BySean Conroy, writer at

Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in America 1984

Sergio Leone was known for his Westerns but his last film and arguably his greatest was set in New York City. He devoted over ten years of his life to planning and making the film. The film spans four decades, and tells the story of David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro) and his Jewish friends, detailing their childhoods on New York's Lower East Side in the 1920s, through their emerging gangster empire in the 1930s. It moves back and forth in time culminating in Noodles 1968 return to New York from self-imposed exile, here he learns the truth about what happened all those years ago comes to term with the demons from his past.

When completed Once Upon a Time in America the film ran over 4 hours. After a disastrous test screening in America, it was savagely recut for distribution in the States to a meagre 139 minute version. These cuts occurred against Leone’s wishes, and the esteemed critic Pauline Kael complained “I don’t think I’ve seen a worse case of mutilation.” The European version finally found a release in the late 1990’s but video release seemed a tragic waste of a truly epic film.

James Woods who played Max commented at the press screening of the newly restored version that premiered in Cannes in 2012 that Leone “died of a broken heart” because he could never see his version of the film released as it was meant to. Dismissed by most critics at the time, it is now considered a masterpiece.

On April 30, 1989 Sergio Leone died of a heart attack at age sixty.

John Huston: The Dead 1987

In a career that spanned six decades, John Huston directed 38 films including classics such as The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Prizzi’s Honor and his last great film, The Dead. Yet he was defined in his obituary as a “hell-raising director and actor.”

The adaptation of the last story in James Joyce’s The Dubliners about lost love and dashed dreams was the last of his films. During the making of the film Huston was in a wheelchair and had two tubes of oxygen going up his nose; the result was an extraordinary film. He began shooting in January 1987, finished in April, and at the end of August, he died. He was 81. Vincent Canby wrote “No other American film maker has ended a comparably long career on such a note of triumph.” The Dead was the last of his films as a director. Anjelica Huston noted “it was a love letter to Ireland, to those people to that place.”

John Huston had devoted much of his career to the adaptation of literary classics, from Melville’s Moby Dick, Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. For Joyce’s adaptation he involved his family in the making of the film, including his daughter Anjelica who was coming off an Oscar win for Prizzi’s Honor and son Tony who was responsible for the adaptation of Joyce’s short story, much of the dialogue is lifted directly from Joyce’s prose. The film was nominated for two Oscars and won Best Film at the USA National Society of Film Critics.

Robert Altman: A Prairie Home Companion

Robert Altman was responsible for some of the most iconic films in American cinema including MASH, Nashville, McCabe and Mrs Miller and Short Cuts. By the time A Prairie Home Companion came his way in 2005, Altmann hadn’t worked in three years. For such a prolific director this was deemed a dry spell. Inspired by the enduring American Public Media variety show created by Harrison Keillor in 1974, the film was written by Keillor from a story by him and Ken La Zebnik. During filming, Altman was diagnosed with leukaemia. The star-heavy ensemble included Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, and Tommy Lee Jones. As with all Altman ensemble films there are plots and subplots unified both by a common theme (the passing of an era) and an event (the last show). Cast members perform their songs live, and Altman directed from a wheelchair while wearing an oxygen cannula. Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) was hired as standby director in case Altman couldn’t finish the film.

Actors loved Altman and, according to Tommy Lee Jones he loved them back. “He has respect for acting and looks on it as a significant part of the process,” Jones said, “as opposed to an inconvenience that has to be gotten out of the way somehow so one can go about the real job of cinema.” Altman died on November 20, 2005 after completing the editing. It was released on June 9, 2006, with a budget of $10 million it ended up grossing twice as much and received strong reviews on release.

David Lean: A Passage to India

The period between Leans previous film Ryan’s Daughter and Passage had been 14 years and he was in his eighties when he went into the production. Yet, insisted Sir David, "I would rather make one good picture in three years than make four others in the same time."

Story is set in 1928, a young English woman, Adela (Judy Davis), is taken from England to India by Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) with the likely purpose of marrying the older woman’s son Breaking the general rule against intermingling with the Indians, local Moslem medic Dr Aziz (Victor Banerjee) invites the ladies on an expedition to the Marabar caves, an excursion which ends in tragedy when a hysterical and bloodied Adela returns to accuse the shocked Aziz of having attempted to rape her in one of the caves.

Lean the camera crew led by Ernie Day, and his leading lady did not get on, as Davis recalled years later "He was a frightening, Lear-like figure. He came with this enormous reputation but he wasn't at the height of his physical powers, and I think he carried a lot of tension because of that.’

It premiered to praise, for its master craftsman. He won the New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review Award for Best Director and the film was nominated for Best Film at the Oscars. Post the success of A Passage to India, he attracted financing for his new film Nostromo, with Steven Spielberg as Executive Producer. But prior to filming Lean had begun failing physically, and on April 16, 1991, he died at the age of eighty-three.

Sidney Lumet: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

This is a movie, I promise you that grabs you and won't let you think of anything else. It's wonderful when a director like Lumet wins a Lifetime Achievement Oscar at 80, and three years later makes one of his greatest achievements. Roger Ebert

Sidney Lumet’s films have been nominated for more than forty Academy Awards. He never won but the Lifetime Achievement award went a long way to celebrating this master director of actors. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead began as an original screenplay by Kelly Masterson, a former Franciscan brother, Lumet cast the physically mismatched Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers who arrange for a third party to rob their parents’ mall jewellery store. In the course of which both the thief and their mother, Rosemary Murphy, are killed. Whilst their father grieves the brothers lives quickly unravel.

As usual, Lumet was prepared in the extreme, he insisted on a two-week rehearsal to enable the actors to get into the psyches of their characters. After festival screenings, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was released on October 26, 2007 and became a sleeper hit accruing a worldwide gross in excess of $25 million. As it did, Lumet was already planning his next films. He announced a two picture deal with the Buddha Group with an option on a third.

“I forget I’m an old man,” he said. He was then eighty-two. But at eighty-six he was dead from lymphoma.

6: Sleuth: Joseph Mankiewicz

'I am never quite sure whether I am the cinema's elder statesman, or just the oldest whore on the beat.'

At sixty-three when he directed Sleuth (1972) Mankiewicz was still in the prime of his career. 21 years later he died. The dialogue-rich, character-driven stage hit by Anthony Shaffer was the kind of project that suited the director of All About Eve. Sleuth is a cleverly mounted two-hander rarely shying away from its stage pedigree. A perfectly cast Sir Lawrence Olivier played Wyke and Michael Caine played Milo a hairdresser and lover of Wyke’s estranged wife. Mankiewicz wanted to accentuate the contrast between the classes, the intellectual played by Olivier, precisely because he is intellectual believes himself to be mentally superior to the non-intellectual played with a cockney accent by Michael Caine.

As producer, director and/or writer his name appeared on the credits of over 60 movies, yet he always saw himself as apart from Hollywood. He was friends and greatly admired by his contemporaries including Fred Zinnemann, Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder. Mankiewicz's peak occurred in the fifties with his back-to-back director and screenwriter Oscars for both A Letter to Three Wives and, the very next year, All About Eve scooped the pool.

Sleuth, received critical acclaim and Oscar nominations for Mankiewicz and his entire cast (Olivier and Caine). Twenty one years after Sleuth was released and without making another feature he died on February 5, 1993.

Robert Mulligan: The Man in the Moon

Mulligan along with Sidney Lumet, Martin Ritt and John Frankenheimer emerged from the post war television age. During the sixties he directed 10 films, half of them produced by Alan J Pakula, who himself went on to be a great director responsible for Klute, All the Presidents Men. During the sixties he directed the classic To Kill a Mockingbird nominated for eight Academy awards, Love with a Proper Stranger starring Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen who reteamed again for Baby the Rain Must Fall.

His final film was also one of his finest, a beautifully realised coming of age story. The luminous Reese Witherspoon plays a fourteen-year old girl who discovers romance when she develops a crush on neighbor Jason London. Mulligan’s expertly evoked the time and place (1950’s Louisiana) and elicited a brilliant performance from Witherspoon.

Working from Jenny Wingfield’s screenplay, Mulligan uses a delicate touch in revealing the confusion in growing up and the loss in discovering that the world isn’t as simple as children believe it to be. The film was a critical success but commercial failure. In a 1991 article he reflected on how many of his films dealt with the coming of age of the protagonists. He rejected that term and referred to them as “coming to life”. Mulligan will be remembered as one of the best directors of children. Robert Mulligan died in 2008 at the aged of 83 of heart disease.

The Man in the Moon” is a wonderful movie, but it is more than that, it is a victory of tone and mood. It is like a poem. ROGER EBERT

8: Krzysztof Kieslowski: Three Colours Red

The untimely death of the outstanding Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, aged 54, dealt a huge blow to European cinema. Although he had only come into worldwide prominence in the last few years of his career with the brilliant ten-part Dekalog, The Double Life Of Veronique and the trilogy, Three Colors Blue, White and Red, Kieslowski had been working in cinema for almost 30 years, first as an innovative documentarist and then as a feature film director.

Movie lovers embraced both his gorgeous images and compelling characters but at a deeper level he asks through his rich characterisations how can you be a moral person in an immoral world. A graduate of the renowned Lodz Film School The Three Colors trilogy concluded with Red (meaning fraternity). It further investigates Kieslowski’s themes of coincidence, love, isolation, betrayal and renewal. It explores the deepening relationship between a retired Judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and a beautiful model Valentine (Irene Jacob) who meet after she runs over his dog.

After he completed "Red" (1994), the final film in his "Three Colors" trilogy, Krzysztof Kieslowski announced that he would retire. He was exhausted and would direct no more movies after Red. “If I made the films separately, I’d have lost six years of my life. So I won three years.”

Ignored at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival awards, Red was voted best Foreign Film by the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics, Red earned three academy award nominations including Best Director, best original screenplay and best cinematography.

On March 13, following elective heart surgery in a Warsaw hospital, he died.

9. Sam Fuller: White Dog

A former crime reporter and war veteran, he presented his dynamic camerawork and visual style as a ripped from the headlines expose. In his last film the undervalued Fuller argued that racism was a product of conditioning. Based on an event that happened to French actress Jean Seberg in the sixties, a white German shepherd stray that dropped into her life subsequently attacked and mauled her black gardener and two more black people.

Paramount Pictures’ production head the legendary Robert Evans acquired the rights to White Dog in 1975 and had Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential) adapt the book for Roman Polanski to direct. In 1981, with a directors’ and writers’ strike looming, Paramount’s new vice president of production the infamous Don Simpson (sans Jerry Bruckheimer) and studio president Michael Eisner deemed White Dog to be far enough along in development to resuscitate. They brought Hanson back for another rewrite and handed it to producer Jon Davison. When Hanson couldn’t get the studio to let him direct it he suggested Sam Fuller. Fuller was 70 at the time.

Paramount let Fuller finish his $6 million shoot, held a couple of sneak previews, allowed the picture to screen in festivals, and then quietly killed it. Its latest reported gross is less than $100,000. Paramount then attempted to recoup some of its investment by selling the film to television in a trimmed, presumably less inflammatory, form.

“Eisner wanted ‘Jaws With Paws,’” said Rodman. “But he got weird, philosophical, wrenching digression on racism. Not until 2008 was White Dog restored to Fuller’s cut and issued on Criterion DVD.

10. The Innocent (Luchino Visconti, 1976)

“You need to make life burn”

Considered one of the founding fathers of the neo-realism movement, however as his career progressed his films became progressively more lavish. Yet the grandeur of his style never obscured the humanity of his subjects and his films are the most subtle ever made.

Visconti was born into an aristocratic family of great Wealth. A descendant of the lords who ruled Milan, his most personal film The Leopard details the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy. He developed a passion for film in the thirties, and became an assistant to the great French Director Jean Renoir. Known as an uncompromising perfectionist and meticulous craftsman with a profound understanding of people.

While filming Ludwig, Visconti suffered a massive stroke, up until then he was apparently a 120 pack a day smoker. The stroke forced him to film his last two films from a wheelchair. His last film L'Innocente (1976), examined European high society at the end of the 19th century. It starred 
Giancarlo Giannini, Laura Antonelli and Jennifer O’Neil as the chief protagonists.

Visconti always claimed that he never made a film for himself but only for the audience, and the focus was always on the human being. "I was impelled toward the cinema by, above all, the need to tell stories of people who were alive, of people living amid things and not of the things themselves."

Visconti died on March 17, 1976, in Rome, two months before film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival; cause of death was cited as influenza and heart disease. He was 69 years old. 

11. Star 80 Bob Fosse

Bob Fosse only directed five films – three of them musicals, including Cabaret, All that Jazz and Sweet Charity. Star 80 his last film, and one of only two of his films that was not a musical. Muriel Hemingway stars as Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratton, who rose to fame in the late 1970s, only to be murdered by her estranged husband, Paul Snider (Eric Roberts).

The movie begins with the murder, and then flashes back. Hemingway plays the sweet, naïve girl who makes it big, Roberts is riveting and disturbing as Paul, who makes Dorothy into a star, and then spends the rest of the film trying to play in her league. The scenes showing how he tried to manufacture a relationship with High Hefner (Cliff Robertson) are excruciatingly awkward and real. Dorothy becomes a minor star working on Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed shortly before her murder. Bogdanovich who was having a relationship with Stratton is portrayed as the fictional director Aram Nicholas in Fosse’s film. The names were changed for legal purposes and Bogdanovich went on to marry Dorothy’s sister Louise. Snider’s decline into psychosis is brilliantly captured.

Roberts was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance and won the Boston Film Critics Best Actor award. The film was nominated for a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1984.

Like Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," it is a movie about being an outsider and about going crazy with the pain of rejection. ROGER EBERT

12: That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel, 1977)

“God, death, women, wine, dreams.” Jean Claude Carriere on Bunuel’s obsessions

“I have always been an atheist thank god.”

He was friends with Picasso, was thrown off a Hollywood lot by Greta Garbo, apparently attended orgies held by Chaplin immigrated to America in 1938 to escape fascism and backed the anarchists in the Spanish civil war. In his spare time he made a series of films over a 50 year period, beginning with his stunning debut in 1929 with the surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalau and ending with That Obscure Object of Desire.

In his final movie the 77-year-old Luis Buñuel directed an updated version of an early 20th-century novel by Pierre Louÿs, Co-scripted by his regular writer, Jean-Claude Carrière, it stars the great Spanish actor Fernando Rey as Mathieu, who in his own pathetic way falls victim to the allure of a beautiful unattainable woman who proceeds to fleece him of his money. She's played by two women Carole Bouquet representing her cool northern side, Ángela Molina her hot, earthy, Mediterranean aspect. He tells his tale aboard a train to a cross section of intrigued passengers. The film was described as a buoyant satire about the foibles and follies of the privileged class.

He was diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the bile duct. He died in a Mexican Hospital at the age of eighty three.

The old surrealist created another masterpiece in this, his final film. Chicago Reader Dave Kehr


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