Another in our occasional series of articles on Western cinematographers
Master of light and shade
The visual, how a motion picture looks, is a vital ingredient of all films but Westerns especially tend to depend on that element. Whether they are set on the wide open prairies or in a claustrophobic town, they are atmospheric pieces which stress the landscape and the setting. A good cinematographer can contribute enormously to a Western.
Nicholas Musuraca (1892 – 1975) was indeed a good cinematographer. His early story is far from unique. Born in Reggio Calabria, Italy, he came aged 15 with his family to the United States, passing like so many thousands through Ellis Island. He began in the movie business as a chauffeur to silent film producer J Stuart Blackton, then worked at various jobs behind the scenes on many silent pictures before becoming a cinematographer (or, as they were called in those days, “lighting cameraman”). His first picture in that capacity was a historical drama, The Virgin Queen (1923), directed by his employer Blackton. His first Westerns were five silent Tom Tyler oaters in 1927.
In 1930 Musuraca became a permanent fixture at RKO and his first major Western was there in 1931 when he worked as one of the very many cameramen on the land-rush scenes of Cimarron under the great director of photography Edward Cronjager, Oscar-nominated for the picture.
Thereafter, as DP he shot several one-hour B-Westerns, especially with Tom Keene. He was one of those professionals who, when handed any project, in whatever genre, just nodded and got on with it. But he was an artist, and within the constraints of budget and to the extent the director allowed, he brought quality photography to even the most modest of pictures.
Another (relatively) big Western came in 1939 when RKO capitalized on the success of John Ford’s Stagecoach by putting its stars John Wayne and Claire Trevor in Allegheny Uprising, directed by William A Seiter. It was hardly the greatest film of the year but there are some attractive scenes in it.
Many commentators have remarked how much Musuraca was influenced by the style of the European Expressionists and how he developed this behind the camera himself. Experts point to such Musuraca techniques as “skimming-silhouetting”, in which characters are lit from behind to create an outline of light around their shapes, giving them an almost ghostly appearance.
In 1940 Musuraca was DP on a classic drama, The Stranger on the Third Floor, which film scholar Eric Schaefer has said “defined the visual conventions for the film noir and codified the RKO look for the 1940s.” In 1947 Musuraca outdid himself by photographing a noir for Jacques Tourneur, Out of the Past, with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. This film stands today as one of the greatest examples of film noir ever and its dark, somber cinematography, night scenes, deep shadow, sharp camera angles contribute to a visual masterpiece.
RKO was sometimes called ‘the house of noir’ and when the following year the studio decided to make a noir Western, Musuraca was the obvious choice.
It was Blood on the Moon, starring Mitchum again, based on a book by Western noir master Luke Short and directed by the ultra-talented Robert Wise. You can read our review of this fine film by clicking the link. Wise was another professional, who did not actually care much for the Western genre as a rule but who, when handed one, would turn out a quality work.
Blood on the Moon was in many ways a ‘traditional’ Western, with its range-war plot but it was so much more than that, and director and DP together created a magnificently atmospheric film that is noted today as one of the greatest of 1940s Westerns.
The same year, Musuraca was Oscar-nominated for Best Black & White Photography on the George Stevens-directed family drama I Remember Mama. Schaefer said it was “infused with the same shadowy visuals that Musuraca brought to the horror film in Cat People (1942).”
In fact Schaefer has said, “With darkness and light as his instruments, Musuraca charted the topography of menace with unparalleled consistency and artistry.”
From 1949 – 52 Musuraca was the go-to cinematographer on a long series of RKO Westerns starring Tim Holt. They were black & white one-hour second features of modest pretentions, helmed typically by workaday directors such as Lesley Selander and Lew Landers, but when you watch them today you can’t help noticing their visual quality.
Like many photographers, as film work grew scarcer, Musuraca turned to TV as the 1950s progressed. He left RKO and moved to Desilu. He did quite a lot on The Untouchables. Westernwise, he shot episodes of The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Maverick and F-Troop.
Back on the big screen, at the very end of his Western-filming career in 1953 Musuraca finally shot a color picture, and a 3D one to boot, in the shape of RKO’s Devil’s Canyon, a 92-minute Technicolor oater with Dale Robertson and Virginia Mayo, directed by Alfred L Werker.
We wouldn’t put Nicholas Musuraca’s contribution to the Western on a par with some of the greats like William Clothier, Lucien Ballard or Surtees père et fils; he did too few for that, and too few A-pictures. But when you see the sheer visual quality of the ones he did do, in particular Blood on the Moon, you feel that he deserves a posthumous place on the Western Mt Olympus, doubtless up there somewhere in the Rockies.
And by the way, if you are interested in cinematography, you might like to read other articles in this series by clicking the links below.
Other cinematographers will follow!