OBITUARY : Gabriel Figueroa

When the Mexican film La Perla ("The Pearl") opened in New York in 1948, the critic of Cue magazine was moved to describe the film as "so beautiful in its imagery, so enthralling in the poetry and rhythm of its marvellously composed scores, that it sets a new high standard for all motion picture photography". The photographer in question, described by the critic as "one of the world's great photographers", was Gabriel Figueroa, a brilliant craftsman who, with The Pearl's director Emilio Fernandez, is generally considered responsible for establishing Mexican films as a leading force in world cinema.

The winner of many international awards (including two consecutive awards for Best Photography at the Cannes Festival), Figueroa was a master of eloquent shadows, dazzling cloud photography and stark contrast between shade and light, and he made dramatic use of Mexico's vivid scenery and tropical radiance. Luis Bunuel, John Ford and John Huston were other notable directors with whom he collaborated.

Born in Mexico City in 1907, Figueroa was orphaned when young and had to seek work, but managed to pursue his interest in painting and photography, studying with Eduardo Guerrero. In 1932 he became a stills photographer, and then a camera assistant to Alex Phillips, a Canadian cinematographer who had become an important part of the Mexican film industry. In 1935 Figueroa went to the United States to study as an assistant to Gregg Toland, one of Hollywood's most creative cinematographers and a master of deep focus. Returning to Mexico the following year, Figueroa made his debut as director of photography on Alla en el Rancho Grande (1936).

His association with Emilio Fernandez started in 1943 with Flor Sylvestre and their second film together, Maria Candelaria (1943), won the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1946 and for Figueroa an award for photographic excellence. He won the same award the following year for Fernandez' Enamorada (1946), which was followed by La Perla (1946), based on John Steinbeck's story of a poor Mexican diver who finds an enormous pearl that brings tragedy instead of wealth and happiness.

The diver was played by Pedro Armendariz, who played the lead in many of the team's films. Though the film won the Grand Prize at San Sebastian, the script and direction were generally considered inferior to the majestic photography, which was compared to early Flaherty.

Fernandez acted as associate producer on John Ford's The Fugitive (1947), filmed in Mexico and based on a Graham Greene story about a priest on the run in a police state. Though unpopular with both critics and public at the time, it remained a favourite of the director. "To me it was perfect," he told Peter Bogdanovich. "It had a lot of damn good photography, with those black and white shadows. We had a good cameraman, Gabriel Figueroa, and we'd wait for the light - instead of the way it is nowadays where, regardless of the light, you shoot."

Figueroa was hired in an advisory capacity on Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948), but he declined offers to work in the US permanently. Both he and Hernandez (who had fought in the Mexican revolution) were fiercely patriotic and proud of the acclaim they had brought to Mexican cinema. Most of the films they made reflected the social and economic conditions in which they had grown up.

The dapper and genial Figueroa's personality was in stark contrast to that of the tempestuous Fernandez (who once shot a film critic during an argument). A rare English- language film, The Torch (1950), directed by Fernandez and starring Paulette Goddard and Armendariz, was unsuccessful, praised only for its photography, but the same year Figueroa worked for the first time with Luis Bunuel, on Los Olvidados, a harshly realistic study of children in the slums made in only 21 days.

Bunuel, who was to become noted for his "invisible mise-en-scene", had strict views on the way he wanted his films photographed and Figueroa was able to realise his aims, whether in the narrative passages replete with symbolism or the surreal dream sequences. Los Olvidados won the photographer another prize at Cannes. Further Bunuel movies included Nazarin (1959), La Joven (1961), El Angel Exterminador (1962) and Simon del Desierto (1965).

When John Huston filmed Tennessee Williams's torrid tale of a defrocked priest working as a tour-guide in Mexico, The Night of the Iguana (1964), it was Figueroa who helped him capture the requisite atmosphere of scorched earth and exotic flora in which Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner emoted. In 1970 two Clint Eastwood action movies made in Europe had photography by Figueroa, Two Mules for Sister Sara and Kelly's Heroes. He worked with Huston again on what was to be Figueroa's last film, Under the Volcano (l984), imparting a richly atmospheric aura to the tale of an alcoholic diplomat (Albert Finney) in 1930s Mexico.

Gabriel Figueroa, cinematographer: born Mexico City 24 April 1907; married (one son, one daughter); died Mexico City 27 April 1997.

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