No director has had more of an impact on popular filmmaking, from 1970 on, than Steven Spielberg. Even more impressively, there might not be a better filmmaker woking during those years, period. His ability to make films that are both cinematically brilliant, yet incredibly popular, is unmatched by any other director in cinema history. Many directors, even the great ones, often find themselves making the same movie over and over again. Spielberg on the other hand moves in between genres as well as any of them (even if his comedies leave a little to be desired). I recently re-watched (or watched for the first time) every theatrically released directorial effort of Steven Spielberg (with the exception of The Terminal, because of a Netflix mix-up). I wrote a brief ranking of his films a few days ago, but now I’d like to go a little more in-depth. Since he’s made so many movies, I’ve decided to split his career into 3 chunks: Duel-Temple of Doom, The Color Purple-Saving Private Ryan, and A.I-Lincoln. My goal is to go into (relatively) short analysis of each of his films as well as show how each fits into his overall career as a whole. Spielberg is one of the most studied filmmakers out there, but hopefully this can serve as a brief introduction into just why he’s such an important filmmaker. The period this post covers starts with his debut film Duel in 1971 and concludes with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984. During these 13 years, he put together one of the most legendary runs in cinematic history. 3 of the top 20 highest grossing films of all-time were directed by Spielberg in this period, and he became one of the few directors to take multiple genre films to Oscar glory. While there were some missteps along the way, Spielberg made more classic films during this period than all but a few directors have made in their whole careers.
It’s fitting that Spielberg’s first full length involves almost no dialogue, and is basically a 70 minute car chase. He might be the most natural director of modern times, and one of the few active directors who I think would have been fine making movies in the silent age. He directs Duel with an assured sense of filmmaking craft that instantly show him a force to be reckoned with.
Duel is about a man driving on a business trip, who is antagonized by a ruthless truck driver. As he fights for his life, the man gradually reclaims a masculinity that modern society has stolen from him; this theme is brilliantly, and subtly, hinted at throughout the film both in visuals, and in dialogue spoken by other characters through phones and the radio.
Filmed in just 13 days as a TV movie, Duel was well received enough to gain a limited theatrical release. It marked the 25 year old director as a talent to watch and, even after four decades of directing some of the biggest films of all-time, it’s startling to go back and watch his first film and see how clearly talented he was at such a young age.
In many ways, Duel is actually a more sophisticated film than many of Spielberg’s later, more entertainment driven movies. Described by Spielberg as “an indictment of machines”, it also functions as meditation on masculinity, or at least, how one character feels that his is under attack, and his gradual reclamation of it. Everyone jokes that people with big or expensive cars are making up for something, and that idea is played out visually here, as Mann’s (yep, the main character’s name is Mann if there was any confusion about the existential crisis on display) tiny car is pursued by the massive tanker trunk.
The success of Duel (a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Movie among other accolades) enabled Spielberg to move on to bigger, starrier films. Yet, Duel is more than an interesting step in the evolution of a great director. It’s a great film in its own right, and might Spielberg’s most underrated movie.
The Sugerland Express (1973)
Spielberg’s 2nd film, and the first made with a decent size budget and with a major studio, is not a bad film at all, but it was a clear step up in terms of difficulty. Faced with a film with much more dialogue, as well as having to work with major stars, extras, and much more sophisticated stunts, The Sugerland Express isn’t quite as gripping as Duel, and not as firmly directed as his later films.
It is interesting, however, to see early signs of some of the themes that would repeat themselves throughout Spielberg’s early career. Although it’s cooled off in his later films, Spielberg rarely depicts a healthy, functioning family and, at least in his early films, seems to view it almost with distrust. It’s something the male characters often can’t wait to escape. In Duel, Mann’s family is seen as emasculating hassle. In Jaws, Chief Brody loves his family, but can’t really accomplish anything until he leaves his family to hunt the shark. In Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Roy leaves his family to go explore the galaxy with aliens. Divorce, and family squabbles, play a part in almost every Spielberg film and, while they appear briefly in Duel, The Sugerland Express is the first film where a dysfunctional family takes center stage.
Spielberg has gone on record saying that of all his films, The Sugerland Express is the one he would make completely differently if he could do it again. While it’s not a bad film, it’s mostly a forgettable one.
Jaws is one of the most unlikely hits in film history. Few great movies have had more troubled productions, yet few films have come out more flawless. In the words of Richard Dreyfuss “We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark.” Somehow, Jaws ended up with an all-time great script, and an incredible cast. While the shark was never quite figured out, it ended up helping the movie because it had to be seen as little as possible, starting an entire genre trope of keeping the monster hidden until the 2nd half of the movie.
A sort of spiritual sequel to Duel, Jaws is also concerned with ideas of masculinity, and man vs. an unstoppable machine (although this time it’s a shark instead of a truck. Spielberg verifies this by pointing out how the sound effect used as the shark sinks to the ocean floor is the same as the one played at the end of Duel when the truck is finally defeated). Three different types of men are compared and contrasted: Brody is the common man, similar to Mann in Duel, Hooper is a man governed by logic and science, and Quint(played by Robert Shaw in an all-time great supporting performance) is run by his instinct and an over the top sense of manliness.
One of the first great extended sequences comes during the 2nd shark attack, which I’ve included a link to (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rW23RsUTb2Y). This is a remarkable scene for several reasons, most notably it’s incredible grasp of rising tension, using fake scares, a disappearing dog, a shot from the point of view of the shark, and then finally a zoom shot of Brody’s face as he realizes what’s happening. It’s worth noting that this scene basically only features two POV’s: Brody and the Shark. Since it’s this scene that sets up their conflict for the rest of the film, it’s interesting to see how that’s expressed visually in this scene. One other interesting tidbit, and a great piece of character detail, is that Brody never gets in the water in this scene(his fear of the water is pointed out several times), even as he’s trying to get others out.In fact, Brody doesn’t ever get more than ankle deep in the water until the climax of the film.
There are multiple scenes like this in Jaws, and it’s one of the best directed genre films of all-time. There might not be a film, with the exception of Star Wars, since 1970 that has had more of an impact on the movie industry as a whole. It broke U.S box office records and, along with Star Wars ushered in the era of the blockbuster film, where younger viewers, summer releases, merchandising opportunities, and high concepts genre films are prized. It remains the 7th highest grossing film of all-time domestically, adjusted for inflation, and it was the rare genre picture(especially at the time) to get significant Oscar attention. It won Oscars for Original Score, Editing, and Sound, and was also nominated for Best Picture, although Spielberg failed to receive a nomination due to intense competition from other films that year.
Regardless, Jaws immediately made Spielberg one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood, and he was given the rights to make basically any film he wanted. Over the next decade, he’d make some of the most iconic blockbuster films of all-time.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
After the unprecedented success of Jaws, Spielberg had the freedom to do anything he wanted with the full financial support necessary. He finally had the resources to make a passion project about peaceful encounters with UFO’s, influenced by his childhood fascination in the phenomenon.
Close Encounters continues Spielberg’s early trend of Men leaving their families(although for the first time in Close Encounter’s case, permanently) to achieve a goal. In many ways, it’s Spielberg’s most simplistic film so far, without much of the richness of Duel or Jaws, or even some of the satire of The Sugerland Express, but Close Encounters is also one of the most unabashedly earnest of his career, and also one of the best. Close Encounters contains some of Spielberg’s best imagery (the famous shots of a boy silhouetted in a doorway by alien light is one of my favorite shots), and the last twenty minutes is one of the best extended climaxes in movie history. Spielberg grabbed on his unprecedented creative freedom to make a super expensive film that ended with no violence, death, or destruction, but rather a peaceful meeting between two different species.
If Jaws announced Spielberg’s arrival, Close Encounters ensured that its success was no fluke. It became the third highest grossing film of 1977, and received 8 Oscar nominations, including Spielberg’s first Director nomination. It lost many of its awards to Star Wars, but it illustrates how well Spielberg’s career started that was able to make back to back genre films that succeeded both critically and financially.
After his unprecedented early success, Spielberg became slightly overconfident in his own abilities and made his first real disappointment. While Spielberg more than learned his lesson from the troubled production, 1941 remains one of the few black marks on his career. Contrary to popular opinion, 1941 wasn’t an outright flop at the time of its release. It earned back its budget and even received 3 Oscar nominations for its technical merits, but compared to the outrageous success of Jaws and Close Encounters, the lack of tickets or critical acclaim made it a huge letdown.
In retrospect, 1941 isn’t a terrible movie, it’s just that it’s an over the top comedy that just isn’t all that funny. It also gave more evidence to Spielberg’s only real weakness at this point of his career. Early on he was terrible at getting his films done on time and under budget. Jaws had famously gone 100 days over schedule, and Close Encounters and 1941 both went wildly over budget and over schedule. His previous films had been huge hits and Spielberg’s inefficient productions were overlooked, but with 1941 this flaw received much more attention.
The relative failure of 1941 made Spielberg resolve to make his much film in a much tighter, more controlled environment, and he decided to direct a film he and George Lucas had been working on for several years about an adventurous archeologist.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Raiders of the Lost Ark started as George Lucas’s homage to the serials of the 30’s and 40’s, making it similar in inspiration to Star Wars. Lucas and Spielberg had discussed the idea for years as it went through various iterations, while at the same time Spielberg tried to direct a James Bond film but was turned down. After the relative failure of 1941, Spielberg wanted his next film to be a simple, efficient production and he agreed to direct Raiders, with a story provided by Lucas and screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan. The production went fine and in Spielberg’s words it proved he could make a movie “responsibly, and economically.” The fact that he made another popular masterpiece while being fiscally responsible, along with George Lucas’s evolution into more of a producer than director, confirmed once and for all that Spielberg was the most important mainstream director of his generation.
Raiders introduced several new tropes that would reappear throughout Spielberg’s filmography: the use of Nazis as villains, and the use of WWII setting (while this takes place before WWII, it still used the threat of Hitler’s imperialist tendencies as a main plot point).While a relatively simple film, Raiders of the Lost Ark continued to show how much of a natural Spielberg was at staging an exciting action scene. (illustrated here by fellow director Steven Soderbergh http://extension765.com/sdr/18-raiders)
Raiders of the Lost Ark once again brought Spielberg both acclaim and financial success. It grossed nearly twice as much as the next highest grossing film of 1981, and is still the #20 movie of all-time after adjusting for inflation. It received 9 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Once again, Spielberg had the freedom to make pretty much any movie he wanted, and once again he would direct another science fiction film that would prove to be arguably his most successful yet.
E.T would become as big a cultural phenomenon as Jaws or Star Wars. It marked the 2nd time Spielberg had directed the highest grossing film of all-time, and when it lost Best Picture to Gandhi at the Oscars, director Richard Attenborough later declared “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies.” It marked the 4th genre film that Spielberg had directed to either a Best Picture or Best Director nomination at the Oscars, a still unprecedented achievement at mixing popular appeal and critical acclaim.
E.T also showed another side of Spielberg that since become one of his defining traits. Although hinted at in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T showed just how effective Spielberg was at manipulating audiences emotions. While he had the audience eating out of his hand in Jaws and Raiders, E.T showed that Spielberg could make audiences cry as well as he could make audiences scream. While E.T has a reputation as one of the all-time great tearjerkers, Spielberg’s sentimental streak has sometimes made him a target for critics, but here, the tone is almost perfect.
E.T is also the early culmination of Spielberg’s fascination with broken families. Elliot’s parents are going through a divorce, while E.T has been stranded without any of his family, or even his species, there to help him. The friendship they forge is almost as much for survival as it is anything else. E.T continued a trend, started in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and continued through film’s like the Color Purple, Schindler’s List and others, of making films depicting the struggle for tolerance and kindness. Although not nearly as drastic as anything he would make later, a major theme of E.T is the struggle for both E.T, and Elliot, to be accepted by those around them despite their differences.
The success of E.T marked the height of Spielberg’s popularity and power. Although he went on to make many more classic films, his run from Jaws-E.T might never be equaled in terms of broad appeal to both audiences and critics. Although he would go on to make several more blockbusters and genre films, after E.T Spielberg made a conscious decision to prove himself as a more “serious” artist, and after a sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark he wouldn’t make a traditional Blockbuster for several years.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Temple of Doom occurred at a darker time in the lives of both Spielberg and George Lucas, and the resulting sequel helped establish the tradition (along with The Empire Strikes Back) of 2nd films being “darker” than the originals. Temple of Doom was criticized by critics at the time as being “ugly”, something echoed years later by Spielberg and at the time by Raiders screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. Part of the problem with Temple of Doom might have to do with a rushed production, done to prevent Spielberg, fresh off the monstrous success of E.T, from losing interest in directing before it was ready. The resulting film, while still better than the average blockbuster, was arguably Spielberg’s weakest film up to that point. Throw in some truly terrible supporting characters, and it’s one of Spielberg’s least pleasant movies to watch.
That being said, Temple of Doom was still a hit for Spielberg as it was the 3rd highest grossing film of the year, even as it received a more mixed reception from critics than his last few films had, although over time it has generally been accepted more favorably by many. After Temple of Doom, Spielberg spent the next few years trying to taken more seriously and would not direct a blockbuster again until he made another Indiana Jones sequel, to better results, in 1989.