Nicolas Roeg – filmmaker

Photo by REX/Shutterstock – Nicolas Roeg at 32nd London Film Critics’ Circle Awards – 19 Jan 2012

Nicolas Roeg (15 August 1928 – 23 November 2018) was an English filmmaker, best known for directing Performance (1968, released 1970), Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bad Timing (1980), and The Witches (1989). For the purposes of this overview, the focus is naturally on Roeg’s contributions to the horror and science fiction genres.

Having made his directorial debut twenty-three years after his initial entry into the film business, Roeg soon became known for an idiosyncratic visual and narrative style, characterised by the use of disjointed and disorientating editing. For this reason, he was considered a highly influential filmmaker, with such directors as Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan, and Danny Boyle citing him as such.

In 1947, Roeg entered the film business as a tea boy moving up to clapper-loader at Marylebone Studios in London. For a time, he worked as a camera operator on a number of film productions, such as Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure and Doctor Blood’s Coffin. Roeg later claimed he had only entered the film industry because the studio was across the road from his home. He became a cinematographer and amongst many movies, worked on Roger Corman’s resplendent The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966).

Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) is based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same name and features Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as a married couple in Venice mourning the death of their daughter who had drowned. It attracted scrutiny early on due to a sex scene between Sutherland and Christie, which was unusually explicit for the time. The puzzle-like film was widely praised by critics and is now considered one of the most important and influential horror films ever made.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) starred David Bowie as a humanoid alien who comes to Earth to collect water for his planet, which is suffering from a drought. The film’s non-linear narrative divided critics and its length – 138 minutes – caused it to be truncated for its U.S. release. Perhaps the most memorable scene is when David Bowie’s character Newton reveals his alien form to Mary-Lou (Candy Clark); her reaction is one of pure shock and horror.

In an Empire  Blu-ray review, Kim Newman observed that the film is: “At once consistently disorientating and beguilingly beautiful […] Bowie’s cat-eyed alien is startling enough to make Clark wet herself, but his human disguise — two-tone red hair and film-noir fedora — is alien enough without the make-up.”  Over the years, The Man Who Fell to Earth developed a growing following amongst fans of more eclectic cinema and it received a BFI 4K makeover in 2016. Curiously, in 1987, it was also remade as a more conventional science fiction TV movie.

Bad Timing is a 1980 psychological thriller starring Art Garfunkel, Theresa Russell, Harvey Keitel and Denholm Elliott. An American woman and a psychology professor are living in Vienna, and, largely told via flashbacks, the plot relates their turbulent relationship as uncovered by a detective investigating her apparent suicide attempt. Bad Timing was controversial upon its release, being branded “a sick film made by sick people for sick people” by its British distributor, the Rank Organisation.

The Witches (1989, released 1990) was Roeg’s  unique adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s story.  The Witches is about a young boy named Luke (Jasen Fisher) whose parents have died in a tragic accident, and whose grandmother (Mai Zetterling) takes him to a posh hotel in England, where a secret coven of witches is holding its annual convention. The Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston, in a scene-stealing performance) has decreed that all children in England be turned into mice, and Luke and his pal Bruno (Charles Potter) are the first victims on the list… The resulting movie highlights Jim Henson’s  makeup effects work and revels in the dark humour of the situation. It has been rightly acknowledged as one of the scariest of kids’ films.

Filmmakers have been paying tribute to the late director. On Twitter, Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) said: “Farewell to the extraordinary cinematic talent, director Nicolas Roeg. His films hypnotized me for years and still continue to intrigue. Along with classics like Performance & Walkabout, I could watch Don’t Look Now on a loop & never tire of its intricacies. A master of the art.”

Joe Dante (Gremlins) said: “I followed his career first for his photographic style, later for his fascinating choice of subject matter. Walkabout is a near perfect tone poem, the restored The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever.”

Guillermo del Terror commented: “Of his infinite talent and multiple achievements, if I was forced to choose one Roeg film (it would be hard) I would choose “Don’t Look Now” as it stands full of secrets and sadness and terror and beauty above all. A moebius strip of life and death, love and destruction.”


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