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Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca
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,Out of the Past

Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca - 9/18 (Daytime)


You may not recognize the name, but you will probably recognize many of the images he captured in five decades of film and television work as a cinematographer and director of photography. Italian-born Nicholas Musuraca shaped the look and style of the films he photographed. Most importantly, he helped establish the iconic look and "feel" of film noir and producer Val Lewton's low-budget yet expressive horror movies. A colleague once called Musuraca "a painter with light."

Musuraca (1892-1975) was born in Riace, Italy, and his family emigrated to the U.S. in his childhood. He began working in cinematography during the silent era and, during the 1930s, emerged as one of the leading cameramen at RKO Radio Pictures. The fact that some of his major works gained high critical regard much later may have contributed to the relative obscurity of his name today.

Musuraca moved into television in the mid-1950s, joining Desilu Studios (which had taken over the RKO lot). Series for which he photographed episodes included The Barbara Stanwyck Show, The Lucy Show and F Troop. On September 18, TCM features some of Musuraca's best-known, pivotal films from his Hollywood heyday.

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), an RKO murder mystery, was perhaps Musuraca's most influential picture. It is generally considered to be the first true film noir, with Musuraca's deep-focus, high-contrast cinematography establishing the look of an entire genre that would soon follow. The film also set the shadowy, atmospheric look of much of the RKO output of the 1940s and '50s. Boris Ingster directs and Peter Lorre stars as the mysterious stranger of the title.

The Gay Falcon (1941), a title that amuses today, was the first in a series of 16 movies about a suave "playboy sleuth" known as "The Falcon." George Sanders played the role in three films before handing it over to his brother, Tom Conway. Irving Reis directs this entry, stylishly shot by Musuraca on the RKO backlot.

Cat People (1942) teamed Musuraca with producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, and the result was a modest yet exquisite horror film about a woman who believes she transforms into a deadline feline. Musuraca cloaks much of the action in his expressionistic shadows, leaving the audience to imagine what is actually happening. He would photograph four more Lewton horror films.

The Seventh Victim (1943) was another of Lewton's expressive low-budget chillers, this one about a cult of devil worshippers in New York's Greenwich Village. It is directed by Mark Robson and features Kim Hunter in her first onscreen role.

Out of the Past (1947), directed by Jacques Tourneur and shot by Musuraca, is considered by many to be the definitive film noir with its dark and convoluted story line, shadowy cinematography and a classic femme fatale in Jane Greer. Robert Mitchum stars as the private eye who is hired by gangster Kirk Douglas to track down the scheming Greer in Mexico.

Blood on the Moon (1948) is another Mitchum vehicle, this one a Western with noir overtones largely provided through Musuraca's moody black-and-white images. Mitchum plays a drifter who gets caught up in a feud among cattle ranchers, and Barbara Bel Geddes provides the feisty love interest. Robert Wise, coming into his own as a filmmaker at RKO, directed.

I Remember Mama (1948) provided Musuraca's only OscarĀ® nomination for Best Cinematography - ironically, because his polished work in this family drama had no elements of the films noir that made his reputation. Under the direction of George Stevens, Irene Dunne stars as the matriarch of a family in 1910 San Francisco.

Born to be Bad (1950) is a slightly over-the-top melodrama directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Joan Fontaine as a scheming social climber who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Musuraca's cinematography lends a noir overtone and won special praise for a striking opening sequence, in which the main characters are introduced as they prepare for and attend a party.

Split Second (1953), a noir thriller that marked the directorial debut of actor Dick Powell, concerns escaped convicts hiding out with their hostages in a ghost town, unaware that the government is about to use the site to test an atomic bomb. The cast is headed by Stephen McNally and Alexis Smith. Critic James Travers of Films de France remarked that the movie "provides Musuraca with another Heaven-sent opportunity to show how moody lighting can elevate a fairly lackluster B-thriller to the level of an enthralling psychological drama."

by Roger Fristoe
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