The 50 greatest debut movies: part five
In part five we're painting our heads like Jimmy Fox, shambling through the cemetery with George Romero's 'Living Dead' and dancing in our stockinged feet with Martin Sheen sand Sissy Spacek...
10. Performance (1970)Directed by Nicolas Roeg & Donald Cammel
Cockney gangster flick meets the end of '2001'
Hipster artist Cammell and former cinematographer Roeg conspired to produce the filmic equivalent of shunting a lipstick-smeared wrecking ball through a hall of mirrors with a hallucinogenic carve-up that invites the West London art-rock scene to bump uglies with the great and the not so good of East End gangland. A startling study of identity and violence that invents a whole new cinematic box of tricks with which to blur the boundaries of sexual orientation, class and lifestyle that separate Mick Jagger’s dissolute rock viper from James Fox’s gold-standard hardman, it’s a demanding film that openly trades in schizophrenia and offers little by way of resolution. Fox stars as the small-time hood in desperate need of a hideout when a hit goes bad and his predatory, Reggie Kray-alike boss Harry Flowers (wonderfully essayed by podgy cockney Johnny Shannon) has it in for him. And where better for a geezer to lay low but in the basement of a dilapidated Notting Hill doss house owned by Jagger’s androgene gak hoover? As Fox gets in touch with his untapped freaky subconscious, Roeg and Cammell duly subvert their movie from a hard-edged gangster yarn into a soft focus multicoloured love-in, with musical interludes, stuttering editing and a peek – both metaphorical and literal – inside Jagger’s craaaaaazy brain. ALD/DJ
Watch the phenomenal 'Memo from Turner' scene
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9. The Maltese Falcon (1941)Directed by John HustonThe first steps of a cinematic colossusOne doesn’t think of someone as mighty and revered as John Huston as having had anything quite as callow as a first film, but everyone starts somewhere. This iconic noir revels in the pitch-perfect casting, salty characterization and adherence to plot-above-all that crown the many peaks of Huston's towering career, not to mention the (almost) first appearance of Humphrey Bogart - Hollywood hero. ALDWatch the cracking trailer hereRead Time Out review
8. Night of the Living Dead (1968)Directed by George A RomeroRomero sparks a revolution in low budget cinema‘They’re coming to get you, Barbara!’ Very few debuts both create and define an entire cinematic subgenre, but that’s what George Romero achieved with ‘Night of the Living Dead’. Not only did the film set a fully formed template that practically all zombie movies have followed since (apocalyptic setting, small group of scrappy outsiders, pointed political allegory), its effect on the wider horror genre was nothing less than seismic. Downbeat endings, ethnic minority or female central characters, miniscule budgets, ever more inventive death scenes: these have become genre staples. Romero may not have been the first director to treat fantastical subjects with hard-headed, semi-documentary realism (Don Siegel had forged the way a decade earlier with ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’), but he was certainly the boldest, melding generational struggle, Vietnam metaphors and civil rights revolution into his bleak, devastating portrait of an America slipping ever closer to the brink. THAs it's out of copyright, you can watch the entire movie online here
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7. The 400 Blows (1960)Directed by François TruffautSchool's out... forever?The first film in François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle (there were four overall) is also one of his most universally adored. Doinel is brought to life by New Wave posterboy Jean-Pierre Léaud, a smart-mouthed tyke unable to accept the shackles of a lower class upbringing and the pressure exerted by the various authority figures in his life. Unlike his film-lover compatriot Godard, Truffaut was more interested in drawing on life experience and repressed childhood emotion than he was in reinventing the conventional grammar of cinema. As such, his debut remains one of the most vital and lyrical depictions of youth in revolt that ever captured on film. DJRead Time Out review
6. They Live By Night (1948)Directed by Nicholas RayThe Great-Grandaddy of the lovers-on-the-run movieThis RKO noir quickie marked the start of the large and (mostly) leftfield directorial career of Nicholas Ray, and a more romantic, invigorating and, eventually, elegiac debut you could not hope for. ‘We’re In A Jam!” proclaimed the clunkily dramatic poster tagline, with the ‘We’ in question being Farley Granger’s Bowie, a weedy crim who escapes from prison with a pair of burly conspirators, and Cathy O’Donnell’s Keechie, a sultry seductress who boards in the secluded farmhouse where the gang hide from Johnny Law. Bowie suffers an injury, so Keechie nurses him back to health. In the process, of course, they fall in love. New horizons suddenly snap in to view, a new life on the straight and narrow, an honest life, with a house and a family. All that’s standing in the way is Bowie’s buds and their desire to go back for one last job, and so a triple-pronged cross-country chase proceeds. Loved (and emulated) by the Cahiers critics, this melancholy excursion to the dark heart of America heralded Ray as one of cinema’s foremost artists and innovators. DJ
Read Time Out review here
5. Blood Simple (1984)Directed by Ethan & Joel CoenThe brothers grimA dusty gem that gets better with every viewing, the Coens’ entrée is a slab of desert noir that arrives dripping with flop sweat and reeking of confidence. A clammy roundelay of deceit, death and dirty dollars played out across the skull orchards of West Texas, it introduced us to a worldview that – with only a couple of exceptions – has informed all of Joel and de facto co-director Ethan’s best subsequent work: that people are weak and stupid, the world will always turn against you and nobody, but nobody, ever gets away clean. Wrong-footing us at every turn, ‘Blood Simple’ turns our genre perceptions on us any time we get something close to comfortable, and never refrains from asking that it’s characters – and, therefore, audience – tally up the butcher’s bill for their blood-soaked thrillride. ALD
The great M Emmet Walsh shows his sympathetic side
Read the Time Out review here
4. L’Atalante (1934)Directed by Jean VigoThe fullest expression of a doomed geniusThere will be those who question the choice of ‘L’Atalante’ as Vigo’s debut: he had already made a number of shorts, including the masterly ‘Zero de Conduite’, a 30-minute epic which contains as many ideas and iconic images as most full-length features. And, like Charles Laughton’s ‘The Night of the Hunter’, this was also Vigo’s final film, his one major statement before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 29. But no one who has seen the film could possibly question its greatness. On the surface, ‘L’Atalante’ is a rather simple, even hackneyed romance, the tale of a flighty girl wedded to a barge captain who finds life on France’s waterways more of a challenge than she expected. But it’s in Vigo’s treatment of the material that the film’s genius lies: ‘L’Atalante’ is simply unlike anything else in cinema. Tranquil yet oddly uneasy, slow and sensuous but still achingly alive, this is tactile cinema, blurring the lines between the emotional and physical planes: to claim that a work of art touches the heart has become a horrible cliché, but in the case of ‘L’Atalante’ it feels literally true. Watching the film is akin to being slowly immersed in a fathomless body of warm, dark water: peaceful, welcoming and just a little dangerous. THWatch the beautiful swimming scene
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3. Badlands (1973)Directed by Terrence MalickThe counter-culture Kubrick strides confidently onto the stageOf all the directorial achievements on this list, Malick’s might be the most impressive. He wasn’t a studio employee like John Huston or Preston Sturges, or a noted short film director like Jean Vigo. He hadn’t spent his life on movie sets, learning and observing, as actors like Clint Eastwood or technicians like Nic Roeg had. He wasn’t an authorial prodigy with the full weight of a major studio behind him, like Orson Welles. He was just a committed student and passionate lover of film, totally assured of his own vision, and bull-headed enough to carry it through. Yet ‘Badlands’ feels more complete, a more complex and assured piece of work than most directors manage even at their peak. It was produced independently, with a non-union crew and barely $300,000 in the kitty. And while there’s no doubt that the two wonderfully unpretentious central performances, the lambent, late-summer cinematography and that infamous choice of theme music all helped to pull the film together, ‘Badlands’ is truly Malick’s show, an almost eerily perfect fusion of image, emotion and intellect, coming together to create a film of otherworldly depth and integrity, and setting the template for one of the most celebrated careers in cinema. TH
Watch Kit and Holly's forest idyll, and hear Carl Orff's magical theme
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2. Citizen Kane (1941)Directed by Orson WellesFor poor Orson, life would never be so sweet again... There’s probably nothing left to say about the big man’s monumental calling card other than that it still manages to amaze. Seeing ‘Kane’ at or near the top of any best-of list can often occasion the kind of prickly heat and frosted eyes that prefigure one’s latent iconoclastic urges, but when the film starts and one’s dander dies down all that’s left is a true marvel of cinema that offers an unparalleled example of a young Turk taking an art form by the scruff of the neck and telling it that things might well have been ticking over before he blew in, but as from now, there’s a whole new game in town…The extraordinary and often groundbreaking techniques on show are matched only by the technical prowess exhibited in their execution. Welles was utterly dauntless in overcoming the challenges set against his big idea for charting nothing less than the life of the world’s most powerful man. From happy-go-lucky anklebiter to profligate gadabout to epically grumpy old timer, Kane’s life provides a rich backdrop onto which Welles’s fascination for his new medium is projected. Tricks and gimmicks – however elegantly employed – are, however, only half the story, and, despite keeping the viewer at arms length for large parts of the film, the emotional impact of Kane’s demise and the insoluble regrets he has harboured throughout his monumental life are proof that Welles was a master storyteller in any medium he chose. ALDClick here to watch Orson discussing his legacy
Read the Time Out review here
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