10 great British films directed by Americans

This is the story of American directors in the UK, told through 10 classic films.

Neil Mitchell
Updated:

Night and the City (1950)

Night and the City (1950)

Jules Dassin’s 1950 film noir Night and the City was both mirrored and informed in its on-screen paranoia and pessimistic outlook by the trials and tribulations of its director, one of many figures from the US filmmaking world to be blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Produced by Twentieth Century Fox, starring American, British and continental actors, and shot on the soundstages and streets of postwar London, Night and the City is now considered to be one of the genre’s classic entries. At the time, the film was released to initially hostile reviews and Dassin was, by then, persona non grata in his native America, even being banned from visiting the studios during post-production work on the film. Such was HUAC’s stigmatising power, it wouldn’t be until 1955 that Dassin would direct another project, the equally influential heist movie Rififi.

Adapted from Gerald Kersh’s 1938 novel of the same name and starring Richard Widmark as ambitious but doomed small-time spiv Harry Fabian, Night and the City is a bleak portrayal of urban life shot in expressionist fashion and peopled almost exclusively by unsympathetic characters. With evocative bomb damage from the Second World War still clearly visible, including a rubble-strewn sequence shot where the BFI now stands, Dassin’s classic adaptation was released in two versions: one for the US and a five minute longer one with a more upbeat ending for the British market.

With Night and the City coming out on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK, here are 10 more of the best British films directed by Americans.

Man of Aran (1934)

Director Robert Flaherty

Man of Aran (1934)

Man of Aran (1934)

The father of the documentary and ethnographic film forms, Michigan-born Robert Flaherty made his name in 1922 with the release of Nanook of the North, the first commercially successful non-fiction feature length film released. Flaherty’s pioneering ethnographic docu-fiction (ethnofiction) saw the filmmaker stage some scenes and cast locals as fictionalised characters in order to capture traditional and endangered ways of life for posterity and educational purposes.

Volatile subsequent collaborations and problems with productions post-Nanook saw Flaherty eventually enlisted by the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit in London to work on their productions. During Flaherty’s turbulent time in Britain, during which he was removed from numerous projects for his expensive working methods, he was hired by producer Michael Balcon to write, direct and shoot Man of Aran. Flaherty’s stark, poetic and, at times, historically inaccurate and fabricated depiction of the primitive lifestyle of Ireland’s Aran islanders was a critical, but divisive, success.

Hell Drivers (1957)

Director Cy Endfield

Hell Drivers (1957)

Hell Drivers (1957)

Like fellow American Joseph Losey, Pennsylvania-born Cy Endfield relocated to Britain in 1953 after falling foul of HUAC. A polymath who counted author, magician, inventor and theatre and film director as strings to his bow, scored his greatest cinematic success in 1964 with Zulu, the film for which he is best remembered. It is, however, Hell Drivers that is perhaps the most important entry on Endfield’s directorial CV. It was the first film on which he used his real name after being blacklisted, and it also brought him his first BAFTA nomination, in the best British screenplay category.

A muscular crime drama, the sorely under-appreciated Hell Drivers starred frequent Endfield collaborator Stanley Baker as ex-con Tom Yately, determined to go straight and unwittingly caught up in illegal practices at the haulage company where he finds work. The striking supporting cast features Patrick McGoohan, Herbert Lom, David McCallum and Sean Connery.

The Servant (1963)

Director Joseph Losey

The Servant (1963)

The Servant (1963)

America’s loss was most definitely Britain’s gain when director Joseph Losey’s blacklisting saw him settle in Britain – in the same year as Endfield. Losey’s British films include The Damned (1963), Accident (1967), The Go-Between (1971) and what many see as his masterpiece, 1963’s The Servant.

The expat director’s first of three collaborations with Harold Pinter, and his second of five with Dirk Bogarde, saw the playwright adapt Robin Maugham’s 1948 novelette of the same name and the actor take the lead role as Machiavellian manservant Hugo Barrett. Hired as the valet to James Fox’s aristocratic Tony, Barrett gradually and insidiously shifts the relationship between master and servant until the roles are reversed. Class, servitude and boredom drive this psychodrama’s narrative, which plays out with a barely concealed homoerotic undercurrent. Losey, a former student of Bertolt Brecht, employed expressionistic camera angles to compound the sense of ‘normality’ being thrown out of whack.

The Bed Sitting Room (1969)

Director Richard Lester

The Bed Sitting Room (1969)

The Bed Sitting Room (1969)

Richard Lester’s intriguingly diverse filmography includes The Mouse on the Moon (1963); A Hard Day’s Night (1964), for which he was handpicked by The Beatles; the Palme d’Or winning The Knack… and How to Get It (1965); and such commercial crowd pleasers as The Three Musketeers (1973) and Superman II (1980).

The Philadelphia-born director, who settled in England in 1956, continued with the social commentary and darker tone he had introduced to his work in 1967’s anti-war movie How I Won the War in his adaptation of Spike Milligan and John Antrobus’ absurdist play The Bed Sitting Room. A satirical and anarchic post-apocalyptic black comedy with a cast that included Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Ralph Richardson and Rita Tushingham, Lester’s take on the unconventional source material was fittingly off-beat. Unsurprisingly a commercial failure, The Bed Sitting Room saw Lester at his boldest and most experimental.

10 Rillington Place (1971)

Director Richard Fleischer

10 Rillington Place (1971)

10 Rillington Place (1971)

In a career that spanned over 40 years and included such diverse fare as 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and Mandingo (1975), Richard Fleischer was also responsible for three films that dealt with real-life serial killers and the moral implications of capital punishment. The last of these, after Compulsion (1959) and The Boston Strangler (1968), was 10 Rillington Place, one of a handful of British films that Fleischer directed.

Based on Ludovic Kennedy’s 1961 non-fiction book of the same name, Fleischer’s film devastatingly portrays the miscarriage of justice that saw Timothy Evans (John Hurt) wrongfully convicted and hanged for the murder of his wife and baby daughter. Hurt received a BAFTA best supporting actor nomination for his heart-wrenching performance as the uneducated and ill-fated Evans, who is callously framed for the killings by the disturbed perpetrator of the crimes and murderer of at least six more victims, John Reginald Christie (Richard Attenborough).

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Director Stanley Kubrick

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Though A Clockwork Orange was the fourth of Kubrick’s films to be shot on British soil, after Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), it was the first of the late, great director’s works to be set in Britain.

An adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novella of the same name, A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian vision of the effects of violence on the individual when perpetrated either by fellow citizens or the state. The home invasions, rapes and murder carried out by Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his ‘Droogs’ are matched in their psychological viciousness by the cruel aversion therapy employed by the government in order to cure him of his violent urges. A censor-baiting tale that Kubrick himself withdrew from British distribution after reports of copycat violence, A Clockwork Orange saw Kubrick at his most confrontational.

Death Line (1972)

Director Gary Sherman

Death Line (1972)

Death Line (1972)

Upon graduating from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design and relocating to London, Chicagoan Gary Sherman co-wrote and directed his debut film, Death Line. Released in the US as Raw Meat and described by horror novelist Ramsey Campbell as “an unusually bleak and harrowing horror film”, Death Line was a far cry from the commercials, industrials and documentary shorts with which Sherman learned his trade. Making evocative use of the London underground as its primary location, Sherman’s film plunges Donald Pleasence’s Inspector Calhoun into a case involving a cannibalistic killer living and hunting his prey in the labyrinth of tube tunnels beneath the city.

At the film’s bloody heart is Hugh Armstrong’s remarkably nuanced performance as ‘The Man’, the last remaining descendant of Victorian railway workers buried alive during construction work a century earlier. Backed by Wil Malone’s superb experimental score, Death Line leaves a grimy mark on viewers’ minds.

The Offence (1973)

Director Sidney Lumet

The Offence (1973)

The Offence (1973)

During his prolific 50 years making feature films, Sidney Lumet directed a number of British productions, including The Deadly Affair (1966) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Lumet was also a regular collaborator with Sean Connery, whom he cast in five films.

The Scottish actor delivered one of the grittiest, most complex performances of his career in The Offence. Based on the 1968 play This Story of Yours by John Hopkins, who penned 90 episodes of Z-Cars, The Offence is a dark crime drama that touched on the emotive subject of child molestation. Perhaps because of its subject matter, Lumet’s film was not a box office success but that doesn’t detract from the film’s gripping and challenging exploration of the human psyche and the corruption done to the soul of Connery’s burnt-out Detective Sergeant Johnson. Ian Bannen, Trevor Howard and Vivien Merchant spar with Connery in vital supporting roles.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director John Landis

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

After directing three movies that attracted cult followings – The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980) – John Landis pitched up in the UK to make An American Werewolf in London. Largely shot in the capital, Surrey and Wales, Landis’ self-penned horror-comedy would go on to take over $60m at the box office.

Starring fellow Americans David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as two young backpackers who foolishly stray onto the Yorkshire moors straight into the path of a lycanthrope, An American Werewolf in London deservedly garnered Rick Baker the first ever Academy Award for outstanding achievement in makeup. Naughton’s now classic transformation scene, orchestrated by Baker, is just one of many horrifically memorable moments in the movie that include a nightmare sequence involving undead Nazi stormtroopers that will still have you jumping out of your skin even after numerous repeat viewings.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Director James Ivory

The Remains of the Day (1993)

The Remains of the Day (1993)

A heritage film industry unto themselves, Merchant Ivory Productions have brought over 40 period pieces to the big screen since the production company was founded in 1961. Merchant Ivory’s main driving forces – producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and their frequent screenwriter collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, an Indian Muslim, a Protestant American and a German Jew respectively – could be seen as an unusual creative team with which to bring many British period pieces to the big screen.

The six Academy Awards garnered by Merchant Ivory productions are testament, however, to their success in doing so, with the 80s and 90s being the company’s golden years. In 1993, Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala collaborated on an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day. Though the film didn’t win any of the eight Academy Awards it was nominated for, it is a thoughtful, beautifully constructed and richly rewarding viewing experience expertly directed by Ivory.

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