Movies 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.

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