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Glenn Kenny: “Is Watching a Movie on a Phone Really So Bad?”

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

Glenn Kenny of The New York Times has an interesting take on cellphone film viewing.

As he writes, “‘People who watch movies on phones (especially if they think they can leave valid critical comments on imdb) should be shot,” the critic Anne Billson declared on Twitter in mid-December. I quote her not to scold her, or to hold her to her word, but to underscore that passions in the format-platform controversies run high.

I’ve already cited, in my first installment of this column, David Lynch’s condemnation — more than a decade old — of The Very Idea of Watching a Movie on a Phone. Over the century-plus of cinema, new ways of watching movies have made film folk antsy. In a sense, it’s the one thing that the money guys and the creatives have fretted over in more or less equal measure. Steven Spielberg was initially wary of having his works put on home video, grumbling about movie theaters being sacred spaces and such.

Martin Scorsese had more optimism, writing in 1989: ‘[H]aving instant access to movies, being able to pick something up and show it at the drop of a hat, is great.’ Much of the work of his nonprofit restoration and preservation concern the Film Foundation is made available on home video, with high-definition formats preferred.

Still, smartphone movie-watching is for many a kind of line in the sand, albeit one that streaming services are obliged to ignore. The whole point of a streaming service is that it makes content available to watch on a panoply of devices, from a big-screen display to a tablet or Nook or Kindle or Galaxy or iPhone. I recently got my first iPhone, largely to put a bunch of streaming services on it (also because I was getting sick of everybody asking me ‘Why do you still have a BlackBerry?’), and dove in.

I thought it would be interesting to watch some 100-year-old Charlie Chaplin pictures on the device. After all, when Chaplin was making his shorts for Keystone and Essanay in the early 20th century, they were not necessarily projected in the cathedrals Mr. Spielberg once spoke of but in intimate, barely appointed nickelodeon theaters and in shortened versions made for penny-in-the-slot single-viewer Mutoscope machines . . .

The Criterion Channel, a part of the new streaming service FilmStruck, offers Chaplin shorts in batches, each a feature-length compilation from a particular period, and nicely restored. They look great on an iPhone — their black-and-white and sometimes sepia tones are nice and crisp, and the action is more than coherent. At 14 or so minutes a short, they’re well-suited to the contracted attention span that holding an iPhone in one’s hand tends to encourage.”

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but I have to disagree, simply quoting the director Roy Ward Baker, who summed up the issue for me, and I think for many others, when he told me in an interview at his London home late one afternoon, shortly before his death, that “one can inspect a film on DVD, but you can’t experience it.” Baker, of course, directed the best movie about the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember (1958), and had just come from a theatrical screening of the film, as part of a retrospective of his work.

“It just hit me with such impact” he told me. “I’ve seen it many times on television, and thought to myself, ‘that’s a good movie,’ but it didn’t really hit me with same impact as when I first made it until I saw it again in its proper aspect ratio, on a large screen, with an appreciative audience [another thing - and not a small matter either - that's missing with the cellphone experience].” Of course, our conversation took place long before the advent of the cellphone and video streaming, but the basic concept is still the same – small screen vs. the real thing.

Want a quick viewing of a film? By all means, use a cellphone or whatever else is handy. Want to really see the film? There’s only one way; in a proper theatrical setting, with an audience, in the proper aspect ratio, on a big screen – the format that the movies were designed for. Thomas Edison, as Kenny points out elsewhere in his article, was against theatrical motion picture projection, but since the inception of the cinema, films have been made to be screened in large, theatrical format.

On a cellphone, you’re just getting a fraction of the actual experience.

New Book: A Brief History of Comic Book Movies

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

New Book: A Brief History of Comic Book Movies

Wheeler Winston Dixon and Richard Graham have published a new book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies (Palgrave Macmillan). These films trace their origins back to the early 1940s, when the first Batman and Superman serials were made. The serials, and later television shows in the 1950s and 60s, were for the most part designed for children.

But today, with the continuing rise of Comic-Con, they seem to be more a part of the mainstream than ever, appealing to adults as well as younger fans. This book examines comic book movies from the past and present, exploring how these films shaped American culture from the post-World War II era to the present day, and how they adapted to the changing tastes and mores of succeeding generations.

Organized in rough chronological order, the book’s five chapters cover Origins, The DC Universe, The Marvel Universe, Animé Films, and Indies and Outliers, examining not only Hollywood films, but European, Asian, and French animated films as well. Literally hundreds of films, directors, and comic book characters are examined in the book, making this a one-stop source for information on this emerging genre.

Cynthia J. Miller calls the volume “engaging and very accessible…its value to readers will continue even as many more films enter into production and distribution,” while David Sterritt adds that “this history of an under-studied field is original, enlightening, and exemplary. I recommend it highly.”

The book is available right now as an e-book or pdf, and will be published in hardcover on February 5, 2017. It’s a solid, comprehensive overview of this new and emerging genre, so check it out if you can. Whether you like it or not, comic book movies rule the world right now, and yet they emerged from the margins of mainstream cinema – read all about it here.

My thanks to Richard Graham for his unstinting help and expertise in this project.

Hands Down – The Most Important Film Book of 2016

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Along with Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, this is one of the essential film books of 2016.

Robert Bresson is one of the most mysterious, and yet the most accessible of filmmakers – much like his compatriots Yasujirō Ozu and Carl Th. Dreyer (forming writer / director Paul Schrader’s holy trinity of cinema). His classic, epigrammatic text Notes on the Cinematograph, first published in English in 1975 in an edition entitled Notes on Cinematography translated by Jonathan Griffin, has been out of print since its initial publication. I came across the first hardcover edition in a remainder pile at Brentano’s in New York in the early 1980s, going for $2 a copy. I bought five copies on the spot, and it remains on my shelf as one of the key books by any filmmaker on their work, stripped down to the essentials.

Now, New York Review Books has republished Notes on the Cinematograph in a new translation, back in print in a real edition – a very cheaply bound one circulated for a time a few years back – but just as importantly, they’ve gathered together interviews with the director on all of his films from 1943 to 1983, the year of his last film, L’Argent, along with a few supplementary texts written by those who worked with him, and with a selection of exceedingly rare production stills, in an essential text entitled simply Bresson on Bresson – Interviews, 1943–1983.

The result is mesmerizing; Bresson is absolutely modest, serious, and above all patient – my first takeaway from the volume was how extremely tolerant he was of the various interviewers who interrogated him over the years, asking the same questions again and again – how he used actors (or “models,” he called them), how he used as little music as possible, how his camera lingered on an empty space long after the actors had departed. Yet Bresson managed to turn even the most banal questions to his advantage, never passing up an opportunity to offer some fresh thoughts on his work.

Bresson on Bresson – Interviews, 1943–1983, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis, edited by Mylène Bresson, with a preface by Pascal Mérigeau, offers an series of penetrating insights into the director’s work, and serves as a useful model for filmmakers today, in an era where spectacle and special effects have replaced, for the most part, thoughtful cinema.

As the NYRB notes,”Robert Bresson, the director of such cinematic master-pieces as Pickpocket, A Man Escaped, Mouchette, and L’Argent, was one of the most influential directors in the history of French film, as well as one of the most stubbornly individual: He insisted on the use of nonprofessional actors; he shunned the ‘advances’ of Cinerama and CinemaScope (and the work of most of his predecessors and peers); and he minced no words about the damaging influence of capitalism and the studio system on the still-developing—in his view—art of film.

Bresson on Bresson collects the most significant interviews that Bresson gave (carefully editing them before they were released) over the course of his forty-year career to reveal both the internal consistency and the consistently exploratory character of his body of work. Successive chapters are dedicated to each of his fourteen films, as well as to the question of literary adaptation, the nature of the sound track, and to Bresson’s one book, the great aphoristic treatise Notes on the Cinematograph.

Throughout, his close and careful consideration of his own films and of the art of film is punctuated by such telling mantras  as ‘Sound…invented silence in cinema,’ ‘It’s the film that…gives life to the characters—not the characters that give life to the film,’ and (echoing the Bible) ‘Every idle word shall be counted.’

Bresson’s integrity and originality earned him the admiration of younger directors from Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette to Olivier Assayas. And though Bresson’s movies are marked everywhere by an air of intense deliberation, these interviews show that they were no less inspired by a near-religious belief in the value of intuition, not only that of the creator but that of the audience, which he claims to deeply respect: ‘It’s always ready to feel before it understands. And that’s how it should be.’”

Anyone even remotely interested in film should buy this volume immediately, along with the republished text of Notes on the Cinematograph, as a useful tonic to the current ultra-commercial cinematic landscape. As Alan Pavelin wrote in Senses of Cinema long ago, “Robert Bresson’s 13 features over 40 years constitute arguably the most original and brilliant body of work over a long career from a film director in the history of cinema. He is the most idiosyncratic and uncompromising of all major filmmakers.” Or as Martin Scorsese put it, “we are still coming to terms with Robert Bresson, and the peculiar power and beauty of his films.”

This is the essential film book of the year. Pick up a copy now – right now.

The Four Just Men – Classic British Television

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

Long before the current era of superheroes, The Four Just Men were way ahead of the curve.

The Marvel and DC Universe films may be ruling the box office right now, but more than half a century ago, The Four Just Men ruled British television, constantly criss-crossing the globe to right wrongs, and mete out justice to those who deserved it, without the benefit of superpowers or enormous wealth – just using their wits, and their skills, in the service of humanity.

As Wikipedia accurately notes, “The Four Just Men was a 1959 Sapphire Films production for ITC Entertainment. It ran for one season of 39 half-hour monochrome episodes. The series, loosely based on a series of novels by Edgar Wallace, presents the adventures of four men who first meet while fighting in Italy during the Second World War. The men later reassemble, and decide to fight for justice and against tyranny, using money set aside for the purpose by their late commanding officer.

They operate from different countries: Jeff Ryder (Richard Conte) is a professor of law at Columbia University in New York, Tim Collier (Dan Dailey) is an American reporter based in Paris, Ben Manfred (Jack Hawkins) is a crusading independent MP who works from London and Ricco Poccari (Vittorio De Sica) is an Italian hotelier based in Rome.

The series is unusual in having the four lead actors appear in turn other than in the first episode; one or occasionally two makes a brief appearance in each other’s episode, usually on the phone. Guest stars included Judi Dench, Alan Bates, Leonard Sachs, Patrick Troughton, Donald Pleasence, Richard Johnson, Ronald Howard, Basil Dignam, Roger Delgado, Charles Gray, and Frank Thornton.

At the time Four Just Men was the most ambitious film series yet made for British TV. It was produced by Sapphire Films at Walton Studios, and on location in Britain, France and Italy. None of its four stars had been cast as regulars in a TV series before. Filming on the 39 episodes, each 25 minutes long, began in January 1959, and lasted for five months, using up to seven units in the studio or on location, and producing two or three episodes simultaneously. [Future director] John Schlesinger was credited as exterior unit or second unit director on a number of episodes.”

This, of course, was back when a season of a television series amounted to something – 39 episodes, in fact. All the actors involved were certifiable stars at the time in their respective countries, particularly Jack Hawkins in England and the esteemed director/actor Vittorio De Sica in Italy, thus giving the series an international commercial appeal. But most central to the series’ success – and its recent release on Region 2 DVD – is the sense that someone was out there, watching out for the everyday person, who had no authority or influence.

Thus, in a way, not only do The Four Just Men prefigure the current craze for superheroes, offering hope in an uncertain world, but they also work their will through the actual channels of government and the law, without taking matters into their own hands, or using extra-terrestrial powers. This makes the series all the more relatable. From the opening title sequence – seen above – to the end of each episode, The Four Just Men act on the side of right against the forces of corruption and evil, winning on a human scale, rather than one of exaggerated influence.

As the series’ announcer intones at the start of each episode, “throughout time, there have been men to whom justice is more important than life itself. From these ranks come four men, prepared to fight valiantly on the side of justice wherever the need may be. Joined together in this cause, they are The Four Just Men.” It’s a nice dream- if only they were with us now.

See the intro to the series, as well as some episodes, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Kirk Douglas Turns 100

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

Tim Gray has written a fabulous appreciation of the life of actor Kirk Douglas in Variety.

As Gray notes, “Kirk Douglas, who turn[ed] 100 on Dec. 9, claims he’s tired of talking about himself. Despite that, he recently spoke to Variety about his many impressive careers, as an actor (‘I never wanted to be in movies’), a producer (including tales of ‘my peculiar friend Stanley Kubrick’), author (he’s working on his 12th book), and philanthropist (he’s given away more than $120 million).

As an actor, his classic films include Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful, Lust for Life, 20,000 Leagues Under the SeaGunfight at the OK Corral and Seven Days in May. He also starred in several he produced, such as Paths of Glory, Spartacus, and the 1962 western Lonely Are the Brave.

Douglas has said his proudest accomplishment in Hollywood was to help break the blacklist by giving onscreen credit to writer Dalton Trumbo on the 1960 Spartacus.

Douglas had formed Bryna Prods. in 1955, named after his mother. For the company’s second film,Paths of Glory, he hired Kubrick as director. The relationship began with a fight after Kubrick made major script rewrites without telling Douglas, who forced him to film the original version. Despite their frequent clashes, Douglas three years later wanted Kubrick to direct the Bryna-Universal film Spartacus.

‘Difficult? He invented the word. But he was talented. So, we had lots of fights, but I always appreciated his talent,’ Douglas says.”

You can read the rest of this richly illustrated story by clicking here, or on the link above.

Cal Newport’s Book “Deep Work”

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016

Cal Newport’s Deep Work is a book with an important, yet really simple message.

One of the unfortunate by-products of the digital era – and there any many plusses, so don’t get me wrong on this – is that there’s so much noise, so much chatter, so much social media static that sitting down and getting any real, substantial work done is a real challenge. Quentin Tarantino, for example, found it impossible to work on a script on a computer that was wired into the web; so now, he works on a machine that isn’t hooked up to anything, so he can simply concentrate on the task at hand, without the temptation to surf the web every so often, even to check a fact. He can do that later.

The important thing is to keep working, keep writing, and finish whatever it is you’re working on in one continuous blast, and then go back and clean it up later. The late Roger Ebert was an adherent to this philosophy; keep going to the end, and then edit. I do the same thing with my books and articles – I write everything by hand, to avoid the distraction of the web entirely, and then have it typed up, and edit that draft. You’d be surprised at the number of people who do the same thing. It’s one thing to write a book directly on a computer, but it’s much more intimate to simply have yourself, the page, and a pen to work with, and results are often much better.

Newport’s central thesis is essentially “get rid of all distractions, get the work done, find a space where you’ll be left alone, and drill down until it’s finished.” That’s a paraphrase, of course, but it’s the essence of the book. Newport, a computer scientist, is in love with code and Power Point presentations and Excel spread sheets, which many of us are not – myself included – but surprisingly, even though he works in a world of 1s and 0s, his guiding principles work in any area of creative endeavor.

As Newport puts it, “deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.”

After finishing the book, I wrote Newport discussing this, and he replied “I appreciate the kind words and agree strongly with the premise that Deep Work cuts across many different fields and pursuits,” which is absolutely true. In an era in which superficial click bait and fake news articles proliferate with alarming regularity, it’s nice to come across a book that says, essentially, “you can do better. You can do serious work that will have a real impact. You can do work that has real depth, and it’s the most valuable work to do. All you have to do it create a space for yourself, and your thoughts, and then just keep at it until you’ve got something real down on paper, or on film, or video, or whatever your discipline might be.”

Simply put, Newport provides a solid blueprint for thoughtful, considered creative work – whatever your area of expertise –  and that’s a much needed concept in this age of instant information and immediate gratification. This is, in short, a very useful book, whose central theme can be distilled into this guiding maxim:

Avoid superficial work. Tune the digital world out, and do Deep Work. In the end, it has much more value.

Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media

Monday, November 28th, 2016

When the lights go out, strange things can happen.

Allison Meier has an excellent article in Hyperalleric (fast becoming one of my favorite online journals) on a remarkable new book, Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media by Noam M. Elcott was released earlier this year by the University of Chicago Press.

As Meier writes, “Elcott’s Artificial Darkness navigates this human-made gloam through a series of sites and individuals, such as Étienne-Jules Marey at his 19th-century Physiological Station in France. There Marey photographed movement against a black screen, with participants dressed partly in black, to emphasize certain motions while masking other parts of the body.

Elcott also emphasizes how darkness in the theater, whether for cinema or drama, is a relatively recent norm. At the turn of the century, a dark theater might have been referred to as ‘Wagnerian,’ referencing German composer Richard Wagner’s Festival Theater, which had a successful 1876 debut. Before that, a theater was ‘a space to see and be seen, two aims that were often in conflict.’

Elcott notes that ‘artificial darkness was, above all, a technology of visibility and invisibility.’  Of course, this new immersion of the audience into a tantalizing night quickly sparked fears about scandalous behavior, with reactionary actions such as the British National Council of Public Morals’s issuing the 1917 report ’The Moral Danger of Darkness.’ Nevertheless, the dark emphasis on the stage endured, and Elcott highlights later artists like Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus performers that involved the obscurity of dark space in avant-garde theater.

‘Modern artificial darkness negated the negative qualities ascribed to its timeless counterpart: divorced from nature and metaphor, highly controlled and circumscribed, it was a technology that fused humans and images,’ Elcott writes. ‘More precisely, controlled artificial darkness negated space, disciplined bodies, and suspended corporeality in favor of the production and reception of images.’

Artificial Darkness is definitely an academic book, although its thorough text is beautifully illustrated with the ghosts conjured with magic lanterns in Étienne-Gaspard Robert’s 19th-century phantasmagoria, ‘Black Art’ shows from the 1890s when skeletons hovered in inky space, held aloft by hidden performers, and Georges Méliès’s early 20th-century films that conjured fantastic illusions through dark screens, such as making heads of actors disappear [see above].

From the photography darkroom to the disorientation of time in theatrical spaces, the 19th and 20th centuries radically changed our perception of darkness, from a state of night and shadows, to an artificial setting for spectral spectacles.” This is a fascinating study, and despite Meier’s warning that it’s primarily an academic tome, the general reader will still find it visually enthralling – a study of a long vanished time, when “artificial darkness” was a relatively new phenomenon.

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

As Allison Meier writes in the website Hyperallergic, Hollywood’s background art has long been ignored.

As Meier notes, “when backdrop painters were successful at their jobs, the filmgoing audience didn’t notice their work at all. From the 1930s, up to the emergence of CGI and higher quality photography, painted backings were an essential part of the cinema industry.

However, the artists were barely credited, no matter how important their transformation of reality was to a film — whether a colossal painting that transported the viewer to an exotic locale or a fantastic mural for an entirely fictional realm. The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop by Karen L. Maness and Richard M. Isackes, out now from Regan Arts, is a visual compendium of over 300 images highlighting this unheralded history.

‘These special effect backings, the largest paintings ever created, were breathtaking in their artistic and technical virtuosity,’ the authors write. They note that although the ’majority of backings used today are digitally printed photographic enlargements,’ the painted backdrop still remains a part of film, albeit in a reduced role:

But, paradoxically, the painted image often looks more realistic than the photographic image. Scenic artists can manipulate backings by adjusting light, color, and texture, helping to support the movie camera’s constructed image. Some information and details can be selectively accentuated, while others can be deemphasized. A photograph, on the other hand, is static and has a tendency to contradict the artifice of the rest of the setting.

They also point out how recent films, like 2004’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and 2014’s Interstellar, also incorporated painted backings to instill an otherworldly atmosphere. Most of the book is concentrated on artists who made significant contributions to the “golden age” of Hollywood.

Before the 1930s, films were often staged like theater, backgrounds not intended to be viewed as anything other than flat space. Then emerged films like 1936’s The Petrified Forest. Shot entirely at the Warner Bros studio in Burbank, California, all its scenes were set in the Arizona desert, with realistic backdrops integral to moving the action, even if the actors didn’t go anywhere.

You probably haven’t heard the backdrop artists’ names — although Salvador Dalí makes a brief appearance with his dream sequence backing for the 1945 Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound.

You’ve almost certainly seen their work, even if your brain perceived it as a real three-dimensional space, such as George Gibson’s scenic art for the Wizard of Oz or North by Northwest, and Ben Carré’s artwork for classics like The Phantom of the Opera. No matter the place, the painted backdrop was crucial to the audience’s immersion in the cinematic world.”

A fascinating look at an under-appreciated art form; well worth checking out.

John Bailey, ASC on Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca

Monday, October 10th, 2016

I have often written on Nicholas Musuraca, and here DP John Bailey weighs in on this Hollywood master.

As Bailey writes in his article “Nicholas Musuraca, Cat People and RKO Film Noir,” “cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was, from his start, a ‘team player.’ In 1927, at the twilight of the silent era and several years after beginning his own cinematography career, he joined with director Robert De Lancey to make low-budget Westerns for Joseph Kennedy’s production company, The Film Booking Offices of America. A few years later, after elaborate stock swaps between Kennedy and RCA’s David Sarnoff, this newly minted studio became RKO Pictures.

Musuraca spent nearly the next half-century at RKO, a record for artists even in the studio-contract era. He left RKO after shooting the 1954 comedy Susan Slept Here to begin a more than decade-long career in episodic television, where his signature film-noir cinematography was nowhere to be seen. His final credits were on McHale’s Navy and F Troop, two of the most popular and unimaginative-looking sitcoms of the 1960s. It was a curious journey for a cinematographer who, along with John Alton, had defined the contours of expressionistic lighting and composition in the highly stylized, low-budget noirs of the 1940s.

Like his peers James Wong Howe and Leon Shamroy, Musuraca began shooting in the early 1920s. His first six credits, from The Virgin Queen (1923) to The Passionate Quest (1926), were for director J. Stuart Blackton. Blackton was one of the true pioneers of American cinema. His first credit was in 1897, after a meeting with Thomas Edison inspired him to buy a Kinetoscope. He also became a passionate exponent of animation. It was as Blackton’s chauffeur that the Italian-born Musuraca gained entry into the film business. Musuraca remained loyal to Blackton, who retired from filmmaking in 1931, shortly after his last movie with Musuraca.

During the 1930s, Musuraca was a go-to cameraman for RKO, mostly for low-budget programmers and Westerns that ran a little over an hour. Between 1933 and 1938, Musuraca averaged at least a dozen movies a year, which helps account for his amazing career tally of 221 credits, only two dozen of which are shorts. He graduated to A-list pictures with back-to-back credits on Five Came Back and Golden Boy. In 1942, when writer Val Lewton left David O. Selznick to become producer for the new low-budget horror-film unit at RKO — the supportive Selznick even negotiated Lewton’s contract — Musuraca became part of Lewton’s team.

Given free reign to do what he wanted creatively, provided he remained within the $150,000 budget, Lewton formed a team than included composer Roy Webb, designer Albert S. D’Agostino and editors Mark Robson and Robert Wise (both of whom he soon moved into the director’s chair).

Lewton produced 14 films for RKO in less than a decade. The first six, from Cat People to its not-quite-sequel Curse of the Cat People (the title was imposed by the studio over Lewton’s objections), have become signature films in the noir canon. Musuraca photographed five of them, from Cat People to Bedlam. After that, RKO unceremoniously dumped Lewton, who then wandered to Paramount to MGM to Universal with dozens of projects that were not picked up.

His three films after RKO were not successful, and Lewton died from a second heart attack in March 1951 at age 46, convinced he was a failure. Unhappy about Howard Hughes’ takeover of RKO and about being assigned to mediocre material, Musuraca hung on there for only a few more years.

Were it not for his four years with the Lewton unit and his stunning cinematography on Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (also for RKO), Musuraca might well be regarded as one of the legions of near anonymous cinematographers with long careers but no singular identity. In 1948, the year after Out of the Past, Musuraca received his only Academy Award nomination, for George Stevens’ family drama I Remember Mama, a film that, ironically, bears no trace of the cinematographer’s noir lighting style.

What does Musuraca’s noir style look like? There is no better example than a sequence from the second film he photographed for Lewton, The Seventh Victim, directed by Mark Robson. It is a woman-in-jeopardy sequence very reminiscent of the park transverse scene in Tourneur’s Cat People, made the year before. The similarity offers a good indication of Lewton’s tight oversight of the visual details of the production and of his reliance on Musuraca as a key element in his vision. The pools of light from streetlamps, the looming shadows, and the dark corners ahead of ill-fated actress Jean Brooks’ panicked walk are all signature tropes of Musuraca’s work in this period.

On Sept. 20, The Criterion Collection released a newly remastered 2K DVD and Blu-ray of the Lewton/Tourneur/Musuraca Cat People. Criterion producer Jason Altman asked me to provide a video essay on Musuraca’s cinematography and its centrality to the Lewton RKO films. I have long been an advocate of the primacy of John Alton as the key cinematographer of the American post-World War II film-noir period, and have written about him extensively on this blog, starting with this post. Most recently, I wrote about the controversy surrounding his Oscar for the ballet sequence of An American in Paris. (You can read that here.)

Alton was a dedicated self-promoter as well as the author of a 1949 book on cinematography that is still in print. Musuraca was the antithesis of Alton in terms of personal demeanor. He was non-confrontational, content to remain in the shadows; there is little biographical information about him online, and his interviews were rare. The best discussion of his filmography I have found appears in Wheeler Winston Dixon’s book Black & White Cinema . . . [read more about Musuraca on my blog here]

A favorite movie-roundtable topic is, ‘What was the first film noir and who photographed it?’ Several cinematographers’ names always come up, especially John Seitz and, of course, Alton. My choice is Musuraca. A full year before The Maltese Falcon, a movie photographed by Seitz and long regarded as a proto-noir, it was the quiet and gentle Musuraca who photographed RKO’s Stranger on the Third Floor, a perfervid, hallucinogenic film by Boris Ingster. Its nightmare sequence of John’s McGuire’s imagined trial for murder unleashes every twitch and tic that soon became the signature elements of noir style. Seven years later, the same cinematographer gave us Out of the Past, the movie considered by many cinematographers to be the apex of noir style.”

A superb set-up by Musuraca for Stranger on the Third Floor; I agree with Bailey; read the whole article here.

Bertrand Tavernier on Edward L. Cahn

Monday, October 10th, 2016

Edward L. Cahn – a much maligned American auteur – is finally getting some of the respect he deserves.

As John Hopewell and Martin Dale reported from the Lumière Festival in Lyon, France yesterday in Variety, “Time puts everybody in their place. But often rather slowly. The American director, Edward L. Cahn, was best-known, indeed notorious for his prolific B-movie output in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Yet, this is the same man who, legend has it, oversaw or at least advised on the final cut of All Quiet on the Western Front, and made a clutch of movies in the early 1930s, one of which, Afraid To Talk, screened at the Lumière Festival on Sunday, being greeted as a masterpiece. ‘You might say he worked his way to the bottom,’ writes journalist Imogen Sara Smith.

Dave Kehr, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, included three of Cahn’s films in an Carl Laemmle Jr. retrospective this May. This week, Lyon’s Lumière Festival screens the same titles: Afraid To Talk, Law and Order, and Laughter in Hell, introduced by the celebrated French director-film buff Bertrand Tavernier, president of the Institut Lumière. Here Tavernier adds his voice to others who have rediscovered Cahn’s early work. It is worth quoting Tavenier [extensively; as he noted]:

‘For some time now I have wanted to show the films directed by Edward L. Cahn. He’s a key director that for many of us remains an enigma, because my generation first became familiar with his work in the 1960s, essentially in Belgium where his films were released theatrically. They were never released in France. The smallest minimalist productions. Zombies of Mora Tau. Five Guns to Tombstone, westerns and horror films.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space, which we could say was the forerunner to Alien. When we see the film it is however rudimentary because of the creature. It’s true that it circulates in the corridors of the space ship.  But it’s hyper rudimentary, in comparison with Alien. It’s a kind of a guy wearing a rubber suit. Not great. But I recently saw two or three films that he made at this time that were very interesting, such as Experiment Alcatraz.

Between 1932 and 1934 he made four-to-five films, which are amazing – which are very different from these subsequent Z-movie productions, very demanding with a great deal of visual style: Law and Order, the first film about OK Corral. It’s a revisionist western film before the genre had been fully established which is kind of unique in the history of film genres – a film that contradicts the canon before the canon is established. Laughter in Hell. And my favorite film, full of energy, which is Radio Patrol.

Why did his career reach a hiatus at this moment in time? He left Universal and went to MGM. There’s something strange. He made a very personal and strange project. A film produced by the Anti-Defamation League in 1949. A film called Prejudice, which was only released in churches. Which I believe was a tremendous commercial flop. From that point onwards everything changed in his career. He became a mystery. Now just a little note.

He was also a film editor. He was the editor of The Man who Laughs by Paul Leni. He is believed to have been the person who determined the final edited version of All Quiet on the Western Front, which he edited on the train between Los Angeles and New York. It took four days. And that’s where he finalized the version.

Finally it was the producer Carl Laemmle Jr., who commissioned his first film, Law and Order, co-written by John Huston, based on a remarkable book by W. R. Burnett, which is still in available. And then Afraid to Talk which was a film noir, inspired on a play by Albert Maltz and George Sklar.  Albert Maltz later became famous in Hollywood as one of the Hollywood Ten. He stopped working as a screenwriter under his own name and began working under a pseudonym.

He worked for example on the screenplay of Broken Arrow by Delmer Daves and other films. He returned with the films starring Clint Eastwood, Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Beguiled. So, Afraid to Talk was a stage play that had been heavily cut by the censorship, which had been adapted by Tom Reed – an ancient journalist who specialized in crime, the kind of person that Carl Laemmle Jr. employed as a screenwriter, to spice up the films – to give them reality.

So Tom Reed worked on three occasions with Edward Cahn and they produced quite amazing screenplays. For example Afraid to Talk. You will see that this is a film that is unrelenting. Which is incredibly strong in terms of its social content. Corruption, the problems of the gangs. On the cowardice of the public authorities.

It’s a very surprising film, almost expressionist in terms of its directing style, the search for light. It’s also a film that groups together a huge number of actors in the secondary roles that later became very famous. You will recognize them all. For example, Louis Calhern, but there are others. I hope you will be amazed.” Cahn’s work has indeed undertone a Renaissance of sorts, mainly because of the efforts of Dave Kehr, first writing for The New York Times, and now as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.

As I’ve often noted in this blog, Cahn’s films all have a sense of awful, deliberate pacing, which smoothly moves from one set-up to another with the precision and calm of someone like Robert Bresson – never in a hurry to move the narrative or camerawork along, but always in precisely the right place with each new shot. I’ve seen this film, which is remarkable, as is much of the rest of Cahn’s work; I hope you get a chance to see it, too.

Edward L. Cahn – another director getting more attention – thanks to Bertrand Tavernier.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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