollywood regarded his productions as unimportant "race films" that were played only in segregated theaters. But to African-American audiences and the black actors he employed, Micheaux was a trailblazer who addressed contemporary concerns. Today's black cinema -- and the mainstream stardom of Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, and others -- has roots in the work of Oscar Micheaux.


David Hand

For years, Walt Disney allowed the general public to believe that he alone was the creator of his cartoons and live-action movies, and even the originator of such stories as Robin Hood, Cinderella, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But Disney's landmark 1937 release, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was directed by a longtime animator and animation supervisor named David Hand. Snow White was the first feature-length cartoon, and its visual beauty and mammoth commercial success inspired generations of future animators, including those who work today with computer-generated images instead of pen and ink. Hand also directed Bambi (1942) and remained active until 1980's Mickey Mouse Disco.


Anthony Mann

Anthony Mann was a highly skilled Hollywood studio director who pushed the limits of film noir in the late 1940s with T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948) and later reinvigorated the Western via driven, neurotically vengeful antiheroes. Many of these Mann productions star James Stewart, including Winchester '73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), and The Naked Spur (1953). From this new approach came the concept of the "adult Western," which carried through Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) and beyond.


Robert Aldrich

Though highly influential in the development of the contemporary Gothic thriller (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962) and the war film (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), Aldrich's most penetrating influence comes from his 1955 adaptation of Mickey Spillane's crime novel Kiss Me Deadly. With disorienting camera angles, grotesque violence, and a bleak portrayal of a world out of control, it knocked audiences back in their seats and made a tremendous impression on Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and other important young directors of the French "New Wave" of the late 1950s.


Roger Corman

Roger Corman, the legendary "King of the Bs," directed scores of films in just over 15 years (sometimes six or seven a year), and became not just a busy director, but Hollywood's most successful and prolific independent producer. From Westerns to Gothic horror, science fiction, crime, juvenile delinquent, and hot rod flicks -- Corman made them all with a sense of fun, and continues to sponsor and inspire low- and no-budget filmmakers today.


Russ Meyer

When he was unable to crack the Hollywood unions, this robust, perpetually grinning cameraman and glamour photographer became an independent filmmaker. Meyer's first feature, The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959) brought humor, color film stock, and even a shred of plot to the "peekaboo" genre. Teas was a boisterous financial success and led to other Meyer films including Lorna (1964), Mudhoney (1965), Vixen! (1968), and the highly regarded Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). In 1970, 20th Century Fox financed and released Meyer's most elaborate production, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (with a script by film critic Roger Ebert). Adult movies became drearily explicit in the late 1970s, and Meyer lost interest in pursuing his career, but before that happened, he inspired hundreds of films by other, lesser directors.


Herschell Gordon Lewis

This Chicago ad exec and direct-mail marketer partnered with financier Dave Friedman to invent the "gore" genre in 1963 with the ineptly made Blood Feast. Lewis elaborated on his no-holds-barred approach to violence with Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), Color Me Blood Red (1965), and many others. He earned the dubious title "Godfather of Gore" and helped create the climate that made possible latter-day gore fests such as Saw (2004).


Richard Lester

British director Richard Lester's freewheeling approach to The Beatles' first two films, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), gave swingin' London a visual style marked by handheld cameras, flip humor, and breakneck pacing. Every other director who worked with a Brit pop group followed Lester's lead, including the talented John Boorman, who guided the Dave Clark 5 through Having a Wild Weekend in 1965. On a broader level, Lester's influence was felt in a variety of British films that were made in the mid-to late 1960s, such as John Schlesinger's Darling (1965).

On the next few pages, uncover the influence film directors of the 1970s brought to the art of filmmaking.



Mike Nichols

An iconoclastic American director, Mike Nichols came to movies after a successful live comedy career with partner Elaine May. Nichols's first splash was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which came along at a time when America was on the verge of a great liberalization of thought and cultural mores. With The Graduate in 1967, Nichols wittily examined youthful angst with the story of a freshly minted college grad who desires the daughter but beds the mother. Hollywood grew up in the mid-1960s, and Nichols was at the forefront.


Frederick Wiseman

Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman made a controversial splash with his first picture, 1967's Titicut Follies, a harrowing look at a Massachusetts institution for the mentally ill. The movie became the template for Wiseman's subsequent work -- a keen interest in the everyday but frequently hidden aspects of American life. Titicut Follies was followed by a score of poignant documentaries, and Wiseman's work is a direct link to latter-day socially conscious documentaries, such as Hoop Dreams (1994), Stevie (2002), The Thin Blue Line (1988), and even Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).


Gordon Parks

Brilliantly talented African-American photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks revolutionized black cinema with Shaft in 1971. For the first time, audiences saw a black man -- here, a private detective named John Shaft -- pursue his own agenda in the white world and control his own life, establishment be damned. The movie launched the so-called "blaxploitation" genre that brought stardom to Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Ron O'Neal, and Shaft's Richard Roundtree. Blaxploitation flourished throughout the 1970s and has lately been honored -- and gently parodied -- by nonconformist directors Quentin Tarantino and Larry Cohen.


Tobe Hooper

In 1974, Tobe Hooper was a young indie filmmaker in Texas. Hooper and his partner, writer Kim Henkel, wanted to do something more commercial, so they decided to make a horror thriller, which they called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This tale of college kids victimized by a family of demented cannibals shocked audiences who thought they saw gore where there was none (blood appears only once, when a man purposely cuts his thumb). Texas Chainsaw Massacre exploited extreme psychological unease as audiences witnessed the helplessness of innocent victims. Other filmmakers followed with similar films that were heavy with gore but lacking Hooper's flair for bilious suspense and sick humor.


Robert Altman

With his peerless skill at guiding ensemble casts through a rich tapestry of interwoven stories (Nashville, 1975), Robert Altman made films that were short on explosions and shootouts, and long on thoughtful characterization, rueful wit, and the complexities of emotion and desire that nudge (or sometimes propel) us through life. Altman inspired some equally intelligent later filmmakers, including Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, 1999).


John Carpenter

A lifelong fan of horror movies, John Carpenter reinvented the genre in 1978 with Halloween, and unwittingly inspired a flood of "holiday" horror films: Mother's Day, My Bloody Valentine, Friday the 13th, and many more. Carpenter laid the ground rules with a young woman in peril inside a weirdly shadowed house, an indestructible maniac on the loose, dark rooms that the heroine has an inexplicable urge to enter, and fiendishly effective shock moments. Halloween is a perennial favorite, and still a high point of blunt, low-budget moviemaking.


Andy and Lana Wachowski

Usually credited as The Wachowskis, American writers and directors Andy and Lana (born Larry) Wachowski brought a fresh spin to blackmail and murder with Bound (1996), and became highly influential with The Matrix (1999) and its sequels. These science-fiction thrillers brought a fresh approach to special effects, notions of space and time, and virtual reality. Widely imitated and frequently parodied, The Matrix films may have outstayed their welcome, but their reverberations will be felt for many years.




Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh is a versatile American director who moves easily between smart action films (Ocean's Eleven, 2001), social commentary (Erin Brockovich, 2000), and crime epics (Traffic, 2000). Soderbergh's eclectic career is noteworthy, but his greatest influence may come from Bubble (2005), a low-budget drama about three underachieving employees at a doll factory and the circumstances that lead to jealousy and murder. Unassuming but extraordinarily powerful, Bubble shook up the film industry because Soderbergh elected to release it in theaters, on DVD, and to pay-per-view TV all on the same day, which may be the wave of the future for movie distribution.

Helen Davies, Marjorie Dorfman, Mary Fons, Deborah Hawkins, Martin Hintz, Linnea Lundgren, David Priess, Julia Clark Robinson, Paul Seaburn, Heidi Stevens, and Steve Theunissen



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