Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Freddie Francis (1917-2007)

Word is just reaching us that Freddie Francis, the distinguished but down-to-earth director and cinematographer, died in London on March 17 at the age of 89.
His career was a bowtie of sorts; his name was first recognized on the strengths of his camerawork for such films as ROOM AT THE TOP, SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING, SONS AND LOVERS (his first Oscar win) and THE INNOCENTS; then he became a director for Hammer and Amicus, cranking out stylish programmers like PARANOIAC, EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, THE SKULL (his finest work as a director), TORTURE GARDEN and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE; and he closed out his career with a glorious and widely celebrated return to cinematography, encompassing THE ELEPHANT MAN, DUNE and THE STRAIGHT STORY for David Lynch, THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN for Karel Reisz, GLORY (his second Oscar win) for Edward Zwick, and CAPE FEAR for Martin Scorsese.
Francis was the absolute master of one of cinema's most beautiful and seldom used palettes: black-and-white CinemaScope. He loved the scope ratio and delighted in experimenting with it, in the form of split-diopter shots (that would bring foregrounds and backgrounds in identical focus to jarring effect) and special filters that enabled him to manipulate the gray scale of black-and-white. For THE INNOCENTS, he worked with a special lens filter that framed the action inside an opaque iris, accentuating the vintage of the storyline while also relegating some of the image into a hazy periphery where ghosts might legitimately dwell. (The filter was later dusted off for re-use in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, where cameraman Arthur Grant used it for scenes involving Christopher Lee as Dracula, the rust-colored iris evoking a sense of the vampire's bloodshot eyes.) By virtue of having Freddie Francis in control of its look, THE ELEPHANT MAN -- though written, directed and produced by Americans -- became inextricably bound to the blood and sinew of classic British cinema, not only in terms of its look but its heart.
Francis's directorial career, which was focused through commercial necessity and stereotyping on horror cinema, was a mixed bag because, as he freely admitted, it wasn't a genre particularly close to his heart. Beginning with reshoots for DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, he went on to helm important additions to the genre in three separate decades. Of his 1960s work, THE SKULL and THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN are remarkable for their incorporation of extended sequences of "pure cinema" (visual storytelling without dialogue); his outstanding works of the 1970s include the macabre comedy MUMSY NANNY SONNY AND GIRLY, TALES FROM THE CRYPT (the first authorized screen adaptation of the classic EC comics, with its classic "Poetic Justice" segment starring Peter Cushing), THE CREEPING FLESH (arguably the last great pairing of Cushing and frequent co-star Christopher Lee), and the haunting "Penny Farthing" segment of TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS; in the 1980s, he directed THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS, a respectable filming of Dylan Thomas's play based on Dr. Knox's affiliation with graverobbers Burke and Hare. In 1996, he closed out his directorial career with a Season 7 episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, "Last Respects", which was in itself poetic justice.
As Francis would be the first to admit in his no-nonsense way, he also directed a lot of rubbish -- THE DEADLY BEES, THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE, TROG, THE VAMPIRE HAPPENING, CRAZE, the Ringo Starr/Harry Nilsson SON OF DRACULA -- but even these tend to offer an evening of campy fun, picturesque at the very least and usually enlivened by one or more hysterical performances. His directorial career was erratic to be sure, but to glance over his filmography is to glance over an impressive slice of English-speaking film history, and it's a sobering occasion to consign such a living legacy to the past.
For the best writing available on his work in English, seek out the Freddie Francis chapter in Paul M. Jensen's THE MEN WHO MADE THE MONSTERS (Twayne, 1996), very likely one of the five best books on the horror genre I've read. In rereading parts of Jensen's carefully observed and deeply felt chapter, it becomes apparent that he was one of the few writers who felt about Francis's work, while the man was still living, as the rest of us are likely to start feeling about it now, now that his immense contribution has fled the present into the flickering pages of history.

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