Bright Lights Film Journal

FREDDIE FRANCIS (1917-2007)

I’d like to join Tim Lucas and others in acknowledging the passing of Freddie Francis, a fine underrated director and one of the greatest of English cinematographers.

He deservedly won an Academy Award for his photography of Edward Zwick’s Glory, and probably should have won for his work with Martin Scorsese (the Cape Fear remake), and the three films he did with David Lynch – Dune, The Elephant Man, and The Straight Story (above).

The Straight Story is remarkable not only for the pastoral serenity of its visuals, but because it featured an octogenarian leading man (former stuntman Richard Farnsworth) and was photographed by the octogenarian Francis (his last film), a striking exception to Hollywood’s usual ageism.

For those of us who treasure black & white widescreen, Francis’s cinematography of The Elephant Man stands as one of the finest achievements ever in that particular format, combining a detailed recreation of the Victorian era with Lynch’s borrowing of techniques from ’20s and ’30s avant-garde.

I am not a huge fan of the films Francis directed for Hammer Films in the 1960s (e.g., Dracula Has Risen From the Grave) – Francis’s visual strengths were not enough to compensate for the typical banality of Hammer’s scripts – but his work for Hammer’s rival, Amicus Productions, was extraordinary. The difference was that Amicus provided Francis with screenplays by the producing/writing team of Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, and that seemed to inspire him. I am thinking of three films in particular: Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The Skull, and the 1972 version of Tales From the Crypt. Dr. Terror and Tales were anthology films, featuring performances by fine English actors like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Joan Collins, Patrick Magee, and Sir Ralph Richardson. (As the Cryptkeeper!) Best of all was The Skull, based on a short story, “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” by Robert Bloch, and starring Cushing, Lee, and Michael Gough as rival present-day collectors of the occult. The beginning of a remarkable nightmare sequence in that film is borrowed almost shot-for-shot from Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, but Francis takes it further. For one thing, Francis’s film, unlike Hitchcock’s, is shot in color and widescreen. Cushing thinks he’s being arrested by two virtually silent plainclothes policemen (purely visual storytelling was Francis’s specialty) but instead … well, you’ll have to see the film for yourself. If only these gems were available on DVD!

ADDENDUM 3/23: One of Francis’s earliest credits was as Director of Photography for Joseph Losey’s Time Without Pity (1957) – which featured Peter Cushing in a supporting role as an attorney. Francis went on to direct Cushing as lead or supporting actor in eight films.