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Painting with Shadows: The Art of Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca

Introduction and Early Years

One of the great unsung artists of cinema, Nicholas Musuraca was one of the defining architects of the film noir style, painting masterful mood-pictures of menace and fear with light, shadows, and darkness.  

Musuraca was born in 1892 in Riace, a municipality in the Italian metropolitan city of Reggio Calabria. In 1907 he left for the United States with his father, Cosima Musuraca, ending up in Brooklyn to join his uncle Francesco. His career in cinema began as a projectionist, editor, and assistant director for the Vitagraph Company of America in Brooklyn, NYC. Vitagraph had been co-founded in 1897 by Yorkshire-born producer and director J. Stuart Blackton and by 1907 it was a prolific film production company. In 1911 Vitagraph developed another studio in Santa Monica, California, which shifted location to the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles in 1912. 

Moving to California in the early 1920s to work for Vitagraph’s west coast studio, Musuraca initially acted as a chauffeur for Blackton. His talent for photographing movies obviously shined through as he soon graduated to cinematographer, with his first six screen credits being for Blackton-directed films, from 1923’s The Virgin Queen (his first DOP credit) to The Passionate Quest in 1926. 

Musuraca went on to join the Robertson-Cole Company at their studio in Hollywood, which evolved into the Film Booking Offices of America in 1922. For this studio Musuraca shot low-budget westerns with director Robert De Lacey, starting with Lightning Lariats in 1927. The Film Booking Offices of America morphed into RKO Radio Pictures in 1928, the studio where Musuraca would do all of his most influential work. 

RKO and Val Lewton

Musuraca became RKO’s regular director of photography for B-movies. In the five years from 1933 to 1938 he shot at least a dozen movies a year. He photographed his first A-picture, the jungle survival film Five Came Back, in 1939. This was followed by a boxing film, Golden Boy (1939), on which he worked with German cinematographer Karl Freund, who had photographed Dracula (1931) and directed The Mummy (1932) for Universal. This was followed by an adaptation of Stevenson’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1940). 

And then the shadows deepened. Later in 1940 Musuraca photographed what many consider to be the first film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor, a highly influential production in which Musuraca began experimenting with the abstract use of tones and gradations of darkness. This proto-noir cinematography was the foundation from which Musuraca continued to develop his influential visual style when he joined Val Lewton’s B-horror unit. 

A Russian immigrant, Val Lewton was a writer whose mother, Nina Lewton, was one of the first female story editors in American cinema. He became a right-hand man to maverick producer David O. Selznick, advising him on properties to acquire, rewriting screenplays, and even consulting on production design and sets. In 1942 Lewton became the head of an RKO Studios unit whose mission was to develop horror films to rival those from Universal studios. There were several stipulations for films produced by this so-called “B-horror” unit: they had to use titles pre-tested by the marketing department; the running time had to be within 75 minutes; and the budget had to be about $100,000. As long as Lewton kept within these restrictions he was allowed to assemble his own team and had creative freedom. And so Val Lewton’s horror films for RKO formed a body of work with a consistent style and repeated themes. 

There are many components that came together in the unique chemistry of the Lewton movies. Lewton’s work as a scribe was one key element, as he contributed to the writing of all of them, though beyond a pseudonym for Bedlam he did not take a screenplay credit. Director Jacques Tourneur brought a sense of poetry to the three Lewton films he helmed (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man). Mark Robson’s innovative editing was instrumental in shaping key elements the “walk of fear” (when a character is stalked by something through the dark) and the “Lewton bus” (a startling visual/aural interjection). The art direction of Albert D’Agostino layered the frame with narrative-relevant details. Roy Webb’s music score eloquently set the stage and artfully complemented the visual poetry. 

But one of the most important signature components of the Lewton films was undoubtedly the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. For Lewton’s horror unit Musuraca handled the photography for Cat People (1942), which was the first of the Lewton horror series, and then The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), and Bedlam (1946), which was the final film in the Lewton horror series. 

After his work on the Lewton films, Musuraca shuffled between prestige movies and B-features. However unlike his horror teammates Tourneur and Lewton, who went on to uneven careers, Musuraca would do some of his finest work. He would stay at RKO Pictures for 26 years, finally leaving the studio after shooting the 1954 comedy Susan Slept Here

Style Convention

Working in an abstract style influenced by German expressionism, Musuraca was an expert at using light, hard shadows, and the moving shadows of actors to create drama and tension and to suggest that any place could become threatening. There are several elements in the cinematographer’s visual signature that combine to bring his striking images alive on screen. 

Musuraca uses a complete tonal gradation of black, white, and grey within the frame, from pure black, through middle grey, to pure white. In a sense, he applies the motion picture equivalent of the “zone system” from photography, which assigns numbers, or zones, from 0 through 10 to different brightness values, with 0 representing black, 5 middle gray, and 10 pure white. Zones equal exposure; a Zone 5 exposure, for instance, produces middle gray in the image. 

Relatedly, Musuraca can be said to use “chiaroscuro” lighting effects. From the Italian chiaro (light) and scuro (dark), chiaroscuro is a visual arts technique that represents light and shadow as they define three-dimensional objects. It refers to a painting, drawing, or print that depends for its effect on an extensive gradation of light and darkness. In the 17th century the technique became known as “tenebrism”, the use of harsh and dramatic light to isolate figures and heighten emotional tension. Rembrandt, for example, was a master at using chiaroscuro as a psychological effect. 

Musuraca often places lighting sources low in the frame, sources such as table lamps, fireplaces, and campfires. This provides an expressionistic look with the subject appearing trapped by their shadows that loom above them and confine them. It expresses the claustrophobia the characters feel as they are squeezed by circumstance and fate. 

Sometimes Musuraca uses narrow beams of bright light in a dark frame, focusing light on a person or object, emphasizing their placement within a surrounding black void. Again, this visualizes the symbolic trapping of characters by an encompassing, menacing darkness. 

To emphasize contour, Musuraca will use side or rear light to silhouette an object or actor. This separates the subject from the rest of the frame, which adds the suggestion of depth. 

And, finally, one of the more striking elements of Musuraca’s style is when he applies abstraction to divide the frame into geometric shapes of light and dark. 

Musuraca emphasized needing a practical, common sense reason for everything he did, even if that reason defied how things were usually done. For him there were no fixed rules for his photography; each scene was a unique entity in itself, with its own mood and tempo. Musuraca did not adhere to conventions like dramatic action being shot in low key light and comedy in high key light. For instance, tragic action in a hospital would not be shot in low key light as hospitals are brightly illuminated spaces. 

A proponent of simplicity, Musuraca believed that photography should not be unnecessarily complicated. For example, when lighting one person if a single lamp is in the correct position then further lamps are not needed. For exterior scenes, he applied the simplest filtering: yellow filter for mild correction effects; red or red-orange for heavier corrections. A Musuraca maxim was that when in doubt about filtering, don’t filter. He never used a filter for snow scenes, for instance, when at the time this was common. He thought that it was unnecessary as snow naturally rendered as extreme white, trees and rocks as dark (for a good example of the photographing of snow in his work, see Robert Wise’s Curse of the Cat People). In a February 1941 article in American Cinematographer, Musuraca is quoted thus: “while theories may be fine, the best way to do a thing is usually the simplest.” 

With this as background, let’s now turn to consider five key films that help illuminate the tonal range of Musuraca’s artistry. 

Musuraca in Five Films, 1940 – 1953

Stranger on the Third Floor

In the 1940 crime drama Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), Musuraca’s photography defined some of the visual conventions for film noir. Shot a year before John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, this is considered by some scholars of cinema to be the very first concrete example of this genre. 

Star reporter Michael Ward (John McGuire) gets a big break writing a story based on his eyewitness testimony that puts a man, Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) on trail for murder. Ward testifies that he saw the defendant standing over the corpse of a murdered man, the neck cut with a blade so deep that the head was almost severed from the body. Ward’s partner Jane (Margaret Tallichet) worries that Briggs may be innocent and sent to the electric chair based on the reporter’s testimony. 

From early passages of the film, Musuraca’s visual experimentation with tones of white, grey, and black is evident. A scene with Ward seated at a desk has hard shadows cast by the furniture on the wall behind him. Ward himself is partially lit from the left, the tones on his suit moving from dark grey close to the light source to black on the right. (Musuraca disliked fully lighting an actor’s face. He thought that films should mirror real life, where people’s faces are rarely completely lit and are often in complete shadow.) This scene is intercut with Jane, seated in a chair, her face fully lit while her hair and the right side of her body are cast in darkness. Again, ominous shadows are thrown by the furniture onto the brightly lit wall behind her. This simple shot shows a striking tonal contrast between light and dark areas across the whole frame. 

When Ward spies on a mysterious stranger (Peter Lorre) in his rooming house, Musuraca bathes a shot of his head and shoulders almost entirely in shadow, only parts of his facial features and shirt emerging from the field of dark greys and blacks. When Ward confronts the stranger, bright key light casts sharply-defined shadows from the stair railings onto the walls behind the characters. It gives the rooming house a sinister tone, and anticipates Musuraca’s similar use of shadows referencing cage bars and confinement in Cat People

A series of flashbacks recalls the building tension and hatred that Ward has for a nosy, self-righteous neighbour. Troubled by the silence from the neighbour’s room coupled with the stranger slinking out of the building, Ward starts to wonder if the neighbour was murdered and if his offhand remarks about wanting to bump the busybody off will cast suspicion upon Ward himself. This stew of paranoid thoughts leads to a dream sequence where Ward imagines himself being interrogated and accused of murder. 

This is the most famous and notable sequence in the film, using light and shadow in an abstract manner to spotlight Ward’s paranoia. “Michael, why did you do it?” Jane says, as both her and Ward are shown in a frame broken by gridlines, both in the foreground and on the wall behind them, that suggest an animal cage imprisoning them both. The most abstract shot in this sequence shows Ward seated on a bed with a stool beside it, a slanted pattern of parallel medium-grey lines projected on the light grey wall behind. The same parallel lines are cast with even spacing on the floor, suggesting light shining from above through a cage-like grid. A shot of a courthouse with Ward being convicted has the most extraordinary abstract patterns of light and dark scattered on the wall behind. The judge pronounces a death sentence, morphing into the grim reaper. Ward is taken to the electric chair, again a pattern of grid shadows slanting on the wall. In this short sequence, Musuraca builds off German expressionism to essentially define much of the visual design conventions to come in the film noir genre. 

Cat People

Musuraca’s atmospheric and expressionistic lighting brings a brooding dark poetry to the first of the groundbreaking films by the Val Lewton horror unit at RKO, Cat People (1942). The movie spins the story of Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a Serbian woman in New York City who believes she is descended from a group of people in her native country that transform into cats when sexually aroused. Irena attracts the attention of Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), and after a brief courtship they wed. In the apartment on their wedding night Irena tells Oliver that she cannot consummate the marriage. In this moment they are shown on the opposite sides of a door. Irena, against the door, slinks down to the floor, looking like a cat in heat.

The seen and the unseen merge in the walk of fear set piece, a feature of many Lewton films. Cat People has the first of the Lewton walks of fear with Alice (Jane Randolph), rival for Oliver’s affections, being stalked by Irena through Central Park. Bathed in shadows and intermittent light, we see the high heels of both women as they walk, the tap-tap of the shoes on the sidewalk having an eerie echo on the soundtrack. Musuraca’s command of the use of light and hard shadows, combined with Mark Robson’s innovative editing, make this sequence of the most important moments in early horror cinema. 

In the film’s second most famous set piece, Alice is menaced by something prowling around her apartment swimming pool. Using darkness, moving shadows, and sound, the film suggests the presence of a large cat seeking Alice as its prey. Alice jumps into the pool and dog paddles in the centre, helpless, while around her light bounces off the water and dapples onto the walls and ceiling. We hear the growl of a cat, the scream of Alice, and the echoes of that scream reverberating around the pool room. Irena emerges from the shadows, turning on the lights. 

Lighting can be used to hide, to illuminate, and to create a sense of space, and in Cat People Musuraca does all three. He often puts the light source on the floor, so the bottom of the shot is brighter, tapering off to darkness towards the top of the frame. This is contrary to how we usually experience light in real life: high up, from a light in the ceiling, moving to shadow below. The most striking example of this is a sequence in an architect’s office that has harsh illumination thrown upwards from light tables. Alice and Oliver are trapped within the frame by the dark that hovers over them from above.  

The Spiral Staircase

The Spiral Staircase is a gothic thriller from 1946 directed by Robert Siodmak. Dorothy McGuire plays Helen, a mute maidservant employed by Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore, taking home an Oscar for this role), who lives in a large country mansion. At the beginning of the film a disabled woman is murdered, the latest in a string of killings of women with some kind of perceived physical imperfection. A storm brews as Helen returns to the mansion, a killer stalking the night. Unbeknownst to the characters, though shown to the audience, the ghoul is already in the house. 

Musuraca’s photography combines deep focus with low-key lighting effects. The film’s visual panache is in evidence from the opening moments. A woman pulls her dress on in front of her closet. The camera lingers on the clothes hanging there, pushing in, ending on the eye of a killer lurking in the back. (The repeated visual motif of a close up of the murderer’s eye, plus the black gloves on the slayer once revealed, makes a case for this film having the seeds of the giallo genre.) Then there is a shot of the woman’s forearms over her head after she has put on a nightdress, a shot that’s held as she is killed out of frame and her hands twist in shock and pain. 

The bulk of the film is set in the mansion at night, which gives Musuraca full reign for his use of shadows and low-key light. In a sequence with two people going into the cellar to get a bottle of brandy the candle becomes a moving light source in a sea of ominous dark grey and black. The flame is briefly extinguished, a servant taking advantage to swipe a bottle for herself. “Anything can happen in the dark,” she says to Helen, winking. Indeed it can, and Musuraca plays on this notion throughout the film. 

Another character, Blanche, also ventures into the cellar, to get a suitcase from storage. She puts her candle down while she retrieves it, and a breeze causes the flame to flicker. The light extinguishes as the killer appears and Musuraca puts the centre of the frame into complete black as he strikes, Blanche’s hands the only part of her visible, stretching to the patches of light on her left and right as she is herself extinguished. Again, there’s the focus on the victim’s hands while in the throes of death. The spiral staircase itself is artfully lit so that the railing throws cage-like stripes of black upon the wall, with the shadows of branches twitching in the stormwind outside cast upon the windows. 

Musuraca’s signature use of shadows, light source placement, and patches of black add immeasurably to the sense of the house being under siege and isolated, the characters within also trapped in a web of menace. Many moments in the film have the feel of a Lewton film. Two Lewton alums even turn up in smaller roles. Kent Smith, who played the lead in Cat People, plays a town doctor; The Leopard Man’s James Bell is a constable warning of the presence of the killer. 

Out of the Past

In 1948, Musuraca reunited with director Jacques Tourneur for one of the greatest of all film noirs, Out of the Past. Robert Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, a former private eye now escaping his past in a small town. Bailey is pulled back, however, by Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Jeff’s last name is really Markham, and a flashback recounts a past case where Sterling hired Markham to track down his mistress Kathie (Jane Greer) who shot him and took off with forty grand of Sterling’s money. 

In the present day, Sterling strong-arms Markham to find Leonard Eels (Ken Niles), a crooked accountant who is threatening blackmail, to take back incriminating tax documents. Markham is surprised to learn that Kathie is back with Sterling, and suspects he’s in a frame-up. Musuraca emphasizes this by pressing menacing pools of black around him. For this and all the night-time sequences set in San Francisco, Musuraca ensures style melds perfectly with story and character. The relentless press of blackness around the characters trap them in the machinations of betrayal and deception. The film opens in bright sunlight, descends into shadow, and ends in a sunlight that has the taint of tragedy. 

As George Turner noted 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.” A bar in Acapulco where Markham tracks down Kathie is layered with Musuraca’s trademark patterns of shadows cast by railings and window frames. A sequence on a beach where Markham kisses Kathie is bathed in ominous blacks and greys, the two lovers only partially lit. Her apartment villa has a low light source, a lamp, that casts shadows upwards. In a scene at a lakeside cabin, when Kathie shoots and kills Markham’s partner who has tracked them down, Musuraca puts the two of them in a central splash of light with shadows pressing down around them. It symbolizes the turning point as Markham realizes he’s been played. 

Out of the Past is a classic crime tale. The screenplay was written by Daniel Mainwaring, based on his 1946 novel Build My Gallows High, and James M. Cain, the hardboiled crime fiction writer, did a rewrite. The reteaming of Musuraca and Tourneur brings the tale to life with a vivid noir poetry that emphasizes the shadows of the past looming over and trapping the main characters. 

The Hitch-Hiker

The Hitch-Hiker (1953) is the first film noir to be directed by a woman, Ida Lupino. An opening text paragraph frames the story as based on truth, and as something that could happen to anyone in the audience. The film begins with a car picking up a hitchhiker, who later shoots and kills the two occupants. This hitchhiker, an ex-con named Emmett Myers (William Talman) is picked up by two fishermen, Roy (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy) who are on their way to San Phillipe. 

As soon as Myers gets into the car, Musuraca begins to ratchet up the menace through his visuals. One of the most memorable shots is Gil and Roy brightly lit in the front two seats, and Myers in the back seat with his face shrouded in darkness, watching them silently. This eerie moment would not be out of place in a horror film. When Myers pulls a gun and tells them to keep driving, he is suddenly brightly illuminated, in a shocking image. 

The movie becomes a road trip from hell, Myers threatening the two men at every turn. Night time scenes with the three pulled over to camp bring Musuraca’s texturing of greys and blacks and focused beams of light. This is a critical element in a scene where the two captives attempt to escape and Myers hurtles at them in the car, the headlights stabbing the dark and outlining the helpless kidnappees. 

The tense climax is set on a dock at night, a series of low outdoor lights the only illumination. It’s as suspenseful a walk of fear as any in a Lewton film. Expertly directed by Lupino, The Hitch-Hiker is a brisk, efficient, and claustrophobic little thriller that Musuraca’s work occasionally pushes into the realm of horror. 

The End

Musuraca’s career had an inauspicious end. The 1950s saw greater realism in films, with noir stylization falling away in favour of high-key lighting. RKO Studios, home to Musuraca for so long, shut down production in late January 1957. Later that year, the RKO Pictures production facilities were bought by Desilu Studios, an American television production company founded and co-owned by husband and wife Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball.

After briefly working for Warner Brothers in the late ‘50s, Musuraca spent the final decade of his career in television. For the boob tube he worked on TV shows like The Lone Wolf, Those Whiting Girls, The Jack Benny Program, F Troop, and McHale’s Navy. By the late 1960s, Musuraca had retired. As Michael Walker observed in Film Dope #46, “the final years of [Musuraca’s] career scarcely do justice to a man who was one of the supreme exponents of low-key photography.” 

Nicholas Musuraca passed away September 3, 1975 at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Los Angeles, of a cerebral infarction due to cerebral thrombosis. Little discussed among film buffs, he nevertheless has left behind a legacy of groundbreaking cinematic art that weaves in and out of film noir, thriller, horror, dark fantasy, and beyond. It’s way past time for him to be widely recognized for his contributions to genre cinema and for elevating the popular art form of moviemaking. 

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About Paul Sparrow-Clarke

A child of the ’60s and ’70s, I was born in Caerleon, Wales, where I spent my formative years. The ubiquitous ghost stories of the region piqued my interest in horror at an early age and from there I gravitated to books on horror films, with Dennis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Films, Alan Frank’s Horror Movies, and Ed Naha’s Horrors: From Screen to Scream being particularly influential. With the help of these books, I became an “expert” on screen terror far before I was allowed to see any of the films on the telly. I moved to Alberta, Canada in 1981, and the culture shock (and the cold winters) did nothing to dim my interest in genre cinema. Here I discovered Fangoria magazine, VHS tapes, and the fact that my tall height was a ticket to sneaking into Restricted movies in the theatre. Thus began a banquet of terror treats that continues to this day, though I no longer fear being asked for ID at the box office. I have worked as a retailer, cinema usher, invertebrate zoology technician, map cataloguer, bureaucrat, teacher, freelance business/technical writer, and now earn my keep in university administration. I have previously written about genre cinema for Her Majesty’s Secret Servant and We Belong Dead magazines and books, and I’ve hosted public film screenings and co-hosted film podcasts.

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