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Floyd Crosby, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

Director Fred Zinnemann (seated); DP Floyd Crosby standing (with glasses); and star Gary Cooper on the set of High Noon.

My new book, Black and White Cinema: A Short History, is coming out in a few weeks – I already have the advance proof copy – and Amazon has listed their official release date as September 17th; it goes to press on September 4th. I’m really happy with the finished project, but as with my entry on Nick Musuraca earlier in this blog, there were sections of my original text that had to be cut for reasons of space.

So here’s some additional material on the great cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and the long, often odd trajectory of his distinguished career.

As I wrote in the original draft of the book, “Floyd Crosby was another master of black and white cinematography, who early on in his career served as an assistant of sorts on W. S. Van Dyke’s and Robert Flaherty’s White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). But as Crosby told historian Mark Langer, ‘when Flaherty went down there [Tahiti], it was supposed to be a co-direction, but he didn’t direct any of it. Van Dyke directed it all. But I went down there and got a job, just as an assistant cameraman.

I was there, I think, three months, and then Flaherty left, and I came back when he did…Flaherty had no idea of how to direct a story film. All his work had been with documentaries, where he’d tell the natives to go fishing or do something he didn’t already know, and then he’d photograph it. He’d never done any story direction and this was a story picture and he was completely lost in it. Van Dyke did the whole thing.’

Van Dyke was known as a tough, no-nonsense director, commonly referred to as ‘One Take Woody’ for his speed and proficiency on the set, and as with many of the key directors of the 1930s, his career stretched back to the silent days, with The Land of Long Shadows (1917), and in the early sound era, by the astonishing accomplishment of Trader Horn (1931), shot on location in Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in synchronized sound, using an enormous crew, and the talents of Clyde De Vinna as cinematographer.

[De Vinna, who was the principal cameraman on White Shadows on the South Seas, took advantage of the opportunity to shoot literally miles of 'second unit' footage of native dancers, ceremonies, and everyday life for later use as stock footage in other productions, and indeed, the Trader Horn materials shot by De Vinna informed the spectatorial vision of Africa for more than thirty years, endlessly recycled in numerous 'jungle' films, and in the 1950s, such television series as Ramar of the Jungle (1952-1954)].

For his next project, Crosby worked on F. W. Murnau’s and Robert Flaherty’s Tabu (1931), but again, the collaboration was uneasy at best. As Crosby put it, when they arrived on location in Bora Bora, Flaherty rapidly demonstrated that he had no idea how to create a fiction film. As Crosby told Mark Langer, ‘the trouble was this. The idea that it was to be a co-production, and to be co-directed.

But when they got down [to the location], there was the same old story, that Flaherty couldn’t direct and Murnau was an expert, so Murnau was directing. In fact, he said to me one day, “My, I wish Flaherty could direct.” He said, “I’m sick. I don’t feel like working for a few days, but we can’t stop, and I wish Flaherty could take over.” But he knew he couldn’t. And Flaherty was upset because Murnau took over the picture.

Murnau was a great director, you know, and he was a very interesting workman, but personally had all kinds of problems. He was an arrogant person — and he and Flaherty hated each other. At least Flaherty hated him. Flaherty used to three times a day tell me how much he hated Murnau… At the end of the picture, Murnau had some titles made and asked me to shoot them.

One of the titles was “And at the camera — Crosby.” I said, “This is not the correct credit. The credit is Photographed by . . .” He said, “You won’t shoot it then?” And I said, “No. I won’t shoot it.” So we were hardly speaking after that. Then, of course, when Paramount made the titles, they gave me the correct credits.’

Floyd Crosby on the set of Tabu, behind the camera.

Despite all of this friction, the finished film is an evocative, deeply romantic and ineffably tragic work, which not only won Crosby the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, but also was selected by the National Board of Review as one of the Top Ten Films of 1931, and, in 1994, chosen by the National Film Preservation Board for the National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically [and] aesthetically significant.’

In Crosby’s laconic reckoning of Tabu’s success, he told Langer that ‘…it came out well enough to get the Academy Award. It was a little uneven, I must admit. And you know, this was before the days of exposure meters, and one day Flaherty was developing some film and we were talking outside and we forgot about it. The film was ten minutes in a three and a half minute developer. So we had to shoot that over again, you know.’

And for Flaherty, Crosby maintained a certain measure of respect, as opposed to his feelings on working with Murnau. As he told Langer, ‘I learned things. They weren’t things that I was particularly able to use, but the good thing about [Flaherty] was that he would make a good documentary without trying to louse it up by bringing in a lot of other things to make excitement, that had no business in the picture.

You know, so many people go out to make a documentary, who want to make something that’s going to sell, so they try to bring in some Hollywood elements of excitement, and it ceases to be a really true documentary. Well, he didn’t do that in his films. He was honest about them.’

Crosby went on to shoot a series of documentaries in the 1930s, such as Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931), often cited as one of the first sync sound documentaries, shot in Mato Grosso, Brazil; Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936); Joris Iven’s The Power and the Land (1940), as well as working on Orson Welles’ aborted semi-documentary It’s All True (1942), with cinematographers Joe Noreigo, Joseph Biroc, William Howard Greene, Harry J. Wild, and George Fanto; the film was shelved, and the materials vaulted for fifty years, before the production emerged in a reconstructed version in 1993; Crosby photographed the ‘My Friend Benito’ sequence of the film, which was actually directed by Welles’s associate Norman Foster.

Crosby on location for Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness

In his later work, one of Crosby’s most impressive achievements was his parched, unadorned work on director Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which, ironically, led back to Crosby’s work with Flaherty, as Zinnemann had a strong affinity for Flaherty’s work, along with a personal connection to the director. As Zinnemann told Brian Neve,

‘Flaherty wrote me a letter of introduction in 1931, and as a result I got a job at Goldwyn. He influenced me in every possible way, not only technically, but also in what I learnt from him by being his assistant, his whole spirit of being his own man, of being independent of the general spirit of Hollywood, to the point where he didn’t worry about working there.

That’s probably why he made only five or six pictures in his life. But he influenced me in his whole way of approaching the documentary, which he really initiated with films like Nanook of the North. I learned from Flaherty to be rather uncompromising an to defend what I wanted to say, and not let someone else mix it up. He had the true feeling of a documentary director — he took life as it was. This influenced me enormously because I found myself almost subconsciously following his style in films like High Noon …’

And so, when Zinnemann shot High Noon, he argued that, ‘if you want to make a picture like High Noon, and you want to make it feel like the world felt in the days of the Civil War in America, that kind of gritty, dusty feeling, you had to get a cameraman who knew how to handle that, like Floyd Crosby,’ with the result that the film had a cinematographic style very different from other films of the period.

As Zinnemann noted in another interview on High Noon with historian Alan Marcus, ‘I wanted to organize High Noon in the way a documentary would have been made at that time when the action happened. Except that in the 1880s there was no such thing as motion pictures. So that in using the style, the cameraman Floyd Crosby and I studied very carefully contemporary still photography, particularly the photographs of Mr. Lincoln’s [still] cameraman [Matthew Brady] who photographed parts of the Civil War in America.

That meant that we used a grainy kind of print, deliberately grainy and flat, with a very white sky, instead of a dark sky with pretty clouds on it. So, it reasonably looks a bit like photography of that period and gives it a feeling of being authentic, which was not the usual method at all at the time when this film was made.’

A superb setup by Crosby from High Noon ; Will Kane alone, deserted by the townspeople.

The completed film won four Academy Awards — Best Actor (Gary Cooper), Best Film Editing (Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad — this is a whole story in itself, as Elmo Williams’ near ‘real time’ — actually slightly stretched out, rather than strictly accurate — editing of the final cut of the film considerably tightened up the flow of the narrative), and Best Music and Best Original Song for Dimitri Tiomkin.

For his part, Floyd Crosby won a Golden Globe for his work on High Noon, and though the film was generally well-received critically, it infuriated the more politically conservative members of the Hollywood community. With its script, by Carl Foreman, depicting the craven, cowardly members of a small Western town refusing to help the town’s marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), when his arch nemesis Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), whom Kane has sent to prison, comes back explicitly to kill Kane, High Noon painted a deeply unflattering picture of American society, and was widely seen as a political allegory, commenting on the Hollywood Blacklist of the era.

As a result of this, the film’s scenarist Carl Foreman was blacklisted himself, and Floyd Crosby, as a sort of ‘collateral damage’ to the entire affair, found himself “grey listed” — not officially on the blacklist, but definitely out of favor.Out of this, however, came the final, blazingly brilliant act of Crosby’s career, a long alliance with legendary director Roger Corman, starting with the six day Western Five Guns West in 1955.

Rather than looking down on Corman’s output, Crosby became Corman’s most prolific cinematographer, lensing everything from the stark, black and white imagery of Reform School Girl and Teenage Doll — with one ‘A’ assignment in between, John Sturges’ and Henry King’s production of The Old Man and the Sea, based on Hemingway’s novel, photographed by Crosby and James Wong Howe — before slickly moving into color work for Corman on House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961), along with many other films for the director.

For his part, Crosby observed that – much to his surprise -  he didn’t have to tell Corman as much about how to direct as with some of the other helmers he’d worked with in his career; and as Corman told historian Lawrence French of working with Crosby, and of Crosby’s unjust treatment at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the early 1950s, working with Crosby was both practical and delightful:

‘Floyd was certainly not a communist, but during the fifties, some studios did not like him. However, that meant nothing to me. I used him simply because he was a good cameraman. I remember Floyd talking about that, and saying it was somewhat ironic that his patriotism should come under questioning, after he had served in the Army Air Corps command during World War II as a Captain, working with [the pioneering documentary filmmaker] Pare Lorentz on combat documentaries and winning citations for bravery. Floyd was really a great gentleman and a brilliant cameraman.

Crosby lights Barbara Steele on the set of Corman’s The Pit and The Pendulum

I went on to use him for my first film as a director, Five Guns West, and he was probably the best cameraman I ever worked with. He was quick, efficient and gave me the kind of quality that you would normally associate with much bigger studio films. We got along very well, and although he was somewhat older than I was, we became very good friends and I had great respect for him and for his work.

It’s not that difficult to get a good cameraman if the cameraman has hours to set up each shot. It’s not difficult to get a cameraman who works quickly. He just sets up a few lights, and says he’s ready to shoot. But to get somebody to work quickly and does fine work is very unusual. [Crosby could do that].’”

Floyd Crosby, another master of the black and white cinema.

J.K. Simmons on Whiplash (2014)

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Here’s a brief but excellent interview with J.K. Simmons on his new film Whiplash.

Whiplash is being praised as one of the best films of 2014, and while I think it’s a long way from that, what really does redeem the film – which is yet another version of The Red Shoes – is J.K. Simmons’ performance as a ruthless teacher driving a gifted student to the breaking point in the pursuit of “perfection.”  Simmons has been a deeply underrated actor for a long time now, working in numerous commercials, the Law & Order franchise, and many other supporting roles. Like any truly great actor, he makes all of this seem effortless – you instinctively believe him, whether he’s playing a police psychologist, or a rabid neo-Nazi, or the gentle pitchman in the Farmers Insurance advertisements. In Whiplash, he has his first chance to stretch out and tackle a really big part, and the shocker for me is that he’s being considered only as Best Supporting Actor in the upcoming Oscar derby; he’s really the star of the film.

Of course, as a journeyman professional, who’s seen and done so much work in his career, Simmons would modestly refute this, but it’s nevertheless true – the film simply would not work without him. Perhaps someone with the range of Stanley Tucci might be able to tackle it, but consider what would happen if someone specializing in traditional bombast had taken the role – it just wouldn’t be as effective. And yet in Simmons’ capable hands, a truly monstrous music teacher becomes both real and genuinely frightening, with depth and resonance, rather than delivering just a one-note performance. So this film is really worth seeing chiefly because Simmons is in it; and he should certainly win the Best Supporting Oscar, whatever that means, for his work in Whiplash – but mind you, he’s the star of the film, and not a supporting player.

Click here, or on the image above, to listen to Simmons’ thoughts on the film.

Jean-Claude Carrière To Receive Honorary Oscar 11/8/14

Saturday, November 8th, 2014

Jean-Claude Carrière will receive a much deserved, much overdue Academy Award for his work tonight.

As Kevin Noonan reported in Variety, “Jean-Claude Carrière will receive an Honorary Oscar at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Governors Awards Saturday, a feather in the cap of a nearly 60-year screenwriting career — but most certainly not an actual cap to it, he says. Known for his numerous collaborations with Luis Buñuel, including co-writing films such as Belle De Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Milky Way, the French screenwriter earned a reputation for crafting and adapting surreal, seemingly impossible projects. That reputation culminated in his work with English theater and film director Peter Brook to create a nine-hour stage version in 1985 and five-hour film adaptation in 1989 of the epic Sanskrit poem The Mahabharata. Already an Oscar winner for his 1962 short Heureux Anniversaire, Carrière [had these thoughts] his long career, working with Buñuel, and not knowing what an Oscar was.

As Carrière told Noonan, in part, “it’s a good encouragement for the thirty years to come. I’m 83, it’s something that I’m very happy to receive and proud, anybody would be. But I hope it will not announce the end of my working life, you know what I mean? That I keep working and writing. What I’m just doing right now, I’m in a hotel room and I’m writing a script [. . .] I’ve been gratified with good health, and since I was a kid, an intense desire for working. I’m a hard worker.

I’m very, very often alone in my room thinking, writing, correcting. I don’t know what it is. I love my job, maybe that’s the main reason. First of all, you need to have some success at one point. If not, you’ll be desperate and you’ll give up. From time to time, every three times you need a success, and then it gives you a real joy and you will enjoy working. Right now, what I’m doing alone a hotel room, far from my family, from my friends, I enjoy it very much. That’s all I can say. Enjoy working. And don’t smoke. You can drink a little bit, from time to time.

. . . A screenwriter is not a writer. He’s already a filmmaker. Of course, he better know how to write. But he’s not going to write a literary novel or piece of literature. What he must know at every moment when he writes a script, what I’m doing now, he must know how it’s going to be shot, how it will last, and maybe how it will cost. He mustn’t be attached to his words. He knows the script is the first form of a film, the first approach. And here in a hotel room, I have no camera, no lighting, no sound recorder, nothing. I’m just alone with my computer. And I have to know precisely the techniques of the filmmaking.

When I’m working with the director, if the director starts talking to me about technique and I cannot answer, he doesn’t need me. That’s why I’ve been an assistant, I’ve been working with the camera … and also I have done a lot of editing. That’s absolutely essential for a screenwriting. You mustn’t approach the film itself as a playwright or a novelist, but as a filmmaker. And I’m very happy about this Oscar, already almost five or six of my screenwriter colleagues, they called me to say how happy and proud that for once a screenwriter is awarded.”

You can read Noonan’s entire interview with Jean-Claude Carrière by clicking here, or on the image above.

Going Out On A Limb

Monday, January 13th, 2014

With the Academy Award nominations not even out yet, here are some very early thoughts.

Since Saving Mr. Banks, Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis all struck out at the Golden Globes, that’s a pretty good sign that they won’t do well during Oscar season, either. So, a few Oscar thoughts, admittedly much too early: Twelve Years a Slave for Best Picture; Alfonso Cuaron for Best Director for Gravity, though I don’t agree, but that’s my feeling, though American Hustle and Twelve Years A Slave both have a good shot; Cate Blanchett for Best Actress for her shattering work in Blue Jasmine; Best Actor a tossup between Bruce Dern for Nebraska – he’s campaigning for it pretty hard — Robert Redford for All is Lost, or my choice, Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, but Dern may win as a sentimental favorite, and also for a lifetime of work that has been largely under appreciated; Jared Leto for Supporting Actor for his work as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, which is richly deserved; Frozen to win for Best Animated Feature Film, which is absolutely no surprise; and that’s as far as I’m going to go.

I mean, limbs only go out so far.

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Luis Buñuel Gets An Academy Award

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Wearing a blond wig and some serious shades, Luis Buñuel poses with the Academy Award for his film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

As Wikipedia notes, “After having announced that Tristana would be his last film due to feeling like he was repeating himself, Buñuel met with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and discussed the topic of repetition. Shortly afterwards he met with film producer Serge Silberman, who told him an anecdote about having forgotten about a dinner party and being surprised to find six hungry friends show up at his front door. Buñuel was suddenly inspired and Silberman agreed to give him a $2,000 advance to write a new script with Carrière, combining Silberman’s anecdote with the idea of repetition. Buñuel and Carrière wrote the first draft in three weeks and finished the fifth draft by the Summer of 1971, with the title originally being Bourgeois Enchantment. Silberman was finally able to raise the money for the film in April 1972 and Buñuel began pre-production.

Buñuel cast many actors whom he had worked with in the past, such as Fernando Rey and Michel Piccoli, and catered their roles to their personalities. He had more difficulty casting the female leads and allowed actresses Delphine Seyrig and Stéphane Audran to choose which parts they would like to play, before changing the script to better suit them. Jean-Pierre Cassel auditioned for his role and was surprised when Buñuel cast him after simply glancing at him once.

Filming began on May 15, 1972 and lasted for two months with an $800,000 budget. In his usual shooting style, Buñuel shot few takes and often edited the film in camera and during production. On the advice of Silberman, Buñuel used video playback monitors on the set for the first time in his career, resulting in a vastly different style than any of his previous films, including zooms and tracking shots instead of his usual close-ups and static camera framing.

This also resulted in Buñuel being more comfortable on set, and in limiting his already minimal direction to technical and physical instructions. This frustrated Cassel, who had never worked with Buñuel before, until Rey explained that this was Buñuel’s usual style and that since they were playing aristrocrats their movements and physical appreance was more important than their inner motivation.

Buñuel once joked that whenever he needed an extra scene he simply filmed one of his own dreams. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie includes three of Buñuel’s recurring dreams: a dream of being on stage and forgetting his lines, a dream of meeting his dead cousin in the street and following him into a house full of cobwebs, and a dream of waking up to see his dead parents staring at him.

The film was both a box office hit in Europe and the US, and critically praised, yet Buñuel later said that he was disappointed with the analysis that most film critics made of the film. He also disliked the film’s promotional poster, depicting a pair of lips with legs and a derby hat. Buñuel and Silberman traveled to the US in late 1972 to promote the film. However, Buñuel did not attend his own press screening in Los Angeles and told a reporter at Newsweek that his favorite characters in the film were the cockroaches.

George Cukor Hosts a lunch for Luis Buñuel. Back Row from left: Robert Mulligan, William Wyler, George Cukor, Robert Wise, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Serge Silberman. Front Row from left: Billy Wilder, George Stevens, Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock, and Rouben Mamoulian.

While visiting Los Angeles, Buñuel, Carrière and Silberman were invited to a lunch party by Buñuel’s old friend George Cukor, and other guests included Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, George Stevens, Rouben Mamoulian, John Ford, William Wyler, Robert Mulligan and Robert Wise (resulting in a famous photograph of the directors together, other than an ailing Ford). Fritz Lang was unable to attend, but Buñuel visited him the following day and received an autographed photo from Lang, one of his favorite directors.

Sensing that he had a special film, Silberman decided not to wait until May to premiere the film at the Cannes Film Festival and instead released it in the fall of 1972 specifically to make it eligible for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Buñuel was famously indifferent to awards and jokingly told a reporter that he had already paid $25,000 in order to win the Oscar. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and Silberman accepted on Buñuel’s behalf at the ceremony. At the Academy’s request, Buñuel later posed for a photograph while holding the Oscar, wearing a blond wig and oversized sunglasses.”

The one, the only Luis Buñuel. Click here for a remembrance of Buñuel’s last days by his long time friend and scenarist, Jean-Claude Carrière.

About the Author

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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