Musuraca, Nicholas

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MUSURACA, Nicholas

Cinematographer. Nationality: Italian. Born: 1892; sometimes billed as Nick Musuraca in the 1920s. Career: 1913—projectionist, editor, and assistant director, Vitagraph, New York, and from 1918 cameraman; joined Robertson-Cole, and stayed with its successor companies, FBO and RKO, until 1954; then freelance, often for TV. Died: In 1975.

Films as Cinematographer:


On the Banks of the Wabash (Blackton)


Hell Bent for Heaven (Blackton); The Passionate Quest(Blackton); The Gilded Highway (Blackton); Bride of the Storm (Blackton); Shameful Behavior? (Kelley); His New York Wife (Kelley)


The Sonora Kid (De Lacey); The Cherokee Kid (De Lacey);South Sea Love (R. Ince); Lightning Lariats (De Lacey);Cyclone of the Range (De Lacey); Splitting the Breeze (De Lacey); Tom's Gang (De Lacey)


Last Lap (Mitchell); Orphan of the Sage (L. King); Rough Ridin' Red (L. King); Red Riders of Canada (De Lacey);Tropic Madness (Vignola); Tyrant of Red Gulch (De Lacey);When the Law Rides (De Lacey); The Avenging Rider(Fox); Terror (L. King); The Charge of the Gauchos(Kelley); Dog Justice (Storm)


The Freckled Rascal (L. King); Gun Law (De Lacey or Burch); Idaho Red (De Lacey); The Pride of Pawnee (De Lacey); Side Street (St. Clair); The Red Sword (Vignola);The Trail of the Horse Thieves (De Lacey)


The Cuckoos (Sloane); Inside the Line (Pomeroy); The Conspiracy (Cabanne); Half Shot at Sunset (Sloane); Hook, Line, and Sinker (Cline)


Cracked Nuts (Cline); The Sin Ship (Wolheim); Three Who Loved (Archainbaud); Too Many Cooks (Seiter); Every-thing's Rosie (Bruckman); Smart Woman (La Cava)


Come on Danger (Hill); Men of Chance (Archainbaud);Haunted Gold (Wright)


Crossfire (Brower); Cheyenne Kid (Hill); Scarlet River(Brower); Son of the Border (Nosler); Flying Devils(Birdwell); Headline Shooter (Evidence in Camera) (Brower); Chance at Heaven (Seiter)


Long Lost Father (Shoedsack); Sing and Like It (Seiter);Where Sinners Meet (Ruben); Murder on the Blackboard(Archainbaud); We're Rich Again (Seiter); The Richest Girl in the World (Seiter); By Your Leave (Corrigan); Romance in Manhattan (Roberts)


Old Man Rhythm (Ludwig); Murder on a Honeymoon(Corrigan); Village Tale (Cromwell); To Beat the Band(Stoloff)


Two in the Dark (Stoloff); Silly Billies (Guiol); Second Wife(Killy); The Farmer in the Dell (Holmes); The Plot Thickens (Holmes); Murder on a Bridle Path (Killy and Hamilton)


Saturday's Heroes (Killy); We're on the Jury (Holmes);China Passage (Killy); Too Many Wives (Holmes); There Goes My Girl (Holmes); Border Cafe (Landers); The Big Shot (Killy); Flight from Glory (Landers); Living on Love(Landers); Danger Patrol (Landers)


Quick Money (Killy); Crashing Hollywood (Landers); Blind Alibi (Landers); Everybody's Doing It (Cabanne); Night Spot (Cabanne); Condemned Women (Landers); Law of the Underworld (Landers); Smashing the Rackets (Landers);Tarnished Angel (Goodwins)


Golden Boy (Mamoulian); Pacific Liner (Landers); Sorority House (Farrow); Twelve Crowded Hours (Landers); Five Came Back (Farrow); Allegheny Uprising (The First Rebel) (Seiter)


A Bill of Divorcement (Farrow); Swiss Family Robinson(Ludwig); Tom Brown's School Days (Stevenson); The Stranger on the Third Floor (Ingster)


Lady Scarface (Woodruff); Repent at Leisure (Woodruff);Little Man (McLeod); The Gay Falcon (Reis); Obliging Young Lady (Wallace); Play Girl (Woodruff); Hurry, Charlie, Hurry (Roberts)


Cat People (Tourneur); The Navy Comes Through (Sutherland); Pirates of the Prairie (Seitz); Call Out the Marines(Ryan and Hamilton); The Tuttles of Tahiti (C. Vidor)


The Ghost Ship (Robson); Forever and a Day (Clair and others) (co); The Fallen Sparrow (Wallace); The Seventh Victim (Robson); Bombardier (Wallace); Gangway for Tomorrow (Auer)


Curse of the Cat People (Wise); Marine Raiders (Schuster);Bride by Mistake (Wallace); The Falcon in Hollywood(Douglas); Girl Rush (Douglas)


Back to Bataan (Dmytryk); The Spiral Staircase (Siodmak);China Sky (Enright)


Deadline at Dawn (Clurman); Bedlam (Robson); The Locket (Brahm)


The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (Bachelor Knight) (Reis) (co); Out of the Past (Build My Gallows High) (Tourneur)


I Remember Mama (Stevens); Blood on the Moon (Wise)


Stagecoach Kid (Landers); The Mysterious Desperado(Selander)


Born to Be Bad (Ray); The Woman on Pier 13 (I Married a Communist) (Stevenson); Riders from Tucson (Selander);Dynamite Pass (Landers); Where Danger Lives (Farrow);The Company She Keeps (Cromwell); Hunt the Man Down(Archainbaud)


Hot Lead (Gilmore); Roadblock (Daniels); The Whip Hand (Menzies)


Clash By Night (F. Lang); A Girl in Every Port (Erskine);Trail Guide (Selander)


Split Second (Powell); Susan Slept Here (Tashlin); The Blue Gardenia (F. Lang); Devil's Canyon (Werker); The Hitch-Hiker (Lupino)


The Story of Mankind (Allen); Man on the Prowl (Napoleon)


Too Much Too Soon (Napoleon) (co)


On MUSURACA: article—

Focus on Film, no. 13, 1973.

Turner, George, in AmericanCinematographer (Hollywood), March 1984.

Film Dope (Nottingham), March 1991.

Turner, G., "Wrap Shot," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1997.

* * *

Nicholas Musuraca's name remains unjustly obscure among the ranks of cinematographers from Hollywood's golden age. In his prime years at RKO during the 1940s, Musuraca shuttled back and forth between A- and B-films, prestige pictures, and genre potboilers. For this reason, and because many of the motion pictures photographed by Musuraca have attained a classic or landmark status only recently, he remains a neglected master.

Along with Gregg Toland's work on Citizen Kane, Musuraca's cinematography for The Stranger on the Third Floor defined the visual conventions for the film noir and codified the RKO look for the 1940s. Musuraca's photography begins and ends with shadows, owing a major debt to German Expressionism, and can be seen as the leading factor in the resurrection of the style in Hollywood in the 1940s. The dominant tone in his work is black, a stylistic bias that lent itself to the film noir and the moody horror films of Val Lewton. But even within the confines of the studio system Musuraca succeeded in transposing his style to other genres. The western Blood on the Moon and George Stevens's nostalgic family drama I Remember Mama are both infused with the same shadowy visuals that Musuraca brought to the horror film in Cat People and the film noir in The Locket. Through the conventions of varying genres and the differing requirements of numerous directors, Musuraca maintained a uniform personal aesthetic.

The whole of Musuraca's readily identifiable style can be broken down into five consistent fragments: the use of the complete tonal range of black and white; the low placement of lighting sources; narrow beams of high-key light within a dark frame; a silhouetting technique with an emphasis on lighting for contour; and a penchant for abstraction. The first of these stylistic signatures is the use of the full tonal range of black and white. Best exemplified by the outdoor sequences in Out of the Past, Musuraca created the moving equivalent of Ansel Adams's "Zone System" of photography in which deep blacks, smooth grays, and sharp whites coexist within the frame. The motion pictures which Musuraca photographed possess a richness and variety of tone that give even the low-budget films an opulent texture. His second rule provided a naturalistic means to achieve an expressionistic result. The low placement of light sources—often in the guise of table lamps, but also fireplaces and campfires—netted a highly expressionistic look as the illuminated subject was trapped by his or her own shadow looming on the walls and ceiling above. The creation of claustrophobia within the frame provided visual collusion for the onerousness of film noir narratives. The third Musuraca trait called for tightly defined high-key light focused on objects, most often faces, in the black void. The technique simultaneously directs the eye to the primary point of interest within the frame while emphasizing the surrounding darkness leading to a tension as the conflicting tones attempt to dominate. Musuraca's fourth and most readily identifiable trademark is a skimming-silhouetting technique. Figures or faces in the foreground are lit from the side or rear, emphasizing contour while leaving the front largely dark. The resulting highlighted contour of the silhouetted object separates it from the background adding depth to the frame. It is this individual trait that acconts for much of the "archetypal" noir look of The Locket and Out of the Past.

A strong reliance on tonal tension featuring large areas of black led Musuraca to the verge of abstraction in many cases. This fifth trait is evident in a number of the films he photographed as the frame is shattered into geometric patterns of light and shadow. In The Seventh Victim a cosmetics factory at night becomes little more than a collection of rectangular shapes of varying tone. Similarly, many shots of nocturnal San Francisco in Out of the Past suggest that the city is constructed of black quadrangles and white squares of light rather than brick and mortar. In Cat People threat is conveyed by the changing density of the reflected patterns of rippling water on the walls and ceiling surrounding an indoor pool. Musuraca formulated a personal style in a more pronounced way than many other cinematographers working within the studio system, a style that dictated that any place could be threatening at any time. The shadows with which he spoke were just as ominous in the warm kitchen of a turn-of-the-century home as they were in a contemporary landscape or an 18th-century insane asylum. With darkness and light as his instruments, Musuraca charted the topography of menace with unparalleled consistency and artistry.

—Eric Schaefer