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Nicholas Musuraca, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

L to R: Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum, Jacques Tourneur, and Nicholas Musuraca on the set of Out of The Past.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I have a new book coming out in a month or so, entitled Black & White Cinema: A Short History. Writing the book was a tremendously difficult task, and I also had to cut a lot of interesting “sidebar” material that I would have liked to include to keep it at a more reasonable length. In my section on Nicholas Musuraca, one of the greatest of all Hollywood cinematographers, especially in his black and white work, I had to omit most of a fascinating 1941 interview with the cinematographer for reasons of space, so, in the run up to the book’s publication, I’m going to offer in this blog some sections on various cinematographers that aren’t in the final version of the text. Nick Musuraca seemed like an ideal place to begin.

As I wrote in the first draft of the book, “Musuraca was a major figure in the 1940s in Hollywood, whose visual style is instantly recognizable over a wide range of films, in a career that spanned more than four decades worth of work. Although he was deeply secretive about his personal life, even with his colleagues (a brief item in American Cinematographer from February, 1941, notes that “trade-papers report Nick Musuraca, A.S.C., secretly married early last month. If it’s so — congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Nick!”) at least some of his trade secrets have come down to us through second-hand sources, and at least one interview, conducted by Walter Blanchard. This is the period in which Musuraca did his best work, the work for which he is remembered, but what is truly astonishing is how much work he did, and despite his noir typing, how many different styles of cinematography he embraced.

One of his finest efforts was his cinematography on Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), considered by many to be one of the first noir thrillers ever made, with perpetual tough guy Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey, a former private investigator who now runs a gas station in Bridgeport, California, in a futile attempt to escape his shadowy past. But when smooth crime boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, in one of his earliest roles) asks him to find his “girlfriend” Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who has absconded with $40,000 of Whit’s money, things just get more complex from there, and soon Jeff is smitten with Kathie, and smooth talked into betraying Whit, and, of course, as in any true noir, everything ends very badly.

As George Turner noted of the film, “Out of the Past was generously financed and shot in 64 working days (an unusually long schedule at the time), mostly on the sound stages at RKO’s Hollywood studio and the Pathe lot in Culver City, [with] extensive location scenes with several of the principals made in the Lake Tahoe area on the California-Nevada boundary and second unit work from Acapulco, New York and San Francisco…The picture united for the third and final time one of the most remarkable director-cinematographer teams the industry has produced: Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Musuraca.

Tourneur, husky but mild-mannered, was usually relaxed and seemingly devoid of temperament on the set, always keeping his actors at their ease and relying heavily upon Musuraca’s know-how to produce the combination of mystery and visual beauty essential to these films. He did not agree with the cinematic convention that heavy drama must be lit in a low key, comedy in high key, and romance in soft focus, but that the style should be determined by the logic of the scene.

‘For example, a vast amount of real-life drama occurs in hospitals, and a modern hospital isn’t by any means a somber appearing place,’ he pointed out. ‘Everything is light-colored and glistening; what’s more, everything is pretty well illuminated — trust these medical men to see to it that there’s enough illumination everywhere to prevent eyestrain. So why should we always have things somber and gloomy when…we try to portray sad or tragic action in a hospital?’

‘In the same way, if there’s no logical reason for it, why should comedy always be lit in a high key? Sometimes your action may really demand low-key effects to put it over…all too often we’re all of us [i.e., Musuraca’s A.S.C. colleagues] likely to find ourselves throwing in an extra light here, and another there, simply to correct something which is a bit wrong because of the way one basic lamp is placed or adjusted…If, on the other hand, that one original lamp is in its really correct place and adjustment, the others aren’t needed. Any time I find myself using a more than ordinary number of light sources for a scene, I try to stop and think it out. Nine times out of ten I’ll find I’ve slipped up somewhere, and the extra lights are really unnecessary.’”

Click here, or on the image above,  for a great clip from Out of The Past.

Musuraca had a clearly defined strategy in his classical 1940s work, and the uncanny ability to size up any scene and discern almost immediately precisely what tools he would need to effectively present the desired image on the screen — and Musuraca brought this same instinct for simplicity to his exterior work, as well.  As he told Walter Blanchard in 1941,

‘The same [technique of simplicity] applies to making exterior scenes. One of the commonest sources of unnecessary complication is in overdoing filtering. Just because the research scientists have evolved a range of several score filters of different colors and densities isn’t by any means a reason that we’ve got to use them — or even burden ourselves down with them! On my own part, I’ve always found that the simplest filtering is the best. Give me a good yellow filter, for mild correction effects, and a good red or red-orange one for heavier corrections, and I’ll guarantee to bring you back almost any sort of exterior effects (other than night scenes) that you’ll need in the average production.

And by the way — when in doubt about filtering — don’t. Nine times out of ten you’re better off that way, especially if there are people in the scene. The best example of misdirected enthusiasm for filtering is in making snow-scenes. I remember a while back I was on location doing some such scenes. As we approached our first set-up, my crew came to me and asked what filter they were to use. When I told them none, they couldn’t believe me. Everyone used some sort of filter in the snow! But what have you really got to filter? Your snow will render as an extreme white, no matter what you do. The evergreens, trees, rocks and so on will come out good and dark. You’re going to have extreme contrast no matter what you do. Under these conditions the sky automatically will take its proper place in rendering a pleasing picture. So why filter?

Filter to control that contrast, you say? I don’t agree. Most filters tend to increase contrast; in snow, even a Neutral Density filter will do so, for while it may hold back the snow, it will also hold back the dark areas. My experience has been that the real secret of good snow scenes is correct exposure — correct exposure for whatever part of the scene is most important to your shot. Usually it will be the people, and especially their faces. Expose for them, and the rest of the shot is likely to be all right.

This works out in practice, too. On the occasion I mentioned, my crew couldn’t be persuaded that my decision not to use the filter was or could be correct. They were very polite about it, but I could just feel them thinking, ‘Poor old Nick — he’s a back-number!’ [i.e., “out of date”] So I told them to make one take filtering as they thought they should. The operative [cameraman] saw to it that that take was unmistakably marked ‘print’ in that day’s negative reports! He was the first man in the projection-room next day, too, when we ran the rushes.

All went well until his shot came on. It was off-balance and unbelievably contrasty. The director hit the ceiling, and the operative wished he could sink through the floor! Immediately after, the un-filtered scenes came on — and were perfect. Since then, that gang has been a whole lot less ready to suggest using filters except where they were demonstrably necessary!’”

Black & White Cinema: A Short History will be out shortly; more “trims” coming soon.

Out of the Past

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

When RKO Radio unwisely decided to separate producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur after their success with Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, Lewton continued on with protégés Mark Robson and Robert Wise, but Tourneur struggled for awhile until he had a crack at a true “A” production, the noir classic Out of the Past.

Robert Mitchum toplines as Jeff Bailey, whose entire life seems one unending series of bad breaks; Jane Greer stars as Kathy, who makes sure Jeff never has the hope of an even chance; and Kirk Douglas, at his most memorably slimy as the syndicate boss Whit, keeps Jeff firmly under his thumb.

The rich black and white cinematography by the great Nick Musuraca and typically high gloss RKO production values make this one of the most complex and satisfying of all 40s noirs; those who have never seen it should make it their business to see it immediately.

Here’s a detailed essay on the film by Tim Dirks.

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 wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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