January 2, 2017

Robert Krasker: A Gifted Eye

Contemporary motion picture photography is, as a rule, wildly overrated by long-winded critics with very short memories. They have much, much to learn.

In almost any country one could name, the period between 1935-1965 produced some of the finest motion picture camera work one is likely ever to see on the screen. Perhaps only the great silent period, from 1909-1928, was its equal. For whatever reasons of past culture or artistry or pioneering efforts in the field England was especially blessed with a large collection of first-class cinematographers whose efforts have, with only a few exceptions, largely gone unnoticed. It will be this writer’s attempt to acquaint readers with the other fine craftsmen in this area of British film-making, and it is only fitting that we begin with one of the greatest of them all, Robert Krasker.

We’ve all seen, of course, his most famous film work, Brief Encounter and The Third Man, two films that seem to turn up on everyone’s “top movies” lists. In those two works, directed by David Lean and Carol Reed respectively, Krasker reached the apogee of his craft even though there were (some may be surprised to learn) other masterpieces to follow. Let us get a little taste of this remarkable man’s achievements. Bob Krasker was Australian by birth, born in Perth on August 21, 1913. He was in France when he began his career as a camera assistant, a country that did not find it difficult to produce cameramen of brilliance. But it was not long after that he began work at the studios of Sir Alexander Korda in Britain, and it was that studio that would see the first flowering of his talent.

The Korda studio was the great training ground that gave to the cinema a number of gifted film creators. Brilliant designers like Lazare Meerson, William Cameron Menzies and Vincent Korda, brought to England by Korda, would create beautiful sets and while doing so would be training Britain’s future top film designers, among them John Bryan. Korda imported from France, Germany and the US a stable of top cameramen like Georges Perinal and James Wong Howe, and it was under such people that great cinematographers like Krasker, Osmond Borrodaile and Wilkie Cooper first learned their craft. Krasker and Cooper in particular seemed to have been the most influenced by Perinal as was evident in all their future work. The two of them cut their teeth on Korda’s exquisitely beautiful 1936 film Rembrandt, photographed by Perinal and designed by Vincent Korda, still one of the great visual marvels in cinema.

He continued his career as an operator on other Korda films, among them the 1939 epic The Four Feathers, photographed by Perinal (interiors) and Osmond Borrodaile (exteriors) but twenty-four months later he moved up to the next rung on the ladder. In 1941, Robert Krasker was entrusted with one of his first jobs as lighting cameraman, for a low-budget RKO thriller called The Saint Meets The Tiger, an enjoyable mystery starring Hugh Sinclair in the role of Leslie Charteris’ super-sleuth. The film that really started Krasker’s career off and running was Leslie Howard’s propaganda drama, The Gentle Sex, directed by that tireless veteran of British movie-making, Maurice Elvey. Howard produced the film with fellow actor Derrick de Marney and it was such a success and so vividly shot that Krasker was asked by Laurence Olivier to photograph, along with another notable photographer, Jack Hildyard, his triumphant hit Henry V. The acclaim won by that film propelled Krasker instantly into the big budget, important film milieu where he would remain virtually for the rest of his career.

Eccentric producer Gabriel Pascal assigned Krasker to shoot some scenes for his big Shaw extravaganza, Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains. This troubled, expensive production was a notable failure at the box office, even though the battery of first-class cinematographers all acquitted themselves rather well under the circumstances. But Krasker’s next assignment brought him great personal acclaim and would place him forever among the most respected cameramen in cinema: David Lean would choose him as director of photography for his production of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter. The acting and the directing of Brief Encounter is so striking that one can easily overlook the contributions made by the editor, art director and camera department. And, perhaps, it is not really necessary to analyze in too great a detail the achievements of these people. But there is a distinctive “look” to that picture which is just as memorable as the sensitivity of the performances. Krasker really warmed to the subject and it shows. One need not dig deeply into the ways and means by which this excellent film was brought into being; one needs only to see it know that it was made by thoughtful minds. Perhaps the simplest measure to use by which to gauge the increase in stature that Brief Encounter enjoys with each passing year is to compare it with the 2001 Australian-made film, Innocence, which achieved acclaim in some quarters.

An appallingly bad film, dripping with sloppy sentimentality, the embarrassing spectacle of seventy-something’s doing nude scenes and speaking soap opera dialog, Innocence did everything wrong that could possibly be done wrong. It was the antithesis of Brief Encounter in every possible way (apparently by design) and along with the poor 1970s remake of the Lean film is the best example extant of why Lean’s and Cowards’ way of making this kind of story is the only way. (That rubbish like Innocence has found favour in certain circles says more about modern audiences and critics than about the makers of the film. Aside from its other faults the camerawork and directing are equally amateurish, and about the only notable thing about it is how an actor of skill and sensitivity like Charles Tingwell should have allowed himself to be talked into playing in it.)

With praise cascading upon him from every quarter after the huge critical and commercial success of Brief Encounter, David Lean began work on the first of his two superb Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations, and he asked Robert Krasker back to photograph it. Perhaps because it was Lean’s first film away from the Noel Coward “fold”, or perhaps for other reasons we can only guess at, Lean was not entirely sure of himself when shooting began on the picture. After only a week or two of shooting David Lean, in an interesting example of misjudgement on his part, fired Robert Krasker and replaced him with Guy Green. The reason he gave was that Krasker had been giving him photography that was “too polite” when what he wanted was something “harder”.

The whole episode remains somewhat inexplicable. Krasker had shot the striking opening sequence in the graveyard and if it was on the basis of his work on that sequence that Lean sacked him then the incident takes on a decidedly peculiar air. Lean later admitted that after he saw The Third Man he began to think he had made a mistake in firing Krasker. (This in no way detracts from the splendid job Guy Green did on the film, which even he surpassed on Lean’s next film, Oliver Twist) The incident, however, left Krasker devastated. But his talent was too obvious and would not lay dormant for long. Carol Reed wanted him to do his moving film Odd Man Out with James Mason and Robert Newton and with that assignment Krasker bounced back if anything stronger than ever.

For Carol Reed’s next film, The Fallen Idol, he would call upon the services of Georges Perinal as director of photography. Perinal did all the interiors for the picture but Robert Krasker’s old compatriot Wilkie Cooper photographed the exteriors, including the famous night scenes on the London streets, which would so electrify Reed. Cooper’s haunting images stayed in Reed’s mind for a long time afterwards, all during, in fact, his writing with Graham Greene the script for their next film, The Third Man. Reed would have need of images like that again, this time on the streets of war-devastated Vienna.

Robert Krasker’s greatest photographic triumph is undoubtedly The Third Man, a work which earned him the Academy Award in 1949. A superb film, thought by many to be Reed’s finest, it needs no introduction. Krasker was a key factor in its initial impact on contemporary audiences and upon its lasting impact since. The photography has a spidery, deliciously expressionistic quality to it, which Krasker brings not only to the realistic daylight scenes in the Vienna environs but to the famous night scenes in the streets and sewers as well. As was customary other cinematographers needed to be brought in to help. The many second-unit night scenes in the streets and sewers of Vienna were shot, very much with Fallen Idol in mind, by John Wilcox and Ted Scaife (ironically, Wilkie Cooper turned down the invitation to do these second unit shots). Yet The Third Man remains Robert Krasker’s masterpiece.

His output is so varied and interesting and so visually distinctive that if space permitted one could with profit study many of the films he worked on and learn thereby the art and artifice of motion picture photography from him and no one else, and this is said with all due respect to his many talented fellow-cameramen working during that intensely creative time. Later in his career he became almost “typed” as the cameraman for great screen epics. From Robert Rossen’s Alexander the Great, Krasker’s first “epic” assignment, to Samuel Bronston’s hugely enjoyable El Cid some years later, both magnificently photographed, the cameraman would show that that delicacy he learned years before under the great Perinal was not submerged by the need to create mere spectacle. That gifted eye of his, however, brought a look to Bronston’s next epic that has, in this writer’s opinion, never been surpassed. The film was the 1964 Fall of the Roman Empire.

An unusually intelligent super-production, Roman Empire received from its cameraman his very best work ever. Because the film was not the commercial success hoped for it has become somewhat buried, a fact, sadly, that prevents those who admire Bob Krasker from seeing what can be achieved by a skilled, sensitive cameraman with a big enough budget to allow him all the tools he needed. If ever an original TechniColour print of it surfaces in a classics theatre, drop everything and see it. Then, if you have a strong enough stomach, compare this work of beauty against the hysterical, over-the-top and unofficial remake, Gladiator. That simple comparison will eloquently argue the point of the earlier film’s vast superiority.

With the alarming decline in motion picture standards and craftsmanship ushered in the late 1960s, and still plaguing us, Robert Krasker, like several of his contemporaries, decided to retire. As there were no films of any distinction being offered him any longer he did not wish to end his career on a sour note. True, his health was failing a little at the same time. But the rubbish-flingers were slowly and inexorably winning the day and Krasker decided that he had done enough. After The Trap in 1966 his only other film was a low-budget 1980 thriller, shot to help a young filmmaker get off the ground (neither the film nor the filmmaker were ever heard from again).

When grace, skill and great style are once again commodities appreciated by audiences and critics then the fine work of Robert Krasker and his fellow-British cameramen will resume their natural prominent place.

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