“Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” – Alfred Hitchcock
Directors are often the people behind the camera, guiding the visual narrative and providing their signature styles to the events on screen. Of course, there are also filmmakers like Woody Allen who centre all the on-screen events around themselves, but this article isn’t about those prominent roles. It is often more interesting to observe how directors can dictate a scene by making a brief appearance in it.
Easily missed by viewers who aren’t paying attention, many of these cameos have become iconic in film history. A notable entry on this list is, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock who made cameo appearances in 40 of his 54 surviving major films. His appearances become so popular that he began making them at the start of his films so that the audience would not be distracted and would focus on the plot instead.
Hitchcock’s legacy was such that other filmmakers started paying tributes to his affinity for cameos. The legendary director’s image shows up in Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, as a homage to Hitchcock’s iconic cameos. Both Richard Franklin and Gus Van Sant incorporate Hitchcock cameos in their continuations of the legacy of his 1960 masterpiece Psycho.
In order to take a closer look at this interesting phenomenon, we have revisited some other classic films which also feature fascinating director cameos.
The 10 best director cameos in their own movies:
10. Breathless (Jean Luc-Godard – 1960)
Jean-Luc Godard remains one of the most polarizing directors of all time, you either love his work or you hate it. There is no in-between. Either way, you cannot ignore the influence of his debut feature film, Breathless. Godard’s contempt and disregard for the classical conventions of cinema made itself known in his 1960 masterpiece and paved the way for the French New Wave.
Self-reflexive and eager to deconstruct its own myth, Breathless is one of the most unique films in the corpus of world cinema. The cinematic merits of the film can be debated for hours but what cannot be denied is the fiercely original artistic vision of Godard and the irreverent nonchalance with which he transformed the cinematic medium. Godard appears in a brief cameo where he reports the protagonist Michel (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) to the police, making a meta-commentary on the director shaping the narrative.
“I know nothing of life except through the cinema,” Godard told Tom Milne in 1962. “I didn’t see things in relation to the world, to life or to history, but in relation to cinema. Now I am growing away from all that…. I thought Breathless was a realistic film, but now it seems like Alice in Wonderland, a completely unreal, surrealistic world.”
9. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami – 1997)
Kiarostami’s 1997 drama is a beautiful allegorical tale about a middle-aged man who drives around trying to find someone who will bury him after he kills himself. Profoundly philosophical in nature, Kiarostami and his film crew appear in the controversial ending of the film. Critics still argue about what the ending signifies, whether it is a violently transgressive act against the cinematic medium or a narrative device to depict the hallucinatory state of mind of the dying protagonist.
“Different viewers have different opinions about that movie,” Kiarostami reflected. “Committing suicide is forbidden in Islam, of course, and is not even spoken of. But some religious people have liked the film because they felt that… it shows a quest to connect with something more heavenly, something above physical life.
He added, “The scene at the end, where you see cherry blossoms and beautiful things, has that message—that he has opened the door to heaven. It wasn’t a hellish thing he did, it was a heavenly transition.”
8. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese – 1976)
Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver is often regarded as one of his finest works, of course, but also as one of the most influential films in the history of cinema. Scorsese’s searing investigation of masculinity and disillusioned aggression is a rebellion against the emptiness of the universe and at the centre of it is Robert De Niro’s iconic performance as Travis Bickle, an ex-marine and Vietnam veteran who works as a cab driver in New York City. Scorsese makes a memorable cameo in the film as a misogynistic, homicidal husband who spies on his wife from the passenger seat of Travis’ taxi.
“At the time I wrote it [Taxi Driver], I was in a rather low and bad place,” screenwriter Paul Schrader said. “I had broken with Pauline [Kael], I had broken with my wife, I had broken with the woman I left my wife for, I had broken with the American Film Institute and I was in debt.”
After developing an ulcer, he had to be hospitalised. He revealed, “When I was talking to the nurse, I realised I hadn’t spoken to anyone in weeks…that was when the metaphor of the taxi cab occurred to me. That is what I was: this person in an iron box, a coffin, floating round the city, but seemingly alone.”
7. North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock – 1959)
One of the Hitchcock’s best films, North by Northwest is a classic mystery thriller about an innocent man who is pursued across the country by agents belonging to a nefarious organisation. Hitchcock has made cameos in a staggering 40 of his 54 surviving major films but the one in North by Northwest is probably his funniest. As the opening credits roll by, we can see him comically trying to board a bus but the doors shut on his face.
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman said, “If you write long enough, all kinds of parallelisms will pop up. And if you’ve gone to the movies all your life, you’re bound to absorb certain things, and then reuse them without realising that you’re doing it. I’m sure that it happens, but when I was writing North by Northwest, I had no other films in my mind. I was struggling too much with the one I was working on.”
6. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino – 1994)
Tarantino’s magnum opus, Pulp Fiction requires no introduction. One of the most iconic films of all time, it is considered to be the most influential film of the 1990s. The Oscar-winning script by Tarantino and Roger Avary is an intersection of multiple narratives, featuring Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, in the role that reignited his career, as hit men who have philosophical conversations on mundane topics like French names for American fast food products (like the characters in Reservoir Dogs).
Through outrageous violence, witty exchanges and a self-indulgent exploration of language, Pulp Fiction has managed to become the most memorable film to come out of that decade. Tarantino appears in the film as the assassins’ friend Jimmie who gets pissed off when the two try to garner his help in hiding a body.
In an interview with Roger Ebert, Tarantino said, “When I’m writing a movie, I hear the laughter. People talk about the violence. What about the comedy? Pulp Fiction has such an obviously comic spirit, even with all the weird things that are happening.
“To me, the most torturous thing in the world, and this counts for [Reservoir Dogs] just as much as [Pulp Fiction], is to watch it with an audience who doesn’t know they’re supposed to laugh. Because that’s a death. Because I’m hearing the laughs in my mind, and there’s this dead silence of crickets sounding in the audience, you know?”
5. Scream (Wes Craven – 1996)
Set in the sleepy town of Woodsboro, Scream conducts a terrifying, hilarious and self-reflexive examination of the horror genre. It is a highly intelligent slasher film which actively subverts the dominant tropes from cult classics like John Carpenter’s Halloween. Craven makes an iconic cameo as a janitor dressed up as Freddy Krueger (created by Craven himself).
Craven said of the script, “Most of the scripts that come across your desk are terrible. They’re derivative, they’re ugly and they’re just gore for gore’s sake. I found it a very appealing script. It’s really wonderfully written, it’s very funny. It’s scary when it means to be scary, extraordinarily well-informed about the genre itself.”
4. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean – 1962)
Based on the life of T. E. Lawrence, David Lean’s epic historical drama is regularly counted among the best biopics ever made. Set during World War I, it presents a nuanced depiction of the psychology of war and the effect it has on humans. According to reports, Lean makes a cameo as a motorcyclist riding near the Suez Canal. He asks Lawrence a loaded question, “Who are you?”
Lean said in a 1989 interview, “I like good characters and this was one whale of an epic. It’s not far off [from] a movie opera. Huge…swirling crowd scenes, it’s a huge canvas. When you see this on the screen today from a 70 mm negative, it really has enormous clarity and enormous presence.”
3. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones – 1975)
A hilarious interpretation of the dark Middle Age, this brilliant 1975 film is a parody of the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail featuring a three-headed giant, the dangerous Castle Anthrax, a killer rabbit, a house of virgins, and rude Frenchmen among other formidable characters. Gilliam has multiple roles in the film including King Arthur’s trusty right-hand man Patsy but he also cameos as the animator of the Black Beast who gets a heart attack and dies while drawing.
Gilliam commented, “I think if you get the makeup, the costumes, the sets, the atmosphere right, the jokes are going to be funnier. And I think that’s the case with Holy Grail. It just feels like you’re there, in this primitive world where it’s rough and it’s ugly and you have many characters trying to maintain dignity and rise above the putridness of the place. That feels funny in itself.”
2. Chinatown (Roman Polanski – 1974)
Roman Polanski’s 1974 neo-noir film has gone down in history as one of the best mystery films of all time. Inspired by the California Water Wars, Chinatown stars Jack Nicholson as a private detective who gets caught in a world of corruption and deceit when he tries to track down an unfaithful husband. Credited only as Man With Knife, Polanski makes a quick appearance and cuts his leading man with a knife.
Producer Robert Evans said, “It’s not like watching Jaws, which is a spectacular picture, and all the special effects and the audiences jump up and down. When the picture’s over with Chinatown, there’s not a sound in the theatre, people walk out [of the theatre] and you [don’t] know what they’re thinking.
“You can’t read it. I knew I had a success, though, with the picture when we previewed it in San Francisco, and, when the picture’s over, a woman walks over to me and pointed her finger at me [and said], “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Then I knew I had a hit!”
1. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola – 1979)
Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s famous 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Apocalypse Now is arguably the most ambitious project in his extensive filmmaking career. It is a retelling of the problematic source text in the context of the Vietnam War which allegorically deconstructs the evils of American interference, colonialism and the human capacity for unabashed hatred.
The sanctity of Coppola’s recreation is punctured by the director himself. He makes a brief cameo with his cinematographer, filming all of it and screaming, “Just go by like you’re fighting. Don’t look at the camera. It’s just for the television.” Coppola indulges in the meta-fictional commentary to mock the fact that lives were destroyed just for publicity. The two cameras confront each other like two mirrors engaged in the infinitude of self-reflexivity.
“What is considered avant-garde in one moment, 20 years later is used for wallpaper and becomes part of the culture. It seemed that’s what had happened with [Apocalypse Now],” Coppola said. “When I was making this, I didn’t carry a script around. I carried a green Penguin paperback copy of Heart of Darkness with all my underlining in it. I made the movie from that.”