A cinematographer turned director, Arthur Crabtree enjoyed a decade and a half as a successful filmmaker, most of his best work in the fields of melodrama, thrillers, and chillers. Born in 1900, he entered the movie business at British International Pictures in the early 1930s, where his work behind the camera was restricted to ultra-low-budget quota quickies, including the Michael Powell-directed The Love Test (1935). At Gainsborough Studios from 1936, he developed a reputation as a fast, very efficient lighting cameraman, and most of his work across the end of the 1930s and the early 1940s was confined to the company's bread-and-butter pictures, such as the Will Hay comedies, all movies that were immensely popular in England and guaranteed profit-producers, but hardly the kind of films to give a photographer opportunities for notable quality or inventiveness. By the mid-'40s, however, amid the exigencies of the Second World War, he had moved up to the studio's front ranks with a run of assignments on high-profile movies. Included among those pictures that he photographed at the time was Leslie Arliss' melodrama The Man in Grey, on which Crabtree, at long last, found an opportunity to go beyond the by-the-numbers efficiencies of his previous work. The look of the resulting movie seemingly melded Crabtree's personal preference for Expressionist elements with the studio-dictated emphasis on ornate period costuming and detail, and the result, when coupled with fiery performances by Margaret Lockwood and James Mason in the leading roles under Arliss' direction, was a huge hit for the studio. Indeed, The Man in Grey opened a new, highly exploitable sub-genre of period bodice-ripper melodramas that war-weary audiences whole-heartedly embraced, and not just in England; it also did respectable business on the far side of the Atlantic.
It was also Crabtree's permanent ticket out of low-budget cinema and to work with some of the more prestigious filmmakers of the period, most notably Anthony Asquith on Fanny By Gaslight (1944). And the latter was also to be his last go-around as a cinematographer. The very same year, he moved into the director's chair with the mysticism-laced melodrama Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944), starring Stewart Granger. Crabtree continued working at Gainsborough for the rest of the 1940s, directing They Were Sisters (1945), Caravan (1946), and Dear Murderer (1947) for the studio, all high-profile if not highly distinguished melodramas. Apparently, his method of working with actors was similar to Asquith's, but for different reasons. Where the mild-mannered Asquith was content to discuss, persuade, and ultimately defer to his actors in most matters of performance, and build his work around them, Crabtree also left most of the acting to take care of itself, permitting the performers to make the decisions about how to play a scene or read a line, just so long as it made sense and they hit their marks. But where Asquith (who only had the best players in his films) took this approach out of respect, Crabtree deferred to his actors principally because his main concern were the visuals. As one who started his career as a cameraman, he was concerned himself primarily with the images, and this usually resulted in handsome-looking movies in which the actors and actresses come off very well visually, even if the acting quality and styles sometimes varied widely. Crabtree kept working for another decade after Gainsborough was shut down, but by the second half of the 1950s he was directing filmed television shows as often as not, where his experience as a fast shooter was very welcome. His best-known movies of the decade were his last two, the sci-fi/horror classic Fiend Without a Face (1958) and notorious Horrors of the Black Museum (1959). The qualities of both movies illustrate Crabtree's virtues and flaws as a filmmaker; in Fiend Without a Face, with a mostly experienced cast and a heavy reliance of production