1. John Stahl
John Stahl was doing Douglas Sirk-style melodrama two decades before Sirk—literally so, in the case of his arguably superior '30s versions of Imitation Of Life and Magnificent Obsession—but outside of Martin Scorsese's loving appreciation of the rainbow-noir classic Leave Her To Heaven in A Personal Journey Through American Movies, Stahl's fevered middle-class melodramas haven't gotten their due. (Like a lot of the directors on this list, he doesn't even have much in the way of biographical information posted on the IMDB.) Thanks to TiVo's "WishList" function, it's easier to catch up with lesser-heralded Hollywood craftsmen like Stahl. For those who want to explore beyond Leave Her To Heaven and the two films Sirk remade, keep an eye out for the periodic Fox Movie Channel airings of 1943's Immortal Sergeant, with Henry Fonda as a milquetoast who becomes a man during wartime, and 1949's gently wacky Father Was A Fullback, with Fred MacMurray as an embattled college coach weathering a scandal involving his wallflower daughter and her interest in writing "true confessions" pulp stories. The situations may be exaggerated, but Stahl always emphasizes the natural reactions of people just trying to get a handle on what the world expects of them.
2. Charles Walters
The MGM musical's acknowledged masters include the likes of Vincent Minnelli and Stanley Donen, who both went on to make more mature dramatic films; but for pure buoyancy, it's hard to beat Charles Walters, whose Good News, Easter Parade and Summer Stock are an unmatched trifecta of giddiness and imaginative musical staging. One of Walters' best, most underrated films is a non-musical, 1951's Three Guys Named Mike, with Jane Wyman as a novice stewardess who juggles three suitors while learning the ins and outs of commercial air travel. It's sweet and silly, but grounded in real anxiety.
3. Don Weis
The filmography of Don Weis is dominated by television credits—and good ones, like The Andy Griffith Show, M*A*S*H* and Remington Steele—but in his time as an MGM hand in the early '50s, Weis helmed a likable batch of programmatic fare, like the power-of-the-press fantasy Bannerline and the post-screwball comedy A Slight Case Of Larceny. Weis deserves to be a better-known name for two zippy musicals he made in 1953: The Affairs Of Dobie Gillis (featuring a rare starring performance by underused MGM dancing dynamo Bobby Van, and a supporting turn by Bob Fosse) and I Love Melvin (a fleet New York media satire, with some quirky musical numbers). Both those films star Debbie Reynolds, looking as peppy as she ever has, even when, in the latter, she's dressed as a football and being passed around by men in shoulder pads.
4. Roy Rowland
One of the original American independent filmmakers, Roy Rowland got his start directing Robert Benchley shorts, and is most famous for bringing Dr. Seuss' bizarre The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T to the big screen. But he also made tough little genre pieces like Rogue Cop and Slander, which both took uncompromising stances on social ills, and though it's far from a great film, Rowland's low-budget indie version of Mickey Spillane's The Girl Hunters—hampered by Spillane's charisma-free lead performance—comes closer to capturing the gamy side of private-eye fiction than any other film made in the '60s.
5. Richard Fleischer
There aren't too many directors with more hits and less name recognition than Richard Fleisher, who guided big movies like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Tora! Tora! Tora! to the screen, balancing spectacle with quieter scenes that emphasize the odd rituals of lives spent in service. But Fleisher was equally adept at gritty noir thrillers, as evidenced by his taut, well-regarded 1952 action film The Narrow Margin, and by the lesser-known but equally cool 1949 policier Follow Me Quietly, in which the noose tightens around a serial killer while two cops stew over their past failures.
6. Richard Brooks
Richard Brooks was hailed as an artist in his own day, at least by people who admired his foursquare adaptations of literary classics like The Brothers Karamazov, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Elmer Gantry. But his career was really more interesting in the early going, when he made character-driven genre exercises like Deadline USA, and later on, when he made dark-toned crime pictures like In Cold Blood and Looking For Mr. Goodbar. A few of the worthier oddities: 1953's Take The High Ground, about the petty bitching of drill instructors, 1956's The Catered Affair, with Bette Davis out of her element (but still engaging) as a working-class mom overspending on her daughter's wedding, and 1971's $, a caper comedy with a surprisingly libertine air.
7. William Friedkin
Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls holds up William Friedkin as one of the quintessential examples—along with Peter Bogdanovich—of a big-time '70s filmmaker who got too full of himself and fell off the pace. But though Friedkin's films have been hit-and-miss since his French Connection/Exorcist heyday, he's made several action movies that are among the best of their era, including 1985's brutal To Live And Die In L.A., 1988's serial killer chase thriller Rampage, 2000's ripped-from-tomorrow's-headlines courtroom drama Rules Of Engagement and 2003's lean mano-a-mano duel The Hunted, all of which have expressed Friedkin's right-wing pessimism and his innate understanding of urban alienation. In his own way, he's been as uncompromising an artist as any of his "film school brat" peers.
8. Walter Hill
For three decades now, fans of the kind of unfussy genre filmmaking practiced by the likes of Budd Boetticher and Don Siegel have brightened up when they've seen Walter Hill's name in the credits. Hill broke through in the '70s with cultish action movies like The Driver and The Warriors, and had his biggest hits in the '80s with the seedy revenge flick Southern Comfort and the tougher-than-most-remember Eddie Murphy vehicle 48 Hrs. Lately, he's jumped from indistinct work-for-hire and TV assignments to the occasional from-left-field neo-western like Wild Bill and Last Man Standing (and, in a weird way, Trespass). Hill also helped define the look and feel of the TV series Deadwood, and if his recent western miniseries Broken Trail is any indication, he hasn't lost his gift for turning tired premises into nifty examinations of how men work together.
9. Michael Apted
Thanks to the Up series of documentaries, Michael Apted will always be a known quantity among serious cineastes, but outside of Coal Miner's Daughter, Apted's fiction features have gotten less attention. For a time in the '90s, Apted could be reliably counted on to elicit engaging performances in plugger pictures with traces of a social conscience, like Thunderheart and Extreme Measures. One of the best of that bunch was 1991's Class Action, with Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as father-daughter lawyers on the opposite sides of a civil suit. It's a twisty, humane film—the kind that people stumble across on cable and watch all the way to the end, caught up in the story and the mood. But unlike the movies made by better-known and more heralded directors, it's not the kind of movie likely to make someone say, "I wonder who directed that?"