Great Cinematographers, Part 19: Ralf D. Bode

As we wind down here, approaching the twentieth post in my cinematography series, we must take a look at one of the great directors of photography from the 1970s and 80s, Ralf D. Bode (1941-2001). I didn’t know his name until today, when I asked myself, “Who photographed Saturday Night Fever and why don’t I know his name?” (I assumed it was a man since there are so few female cinematographers.) Now that I know, I can share with you a few of the golden moments in Ralf Bode’s career.

Rocky (1976, dir. John G. Avildsen) – Although James Crabe is the credited director of photography, Bode was the uncredited second unit DP in charge of shooting the Philadelphia scenes. (Even without any onscreen credit, Bode is best remembered for his efforts here; the headline of his New York Times obituary proves as much.) His lens captured the most famous scene in the movie, when Rocky triumphantly makes his way up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I guess Bode didn’t film the indoor training scenes, but the outdoor stuff is certainly pretty great.

Saturday Night Fever (1977, dir. John Badham) – In one of the definitive classics of the 70s (as well as one of the best dramas ever made about dancing), Bode makes the smoky glow of the Brooklyn disco club seem glamorous and alluring as John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney spin seductively to the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman.” Take note of how the camera turns sideways to imitate the couple’s dip.

Dressed to Kill (1980, dir. Brian De Palma) – First of all, everything about this thriller is in tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. Many aspects are taken from Psycho, like the first scene (taking place in a shower), the killer’s identity (in multiple ways) and how aspects of the murder fit into the plot. The museum scene, however, is taken straight out of Vertigo. Angie Dickinson’s blonde hair, her white coat, the fact that she’s looking at paintings in a museum… it’s all just like Kim Novak in Vertigo. Even the Pino Donaggio score is designed to be reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s work in Vertigo. I don’t know if it’s more of a ripoff than an homage, but it’s interesting all the same. Fun fact about the scene: the exteriors, which you don’t see in this clip, were shot at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which makes sense since the film takes place in New York), but the interiors were shot at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (echoes of Rocky for you viewers!).

Filmmaker Firsts: Clint Eastwood

#5: Unforgiven (1992) – dir. Clint Eastwood

I suppose I should have seen a number of Clint Eastwood’s directorial efforts by this point. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to; it’s just that it didn’t happen until now. Unforgiven is one of Eastwood’s most notable films, winning four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman) and Best Film Editing (Joel Cox).

Armed with the kind of crusty resolve that could only have been supplied by this specific actor, Bill Munny (Eastwood) was once an emphatically despicable criminal, a guy not above killing women and children during bank-robbing sprees.

Thanks to some handy-dandy exposition at the beginning of the film, we know that Munny’s thievin’, murderin’ ways were turned around by his dear departed wife, who conveniently died a couple of years before the start of the film. (She also gifted him with two children.) Munny is so faithful to her memory that he has never even considered availing himself of the prostitutes in the nearby town of Big Whiskey. He also goes to the late Mrs. Munny’s grave to pay his respects before heading out on his final mission – he’s hired to help kill two thugs who cut up the face of a young prostitute from Big Whiskey.

With the help of old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), Munny heads out with his other partner, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett). I can appreciate the Days of Heaven-ish look in the cinematography by Jack N. Green.

The film tries its best to subvert the expectations of the typical Western. We’re supposed to root for Munny, who was once a bad guy, then became a good guy and is now sort of a bad guy again. Since it’s been eleven years since he gave up crime, it takes a while before he’s able to get back on a horse. He also doesn’t have any real love interest, unless you count this scene that shows he is sympathetic toward the damaged prostitute. I don’t mean to say that these are negative elements of the character. What I mean to say is that Eastwood’s performance is not particularly good. Maybe if he injected a little more humanity and tenderness into the character, he could have done something really great. (The Academy didn’t seem to mind. They gave him a Best Actor nomination anyway.)

I understand why Gene Hackman won his Oscar if the voters were especially impressed by the jailhouse scene between him and Morgan Freeman. That’s a legitimately terrific bit of acting right there. I wouldn’t say that this is Hackman’s best role of the 90s, though; that honor definitely goes to The Birdcage.

Richard Harris: this movie needed more of him. (How could the screenwriter, David Webb Peoples, craft such an excellent character name like “English Bob” and not mine it for all it could potentially be worth?) Saul Rubinek, on the other hand: what was the point of his character? You could take Rubinek out of the film and there would hardly be any change.

I can see why people like Unforgiven, but in my most humble of opinions, it’s overrated. I guess I just don’t care for Westerns unless they were made by John Ford or Howard Hawks. The Searchers and Red River are the go-to masterpieces for me. It’s obvious that Eastwood cares a great deal for the genre – the ending credits bear a dedication to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, the two directors who catapulted Eastwood to film stardom – but Unforgiven does not have a solid enough screenplay to really succeed.

Great Cinematographers, Part 18: Nicholas Musuraca

I’ve been holding out for a while on writing a post about Nicholas Musuraca (1892-1975) (seen at right, with Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum and Jacques Tourneur on the set of Out of the Past). I consider Musuraca the greatest film noir cinematographer of the 1940s and 50s, but I was waiting because I have not yet seen Cat People (1942), which I know is supposed to be a terrifically photographed film. Still, I feel I must bring to your attention the greatness of this overlooked fellow. To do so, I’ll make this post extra-special and show you four examples of his gift for working with shadows.

The Seventh Victim (1943, dir. Mark Robson) – As Jean Brooks tries to flee her unknown assailant, shadows loom and threaten her at every turn, perhaps as much as the man following her does. I love the way this scene is lit, from the illumination of Brooks’ face to the way light shines out of doorways and windows.

Deadline at Dawn (1946, dir. Harold Clurman) – These are the first four minutes of this excellent noir, the only film ever directed by theater bigwig Clurman. It makes a great viewing for a hot summer night, the photography expertly capturing NYC’s uncomfortably sticky atmosphere and foreshadowing the bad deeds that are about to go down.

Out of the Past (1947, dir. Jacques Tourneur) – This film noir has been called one of the best examples of its genre, due in large part to Musuraca’s cinematography. Take note of when the lamp is knocked down; the lighting changes abruptly, which I’m sure is a challenge for any director of photography. (My own experiences with cinematography have given me considerable appreciation for those in the field who are clearly talented.) I am always stunned by the camerawork in Out of the Past and it is all thanks to Mr. Musuraca.

The Blue Gardenia (1953, dir. Fritz Lang) – While Lang came to America, he gravitated toward crime dramas and film noir. Examples like Fury (1936), You Only Live Once (1937), You and Me (1938), The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Clash by Night (1952), The Big Heat (1953), Human Desire (1954), While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) were all directed by him. The Blue Gardenia is another such title. Lang’s interest in film noir is not surprising given the dark subject matter and moody aesthetic of his breakthrough sound film, M (1931). The Blue Gardenia benefits from having an attractive blonde lead, Anne Baxter, as well as a theme song sung by Nat King Cole, but it also has the impressive lighting and visual techniques which were key to Nicholas Musuraca’s style.

Great Cinematographers, Part 17: Sol Polito

Cinematographer Sol Polito (1892-1960) lent a special touch to exuberant musicals, swashbuckling adventures, goofy comedies, solemn dramas and everything in between. You may have heard of some of the more famous films he photographed - I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), 42nd Street (1933), The Petrified Forest (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Sergeant York (1941), Now, Voyager (1942), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) – but the three films I have decided to highlight here deserve attention as well.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, dir. Mervyn LeRoy) – This gem has many of my favorite songs from the classic age of Busby Berkeley’s 1930s musicals, including the tunes “We’re in the Money,” “Shadow Waltz,” “I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song,” “Pettin’ in the Park” and the one that I have chosen for this post, “Remember My Forgotten Man.” This grand finale is not another upbeat display of nubile chorines; instead it focuses on the sobering plight of veterans from the Great War, men who fought for America’s honor and who were then discarded by their country. The struggles of these men, from the trenches to the bread lines, are made all the more powerful by the singing of Joan Blondell and Etta Moten and by Polito’s expert use of the camera.

Wonder Bar (1934, dir. Lloyd Bacon) – Like many pre-Code films, Wonder Bar is best remembered for its risqué (and in some cases, racist) attitudes, but “Don’t Say Goodnight” is both a lovely song and a classic example of Busby Berkeley’s choreography at its best. The scene utilizes Berkeley’s trademark birds’-eye-view shots of the dancers and also has some novel cinematographic tricks done with mirrors.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, dir. Anatole Litvak) – Polito adds a shadow-layered noir feeling to this unsettling thriller. You can see both the creepy emptiness of the apartment and the possibility of things lurking in the night as Barbara Stanwyck tries desperately to get closer to the incessant ring of the doorbell.

Great Cinematographers, Part 16: Charles Lang

The distinguished career of Charles Lang (1902-1998) holds the record for the greatest number of nominations for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography (tied with Leon Shamroy), a total of 18 nominations. (Lang won for his work on the 1932 version of A Farewell to Arms.) In a career that endured from 1926 to 1973, Lang worked with everyone from Dorothy Arzner (Sarah and Son) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) to Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot) and Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice). Lang’s lengthy filmography is a testament to his virtuosity.

Desire (1936, dir. Frank Borzage; uncredited direction by Ernst Lubitsch) – Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich, two of the greatest stars of the 1930s, are made even more luminous here by the way Lang lit them, aided by the uncredited work of fellow cameraman Victor Milner (whom I honored with a “Great Cinematographers” post last summer).

A Foreign Affair (1948, dir. Billy Wilder) – Twelve years after Desire, Marlene Dietrich was still as entrancing as ever. In the darkness of the Berlin nightclub her elegant dress shimmers, reflecting the glow of the spotlight.

Sabrina (1954, dir. Billy Wilder) – The shadows cast beautiful patterns over Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart as they dance on the moonlit tennis court.

Stanley Donen: Let Him Entertain You

Today is the 90th birthday of Stanley Donen, perhaps the last great living director from the Golden Age of Hollywood movies. Let’s celebrate his career with clips from five of his most entertaining films.

On the Town (1949, co-directed with Gene Kelly) – My favorite part of this classic musical, which has many wonderful numbers that I could have highlighted, is this section of the dream sequence “A Day in the New York,” a ballet that Gene Kelly’s character imagines while wishing he could see Vera-Ellen again. Without any words, using only their bodies (and the shadows of them on the wall), they create a couple of minutes of movie magic.

Royal Wedding (1951) – Fred Astaire’s famous dance on the walls and ceiling, which Lionel Richie later paid homage to in his 1986 music video “Dancing on the Ceiling” (also directed by Donen), originates here. Astaire sings “You’re All the World to Me,” a lovely little tune by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952, co-directed with Gene Kelly) – One of the most memorable segments of this outstanding treasure of a film is the “Gotta Dance” collection of musical vignettes. Here, Cyd Charisse is the ultimate temptress, a femme fatale in green with a Louise Brooks haircut, casting her spell in vibrant Technicolor.

Charade (1963) – This is such a fun movie, combining all the best elements of thriller, comedy and romance in a way that Hitchcock probably wished he could have done. (Hitch, after all, never worked with Audrey Hepburn.) Hepburn and Cary Grant make a splendid couple, here observing an unusual yet entertaining style of showering.

Bedazzled (1967) – This very 60s satire of pop culture is based on a story by its stars, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, adapted into a screenplay by Cook. Cook stars as the devil and Moore plays the hapless young man whose wishes are always Cook’s twisted command. In this clip Cook shows Moore what it’s like to be a modern pop star performing on TV for many adoring female fans, singing the song “Bedazzled” (an original creation by Moore, who was a talented composer and lyricist) in a delightfully flat, unsmiling way. Cook’s delivery underscores the absurd humor of the whole thing, but the way Donen put the scene together is what makes it particularly effective.

Great Cinematographers, Part 15: Harry Stradling, Sr.

Harry Stradling, Sr. (1901-1970) was nominated for a total of 14 Academy Awards for Best Cinematography between 1944 and 1970, winning twice for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and My Fair Lady (1964). In a career lasting half a century, he showed his mastery for his craft in many films, including in the three examples below.

Suspicion (1941, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) – When Cary Grant opens the door to bring milk upstairs to wife Joan Fontaine, the interplay of light and shadow is an example of Stradling’s consummate abilities. (I apologize for the weird, though brief, moment with a Russian voiceover. It doesn’t really interfere with the scene anyway.)

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, dir. Elia Kazan) – One of the most powerful scenes in American film history is that of Marlon Brando screaming “Stella!” in this 1950s classic. With the way that the light hits Brando and Kim Hunter, you really feel like you’re in the midst of that hot New Orleans summer night.

Funny Girl (1968, dir. William Wyler) – Barbra Streisand became a Hollywood star with her Oscar-winning turn in this musical. “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is, in my eyes, the undisputed highlight of the film, even greater than the “My Man” finale. The camerawork is quite extraordinary, given the uses of transportation (train, boat). Only a really talented director of photography could have accomplished what Stradling did.