The end of the Hollywood studio system in the late 1950s is an oft-mourned loss by anyone who spends an inordinate amount of time watching Turner Classic Movies or browsing the tiles on the Criterion Channel. Hollywood still makes great movies all the time, of course, but what has been lost is the volume of modest and unassuming but expertly crafted mid-range genre films. What made the classical era unique wasn’t the groundbreaking art of an Alfred Hitchcock or a John Ford; every age has its titans, and one could argue that in just the past few months we’ve had several Hollywood movies (from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Greta Gerwig, and Christopher Nolan) as bold and distinctive as any in the industry’s past.
What the now-defunct studio system gave us was a robust slate of movies from directors whose names were not known to the general public — directors like Michael Curtiz, Mitchell Leisen, Budd Boetticher, and several dozen others — but who were able to use the strictures of the assembly line process to their own ends. These directors largely worked on assignment, with little control over the material they were given; when Boetticher was under contract to Universal, he would finish one film on a Friday and get the script for the next one delivered to his house that weekend so he could begin prepping on Monday. They often had not only their screenplays but their actors and department heads assigned to them based on who was on the studio payroll, and they were usually on to their next film before the editing on their current one was completed.
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As impersonal as it sounds, this system yielded hundreds of terrific movies, and on occasion — as in the case of Curtiz’s “Casablanca” — flat-out masterpieces. These directors had an advantage missing for today’s auteurs, who rarely get to make more than one movie every few years: They were constantly honing their craft, spending most of their year behind the camera without a break. This, combined with the sturdy professionalism of their studio-trained crews and the narrative shorthand afforded by working in strongly codified genres, enabled them to make great movies with astonishing speed. Boetticher, for example, shot most of his best movies in around 12 days — and their running times were rarely over an hour and 20 minutes. That’s because he was making Westerns, and audiences at the time knew the iconography of Westerns so well that Boetticher could use it to speed through his opening acts.
Although we think of this way of working as vanished, it’s actually alive and well in a new form: episodic television. Just as Boetticher was able to use the conventions of the Western to condense and clarify his information, the directors of present-day procedurals, comic book franchise shows, and serialized melodramas are able to use genre as a delivery system for their own personal and stylistic preoccupations and obsessions. And like the contract directors of Hollywood past, they do so with little control over their scripts and with minimal prep and shooting time. (Most episodic directors sign on to a season’s work with no idea of what the actual script will be for any given show they’ve agreed to direct.) So who are the contemporary analogues to Curtis, Boetticher, Leisen, Raoul Walsh, Victor Fleming, and so on? Here are 11 episodic directors who have managed to forge personal stamps on a variety of genres and platforms, from network staples like “Blue Bloods” and “NCIS” to streaming sci-fi and cable prestige programs. What they all have in common is a range and talent that would make the masters of old Hollywood proud.
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