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Nicolas Roeg, Director of ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth,’ ‘The Witches,’ Dies at 90

Director and noted cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, whose offbeat films included “Performance,” “Don’t Look Now,” “The Witches” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” has died. He was 90.

His son Nicolas Roeg Jr. told the BBC his father died Friday night.

A daring and influential craftsman, Roeg’s idiosyncratic films influenced filmmakers including Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh.

He worked his way up from the bottom of the business and by the 1960s was much in demand as a cinematographer, responsible for the lensing of films including “Petulia,” “Far From the Madding Crowd” and “Fahrenheit 451.”

The controversial, oddly compelling Mick Jagger-starring “Performance,” which Roeg co-directed with Donald Cammell, was almost not released and then was recut by Warner Bros.; execs at the studio found it incomprehensible as a gangster thriller. It was eventually recut, released in 1970 to modest business and decades later received widespread acclaim as a classic of British cinema.

Its fractured narrative showed the influence of Richard Lester, as well as Jean-Luc Godard and other European auteurs of the era, though Roeg was to work with a consistently darker palette and on a deeper psychological level.

It also defined Roeg as a director to watch. His subsequent directorial outings such as “Walkabout,” “Don’t Look Now” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” starring David Bowie, evidenced strong development in his style. Each was a compelling, idiosyncratic tale with highly stylized performances — and beautiful, moody cinematography.

Roeg immediately hit again with his saga of the Australian outback, “Walkabout,” on which he again did double duty. As with “Performance,” the narrative was fractured, and it offered a certain mysticism that captivated arthouse audiences. The film starred Jenny Agutter and his son Luc as siblings abandoned in the desert by their father who are found by an Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on his coming-of-age walkabout.

Two years later, in 1973, Roeg directed “Don’t Look Now,” with two major stars, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, in the leads. This occult story set in Venice was perhaps his most fully realized and moody thriller, though it never reached a mass audience as it was overshadowed by “The Exorcist” in the year of its release.

As he had mined Jagger’s menacing appeal in “Performance,” Roeg used Bowie’s alien persona to good effect in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” another odd but satisfying film about a visitor from another planet. Based on a 1963 science fiction novel about an extraterrestrial stranded on Earth, it co-starred Candy Clark, Buck Henry and Rip Torn and competed at the Berlin Film Festival. When Paramount’s Barry Diller saw the finished film, he reportedly refused to pay for it and it was released independently, later becoming a cult classic and staple of repertory cinema.

Later films such as 1980’s disturbingly effective romantic tragedy “Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession,” the first of his films with soon-to-be-wife Theresa Russell; “Insignificance,” based upon Terry Johnson’s audacious play; and “Eureka,” starring Gene Hackman, proved less popular even as he was telling dramatic stories in a slightly more straightforward manner.

Perhaps his most notable later film was 1990’s “The Witches,” a studio assignment starring Anjelica Huston and based on an eerie Roald Dahl children’s tale. Produced by Jim Henson, the Roald Dahl adaptation is remembered as one of the most terrifying childrens’ movies ever. Dahl, who died the year after it released, was reportedly horrified by the film since the ending differed from his book.

“Castaway,” in 1987, was notable mostly for its beautiful cinematography. His “Un ballo in maschera” selection from the 1988 compilation film “Aria” was impressive, but “Track 29,” co-starring future Oscar-winner Gary Oldman, was confusing to many critics. Among his many long-gestating projects that failed to reach the screen, Roeg came closest to finding financing for “Kiss of Life,” which was based upon the edgy French novel “Mygale,” later made as the feature film”The Skin I Live In” by Pedro Almodovar.

Nicolas Jack Roeg was born in London. Following his military service, during which he functioned as a projectionist, he started in the movie business in 1947 as an office boy and apprentice editor. By 1950 he was working at MGM’s London Studios and worked his way up from being a clapper boy to assistant operator and on up to lighting cameraman. During the 1950s, he worked on films including “Bhowani Junction” and “The Trials of Oscar Wilde.” He was the cinematographer on small-budget films such as “Jazz Boat,” “The Great Van Robbery” and “Information Received.”

Roeg first made an impression on the profession as second-unit lenser on 1962 epic “Lawrence of Arabia.” Thereafter, his assignments ranged from the carefree “Just for Fun” and “Seaside Swingers” to such prestige items as “The Caretaker” and “Nothing but the Best” and a wide variety of assignments including Roger Corman’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” the Lester films “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Petulia,” Francois Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451” and John Schlesinger’s “Far From the Madding Crowd.” He also served as second unit director on 1965’s “Judith” and shot some scenes for 1966 James Bond spoof “Casino Royale.”

When his first post-“Witches” film, “Cold Heaven,” didn’t make an impression, he returned to television with TV movies including 1993’s “Heart of Darkness,” 1995’s “Full Body Massage” and 1996’s “Samson and Delilah” as well as the 1989 television adaptation of “Sweet Bird of Youth,” with Elizabeth Taylor. His 1996 BBC Films-produced drama “Two Deaths,” about the Serbo-Croatian conflict, was well received though it received scant distribution.

His first big-screen effort in more than a decade, 2007’s “Puffball: The Devil’s Eyeball,” was little-seen.

In 1994 Roeg was made a fellow of the British Film Institute, an award presented to individuals in “recognition of their outstanding contribution to film or television culture.” The London Film Critics Circle presented Roeg with their Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film in 2011 and Roeg published his memoirs, “The World Is Ever Changing” (Faber and Faber) in 2013.

Roeg is survived by his third wife, actress Harriet Harper, as well as his four children with his first wife, actress Susan Stephen, who include producer Nicolas Roeg Jr., Luc Roeg, first a.d. Sholto J. Roeg and first a.d. Waldo Roeg; and two children with his second wife, actress Russell, actor Max Roeg and cameraman Statten Roeg.

 

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