Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Alex Thomson (1929-2007)

I didn't learn about this until just now but Oscar-nominated British cinematographer Alex Thomson died on the 14th. Thomson entered the film industry in 1946 as a clapper loader and worked his way up to regular camera operator for Nicolas Roeg in the 1960's before becoming a full-fledged director of photography in 1968. His career suffered a hiatus in the mid 70's when he was injured falling off a camera rostrum on the set of Jesus Christ Superstar, but he eventually returned to work for a number of different filmmakers and genres, including fantasy (Excalibur, Labyrinth, Legend), action (Executive Decision, Cliffhanger, Raw Deal), sci-fi (Leviathan, Demolition Man, Fincher's Alien film) and period drama (The Scarlet Letter, Black Beauty). While the quality of the films varied, Thomson's keen eye never did.

I think, however, that his major accomplishment was shooting Kenneth Branagh's epic version of the unedited text of Hamlet. It is, for my money, the closest a movie can get to being a definitive adaptation of Shakespeare's greatest playas well as the most visually spectacular. Shot entirely on 70mm (the most recent film to utilize that format), I had the opportunity when I was in college to see the complete 4-hour version of Hamlet at a theatre called the MacDonald (which is sadly no longer there). It was the only theatre in Eugene that had a 70mm projector, so it was the only venue playing Bragnagh's film. Not only was it truly breathtaking to behold, it was also the only movie I've ever seen on the big screen that had an intermission. Branagh's Hamlet is set for release on DVD later this year and at long last I'll be able to get rid of my widescreen VHS copy and appreciate the incredible cinematography of the late great Alex Thomson in all its glory.


Ted Pigeon said...

I'm glad you wrote about this, Damian. I have seen the name before, but had no idea who this fellow really is. After seeing his repetoire, I am extremely impressed. You're right that he didn't always lense the best of films, but I like his willingness to shoot films of all kinds. I'm kind of a sucker for the atmosphere of a lot of 80's action movies, so it's a pleasure knowing that he had much to do with that atmosphere due to his credit on Legend, Leviathan, and various other movies.

Ian O said...

I was lucky enough to see Branagh's Hamlet at the British Film Institute's Julie Christie season a couple of weeks ago in London and adored it. Apart from the actor playing Laretes, it had some of the most truly stunning acting and imagery I have seen in a long time.

Ted Pigeon said...

Hamlet is an outstanding movie. Along with Blade Runner, this film represents my most anticipated forthcoming DVD release. I saw Hamlet in high school English class and was utterly amazed by it. I have only seen it once, yet it still remains so vividly in my memory. Branagh captured pure feeling with that film.

Dan E. said...

Sad, sad news. It was the cinematography in Alien 3 that made me appreciate it more than the tame (by comparison) Aliens. And I really have little doubt that Thomson is one of the major reasons that David Fincher was able to get Se7en.

Damian said...


Like you, I had seen the name before myself but didn't fully appreciate his work until I saw it all listed on his IMDB page. I'm a little ashamed, because I should've known who he was solely on the basis of his shooting Hamlet.


I actually liked Michael Maloney's Laertes, though I admit it wasn't my favorite performance. I think I just like Maloney (he played Hamlet on stage years later and prior to Branagh's film portrayed Rosencrantz to Gibson's Hamlet and a crazy actor/director trying desperately to stage a production of said show in A Midwinter's Tale, also directed by Branagh).

Still, I thought Maloney's Laertes was better than Lemmon's Marcellus.


That makes sense. It wouldn't surprise me either if Thomson's visuals helped get Fincher Seven.

Ted Pigeon said...

The cinematography in Sevenis among the most memorable of any film in the last 20 years. It's downright brilliant.

Damian said...

I agree with you on Seven's cinematography, Ted. It is brilliant (as is, I would argue, the movie). Unfortunately, Alex Thomson didn't shoot it. Darius Khondji did.

However, I think Dan's point was that Thomson's work on Alien3 was so good that it helped get Fincher Seven. I think there might be some validity to this idea.

tomdwayne said...

i think my first encounter with alex thomson was "cliffhanger": and say what you will about it, but in the action genre it is one of the most beautifully shot movies. i remember thinking and even saying that he should get an oscar - i guess with 14 or 15 years of age before you acquire any kind of valid critical language and are indeed critical of the oscars, that is one giant leap of appreciative taste (?), to say "dude, this cinematograher kicks ass, i almost through up when the camera looked down the abyss - he should get an oscar!" as opposed to the general "dude, that movie rocks!"
it may be the first case of "name appreciation" aside of actors, directors (to a certain extent) and composers, meaning alex thomson might be the first cinematographer that made me want to see a movie more when reading his name on the poster.
although i didn´t keep track of him, it´s sad to read the news of his death - man, i had totally forgotten that he shot alien3. THAT movie should have gotten an oscar for the alien-pov alone...
but i still think the only reason cliffhanger didn´t get the nod was because of the bias toward action movies - it´s a sad, sad, sad world.
who is going to host a cinematography blogathon by the way - i don´t feel equipped to do so, but someone should do it soon (or at all), methinks.

Damian said...

First of all, Tom, when I was 14-15 years old I didn't even know what a cinematographer was (I think I had only recently become aware of what a director was, so that in itself is a huge point in your favor.

Secondly, someone absolutely has to host a "Cinematography blog-a-thon." I'd do it myself but I wouldn't be able to until probably sometime next year (as this filmmusic blog-a-thon and my "31 Days of Spielberg" project are keeping me rather busy). If nobody else steps up to the task, however, you should take it on yourself. You may fill-equipped to do so but I think the most important "equipper" for such an undertaking is a passion for the subject and you certainly seem to have that.

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