Cinema: An International History

The Invention of Cinema

The history of film began in the late nineteenth century, with the invention of ‘magic lantern’ optical toys (such as the Phenakistoscope and the Zoetrope) which presented short, repetitive animations exploiting the eye’s persistence of vision. Coleman Sellers modified the Zoetrope, replacing its hand-drawn images with photographs, creating the Kinematoscope in 1861. Henry Renno Heyl then projected a series of Kinematoscope photographs, using his Phasmatrope device, in 1870.

Émil Reynaud invented a Zoetrope-like device called the Praxinoscope, which functioned as both a camera and a projector. Although Reynaud’s images were all hand-drawn rather than photographic, they were presented on strips of celluloid (rather than on the discs used by all previous devices). Reynaud used his Théâtre Optique machine to project Pantomimes Lumineuses presentations. His first public screening was a projection of Pauvre Pierrot [‘poor Pierrot’] (1892). Similarly, in 1886, William Friese-Greene collaborated with John Arthur Roebuck Rudge on a Biophantascope capable of projecting magic lantern slides in rapid succession.

Eadweard Muybridge used a Zoopraxiscope—a series of cameras, operated in rapid succession—to photograph the movements of a horse’s legs. His results, published in 1878, seem in retrospect to be prototypical (albeit horizontal) film strips. Étienne-Jules Marey enhanced Muybridge’s technique, creating a single camera capable of capturing a series of rapid exposures which he called Chronophotographie. Otto Anschutz invented a device capable of projecting Chronophotographie images in rapid sequence, and he first demonstrated this Electrotachyscope in Berlin in 1894.


The very first moving photographic images were filmed in 1888. Louis Le Prince, using a camera he had invented himself, recorded approximately two seconds of ‘actuality’ footage known as Roundhay Garden Scene in Leeds, England. Le Prince also projected his footage, from a paper filmstrip, using projectors he designed himself. Le Prince built his first projector in Paris in 1887, and produced two further models in Leeds later that year.

Projection speeds for silent films were not standardised. Each of Le Prince’s devices projected at a different rate: twelve, sixteen, and twenty frames-per-second. As early cameras and projectors were hand-cranked, frame-rate consistency was not always maintained, though sixteen frames-per-second was the average speed in the silent era. Subsequently, twenty-four frames-per-second became the industry standard for sound films.


Thomas Edison, inventor of the cylinder phonograph, also experimented with cylindrical film recordings, using a Kinetoscope camera developed with his assistant, W.K.L. Dickson. In 1893, after modifications, the Kinetoscope was consolidated as a hand-cranked machine displaying celluloid filmstrips to individual viewers, known as a Kinetograph. The first film shown to the public in this manner was Blacksmith Scene (1893). A year later, Charles Francis Jenkins invented the Phantoscope projector in Indiana, and refined it with Thomas Armat. Their Phantoscope patent was then sold to Edison, who renamed it the Vitascope and used it to project Kinetograph films in 1896.

In early 1895, the brothers Gray and Otway Latham developed and publicly demonstrated a film projection system in New York. The Lathams were assisted by W.K.L. Dickson, who had previously worked with Edison, and their device was known as a Panopticon.

In Berlin, the brothers Max and Emil Skladowsky designed a Bioskop camera which recorded and projected two simultaneous images, each at eight frames-per-second, creating the illusion of sixteen frames-per-second projection. Their Bioskop was demonstrated to the public in late 1895.

Despite numerous antecedents (such as Louis Le Prince, Charles Francis Jenkins, the Lathams, and the Skladowskys), the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière are generally credited as the pioneers of projected film. The Lumières utilised a Cinématographe camera/projector, patented by Léon Bouly in 1893 (originally called a Cynématograph, in 1892), to project moving images onto a large cinema screen.

The first film the Lumières projected was La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon [‘workers leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon’], in Paris at the very end of 1895. The film shows workers leaving the Lumière’s factory gate at the end of a shift. This was typical of the Lumière’s early films, which were all brief documentaries detailing events from everyday life. One exception was their short comedy Le Jardinier et le petit espiègle, also from 1895 (advertised as Pranks on a Gardener when it was shown in the UK in 1896), technically the first film with a fictional narrative. Their primary significance was not in their content but rather in the medium itself. Like still photography, x-rays, air travel, and high-speed land travel, all popularised at the turn of the twentieth century, the cinema offered a new perspective from which to view the world. The early films of the Lumières and others are now regarded as a ‘cinema of attractions’, offering novelty and spectacle rather than narrative. (Many of these early shorts were also frequently remade and retitled.)

When the Lumières’ films were screened in Japan, they were accompanied by live narration performed by benshi, and each sequence was projected on a continuous loop (a technique known as tasuke). The benshi originally introduced each film by providing an explanation of its exposition, though later their performances became more sophisticated. Actors would stand behind the screen, interpreting the film as a live drama, known as kagezerifu.

42nd Street / Anaemic Cinema / A Trip to the Moon


Cinema’s exponential technological advancement was demonstrated in 1900 by Raoul Gromoin-Sanson, who unveiled his Cinéorama system. Cinéorama featured an enormous panoramic screen, onto which were projected ten simultaneous images side by side. The result was certainly spectacular, though the flammability of nitrate film reels, coupled with the logistics of synchronising ten projectors, curtailed the system’s commercial potential. It would later influence Abel Gance’s Napoléon and Hollywood’s Cinerama process.

Primitive cinema initially consisted of simple Lumière ‘actualities’, though French stage magician Georges Méliès sought to fully explore the camera’s potential for illusion. He used editing and trick photography to create films in which objects and people appear, disappear, multiply, explode, grow, and shrink. These stop-motion effects influenced early cartoon animators such as James Stuart Blackton (Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, 1906) and Émile Cohl (Fantasmagorie, 1907) [‘phantasmagoria’]. Méliès’ film screenings were accompanied by narration provided by bonimenteurs, similar to Japanese benshi.

Méliès’ masterpiece was a science-fiction tale about a group of curious Victorians exploring the lunar surface, A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune, 1902). It was more than ten times longer than any previous film, a remarkable attempt at a sustained narrative which predates Edwin S. Porter’s early western The Great Train Robbery (1903). The first truly feature-length film was Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), made in Australia.


D.W. Griffith’s early short films (such as the gangster film The Musketeers of Pig Alley, 1912) were the first to combine all the new narrative devices, including cross-cutting, multiple camera positions, intertitles, and close-ups. Griffith can thus be seen as the first modern director, and his greatest achievements were the historical epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916; subtitled A Sun-Play of the Ages: A Drama of Comparisons and Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages). The Birth of a Nation attracted protests and criticism for its heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan, and its technical accomplishments are tarnished by its overt racism.

It was, however, the Italian studios that produced the very first epic films, including Quo Vadis? (Enrico Guazzoni, 1913) and Giovanni Pastrone’s stunning Cabiria (Visione storica del terzo secolo A.C., 1914). In contrast to these historical epics was Arnaldo Ginna’s film Vita futurista [‘Futurist life’] (1916), directed according to the Futurist cinema manifesto by F.T. Marinetti, which envisioned Futurist cinema as an amalgamation of other forms of visual art: “Painting + sculpture + plastic dynamism + words-in-freedom + composed noises + architecture + synthetic theatre = Futurist cinema” (1916).

Screen comedian Charlie Chaplin emigrated from London to Hollywood. There, he directed and starred in a series of single-reel silent comedies, including The Tramp (1915), which made him the most recognisable film star in the world. Together with D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, Chaplin founded the independent studio United Artists in 1919. Fairbanks specialised in swashbuckling roles such as The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, 1920) which anticipate those of Errol Flynn in the 1930s (The Adventures of Robin Hood; Michael Curtiz, 1938). United Artists was eventually sold in 1952, and later merged with MGM.

The world-famous stage actress Sarah Bernhardt starred in the Elizabethan costume drama Les amours de la reine Élisabeth [‘the loves of Queen Elizabeth’] (Louis Mercanton, 1912), one of France’s film d’art (art film) productions. The first example was L’Assassinat du duc de Guise [‘the assassination of the Duke of Guise’] (1908), directed by Andre Calmettes and Charles Le Bargy. Films d’art were significant for their extended running-times, though their static camerawork and stage-like sets were more regressive than innovative. A similar trend existed in Germany, with the popularity of Autorenfilme (literary adaptations), starting with Der Andere [‘the other man’] (Max Mack, 1912). The Autorenfilme became increasingly elaborate, leading to opulent costume dramas known as Kostumefilme, a trend begun by Joe May’s Veritas Vincit (1918) though dominated by Ernst Lubitsch (notably his Mme du Barry, 1919).

The brief period between 1908 and 1911 was seen as a bela epoca (golden age) for Brazilian cinema, among the most popular productions being fitas cantatas films accompanied by live singers. Similar to Brazil’s fitas cantatas were the Japanese rensa-geki films, in which each sequence would be followed by a short dramatic scene (an innovation first introduced in 1916). Other Japanese genres of the period were: nonsensu-mono (comedies), matatabi-mono (films about wandering outlaws, such as Hiroshi Inagaki’s 天下太平記 [‘peace on Earth’] from 1928), bunka eiga (documentaries, later called kiroku eiga), and jiji eiga (also documentaries, though specifically jingoistic).


Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedy shorts of the 1910s developed into feature-films in the 1920s and 1930s, notably The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). (Chaplin resisted the industry’s transition to sound and dialogue, though he did use sound effects and synchronised scores.) Buster Keaton’s The General (1927, directed by Keaton and Clyde Bruckman) is another enduring silent comedy. Other Hollywood stars of the era included sex-symbol Rudolph Valentino, whose most popular leading role was in the exotic drama The Sheik (George Melford, 1921).

In contrast to the decadence of Hollywood’s emerging star and studio systems was Robert Flaherty’s humanist documentary Nanook of the North (1922), praised by John Grierson who wrote one of the first analyses of documentary films (First Principles of Documentary, 1932). Grierson has been credited with coining the term ‘documentary’, though he disputes this: “Documentary is a clumsy description, but let it stand. The French who first used the term only meant travelogue.”

American film production in the early 1920s was increasingly consolidated around a small number of film studios, all based in Hollywood, which became synonymous with the American film industry. This system of classical Hollywood studio production survived until the 1960s, when it would be challenged by the increasing popularity of television and the rise of independent film production.

Hollywood’s first blockbuster of the post-silent era was the ‘talkie’ The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927), as its sporadic lines of spoken dialogue caused an instant sensation. Oskar Messter had produced Tonbilders (films with synchronised sound) in the 1900s, and, while The Jazz Singer may have been technically inferior to these earlier experimental sound films, its commercial success led directly to the demise of silent cinema.

Erich von Stroheim, who emigrated from Austria to America, directed the epic Greed (1924), though it was cut by the studio from seven hours to two hours. French director Abel Gance’s films (notably La roue [‘the wheel’] from 1923 and the stunning ‘biopic’ Napoléon from 1927) were similarly extravagant. Napoléon had a running-time of over five hours, and was projected using the Polyvision system: three screens were used, enabling incredible panoramic images to be presented. Polyvision was influenced by the ten-projector panoramas of the French Cinéorama system of 1900, and it inspired the American Cinerama process of the 1950s. Similar effects were later achieved using split-screen techniques, as in Richard L. Bare’s Wicked, Wicked (1973; filmed in Duo-Vision).

With the introduction of sustained narratives to Japanese cinema, the country’s film industry began to polarise into two distinct styles: gendai-geki (dramas with contemporary settings, initially influenced by German Expressionism) and jidai-geki (period dramas influenced by kyu-geki historical films). Kichizo Chiba’s 己が罪 [‘my sin’] (1909) was one of the earliest examples of gendai-geki.

One of the earliest jidai-geki films was Chushingura (忠臣蔵, 1907) [‘the loyal retainers’], by Ryo Konishi. Another, Bansho Kanamori’s 紫头巾浮世绘师 [‘purple headscarf’] (1923; based on the Murasaki Zukin character), is also an early example of the ken-geki genre (samurai sword-fighting films, also known as chambara). Daisuke Ito’s A Diary of Chuji’s Travels (忠次旅日記, 1927) represents the pinnacle of early jidai-geki cinema and is also a yakuza-geki prototype. Yakuza films were initially chivalrous and known as ninkyo-eiga, a trend initiated in 1964 by Shingehiro Ozawa’s Bakuto [‘puzzle’] (博徒); in the 1970s, they became more realistic, a jitsuroku-eiga style popularised by Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い) in 1973.

Shomin-geki films (comedies of social observation about lower-middle-class life) include Yasujiro Shimazu’s Father (お父さん, 1923). The shomin-geki social comedies led to a series of satirical comedies known as modan-mono, such as Yutaka Abe’s 足にさわった女 [‘the woman who touched her legs’] (1926).

A group of overtly Marxist films, known as keiko-eiga, were swiftly suppressed by the Japanese authorities. Amongst them was Kenji Mizoguchi’s Tokyo March (東京行進曲, 1929). One of the final keiko-eiga films was Shigekichi Suzuki’s What Made Her Do It? (何が彼女をそうさせたか, 1930), the highest-grossing film in Japanese silent cinema.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari / Metropolis / Nosferatu

Weimar Expressionism

German Expressionism, the cinema’s first avant-garde movement, emphasised atmosphere at the expense of realism. Angular, distorted designs, including artificial lighting and shadows, were painted directly onto the set walls. Actors were encouraged to create wildly stylised performances. Unconventional camera angles were employed. Elements of the Expressionist style would later appear in the films of Orson Welles, in Universal’s 1930s horror films, and in film noir.

Fritz Lang’s superproduction Metropolis (1927) almost bankrupted Germany’s premier studio, UFA. Lang also made the chilling M (1931), and later produced a series of Hollywood thrillers including The Big Heat (1953). F.W. Murnau directed Nosferatu (Eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1921) and the naturalistic Kammerspielfilm The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann, 1924) in Germany, and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) in America, only to be killed in a road accident a few years later.

A series of films influenced by the New Objectivity movement, beginning with Karl Grune’s The Street (Die Straße, 1923) and G.W. Pabst’s Joyless Street (Die Freudlose Gasse, 1925), provided a contrast to the extreme stylisation of Expressionism. The films of this period were concerned with poverty-stricken life on the streets, hence they are known as Straßenfilme (street films). Simultaneously, D.W. Griffith also made a street film, Isn’t Life Wonderful? (1924), filmed on location in Germany.

Avant-Garde Cinema

The cinematic avant-garde can be traced back to two European silent films: Abel Gance’s experimental La folie du docteur Tube [‘the madness of Dr Tube’] (1915) and Robert Weine’s Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari, 1919). The intersection of art and cinema in the 1920s led to a flowering of the cinematic avant-garde; Iakov Protazanov’s Aelita (Аэли́та, 1924), for example, is the only known film from the Constructivist art movement, and Alexei Gan’s Constructivist manifesto celebrated “the vitality of the cine platform of constructivism” (1928). American avant-garde cinema, however, has much later origins: Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon from 1943, and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks from 1947.

Caligari was a film d’art production in all but name, with its painted scenery and static camera, though its angular sets were designed with complete disregard for realism. This resulted in a film that stylistically echoed the unbalanced psychology of its sinister central character and his somnambulistic assistant. Caligari was also a direct influence on James Whale’s Frankenstein.

In France, Danish director Carl Theodore Dreyer made The Passion of Joan of Arc (La passion de Jeanne d’Arc, 1928) and Spaniard Luis Buñuel (with assistance from artist Salvador Dalí) gained entry into the Paris Surrealists’ group with Un chien andalou [‘an Andalusian dog’] (1928). The latter film, an iconoclastic masterpiece of enigmatic, shocking, and deliberately provocative dream imagery, features a woman’s eye being sliced open with a razor, ants crawling from a hole in a man’s hand, and dead donkeys lying on pianos. Buñuel subsequently worked extensively in Mexico, where he directed The Young and the Damned (Los olvidados, 1950) and the surreal The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, 1962). He returned to France in the 1960s and made the sexual fantasy Belle de jour [‘lady of the daytime’] (1967).

Absolute films, influenced by the Dada art movement, included Rhythmus ’21 [‘rhythm 21’] (Hans Richter, 1921), Viking Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony (Diagonalsymphonien, 1921), Entr’acte (Rene Clair, 1924), and Lichtspiel Opus I [‘light show I’] (Walther Ruttmann, 1921; the first abstract film screened to the public). The Dada artists Marcel Duchamp (Anaemic Cinema, 1925) and Man Ray (La retour à la raison, 1923) [‘the return to reason’] also made experimental films at this time.

Many of these semi-abstract art films are examples of cinematic Impressionism, juxtaposing images to give them new meanings, as the montage theorists in Russia would later advocate. Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique [‘mechanical ballet’] (1924) was another experimental semi-abstract film, influenced by Russian montage editing. Total abstraction was achieved by Henri Chomette, the French director whose works of ‘pure cinema’ included Five Minutes of Pure Cinema (Cinq minutes de cinema-pur, 1925), depicting abstract patterns of light.

Soviet Montage

Impressionism in film was made possible by the work of Lev Kuleshov, the Russian director who investigated the psychological impact of montage. Kuleshov intercut a picture of Ivan Mozhukhin’s expressionless face with images of a bowl of soup, a dead body in a coffin, and a little girl. After the shot of the soup, audiences perceived the face as appearing hungry; it was interpreted as mournful after the shot of the coffin; finally, it was viewed as happy after the little girl. Thus, Kuleshov discovered that juxtaposition could alter the meaning of images.

Following in the tradition of the agit-trains that projected political propaganda to Russian peasants, theorist Sergei Eisenstein harnessed the political potential of Kuleshov’s montage. In 1929, he identified five types of montage: metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, and intellectual. He was then commissioned by the Russian government to produce cinematic commemorations of the Russian Revolution, including Battleship Potemkin (Бронено́сец «Потёмкин», 1925) and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (Октябрь: Десять дней, которые потрясли мир; 1928). Potemkin, which dramatised the 1905 naval revolt at Odessa, contains arguably the most celebrated sequence in silent cinema: the massacre on the Odessa Steps. Alongside Eisenstein’s films, the greatest Soviet films of the silent era were Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (Мать, 1926) and Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (Земля, 1930). Russian director Alexander Sokurov produced Russian Ark (Русский ковчег, 2002), a digital film consisting of a single continuous shot, the antithesis of Eisenstein’s montage editing.

Following the German invasion during World War II, Soviet cinema was again harnessed for propagandist purposes, with a series of short films known collectively as kinosborniki. The first of these anti-Nazi propaganda films, Боевой киносборник [‘combat film collection’], was directed by Sergei Gerasimov, I. Mutanov, and Y. Nekrasov in 1941. The Russian public, however, preferred escapism to propaganda, and the most commercially successful films of the period were glamorous kolkhoz musicals such as Grigori Aleksandrov’s Circus (Цирк, 1936).

While Eisenstein used montage to simulate and heighten reality, Dziga Vertov’s kinoki philosophy saw montage as a tool for the manipulation of realism. Vertov published a manifesto in 1922 (“‘Cinematography’ must die so that the art of cinema may live”), though his outstanding contribution to cinema is Man with a Movie Camera (Человек с кино-аппаратом, 1929). The film is a ‘city symphony’ documentary about everyday life in Moscow, though it uses techniques such as split-screen, double-exposure, trick editing, stop-motion, and freeze-frames to constantly remind the audience of the camera’s presence. Walther Ruttmann had previously directed a city symphony about Berlin, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Die Sinfonie der Großstadt, 1927); the first city symphony was Alberto Cavalcanti’s study of Paris, Nothing but Time (Rien que les heures, 1926). (Cavalcanti’s film featured a collage of disembodied eyes, a motif repeated a year later in Metropolis.)

The innovations of Soviet montage and the French avant-garde were part of a wide-ranging modernist movement throughout the arts. Marcel L’Herbier’s L’inhumaine [‘the inhumaine’] (1923) was resolutely modernist in its set design, though its outstanding artistic radicalism (like that of the overtly Expressionistic Caligari) inevitably made it commercially unsuccessful.

Man with a Movie Camera / Battleship Potemkin / Un chien andalou


Jean Vigo’s Zero de conduite [‘zero for conduct’] (1933) and L’Atalante (also released as Le Chaland qui passe [‘the passing barge’]; 1934), and Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le moko (1936; a polar, or police thriller), were the first films of France’s stylised, atmospheric Poetic Realism movement. Vigo completed only a handful of films before dying of tuberculosis. Poetic Realism’s most significant director was Marcel Carné, whose greatest films are Port of Shadows (Le quai des brumes, 1938), Le jour se lève [‘daybreak’] (1939), and Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis, 1945). The dream-like theatricality of this latter film would be equalled the following year in Jean Cocteau’s fantasy Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bête). Jean Gabin, the star of Pépé le moko [‘Pépé the Toulonese’], Port of Shadows, and Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine [‘the human beast’] (1938), became the movement’s greatest icon, and appeared with Eric von Stroheim in Jean Renoir’s masterpiece La grande illusion [‘the great illusion’] (1937).

Renoir’s deep-focus photography, constantly moving camera, long takes, and tragi-comic narratives were all used to greatest effect in The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) (1939), and the film is still acclaimed as European cinema’s greatest achievement. European cinema’s most questionable achievement is perhaps Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi documentary Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1934): an outstanding technical accomplishment, though also a lionisation of Adolf Hitler.

Riefenstahl had previously starred in several of the popular mountainside films (known as Bergfilme) made by Arnold Fanck, including The Holy Mountain (Der Heilige Berg, 1926), though she did not feature in Fanck’s first example of the genre, Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs [‘marvels of the snowshoe’] (1921). Alongside the Bergfilme during the 1920s was a series of educational documentaries, made primarily by UFA, known as Kulturfilme; Riefenstahl appeared in the first significant example of these, Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit [‘paths to power and beauty’] (1925), directed by Nicholas Kaufmann and Wilhelm Prager.

Western-style rancheras films were hugely popular in Mexico, with the most successful being Fernando de Fuentes’ Allá en El Rancho Grande [‘out on the great ranch’] (1936). Another Mexican genre from the period, cabaretera, involved innocent women venturing into sleazy nightclubs and being seduced into lives of wanton debauchery, with Alberto Gout’s Aventurera [‘adventuress’] (1949) being the acknowledged classic of this cult exploitation genre. Mexican exploitation became sexploitation in the 1970s with a cycle of sex comedies known as ficheras, named after Las ficheras [‘the burlesque girls’] (Miguel M. Delgado, 1975).

Hollywood’s Golden Age

In the 1930s, the hardships of the Depression were temporarily replaced by the glamour of Technicolor. Gone with the Wind (produced by David O. Selznick for his own studio) and The Wizard of Oz (from MGM), both directed by Victor Fleming in 1939, are the greatest Hollywood films of this period. Gone with the Wind is a sumptuous, epic romance, resplendent in three-strip Technicolor, after the hand-colouring of the 1900s, the tinting of the 1910s, and the two-strip Technicolor of the 1920s. The Wizard of Oz is particularly memorable for the moment when its sepia-tinted prologue in Kansas is transformed into the Technicolor paradise of the land of Oz. The first feature-length Technicolor production was The Gulf Between (Wray Bartlett Physioc, 1917), though this is now a lost film.

The Hollywood studio system, at the height of its artistic and commercial success in the 1930s, began more than ever to produce films formulated according to specific genres. For example, in the 1930s, hundreds of westerns (known as ‘oaters’ and ‘horse operas’) were made, the best of which was John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), starring John Wayne. Ford would continue to make westerns with Wayne for the next thirty years, though he also made the classic western My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda in 1946.

Universal produced a series of horror films in the 1930s, notably the Expressionist Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), both by British director James Whale, though the most unusual was Edgar G. Ulmer’s bizarre The Black Cat (1934). Bride of Frankenstein, a subversive parody of the genre conventions that Whale had established only a few years earlier, was the most remarkable horror film of the period. (Least notable is Tod Browning’s Dracula: its success, in 1931, launched the Universal horror cycle, though the film itself is stilted and creaky.)

Alongside horror, the gangster genre also established itself in the early 1930s. Mervyn Le Roy’s somewhat dated Little Caesar (1930) was the first of the cycle, though far more powerful is William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931), released shortly afterwards. Both films, made by Universal, were swiftly surpassed, however, by Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), produced by Howard Hughes.

The popularity of horror and gangster pictures was a cause of concern for the Catholic Legion of Decency and the Motion-Picture Producers and Distributors Association. The president of the MPPDA, Will Hays, drew up a Production Code forbidding excessive cinematic sex and violence.

The musicals 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon), Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn Le Roy), and Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon), all choreographed by Busby Berkeley for Warner Bros. in 1933, were popular with audiences eager for escapism. (They also inspired Brazil’s chanchada musicals such as Carnaval no Fogo [‘carnival in fire’] by Watson Macedo, 1949.) Berkeley later directed the Technicolor fantasia The Gang’s All Here (1943).

The ‘screwball’ comedy sub-genre made a star of Cary Grant, who appeared in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937) and Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938). Screwball comedies, initiated by Hawks’ Twentieth Century (1934) and Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (also 1934), were characterised by their fast-paced dialogue and ‘battle of the sexes’ humour. Screwball films were essentially frenetic variants of romantic comedies (‘rom-coms’), while romantic films and melodramas were regarded, somewhat dismissively, as ‘chick flicks’, epitomised by Now Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942).

The most popular actress of the period was Swedish icon Greta Garbo, who had been a silent film star since the early 1920s, notably in Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, 1926). She later appeared (and, famously, spoke) in Clarence Brown’s Anna Christie (1930) and Edmund Goulding’s creaky Grand Hotel (1932), though she withdrew from public life in 1941.


The most important film of the decade was unquestionably Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles in 1941. With its deep-focus photography, stylised lighting, and overlapping dialogue, amongst other innovations, Kane is perhaps America’s most significant contribtion to the development of the cinema. For fifty years, it was voted the greatest film of all time in Sight and Sound magazine’s critics’ poll, though it was eventually replaced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Previous to Kane, Welles had directed and starred in The War of the Worlds, often cited as the world’s greatest radio production. Although he was given total artistic control over Citizen Kane, his later films (including The Magnificent Ambersons from 1942 and The Lady from Shanghai from 1947) were often revised by studios without his supervision.

During World War II, producer Walt Disney’s animated features, including Pinocchio (Ben Sharpsteen, 1940), Dumbo (Ben Sharpsteen, 1941), and Bambi (David Hand, 1942), provided much-needed escapism, as Technicolor had done during the Depression in the 1930s. They consolidated Disney’s position at the forefront of animation, following the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand, 1937). Contrary to popular myth, Snow White was not the first feature-length animated film; that honour actually belongs to the Argentine film El Apostol [‘the apostle’] by Quirino Cristiani (1917).

In Carol Reed’s British classic The Third Man (1949), the anticipation of Welles’ character Harry Lime rivals that of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Also in Britain, Ealing perfected their niche for comedy with Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1948) and The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955), both starring Alec Guinness.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger co-directed a series of British masterpieces in the 1940s, including the celestial fantasy A Matter of Life and Death (1946)—an influence on the 1987 Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel Über Berlin)—produced by their company The Archers, launched in 1943. Powell and Pressburger’s films were far superior to the standard British productions of the period, cheap ‘quota quickies’ churned out following a 1927 law requiring a proportion of all exhibited films to be dosmestically produced.

Film Noir

After World War II, directors turned increasingly towards social realism and reverted to monochrome cinematography. This visually, thematically, and psychologically dark style was known as film noir, influenced by German Expressionism and the B-movie Stranger on the Third Floor (Boris Ingster, 1940). The term was originally used—somewhat derogatively—by French critics to describe the bleak Poetic Realist films of the late 1930s, and it was later applied to American crime films of the 1940s. Recurrent motifs of film noir (and its melodramatic offshoot, film gris) include world-weary detectives, sultry femmes fatales, and urban crime narratives. Classic noirs include Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947; retitled Build My Gallows High for its UK release), and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Charles Laughton’s lyrical The Night of the Hunter (1955) is also stylistically a noir film. Cinematographer John Alton was responsible for some of the most visually stylish noirs, including The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955).

Humphrey Bogart played the archetypal noir detectives Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) and Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946). Marlowe was also played by Robert Montgomery, in Lady in the Lake (1947, directed by Montgomery); the film was shot entirely from a Marlowe’s perspective, thus Montgomery is only seen by the audience when he is reflected by a mirror.

Bogart was perhaps the biggest star of the 1940s, and appeared in Michael Curtiz’s perfect wartime romance Casablanca (1942) in addition to his film noir roles. Other major stars of the time were James Stewart in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ brilliant screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940).

Noir themes such as urban crime were given more naturalistic treatments in a number of films both set in and filmed on the city streets. The first of these documentary-style ‘police procedural’ thrillers was The House on 92nd Street (1945) by Henry Hathaway, though the most well-known is Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948). Dassin later directed the gangster classic Rififi (Du rififi chez les hommes, 1955). Elia Kazan directed one of the best documentary-style thrillers, Panic in the Streets (1950).

In a 1978 Journal of Popular Film article, The ‘Film Blanc’: Suggestions for a Variety of Fantasy, 1940–45, Peter Valenti proposed “film blanc”—describing feel-good fantasy films about guardian angels—as an optimistic alternative to film noir. He described A Matter of Life and Death as the apotheosis of film blanc, though he cited Beyond Tomorrow (A. Edward Sutherland, 1940) as the first example. The Hollywood musical, which Vincente Minnelli reinvented with Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) by integrating songs directly into the melodramatic narrative, was also the antithesis of film noir.

Films noirs were named after a series of French crime novels, and a cycle of German films derived its name from a similar source. Krimi films, including Der Frosch mit der Maske [‘the frog with the mask’] (Harald Reinl, 1959) were named after a series of German crime novels.

The Lady from Shanghai / Double Indemnity / Bicycle Thieves


Throughout the Fascist regime in Italy, one method of avoiding political censorship was simply to concentrate on producing escapist, apolitical cinema. These opulent, glamorous films, such as Gli uomini, che mascalzoni... [‘men, what scoundrels’] (Mario Camerini, 1932; starring future director Vittorio de Sica), were known as telefoni bianchi as they invariably included white Bakelite telephones as props. After the collapse of Italy’s defeat in World War II, and the resultant lack of funds for its national film industry, the opulent escapism of the past was impossible. Instead, Luchino Visconti’s Obsession (Ossessione, 1943) took Italian cinema in a new direction: Neorealism.

Obsession was filmed on location, bypassing the need for expensive studio sets, though its international distribution was restricted for copyright reasons. Neorealism came to international attention with the release of Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (Roma cittá aperta) in 1945. Open City achieved a sense of documentary realism through its use of non-professional actors and donated film-stock. Equally significant are the films of Vittorio de Sica, especially Shoeshine (Sciusciá, 1946) and Ladri di biciclette (1948; released as Bicycle Thieves in the UK and, less accurately, as The Bicycle Thief in the US).

In the early 1950s, the Italian government funded film production only selectively, denying funds to overtly political films. Thus, elements of escapist comedy were introduced into Neorealist films, to make them more politically acceptable. This new style was known as Neorealism rosa (pink), and is typified by films such as Due soldi di speranza [‘two cents worth of hope’] (Renato Castellani, 1952). The comic element eventually eclipsed the Neorealist components altogether, and a distinctive Italian comedy style, commedia all’italiana, was born with the films of Mario Monicelli, notably I soliti ignoti (1958; released as The Big Deal on Madonna Street in the US, and Persons Unknown in the UK).


The science-fiction genre gained popularity in the 1950s, and the best SF films of the decade are The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951; produced by Howard Hawks), The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1956), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956). The cycle was initiated by producer George Pal’s Destination Moon (Irving Pichel, 1950), though the low-budget ‘mockbuster’ Rocketship X-M (Kurt Neumann, 1950) was released before Pal’s film. Godzilla (ゴジラ, 1954), directed by Ishiro Honda, spawned the kaiju-eiga genre of Japanese monster films; it was released in America as King of the Monsters! with additional footage directed by Terry Morse. The most lamentable science-fiction films of the period were directed by Ed Wood, often cited as the world’s worst director. Wood’s films, including the notorious camp classic Plan Nine from Outer Space (1956), were certainly incompetent, though they were never dull.

MGM made a series of Technicolor musicals produced by Arthur Freed in the 1940s and 1950s, including Meet Me in St Louis, and, most famously, Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952). Often acclaimed as the greatest musical film ever made, Singin’ in the Rain was inspired by Hollywood’s transition to sound in the 1920s, which was also the subject of The Artist (2011), by Michel Hazanavicius. The other key Hollywood-on-Hollywood film of the era was Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950), which starred two figures from the silent era: actress Gloria Swanson and director Erich von Stroheim.

Alfred Hitchcock relocated from London to Hollywood in the 1940s (his greatest British films being the Expressionist The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog from 1926 and the espionage thriller The 39 Steps from 1935), and directed several films (including Notorious in 1946) under contract to David O. Selznick. Hitchcock directed his most acclaimed films during the 1950s, after extricating himself from the Selznick contract: Rear Window (1956) and Vertigo. Hitchcock’s greatest film, the shocking Psycho, was released in 1960, and influenced ‘slasher’ films such as Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), and Wes Craven’s self-referential New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996).

The greatest star of the decade was undoubtedly Marilyn Monroe, perhaps the ultimate Hollywood sex symbol. Her renditions of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953) and I Wanna Be Loved by You in Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) are her career highlights. Monroe died in 1962, following an (accidental or suicidal) overdose of sleeping pills.

The increasing popularity of television forced Hollywood to introduce numerous technological innovations, such as widescreen and 3D, in order to compete for audiences. The first widescreen process of the 1950s, the triptych Cinerama format used for This Is Cinerama (Merian C. Cooper, 1952), was directly inspired by the Polyvision system used in the 1920s, though it added a curved screen to provide a sense of immersive depth. 20th Century Fox’s CinemaScope anamorphic widescreen format (The Robe; Henry Koster, 1953), based on Henri Chretien’s Hypergonar system, soon replaced the more cumbersome Cinerama. The triptych concept was revived in 2013, for the South Korean ScreenX system, showcased by Kim Jee-Woon’s short film The X.

In order to fully demonstrate the panoramic potential of the new widescreen formats, a number of biblical epics of the 1920s were remade in widescreen Technicolor splendour, including Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (William Wyler, 1959). The popularity of widescreen led to more spectacular formats, such as the 70mm IMAX system (Tiger Child; Donald Brittain, 1970).

3D was another gimmick used by Hollywood to lure audiences away from television. It had been used previously in the silent film The Power of Love (Nat G. Deverich and Harry K. Fairall, 1922), though it was promoted as a mainstream attraction in the 1950s. The success of Bwana Devil (Arch Oboler, 1952), filmed in Natural Vision 3D, led to science-fiction films such as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and It Came from Outer Space (1953), both by Jack Arnold, also receiving 3D releases.

Some of the more esoteric 1950s gimmicks included Psycho-Rama, a process by which images and text appeared subliminally in the horror film My World Dies Screaming (Harold Daniels, 1958). There were also two olfactory gimmicks: Smell-O-Vision, for Scent Of Mystery (Jack Cardiff, 1960); and Aroma-Rama, for Behind the Great Wall (La muraglia cinese; Carlo Lizzani, 1959). (A later gimmick utilised scratch ’n’ sniff cards: Odorama in 1981 for John Waters’ Polyester.) Director William Castle (The Tingler, 1959) was the undisputed king of gimmicks in the 1950s, though his inventive marketing schemes were more memorable than the films they promoted.

To provide a unique alternative to television, American drive-in cinemas began screening sensationalist, melodramatic exploitation films. These ranged from disposable WIP (women in prison) films such as Caged (John Cromwell, 1949) to more substantial JD (juvenile delinquent) films such as The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause.

Though many 1950s exploitation films were low-budget, absurdly moralistic, and instantly out-of-date, there are two notable exceptions: the ‘teensploitation’ films The Wild One starring Marlon Brando and Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean. Brando was one of a number of young male actors who starred in juvenile delinquent films about youth rebellion, the prototypical example being Brando’s own performance in The Wild One (Laslo Benedek, 1953). James Dean starred in the yet more iconic Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955), released after Dean had been killed in a car accident. A parallel trend existed in Japanese cinema, with a genre known as taiyozoku inaugurated by Takumi Furukawa’s Season of the Sun (太陽の季節, 1956).

In A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951), Marlon Brando introduced a new performance style to the cinema: ‘method acting’. Trained at the Actors’ Studio, he brought an unprecedented intensity to screen acting, notably in On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954). Director Kazan named names to senator Joe McCarthy during the Communist witch-hunts, and On the Waterfront, in which Brando’s character testifies against organised criminals, can be seen as Kazan’s self-justification for his actions.

The new realism of Brando and Dean’s acting style was complemented by a new generation of directors who produced their own films and thus bypassed the studio system. Shadows (1959), by John Cassavetes, was made completely independently in 16mm. Stanley Kubrick also produced his own films, directing independently since the early 1950s (his breakthrough being Paths Of Glory, 1957). In the 1960s, he relocated to England, where he directed the satirical masterpiece Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), the stunning science-fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and the stylised A Clockwork Orange (1971). (Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, from 2011, was one of the few films to equal 2001’s epic scope.)

The most determined of the independent producer-directors was Otto Preminger, who released The Moon Is Blue (1953) without Production Code approval. He also directed one of the best documentary-style noir thrillers, Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Hollywood genre cycles of the 1930s, notably the gangster film and the western, were revisited in the 1950s. James Cagney starred in White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949), equalling and perhaps even exceeding the achievements of his original 1930s classic The Public Enemy. The western underwent considerable revision, influenced by the surprisingly radical High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). John Wayne, who starred in Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948), gave arguably his greatest performance in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), introducing a new psychological complexity to the genre and presenting the traditional western hero as an anachronistic outcast.

The dark and amoral world of film noir reached its logical conclusion with the apocalyptic Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955). Orson Welles, director of Citizen Kane, began his noir masterpiece Touch of Evil (1958) with a sequence that rivals Battleship Potemkin’s Odessa Steps and Psycho’s shower scene as the greatest sequence ever filmed. Its opening is a stunning and seemingly never-ending tracking shot.

During the 1950s, directors such as Satyajit Ray, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, and Ingmar Bergman all established international reputations for the cinema industries of their respective countries. In Sweden, Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957), the masterful religious allegory Det sjunde inseglet (1957), and, later, Persona (1966), marked director Ingmar Bergman as one of world cinema’s greatest artists. Japan’s master director Akira Kurosawa achieved international acclaim for his jidai-geki films Rashomon (羅生門, 1950)—with its innovative use of contradictory flashbacks—and the epic Seven Samurai (七人の侍, 1954), both starring Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa’s gendai-geki films, which critiqued post-War Japanese society, include the noir-influenced Stray Dog (野良犬, 1949), the profoundly humanist Ikiru [‘to live’] (生きる, 1952), and the suspense thriller High and Low (天国と地獄, 1963).

Japan’s other greatest filmmakers, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, had, unlike Kurosawa, been directing ever since the silent era, though their greatest films were also made in the 1950s. Mizoguchi’s work—Ugetsu (雨月物語, 1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (山椒大夫, 1954)—has been compared to that of French director Jean Renoir, as he shares Renoir’s use of deep-focus photography, constantly moving camera, and tragi-comic narrative. By contrast, Ozu’s Tokyo Story (東京物語, 1953) contains virtually no camera movement at all.

Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is one of Japan’s most acclaimed kaidan-eiga, films featuring ghost stories, an early example of which is Mizoguchi’s own Passion of a Woman Teacher (狂恋の女師匠, 1926). The dramatic realism of Ugetsu is atypical of the genre, though, as most examples are supernatural horror stories. Nobuo Nakagawa, the greatest of all Japanese horror directors, made an obaneneko-mono film about a ghostly cat, The Mansion of the Ghost Cat (亡霊怪猫屋敷, 1958).

In the 1930s, a series of Japanese literary adaptions (bungei-eiga) was produced, including 恋の花咲く 伊豆の踊子 [‘the dancing girl of Izu’] (Heinosuke Gosho, 1933) and 若い人 [‘youth’] (Shiro Toyoda, 1937). In the 1940s, there were jingoistic war dramas (kokusaku-eiga) such as ハワイ・マレー沖海戦 [‘war at sea from Hawaii to Malaya’] (Kajiro Yamamoto, 1942), which gave a Japanese perspective on the Pearl Harbor attack. However, the 1950s remains unmatched as a golden age for Japanese cinema.

The short-lived keiko-eiga films of the 1920s inspired a new genre of social-realist Japanese cinema, known as shakai-mono. The director who dominated this genre was Tadashi Imai, well known for the unsentimental nature of his films (called nakanai) such as ひめゆりの塔 [‘Tower of Himeyuri’] (1953). By contrast, other Japanese films tended to be highly melodramatic (namida chodai), typified by Kinoyu Tanaka’s Eternal Breasts (乳房よ永遠なれ, 1955).

Another 1920s Japanese genre, shomin-geki, was also revived in the 1950s, branching into several new sub-genres. Mikio Naruse’s Repast (めし, 1951), for instance, was an example of the tsuma-mono sub-genre (films about wives). Keisuke Kinoshita’s Tragedy of Japan (日本の悲劇, 1953) represents the haha-mono sub-genre (films about mothers). The most popular of these new shomin-geki films was Heinosuke Gosho’s 煙突の見える場所 [‘where chimneys are seen’] (1953).

In India, Satyajit Ray directed Pather Panchali (পথের পাঁচালী) [‘song of the little road’] (1955, part of his Apu trilogy), in stark contrast to the musical decadence of Bollywood cinema. Ray’s film marked a temporary shift away from populist Bollywood fantasies, helping to foster an Indian culture of non-populist films known broadly as ‘parallel cinema’, including art films (kalamatka) and experimental cinema (prayogika). In the 1960s, New Indian Cinema, led by Bhuvan Shome (Mrinal Sen, 1969), offered another alternative to Bollywood escapism. With Arun Kaul, Mrinal Sen wrote a Manifesto of the New Cinema Movement, criticising traditional Indian cinema, in 1968: “New Cinema Movement is conceived as a self-sufficient structure embracing all three branches of filmmaking: production, distribution and exhibition.” Shyam Benegal’s debut film The Seedling (Ankur, 1974) has been described as an example of ‘middle cinema’, as it represented a balance between parallel cinema and the populism of the mainstream Indian film industry.

In Italy, Federico Fellini directed La strada [‘the road’] (1954), which was compared to French Poetic Realism, in contrast to Italy’s prevalent Neorealism movement. Italian cinema was gradually moving away from the social worthiness of Neorealism, and populist genres such as ‘spaghetti western’, giallo, peplum, and ‘eurospy’ would all flourish in the 1960s. Peplum films, featuring heroic protagonists and classical/mythological settings, began with Hercules (Le fatiche di Ercole, 1958) by Pietro Francisci, 1958. Eurospy films such as Sergio Grieco’s Agent 077: Mission Bloody Mary (Agente 077 missione Bloody Mary, 1965), Italian imitations of the James Bond series, were popular from circa 1964 until the end of the 1960s.

In protest at the lack of social realism in British films, a Free Cinema group was established, releasing a series of short statements between 1956 and 1959, concluding with: “FREE CINEMA is dead! Long live FREE CINEMA!” The group initially produced short documentaries that focused on working-class culture and recreation, including O Dreamland (Lyndsay Anderson, 1953). The Free Cinema directors then progressed from documentaries to feature-films: ‘kitchen sink’ dramas about northern ‘angry young men’, such as Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1959) and Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson, 1959), true to the social realist origins of the movement.

Isidore Isou, founder of the French Lettrism avant-garde art movement, directed Venom and Eternity (Traité de bave et d’éternité) in 1950. The film was deliberately asynchronous, a technique Isou called ‘discrepant cinema’. Other Lettrist films featured spoken soundtracks though no images (known as ‘cinechronic’ films), the first being Gil J. Wolman’s Atochrone (1950).

Psycho / Breathless / Rashomon


Mainstream American cinema began to embrace the radical underground counter-culture with subversive films such as The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), and the increasing radicalisation of the mainstream eventually led to the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system. Compare, for instance, the innovation of The Graduate with the lavish emptiness of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963). Television also played its part, as an increasingly significant medium for film distribution and even production: the first ‘telefilm’ (made-for-TV film), See How They Run (David Lowell Rich), was broadcast in 1964.

The release of two Hollywood films with unusually violent climaxes, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), precipitated the collapse of the Production Code. Bonnie and Clyde’s amoral account of a young outlaw couple would later influence Terrence Malick’s road movie Badlands (1973).

Director Jonas Mekas wrote about the new generation of American underground filmmakers influenced by the earlier avant-garde films of Maya Deren. He also coined the term New American Cinema and wrote The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group in 1962: “If the New American Cinema has until now been an unconcsious and sporadic manifestation, we feel the time has come to join together. There are many of us—the movement is reaching significant proportions—and we know what needs to be destroyed and what we stand for.”

New American Cinema was an umbrella term describing the works of, amongst others, the formalist Michael Snow and the artist Andy Warhol. Snow was a pioneer of ‘structural film’, drawing attention to the movement of the camera rather than to the narrative content; his Wavelength from 1967, for example, is a long, slow, continuous zoom. On the fringe of the New American Cinema was Tony Conrad, whose The Flicker (1964) introduced the concept of the ‘flicker film’, with editing so rapid that each image appears for only a single frame.

The most famous name in 1960s American underground cinema was Andy Warhol, who directed (or at least supervised) a series of long, static films in which motionless subjects were filmed for several hours. His more ambitious later works (such as The Chelsea Girls, 1966) were actually directed by Paul Morrissey.

In 1965, Warhol borrowed a prototype video camera to make some experimental videos, incorporating some of his early video footage into the film Outer and Inner Space (1965). This was shortly before the official birth of video art, when, also in 1965, Nam June Paik videotaped one of Paul VI’s papal processions. (Nam June Paik was originally a Fluxus artist, and produced one of their first films, Zen for Film, in 1962).

Warhol may be the underground’s most famous name, though its most famous film is Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), an orgy of sexual ambiguity. The greatest underground filmmaker was the prolific and radical Stan Brakhage, whose most celebrated film is Dog Star Man (1964). Brakhage often painted directly onto strips of celluloid, to create abstract ‘direct films’ similar to those pioneered by the Futurists in the 1910s and Len Lye in the 1930s (such as A Colour Box, 1935).

In Italy, Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita [‘the sweet life’] (1960) began with a technically perfect sequence in which a statue of Christ is carried by helicopter over the streets of Rome. The decadent lifestyles of the characters in Fellini’s La dolce vita and (1963), and in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura [‘the adventure’] (1960), effectively mark the end of Neorealism.

A new kind of violent (and often exploitative) Italian cinema, which flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, ranging from poliziotteschi crime thrillers such as Steno’s Execution Squad (La polizia ringrazia, 1972) to horror films such as Ruggero Deodato’s notorious Cannibal Holocaust (1979). It was Mario Bava who introduced stylised violence to the Italian screen, with his horror film La maschera del demonio (1960), released in the US as Black Sunday and Revenge of the Vampire. Bava also directed a Hitchcockian thriller, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La ragazza che sapeva troppo, 1963), which initiated a cycle of giallo thrillers. The giallo genre’s conventions were established by Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l’assassino, 1964) and refined by Dario Argento’s Deep Red (Profondo rosso, 1975). Argento also directed the stylised horror film Suspiria, 1977).

Sergio Leone made a trilogy of Italian ‘spaghetti westerns’, beginning with Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, 1964)—an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (用心棒, 1961)—and culminating with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo) in 1966. The series starred Clint Eastwood, who would later direct his own classic western, Unforgiven (1992). Leone’s masterpiece was the epic Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una volta il west, 1969). Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General (Quién sabe?, 1966) initiated a sub-genre of spaghetti westerns about the Mexican revolution, known as ‘tortilla westerns’.

Spaghetti westerns (known in their native Italy as ‘macaroni westerns’) were preceded by German ‘spätzle westerns’ (or ‘sauerkraut westerns’) such as Harald Reinl’s Treasure of Silver Lake (Der Schatz im Silbersee, 1962) and later satirised by the Japanese comedy Tampopo (タンポポ, 1985), a self-styled ‘noodle western’ directed by Juzo Itami. The ‘curry western’ Sholay (Ramesh Shippy, 1975) is India’s most successful Bollywood film. The South Korean film The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈; 2008), directed by Kim Ji-Woon, was marketed as a Kimchi western. In Japan, Takashi Miike directed a ‘sukiyaki western’, Sukiyaki Western Django (スキヤキ・ウエスタン ジャンゴ, 2007), which featured a cameo by Quentin Tarantino. Inspired by spaghetti westerns, Israeli director Boaz Davidson dubbed films such as Menahem Golan’s Fortuna (פורטונה‎‎, 1966) and his own חגיגה בסנוקר‎ [‘snooker party’] (1975) ‘bourekas’, after a pastry dish. The bourekas comedies existed alongside the more politicised works of the kayitz movement, with Ephraim Kishon’s Sallah (סאלח שבתי‎, 1964) acting as a bridge between the two styles. Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia called his film 800 Bullets (800 Balas, 2002) a ‘marmitako western’. Predating Italy’s spaghetti westerns, production of Eastern European and Russian revisionist westerns (‘osterns’) was thriving thanks to the success of Samson Samsonov’s Огненные вёрсты [‘miles of fire’] (1957); even earlier was a cycle of Russian ‘borsch westerns’ in the 1920s. In Denmark, films such as Præriens skrappe drenge [‘tough guys of the prairie’] (Carl Ottosen, 1970) were known as ‘kartoffel westerns’. There are also variants from Spain (‘paella westerns’) and France (‘camembert westerns’).

A ‘porno chic’ trend in Japan was initiated by Tetsuji Takechi’s taboo-breaking Daydream (白日夢, 1964), which launched the pinku-eiga (pink film) genre. Pinku-eiga was later sub-divided into films classed as sensationalist (shigeki rosen), fetishistic (ijoseiai rosen), and exploitative (harenchi rosen). Japan also produced soft-core sexploitation films known as jitsuro.

New Waves

In a break from the prevalent French Poetic Realism, film critics writing for Cahiers du cinéma magazine began making their own films, in a movement that became known as the nouvelle vague (French New Wave). Cahiers writers such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut recognised the individualism of directors such as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, and this realisation led to the politique des auteurs: the notion, popularised by Alexandre Astruc, that a director has artistic control over a film in the same way that an author has over a novel. They key text in the formation of the New Wave was Truffaut’s A Certain Tendency of French Cinema (Une certaine tendance du cinéma Français), published in Cahiers in 1954 and decrying what he saw as the retrogressive state of French cinema (“the deliberately pessimistic examination I have undertaken of a certain tendency of the French cinema”).

Godard’s Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960), with its hand-held camerawork, location shooting, and jump-cut editing, signalled a reinvigoration of French cinema. The movement’s other early masterpieces are the enigmatic collage-film Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959) and Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows (Les quatre cents coups). Truffaut’s film caused a sensation when it opened in 1959, though Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur [‘Bob the gambler’] (1955), Agnes Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1956), and Claude Chabrol’s Le beau Serge [‘the beautiful Serge’] (1958) are regarded as progenitors of the movement.

Alain Resnais directed L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961), which challenged the formal conventions of the cinema like almost no other film. (It was released in America as Last Year at Marienbad, and in the UK as Last Year in Marienbad.) The New Wave was still dominated, however, by Jean-Luc Godard. In his apocalyptic Week-end, the jump-cuts and hand-held cameras of Breathless gave way to increasingly alienating devices, such as intertitles and direct-to-camera monologues, which broke away from the illusion of realism.

Jean Rouche’s cinéma vérité film Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été, 1961) was an attempt to achieve a more realistic vision in documentary filmmaking. The television documentary Primary (Robert Drew, 1960) and the ‘rockumentary’ (rock documentary) Dont Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967) were part of a ‘direct cinema’ movement, influenced by cinéma vérité. (Rockumentaries were parodied by Rob Reiner’s ‘mockumentary’ (mock documentary) This Is Spinal Tap, in 1984.) The self-reflexive cinéma vérité was concerned with the interrogation of cinematic truth, whereas direct cinema attempted a more objective ‘fly-on-the-wall’ observational style.

Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri, 1965) was a vérité-style reconstruction of the Algerian Revolution, and Algerian director Mohamed Bouamari (El faham, 1973) called for a cinema djidid (new cinema) movement to respond to the problems facing the ordinary people of the country. The movement’s greatest triumph was the epic Chronique des années de braise [‘chronicle of the years of fire’] (Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, 1975), and it followed the politically radical films of Algerian cinema mudjahad (freedom-fighter cinema), such as L’aube des damnés [‘dawn of the damned’] (Ahmed Rachedi, 1965).

British cinema continued its realist aesthetic with films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960) and Ken Loach’s Kes (1969). Their polar opposite was Lawrence of Arabia (1962), one of David Lean’s most spectacular British epics.

Aside from the New Wave, French cinema of the period is remembered for its suspenseful and atmospheric horror films. In particular, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (Les diaboliques, 1954) was a significant influence on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Inspired by the French New Wave, there were New Wave movements in several Eastern European countries throughout the 1960s, most famously in Czechoslovakia. The Czech New Wave (nova vlna) was initiated by Štefan Uher’s The Sun in a Net (Slnko v sieti, 1962), and led by Miloš Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (Lásky jedné plavovlásky, 1965) and Jiří Menzel’s Ostře sledované vlaky (1966; released in the US as Closely Watched Trains and in the UK as Closely Observed Trains). Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball (Horí áa panenko, 1967) was banned in perpetuity after the Prague Spring; he would later work in Hollywood, directing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975. Many directors of the Czech New Wave were graduates of the Prague Film and Television Faculty of the Academy of Dramatic Arts.

In Yugoslavia, Aleksandar Petrović’s Dvoje [‘two’] (1961) initiated a novi val (New Wave) movement, which also included Dušan Makavejev, who made the sexually radical Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice PTT (1967; released in the US as Love Affair, or: The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, and in the UK as The Switchboard Operator). A Hungarian New Wave was initiated by Miklós Jancsó’s Oldás és kötés [‘cantata’] (1963). The Round-Up (Szegénylegények, 1965) was his first international success, and he perfected his signature long takes and tracking shots in Red Psalm (Még kér a nép, 1972). Hungarian directors also developed an improvisational, semi-documentary style known as filmregény, as in István Dárday’s Filmregény — Hàrom Nővér [‘film novel — Sister Hàrom’] (1979).

In Brazil, the cinema novo (new cinema) movement, anticipated by Nelson Pereira dos Santos with Rio, 40 Graus [‘Rio, 40 degrees’] (1955, inspired by Neorealism), drew international attention to the country’s most impoverished people and to its most accomplished director, Glauber Rocha, who directed the mythological Black God, White Devil (Deus e o diabo na terra do sol, 1964). His manifesto The Aesthetic of Hunger (La estética del hambre, 1965) defined the cinema novo movement: “hunger in Latin America is not simply an alarming symptom; it is the essence of our society. Herein lies the tragic originality of Cinema Novo in relation to world cinema. Our originality is our hunger and our greatest misery is that this hunger is felt but not intellectually understood.” While political content was suppressed in Brazilian cinema, censorship of sexual imagery was relaxed in the 1970s, leading to a series of soft-core sexploitation cinema de boca (films of the mouth) comedies known as pornochanchades (as seen in the 1978 compilation film Os melhores momentos da pornochanchada [‘the best moments of pornochanchada’], by Victor di Mello and Lenine Otoni).

In 1969, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino wrote the manifesto Towards a Third Cinema (Hacia un tercer cine), calling for a new ‘third cinema’ linking the emerging film industries of South America and Africa: “If we choose films as the centre of our propositions and debate, it is because that is our work front and because the birth of a third cinema means, at least for us, the most important revolutionary artistic event of our times.” They also co-directed a film of their own, The Hour of the Furnaces (La hora de los hornos, 1968), and later established an offshoot of third cinema known as cine militante (militant cinema). Elsewhere in Latin America, a group of Mexican critics endorsed Jomi Garcia Ascot’s En el balcón vacio [‘on the empty balcony’] (1961) as a new beginning for Mexican cinema. They published their Manifesto of the New Cinema Group (Manifesto del grupo nuevo cine) in 1961, in support of directors “making new cinema in Mexico, which without a doubt will be a far superior cinema than the one today.”

In Japan, Nagisa Ōshima’s early films, such as Cruel Story of Youth (青春残酷物語, 1960) and the highly political Night and Fog in Japan (日本の夜と霧 , also 1960), marked him out as the most radical of that country’s nuberu bagu (New Wave) of young directors working for the Shochiku studio. When Shochiku withdrew Night and Fog in Japan during its opening week, Ōshima left the studio to form his own production company. He subsequently directed the scandalous In the Realm of the Senses (愛のコリーダ, 1976), containing graphic sexual content, which was deemed obscene in Japan.

In 1955, a cinema conference was held in the Spanish town of Salamanca, after which Juan Antonio Bardem wrote a manifesto in Objectivo [‘objective’] (1955): “Spanish cinema is still a cinema of painted dolls. The problem with Spanish cinema is that it is not that witness of our time which our time requires of every human creation.” Bardem co-wrote Luis Garcia Berlanga’s film ¡Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall! [‘welcome Mr Marshall!’] (1951; a Neorealist parody of españolada exoticism) and directed the bitterly anti-Franco Death of a Cyclist (Muerta de un ciclista, 1955). With Berlanga, he came to symbolise a new generation of radical filmmakers whose work constituted a nuevo cine español (new Spanish cinema). The group’s international figurehead was Carlos Saura, who directed The Hunt (La caza, 1966) and Cria cuervos [‘raise ravens’] (1976).

A group of young German directors signed a manifesto at Oberhausen in 1962, calling for a revival in German cinema: “We have concrete intellectual, formal, and economic conceptions about the production of the new German film. We are as a collective prepared to take economic risks. The old film is dead. We believe in the new one.” One of their goals was to replace the nostalgic, nationalistic, and escapist Heimatfilme (Heimat films) popular in Germany throughout the 1950s. Heimat films had served to boost German national feeling following World War II, and they represent the antithesis of the Trümmerfilme (films set in the ruins of Germany’s bombed cities), such as Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are Among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns, 1946) and Roberto Rossellini’s Italian film Germany, Year Zero (Germania anno zero, 1948). 1956 was the high point of the Heimat film, with Ulrich Erfurth’s Drei birken auf der Heide [‘three birches on the heath’] being a typical film from that year: a man returning to the village of his birth realises the importance of his idyllic rural homeland.

In 1966, the group released two important anti-Heimat films: Volker Schlöndorff’s Young Törless (Der junge Törless) and Alexander Kluger’s Yesterday Girl (Abschied von gestern). They were, however, eclipsed by the internationally acclaimed das neue Kino (new cinema) group, led by Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Wenders was fascinated by open spaces, as his ‘road movie’ Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, 1976) shows. Herzog’s extravagant, mythological epics Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, 1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) both star the manic Klaus Kinski, whom an exasperated Herzog tried to kill on one occasion. Fassbinder’s death from a drug overdose marked the end point of the movement; arguably his greatest film was Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf, 1974), influenced by the Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk.

On The Waterfront / Toy Story / Spirited Away


Films such as Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977; later subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope) dominated the mainstream American box-office, setting new profit records and establishing the now-familiar ‘blockbuster’/‘event movie’ distribution pattern. Star Wars, like the later Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), is an updated version of 1930s adventure serials such as Flash Gordon (Frederick Stephani, 1936). It is also an example of the ‘space opera’ sub-genre, which has been traced back to the Holger-Madsen’s Danish film A Trip to Mars (Himmelskibet, 1918). (The serial format, with episodic narratives and ‘cliffhanger’ endings, was introduced by What Happened to Mary? (Charles Brabin) in 1912 and typified by The Perils of Pauline (Donald MacKenzie and Louis J. Gasnier) in 1914.)

Woody Allen with Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), and Martin Scorsese with Taxi Driver (1976), directed arguably their greatest works during this decade. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) heralded a revival of the film noir detective films from the 1940s. More precisely, Chinatown has been cited as an example of film soleil, a sub-genre featuring noir narratives coupled with sun-drenched locations. René Clément’s Purple Noon (Plein Soleil, 1960) may qualify as the original Film Soleil, predating Chinatown by more than a decade.

Method actor Marlon Brando gave his greatest performances since the 1950s, in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) and particularly the stunning Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). His performance in Apocalypse Now has been criticised as incoherent and self-indulgent, though, in fact, such traits are entirely consistent with the character he plays. The long build-up to his character’s eventual shadowy appearance evokes The Third Man from the 1940s, and Brando’s performance in Apocalypse Now is the equal of Orson Welles’ in that earlier film.

Robert De Niro, arguably the greatest screen actor since Brando, starred in several of Scorsese’s films, notably Taxi Driver, in what would become one of the greatest actor/director partnerships. He later appeared in Scorsese’s gangster epic GoodFellas (1990). Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino were also key actors of the 1970s. Nicholson made exploitation films for Roger Corman throughout the 1960s, though his mainstream breakthrough came with his performance in Easy Rider. Pacino and De Niro both starred in The Godfather II (1974), Coppola’s Godfather sequel, though they did not appear together; they had one joint scene decades later in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).

Government subsidy of the Film Development Corporation in Australia financed such films as Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975). However, the revival of Australia’s film industry is credited to a more unlikely source: crude yet popular ‘Ozploitation’ (Australian exploitation) films such as Stork (Tim Burstall, 1971).

A new generation of Polish directors, led by Krysztof Zanussi with The Constant Factor (Constans, 1980), made films with a strongly social-reformist agenda (highlighting the moral bankruptcy of contemporary society), a style which they called kino moralnego niepokoju (cinema of moral anxiety). In Turkey, actor and director Yılmaz Güney led a new generation of younger filmmakers with Umut [‘hope’] (1970; co-directed by Şerif Gören), inspired by Italian Neorealism.

Greek cinema had revolved around populist farsocomedies and patriotic, traditionalist foustanelles films until Theodoros Angelopoulos modernised and politicised the country’s film industry. His politically radical debut film The Reconstruction (Αναπαράσταση) was released in 1970. Greek filmmaking gained international recognition forty years later with a group of surreal films known collectively as the Greek Weird Wave, released in the aftermath of an economic crisis in the country. The Weird Wave movement began with Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (Κυνόδοντας, 2009).

Thai films had been made almost exclusively in 16mm until 1970, when two successful 35mm releases changed the industry. The first of these was a traditional romantic musical (มนต์รักลูกทุ่ง) [‘love in the countryside’] directed by Rungsri Tassanapuk and starring Mitr Chaibancha, the actor who almost single-handedly dominated Thai cinema in the 1960s. (The film’s unprecedented success was largely due to its nostalgia, and Mitr’s accidental death shortly before its release.) The second 35mm blockbuster was His Name Is Tone (โทน), directed by Piak Poster, a more modern drama that brought a new level of technical and artistic sophistication to Thai cinema.

Exploitation Cinema

Exploitation has a long cinematic pedigree, with some of the earliest examples being German Aufklärungsfilme (prurient documentaries concerning the facts of life) and Sittenfilme (sexploitation dramas, such as Robert Reinert’s Opium). These films were made in 1919, during a brief period of relaxed censorship immediately after World War I. Medical documentary footage was also added to American exploitation films in the 1930s and 1940s, including Mom and Dad (William Beaudine, 1945), the most successful non-Disney film of the decade. The various branches of exploitation cinema are all encompassed by the umbrella term ‘paracinema’, referring to cinema outside the mainstream.

After the collapse of the Production Code, increasingly unrestricted representations of sex and violence were present in counter-culture and exploitation films from the 1960s onwards. Although pornographic ‘stag’ reels (‘blue movies’, ‘cooch reels’, ‘beaver reels’, or ‘smokers’) had existed since the 1890s, it was Russ Meyer’s The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959) which brought nudity into narrative cinema, initiating a stream of ‘roughies’, ‘kinkies’, ‘ghoulies’, and ‘nudie-cuties’. The first roughie was Scum of the Earth (1963), directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis, who also made the first gore film, Blood Feast, in the same year. Sexploitation films, known as bombas (and milder crowd-pleasing bakyas) would later dominate Filippino cinema in the 1970s.

Sexploitation in America became increasingly explicit and violent following Blood Feast and the mondo documentary Mondo cane (Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, 1962), until eventually even hardcore pornography gained mainstream recognition. Deep Throat (1972), by Gerard Damiano, became porn’s cross-over hit; it played in mainstream cinemas, with its success being dubbed ‘porno chic’. Subsequently removed from public cinemas, pornography is now ubiquitous online and on video; John Stagliano’s The Adventures of Buttman (1989) led to the vérité-style ‘gonzo’ porn video sub-genre.

The ‘midnight movie’ was inaugurated in New York in 1970, when Alexandro Jodorowsky’s apocalyptic spaghetti western El topo played to capacity audiences every night at midnight. With a complete lack of publicity, the film’s popularity derived entirely from word-of-mouth. Pink Flamingos by John Waters received midnight screenings in 1972, though it was the camp horror-musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975) which came to epitomise the participatory midnight movie phenomenon, with audiences dressing up as characters from the film and singing along with the soundtrack.

Nick Zedd published a manifesto calling for a new kind of taboo-breaking cinema, which he named ‘the cinema of transgression’, in 1985: “There will be blood, shame, pain and ecstasy, the likes of which no one has yet imagined.” (The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto was originally attributed to Orion Jeriko, Zedd’s pseudonym.) The cinema of transgression was an offshoot of ‘no wave cinema’, a New York underground movement launched by Amos Poe (The Foreigner, 1978) and others. Zedd’s underground films include the hardcore short film Whoregasm from 1988. The most extreme combination of sex and violence, the ‘snuff’ film, is merely an urban myth, despite the false marketing claims of the exploitation film (and ‘video nasty’) Snuff (Michael Findlay and Carter Stevens, 1976).

Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973) cashed in on the 1970s vogue for kung-fu by giving actor Bruce Lee his first American role. Like Rebel Without a Cause, it was released after its main star had died. While Hong Kong kung-fu (or ‘chop-socky’) stars such as Lee demonstrated impressive though largely realistic martial-arts skills, the stars of another form of martial-arts cinema (Chinese wuxia pian films) were endowed with supernatural and mythological powers. The first wuxia film was the serial 火烧红莲寺 [‘burning paradise’] (Shichuan Zhang, 1928), though the genre’s modern form was established by King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn (龍門客棧, 1966).

Airport (George Seaton and Henry Hathaway, 1970) launched a brief genre cycle, the disaster film, featuring fires, earthquakes, and other catastrophies. The other key film of the cycle was The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin and Irwin Allen, 1974).

Equally short-lived was the ‘blaxploitation’ cycle, which emerged with Cotton Comes to Harlem (Ossie Davis, 1970) and included Shaft (1971) directed by Gordon Parks. (Like Stanley Kubrick, Parks was formerly a professional magazine photographer.) Melvin van Peebles critiqued the blaxploitation cycle with his incendiary film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in 1971. The following year, John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) introduced what became known as ‘hixploitation’: films with menacing yokels and foreboding backwoods. Other exploitation trends include ‘Canuxploitation’ (Canadian directors including Bob Clark and David Cronenberg), ‘Mexploitation’ (Mexican wrestler-hero films such as Benito Alazraki’s Santo contra los zombies [‘santo against the zombies’] from 1961, one of the industry’s low-budget churro films) and, ‘nunsploitation’ (Ken Russell’s profane orgy The Devils, 1971).

Taxi Driver / Pulp Fiction

New Hollywood

A new generation of directors from film schools, including Scorsese and Coppola, established a New Hollywood following the collapses of the Hays Code and the studio system. Indeed, Coppola established his own studio, American Zoetrope, with George Lucas in 1969 (though he sold it in 1984). The New Hollywood directors also introduced an unprecedented authenticity into American cinema, evident, for example, in the graphic language and violence of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. This unrestrained attitude, free from the previous Production Code restrictions, was also demonstrated by William Friedkin in his urban crime thriller The French Connection (1971). George A. Romero’s independent Night of the Living Dead (1968), a zombie film with a social conscience, paved the way for more graphic mainstream horror films such as Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973).

The New Hollywood era of directorial authority was somewhat curtailed in 1980 following the commercial disaster of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, recalling the excesses of Eric von Stroheim in the 1920s. Like von Stroheim, Cimino went substantially over-budget and created a five-hour film which the studio drastically cut. Unlike von Stroheim, however, Cimino’s version, or at least an approximation of it, was subsequently released in an (unsuccessful) attempt to recoup costs.


American cinema in the 1980s, despite producing a glut of bombastic action movies (typified by Rambo in Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood from 1982, and John McTiernan’s excellent Die Hard from 1988), did generate two clear masterpieces: Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Raging Bull stars Robert De Niro as a brutal middle-weight boxer, and Blue Velvet examines the corruption behind the immaculate exterior of suburban America. (Lynch’s later Mulholland Drive (2001) was also critically acclaimed.) Woody Allen directed several classic comedies, including the profound Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and the self-satirising Stardust Memories (1980). The successes of Spike Lee’s independent films She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and Do the Right Thing (1989) led to the label ‘new black cinema’.

The ‘brat pack’, a group of young American actors (Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy) starred in St Elmo’s Fire (Joel Schumacher, 1985) and The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985). These films attracted teenage audiences, in a revival of the ‘teenpic’ trend of the 1950s. Subsequently, adolescents became Hollywood’s target demographic, with ‘kidpic’ films aimed at pre-teen audiences. The ‘brat pack’ label was coined by David Blum in a 1985 New York magazine cover story, Hollywood’s Brat Pack: “This is the Hollywood “Brat Pack.” It is to the 1980s what the Rat Pack was to the 1960s—a roving band of famous young stars on the prowl for a good time.”

Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), James Cameron’s ‘tech noirThe Terminator (1984), and Ridley Scott’s dystopian Blade Runner (1982) were all part of a revival of the film noir style, known as ‘neo-noir’. Scott, like many directors of the 1980s, began his career in advertising, and films of the period began discernably to adopt the rapid editing and overt stylisation of advertisements and music videos. This tendency, dubbed cinéma du look, was first noted by Raphaël Bassan in a 1989 article for La Revue du cinémaThree French Neo-Baroque Directors (Trois néobaroques français)—and was most evident in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981). The high-concept films produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer also share this fast-paced MTV aesthetic; 1980s icon Tom Cruise starred in their blockbuster Top Gun in 1986, directed by Tony Scott.

In 1987, China’s Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television instructed directors to embed Communist Party doctrine into state-sponsored films. Using a musical metaphor, Teng Jinxian compared this to a recurring leitmotif, which he called the ‘main melody’ (‘主旋律电影’). The Birth of a New China (开国大典), directed by Li Qiankuan in 1989, is an early example of these ‘main melody’ films. A later example, Huang Jianxin and Han Sanping’s The Founding of a Republic (建國大業) from 2009, integrated its state propaganda so seemlessly that it became a box-office blockbuster.

Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government’s restrictions on access to western films were finally lifted in the early 1980s, and the first Chinese filmmakers to benefit from this were the ‘fifth generation’ group, graduates of the reopened Beijing Film Academy. Fifth generation films such as Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (黃土地, 1984) focussed on the history of rural China. Arguably the first film of the fifth generation, Zheng Junzhao’s One and Eight (一個和八個, 1984) was not released until 1987, after its anti-Communist implications had been toned down.

Similarly, a new generation of filmmakers in Taiwan was concerned at the increasing urbanisation of their society, and the Taiwanese Central Motion Picture Corporation received government funding which supported their work. The leading figures of this hsin-jui (Taiwanese New Wave) movement were Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who directed the historical epic A City of Sadness (悲情城市, 1989) and the wuxia film The Assassin (刺客聶隱娘, 2015); and Yang Dechang (also known as Edward Yang), whose A Brighter Summer Day (牯嶺街少年殺人事件, 1991) is an epic evocation of 1960s street life. They were both among the signatories to a 1987 manifesto in which they pledged to “fight for the space for an “alternative cinema” to exist alongside commercial cinema.” The Taiwanese New Wave was revitalised in the 1990s, with the films of Tsai Ming-Liang (whose work, such as Vive l’amour [‘long live love’] (愛情萬歲, 1994), is a cold study of urban alienation) and Ang Lee (who followed Eat Drink Man Woman (飲食男女, 1994) with a series of commercial Hollywood genre films).

Following the Soviet Union’s newfound tolerance of freedom of speech (glasnost), its films (otechestvennye filmy, or films about the fatherland) were predominantly bleak examinations of life’s harsh realities. These somewhat depressing films were known as chernukha (black films), and were the dominant aesthetic of 1980s Soviet cinema, as seen in films such as the popular Little Vera (Ма́ленькая Ве́ра, 1988) by Vasily Pichul. A related style, bytovoy (realism), presented a degree of social criticism and satire, as in Vladimir Menshov’s Moscow Does not Believe in Tears (Москва слезам не верит, 1980). (There were also a number of blockbuster films (boeviki), such as Alla Surikova’s Человек с бульвара Капуцинов [‘man from Capuchin Boulevard’] (1987). This was a period of transition in Russia, as a consequence of the government’s perestroika policy, leading to fall of the ‘iron curtain’ in 1989, various Eastern European revolutions in that year, and ultimately the end of the Cold War.

A small group of Kazakh directors, given the opportunity to study at the VGIK film insititute in Moscow, sought to counteract the predominant grim realism of Russian cinema with a Kazakh New Wave. They achieved international success with Rachid Nugmanov’s The Needle (Игла, 1988).

In Japan, anime films (also known as ‘Japanimation’) such as Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (アキラ, 1988) and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (攻殻機動隊, 1995) were adapted from the country’s ubiquitous manga comics. (The Akira manga was drawn by Katsuhiro Otomo himself.) Arguably the most important animation artist since Walt Disney, Hayao Miyazaki directed many enchanting anime films, released by Ghibli, the studio he co-founded in 1985. Miyazaki’s first critical successes came with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (風の谷のナウシカ, 1984; based on his own manga) and My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ, 1988), and his Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し, 2001) has a magical lyricism comparable to The Wizard of Oz.

The anime industry in Japan has existed since the 1960s, producing countless animated series and serials aimed at children, with specific genres catering for boys (shonen) and girls (shojo). There are also anime genres for young women (josei) and adolescents (seinen). Cartoons featuring attractive boys are known as bishonen, while those featuring pretty girls are called bishojo. Cartoons featuring superheroes are known as sentai. Maho shojo is a genre featuring girls with magical powers. Anime with especially cute characters are known as moe. The mecha genre features giant robots. Japan also has an extensive market for bawdy (ecchi) and pornographic (hentai) anime, which can be sub-divided into several specific genres. For example, yaoi cartoons feature gay characters (though are aimed at a female audience), shonen-ai are gay cartoons aimed at a male audience, yuri and shojo-ai feature lesbian characters, shota are erotic cartoons featuring young boys, and lolicon are similarly erotic anime featuring young girls.

Kung-fu films, and softcore fengyue exploitation such as Li Hanxiang’s Legends of Lust (風月奇譚, 1972), had dominated Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s. However, in 1979, director Tsui Hark made his debut with the dazzling and hallucinatory The Butterfly Murders (蝶變). Tsui, who was criticised for the increasing populism of his films, was also a successful producer, working with fellow Hong Kong director Wu Yusen (also known as John Woo). The ‘heroic bloodshed’ gangster films A Better Tomorrow (英雄本色, 1986) and The Killer (喋血双雄, 1989) were instant blockbusters, produced by Tsui Hark, directed by Wu Yusen, and starring Chow Yun-Fat. (They were also known as ‘gun-fu’ films, for their combination of martial-arts fight scenes and gun-toting gangsters.) All for the Winner (賭聖, 1990), starring Chow Sing Chi (also known as Stephen Chow) in a parody of Chow Yun-Fat, introduced a style of broad comedy known as mo lei tau, and was directed by Chun-Wai Lau (also known as Jeffrey Lau) and Corey Yuen.

Domestic video players created a new market for classic old films and unpromising new ones: distribution companies could now release films DTV (direct-to-video) if they felt that a theatrical release would be uncommercial. Video was also, initially, less strictly regulated than the cinema, and numerous violent horror films released on video in the UK were eventually banned. These ‘video nasties’ were condemned as ‘splatter’ films, ‘slice-and-dicers’, and ‘stalk-and-slashers’.

In Japan, direct-to-video films were known as ‘v-cinema’. Many anime series deemed too short for television transmission were instead released direct-to-video as OVAs (original video animations), the first example being Dallos (宇宙战争, 1983) by Mamoru Oshii. Once DVDs replaced videos as the domestic medium of choice, DTVs became DVDPs (DVD premieres).

Casablanca / Alfred Hitchcock / Citizen Kane


A major new studio, DreamWorks SKG, was established in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. After several years of construction delays, DreamWorks began active film production in 1997 and quickly became one of the most successful film studios in Hollywood. Its greatest commercial successes were the digital animations it produced to compete with Pixar, including Shrek (Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, 2001). Shrek was notable for its conscious attempts to appeal to both children and adults, and it also contains several thinly-disguised Disney parodies (following Jeffrey Katzenberg’s split with Disney and several Pixar/Disney collaborations). DreamWorks was acquired by Paramount in 2005, though that partnership ended after three years. DreamWorks Animation was purchased by Universal in 2016.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) weaves together complex interconnected stories, as does Christopher Nolan’s reverse-narrative Memento (2001). (Anderson directed the acclaimed There Will Be Blood in 2007.) Narrative convolution was taken to a new level by Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004).

Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi [‘the mariachi’] (1992, known as a ‘burrito western’) was an independent film produced on an ultra-low budget, inspired by sex, lies, and videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989) and Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991). Arguably the first major independent film of the period was Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise (1984). A group of independent films with gay themes (such as Gus van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, 1991) was defined by B. Ruby Rich as ‘new queer cinema’, a trend that began with the film festival success of Poison (Todd Haynes, 1990). Rich’s essay on “the new queer films” was first published in The Village Voice under the title A Queer Sensation (1992); the term ‘new queer cinema’ was coined as the title of Sight and Sound’s reprint of the article later that year. Throughout the decade, independent cinema was dominated by former video store clerk Quentin Tarantino, whose audacious debut Reservoir Dogs (1992) was followed by the highly acclaimed Pulp Fiction (1994).

With the collapse of the military dictatorship in South Korea in the early 1990s, restrictions on foreign media were lifted. This led to an influx of Hollywood films, with which the country’s national film industry could not compete. After securing corporate sponsorship, South Korean films achieved increasing domestic and international success. The instant and unprecedented box-office popularity of Kang Je-gyu’s Shiri (쉬리, 1999), and the cult success of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (올드보이, 2003), reasserted the dominance of South Korea’s film industry within Asia. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (기생충, 2019) became the first Korean film to win the Cannes Palme d’Or, and the first foreign-language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. A short-lived Korean modernist film movement, known as yongsang sedae, was initiated in 1974 by Lee Jang-ho’s Heavenly Homecoming to Stars (별들의 고향). Kim Ki-young’s melodrama The Housemaid (하녀, 1960) represents the high point of Korean cinema’s golden age.

Fifth generation filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s debut was Red Sorghum (紅高粱, 1987) and his masterpiece is Raise the Red Lantern (大紅燈籠高高掛, 1991), a film whose sumptuous cinematography is contrasted with its themes of repression and jealousy. His fellow fifth generation director, Chen Kaige, made the lavish Farewell My Concubine (霸王別姬) in 1993. In contrast to the increasingly spectacular fifth generation films, a more realistic, urban, and independent ‘sixth generation’ was led by Zhang Yuan with Beijing Bastards (北京杂种, 1993). Emerging simultaneously with the documentary-style sixth generation films was a xin jilu yundong (new documentary movement) of low-budget Chinese documentaries filmed with handheld cameras, such as Wu Wenguang’s Bumming in Beijing (流浪北京: 最后的梦想者, 1990).

1997 was a breakthrough year for the cinema of Iran. The country’s long history of exploitative filmfarsi productions was broken by the international acclaim garnered by the films of Abbas Kiarostami, particularly Taste of Cherry (طعم گيلاس‎, 1997), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. In 2001, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar (قندهار) took Iranian cinema, by then at the forefront of international appreciation, into the next century. Kandahar, which follows a woman travelling in the Afghan desert, was released at the same time as Afghanistan’s Taliban regime was overthrown. Asghar Farhadi won international acclaim for A Separation (جدایی نادر از سیمین‎, 2011), a powerful study of class and gender in Iranian society. Jafar Panahi’s film The Circle (دایره‎, 2000) was also critically acclaimed, though the director was imprisoned in 2010 and banned from filmmaking for twenty years.

A group of Danish directors formed the dogme ’95 group, and agreed to a Vow of Chastity manifesto, an anti-auteurist statement that paradoxically quotes François Truffaut: “DOGME 95 has the expressed goal of countering “certain tendencies” in the cinema today” (1995), pledging never to use artificial lighting, camera tripods, or studio sets. They also refused to allow themselves directorial credits. Each dogme ’95 film was prefaced with a title-card certifying its conformity with the Vow of Chastity. The first such film was Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (Festen, 1998).

In France, La haine [‘hate’] (Matieu Kassovitz, 1995) was arguably the film of the decade, highlighting the racial tension in banlieu ghettos. A similar theme is explored from an Arab perspective in French cinéma beur films such as Karim Dridi’s Bye-bye from 1995.

In a 2004 Artforum article, Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema, James Quandt identified a trend he called “the New French Extremity,” whereby films such as Gaspar Noé’s One Against All (Seul contre tous, 1997) introduced transgressive sex and violence into arthouse cinema. In Michael Haneke’s equally shocking Austrian film Funny Games (1997), an exercise in épater le bourgeois, two young murderers invade a family’s holiday home.

All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre, 1999), by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, was the last masterpiece of the twentieth century. Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai was one of the most promising new directors in world cinema at the turn of the twenty-first century. His Chungking Express (重慶森林, 1994) developed a cult following, and his In the Mood for Love (花樣年華, 2000) was an international arthouse success.

The Seventh Seal / Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives


Latin American cinema overcame its region’s economic instability with la buena onda, a crop of internationally successful films from Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. The revival arguably began with the emergence of nuevo cine Argentino (new Argentine cinema) represented by Fabián Bielinsky’s kinetic Nine Queens (Nueve reinas, 2000). Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también [‘and your mother too’] (2001) and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores perros [‘love’s a bitch’] (2000), both from Mexico, were simultaneous nueva ola (Mexican New Wave) successes. Also from Latin America, City of God (Cidade de Deus, 2002), by Fernando Meirelles, is the most commercially successful Brazilian film ever made. Its casual violence was influenced by Scorsese and Tarantino, and with its theme of poverty in the favelas of Rio it echoes Brazil’s cinema novo movement from the 1960s. The film’s co-producer, Walter Salles, also directed a buena onda film, Central Station (Central do Brasil, 1998), though the Brazilian cinema retomada (renaissance) began several years earlier, with Carlota Joaquina, Princeza do Brasil [‘Carlota Joaquina, Princess of Brasil’] (Carla Camurati, 1995).

The late-1990s resurgence in Thai cinema was, like that of Latin America, concurrent with a financial crisis in the region. The Thai New Wave movement began in 1997 with the release of Nonzee Nimibutr’s Dang Birely’s and Young Gangsters (2499 อันธพาลครองเมือง). Nonzee went on to direct the romantic ghost story Nang Nak (นางนาก, 1999) and produce Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger (ฟ้าทะลายโจร, 2000). Wisit (who wrote Nonzee’s Dang Birely and Nang Nak, and came from a television advertising background) had a uniquely retro style evoking the melodramas of 1950s Thai cinema. In Tears of the Black Tiger, he digitally transformed the environment with vivid colours, so that each frame resembled an Andy Warhol screenprint. Nang Nak was one of many films based on the tale of Nak, a female ghost; Banjong Pisanthanak directed a comedy version of the story, Pee Mak (พี่มาก..พระโขนง, 2013) which broke all box-office records in Thailand. Nang Nak was released a year after two highly influential Asian ghost films: Hideo Nakata’s ‘J-horror’ blockbuster Ringu (リング, 1998) and Korea’s similar ‘K-horror’ ghost film Whispering Corridors (여고괴담, 1998).

A Chinese martial-arts film revival was instigated by the worldwide arthouse success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍, 2000). It was followed by the balletic, graceful Hero (英雄, 2002) directed by Zhang Yimou.

Cristi Puiu’s minimalist, naturalistic The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lăzărescu, 2005), with its long takes and static camera, signalled a Romanian New Wave (Noul val românesc). A central funding system, the National Centre of Cinematography, was established at the start of the decade, and the New Wave achieved its greatest success when Cristian Mungiu’s Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days (4 luni, 3 săptămâni, Ûi 2 zile) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007.

Horror films became less supernatural and more graphic, with a trend known as ‘torture porn’, a term coined by David Edelstein in his New York magazine article Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn (2006). Edelstein cited Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) as his primary example, calling it “not a bad little thriller, if you can live with the odd protracted sequence of torture and dismemberment.” Roth was part of a “self-styled Splat Pack” of horror directors identified by Alan Jones in his Total Film article The New Blood (2006). Later, partly as a reaction against ‘torture porn’, arthouse horror films such as The Witch: A New-England Folktale (Robert Eggers, 2015) were labelled ‘elevated horror’, indicating their psychological depth in contrast to the jump-scares of more formulaic horror films.

Several American independent filmmakers were accused of selling out, as they directed studio projects alongside independent productions. A new group of intimate, low-budget films, collectively labelled ‘mumblecore’, was hailed as a revival of true independent cinema. Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2005) was the first film of the mumblecore movement.


Online video streaming led to a decline in video sales and rentals, and Hollywood turned once again to 3D as a gimmick to attract cinema audiences. (3D had been employed in the 1950s when Hollywood was challenged by TV; fifty years later, it was the internet that threatened to usurp viewers from both Hollywood and television.) The 3D revival was led by James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), one of the most expensive and commercially successful films ever made. As modern 3D required digital cameras and projectors, there was a dramatic shift in film production and distribution from celluloid to digital.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand’s most prominent avant-garde director, made enigmatic, allegorical, and contemplative films. His breakthrough came with the mysterious Tropical Malady (สัตว์ประหลาด, 2004), and his evocative Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ, 2010) won the Cannes Palme d’Or. Like Apichatpong, Pen-ek Ratanaruang found more success on the international festival circuit than at the domestic box office; his debut film, Fun Bar Karaoke (ฝันบ้าคาราโอเกะ), was released in 1997.

Digital Cinema

At the turn of the twenty-first century, cinema was transforming into an increasingly digital medium, converging with the realms of computer graphics and online videos. The first ‘mashup’ video predates the internet: Apocalypse Pooh (1987), Todd Graham’s dubbing of Winnie the Pooh with Apocalypse Now and vice-versa. Cellphones provided new platforms for digital films, known as ‘microcinema’ due to the limitations of length and file size imposed by the technology.

American cinema began incorporating digital imagery into its blockbuster films in the early 1990s, notably the morphing metal in James Cameron’s Terminator II: Judgment Day (1991) and the incredible digitally-generated dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993). The next step, total digital animation, was taken by the Pixar studio with Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995). (The use of computers in film animation began in 1960, when John Whitney founded Motion Graphics and produced abstract animations via an analogue computer he invented. In 1961, he compiled his earliest films into a showreel titled Catalog.)

Digital effects were also central to The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999), which was concerned with the mutli-layered and illusory nature of reality itself (a more technologically sophisticated version of earlier ‘virtual reality’-themed films such as David Cronenberg’s ‘body horror’ Videodrome from 1982). Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) seemlessly integrated digital motion-capture with traditional photographic effects. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), was filmed in 3D at forty-eight frames-per-second, in a process known as High Frame-Rate 3D.

Disney dominated commercial cinema, acquiring two of the most successful global film franchises, Star Wars (thanks to its purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012) and the Marvel superhero roster (after it purchased Marvel Studios in 2009). Disney also owns Pixar (acquired in 2006) and 20th Century Fox (following Disney’s 2019 takeover of 21st Century Fox, the entertainment division of News Corporation). Disney thus owns the rights to the two highest grossing films of all time (unadjusted for inflation), namely Avatar and Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2019). One of the largest digital media companies, Amazon, bought MGM in 2021, thus securing content for its Amazon Prime Video streaming service.

© 2002–2023
Matthew Hunt