William A. Fraker RIP

Prince Sirki has been busy taking giants from the Earth. William A. Fraker ASC was always one of my favorite American cinematographers. His list of credits spans from cult classic THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST (1967) to 1968’s BULLITT (1968) and ROSEMARY’S BABY to PAINT YOUR WAGON (1969) to rarities like DUSTY AND SWEETS MCGEE (1970) and DAY OF THE DOLPHIN (1973) and even Ralph Bakshi’s best film, COONSKIN (1973). He also shot footage for  ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975) and GATOR (1976) — which actually has striking photography — then was one of three on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1978). Not enough? How about extra work on THE DEER HUNTER (1977) and 1941 (1979). Not to mention HOLLYWOOD KNIGHTS (1980) along with SHARKEY’S MACHINE (1980. Throw in WARGAMES (1983) and MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN (1991) for good measure. His style was crisp and clean, long and lean. He also directed a few movies, the most memorable being his debut MONTE WALSH (1970). As I wrote in a previous “Forgotten Films” entry:

This little-seen western directed by the brilliant cinematographer William A. Fraker is one of the handful of elegiac cine-odes to the dying days of the cowboy. A typically 70’s character study punctuated by violence, MONTE WALSH tells the story of a pair of ranch pardners, Lee and Palance, as they find themselves at the end of the century and the beginning of a new one. “I wish I knew more than cowboyin'” one character says after finding himself out of a ranch job. That line fairly sums up the film’s theme. Buttressed by one of John Barry’s most beautiful scores, with an ironic theme song called “The Good Times Are Comin'” by, yes, Mama Cass, the film isn’t the typical 1970 tonal downer as reflective of the era. There’s sadness and longing, but there’s a little hope and humor by the finale. Lee Marvin is fantastic, one of his best movie characters, and Jack Palance has never been more appealing in a nice guy role. And I defy you not to shed a tear when Marvin takes a long stroll through a dying western town soundtracked by Barry’s bittersweet music.

Of course, this is how I’d like to recall William A. Fraker — at his most free-wheelin’ in this breezy very 60’s moment from my beloved THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST (1967):

35 Responses to “William A. Fraker RIP”

  1. Fraker had an impressive body of work as a cinematographer, christian. But, his 1970 MONTE WALSH is one of my all-time favorite westerns. Your description of it as, “… one of the handful of elegiac cine-odes to the dying days of the cowboy“, captures its essence perfectly. He also directed some of the episodes in Stephen Cannell’s WISEGUY television series. The man will be missed. A fine tribute, my friend. Thanks for this.

    • christian Says:

      Thanks. MONTE WASH is definitely in my top 10 and demands a proper DVD release as it’s a spectacular widescreen Panavision effort.

  2. Hate to break this to you, but Fraker shot neither The Deer Hunter, nor Cuckoo’s Nest.

    • christian Says:

      Fraker did indeed shoot additional photography for both films – but you’re right, Vilmos Zigmond is the credited DP for DEER HUNTER and Bill Butler for CUCKOO’S NEST.

  3. Loved his work on ROSEMARY’S BABY – he really nailed the hallucinatory/nightmarish aspects of Rosemay’s “dream” sequence incredibly well. That sequence still puts me on edge/creeps me out every time I see it.

    I also love the work he did on TOMBSTONE – crisp, clean camerawork and the way he shot the famous showdown was quite good!

    • Another of my all-time favorite westerns Fraker was associated with! Good catch, J.D.

      • his worl on rosemary’s baby is the stuff of legend. he totally grabbed the texture of nightmares, and added a supplemental “bourgeois” grain to the whole movie, briging it on the edge of realism vs surrealism. getting a texture out of a fixed image, especially in a narrative, is a major feat. and by texture, i mean, the bachelard concept of material imagination. that is what gave rosemary so much power over the viewer : this world was so real, and perfect, it had this clarity of dreams gone sour, unfinished. a true artist. thanks J.D !

  4. Julie Gerhardt Says:

    I will always be very proud to have known such a talented man. Besides that he was very down to earth and such a friendly person to know. He was my Uncle Billy! RIP Fraker. I will miss U . Your niece, Julie

  5. another loss of one of the old-school talents, peace be the journey, william fraker

    and i can say with a fair degree of certainly that the most disturbing of fraker’s films for me personally – and a film for which his lighting design was crucial to the tone and mood of the piece – is ‘looking for mr. goodbar’, which i saw as a young teen and it traumatised me for life (and made me wonder how on earth diane keaton won an oscar for ‘annie hall’ instead of her rather devastating turn as ‘theresa’)

    • christian Says:

      LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR is strangely unavailable on DVD if you can believe it; it’s still disturbing on all sorts of levels — the ending must be one of the most infamous in film history.

      BUT. Netflix Streaming has a very nice transfer available NOW.

  6. oops, i meant “a fair degree of certainty”, my typos lately are appalling

    (i have ‘mr. goodbar’ on VHS, along with a trillion other movies i wish i had on DVD but sort of holding out for blu-ray, which might be a fool’s errand)

    and just ftr, not to say diane wasn’t fabulous in ‘annie hall’, just that she was gut-wrenching for me in ‘goodbar’

    • christian Says:

      Blu-ray? Leah my luv, I don’t think the studio wants to release this at all. Weird considering it was a box-office hit and certainly contributed to Keaton’s oscar nom. But’s it like how Dennis Hopper was nominated for HOOSIERS instead of BLUE VELVET….

      • I very much agree with both leah and you with this. GOODBAR and BLUE VELVET (and their performances) were not the type of things Oscar wants to promote. ANNIE HALL and HOOSIERS were the safer bets for that crowd. Still, I don’t understand why GOODBAR hasn’t been released. If the likes of Salo, Or the 120 Days of Sodom and IRREVERSIBLE can make it to disc (SALO is even in BD), GOODBAR should certainly have been there already, IMO. Thanks, guys.

        • great points about keaton and hopper’s noms for ‘hall’ and ‘hoosiers’ likely having been influenced by their far more challenging turns in ‘goodbar’ and ‘velvet’; the academy likes to keep it ‘safe’ to quote leopard and mainstream, which is hardly surprising, really

          (i have it in my head that every single classic film that shaped my young psyche is going to be blu-rayed just for my viewing pleasure so don’t burst my blu bubble christian, big meano!)

  7. Frank B Says:

    PRESIDEN’T’S ANALYST is a classic Sixties freakout. They sure don’t make ’em like that anymore.

    By coincidence, I just watched HEAVEN CAN WAIT last week. Very Seventies Cali soft-and-fuzzy light, which perfectly suited the material.

    ROSEMARY’S BABY is one of the great horror films, total immersive paranoia. And of course, the cinematography contributed immeasurably to this effect. I’m tempted to pop the DVD in right now, even though I was planning on saving it for Shocktober.

    I see he also shot 1941. Say what you will about it (it does have its champions, foremost among them Dennis C. at SergioLeoneIFR) but it looked fantastic.

    I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never seen GOODBAR. Netflix streaming, huh?

    R.I.P. Did he ever work with Hopper? Maybe they’re having a PBR together.

    • christian Says:

      Well, I’m a big defender of 1941, mess tho it be:


      I also just viddyed HEAVEN CAN WAIT with it’s indeed oh-so70’s “soft and fuzzy light.” One of my amiable film faves.

      Watch GOODBAR now on Netflix while you can. It won’t be available anytime soon.

      ROSEMARY’S BABY is lushly shot tho I have to say I’ve never been the biggest fan despite its obvious qualities. Maybe the whole devil baby thing disturbs my latent Catholicism….

      • Yep, 1941 is a mess, but it’s a fun and entertaining one. Oh, and I’m glad to hear HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a fav, christian. I sincerely hope someone will finally give it a better disc release (perhaps, in BD?). Thanks, my friend.

        p.s., ROSEMARY’S BABY was meant to disturb that latent Catholicism ;-).

    • Karen Fraker Robison Says:

      To answer your question, “Did he ever work with Dennis Hopper?” the answer is yes. My father-in-law worked with him in 1985 on a film titled Fever Pitch. It was directed by Richard Brooks.
      I was married to Bill’s son Bill Jr until his death in 1992 after a 7 year long battle with A.L.S.
      I love you dad and I will miss you very much!

      • christian Says:

        Karen, thank you so much for dropping by and sharing. I know everybody here appreciates this. Much blessings to you and your family.

  8. Frank B Says:

    What leOpard13 said. That’s the whole idea.

    How do you feel about THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN? I could swear you at least liked the former.

    • christian Says:

      THE EXORCIST is an all time fave and a film I still would not watch alone at night. THE OMEN is silly fun but not scary.

      • Yeah, if I watch THE EXORCIST at night, afterwards I always have the urge to turn on all the lights.

        THE OMEN is good fun with loads of creative kills. Great soundtrack too!

  9. re: rosemary’s baby (which i just saw on cable a couple weeks ago so it’s quite fresh in my mind), the oh-so-literal ‘devil baby’ conclusion is too obvious and cliche for me, a let-down after a film so steeped in farrow’s superb inner turmoil and paranoia, anchored by her brilliant physical deterioration. i’m likely in the minority of one on that but for me the end of R’s B is the weakest aspect, and slightly infuriating to boot. the fact that rosemary’s final act is one of weakness and resignation, giving in to the coven to mother the monster instead of soldiering on with her internal struggle against domination/evil annoys me no end, it feels like a betrayal of my journey with rosemary as a woman to become more than a submissive, to do what’s right instead of what’s easy, and in the end rosemary feels like a failure to me. and while perhaps that’s the point, i don’t like it. but that’s just me.

    • christian Says:

      I agree though I think if you found out you had Satan’s baby, you might have to pick up the bottle and start feeding the little tyke…

      I just think Cassavettes is so sinister from frame one that I wish she would move out of the Dakota immediately…

      • very interesting take on the movie’s end, leah. i try to remind how i felt about it (because this movie made a huge impact on me). i think i was shocked by the renunciation, yes, but not because rose as a woman accepted to be a mum, but because rose the “soul” fell for the black coffin, like anybody would have fallen for it, by sheer terror (and by terror i mean : that which rapes our reality). rosemary is the failure of every soul. she carries the burden of all mankind : we are all doomed, because deep down, we will all fail when confronted to tangible evil (what reich called the passive conspiracy).

        interesting to know that in the book sequel, still by ira levin, rose actually betrays her son (the book was dreadful by the way…)

        • christian Says:

          I was going to say that too.

          Still never read the book (s). But I am a fan of his novel THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. An unforgettable fantastic last line…

          • i’ve never read the books either. that’s interesting, dave, and i think your interpretation (and christian’s too from the sounds of it) re: rosemary representing humanity and humanity’s likely failure when confronted with tangible evil, is totally valid and on an intellectual level i’m on board.

            but in general i tend to respond more viscerally than intellectually to movies, and it’s on that level that a film makes an impact on me (or doesn’t). so i think my reaction to rosemary’s failure is visceral, her journey being so intimate and personal so that her capitulation at the end, even though it may be symbolic on a greater level, feels very personal, like I have failed – because for that time in the dark i AM rosemary – and it’s quite deflating to see her frailty become complete.

            (and i actually find the final scene of the film just plain silly, so awkwardly staged and flat and weirdly smarmy and wooden and even a little goofy all at the same time, all the subtle menace and misshapen paranoia and eerie uncertainly just goes ‘woosh’ out of the film like a slashed tire in that finale; if the same basic premise had been approached and shot differently i might not dislike it quite so much, i don’t know. i think polanski fails in the final stretch on that film. again, that’s just me)

  10. Frank B Says:

    Thanks, Karen! I’ll have to look that one up.

  11. Frank B Says:

    I looked it up. Wow. It has a, um, following for reasons that are clearly not Mr. Fraker’s fault.

  12. If you haven’t already heard, American Cinematheque Los Angeles will be having tribute showings for WF at the Egyptian and the Aero theatres. HTH

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