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Archive for the ‘Film Noir’ Category

Watch It For Free – Steve Sekely’s Hollow Triumph (1948)

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

“First comes you, second comes you, third comes you, and then comes you.”

That’s perhaps the key line in this vicious little film noir from Hungarian director Steve Sekely, who was forced out of his native land by the Nazis, and landed in Hollywood with enormous skill but few connections, and so labored in the 1940s at the minor studios, such as Eagle-Lion (formerly PRC) which produced Hollow Triumph (aka The Scar) as a semi-prestige film. He’s much underrated, and this is a film that proves it.

In the scene above, smooth and over-confident con man John Muller (Paul Henreid), smoking a cigarette, is getting a pep talk from his law-abiding brother Frederick (the always reliable Eduard Franz) on the need to “go straight” after a stint in prison, but as you might expect, John is having none of it.

A college dropout who was headed for an MD, John Muller abruptly quit in his sixth year of studies, and embarked on a run of criminal behavior; practicing medicine without a license, selling shares in non-existent oil wells, until he inevitably got caught. Intriguingly, there’s never any reason given for this abrupt decision – it’s just another mystery in a world without explanations. Somehow, John was always destined to be a criminal.

Now, fresh out of jail, John can’t wait to pull a really big job – knocking over a casino run by mobster Rocky Stansyck (Thomas Brown Henry, another excellent character actor). His pals try to tell him that it’s a lose – lose proposition; Stansyck is notorious for killing anyone who tries to cross him. But John persuades – or threatens – his associates until they play along, and then, of course, the robbery goes wrong.

But in a rather unusual twist, John finds the perfect place to hide in plain sight – as the respected psychologist Dr. Muller, who just happens to be a dead ringer for him, except for scar on his left cheek – or is it his right cheek? One has to be careful about such things. It’s the small details that count. And therein hangs a compelling tale of murder, double-cross, revenge and duplicity.

Joan Bennett – another excellent actor somewhat down on her luck in the late 1940s – is the nominal “love” interest in the film as Evelyn Hahn, but as the line underneath the photo above attests, she quickly sums up John as a hopeless egotist, bound for self-destruction. However, being a noir icon, Joan somehow can’t resist going along for the ride – much to her regret.

As John tells Evelyn early on in the film, “it’s a bitter little world full of sad surprises, and you don’t let anyone hurt you.” But that’s what everyone in this film is destined for – a world of hurt and disappointment. Superbly photographed by the gifted John Alton on a shoestring budget, Hollow Triumph long ago fell into the Public Domain – so now you see it here, for free.

Hollow Triumph – a sharp, slick little film – well worth the time to check it out.

Classic Thriller Portrait of Alison – See It Here For Free

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Here’s an excellent little thriller; a tight, compact 77 minutes – see it for free, here.

As Wikipedia succinctly notes,Portrait of Alison is a 1956 British atmospheric crime film directed by Guy Green. It was based on a BBC television series Portrait of Alison which aired the same year. In the United States the film was released as Postmark for Danger.

The film opens with a car plunging over a cliff in Italy. The killed driver is newspaperman Lewis Forrester. The woman with him is supposedly Alison Ford, an actress. But she wasn’t actually in the car and turns up later in England to try and solve what was in truth a murder to shut the newspaper man up, not an accident. She solicits the help of Forrester’s brother, Tim, an artist.

Then, as the story unfolds, a number of mysterious, unsolved questions keep emerging, along with two more murders and a suicide. And before it’s over it has been learned that an international ring of diamond thieves is at the bottom of everything, that no less than four of the major characters are part of it, and that an independent blackmailer is at work as well.”

Filled with superb British character actors such as William Sylvester, who much later got the role of a lifetime in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, as well as Geoffrey Keen, Josephine Griffin, the eternally shady William Lucas as a larcenous used car dealer, and American star Terry Moore brought over for marquee value, Postmark for Danger is a sharp, taut little thriller than will keep you guessing to the very end.

And the best thing about it? You can see it for free by clicking here, or on the image above.

Happy Birthday Howard Hawks!!

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

Director Howard Hawks and star Angie Dickinson on the set of Rio Bravo (1959).

Howard Hawks, one of the most famous and revered multi-genre directors of all time, was born on this date in 1896. As Oliver Lyttelton noted in Indiewire back in 2012, “Howard Hawks was one of the first, and one of the best. Across a 55-year career that spanned silents and talkies, black-and-white and color, Hawks tackled virtually every genre under the sun, often turning out films that still stand as among the best in that style. Romantic comedy? Two of the finest ever. War? To Have And Have Not and Sergeant York [to name just two films] the latter of which won him his only Best Director Academy Award nomination (though he did win an Honorary Award in 1975, two years before his death).

Science-fiction? The much ripped-off The Thing From Another World [officially credited to Christian Nyby, Hawks’ editor for many years, but actually directed by Hawks]. Gangster movies? Scarface, which practically invented a whole genre. From film noir and melodrama to Westerns and musicals, Hawks took them all in his stride. [Hawks] famously said that the secret to a good movie was ‘three great scenes and no bad ones,’ and he hit that target many times.”

Here’s an interesting site that celebrates his work, in great detail, as we consider the career of an artist who was comfortable with westerns, comedies, straight drama, film noir, even historical spectacle films. Check it out here, and consider the career of a director who could do it all, and make it look easy in the process. There aren’t many directors who ever matched Hawks’ versatility and drive, and he worked with all the greats, from actors like Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant to writers like William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. Here’s to a person you should know more about: Howard Hawks.

Howard Hawks – one of the absolute giants of Hollywood history.

Wally Wood’s 22 Frames That Always Work

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

Click here, or on the image above, to see 22 great ways to design and set up a shot for maximum impact.

Wally Wood was one of the most talented comic artists of all time – and he left behind this invaluable guide to designing shots for maximum impact with speed and efficiency. Anne Lukeman and some of her friends put together this brief tutorial on the 22 shots, how they’re designed, and what they accomplish.

As Wikipedia notes, “Wood struggled to be as efficient as possible in the often low-paying comics industry. Over time he created a series of layout techniques sketched on pieces of paper which he taped up near his drawing table. These ‘visual notes,’ collected on three pages, reminded Wood (and select assistants he showed the pages to) of various layouts and compositional techniques to keep his pages dynamic and interesting . . .

Around 1981, Wood’s ex-assistant Larry Hama, by then an editor at Marvel Comics, pasted up photocopies of Wood’s drawings on a single page, which Hama titled ‘Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work!!’ (It was subtitled, ‘Or some interesting ways to get some variety into those boring panels where some dumb writer has a bunch of lame characters sitting around and talking for page after page!’)

Hama left out 2 of the original 24 panels as his photocopies were too faint to make out some of the lightest sketches. Hama distributed Wood’s ‘elegantly simple primer to basic storytelling’ to artists in the Marvel bullpen, who in turn passed them on to their friends and associates. Eventually, ’22 Panels’ made the rounds of just about every cartoonist or aspiring comic book artist in the industry and achieved its own iconic status.”

While these shots are designed for comic books and graphic novels, they have a nice film noir feel, and can easily be seen as setups used in numerous comic book films today. Wood’s no-nonsense design template has been handily transferred to live action by Lukeman, with live action figures demonstrating the usefulness of the various designs. As has been pointed out, the acting here is minimal, but as a tutorial, this is an extremely useful tool for both filmmakers and artists.

And yes, these 22 panels always do work – a tribute to Wood’s genius as an artist.

Leslie Reed on The New Book Series “Quick Takes”

Monday, March 13th, 2017

Our new Quick Takes series is taking off!

As Leslie Reed writes of our new book series in UNL Today, ” Quick Takes, a new series of short books on popular culture topics edited by University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon, launches March 17 with the publication of Disney Culture by John Wills and Zombie Cinema by Ian Olney. Foster and Dixon . . .will oversee at least 12 books in the series, to be published by Rutgers University Press over the next three years.

‘Gwendolyn and I think about interesting topics that people might want to know about, and then we find the top experts in the field to write about it,’ Dixon said. ‘It’s a bleeding-edge, major book series on pop culture.’

The Quick Takes books have been in the works for about two years. Loosely patterned after the British Film Institute’s Film Classics series, the Quick Takes books will range from 30,000 to 40,000 words, making them pocket-sized and readable in one sitting. Paperbacks and E-books will cost $17.95; cloth copies are priced at $65.

‘They’re free of jargon, direct and accessible,’ Dixon said. ‘We’re aiming at college kids, pop culture fiends and the general public.’ ‘These are topics that are really important in the 21st century,’ Foster said. ‘The series is designed to introduce them to the widest possible audience.’

The first two books have been well received by critics. In Disney Culture, Wills, director of American Studies at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, explores how Disney grew from a small animation studio to a global media giant. Critic Blair Davis describes Disney Culture as a ‘well written and thoroughly engaging overview’ of the Disney Empire.

Olney is an associate professor of English at York College of Pennsylvania, who received his doctoral degree in English and Film Studies from Nebraska. In Zombie Cinema, he explores why the genre has captured the imagination of 21st century audiences. Critic Stephen Prince said Zombie Cinema is a ‘zesty tour through an amazingly prolific and popular contemporary film cycle.’

Future volumes will feature rock-and-roll movies, action movies and comic-book movies, among other topics. Digital Music Videos by Steven Shaviro of Wayne State University in Detroit, and New African Cinema by Valérie K. Orlando of the University of Maryland are due to be released in April. The book series will be showcased at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies March 22-26 in Chicago.”

Thanks, Leslie, for an excellent overview of the series, which promises to be quite exciting.

Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (1952)

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet, based on a novel by director Samuel Fuller, is brilliant filmmaking.

So let’s get this out of the way right off the bat; I admire Samuel Fuller‘s work immensely, especially Underworld U.S.A. (1961), but in the final analysis, I think that Phil Karlson is a better filmmaker. Fuller was enormously talented, and a superb self-promoter, but while Fuller was making a name for himself, Karlson was simply hammering out one excellent film after another, without bothering too much to toot his own horn.

One result of this is that Scandal Sheet (1952), which is one of the toughest noirs ever made, never really got the attention it deserved, nor did it get Karlson a place in the pantheon of first-rate hardboiled filmmakers, an honor he clearly deserves. I never got the chance to speak with Karlson, who passed away before I could get in touch with him, but I did correspond with his late wife, Dixie, who confirmed that Karlson felt that he’d never really gotten the respect that he deserved – in part because Fuller, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, The Dark Page, went out of his way to slam Karlson’s work.

Somehow I think this says more about Fuller than Karlson, for Scandal Sheet is a remarkable film – one that really stands up today. As critic Michael Atkinson astutely observed, “Phil Karlson and Samuel Fuller’s Scandal Sheet (1952) exemplifies a certain strand of noir not the sweaty wrong-man-tripped-up-by-fate noirs (think Detour [1945], Somewhere in the Night [1946], Where Danger Lives [1950]), but the life-in-the-jungle noirs, dark elegies wherein citizens had to tough up to survive in modern urban sewers rife with impulse killing, squalor, crazed greed and moral desolation. Here, the systems themselves industry, community, the law, the mob, the press were rotten from the inside.

Karlson and Fuller were reigning warriors in this vein: director Karlson was a no-nonsense journeyman who with Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953) and The Phenix City Story (1955) perfected a confrontational, violent, subtlety-immune noir style in which the world, not merely the individuals stuck in it, seemed to be on the edge of social upheaval.

Fuller was, of course, Fuller, the most notorious idiosyncratic-pulpster of the postwar age, an unstoppable creative force whose particular view of the world was a vulgar, cynical mashup between first-hand realism (no American filmmaker knew the actualities of tabloid journalism, ground warfare and the criminal sector as well) and outrageous pop-cinema hyperbole.

Scandal Sheet, in any case, was not Fuller’s film. It was based on his hot-property novel The Dark Page, published in 1944 after Fuller had already defected from being a reporter to being a screenwriter, and while the young Fuller was fighting in Europe with the Big Red One. Still, it boils over with his storytelling energy and his signature reflex, the urge to discover, expressionistically, the painful, hard-boiled reality as he knew it within the movie universe of Golden Age Hollywood.

The set-up itself is nearly autobiographical: Fuller used to work on the New York Graphic, a screaming-mimi, truth-manipulating exploitative tabloid on Park Row that makes the contemporary New York Post look like The London Review of Books. (Fuller has described its editorial principle to be one of ‘creative exaggeration.’) It’s easy to see how Fuller’s own distinctive tale-telling style, visual and narrative, was formed by the daily creation of howling headlines, sensational fabrication and punchy, don’t-lose-the-reader prose.

In the film, Broderick Crawford‘s Mark Chapman is the New York Express‘s bulldog editor, pulling the daily out of its economic doldrums with lurid front pages and invented news; John Derek’s Steve McCleary is his amoral star reporter, the two of them heading a newsroom that has only Donna Reed’s Julie Allison to recommend it in the way of moral compunction and compassion. The thorny patter and amoral brio proceeds apace until Chapman is confronted at a publicity event by a middle-aged woman (Rosemary DeCamp), who immediately pegs him as ‘George,’ and summons an entire unwanted past that places Chapman’s present success in mysterious jeopardy.

Soon it’s made clear: she’s the unstable wife he abandoned years before, and now she will not be ignored – an ultimatum that leads, somewhat predictably, to a scuffle and her accidental death. From there, Chapman is all about covering his tracks, which as we all know simply creates more tracks, more corpses and more bad fortune.

Scandal Sheet is a fast-gabbing, meat-eating show [and is] expertly fashioned; Fuller was careful to make the tabloid mercenariness turn in on itself: McCleary is hot on the story, and despite his neck being in the noose Chapman must bait him on, because if he relents one iota from the Rupert Murdochian ethos that made him and the Express a hit, suspicion will fall on him like a safe from a window . . . [the film] scans today like a prescient indictment of media sensationalism, Murdoch’s and otherwise. ‘Thinking people,’ it is suggested, like Allison’s humane feature stories, ‘even if there aren’t many of them reading the Express anymore.’

Perhaps things haven’t changed in the American mediascape, we may speculate, but perhaps things have grown many times worse. The very idea of courting a ‘thinking’ newspaper reader today is ludicrous, as monopoly regulations have all but vanished, and only six corporations . . . own the vast majority of media outlets in the U.S., as compared to over 50 in 1983, and many hundreds in the 1950s. Fuller and Karlson had their ears to the ground in the mid-century, and however relevant it was in 1952, their movie feels like a prophecy come true.”

Atkinson is right on target. Seeing the film on a big screen in class today with a deeply enthusiastic group of students confirmed my high opinion of the film; Karlson’s camerawork, aided by DP Burnett Guffey, glides smoothly through the entirely amoral universe of Mark Chapman’s world.

The film absolutely brims with appropriately lurid details: a fast closeup of a would-be suicide’s wrists; a gallows-humored functionary who informs us that business at the local morgue is “dead, just dead,” a harrowing trip through the depths of the Bowery’s worst saloons; the endless tick of the clocks on the walls of the drab, grey newsrooms; an editing style that breathlessly propels the narrative to its doom-laden conclusion; and a gallery of first rate performances not only from Crawford, but also such old pros as Henry O’Neill, Harry Morgan, Rosemary De Camp, Cliff Work, and Pierre Watkin – to name just a few.

When it was made, Scandal Sheet was thrown away on double bills as just another piece of product from Harry Cohn’s prolific film factory, Columbia Pictures, even if it did have Academy Award winner Crawford (for All The King’s Men, 1949) in the leading role – but today, we can see it is much more than that. It’s a sharp, economical film, without an ounce of fat on it; indeed, Jerome Thomas’s editing is so sharp that one would be hard pressed to even remove a frame from the finished work.

It’s available on DVD as part of a box set of Samuel Fuller’s films (!!) – but no such set exists for Karlson, of course. That’s a shame, and it also isn’t right – towards the end of his life, Karlson made some junk, like the appalling Matt Helm films, but when the fever was upon him, he hit the mark every time.

Click here to read a great interview with Phil Karlson – then see the film.

Jean Renoir: A Biography by Pascal Mérigeau

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Now we have the definitive book on Jean Renoir, in a superb English translation.

As the Running Press, which has published Jean Renoir: A Biography in the United States notes of this excellent volume – clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages, but absolutely page-turning in its intensity and incredibly detailed research – “originally published in France in 2012, Pascal Mérigeau’s definitive biography of legendary film director Jean Renoir is a landmark work—the winner of a Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary achievement. Now available in the English language for the first time, Jean Renoir: A Biography, is the definitive study of one of the most fascinating and creative artistic figures of the twentieth century.

The French filmmaker made more than forty films from the silent era to the late ’60s and today he is revered by filmmakers and seen by many as one of the greatest of all time. Renoir made acclaimed movies in France, America, India, and Italy and became a writer during the last part of his life. Drawing from unpublished or little known sources, this biography is a completely fresh approach to the maker of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, redefining the very function of the movie director and simultaneously recounting the history of a century.”

Renoir was indeed one of the greatest of all filmmakers, noted for his humanism and his ability to move smoothly from one genre to another without a pause, as well as having a career not only in France, but in the United States in the 1940s at the now defunct studio RKO Radio Pictures, then journeying to India to make the first color film there, The River (1951), before returning to France in the 1950s to make a final group of masterpieces, and eventually settling in California before his death.

Mérigeau’s magisterial biography clearly surpasses all existing writing on Renoir, and it’s amazing that we had to wait four years for this remarkably deft translation by Bruce Benderson – and that the book is only available in paperback. Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) is routinely included in nearly every “ten best films of all time” list, but his other work, especially his work in America, clearly deserves more attention, which Mérigeau ably supplies.

While the publicity materials tout that fact that the book is supposedly the first to examine Renoir’s unfinished Hollywood film The Amazing Mrs. Holiday (1943) – which isn’t true; this has been common knowledge for quite some time – and also makes much of Renoir’s leftist work in France in the mid 1930s, for me the most intriguing sections came on such films as his American noir The Woman on the Beach (1947), which has long been known to have a troubled production history – yet Mérigeau has additional material on this film as well.

I had known that the finished film was sneak previewed to a teenage audience expecting an RKO musical or screwball comedy, and that the resultant debacle led to a savage recut of the film, but Mérigeau has unearthed the fact that the film was actually shot twice to appease both audiences and the censors – the original version, now lost; and the final version, with a different actor in a key role.

So, 2016 ended with a landmark volume on Robert Bresson, another giant of the cinema; now, in the opening days of 2017, we are given a superb – and smoothly translated – life of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, exploring not only his films, but also his life, and the way in which he viewed the human condition with both the greatest sympathy, as well as a sharply clinical eye.

This book is a must for anyone interested in the cinema – a major accomplishment.

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.

Dan Duryea – Heel With A Heart

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

One of Hollywood’s m0st enduring character actors finally has a solid biography.

Here’s an excellent, thoroughly researched biography by Mike Peros of one of Hollywood’s most memorable “heavies,” Dan Duryea, who introduced a new level of menace and cynicism to “noir” films starting in the mid 1940s, and continued on in a string of memorable roles in Ministry of Fear (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Black Angel (1946), Too Late for Tears (1949), and the brutal western Winchester ’73 (1950), usually top-billed as one of the main attractions of the film. As Peros makes clear, however, in real life Duryea was a dedicated family man with a long marriage, two sons, and was even the leader of a Boy Scout Troup in the 1950s, in sharp contrast to his ne’er-do-well on-screen image.

As the 1960s dawned, Duryea worked more in television and second features, but always brought an air of relaxed skill to all his roles.  The death of his wife Helen in 1967 hit Duryea hard, but he kept working – both out of financial necessity and dedication to his craft. Duryea’s final role was as the con man Eddie Jacks on the television series Peyton Place, in 60 episodes from 1967 to 1968, the year of his death. Though Duryea often felt limited by the parts he was offered, he lived to work, and kept delivering polished performances right up to the end of his life. Well illustrated, with a comprehensive filmography and a complete index, the book offers a detailed overview of a true Hollywood professional.

Long overdue, this is a book that aficionados of classical Hollywood will deeply appreciate.

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.

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.

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