September Highlights on TCM
CINEMATOGRAPHY BY NICHOLAS MUSURACA (September 18, 6:15am - 8pm)--The cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca is being honored this month with a selection of nine among the 163 features he shot between 1920 and 1961. Like many DPs, he shifted to episodic television in the mid-50s, and as John Bailey pointed out in a written tribute to Musuraca, it's ironic that the man who shot Cat People ended his career working on McHale's Navy and F Troop. Along with Gregg Toland, Rudolph Maté, James Wong Howe, John Alton, Stanley Cortez and a few others, Musuraca was one of the cinematographers who set the standard for black-and-white photography in American cinema. So why isn't he as well-remembered? He didn't do anything that was heralded at the time as innovative or noteworthy, and he never had the kinds of relationships with directors that Toland had with Ford and Wyler. But like all of them, he learned on the job. He was born in Calabria, and he arrived in New York at the age of 13. He started working for J. Stuart Blackton, who ran Vitagraph Studios, and did pioneering work as an animator before he turned to live action. Musuraca's first credit as a DP was on The Virgin Queen in 1923, a biography of Elizabeth I directed by Blackton. In the '30s, Musuraca went to RKO and he became one of their workhorses: eight features and four shorts in 1933; seven features and five shorts in 1934; six and six in 1936; and so on. His first real "prestige" production was the 1939 adaptation of Odets' Golden Boy directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and he received some acclaim for his work on Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase and George Stevens' version of I Remember Mama, two beautiful period pieces. But the pictures for which Musuraca is now celebrated were genre films, many of them made on low budgets: thrillers, Westerns, war pictures, musicals, romantic comedies, horror and what came to be known as "noir." In fact, Musuraca shot what probably qualifies as the first film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor. One year later, he worked with the producer Val Lewton and the director Jacques Tourneur on Cat People, which is now recognized as a truly great American film. When it comes to the question of "visual style," the lines between DP, director (in this case, the producer as well) and production designer (in those days, the art director) are very porous - really, they have to be. So it's interesting to note that there is a visual uniformity among the horror pictures that Lewton produced (Musuraca shot only five of them and only one of those was directed by Tourneur), but a different kind of similarity between the two pictures that Musuraca made with Tourneur, Cat People and Out of the Past. In both cases, you had two like-minded artists committed to what Alfred Hitchcock called "the logic of light." It's the kind of artistry that one can only acquire on the job, and you can see it put to use in all of Musuraca's best work, several examples of which are included in this tribute.
by Martin Scorsese