RIP William A. Fraker

Via Anne Thompson comes word of the passing of director of photography William A. Fraker. Fraker wasn’t one of the biggest names in cinematography of the later 20th century, but he had a definite knack for atmosphere and direct storytelling, and wasn’t afraid to take on highly diverse and unusual projects. His CV included everything from “Tombstone,” “Vegas Vacation” and “War Games” to such ultra-culty projects as Ralph Bakshi’s “Coonskin,” Theodore Flicker’s spy-satire “The President’s Analyst,” Curtis Harrington’s “Games,” and the underrated musical biopic “American Hot Wax.”  Of course, he also worked on a couple of bonafide sixties mega-blockbusters, the ur-action cop movie, “Bullitt,” and the horror masterpiece that still reverberates whether any of us likes it or not, “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Below are some clips which show what a versatile director of photography like Mr. Fraker can do, starting with the obvious, which really shows that Fraker knew his way around shadows.

More after the flip.

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Downhill Racer

In the mood for an inspirational sports story? You won’t get it in this hard-edged, documentary style 1969 sports film starring Robert Redford (a star but not yet a superstar) as a reckless Olympic-level skier who is utterly selfish and cold-hearted. A pre-“French Connection” Gene Hackman is his coach, probably a good guy and a bit off-put at having to deal with this grade-A douche who, like it or not, might be a champion.

As the DVD extras in this typically strong Criterion package inform us, “Downhill Racer” was originally conceived by Redford as a film to be directed by a hot new European director who shared his passion for skiing. Roman Polanski, however, was too busy with “Rosemary’s Baby,” so Redford concentrated his efforts on working with writer James Salter and first-time feature film director Michael Ritchie (“The Bad News Bears”) to craft this deliberately cold lack-of-character study. The ski footage is as exciting as you can imagine and “Racer” is often as intriguing as it is chilly. Still, it’s primarily a cerebral experience, hobbled by a protagonist who is incapable of changing and a bit dull. Redford and Ritchie inverted the formula in their next collaboration, placing a well-intentioned idealist in conflict with the morally dangerous world of electoral politics in “The Candidate.” That made for a much more engaging movie, but “Downhill Racer” remains worthwhile — and notable historically. Redford says the troubles he encountered making it ultimately led him to conceive of a project to help emerging filmmakers called “Sundance.” That’s more than a footnote.

Click to buy “Downhill Racer”

  

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Roman Polanski arrested in Switzerland

Roman Polanski in 1978

I’ll be getting to the weekend box office fairly soon but we have some breaking news today. Kind of a bombshell, actually.

As if to fill the void left by the conclusion of the Phil Specter case, a long-running Hollywood legal drama of some real significance has reemerged this morning and is almost certain to be filling the gossip and news pages for some time. As I write this, arguably one of one of the world’s five or so greatest living directors, whose resume includes “Chinatown,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” 2002’s “The Pianist” and the psychological horror classics “Repulsion” and “The Tenant,” is under arrest at age 76 and may be extradited back to L.A. county. This one could get messy and makes yet another painful and extraordinary chapter in the life of a director and occasional actor who escaped the Holocaust as a child, became an internationally famous filmmaker during the sixties, lost his pregnant actress wife in one of the most brutal murder rampages in U.S. history, and then nearly lost everything else over a inexcusable drunken encounter nearly a decade later.

Younger readers may not be aware how, in 1978, 45 year-old director Roman Polanski was arrested after having sex and sharing champagne and part of a Quaalude — a tranquilizer and de riguer party drug of the time — with 13 year-old Samantha Geimer. The victim’s name has only become public knowledge in recent years when, now middle-aged, she has come out publicly to forgive Polanski and call for a conclusion to the extremely muddy and muddled case which, however you come down on it, has more sides to it than you are likely aware of.

Indeed, though you may be hearing now end of moral grandstanding this week, this is no simple case. Even as someone who literally grew up with the matter and with Polanski’s career, I really knew very little about it before seeing and reviewing Marina Zenovich’s outstanding film about the matter: “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.” As Zenovich said in the film’s commentary, Polanski was both a perpetrator and a victim of a publicity hungry judge who used to case for his own ends and drew out the case needlessly. The real heroes of her film were, ironically, both the prosecutor and the defense attorneys in the case. Yes, Virginia, there may be two honest lawyers in greater Los Angeles.

Anyhow, there are any number of questions at this point, including how did Polanski’s lawyers not know what the Swiss authorities might do? (Polanski has been able to live peacefully in France because the U.S.-France extradition treaty does not cover his particular crime and he is highly regarded there. He has carefully avoided being seen in countries such as England where the laws are different.) Nikki Finke calls it a double-cross.

This case is huge and has already been condemned by French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand who is in communication with President Nicolas Sarkozy. No doubt, even as we speak poor Robert Gibbs is probably trying to figure what President Obama’s answer should be when he’s asked about it. Maybe he can use the whole “ongoing legal matter” construction to avoid it. That’s what I’d try to do.

Whatever happens, we certainly won’t be avoiding the case here. Stay tuned.

  

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