Nicolas Roeg, a British director acclaimed for a string of films in the 1970s that included the rite-of-passage tale “Walkabout,” the psychological thriller “Don’t Look Now” and the David Bowie vehicle “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” died on Friday. He was 90.
A son, Nicholas Jr., confirmed the death to Britain’s Press Association. The cause and location were not given.
Mr. Roeg came up through the filmmaking ranks, spending 20 years as a camera operator and cinematographer before serving as one of two directors (along with Donald Cammell) of “Performance,” a 1970 drama about the London rock world.
It starred Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, and Mr. Roeg would go on to feature other singers in acting roles — Mr. Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” in 1976 and Art Garfunkel in “Bad Timing” in 1980. Mr. Roeg maintained that the seeming challenge wasn’t all that formidable.
“The fact is that Jagger, Bowie and Garfunkel are all extremely bright, intelligent and well educated,” he told The New York Times in 1980. “A long way from the public stereotype.”
If Mr. Roeg was known for casting rock stars, he also made an impression with one particular sex scene, in the 1973 film “Don’t Look Now,” about a grieving couple played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. The scene, which featured lots of crosscutting, was graphic for the time — so much so that as recently as this year Mr. Sutherland still felt compelled to deny persistent rumors that the sex in it was not simulated.
“The takes were 15 seconds long, maximum,” he told The Daily News.
Nicolas Jack Roeg was born on Aug. 15, 1928, in London to Jack and Mabel (Silk) Roeg. He did not attend film school, instead entering the business at the bottom in 1947, making tea and operating the clapperboard at Marylebone Studios in London.
He worked his way up to camera operator and then cinematographer, receiving the director of photography credit on films like François Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451” and Richard Lester’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” both in 1966. He also shot Mr. Lester’s “Petulia” (1968), which featured the jump cuts and leaps in time that would be among Mr. Roeg’s signatures.
“Performance,” his first directing credit, was completed in the late 1960s but shelved because Warner Brothers had misgivings about it. Some critics savaged it when it was finally released, but its reputation grew over time. In 1999 it made the British Film Institute’s list of the 100 best British movies ever made, as did “Don’t Look Now.”
“Walkabout,” Mr. Roeg’s first solo directing credit, released in 1971, told the story of a teenage girl and her brother who were abandoned in the Australian desert and are befriended by a young Aborigine. Mr. Roeg was his own cinematographer on the film.
“Roeg uses the camera — wide shots, close-ups, colors and textures — to create a sense of unmediated perception,” A. O. Scott of The Times said of the film in a 2010 reassessment, “as if we were seeing the world for the very first time.”
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” further enhanced Mr. Roeg’s reputation for making challenging, visually adventurous films.
“You could call Roeg a pretentious director, but he is a gifted one, and many of his pretensions pay off in beauty, tension and a mysterious, unsettling power,” Jack Kroll wrote in reviewing the movie in Newsweek. “ ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ has enough of these qualities to offset a sometimes maddeningly oblique style.”
Mr. Roeg, whose first marriage, to Susan Stephen in 1957, ended in divorce, married his lead actress from “Bad Timing,” Theresa Russell, in 1982. She also appeared in several of his other films, including “Eureka” (1983), “Insignificance” (1985) and “Track 29” (1988).
Also among his later films was “The Witches” (1990).
“This tale about a witches’ plot to turn every child in England into a mouse is based on the novel by Roald Dahl, who does not write sugarcoated books,” Caryn James wrote in her review in The Times. “It was directed by Nicolas Roeg, best known for the wonderfully terrifying ‘Don’t Look Now’ and the deeply strange ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth,’ with David Bowie as an alien. As it turns out, Mr. Roeg is just the right match for this macabre and funny idea.”
Mr. Roeg’s marriage to Ms. Russell ended in divorce. In 2005 he married Harriet Harper, who survives him. In addition to her and Nicholas Jr., he is survived by several other children. Complete information on survivors wasn’t immediately available.
In 1988, Jay Carr, film critic for The Boston Globe, summarized Mr. Roeg’s style.
“The characters in Nicolas Roeg’s films live in their fantasies, and so does Roeg’s camera,” he wrote. “He delights in juxtaposing their imaginings with so-called real life, sharing the confusion, making it universal.”
Among the directors Mr. Roeg influenced was Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver”).
“His films hypnotized me for years and still continue to intrigue,” Mr. Wright wrote on Twitter. “Along with classics like ‘Performance’ and ‘Walkabout,’ I could watch ‘Don’t Look Now’ on a loop and never tire of its intricacies.’”
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