Alex Phillips Jnr

Mexican cinematographer

Saturday 17 February 2007 01:00

Alex Phillips Bolaños, cinematographer: born Mexico City 11 January 1935; married Genoveva Desgagnes (three children); died Mexico City 12 February 2007.

In terms of numbers of movies made, the cinematographer Alex Phillips Jnr was only half as prolific as his father, a legend of Mexican cinema, but the son still managed to make more than 100 films (to his father's 202), as well as breaking through into Hollywood, unlike his father, with more than 30 movies in the United States.

Among Phillips junior's greatest admirers was Sam Peckinpah, who credited the cinematographer with turning Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) into one of the director's most satisfying works - the "last true Peckinpah", according to his fans. In the hands of Phillips, the lens perfectly captures Peckinpah's vision of an alcohol-induced, feverish dream involving greed, revenge and murder in Mexico. The film has become a cult classic.

Phillips's highest-profile film was the 1984 adventure Romancing the Stone, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito, for which Phillips's photography was vital in keeping up the fast pace of the script and highlighted the screen chemistry between Douglas and Turner.

Fifteen years earlier, a chance meeting in New York with a struggling young actor calling himself alternately Robert Denero or Robert De Niro had landed Phillips the job as cinematographer on only De Niro's second-ever film with a speaking role - Sam's Song in 1969.

In 1972, Phillips was hand-picked by his friend Sidney Poitier to get behind the camera on Poitier's directorial début, with the film Buck and the Preacher, starring Poitier himself along with Harry Belafonte as an ex-Union Army soldier and a conman-preacher defending freed black slaves against racist white gunmen.

Although he never won a Hollywood award, Phillips was widely respected among his peers for such lesser-known works as Foxtrot (1976), a joint Mexican-British production directed by Arturo Ripstein and starring Peter O'Toole and Charlotte Rampling. Phillips's camerawork emphasises the claustrophobia of a group of people on an island during the Second World War.

Increasing recognition within the US film industry led Phillips to move to New York in the mid-1960s, where he counted Andy Warhol and Tennessee Williams among his partying friends. But he declined to move to Los Angeles and returned to live in Mexico in the early 1970s to help boost the fast-changing domestic film industry, championed by his father and now highly acclaimed worldwide. Whenever Hollywood directors shot movies in Mexico, which they often did to save costs, it was invariably Alex Phillips Jnr they sought out to get behind the camera.

Alex Phillips Bolaños was born in Mexico City in 1935. His father, a Russian whose real name was Alexander Pelepiock, had first emigrated to Canada, renaming himself Alex Phillips, but moved to Mexico in 1931, married a local girl, Alicia Bolaños, and became one of the country's first cinematographers of sound movies, eventually to work with such directors as Luis Buñuel.

Alex junior returned to Canada to study architecture but felt the pull of the cinema and did a course in photography at the Institute of Photographic Arts in Montreal. Using his father's connections, he landed a job as official photographer to Mexico's president, Adolfo López Mateos, from 1958 to 1964, at the same time assisting his father on movies and documentaries.

He got his first break as a cinematographer with Yanco (1960), recalling later that the director hired him mainly because Alex Phillips Snr had his own movie camera, sparing the director, Servando González, the cost of hiring or buying one. Despite the fact that the movie won Phillips junior a Mexican Onix award for photography, he had trouble getting work because was not experienced enough to be accepted into the Mexican film industry's closed-shop union. On the odd occasion when he was given work in an emergency, he was immediately replaced whenever a union man was out of work. As a result, he travelled around South America shooting television comedies and telenovelas (soap operas).

Yanco, a sensitive tale of a young Mexican boy and an old man who plays a haunting violin, which Phillips co-wrote, caught the eye of US producers, and González and Phillips found themselves shooting The Fool Killer (1965), starring Anthony Perkins as a disturbed (what else?), amnesiac American Civil War veteran. Phillips's camera helped Perkins look almost as scary as he had in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho five years earlier.

The cinematographer's other best-known films in English included: Murphy's Law (1986), starring Charles Bronson, Hostage (1993), starring Sam Neill, and The Trouble with Spies (1987), a comedy starring Donald Sutherland as a bumbling British spy, Appleton Porter. Among the French films Phillips shot was La Chèvre (The Goat, 1981), directed by Francis Veber and starring Gérard Depardieu.

In his native Mexico, Alex Phillips Jnr was best-known for his work with the director Felipe Cazals, notably Canoa ("Canoe", 1976), seen as a breakthrough from Mexican cinema's "Golden Age" of the mid-20th century, the age of Alex Phillips Snr, to the New Wave which surged forth towards the end of the century.

Canoa was based on the true story of a group of students beaten to death in a Mexican village after a priest incited the locals' fear of leftists. Cazals made the film as a metaphor for the massacre of students in the heart of Mexico City in 1968, 10 days before the Olympic Games opened in the city.

Phil Davison

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