Some jobs are a calling. Others just happen to be available across the street. In 1947, Nicolas Roeg was 19 years old. He had just completed his tour with Britain’s National Service, and he really had no clue as to how he was going to fill up the rest of his life. From outside his childhood home, he could stare into Marylebone Studios. Embarking only a matter of a few feet, Roeg knocked on their door, entered, and began his journey to cinematic maestro as a tea boy.
Roeg passed away last Friday at the age of 90. He was a true artist who inhabited nearly every aspect of the craft 20 years before he ever sat in a director’s chair. Across the internet, you’ll find article after article celebrating his masterworks: Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, and The Man Who Fell To Earth. A few other places will highlight the underdogs of Bad Timing, Eureka, and The Witches. Every single one of these flicks demands your attention, and if you have not yet had the time for them, please move them to the top of your cinematic checklist.
At this time, I cannot help but look at his early days and marvel. Roeg was not a born filmmaker. He was a kid who went looking for work and found an obsession that drew him down an artistic well he didn’t know existed. Making and serving Great Britain’s most precious elixir was a gateway to more responsibility. From there he got his hands on the clapper, and shortly after that Roeg was a proud member of the camera department, eventually getting his mitts on the camera itself. He was hooked. The passion was secured.
His first film as a camera operator was on Ken Hughes’ The Trials of Oscar Wilde. It is one of two films released in 1960 that detailed the life of the author but does not attempt to cram an entire biography into an impossible runtime. Instead, Hughes narrows his focus on the libel and morals charges brought against Wilde and gained some notoriety by shining a light on the injustice perpetrated against one of our most celebrated classroom authors. Today, the film plays like the first awkward step in a conversation we’re still struggling to comprehend (see Rupert Everett’s new film The Happy Prince).
A few years later, while he was still plugging away as camera operator, Roeg completed his first screenplay. A Prize of Arms is a compact crime film that garnered critical praise but failed to capture an audience. It’s your basic ruffian melodrama about a gang of thieves who plot to swipe an army payroll during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Directed by Cliff Owen, the film contains few frills, but there is a harsh spirit to the characters and a compelling, calculated nature to the heist itself. The film is currently streaming on Fandor and is certainly worth the free seven-day trial.
In 1961, Roeg took the title of cinematographer on Robert Lynn’s Information Received. Honestly, that is the most significant accomplishment surrounding this film. You can scour the internet and find a link that will get you to it, but I’d only recommend it for the diehard completists out there. If A Prize of Arms is no frills filmmaking than Information Received is a D.O.A. bore. Cops and robbers at a snail’s pace.
The first hints of what a truly special eye Roeg had in his head came when he took a gig for B movie mogul Roger Corman. The Masque of the Red Death is the seventh film in Corman’s massively successful Edgar Allen Poe cycle and without a doubt is its most beautiful entry. The producer/director had very few delusions when it came to his artistry, but with this loose adaptation, he aspired to reach the visual heights of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. He had all intention of achieving that lofty goal with usual DP Floyd Crosby, but when the UK offered the budgetary benefit of a subsidy, Corman had to dump most of his American crew.
Corman hired Roeg because he had been a second-unit cinematographer on Lawrence of Arabia. Whatever was good enough for David Lean was certainly good enough for the man who more often than not crapped out movies rather than crafted them. That’s not a dig, that’s a tip of the hat to the machine that directed The Haunted Palace, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Terror, The Young Racers, and The Raven all in the previous year.
Roeg was an astonishing gift to The Masque of the Red Death. The film is a nasty condemnation of hedonism, taking great delight in depicting a supernatural plague that consumes the plush lifestyle of Vincent Price’s rich satanist. Roeg’s lens oozes with the rich, deep titular color, and goes to great lengths in elevating the cheap sets that surround the amoral pleasure-seekers. Roeg’s camera offers as much judgment as the script and meets evenly with Price’s theatricality.
The cinematographer’s enthusiasm for bold color design was pushed as far as it could go in François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. The director had never made a color film before, and he was determined to smash the preconceived notions of his critics and audience. Roeg told the BFI in 2012 that Trauffaut wanted to contain the aesthetic of a Doris Day film with “little shining colors.” By 1966 mainstream audiences were seeking realism in their entertainment, but at this time Roeg had fully embraced impressionistic imagery and Trauffaut’s mandate let him off the chain. Whether or not Fahrenheit 451 is an appropriate adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel is not the point. The film is a glassy technicolor confection.
Roeg would photograph a few other films during the remaining 1960s (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Petulia), but by 1970 he promoted himself into the role of an auteur. While simultaneously shooting the film, he co-directed Performance alongside Donald Cammell. It’s an aggressive slap of a movie; an uncomfortable portrait of deviant behavior within British gangster culture, including grindhouse graphic depictions of sex and violence. Performance was not necessarily the Mick Jagger-starring extravagant entertainment Warner Bros. thought they were going to get and they ultimately shelved the film for more than two years.
From there, an onslaught of essential viewing occurred. Throw a dart at his filmography and you’ll discover a movie worth dissection and evaluation. I do not doubt or condemn any essay honoring the obvious classics that came after Performance. However, when I look back on the career Nicolas Roeg carved, the inspiration I find occurs between 1947 and 1970. The man put in the work and found satisfaction in every gig he took. Let’s raise a cuppa tea to his diligence, and stoke a similar drive in whatever our hearts reside.