15 Best Films By One-Time Directors

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Filmmaking is a challenging venture. It takes lots of money, time, energy, and manpower to make a movie. It takes a certain kind of individual to want to keep making movies. With all of this in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that there are many films directed by people who would never go on to direct anything again. 

That isn’t to say the movies are bad. On the contrary, many of these are among the most entertaining and fulfilling experiences one can have at the cinema. Approaching the medium with a go-for-broke mentality, the fifteen films here offer windows into a world that could have been—a world where these storytellers could have broken through and thrived. We’ll never know what these directors would go on to do, but we can always appreciate the work that they’ve left us with.

1. The Night of the Hunter (1955) 

Photo Credit: United Artists.

The Night of the Hunter was Charles Laughton’s attempt to pivot from his career in acting to a career in directing. The film follows a serial killer posing as a preacher who tries to find a dead bank robber’s fortune by integrating himself into the latter’s family. Beautifully shot by Stanley Cortez, it’s a real shame that Laughton never got to work again because he gave us remains one of the greatest films ever made.

2. Dementia (1955)

Photo Credit: H.K.F. Productions.

John Parker’s only film, Dementia, is a dreamy noir about a woman riddled with guilt over a murder she’s committed. It’s built on one gimmick: the film is shot entirely without dialogue. That’s right—no one talks in the movie! All that remains are beautiful visuals and a view into what could have been a great career filled with classic horror films.

3. One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

The only time Marlon Brando hopped into the director’s chair was to film One-Eyed Jacks. The film follows Rio, an escaped convict, as he seeks his revenge on a partner who got him sent to jail after a gold robbery gone wrong. A handsomely shot studio western made at the tail-end of the genre’s popularity, One-Eyed Jacks proves that Brando is just as talented behind the camera as he is in front of it. 

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4. Mr. Topaze (1961)

Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

Peter Sellers’ only film as a director, Mr. Topaze, is a comedy of manners that follows a schoolteacher who must figure out how to survive in a world that hates his honesty. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s fun to see Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom acting together years before they’d act in the Pink Panther films.

5. Carnival of Souls (1962)

Photo Credit: Harcourt Productions.

Herk Harvey’s independent horror film, Carnival of Souls, follows a woman who slowly discovers she’s a ghost trapped in the world of the living. Full of nightmarish imagery and a startling performance from director Herk Harvey, this low-budget shocker would go on to inspire many of our greatest working modern horror filmmakers. James Wan, Ari Aster, and David Lynch are among those who cite it as an influence.

6. The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962)

Photo Credit: Frenzy Productions.

Character actor Timothy Carey writes, directs, and stars in this political satire, The World’s Greatest Sinner. The premise follows an insurance salesman who quits his job and gets into politics only to fall down a rabbit hole that leads him to a new religion where he becomes their Messiah. A wild ride of a comedy, this film features music by alt-rock legend Frank Zappa and cinematography by one of our greatest B-movie directors, Edgar G. Ulmer.

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7. Magical Mystery Tour (1967) 

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

Based on The Beatles album of the same name, this musical is the only directorial effort by The Fab Four themselves. The film follows The Beatles as they ride around the English countryside on their tour bus, goofing around and performing various songs from their catalog. Magical Mystery Tour is a worthy follow-up to A Hard Day’s Night and Help, proving The Beatles were masters of all art forms.

8. Wanda (1970)

Photo Credit: Foundation for Filmakers.

Barbara Loden’s feminist epic film Wanda, which she also stars in, follows the titular Wanda as she falls for a petty thief after falling in and out of a series of abusive relationships. One of the greatest films ever made, Wanda is a startling treatise on a woman’s lack of social autonomy. One of cinema’s great crimes is not affording Barbara Loden the opportunity to direct a second feature.

9. The Telephone Book (1971)

Photo Credit: Rosebud Films.

Before becoming a writer for Saturday Night Live in the 1980s, Nelson Lyon would make his sole directorial effort with The Telephone Book. This hilarious comedy follows a sexually voracious woman’s journey to find the man who keeps giving her obscene phone calls. On top of being frequently hilarious, the film offers the viewer a unique time capsule into a long-gone New York. 

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10. Messiah of Evil (1973)

Photo Credit: V/M Productions.

Co-directed by husband-and-wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz—the latter of whom never directed anything after this—Messiah of Evil is a moody horror film about a woman’s attempt to find her missing father in the beach town of Point Dune, only to find that a mysterious curse infects the inhabitants. It has been claimed as one of the greatest horror films in an era full of great horror films. It’s a shame that Katz never reteamed with her husband to make another film.

11. Phase IV (1974)

Photo Credit: Alced Productions.

Phase IV is the only film the famous graphic designer Saul Bass directed. This science fiction film follows a lab in the Arizona desert as a cosmic event causes ants of different species to evolve at an accelerated rate, giving them psychic powers that allow them to create a cross-species hive mind. It is a strange and disquieting film that would never be made by a major studio today. This oddity is well worth the price of admission for the climax alone.

12. Windows (1980)

Photo Credit: Mike Lobell Productions.

Cinematographer Gordon Willis’ only foray into directing gives us a moodily shot thriller that centers on Emily Hollander, a woman who’s just moved to New York when she suddenly becomes the latest obsession of her homicidal next-door neighbor. Though Windows meanders around a tad, it’s a beautifully shot thriller with an excellent leading performance from Talia Shire.

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13. Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Written and directed by Stephen King, Maximum Overdrive is a cocaine-fueled shocker that follows a group of people stranded at a truck stop after a cosmic event gives electrical-powered objects the desire to kill anyone in their way. About as goofy as a horror film can come, Maximum Overdrive is full of mind-boggling special effects and some of the most fun you’ll ever have being scared.

14. Harlem Nights (1989)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Eddie Murphy’s big-budget period piece is notably free of laughs – despite starring comedians including Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Arsenio Hall, and Eddie Murphy himself – but should be commended for getting so many black creatives in one place to make a $30 million studio epic. This alone would be well worth the price of admission, but Harlem Nights also rewards its viewers with wonderful performances and a beautiful world lensed handsomely by cinematographer Woody Owens.

15. An Elephant Sitting Still (2018)

Photo Credit: Dongchun Films.

An Elephant Sitting Still is Chinese filmmaker Hu Bo’s first and final film—the director tragically passed away before this film was even completed. The film follows a group of disaffected youths who long for Manzhouli, a city in Northern China fabled to house an elephant who refuses to move. An Elephant Sitting Still is a dour experience but certainly a rewarding one for those with the patience to sit through its 234-minute runtime.

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