Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for the ‘Film Criticism’ Category

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.

Vittorio de Sica’s “Two Women” Finally Gets A Real DVD Release

Monday, December 19th, 2016

Vittorio de Sica’s masterpiece Two Women finally gets a worthy DVD release.

As Svet Atanasov writes on the site Blu-ray.com, “winner of Best Actress Award at the Cannes Films Festival, Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (1960) arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of British distributors Cult Films.

In Rome, Cesira (Sophia Loren) decides to close her shop and relocate to the countryside together with her daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown). It is a difficult move for her, but she is convinced that two will be safer there until the war ends. They pack their most precious belongings and then head to the train station.

When the train breaks down long before it reaches Cesira’s home village, the two women vow to finish their journey on foot. They are nearly killed after a German bomber fires at them while they cross an open field not too far away from their final destination.

For a while everything goes according to Cesira’s plan. She and Rosetta settle down and even though occasionally foreign soldiers pass through the area they feel safe. They also befriend the handsome teacher Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who sees the world a lot differently than the rest of villagers. The two women also find themselves attracted to him, but for different reasons.

Eventually, the Allies liberate the southern parts of the country and begin pushing the Germans further north. It is then that Cesira and Rosetta decide to return to Rome and reopen the family store. But on the way back the women are forced to hide from their liberators, who turn out to be just as vile as the enemies they have been trying to evade.

Vittorio De Sica’s La Ciociara a.k.a. Two Women was the film that transformed Loren into an international star. Prior to it Loren had appeared in other films that were received well outside of Italy, but Two Women was the first foreign film to earn Oscar Award for Best Actress and its success had a profound impact on her career.

The raging war is easily felt throughout the entire film, but the focus of attention is very much on the manner in which Cesira and Rosetta do their best to continue living as if their lives were never shattered. Cesira in particular fully understands that her role as a loving mother should not be comprised, which is why she often emerges as a strong and unusually optimistic person. Rosetta unconditionally trusts her but also realizes that there are times when it is necessary that she follows her instincts.

The special bond that exists between the two women is abruptly broken in such brutal fashion that after that it seems impossible that Cesira could do anything as a mother to mend it. And yet, somehow the film finds a way to show that life, as unfair and ugly as it can be at times, is still worth living.

De Sica manages the incredible emotional ups and downs in the only way that actually makes sense – without any safe guards or filters. While this can make the film quite difficult to watch at times, it is certainly the reason why it also remains so profoundly moving.

The film was adapted by De Sica and the great writer Cesare Zavattini from the brilliant novel by Alberto Moravia which chronicles a true event. Moravia’s incredible body of work also inspired such iconic films as The Conformist, Le Mépris, and Time of Indifference.”

This is all true, but most importantly, for some unfathomable reason, Two Women fell into the Public Domain shortly after its release, and has been available only in terrible “pan and scan” prints that cropped the original 1.85:1 ratio into flat screen size, thus wrecking the gorgeous compositions De Sica creates throughout the film.

There’s also a feature length documentary on the life and work of de Sica on the disc, as well as an appreciation of Loren’s career, but the main event here is that finally – finally – we get a good transfer of this superb film in its original aspect ratio. I’ve been waiting for this for years, available both in DVD and Blu-ray, and best of all, it’s region free.

It’s very rare that PD films get rescued; this is a real part of cinema history restored.

Upcoming Conference: “Frankenstein and Popular Culture”

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

Mary Shelley’s creation is always with us – more so today, perhaps, than ever before.

I’ve been invited to deliver a paper at the upcoming conference “Frankenstein and Popular Culture,” celebrating the 200th anniversary of the creation and publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on October 27-29, 2017. I chose as my topic “The Ghost of Frankenstein: What To Do With The Monster in The Digital Age?” – which is a pressing issue not only for scholars, but also for those within the industry as well. As I write in my paper, in part:

“Aside from J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 version of Frankenstein for the Edison Company, and moving through James Whale’s 1931 interpretation which pretty much put the ’stamp’ on the monster, the years have not been kind to Frankenstein’s creation. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) have some value, especially since Boris Karloff returned to the role that made him famous, but this ‘golden period’ was short lived.

Universal soon relegated the monster to series of inferior sequels, and by 1943 was ‘teaming’ the monster with their creation The Wolf Man to generate flagging audience interest, only to dispose of the monster altogether in 1944’s House of Frankenstein and 1945’s House of Dracula, to say nothing – literally nothing – of 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

With this rather witless burlesque, Universal had seemingly run out of ideas. Yes, in the late 1950s Hammer Films effectively re-imagined the monster with Terence Fisher’s 1957 production of The Curse of Frankenstein, precisely because they were barred by Universal from using any visual, narrative or thematic elements of their version of the monster’s exploits, yet after an initial run of success, the final entries in the Hammer series also fell victim to diminishing returns.

Subsequent interpretations, from numerous other filmmakers, have been even more threadbare. My paper takes its title from the 1942 film The Ghost of Frankenstein, one of the last credible films in the original Universal series, and asks the question, ‘What are we to do with, or make of, the Frankenstein monster in the 21st century?’

Tracing the monster in film from its beginnings to the present, we see a disturbing but not altogether unexpected trend. Newer iterations of the classic tale feature more special effects, but less real content. Universal is right now planning to reboot their classic monsters with yet another version of The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, with new versions of Frankenstein and Dracula to follow. But will any of these versions have lasting impact, or value? [. . .]

Copying the Marvel and DC Universe method of churning out franchise films on a regular basis, Universal is plowing ahead with a similarly designed program of entries in the coming years, with Johnny Depp tentatively attached as the lead in a reboot of The Invisible Man; Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson potentially linked to a reboot of The Wolf Man; a remake of the 2004 film Van Helsing; Scarlett Johansson tagged for a remake of The Creature from The Black Lagoon; and Javier Bardem, perhaps, as the monster in a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein, with Angelia Jolie considered for the role of the Bride, as part of a project to create the Universal Monster universe.

Noted Universal chairperson Donna Langley of this strategy, ‘we have to mine our resources. We don’t have any capes [in our film library]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies — unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and reimagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.’

But I would argue that it’s not going to work; that it hasn’t worked thus far; and that it won’t work in the future. The Frankenstein legend, and with it The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and Dracula are not material for a ‘Bourne’ or ‘Mission: Impossible’ series – all this will do is degrade the material further. What is needed is a creative force like the Hammer team, which takes the material seriously, and treats each project with the utmost care and attention, placing the emphasis on character, setting, and thematic development, rather than relying on special effects and fleeting star power to put these forthcoming projects across in the marketplace.

Hammer understood Gothic horror; it’s an English tradition. Universal, in the 1930s, had a sort of second hand comprehension of the genre through the lens of German Expressionism and British stage versions of the source materials, as brought to life by British (James Whale) or German émigrés such as Curt Siodmak and Karl Freund. The new Universal films are strictly an attempt to artificially jump start creations that need a firm re-grounding in their source material. In these films and others, we will get only a simulacric vision of these mythic characters, especially Victor Frankenstein and his creation; in short, all we will get is the ghost of Frankenstein.”

So, that’s where this stands at the moment – a few days before Christmas, 2016.

New Article: Don Sharp’s Pyschomania Restored by the BFI

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Director Don Sharp’s Psychomania has just been restored by the British Film Institute.

As I write in Senses of Cinema 81 (December, 2016), “BFI’s Flipside series continues with another excellent release, a completely restored version of Don Sharp’s ‘zombie biker’ film Psychomania (1973), starring George Sanders in his last role, with capable assists from Beryl Reid and Nicky Henson.

Psychomania concerns Tom Latham (Henson), the leader of a teenage motorcycle gang, The Living Dead, who with the aid of his devil-worshipping mother (Reid) and her obedient butler Shadwell (Sanders) makes a deal with the Devil for his gang’s literal immortality.

Soon the gang members are deliberately killing themselves in a variety of grotesque and spectacular fashions, secure in the knowledge that they will soon be immortal. However, as with all such arrangements, things don’t go precisely as planned. Suffice it to say that business transactions with Satan are a decidedly risky business, for as we all know, the Devil is in the details.

Tom is an impetuous fellow, and he’s suspicious (with good reason) about his parentage and his home life in general. ‘Why did my father die in that locked room?’ he asks Shadwell petulantly. ‘Why do you never get any older? And what is the secret of the living dead?’

Soon enough, Tom’s mother – a curiously distant maternal figure if ever there was one – inducts Tom into the cult. With that accomplished, the rest of the film is a series of violent action set pieces, involving the ritualistic suicide of the gang members and their almost immediate resurrection, in which supermarkets are ransacked, innocent pedestrians are mowed down, and general mayhem ensues.

But that’s just for openers. Like so many motion picture motorcycle gangs before them, Tom has bigger plans, and wants to embark upon a campaign of wholesale violence, murdering policemen, judges, teachers, any authority figure that might hamper the gang’s activities. At this juncture, Tom’s mother and Shadwell intervene to put a halt to Tom’s grandiose scheme, in a manner that’s both bizarre and apparently quite effective.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; a real cult classic.

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.

Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae to Host Spirit Awards

Monday, December 5th, 2016

The 2017 Spirit Awards are much more interesting than the annual Oscar race.

As Matt Warren reports on the Film Independent website, “if it wasn’t already obvious from its beachfront locale (bring your swimsuit!) or avant garde approach to red carpet fashion (that psychedelic cowboy-hat-and-poncho combo is just fine by us), you should know by now that the Film Independent Spirit Awards are not your typical awards show.

The purpose of the Spirit Awards isn’t to anoint individual filmmakers or performers and elevate them into some sort of untouchable, aristocratic fraternity of Hollywood bigwigs—it’s to celebrate independent moviemaking as a whole.

It’s beyond cliché at this point to observe that film is a collaborative exercise, one that brings an entire micro-community of likeminded artists together to create something new and unique. So really, “community” is the key watchword here—and what better way for likeminded communities to celebrate each other’s work than to break bread together. Or, in this case, breakfast burritos.

The actual 2017 Spirit Awards ceremony won’t drop until February 25, but on Saturday, January 9 this year’s honorees will once again gather for Film Independent’s annual Nominee Brunch in West Hollywood in order to toast the past 12 months in independent film (and perhaps sip one too many mimosas) and watch as Brunch co-hosts Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae take the stage to award a trio of filmmaker grants: the Piaget Producers Award, the Truer Than Fiction Award and the Kiehl’s Someone to Watch Award.

And if that wasn’t enough, the Sprit Awards have announced that the great David Oyelowo as the honorary chair of the 2017 awards, as announced by Film Independent President Josh Welsh. Need a quick refresher about who the 2017 Film Independent Spirit Award nominees actually are? Check out our Nominee page here, or watch last week’s press conference announcement, featuring Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) and Edgar Ramirez (Carlos).

As for this year’s Brunch co-hosts, Welsh said, ‘Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae are two of the most captivating and talented actors working today…we’re so happy to have them host our Spirit Awards brunch.’

Sterling K. Brown rose to fame in 2016 with his jaw-dropping portrayal of Christopher Darden in the FX phenomenon The People vs. O.J. Simpson. He currently stars on the hit NBC drama This is Us. Rae—who joined us at the LA Film Festival “Diversity Speaks” panel in June (click here for a full recap)—is the creator and star of HBO’s critically acclaimed dramedy Insecure, which recently wrapped its first season. The show is an adaptation of Rae’s popular web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which you can find here.

Two actors of enormous depth who have both been involved in projects exploring, with nuance and sophistication, the complexities of African American life in the 2oth and 21st centuries, Rae and Brown are in good company with Oyelowo, widely acclaimed for his performances in films including Middle of Nowhere (for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Male Spirit Award in 2013) and Selma (nominated for Best Male Lead, 2015). Past Spirit Award Honorary Chairs have included Jessica Chastain, Kerry Washington, Benicio del Toro and Jodie Foster, among others.”

Not to be missed. Click here, or on the image above for a video.

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.

In The National News

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.

RSS Recent Frame by Frame Videos