or the last eight weeks, Sundays have been the night of The Night Of, a dark HBO crime story set in New York. The show blended police procedural, courtroom drama, and character study to produce mystery, suspense, and black humour. Based on a five-part UK drama produced by the BBC in 2008-9, the mini-series centres on a man accused of murder after a night of drugs and heavy drinking. Riz Ahmed is excellent as the young Muslim defendant, inspiring sympathy and suspicion in equal measure. And John Turturro steals the show as an opportunistic lawyer who leads the defence (a role originally intended for late Sopranos star James Gandolfini).
“The Night Of’s bleak and inhospitable New York forms the backdrop to the broader issues that trouble America in a heated election year.”
But what makes the show worthwhile, aside from the great performances, is its grim nocturnal vision of a post-9/11 New York. The Night Of represents the modern urban landscape as a space of racial tension and distrust, where communities struggle to comingle amid a political climate of fear and paranoia. While the series presents us with a multicultural nation, personal and ideological conflicts make it a nation divided against itself. And so, The Night Of’s bleak and inhospitable New York forms the backdrop to the broader issues that trouble America in a heated election year.
One of the reasons that New York looks so striking is down to the work of its cinematographer, Frederick Elmes (credited as Fred). Filmgoers might be familiar with Elmes’ work on movies like Kinsey (2004), Broken Flowers (2005), or Synecdoche, New York (2008), but the canvas Elmes paints of New York is perhaps closer in style and tone to his first full-length feature, David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).
Frederick Elmes became the cinematographer of Eraserhead when he took over from fellow cameraman Herb Caldwell midway through its production. He had previous worked with director David Lynch on a short entitled ‘The Amputee’, which starred Twin Peaks’ Log Lady Catherine E. Coulson. Throughout Lynch’s cult midnight movie, we can watch how Elmes ingeniously manipulates light to tell the story, creating everything from almost pitch-dark imaginary spaces to bright, searing visions. The film’s thick black-and-white gloss conjures a nightmarish vision of industrial urban life.
“[Eraserhead‘s] thick black-and-white gloss conjures a nightmarish vision of industrial urban life.”
While we celebrate the work of the actors, directors, and producers that brought The Night Of to the screen, it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate the skill and genius of a cinematographer like Frederick Elmes. An artist who not only helps to tell the story, but skilfully brings its themes of light and dark to our eyes.
- Frederick Elmes‘ Top 10 movies from the Criterion Collection [Read]
- A fascinating interview with Frederick Elmes, where he discusses the production of Eraserhead [Read]
- Mary McNamara‘s even-handed critique of The Night Of for the Los Angeles Times [Read]
- Alexis Okeowo‘s interesting review, ‘Riz Ahmed’s Tragic Transformation on “The Night Of”’ for The New Yorker [Read]