"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lucien Ballard

Another in the occasional series on Western cinematographers
A Western master

Another of the great Western cinematographers was Lucien Ballard ASC (1908 – 1988).

After dropping out of college and wandering round China, Ballard started working at Paramount in the very early days of talkies and married Merle Oberon. He became famous for inventing a special camera-mounted light, the ‘Obie’, that managed to make Oberon’s facial scars, suffered in an auto accident, almost invisible.

Western-wise, he cut his teeth on three Sam Nelson low-budget oaters in ’38 and ’39, then worked on The Outlaw, with Gregg Toland, presumably doing cleavage close-ups for Hughes.

He formed a close professional relationship with three great Western directors, Budd Boetticher, Henry Hathaway and Sam Peckinpah, and so Ballard himself became almost a Western specialist. He worked with Boetticher first in 1958 in the Randolph Scott Buchanan Rides Alone and with Peckinpah on The Westerner TV series and Ride the High Country in 1962, again with Scott. The high country in question was filmed up in the Inyo National Park in California and is very fine. It is, for me, the first Western Ballard did in which you really notice the photography as being very good.

For Hathaway he photographed the 1965 John Wayne vehicle The Sons of Katie Elder – not, perhaps, the greatest Western ever made but certainly visually pleasing with its Durango locations. The following year he worked with Hathaway again on Nevada Smith, again not the classiest horse opera but visually attractive.

I would also highlight a ‘little’ Western of 1968 of which I am very fond, Will Penny, directed by Tom Gries, in which Ballard did wonderful work on the snowy high-country winter scenes (Inyo again).

But it is really 1969 that marks the high water mark of Ballard’s Western career because in that year he did two masterpieces, True Grit for Hathaway and The Wild Bunch for Peckinpah.

In his review of True Grit, Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, ''Anyone interested in what good cinematography means can compare Ballard's totally different contributions to The Wild Bunch and True Grit. In The Wild Bunch, the camera work is hard and bleak and largely unsentimental. The images of True Grit are as romantic and autumnal as its landscapes, which, in the course of the story, turn with the season from the colors of autumn to the white of winter.”

It is true that these movies are totally different, visually and in spirit. Westerns of the old and new schools, if you like. The True Grit locations (some Durango and Inyo again but mostly in Colorado round Ouray, Buckskin Joe and Owl Creek Pass) are wonderful, glowing, luminous, almost pastoral. It makes you want to go there. (I did). The Wild Bunch, however, with all its technically brilliant editing, its Durango and Coahuila dust and heat, yellowness and sun, along with gloomy interiors, is as different photographically as could be. It was in The Wild Bunch that Ballard showed his mastery of true widescreen photography. Both films are masterpieces in many ways (script, direction, acting) but not least in the look of them, thanks to Ballard.

Later on Ballard shot The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Junior Bonner (1972), both directed by Peckinpah and once again these are feasts from the visual point of view. Breakheart Pass in 1975 was a pretty ropey Charles Bronson Western despite it being directed by Gries again (more of an adventure/whodunit in fact) but once again the winter mountain scenes (Idaho) were very well shot. Ballard’s last western was another Bronson/Ireland partnership shot in the Burbank studios, the low-grade From Noon Till Three (1976). Pity to end on such a low note.

Ballard was only nominated once for an Oscar, in 1963, for a black and white movie, though not for a Western, and he won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Cinematography for The Wild Bunch. He worked on more than 130 films during his 50-year career, 32 of them Westerns. He died after an auto accident aged 80 in 1988.

But it is for True Grit and The Wild Bunch that we Western fans elevate him to greatness. Personally, despite the heat and dust of Cable Hogue or The Wild Bunch, I’ll always think of cold, high country when Ballard is mentioned.


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