skip navigation
Cinematography by Robert Krasker
share:
Remind Me
,Billy Budd

Cinematography by Robert Krasker - 10/13

Had The Third Man (1949) been the only movie cinematographer Robert Krasker ever shot, it would still secure his place in the history of film. Krasker's masterful use of shadows, camera angles and close-ups perfectly reflected the pessimism and upheaval of post-war Europe. It earned him an Academy Award and continues to influence cinematographers.

Robert Krasker was born in Perth, Australia on August 21, 1913 to an Australian fisherman and his French wife. He left Australia at the age of 16 and went to Paris, where he studied painting at art school. Later, he traveled to Dresden, Germany to learn photography at the Photohaendler Schule. Returning to Paris, Krasker was hired by Paramount Pictures at their studios in Joinville, working with American cinematographer Phil Tannura before moving to England.

In 1931, Krasker joined Alexander Korda's London Films production company located at Denham Studios. For much of the decade, he worked as a camera operator under Georges PĂ©rinal and other directors of photography on films like The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934), Things to Come (1936) and Korda's aborted masterpiece, I, Claudius (1937), starring Charles Laughton and Korda's wife, Merle Oberon. Later in life, Krasker would praise Alexander Korda as the greatest influence on his work.

Krasker's skills as a camera operator had earned him a reputation for quality, and in 1941, he was promoted to lighting cameraman on the RKO low-budget film The Saint Meets the Tiger with Hugh Sinclair taking over from George Sanders and Tom Conway as "The Saint." Two years later, Krasker worked as director of photography for actor- director Leslie Howard on the latter's final picture, the wartime propaganda drama The Gentle Sex . The collaboration was a promising one, but soon after filming was complete, Howard was shot down while flying over the Bay of Biscay. However, Krasker's work on this film impressed another actor-director, Laurence Olivier, and his producer Filippo Del Giudice, who were in pre-production on Olivier's epic Henry V (1944) and needed a director of photography. While Krasker had worked on the Technicolor film The Four Feathers (1939), during which he reportedly caught malaria in Egypt, it would be the first color film he shot as director of photography. The results were stunning and helped to cement his reputation as one of Britain's most important cinematographers.

During the mid to late 1940s, Krasker helped create the look of post-war British films, which, like the film noirs in Hollywood reflected a dark, angst-ridden world that was light years from the bright, Technicolor fantasy films like The Thief of Bagdad (1940) which Krasker had filmed only a few years before. Having spent time in pre-war Germany, Krasker was heavily influenced by German Expressionist films, which had reached their heyday in 1920s Berlin. German Expressionist films were highly stylized, with sets and shadows painted to create unrealistic, geometric environments, and that influence can easily be seen in Krasker's films of this period.

After shooting David Lean's immortal Brief Encounter (1945), Krasker was asked to shoot Lean's adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations (1947). As Lean viewed the daily rushes of the film's opening scenes, he grew more and more unhappy, thinking that the footage looked flat and uninteresting. He told Krasker, "Bobby, be more daring; use huge, great black shadows, because that's Dickens." When Krasker could not give Lean what he wanted, he was replaced with his former camera operator, Guy Green. Krasker was understandably upset at being let go, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Producer Ronald Neame, who had been David Lean's cinematographer, told Krasker that he was too talented for his firing to hurt his career. Neame was right. As soon as director Carol Reed learned that Krasker was free, he immediately signed him for Odd Man Out (1947), a film that is full of the "huge, great black shadows" that David Lean thought Krasker could not shoot. When Odd Man Out was released, the film was praised by Life magazine in their review. "There has not been such lighting and imaginative use of the camera since Orson Welles' Citizen Kane . Certain scenes - children begging, a barroom brawl - could only have been managed by an artist of stature and high purpose." The credit, of course, went to the director, Carol Reed, but when David Lean saw Odd Man Out , he admitted that he may have made a mistake in firing Krasker.

The collaboration of Carol Reed and Krasker lasted through four films in total, including Trapeze (1956), Alexander the Great (1956), The Running Man (1963) and, most famously, The Third Man (1949), for which Krasker shot many of the exteriors in Vienna, with interiors shot at both Isleworth and Shepperton Studios in London. According to writer Charles Higham, Third Man star Orson Welles gave Krasker instructions on the film's distinctive shadows and camera angles while shooting the Vienna sewer scenes. However, author Charles Draskin has cast doubt upon this story, noting that if these instructions occurred during the sewer scenes, then they would have been given to Stan Pevey, who was in charge of that location, not Krasker, who was responsible for all the night shots, as the production had been divided into four units, with Hans Schneeberger and John Wilcox supervising the daylight production. Draskin also makes the argument that the film's most famous sequences - Orson Welles' first appearance and the end of the film where Alida Valli ignores Joseph Cotten were not shot by Krasker, but John Wilcox and Schneeberger. This may be true, but Krasker had already proven his mastery of the use of light and shadows to create atmosphere with Odd Man Out . When the Oscars® were given out, Krasker took home the statue.

With an Academy Award under his belt, it would have been seen as a matter of course for Krasker to go work in Hollywood, but he refused, "because there is more freedom of expression in Europe." In the 1950s, Krasker worked in several different genres. Another Man's Poison (1951), was a mystery that starred Bette Davis, who Krasker called "a volcano and a finer technician than any star I have ever met. Directors sometimes are terrified of her." He was also given the opportunity to work with old friend Zoltan Korda, with whom he had collaborated in the 1930s and 1940s, on the South African drama Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), which starred Sidney Poitier and Canada Lee.

One of Krasker's most visually stunning films of the 1950s was the lush romantic melodrama Senso (1954), directed by Luchino Visconti, which he joined in mid-production when the film's original cinematographer, G.R. Aldo, was killed in a car accident. Long after Krasker's own death, his shots of the Venice opera house were used to help with reconstruction efforts when the opera house was the victim of arson in 1996.

Krasker started out the 1960s with Anthony Mann's El Cid (1961), which was hailed by the notoriously hard- to-please New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. "The pure graphic structure of the pictures, the imposing arrangement of the scenes, the dynamic flow of the action against strong backgrounds, all photographed with the 70- mm. color camera and projected on the Super-Technirama screen, give a grandeur and eloquence to this production that are worth seeing for themselves. Robert Krasker, the cinematographer, merits as much credit as Anthony Mann, the director." Unfortunately, Krasker's gorgeous photography couldn't prevent the film from being over-long and dull. The film's star, Charlton Heston, felt that Krasker's photography was underrated, but the British Society of Cinematographers didn't think so; they awarded Krasker their 1961 Best Cinematography award.

Billy Budd (1962), starred Terence Stamp in his first major film role (he had previously appeared in a supporting part in Term of Trail that same year). In order to make Stamp stand out more, Krasker had him bleach his hair and acquire a dark tan. Like El Cid , Billy Budd was a visually interesting film, but Krasker later told a reporter that he was disappointed it hadn't turned out better. For Krasker, the 1960s were a frustrating time. As the French New Wave style grew in popularity, Krasker, now in his 50s, was losing ground to younger cinematographers. Not even veteran actor Kirk Douglas had respect for his talents when the two worked together on Anthony Mann's The Heroes of Telemark (1965). Looking at the rushes, Douglas complained that he looked "like an El Greco." Krasker replied, "People pay a lot of money for an El Greco." Not surprisingly, the two did not get along, with Krasker later calling Douglas, "an unpleasant actor." He later claimed that actors weren't his main concern while making a film. "Good actors can perform anyhow. But good films are made by the various technical staffs - the film cutter, the director, the cameramen. It's a combined operation to make a good film."

Robert Krasker's final major motion picture was The Trap (1966) with Oliver Reed and Rita Tushingham. Citing ill health and frustration with the lack of opportunity to do quality work in the industry, Krasker retired in 1966. He died in London on August 16, 1981.

by Lorraine LoBianco

SOURCES:
"Wide Scope Here for Film-making" The Age 1 Jun 51
http://www.cinematographers.nl/GreatDoPh/krasker.htm
Crowther, Bosley. "Screen: Spectacle of 'El Cid' Opens: Epic About a Spanish Hero at the Warner Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren Star" The New York Times . 15 Dec 61.
Drazin, Charles. In Search of the Third Man
Erskine, Thomas L. http://www.filmreference.com/Writers-and-Production-Artists-Ja-Kr/Krasker-Robert.html#b Evans, Peter William. Carol Reed
Guenzel, Daniel. Robert Krasker: A Gifted Eye http://www.britmovie.co.uk/2002/01/01/robert-krasker-a- gifted-eye/
"Les Wedman" The Sun 3 Nov 65.
"Movie of the Week: Odd Man Out" Life 12 May 47.
Phillips, Gene D. Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean
Slide, Anthony. Fifty Classic British Films, 1932-1982: A Pictorial Record
Souto, H. Mario Raimondo. Motion Picture Photography: A History, 1891-1960
Spicer, Andrew. The Historical Dictionary of Film Noir

* Films in bold type will air on TCM

Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
24 Hour Tribute to the Telluride Film Festival - 9/1
14 Movies

In honor of the annual TCM co-sponsored film festival in Colorado, we are presenting highlights and honorees from past festivals...more

Events

TCM Shopping
  • The Third Man Blu-ray
  • The Third Man is a British cinematic icon:... more info
  • $19.99
  • Regularly $19.99
  • Add to cart
  • Essential Art House, Vol. 5 DVD
  • Six more classics of world cinema comprise... more info
  • $66.99
  • Regularly $99.95
  • Add to cart
  • Alexander The Great: Myth And Reality DVD
  • This stunning 3-hour documentary sheds... more info
  • $34.99
  • Regularly $34.99
  • Add to cart
  • Literary Classics Collection DVD
  • Enjoy six literary classics in this 5-disc... more info
  • $59.98
  • Regularly $59.98
  • Add to cart