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.