Has there been a greater American film-maker than Orson Welles? It's difficult to think of one.
Kubrick? Too obsessed with technical detail, meaning that his films after 1962's Dr Strangelove - with the exception of the breathtaking Barry Lyndon - are empty spectacles, devoid of human life and any semblance of humour or insight. Hawks? Master craftsman and storyteller, but not a cinematic innovator. The same applies to Wilder. Griffifth? An innovator certainly, but his Victorian melodramas have not aged well, and his Birth of A Nation is marred by a racist and turgid second half. De Mille? A great showman with a tabloid journalist's feel for what the public wanted, but it's his silents that really count, not the ponderous sound epics of his later years. Spielberg? Maybe, he has the popular touch, and Jaws and Duel are masterly examples of the film-maker's craft, and Jurassic Park and Schindler's List are populist blockbuster film-making at its best, but too much of his work is treacly and conservative.
There can be few better films made in the past half-century than Malick's Days of Heaven and Badlands but his record thereafter has been spotty, even if his pictures are always worth making a detour for. Scorsese, Penn and Altman too. Coppola is close, and The Godfather films, along with The Conversation and Apocalypse Now are unimpeachable masterpieces but often his work is flawed, and his battles with the moneymen have left him creatively exhausted these past 30 years. Cassavetes and Cronenberg are too quirky, Lynch too erratic. Tarantino is perhaps a triumph of style over substance. Ford, Stone, Wise, Wyler and Capra are overrated. Manciewiwcz was a brilliant writer more than a director.
There are arguments to be made for Cukor, Huston, Sturges, Minnelli and others working in the Golden Era. But many of the other greats of that time - Von Stroheim, Von Sternberg, Preminger, Borzage, Hitchcock, Lang, Murnau, Lubitsch, Mamoulian - were born outside America and started their careers long before Hollywood came calling.
So it boils down to Welles. like Coppola, his battles with bankers and studios meant that many of his projects were unrealised, or emerged less than fully-formed. But consider the films he did make - Citizen Kane, F For Fake, Journey Into Fear, Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil, Chimes At Midnight, The Trial, Othello, Macbeth... that's a pretty good record.
Here's his second film, his 1942 adaption of Booth Tarkington's novel about a proud midwestern family bought low by the rise of the automobile age. It's almost as good as the more famous, more acclaimed Kane. It might even have been better, but we'll never know. The picture fell behind schedule and went way over budget, and RKO seized control. Welles' orginal cut was two and a half hours, the studio cut it to 90 minutes, created a happy ending and in an act of philistine vandalism and petty vindictiveness, destroyed the excised footage (this was not without precedent - in 1924 Irving Thalberg of what would soon become MGM ordered Erich Von Stroheim to cut his film Greed from nine hours to something more manageable. Von managed to get it down to 462 minutes, but Thalberg gave it to the studio hacks and it was cut to just 88, with most of the footage destroyed).
But the version that remains to us is majestic. The ensemble cast - Joe Cotten, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead, Dolores Costello, Erskine Sanford - is superb; Bernard Hermann's (butchered) score is wonderful, as is Stanley Cortez's cinematography. But it's Welles' film, his mobile camera and gift for cinematic narrative dominates.
For anyone who's interested, have a look at the opening scene below. It owes a lot to a scene in a film by Jean Renoir's (Welles' favourite director) La Crime de M. Lange. It's masterful storytelling - the kind of narrative that only the movies can create.