The American Society of Cinematographers

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LACMA Weekend Series May 1428

Where Danger Lives: The Noir Cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca, ASC

May 4, 2010

“Musuraca formulated a personal style that dictated that any place could be threatening at any time. With darkness and light as his instruments, Musuraca charted the topography of menace with unparalleled consistency and artistry. ” Eric Schaefer, Emerson College

Though his name remains unjustly obscure among the ranks of cinematographers from Hollywood's golden age, Nicholas Musuraca, ASC was a master of atmospheric lighting whose shadow filled compositions distinguish a string of thrillers and melodramas produced in the 1940s and 50s by RKO, a studio with a legacy of great black and white filmmaking dating from Citizen Kane. Born in Calabria, Italy in 1892 and raised in New York City, Musuraca joined Vitagraph Studios in 1912, climbing the ladder from projectionist to cameraman; by 1922 he was in Hollywood shooting one-reelers for the Robertson-Cole Company, a low budget studio at Melrose and Gower that evolved into RKO, where he worked from 1929 to 1954, earning credits on 140 films, many of them B pictures. Musuraca’s big break came in 1940 with The Stranger on the Third Floor, a low budget thriller generally considered the first film noir, in which the paranoid nightmare of a guilt-racked journalist is conveyed in a series of starkly lit, Expressionist images. Two years later, Musuraca gave a brooding, poetic look to Cat People, a psychological horror film in which the menace is never seen but is always felt – in the misty darkness between street lamps, in the ghostly reflections of a swimming pool, in the eerie rustle of the shrubbery.

With the popular success of Cat People, the first of five films he was to shoot for the gifted producer Val Lewton, Musuraca made his mark as one of the finest low-key cinematographers in Hollywood leading to credits on a string of film noirs and hardboiled dramas, and successful collaborations with such A-list directors as Nicholas Ray, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Siodmak, and Fritz Lang who called Musuraca “my very good friend and a wonderful cameraman.” Not withstanding the homespun I Remember Mama (his only Oscar nomination) or, Musuraca’s forte was to illuminate the perverse and the violent: the terrorizing of a blind girl in The Spiral Staircase; the thuggish behaviour of the Commies who rule a sinister waterfront in The Woman on Pier 13; the degradation of the mad at the hands of sadistic brutes in Bedlam; the panic of a man racing the clock thru the harsh New York landscape of Deadline at Dawn; the banality of evil that engulfs a drunk and unhappy woman in The Blue Gardenia; and the greed and vanity that turn beautiful women ugly in Born to Be Bad and Where Danger Lives. If one film exemplifies the range of Musuraca’s skill as a craftsman of dramatic imagery and showcases his ability to cloak bad behavior in beautiful light, it is Out of the Past where geometric cityscapes alternate with mountain streams and moonlit beaches. As writer George Turner notes in American Cinematographer, “Musuraca’s deep shadows are an integral part of the atmosphere… the fear of death is imminent from first to last. Even the natural beauty of Tahoe conveys menace as well as charm.”

The 1950s was not a happy decade for Musuraca as few of the films being produced could make use of his subtle lighting effects. Audiences preferred greater realism the result being that the classic shadowy noir was giving way to police procedurals Private Eye mysteries with their high key lighting. Tethered as he was to RKO, a declining studio ill-equipped to enter a new decade of wide-screen and epic entertainments, Musuraca returned from whence he had come – the B film – the only exceptions being the 1954 color comedy Susan Slept Here, his last film credit, and two films he shot back to back for Fritz Lang who was himself moving away from his expressionist roots.  By the time RKO shut down production in late January 1957 (and later that year sold its Hollywood and Culver City facilities to Desilu Productions) Musuraca had embarked on a career in television where he would shoot among others 49 episodes of The Jack Benny Program and 23 episodes of McHale’s Navy. He passed away in 1975 in Los Angeles.


Out of the Past
 — May 14 | 7:30 pm

Jeff, a former private detective who has started a new life in a small California town, is apprehensive when he is summoned to the home of a rich and powerful gambler who, years earlier, had hired him to locate his runaway girlfriend, a amoral beauty who seduced Jeff and embroiled him in a murder. In this archetypal tale of betrayal and revenge that unfolds in flashback, a laconic Robert Mitchum represents all the noir men who have been beset by inner demons and faced with impossible obstacles, and silky Jane Greer is every duplicitous woman who has offered up her wounded heart with one hand while holding a revolver in the other. Andrew Sarris called it “an annihilating melodrama and Tourneur’s masterpiece” while the BFI Screen Guide notes that Tourneur and Musuraca are “especially good at creating a lyrical and sensual play of shadow. They strikingly evoke the romantic and erotic, but essentially illusory, attractions of both Acapulco (where the lovers tryst amid hanging nets on a moonlit beach) and a femme fatale who stage manages her entrances to ensnare the willing hero.”

1947/b&w/97 min. | Scr: Geoffrey Homes; dir: Jacques Tourneur; w/ Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming


Where Danger Lives — May 14 | 9:20 pm 

In this bleak but compelling film scripted by Charles Bennett, author of six Hitchcock films including The 39 Steps and Sabotage, Mitchum again plays Jeff, a stolid doctor who becomes infatuated with the exotic Margo, his mentally unstable patient and the wife of rich, old Claude Rains; but the affair takes a nasty turn when Rains croaks after a fistfight, sending the lovers fleeing toward Mexico as they contemplate a bleak future together. Faith Domergue, Howard Hughes’ discovery once touted as “the next Jane Russell”, endows the increasingly psychotic Margo with a “pounting sexuality (that is) unrelenting even as she is gunned down in a spotlight at the border fence... Once again the sloe-eyed Mitchum exhibits his passive vulnerability as he is taken on a nightmare journey from the manors of Northern California and a prestigious medical practice to a dingy border town and the life of a fugitive. Farrow and Musuraca imbued the film with a typically dark visual style that isolates details of an imaginative mis-en-scene.”  Alain Silver, Film Noir

1950/b&w/84 min. | Scr: Charles Bennett; dir: John Farrow; w/ Robert Mitchum, Faith Domergue, Claude Rains, Maureen O'Sullivan.

Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows 
— May 15 | 9:40 pm

Critic Kent Jones (co-writer of Martin Scorsese’s My Voyage to Italy) has constructed—in the style of a Val Lewton film—a fascinating portrait of Lewton who ran a low-budget production unit for the struggling RKO studios in the 1940s and was one of Hollywood’s strangest, most important and least-appreciated talents. A man steeped in high culture who struggled to express himself artistically, Lewton worked with microscopic budgets, hired fledgling directors, and often re-wrote the scripts himself. Through the force of his vision as a producer, he managed to bring seriousness to a pop-culture genre, and his influence is acknowledged today by no less a filmmaker than Martin Scorsese who executive produced and narrates this film.  

2007/color/77 min./digital | Scr/dir: Kent Jones; narrator: Martin Scorcese; w/ Roger Corman, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Ann Carter, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise

Cat People & The Ghost ShipMay 15 | 7:30 pm

Val Lewton’s first production for RKO was Cat People, a horror film with supernatural and psycho-sexual overtones, in which French actress Simon gives a sincere and restrained performance as Irena, a Serbian-born fashion illustrator living in New York who believes that, when aroused, she will turn into a panther and kill. Unfolding its tale in a series of formal, poetic, and ambiguous scenes, Cat People abounds in striking images — Irena terrifying the birds in a pet shop, Irena pacing outside the panther’s cage in the Central Park Zoo – and one famous set-piece: the swimming pool scene in which the cat woman stalks (or does she?) a female rival. A tour de force of oblique camera angles, nerve-tingling sound effects and shadowy lighting, this sequence derives its power from a combination of suggestion and imagination that encourages the audience to ‘see’ the horrific elements in their own minds…which is the essence of the Lewton style.

The Ghost Ship’s scenario was written to take advantage of an unusually large set from a previous RKO production — an impressive ship — presenting Musuraca with the opportunity to incorporate long tracking shots and elaborate mist and steam compositions into a moody, cat and mouse thriller. Another of Lewton’s penetrating studies of psychological impairment, the film focuses on the plight of Tom Merriman, a young seaman who gradually suspects that the authoritarian Captain is responsible for the deadly accidents that plague the ship; scoffed at by his skeptical shipmates, Merriman is left alone to fight off a sadistic madman.

Cat People: 1942/b&w/73 min. | Scr: DeWitt Bodeen; dir: Jacques Tourneur; w/ Simone Simon, Kent Smith.

The Ghost Ship: 1943/b&w/69 min. | Scr: Donald Henderson Clarke; dir: Mark Robson; w/ Richard Dix, Russell Wade.

Stranger on the Third Floor 
— May 21 | 7:30pm

Heavily influenced by German expressionist films of the 1920s, this astonishing B film made a year before Citizen Kane, is a compendium of noir elements both visual and thematic: an urban landscape of seedy boarding houses and cheap diners; a hero tortured by guilt and paranoia; a mentally disturbed killer; a plucky girlfriend who identifies the murderer; the blurring of dreams and reality; low camera angles, menacing shadows, and an aura of perpetual night. A reporter, traumatized by the knowledge that his testimony in a murder trial helped convict an innocent man, falls into a deep sleep and dreams that he is trapped in a frightening, claustrophobic world ruled by indifference, injustice, and moral corruption. On waking, his nightmare becomes reality when he is charged with the murder of the tenant in the adjoining room. “A strange interior odyssey… a remarkable movie.” Time Out

1940/b&w/67 min. | Scr: Frank Partos; dir: Boris Ingster; w/ Peter Lorre John McGuire, Elisha Cook Jr.

Deadline at Dawn 
— May 21 | 8:45 pm

When a naive sailor on shore leave in New York discovers the floozy who slipped him a mickey lying dead on her apartment floor, he turns to sympathetic dance hall girl Hayward — especially appealing in a no-nonsense role - and with the help of a philosophical cabbie (Lukas), they criss-cross the city in search of the killer. As the clock ticks toward 6:00am, the suspense rises, as does the number of suspects and dead ends, leading to a last minute revelation. Based on a novel by legendary noir author Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window) with a screenplay by Clifford Odets (Clash by Night) who provided the colorful proletarian dialogue, Deadline at Dawn is the only film directed by Clurman, founder of the left-wing Group Theater. Populated by the kind of oddballs for whom Woolrich had such affection, the film is distinguished by beautiful nocturnal images where “the neon blinks against the black in a lonely desolate manner, and the only people awake are desperate people with secrets. The darkness has a gleam here…It is Edward Hopper time.” Sheila O'Malley

1946/b&w/85 min. | Scr: Clifford Odets; dir: Harold Clurman; w/ Susan Hayward, Paul Lukas

Born to Be Bad 
— May 22 | 7:30 pm

Musuraca’s glossy cinematography has never looked better than in this sparkling new Eastman House print restored with funds from the Film Foundation. The title refers to vain and venal Christobel Caine who schemes her way into the mansion of millionaire Scott, shoves aside his fiancée, and marries the sucker for his money. But a girl with that much bread needs a little butter… and this is where Ryan comes in. “Fontaine’s customary 'nice' image is undermined throughout, exposing the wiles that may underlie traditional 'feminine innocence', and at the same time revealing that gullible men deserve what they get. A highly watchable and bitchy melodrama directed by Ray with great attention to emotional states and telling camera compositions… all those staircases!” Time Out  

1950/b&w/94 min. | Scr: Edith Sommer; dir: Nicholas Ray; w/ Joan Fontaine, Robert Ryan, Zachary Scott, Joan Leslie, Mel Ferrer.

The Woman on Pier 13 
— May 22 | 9:15 pm

Howard Hughes, the eccentric head of RKO, was a virulent anti-Communist who set out to produce a film devoted to the premise that once a Communist always a Communist.  Originally titled (what else?) I Married a Communist, this lurid, gangster-style film features Ryan as a shipping company executive and former Party member who is strong-armed by robotic Commie thug Gomez into sabotaging labor negotiations on the San Francisco waterfront. Plagued by delays and personnel changes – among the famous names courted by Hughes were Joseph Losey, John Cromwell, Nicholas Ray, Jane Greer, Paul Lukas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Glen Ford, Robert Young and Merle Oberon – the newly re-titled film was released to critical cries of  “sensationalism” and “propaganda” and it died at the box office. Today, the film can be appreciated as a time capsule of the hysteria and hyperbole that gripped America during McCarthyism, and as “a rather good film noir… with a good noir look, provided by the great Nicholas Musuraca. Those night exteriors on the docks are very expressive...”  Hal Erikson

1950/b&w/73 min. | Scr: Charles Grayson, Robert Hardy Andrews; dir: Robert Stevenson; w/ Laraine Day, Robert Ryan, Thomas Gomez

The Spiral Staircase 
— May 28 | 7:30pm

McGuire and Barrymore, who was nominated for an Oscar, give brilliant performances as a mute live-in companion and her demanding mistress, a rich, bed-ridden old woman who tyrannizes her two sons, their secretary, a nurse and a cook, all of whom live on various floors of a turn-of-the-century mansion connected by a vertiginous staircase. Into this stifling world of gas lamps, looming shadows, and things that go bump in the night comes a killer who is intent on ridding the world of maimed or disfigured young women. With its over stuffed Victorian furniture and ornate décor, Siodmak’s most richly styled film is an exercise in Gothic suspense and his swift, skillful direction makes the terror convincing. “The Spiral Staircase contains a unique vision of entrapment that derives from the noir universe. Unable to communicate adequately her fear and knowledge, the mute servant who thinks she has witnessed a murder finds herself trapped in her own body. She becomes a victim of paranoia, her problems compounded by fantasies such as the film’s mock marriage ceremony.” Film Noir, An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style

1946/b&w/83 min. | Scr: Mel Dinelli; dir: Robert Siodmak; w/ Dorothy McGuire, Ethel Barrymore, George Brent, Kent Smith, Rhonda Fleming, Elsa Lanchester

— May 28 | 9:05 pm

Actress Nell Rowan is appalled by a performance given by the inmates of Saint Mary's of Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane, and resolves to campaign for asylum reform. Angered by this challenge to his authority, the cruel apothecary general Master Sims (Karloff) has Nell committed to the madhouse, but his plan backfires when she rallies the inmates to revolt. Set in London in 1762 and inspired by a William Hogarth engraving, Bedlam was Val Lewton’s final and most ambitious film for RKO, a social message delivered in the guise of a horror film. “Director of photography Musuraca drenches his carefully composed canvas in dramatic lighting and the interior of Bedlam is a mass of expressionistically angled shafts of light and shadow. A truly effective shot of hands reaching out through the bars of dark cells along a corridor reveals the plight of many inmates. When Nell has her first glimpse inside the asylum, we see her startled face before the camera pulls back to gradually reveal bodies lay strewn about the place amongst filthy straw beds, chains and unidentifiable debris.”  Behind the Couch

1946/b&w/80 min. | Scr: Charles Keith, Mark Robson; dir: Mark Robson; w/ Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Jason Robards Sr.

Clash By Night — May 29 | 7:30pm

Opening with documentary footage of fishing boats, cannery laborers and waves crashing on rocks, this intense portrait of three people is perhaps the most American of Lang’s films, atypical in the specificity of its Northern California setting and its working class milieu. Mae, disillusioned but still attractive, returns to her hometown to lick her wounds, and drifts into marriage and motherhood with Jerry, a burly fisherman who dotes on her. Enter Jerry’s cynical friend Earle, the projectionist in the local cinema and a man with a violent streak who seduces the restless Mae, and urges her to abandon hard-earned security and run away with him. Faced with the task of filming actors giving powerful emotional performances — above all Robert Ryan whose role as Earle is the film’s most anguished and physical - Musuraca, in his first collaboration with Lang, uses a mobile camera that pans and tracks, unobtrusively pulling in toward the actors and then backing off again. The result is “an eternal triangle transformed by characters that are complex creations, never wholly one thing or another... situated in a naturalistic reality that supports their alienation.”   Julie Kirgo, Film Noir   

1952/b&w/105 min. | Scr: Alfred Hayes; dir: Fritz Lang; w/ Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, Paul Douglas, Marilyn Monroe

The Blue Gardenia 
— May 29 | 9:25pm

Shot by Musuraca in flat, high key light that emphasizes the drab life of three single women who toil on a busy LA switchboard, and share a cramped apartment, The Blue Gardenia is an odd fusion of sociology and ‘true crime’ reportage. The drama arises when roommate Baxter, alone and depressed, agrees to have dinner with a notorious philanderer who plies her with ‘pearl divers‘ in a tiki-style restaurant, and later makes a pass that erupts into violence — vividly reflected in the shards of a shattered mirror. In the fatalistic world of Fritz Lang, impetuous decisions have lethal consequences and Baxter, who was preyed on by one man, is now faced with new men seeking ‘justice’ or a tabloid headline. Peter Bogdanovich described the film as “a particularly venomous picture of American life”, and UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom is equally harsh when she writes: “Deception, betrayal and psychological terrorism thoroughly permeate this McCarthy-era film, not only those scenes presented in the nightmarish visual style of film noir. The Blue Gardenia is a nightmare from one end to the other, no matter how wholesome the ‘women’s world’ featured in many scenes appears to be...”

1953/b&w/90 min./16mm | Scr: Charles Hoffman; dir: Fritz Lang; w/ Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, Ann Sothern, Raymond Burr