Nicholas Musuraca, Cat People and RKO Film Noir

Nicholas Musaraca
Nicholas Musuraca

1.

Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was, from his start, a “team player.” In 1927, at the twilight of the silent era and several years after beginning his own cinematography career, he joined with director Robert De Lancey to make low-budget Westerns for Joseph Kennedy’s production company, The Film Booking Offices of America. A few years later, after elaborate stock swaps between Kennedy and RCA’s David Sarnoff, this newly minted studio became RKO Pictures. Musuraca spent nearly the next half-century at RKO, a record for artists even in the studio-contract era. He left RKO after shooting the 1954 comedy Susan Slept Here to begin a more than decade-long career in episodic television, where his signature film-noir cinematography was nowhere to be seen. His final credits were on McHale’s Navy and F Troop, two of the most popular and unimaginative-looking sitcoms of the 1960s. It was a curious journey for a cinematographer who, along with John Alton, had defined the contours of expressionistic lighting and composition in the highly stylized, low-budget noirs of the 1940s.

Like his peers James Wong Howe and Leon Shamroy, Musuraca began shooting in the early 1920s. His first six credits, from The Virgin Queen (1923) to The Passionate Quest (1926), were for director J. Stuart Blackton. (Blackton was one of the true pioneers of American cinema. His first credit was in 1897, after a meeting with Thomas Edison inspired him to buy a Kinetoscope. He also became a passionate exponent of animation.)

It was as Blackton’s chauffeur that the Italian-born Musuraca gained entry into the film business. Musuraca remained loyal to Blackton, who retired from filmmaking in 1931, shortly after his last movie with Musuraca.

During the 1930s, Musuraca was a go-to cameraman for RKO, mostly for low-budget “B” programmers and Westerns that ran a little over an hour. Between 1933 and 1938, Musuraca averaged at least a dozen movies a year, which helps account for his amazing career tally of 221 credits, only two dozen of which are shorts. He graduated to A-list pictures with back-to-back credits on Five Came Back and Golden Boy.

From left: Lee J. Cobb, Don Beddoe and William Holden in Golden Boy.
From left: Lee J. Cobb, Don Beddoe and William Holden in Golden Boy.

In 1942, when writer Val Lewton left David O. Selznick to become producer for the new low-budget horror-film unit at RKO — the supportive Selznick even negotiated Lewton’s contract — Musuraca became part of Lewton’s team.

Val Lewton
Val Lewton

Given free reign to do what he wanted creatively, provided he remained within the $150,000 budget, Lewton formed a team than included composer Roy Webb, designer Albert S. D’Agostino and editors Mark Robson and Robert Wise (both of whom he soon moved into the director’s chair).

Lewton produced 14 films for RKO in less than a decade. The first six, from Cat People to its not-quite-sequel Curse of the Cat People (the title was imposed by the studio over Lewton’s objections), have become signature films in the noir canon. Musuraca photographed five of them, from Cat People to Bedlam. After that, RKO unceremoniously dumped Lewton, who then wandered to Paramount to MGM to Universal with dozens of projects that were not picked up. His three films after RKO were not successful, and Lewton died from a second heart attack in March 1951 at age 46, convinced he was a failure. Unhappy about Howard Hughes’ takeover of RKO and about being assigned to mediocre material, Musuraca hung on there for only a few more years.

Were it not for his four years with the Lewton unit and his stunning cinematography on Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (also for RKO), Musuraca might well be regarded as one of the legions of near anonymous cinematographers with long careers but no singular identity.

Out of the Past
Out of the Past

In 1948, the year after Out of the Past, Musuraca received his only Academy Award nomination, for George Stevens’ family drama I Remember Mama, a film that, ironically, bears no trace of the cinematographer’s noir lighting style.

2.

What does Musuraca’s noir style look like? There is no better example than a sequence from the second film he photographed for Lewton, The Seventh Victim, directed by Mark Robson. It is a woman-in-jeopardy sequence very reminiscent of the park transverse scene in Tourneur’s Cat People, made the year before. The similarity offers a good indication of Lewton’s tight oversight of the visual details of the production and of his reliance on Musuraca as a key element in his vision.

The pools of light from streetlamps, the looming shadows, and the dark corners ahead of ill-fated actress Jean Brooks’ panicked walk are all signature tropes of Musuraca’s work in this period.

Here is the similar scene from Cat People:

3.

On Sept. 20, The Criterion Collection released a newly remastered 2K DVD and Blu-ray of the Lewton/Tourneur/Musuraca Cat People. Criterion producer Jason Altman asked me to provide a video essay on Musuraca’s cinematography and its centrality to the Lewton RKO films. I have long been an advocate of the primacy of John Alton as the key cinematographer of the American post-World War II film-noir period, and have written about him extensively on this blog, starting with this post.

Most recently, I wrote about the controversy surrounding his Oscar for the ballet sequence of An American in Paris. (You can read that here.)

Alton was a dedicated self-promoter as well as the author of a 1949 book on cinematography that is still in print. Musuraca was the antithesis of Alton in terms of personal demeanor. He was non-confrontational, content to remain in the shadows; there is little biographical information about him online, and his interviews were rare. The best discussion of his filmography I have found appears in Wheeler Winston Dixon’s Black & White Cinema. On pages 104-11, Dixon discusses, albeit briefly, Musuraca’s long career.

In a 1935 article in American Cinematographer titled “Mother Nature Knows Best Is Nick Musuraca’s Creed,” author Harry Burdick references the cinematographer’s discontent with having to constantly fully light the actor’s face.

A person does not go through life nor even a series of events with his face constantly bathed in light. There are times, in ordinary course, when that person’s face may be entirely in shadow. If so in Nature, why not, queries Musuraca, on the screen?

This observation preceded Musuraca’s emergence from the anonymous ranks of RKO’s B movies. Still, it is emblematic of the difficulty many cinematographers had trying to create innovative lighting for routine programmer movies.

Alton was well known for his avoidance of conventional overhead lighting green beds; instead, he preferred multiple small lighting units hidden behind set pieces or resting on the floor out of frame. Musuraca preferred fewer but larger units, using grip cutters to create shadows, thus modulating a single-source key light. In a February 1941 interview in American Cinematographer, he said:

While theories may be fine, the best way to do a thing is usually the simplest — and we can always find that simplest way if we reason things out looking for simplicity and logic instead of technical window dressing.

One example of how Musuraca used a large “single brush” is the Magnificent Ambersons staircase scene from Cat People:

One of the less referenced scenes in the film, but one that has always stood out for me in its lighting and compositional complexity, is the second night scene in the architect Ken Smith’s office. It features Musuraca’s broad single-source key light in the second half of the scene but uses two on-camera soft light tables as key lights for both Smith and Jane Randolph. The end of the scene pins both of them against a wall full of drafting tools, creating bold Constructivist compositions.

The most famous sequence, and the most deeply mysterious one using mood lighting, takes place in the apartment building’s basement swimming pool. Randolph has gone for a late-night swim and has been followed by Simone Simon in a quickly paced montage across the Central Park transverse. It is the scene that director Paul Schrader and I hewed to most closely when we made the “re-imagined” Cat People in 1982 with Nastassja Kinski, John Heard and Malcolm McDowell. (This film will be screened Oct. 15 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica as part of the American Cinematheque's tribute to Paul Schrader. Info here.)

Jane Randolph in Cat People (1942).
Jane Randolph in Cat People (1942).

Annette O'Toole in Cat People (1982).
Annette O'Toole in Cat People (1982).

A favorite movie-roundtable topic is, “What was the first film noir and who photographed it?” Several cinematographers’ names always come up, especially John Seitz and, of course, Alton. My choice is Musuraca. A full year before The Maltese Falcon, a movie photographed by Seitz and long regarded as a proto-noir, it was the quiet and gentle Musuraca who photographed RKO’s Stranger on the Third Floor, a perfervid, hallucinogenic film by Boris Ingster. Its nightmare sequence of John’s McGuire’s imagined trial for murder unleashes every twitch and tic that soon became the signature elements of noir style. Seven years later, the same cinematographer gave us Out of the Past, the movie considered by many cinematographers to be the apex of noir style.

Stranger on the Third Floor
Stranger on the Third Floor

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