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One and sadly done: 12 excellent features from directors who never made another feature

1. The Night Of The Hunter (1955)

Perhaps the patron saint of directors who made a single, great film is Charles Laughton, whose only directing credit is The Night Of The Hunter, a fairy-tale noir about an evil preacher (Robert Mitchum) chasing after a couple of kids and a bundle of cash. Laughton made Hunter after spending two decades acting in movies, and these days actors who take up directing are often cited as being particularly attentive to performance. But while Mitchum’s work in the film is iconic and the rest of the cast does well with the stylized dialogue and tone, Laughton supposedly so disliked the two main child actors that they (according to various lore) took most of their direction from Mitchum. Whatever happened on set, it worked for the film: The kids’ not-quite-natural performances only contribute to the eerie spell cast by Laughton’s bold visuals. Some of the film’s minimalist, selectively lit sets could have looked staged, but Laughton’s use of expressionist shadows and off-kilter angles transports them out of the soundstage and into a stranger, more vivid realm. Beyond its unforgettable images, Night also stands out because Laughton didn’t have a chance to follow it up and further develop his distinctive style. After the movie’s commercial failure, he wasn’t able to get another directing project off the ground, and he died seven years later. His approach was instead adopted by the many filmmakers who have since cited The Night Of The Hunter as a major influence. [Jesse Hassenger]

2. Carnival Of Souls (1962)

Herk Harvey is said to have directed more than 400 movies in his three decades of filmmaking. Almost all of them, however, were educational and industrial training films, which he shot, on time and under budget, for the Centron Corporation in Lawrence, Kansas. The chief exception—and Harvey’s only feature—was 1962’s Carnival Of Souls, an eerie, low-budget horror yarn that’s become a bona fide cult favorite in the half-century since it was first released. The film, about a church organist (Candace Hilligoss) haunted by leering specters after a car accident, approximates the feeling of a nightmare that won’t end. Both David Lynch and George Romero have cited it as an influence on their own early, shoestring shockers, while the twist ending anticipated several decades of climactic rug pulls. But like a lot of cult classics, Carnival Of Souls—a recent inductee of the Criterion Collection—was unappreciated in its own time. Audiences ignored the movie, the distributor went bankrupt, and Harvey returned to his day job, never to make a full-length film again. Centron’s gain was our loss; surely, there were better uses of the director’s talents than warning kids about the dangers of cheating. [A.A. Dowd]

3. Wanda (1970)

Barbara Loden was already a Tony Award-winning actress and longtime member of the Actors Studio when she wrote and directed her one feature, a bleak and uncompromising movie about a blank of a woman (Loden herself) who drifts into an abusive relationship with a worthless, aging hood (Michael Higgins) on a brutally ineffectual crime spree. Loden’s resolutely unsympathetic portrayal of a woman utterly without self-esteem makes Wanda a singularly unnerving entry in the ’70s’ “rootless road movie” genre. Unlike Sissy Spacek’s dreamy fantasist in 1973’s Badlands, Wanda finds no escape in her connection to Higgins—indeed, the heroine is such a deliberate nonentity that the film’s feminist credential rests on one of the most hopeless takes on the war between the sexes ever. Garnering critical acclaim and an award at the Venice Film Festival, Wanda should have been Loden’s ticket to an indie directing career, but she found no way to replicate her success in a 1970s film landscape almost as forbidding in its own way as Wanda’s blighted milieu. (And husband Elia Kazan was reportedly less than supportive of her aspirations.) At the time of her death from breast cancer in 1980, Loden was still trying to realize her directorial ambitions with a never-made film adaptation of Kate Chopin’s protofeminist novel, The Awakening. [Dennis Perkins]

4. Return To Oz (1985)

Walter Murch made his name as a sound and film editor, working on films as diverse as THX 1138, The Godfather trilogy, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, among many others. But his IMDB page lists only two directorial credits: an episode of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV series, and the 1985 cult classic Return To Oz. This is understandable, if disappointing; the critical and commercial failure the film experienced upon release would dampen anyone’s ambitions. But Return To Oz remains one of the most distinct, haunting, and uncompromising children’s movies ever made, a clear-eyed presentation of the magic and horrors of L. Frank Baum’s most famous creation. Anyone expecting bright colors and bumbling lions was left cold by the stark vision of a wonderland turned to stone, full of terrifying creations like the Wheelers, the head-swapping Princess Mombi, and the cunning, monstrous Nome King. While arguably truer to the source material than its beloved cinematic forebear, Murch’s vision was too harsh to connect with wider audiences. But that harshness, and the eerie beauty that comes with it, is what makes Return To Oz such a remarkable experience—an unsentimental tale of a little girl whose only resources against life’s sinister intentions are her courage and resourcefulness. [Zack Handlen]

5. Der Verlorene (1951)

Elfin Hungarian Peter Lorre (real name: László Löwenstein) got his big break at age 26, starring as the whistling serial killer in Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece, M. In those early talkie days, it was common practice for studios to produce foreign language versions of movies during the night shift, and the multilingual Lorre ended up re-shooting his scenes in French and English, which gave him broad international exposure and helped pave the way for a career abroad. Twenty years after his breakthrough, Lorre returned to Germany to direct his one and only feature, Der Verlorene, a stark, bleak, and often startling movie about a man (Lorre) who gets away with murder under the Third Reich and then reinvents himself as a doctor after the war. Implicit in the movie’s sparse, anonymized style—no swastikas, no mentions of Hitler—is the idea that society under the Nazis was indistinguishable from the then-present. Nothing changed; it was merely moved around or re-named. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

6. The Telephone Book (1971)

The Telephone Book is an X-rated film, it’s true. But dismissing Nelson Lyon’s sole directorial outing as a nudie flick does it a major disservice, as it’s a gleefully obscene, visually inventive piece of pop-counterculture satire that has more in common with Putney Swope than Deep Throat. Sarah Kennedy does her best Goldie Hawn as Alice, a chirpy blonde hippie type who falls madly in love with John Smith, a man who calls her up randomly and talks dirty to her over the phone. (He’s really good at it.) Our pants-less Candide then proceeds to go through every John Smith in the telephone book, combing the bohemian crash pads of early ’70s New York until she finally finds her John Smith, played by then-well-known voice-over actor Norman Rose. Wearing a pig mask (he refuses to show her his face), Smith tells Alice that he can take her to unparalleled heights of ecstasy, accomplished by means of two adjacent phone booths and a psychedelic animated sequence that makes R. Crumb look tame. With influences like the French New Wave and Funeral Parade Of Roses, The Telephone Book didn’t fit in at porn theaters, but its sexually liberated attitude made arthouse viewers uncomfortable as well. So it just sort of disappeared, remaining underground until Vinegar Syndrome released it on Blu-ray in 2013. Now it’s on Netflix, so you can watch it at home, no raincoat required (unless that’s your thing). [Katie Rife]

7. Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

Although it may be known to more people nowadays for the clips Metallica used in the video for “One,” Dalton Trumbo’s anti-war drama Johnny Got His Gun was a real eyebrow raiser when it was released in 1971, smack dab in the middle of the Vietnam War. Set in World War I, the film tells the story of an American soldier (Timothy Bottoms) whose close encounter with an artillery shell leaves him as a quadruple amputee without eyes, ears, mouth, or nose, but the still-conscious soldier is nonetheless still capable of using Morse code to communicate a message to his doctors: “Kill me.” Having adapted the screenplay from his own novel, Trumbo was certainly more than familiar with the material and knew exactly how he wanted to portray it on-screen, and the film went on to win the Grand Prix Spécial Du Jury and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971. Although he continued to write screenplays, health problems kept Trumbo from entering into another directorial effort before his death in 1976. [Will Harris]

8. Phase IV (1974)

Saul Bass is one of the great icons of 20th-century graphic design, known for his corporate logos, movie posters, and opening title sequences. Bass also directed industrial and educational films that took advantage of his innovative design sensibility, winning an Oscar for his playful 1968 short “Why Man Creates.” Six years later, he made his one and only feature: the singular sci-fi downer Phase IV, about a team of scientists squaring off against super-intelligent ants in the Arizona desert. It’s a vision of humanity facing the unknowable, packed with macro close-ups, complicated rear projection effects, and geometric designs that resemble something off of a prog album cover. Cut by the studio—who ditched the movie’s transhumanist finale in favor of a more conventionally chilling ending—and neglected upon release, the movie has since developed a rightful reputation as a standout science-fiction film of the 1970s. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

9. Kotch (1971)

Given that he won two Oscars and was nominated for an additional half-dozen, it’s somewhat surprising that Jack Lemmon only stepped behind the camera once—it’s not as though he didn’t know the craft—but it’s decidedly less of a shock that his lone outing as a director found him working with his frequent on-screen co-star and real-life best friend. Walter Matthau was only 51 when he tackled the role of Joseph P. Kotcher, a man in his 70s who hits the road to avoid being put in a nursing home and ends up finding a friendship with Erica, a pregnant teenager played by Deborah Winters. The dramedy earned Matthau an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor In A Leading Role while also securing nods for Best Film Editing, Best Music, Best Song (“Life Is What You Make It”), and Best Sound. But although Lemmon found directing exciting, he also found it physically and emotionally draining and time-consuming, hence his limited interest in finding another such project to tackle. [Will Harris]

10. Venom And Eternity (1951)

The biggest story of the 1951 Cannes Film Festival—where the official competition included All About Eve, The Tales Of Hoffmann, and The Browning Version—was a movie that wasn’t invited, never properly screened, and won a made-up prize. For days, young people claiming to be members of a movement called Lettrism interrupted parties and badgered organizers about letting them show a movie directed by their leader, a Romanian who called himself Isidore Isou. Finally, a screening was arranged, but under the condition that only the soundtrack would be presented—an aggressive, anti-film screed that eventually devolves into half-musical gibberish. Impressed by the sheer ballsiness of the whole enterprise, Jean Cocteau created an award to bestow on the director: the Audience Prize for Avant-Garde Film, deliberately ironic, considering the chaos that erupted at the “screening.” Thus was born the legend of Venom And Eternity, a two-hour manifesto/assault on audience sensibilities that begins by dismantling film conventions, proceeds to break down language, and then finds Isou outright attacking the technology of film, scratching and defacing the images. The movie became an important influence on the American and European avant-garde, and remains a milestone of punk experimentation. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

11. The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

Leonard Kastle was a professional opera composer whose friend suggested he write a screenplay about the infamous Lonely Hearts Killers, lovers who swindled and murdered several women in the 1940s. Kastle not only had his screenplay produced, he was also was tapped to direct, replacing the studio’s original choice, a filmmaker fired for going over budget. Who knows how the movie would have turned out had that original director—a young Martin Scorsese—kept his job. But Kastle’s film was well regarded and continues to be. It wasn’t much of a box office success, however, so he happily returned to the world of opera, afterwards claiming, “I never made a bad film.” [Mike Vago]

12. Quick Change (1990)

Given how notoriously elusive Bill Murray can be when directors want him to star in their movies, it’s a wonder that the actor doesn’t just make his own. The one time he stepped behind the camera, Murray co-directed the 1990 caper comedy Quick Change with his friend Howard Franklin, who also wrote the screenplay (adapting a Jay Cronley novel). Murray would go on to work with Franklin again on Larger Than Life and The Man Who Knew Too Little, but only Quick Change gets a “Directed by Howard Franklin and Bill Murray” credit, which may explain why it’s so much better than the other two. Playing a frustrated New Yorker who robs a bank with his girlfriend (Geena Davis) and his best friend (Randy Quaid), Murray gives one of the funniest performances of his screen career, and keeps his cast on-pace. Quick Change is about the dozens of daily pet peeves that accumulate to make life in the city miserable, and the tone of the film is defined by Murray’s sardonic deadpan reactions as his character’s plan spins out of control. This is a nutty movie with a calm center. Too bad it wasn’t the first of a series of Murrays. [Noel Murray]