The Best Movies You Probably Haven't Seen That Were Directed By Actors

(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition we take a look at some lesser-known movies directed by actors.)

The big film hitting screens this weekend is a horror film starring and directed by John Krasinski, and while A Quiet Place is neither the first nor the last movie to be directed by an actor it's definitely the most recent. The joke about actors wanting to direct is an old one, but most never actually make the jump behind the camera. Those that do often leave acting behind in the process while others find a way to balance the two careers – sometimes in the same film.

Robert Redford, Sarah Polley, Denzel Washington, and Angelina Jolie are just a few of the many actors turned directors whose films have won both awards and recognition, but plenty of others have toiled behind the camera far less noticeably. Did you know that Al Pacino and Tom Noonan have each directed four movies? Or that two of the six friends from Friends have helmed films? I'll let you Google to see if I'm lying on that count, but for now, keep reading for a look at some worthwhile movies you've probably missed that were directed by actors.

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

Rio is the unluckiest member of a bank-robbing gang, and when the job is over he's left behind to take the rap. He gets out years later with only one thing on his mind – find and kill the man who screwed him over.

Marlon Brando is front and center here as Rio, and while he's a bit less brooding and moody on horseback and in the dirt than he is screaming "Stella!", he reamins a captivating performer. It's a charismatic turn as he holds his growing urge for revenge just beneath the surface while riding across gorgeous landscapes, wooing women, and occasionally offering up a lazy smile. He pairs well too with the subject of his hunt, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), a far more boisterous and trigger-happy cowboy whose energetic and loud persona is the flip-side of Rio's calm. The supporting cast is peppered with more Western favorites, including Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens, and the west coast offers an atypical backdrop for the action.

This film stands as Brando's single directorial effort (after Stanley Kubrick walked away from the project), and that's a damn shame for everyone – well, aside from the studio that financed his budget overruns on their way to an unreasonably long (to them) five-hour cut that they subsequently trimmed by half. One-Eyed Jacks may not be in the same league as other one-and-done directors like Saul Bass (Phase IV), Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter), or Nelson Lyon (The Telephone Book), but it's a beautifully-shot (Oscar-nominated for its cinematography) and fairly terrific Western that leaves you wanting more.

Buy One-Eyed Jacks on Criterion Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon.

Rage (1972)

Dan Logan awakes after a night spent camping with his son on their ranch property to find the boy unresponsive and bleeding from his nose. He rushes the child to the hospital and immediately catches the interest of military doctors, who quickly take charge of the situation. It seems they accidentally poisoned Dan, the boy, and hundreds of sheep, and now they're working overtime to cover it up. Dan's understandably upset about it all.

Boy oh boy, is this is a bleak thriller. Dan is a father hoping to teach self-sufficiency to his son, but the boy's life ends far too soon, forcing the distraught dad to stand up for both of them against a far more powerful government conspiracy. George C. Scott stars as powder keg Dan, and he gives an effective performance moving from confusion to grief to pure, undistilled fury. The film's small-town setting keeps things from growing too big or out of control, and the result is a tight little thriller culminating in Dan's fiery, 24 hour quest for justice. The supporting cast is compelling in their own right with Martin Sheen (Firestarter was a reunion!), Barnard Hughes, Ed Lauter, and more familiar faces getting in Scott's way.

Scott also made his feature debut here as a director, and it's more than fitting for an actor well known for angry outbursts both on and off the screen. His only other directorial effort, 1974's The Savage Is Loose, gives his increasing aggression an equally unappreciated home. Neither film found much traction, and it's a shame as Rage shows a fairly sharp eye for staging and set-pieces. They're admittedly in service of a downer film, though, that ends with something of a feeling of hopelessness.

Buy Rage on DVD from Amazon.

The Midnight Man (1974)

Jim Slade was a homicide detective before being convicted of manslaughter and serving time behind bars, and now he's found a job as a security guard on a college campus. It should be a simple way to avoid breaking parole, but when a co-ed is found murdered, he finds himself drawn into a deadly mystery he might not get out of.

As is often the case with lesser known movies, this one wasn't received positively by critics or audiences at the time of its release, but that doesn't stop it from being a well-constructed and thoroughly entertaining little thriller. Burt Lancaster plays Jim as a proud ex-cop and a wary ex-con, and it's the intersection of those two aspects that find him wading into the fray for the truth. Some decidedly R-rated language aside, the first half of the movie feels like an episode of Murder, She Wrote as various characters are introduced only to become suspects and/or victims in short order. It turns up a notch in the back half, though, with some gritty action including a stellar set-piece that sees Jim taking on three men in and around a barn. The film then builds to not one, but three endings as Jim rides his suspicions all the way to their overly surprising conclusion.

Lancaster's only 100% official directing credit is for 1955's The Kentuckian, but he returned to the director's chair (half of it anyway) nearly two decades later after stepping in to help his friend Roland Kibbee, who had written several of Lancaster's films. It's unclear who directed which parts, but there's as much fun to be found in the detective scenes as there is in the action beats. Fans of Lancaster in particular should enjoy his delivery and dedication to the more physical moments.

The Midnight Man is currently unavailable.

Yellow Fangs (1990, Japan)

Life is already hard enough for mountainside villagers in the early days of the 20th century, but it gets even worse when a bear begins targeting villagers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The beast is killing men on the spot and taking the women away for leftovers, and with no end of terror in sight, a group of experienced bear hunters go looking for the furry death-dealer.

This Japanese feature stands apart from the others on this list for a couple reasons. First, while it's a ton of fun, the movie really isn't all that great. The script wavers between action/attack beats, character drama, and nostalgic odes to a time when bear hunting was a noble and busy calling, and it creates some dull and ineffective stretches in the process. But remember two sentences ago where I mentioned it's also a ton of fun? Hoo boy. The bear attacks are bloody and chaotic affairs that leave you open-mouthed, and the heroic beats revealing our four heroes leaping heroically down snow-covered mountainsides are played up with rousing music that returns your mouth to smiling position. Oh, and the bear is a man in a hairy adult onesie. It's ridiculous, but the damn thing is played so serious between the performances and carnage you'll almost feel bad about laughing. Like I said, it's a highly entertaining movie.

The second thing separating this from the other actor/directors here is that famed action star Sonny Chiba doesn't ever appear onscreen for his directorial debut. (There's the slim possibility that he's the guy in the bear suit, but that hasn't been confirmed.) That decision was ultimately a devastating one for the film, as not only did it tank in his native Japan, but it also cost Chiba a healthy chunk of his own fortune, real estate, and side businesses. It would be another 17 years before he'd direct his second (and last) movie.

Buy Yellow Fangs on DVD from Amazon or watch via Amazon Video.

Breathless (2008, South Korea)

Sang-hoon is a debt-collector who relies on brutality and intimidation to get what's owed, but he meets his match one day when he spits on a passing teenage girl. Yeon-hee has her own troubles and isn't about to take any of his crap, and while the two don't become fast friends, their shared miseries draw them together. It's her hope that keeps them there.

Sounds bleak, depressing, and painful to watch, and yet somehow, it isn't any of those things. (Okay, fine, it is horribly depressing.) Sang-hoon is introduced as an unlikable prick and an odd choice for a protagonist, but he's also a character with a sympathetic past. The bastard becomes someone you actually care about, and when paired with the persistent teen (Kim Kkobbi) they find heart where there was only despair and create a friendship from tattered and confused lives. That friendship serves as a catalyst for suspense, drama, and real emotion as the film explores the sadly unending cycle of violence.

Yang Ik-joon gives a powerful performance in the lead role, and his talents extend over to directing, editing, and writing the film too. The character and story are based in part on his own childhood, and the raw honesty with which he tells his tale makes it that much more affecting. He's as interested in the indirect victims of violence as he is the more readily apparent ones, but he doesn't avoid the perpetrators who he humanizes without taking away their blame. Yang's remained very busy as an actor, but sadly he has yet to direct another feature (beyond segments in anthologies).

Buy Breathless on DVD from Amazon.

Let It Rain (2008, France)

A hopeful politician returns to her childhood home a year after her mother's death, but her reunion with her sister hits some bumps through memories of the past and other visitors in the present. Resentment, infidelity, and disagreements over class and gender all make for interesting dinner conversation.

Agathe (Agnès Jaoui) has built something of a shell as she's pressed forward through life, and the film explores the dynamic that creates in those around her. Preconceived notions about ambitious women and her disinterest in marriage are challenged indirectly while a pair of male interviewers (including Amelie's Jamel Debbouze) inadvertently make themselves the focus in conversation with her. Relationships – between siblings, employers and employees, and lovers – all come under the microscope with wit and affection.

Jaoui's been acting since the early '80s, and after writing some features a decade later, she took the leap into directing starting with 2000's The Taste of Others. The common thread across her four films, including this delightful and smart entry, is a well-crafted blend of humor and drama. Her comfort and skill are clear both on camera and off, and when paired with a light script they lend the film a casual appeal that can sometimes be mistaken for a lesser weight. The observations she makes, though, are plenty heavy. Jaoui cares enough about her characters to make them everyday people deserving of both her love and our own.

Buy Let It Rain on DVD from Amazon or watch via Hulu.

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