Tuesday, March 20, 2007

RIP Freddie Francis

The great cinematographer, a two-time Oscar winner for the beautifully shot Sons and Lovers (1960), one of the best attempts to bring D.H. Lawrence to the screen, and 1989's moving Civil War drama, Glory, one of my favorite films of the last two decades, has passed away, at age 89.

Francis was truly a master of light. He found so many notes in illumination: The blunt, at times beautiful, realism, of Room at the Top (1959) and Sons and Lovers. The mysteriously diffuse The Innocents (1961). The graceful, time-straddling look of The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981). Three uniquely realized credits for David Lynch: The Elephant Man (1980), a startling return to black-and-white, Dune (1984), with its individualized sci-fi environments, and, his last credit, and a high note to retire his lenses on, 1999's The Straight Story.

Between 1964's Night Must Fall and The Elephant Man, Francis concentrated on directing, which is where I first made his acquaintance. Francis was a house director for Hammer and its competitor, Amicus, turning out installments of the former's long-running Dracula and Frankenstein series with a basic let's-put-on-a-show professionalism, no matter how tired the storylines and threadbare the budgets were. Some of them were beyond salvaging, and Francis was said to have had regrets that he never graduated to bigger and better things behind the megaphone. But some, like Joan Crawford's career-ender Trog (1970), are campily enjoyable, and some were really quite good--1965's The Skull and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, and 1973's The Creeping Flesh, are fine pairings for the horror dream team, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Good, bad, or indifferent, there was a time when I loved them all, and he seems to have made his peace with his resume. One of his last, higher-end directing credits, a Dylan Thomas screenplay about grave-robbing, The Doctors and The Devils (1985), is a Hammer film in everything but studio credit, and his familiarity with the genre clearly informs the lighting and camera placement of 1991's Cape Fear. Surely Hammer fan Martin Scorsese had Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) more in mind than Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) when he tapped Francis for the assignment.

John Simon once carped, "the esteemed cinematographer, Freddie Francis, has lately taken to directing Tales from the Crypt, Tales That Witness Madness, and other tales told by an idiot." But with two enduring careers to his credit Francis was no dummy, and like the late Richard Fleischer, I spent many happy hours in his cinematic care.

1 comment:

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Nice tribute.