The cathedral bells toll, signaling the end of the battle for the town of Cholula in the title sequence of the movie Enamorada, a passionate love story set during the Mexican War of Independence.
The film’s credits spill over the unfolding action. A single title card emerges through the thicket. The year is 1946; it is unusual, even here in Mexico, for a cinematographer to be allotted a separate card. But Gabriel Figueroa is a very unique cinematographer. This is the fifth film that he has photographed for the charismatic director/actor/ military hero Emilio Fernández, but still an early leg of the long journey the two have begun.
More than two dozen features together are their cinematic legacy; many of them will become key markers in the Época de Oro of Mexican cinema.
Fernandez was nicknamed “El Indio.” He was not only of a volatile temperament, but was widely feared as a “pistolero.” According to Bunuel biographer John Baxter, Fernandez “killed four men, including an extra on one of his films, and was jailed for shooting a journalist in a trivial argument over a Cannes festival prize.”
Later on, in the 50s, Fernández fell out of favor with a younger generation, and retreated back into acting, ending his career playing the Mexican heavy in American studio films like The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Like the equally colorful Surrealist director Luis Buñuel, with whom Figueroa made seven films, Fernández cut a wide swath through the lore of film culture; it is even said that he was Cedric Gibbon’s nude male model for the famed Oscar statuette.
Gabriel Figueroa has remained the most revered of all Mexican cinematographers: his hallmark low horizons, billowing clouds against a dark sky, heroic peasant portraits, and creamy close-ups of Latina stars—were much regarded, but never duplicated, by his colleagues.
Maria Felix in “Rio Escondido”
Figueroa was a quintessential Mexican, born and died in D.F. (Mexico City), and most of his filmography of over 200 titles is set in Mexico, full of images that elevate the sere Mexican landscape and weathered peasant faces to a mythic intensity. Even in the 1947 John Ford directed film The Fugitive, with Henry Honda (mis)cast as a Mexican village priest, it is the stunning imagery of Figueroa’s compositions and light that spin the viewer into the dramatic maelstrom that makes us forget it is a film starring and directed by gringos. Ford’s conflicted Catholic piety is on full display here, elevated to an apotheosis by Figueroa’s celestial imagery, photography that is condescendingly characterized by Ford biographer Joseph McBride as a “lifeless series of holy-card tableaux.”
A montage clip of the film with an appropriated vocal track (but sensitively synced to images of Fonda’s “sacrificial lamb” priest) illustrates many of the key pictorialist tropes found throughout Figueroa’s cinematography.
The Fugitive is an early example of the cinematographer’s work for an American company, and is the film that made him subsequently sought by Ford. Gregg Toland, who earlier had worked with Ford on The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home, had been set to photograph The Fugitive, but Sam Goldwyn (who had Toland under exclusive contract) refused to release him. Toland told Ford to hire Figueroa who, in the previous decade in Hollywood, had been his yearlong student, courtesy of a Mexican government scholarship.
Some of Figueroa’s films, like Night of the Iguana, Two Mules for Sister Sara and Kelly’s Heroes, are mainstream star vehicles for the American market. But they are anomalies in Figueroa’s work, surrounded by his Mexican movies. These purely domestic films often starred two of the major male actors of Mexican cinema, Pedro Armendáriz and Emilio Fernández. But even in the most action oriented of his films, Figueroa had an unerring ability to light his female stars with the same intense luminescence as his English colleague Jack Cardiff. Mária Félix and Delores del Rio, two top Mexican film actresses of the 40s, never shimmered more radiantly than when before Figueroa’s lens.
There is a night sequence in Enamorada, a film he photographed the year before The Fugitive, which intercuts the Trio Calaveras serenading Mária Félix with “Malaguena Salerosa,” (a classic Son Huasteco) as she sleeps, wakes, and rises from her bed. The beauty that Figueroa’s lambent light brings to her face as she softly glides across the room to her window is at one with the ravishing voices of the trio below.
Figueroa’s penultimate film is the 1984 John Huston directed Under the Volcano, adapted from the novel by Malcolm Lowry, and starring Albert Finney. Figueroa was in his late 70s when he photographed it. He lived another 13 years, long enough to accept the ASC International Award in Hollywood in 1994 at the same event where Gordon Willis was given the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award. Although Figueroa’s style was as individual as Willis’s, the Mexican artist was also quietly influenced by his early experiences in Hollywood movies, more than a generation before Willis made his own breakthrough. Figueroa was one of the operating cameramen hired for the 1934 Jack Conway directed film Viva Villa. (Conway replaced Howard Hawks after the latter’s dispute with Selznick). It was on Viva Villa that Figueroa met James Wong Howe, who co-photographed it with Charles Clarke. Although his two-dozen films with Emilio Fernández represent the core of his work, Figueroa achieved an even wider reputation in world cinema working with Spanish émigré Luis Buñuel during the director’s exile in Mexico.
Their first collaboration is the 1950 film about street urchins in D.F., Los Olvidados. In his Buñuel biography, Baxter reveals that the director and Figueroa got off to a rocky start when the Spaniard asked him to do a dolly shot of the boys as they cross a waste field, cutting them off in the frame below the knees. Figueroa, still under the influence of Toland’s Old Master Vermeer-like rules, bristled. He told Buñuel he would give him 1000 pesos if he found a painter who framed like that. Figueroa was duly impressed and yielded the point when several days later the director produced an illustration of a Van Dyck painting that was so framed. Baxter does not record whether Figueroa paid up, but the Spaniard and the Mexican went on to do another five films together including the irreverent Simon of the Desert, a movie filmed back in Mexico four years after Buñuel’s short-lived return to Spain to make his subversive slap in the face of his old enemy Franco, with Viridiana.
Figueroa’s full filmography is here: www.gabrielfigueroa.com
Figueroa was part of the circle of Mexican artists who, though working in differing media, extolled the native Indian and Spanish heritage of their country in their common mission to create una imágen méxicana. Friends and fellow muralists and painters Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo, as well as photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo, worked in a shared ethos of fierce commitment to the “people.” Figueroa was sometimes called “the fourth muralist.”
It was an artistic dedication to a socio-political agenda that was perceived by American politicians as “Communistic.” Rivera ran afoul of both Henry Ford and the Rockefeller family for these “proletarian” sympathies.
As for Figueroa, after The Fugitive John Ford offered him a contract in Hollywood—but during the hysteria of the McCarthy era, the cinematographer was denied a US entry visa. A highly-regarded Dutch cinematography website claims that after Toland’s death in 1948, producer Sam Goldwyn offered Figueroa the remainder of Toland’s contract, with a five year renewal option—and he turned it down. The entire issue of Figueroa’s thwarted Hollywood career would make a great topic for a film historian, as there seems to be so much unresolved conjecture around Figueroa’s Communist sympathies and his immigration roadblocks. Baxter alludes to the powerful role that Figueroa exercised in the Mexican leftist unions and how without his imprimatur, it was nearly impossible for a foreign producer to assemble a crew. The Dutch site also includes fascinating details of Figueroa’s work as a struggling young portrait photographer starting up his own salon in D.F., then his acceptance as a set still photographer with the assistance of the American cinematographer working in Mexico, Alex Phillips.
Last year, director Emilio Maillé released a documentary film examining the work of Figueroa. Titled Multiple Visions: The Crazy Machine, it does not trot out a chronological film-by-film presentation of his movies, but weaves its own poetic way through dozens of images that seem to flow like a dream.
None of the more than 40 films are identified, and they are interwoven with remarks by 29 world-class cinematographers. More than a dozen others not included in the final cut were also interviewed. The cinematographers discuss the emotional power of Figueroa’s singular portrait lighting, and the inherent expressionism of black and white over realistic color. Toward the end of the documentary an even broader perspective is claimed by this international cast of cinematographers: the greater role of the cinematographer as an artist; no greater “spokesman” for that primacy can be found beyond words than the cascading images of Figueroa. A six minute teaser of the film is here:
From September 22, 2013 until February 2, 2014 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosts the exhibition Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film. It includes film clips, posters, photographs, paintings, and papers that document Figueroa’s work and that of the circle of artists around him.
A foretaste of the multimedia nature of that exhibition may be similar to another Figueroa exhibition in 2011 at the Rencontres d’Arles summer photographic festival. Many of the images in this video are not included in the Multiple Visions documentary.
Maillé’s feature length documentary is more than an homage to Figueroa. It is a celebration of the art of cinematography itself as embodied in its rich meditation on an artist whose full body of work is still unknown to most of his colleagues and film scholars.
The consistently high level of reflections by these 29 cinematographers who come from many backgrounds, techniques, and traditions, illustrates the common visual threads linking them all.
My only qualm about the film is really more of a question than a criticism. Some of the international cinematographers, speaking in several languages, have also worked and lived in the United States. Several others are American citizens and esteemed members of the American Society of Cinematographers and of AMPAS. But only one of those interviewed is a native born American: Haskell Wexler. I would like to believe this was merely an accident of scheduling and availability, rather than any judgment on the part of the filmmakers regarding American cinematographers. But it is especially odd since Gabriel Figueroa himself had such close ties with Hollywood directors, cinematographers and Mexican actors, who themselves had rich careers in American cinema.
Surely, there are many American cinematographers who feel as much kinship to Figueroa’s art as do his European and Latin American colleagues. I would have loved to hear their perspective, especially American cinematographers from the West, whose sense of landscape so resembles that of Figueroa’s. Notwithstanding that small glitch, the film is a marvel to watch and is a seductive window into the mind and eyes of a great cinematographer. Here is the free imdb link to the full movie:
Next: The first of a three part look at the cinematography of John Alton, and his rocky role in the A.S.C.