MEXICO CITY – Gabriel Figueroa, Mexico’s best-known cinematographer and one of the most esteemed members in his field internationally, died of a stroke following heart surgery Sunday in Mexico City. He had turned 90 three days earlier.
A leading creative force during the midcentury Golden Age of Mexican cinema, and Oscar-nominated for “The Night of the Iguana” (1964), Figueroa was famous for his painterly approach to lensing. His dramatic exterior establishing shots, expressionistic interiors and poignant closeups gave many of the era’s top pictures their visual beauty.
As well as working with top Mexican helmers like Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez and Roberto Gavaldon, Figueroa also became sought after by U.S. directors. He shot “The Fugitive” for John Ford in 1947, and lensed “Iguana” and “Under the Volcano” (1984) for John Huston.
An orphan who pursued early interests in painting and photography, Figueroa was tutored by emigre lensman Alex Phillips and in 1935 went to Hollywood to spend a year as an apprentice to Gregg Toland. Back in Mexico, he shot “Alla en el Rancho Grande” (1936), which is often cited as the first Golden Era film and won the cinematography prize at the Venice fest.
In 1939 he lensed “La Noche de los Mayas,” reportedly the only film with which he was completely satisfied. This was followed by the classics as “Maria Candelaria” (1945), “Rio Escondido” (1947) and “The Pearl” (1947) – each for Fernandez – and Gavaldon’s “Macario” (1959), for which Figueroa was a prizewinner at Cannes.
He also worked several times with Luis Bunuel, during the Spanish helmer’s decade in Mexico. This partnership produced works including a classic study of street children, “Los Olvidados” (1950), “El” (1952), “Nazarin” (1958), “The Young One” (1961), “The Exterminating Angel” (1962) and “Simon of the Desert.”
Figueroa also lensed two 1970 Clint Eastwood starrers, “Two Mules for Sister Sara” for Don Siegel and “Kelly’s Heroes” for Brian Hutton, as well as the 1973 Merle Oberon vehicle “Interval.”
Capturing vistas from the deserts of Durango to the floating gardens of Xochimilco in Mexico City – often featuring dramatic cloud formations that became known as “Figueroa skies” – Figueroa, who shot more than 100 films, probably did more to promote Mexico as a tourist destination than any government campaign.
He is survived by his wife, Antonieta Flores Castro, and three children.