The 50 greatest debut movies: part six

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Yes, it's our choice for the number one first film: Orson Welles fans can direct their complaints to the usual address...

1. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Directed by Charles LaughtonThe twisted vision of a tragic genius, never to be repeatedCan a director’s one and only film really be considered a debut? If we made a list of the 50 greatest swansongs, could ‘The Night of the Hunter’ head that list, as well? Frankly, yes. Of all the diverse bodies of directorial work in the long history of cinema, Laughton’s stands as perhaps the most flawless and untouchable: no second-movie jitters, no mid-period slump, no slide into doddery obsolescence. One perfect film, one singular statement, achieving more in 92 minutes than most directors manage in a lifetime.
Night of the Hunter 3.jpg
Much has been made of the film’s originality: the combination of influences, from Grimm fairytales through French romanticism and German expressionism to film noir, all fusing and mutating to form something wholly fresh. Perhaps the best description of the tone comes from François Truffaut – ‘it’s like a horrific news item retold by small children’ – but that’s only one side of the story, there’s much more to ‘The Night of the Hunter’ than just the naïve child’s-eye perspective for which it has become justifiably famous. Laughton may have identified most closely with his pre-pubescent escapees, but there’s no doubt he feels a little something for Robert Mitchum’s Preacher too: loathing, yes, but also respect, admiration, and just a touch of kinship. The film may be about the child in all of us – and the psychological escape routes we hunt for when that child comes under threat – but it’s about the cold-blooded, manipulative, cynical villain in all of us, too. The Preacher may be an archetype, but with his dry wit, self-awareness and dogged single-mindedness he’s one we can relate to.
Night Of The Hunter 1.jpg
It’s also interesting to assess the subsequent impact of ‘The Night of the Hunter’: for a film which left very little impression on first release, the tendrils of its influence have snaked into the most unlikely corners, as proven by this month’s BFI season of works related to Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’, of which Laughton’s film is the opener (Radio Raheem recounts Mitchum’s ‘left hand, right hand’ speech in Lee’s movie). It’s hard to imagine modern villainy without the influence of The Preacher: the easy charm, the quick wit, the relentless urge to destroy. Tales of indomitable heroes had been commonplace in movies and serials for years, but this is one of the first examples of an indomitable villain: he’s The Terminator with more personality, Michael Myers with charisma, Freddy Krueger in a different hat (but equally nightmarish).There are directors who seem to spend much of their careers tilting at ‘The Night of the Hunter’: the queasy fairytale logic of Tim Burton, or the glittering psychic murk of David Lynch, whose ‘The Elephant Man’ is perhaps the closest any director has come to recapturing Laughton’s fragmented dreamscapes. But it’s a hopeless task: ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is a film which can never be, and perhaps should never be repeated, and the passing of time has done nothing to dim its singular, undeniable brilliance. TH
Watch the creepy 'everlasting arms' scene

Read the Time Out review here
Explore the list: 50-41 40-31 30-21 20-11 10-2

Author: Adam Lee Davies, David Jenkins, Tom Huddleston


Users say

120 comments
Jakob W
Jakob W

Great List and a very surprising Number 1

Ryan S
Ryan S

Easy Rider at #50 and Bufallo 66 at #17.


Please stop. Just, stop. You're only going to hurt yourself in the end.

Ren N
Ren N

No 12 Angry Men?! that's a sin against humanity...

Michael J
Michael J

As good as people say Night of the Hunter it is, for me it lacks heavily when it comes to pacing and tone. The film is incredibly beautiful, and very well written, but that's mainly due to the cinematographer and writer respectively, neither of which was Laughton. The worst part of the movie, though, was the ending, joyful instead of even slightly sinister or regretful. I could accept the film in the top 10, but no way is it even slightly better than Citizen Kane, Blood Simple or The 400 Blows. 


And leaving out Pi, Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf and 12 Angry Men is just an insult. This needs to be revised.

sleazylistening
sleazylistening

What about Mike Nichols for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Sam Mendes for American Beauty?

David Topper
David Topper

where is PI by darren aronofksy? where is american beauty, one of the greatest debuts and films of all time?

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I just wanted to post a reamrk to be able to than

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Al
Al

Seeing as it is that I might be lucky enough to get a reply from the team, Amenabar's "Tesis"? Overlook or Spanish quota covered with Almodovar? Thanks;)

boyz
boyz

no sign of boyz n the hood!! should be top 5!

Martin Wilson
Martin Wilson

Two more great debuts. THIS SPORTING LIFE. Raging Bull was plainly influenced by this film's themes, construction and tone. THE UNINVITED (1944). Lewis Allen's eerie film is also Hollywood's first adult 'haunted house' story.

Jack
Jack

Citizen Kane should be number 1, but if they had to choose a less obvious choice, well, The Night of the Hunter is the right one. Too bad 12 Angry Men is missing.

Alex
Alex

I guess the writer didn't get the irony when insulting James Cameron about all the money he spent on Terminator when in fact The Terminator, a low budget film, is probably the best debut movie of all time! Cameron's 2 days on piranha 2 don't count.

Adam
Adam

Speaking of Burton, you forgot Pee Wee's Big Adventure...the REAL number 1 debut. And as others have mentioned, where in the world are Shawshank and 12 Angry Men???

Dash Sebright
Dash Sebright

12 Angry Men? One of the best movies in history, let alone debuts

Martin Wilson
Martin Wilson

Was the absence of THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE an oversight or deliberate?

elfonzobonzo
elfonzobonzo

Night of the hunter is a wonderful film. but is it better then Citizen Kane. Hardly! To me it seems that because Citizen kane gets all the the plaudits, somebody always wants to find something to beat it. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But, come on Night of the hunter, like many films, will always be behind Citizen Kane. Also where the f@ck is Donnie Darko?! your telling me it didnt deserve a top 50 place? B@llocks!!

mike
mike

Where is the shawshank redemption?

Ed
Ed

The inclusion of 12 Angry Men and especially Ivan's Childhood is essential. But they're often overlooked, probably because Lumet got his start in television, and because Tarkovsky is so remembered for Andrei Rublev. Another great debut that was overlooked is Lukas Moodysson's Show Me Love (aka F--king Amal). Thanks for making a list of real movies and not including fanboy garbage like Pi, Donnie Darko and the phony beyond phony Dances With Wolves.

Pixote
Pixote

What about Pixote?

Jaycee
Jaycee

Adam (re Duel) That's kind of an arbitrary distinction. Duel is more appropriate for this list than Killer of Sheep which, like Duel, was not intended initially as a cinema release but was a student film. At least Duel was released, with additions, in cinemas in the 1970's and successfully; something which didn't happen with Killer of Sheep until this decade. Duel belongs in the top 50.

Adam Lee Davies
Adam Lee Davies

Jaycee, Spielberg directed 'Duel' for TV - it was an ABC Movie of the Week - so despite it being a lean, mean mother (that was eventually shown in some cinemas) we didn't think it really belonged on this particular list. Adam Lee Davies.

woundedduck
woundedduck

Night of the Hunter? It was an anachronism the second it was finished. But where the hell is "Ordinary People"? It's a stunning debut which Redford has never come close to surpassing.

uzielis
uzielis

I don't really mind that American Beauty and District 9, among others, weren't included, but I'm glad Being John Malkovich isn't on that list.

Jesse
Jesse

I can't wait for April 1st, when we'll get to see the "50 greatest Time Out lists played as practical jokes on its readership". I have a feeling this will be in the top five!

TJ
TJ

Good list. Citizen Kane and Maltese Falcon should have been the top 2. Reservoir Dogs should have been top 10 and Prime by Ben Younger should be on this list. But like i said, good list :)

sdfklsdf
sdfklsdf

PRIMER???? Good lord, I wasted a Sunday evening trying to figure out who thought a shoestring budget was any excuse for horrible writing. Five years later, I got my answer: YOU! If it were my list, I'd include Sam Mendes, Jason Reitman, Eli Roth and even David Fincher (Alien 3 was a masterwork of direction and a severely underrated movie, in my opinion). But, it's not my list. But still, PRIMER??? You must have gone to film school with a whole pile of dudes who learned how to make a movie but didn't know how to write a good script, something you can't learn how to do; you either have it or you don't. PRIMER???

Stephane
Stephane

BALLAST - Lance Hammer AMORES PERROS - Alejandro González Iñárritu Synecdoche, New York - Charlie Kaufman Delicatessen - Jean-Pierre Jeunet In The Bedroom - Todd Field Being John Malkovich - Spike Jonze Half Nelson - Ryan Fleck, Ana Boden Mean Creek, The Wackness, Frozen River, Thank You For Smoking, District 9, Donnie Darko, American Beauty, Human Nature, Slacker(?), Sex/Lies/Videotape, Following, Sidney, Pi, Citizen Ruth, Beavis&Butthead/Office Space... anything else?

Patrick
Patrick

Where is American Beauty?

Peter
Peter

Pi is overrated, it's a mediocre film that shows elements of a great director who revealed himself later. Although American Beauty and Donnie Darko are worthy of the list. Good list though.

Sambo
Sambo

No Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko or Darren Aronofsky's Pi in the top 50 makes this entire list pointless.

Matthew Lawrence
Matthew Lawrence

Simply god awful list. Why? Because Christopher Nolan's Following is not on this list. Why? I have no idea, but just watch it. The movie is fantastic with a turn at the end that is truly unmatched. Plus Darren Aaronofsky's Pi is not on this list. These are obviously the two greatest directorial debuts ever yet they gain no recognition! This is one disgusting list. It basically just gave typical favorites the top spots and left out the true gems of film.

David Jenkins
David Jenkins

eric, I lobbied to get sex lies and videotape in there, but was over-ruled by my colleagues who all seemed to have some crazed vendetta against it...c'est la vie!

Emma H
Emma H

Sam Mendes' American Beauty, top debut.

eric
eric

Sex Lies and Videotapes, anyone ? Palme d'Or in Cannes at 24 for Soderbergh, hello ?

Riley
Riley

not having Pi on the list invalidates it completely, in my books.

Aaron
Aaron

Hunger (2008) by Steve McQueen should have been on the list

RTM
RTM

Great list. I'd add District 9, first feature film from Neill Blomkamp that's easily the best Summer movie of the year? Gone, Baby Gone is also an impressive debut from Ben Affleck. Both are worthy enough to be on this list IMO.

Brent
Brent

I don't care what you say, Night of the Hunter, though it may have been good when released, does not live up to today's standards. Look at the films of the Coen Brothers and you will see many of the same elements of NOTH, only the Coens use them to better effect. Citizen Kane should have been #1, and Reservoir Dogs should have been in the top ten.

rob breyer
rob breyer

On a general note, perhaps a little too Eurocentric for those of us who didn't major in film at university. More specifically, how could you leave out Ordinary People or Dances With Wolves. Oscars right out of the gate, and Redford in particular took a book that many thought was unfilmable and not only rendered ti brilliantly but got career best performances from Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch and Timothy Hutton.

Peter Nellhaus
Peter Nellhaus

I would have included "Pretty Poison" by Noel Black, and possibly Woody Allen's "Take the Money and Run". Also, Jerry Lewis's "The Bellboy".

Pat
Pat

The Usual Suspects was NOT Bryan Singer's debut. Neither was Shawshank Frank Darabont's. Besides, Shawshank sucks.

Wheldrake
Wheldrake

The Usual Suspects superior to Night of the Hunter??? In what universe.?

Sulbag
Sulbag

Poor show Tom. The list says "50 best" not "50 most interesting", therefore omitting The Shawshank Redemption & The Usual Suspects make the list irrelevant. Bryan Singer was only 24 when he made it!! Surely far superior to Night of the Hunter?????

frank
frank

Richard Kelly - Donnie Darko

Sarah
Sarah

Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone? He may be a crap actor but his visual style is memorable and that's a movie that sticks with you.

Michael J
Michael J

@Keyur D. Mehta Nolan's First film was actually Following, which was good, but maybe not to this list's level. Memento is my favourite Nolan movie, though, and if it were his debut, would land squarely in the top ten.



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