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A Joy Forever - Cinematography


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ChiO - Welcome! Thanks for visiting over here.

 

> I wanted to read it a couple of years ago, but the Chicago Public Library system had only one copy...and was locked up in the main reference section and not for circulation. So I bought a copy.

> Great if you're obsessed with John Alton (I am). The introductory essay/Alton bio and filmography (30 pages) by Todd McCarthy made the purchase worth it. The rest is a cinematography handbook: fascinating when he's writing about theory and approach; beyond me when he's talking about lens.

 

That's how I felt reading the previously mentioned William Clothier interview. Much of it was far, far beyond my poor brain's capacity to understand.

 

> The movies he made with Anthony Mann -- T-Men, Raw Deal, He Walked by Night, The Black Book, Border Incident, and Devil's Doorway -- are the finest extended pairing of a director and cinematography in film. Then there's his work with Vincente Minnelli, especially the ballet sequence in *An American in Paris* (Alton's only Oscar), which is marvelous. *The Big Combo* and *Slightly Scarlet* and *Silver Lode* and *The Catered Affair* ....

 

I am glad you mentioned Mann, because his movies are so arresting visually, with amazing depth of field and incredible, sharp black and white. *Border Incident* was on recently and I simply HAD to watch once my eye drifted to the screen - the way it looked was extraordinary, I've never seen anything as fascinating, shot for shot, as that movie. I didn't know who the director was when I looked up, but I made a point of finding out rapidly!

>

> And speaking of great cinematographers from Hungary, I'm hoping to see tonight *No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos* (James Chressanthis, 2008), a film essay on Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond. Mr. Zsigmond is going to be there for audience discussion. My fingers are crossed that he'll discuss his incredible work on the movies with his first two head cinematographer credits: *The Sadist* and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Died and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.

 

That is so exciting! You must let us know what you find out.... please drop in after the event, if it's not too much trouble, and tell us everything!

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> {quote:title=ChiO wrote:}{quote}

> Great if you're obsessed with John Alton (I am). The introductory essay/Alton bio and filmography (30 pages) by Todd McCarthy made the purchase worth it. The rest is a cinematography handbook: fascinating when he's writing about theory and approach; beyond me when he's talking about lens.

>

> The movies he made with Anthony Mann -- T-Men, Raw Deal, He Walked by Night, The Black Book, Border Incident, and Devil's Doorway -- are the finest extended pairing of a director and cinematography in film. Then there's his work with Vincente Minnelli, especially the ballet sequence in *An American in Paris* (Alton's only Oscar), which is marvelous. *The Big Combo* and *Slightly Scarlet* and *Silver Lode* and *The Catered Affair* ....

 

ChiO, you absolutely make me want to run out and order that book asap. I consider Alton to be among the very finest DPs of all time, and definitely like all of the great work he did in noir and other genres (by the way I found an old post in westerns, either by you or Arkadin, regarding *Slightly Scarlet* - the movie just played to a packed house last month as part of the Noir City 7 festival).

 

>

> And speaking of great cinematographers from Hungary, I'm hoping to see tonight *No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos* (James Chressanthis, 2008), a film essay on Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond. Mr. Zsigmond is going to be there for audience discussion. My fingers are crossed that he'll discuss his incredible work on the movies with his first two head cinematographer credits: *The Sadist* and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Died and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.

 

It sounds like a fascinating documentary. I hope it gets a decent release eventually (I had not heard anything about it before).

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Missed the documentary last night -- the ravages of time and age (sigh).

 

Anyway, below is a post I made at another site that may be of some interest here.

 

It?s not what you light ? it?s what you DON?T light. ? John Alton

 

Orson Welles contended that every film has an auteur ? sometimes it is the director, or an actor, or the screenwriter, or the cinematographer. In the films of John Alton, the cinematographer as auteur is brought to light ? and to dark. Alton?s use of light and shadow, baroque angles, and a static camera created a look, a feel, an atmosphere of oppressiveness and foreboding that is the archetype of gritty urban film noir (T-MEN; RAW DEAL; HE WALKED BY NIGHT; THE BIG COMBO). His imprint could convert a standard stage drama into a tense tale of family disintegration (THE CATERED AFFAIR). But black and white were not the only colors on his palette, for he was equally adept in his use of color. Alton can surround the viewer with the sense of a vivid, garish and surrealistic otherworldliness (AN AMERICAN IN PARIS; SLIGHTLY SCARLET) or create a claustrophobic sense of urgency in a Western (DEVIL?S DOORWAY; SILVER LODE), a genre traditionally based on open space.

 

John Alton (originally Altman) was born in 1901 in a Hungarian village near the Austrian border. He came to the U.S. in 1919, joining his father and uncle (his mother had died in 1914). He worked at the Paramount Studios lab on Long Island, moved to Los Angeles in the winter of 1923-24, and got a job at the MGM lab. He watched Erich Von Stroheim on the set of THE MERRY WIDOW and, in 1926-27, he became an assistant cameraman with ?One Shot? Woody Van Dyke, churning out Tim McCoy Westerns. He also worked with Ernest Lubitsch, accompanying him to Europe for a shoot. While in Paris, he saw Maurice Chevalier perform and got permission from Irving Thalberg to make a screen test; Thalberg passed on Chevalier, so Alton recommended him to friends at Paramount, which then signed Chevalier.

 

Alton continued to work in Europe and to write for a photography journal. In 1932, he went to Buenos Aires at the request of some Argentine financiers to help build the Argentine film industry. He photographed about 25 films during the next six years in Argentina. In 1939, he moved to Hollywood and, starting with THE COURAGEOUS DR. CHRISTIAN, began introducing dramatic lighting effects to movies that often were shot with lightning speed, and making B-movies look like A-movies. Because he worked quickly, cheaply, and made movies look spectacular, many of his peers grew to dislike him. Alton also contended that some directors did not want to work with him because he could not be blamed if a picture went over budget, over schedule, or looked flat.

 

In 1947, Anthony Mann, who had been directing Bs for five years asked for Alton to shoot his next film, T-MEN, and there began one of the most fruitful director-cinematographer collaborations in movies. From 1947 through 1950, they made six films together. Whether the setting was urban (T-MEN; RAW DEAL; HE WALKED BY NIGHT), rural (BORDER INCIDENT), foreign historical costume drama (REIGN OF TERROR) or in the West (DEVIL'S DOORWAY), Alton used lighting not to make faces and sets visible, but to bathe them in darkness and, in so doing, created dramatic examples of film noir?s characteristic chiaroscuro effect. ?Black and white are colors,? he said, and his films of that period were awash in those two colors.

 

Over the next nine years (1951-60), Alton photographed 29 films. Four of the movies were directed by Vincente Minnelli, whom Alton adored because of their similar design interests. Alton shared his only Academy Award for cinematography with Alfred Girks for their work on Minnelli?s AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Alton?s contribution to the movie was on the screen for only about 20 minutes ? the final ballet scene, arguably the most visually stunning sequence in film musical history. Seven films were directed by Allan Dwan, a pioneer of the American film industry (Alton had also worked on a Dwan movie in 1947). One of those films, SLIGHTLY SCARLET, is convincing evidence that excellent film noir can be shot in color. The only Joseph H. Lewis movie that he worked on during this period is a film noir classic, THE BIG COMBO. Alton?s last film was ELMER GANTRY in 1960, his fifth movie directed by Richard Brooks. The only cinematography he did after that was in 1966 for the TV pilot episode of Mission:Impossible.

 

John Alton lived thereafter in the shadows, largely by choice, until 1993 when the marvelous documentary VISIONS OF LIGHT: THE ART OF CINEMATOGRAPHY premiered. The makers had been unable to interview Alton for the film, but two days before the premiere he asked, through his step-grandson, if he could attend. He did and received an ovation from the audience, including his professional children, Conrad Hall (THE PROFESSIONALS; IN COLD BLOOD; COOL HAND LUKE), Haskell Wexler (WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?; ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST), Vilmos Zsigmond (McCABE AND MRS. MILLER; CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND; THE DEER HUNTER), and Laszlo Kovacs (EASY RIDER; GHOSTBUSTERS).

 

John Alton died in 1996.

 

Selected Filmography

 

*T-MEN* (Anthony Mann, 1947)

*THE SPIRITUALIST* (aka THE AMAZING MR. X) (Bernard Vorhaus, 1948)

*RAW DEAL* (Anthony Mann, 1948)

*HE WALKED BY NIGHT* (Alfred Werker/Anthony Mann (uncredited), 1948)

*HOLLOW TRIUMPH* (aka THE SCAR) (Steve Sekely/Paul Henreid (uncredited), 1948)

*BORDER INCIDENT* (Anthony Mann, 1949)

*REIGN OF TERROR* (aka THE BLACK BOOK) (Anthony Mann, 1949)

*FATHER OF THE BRIDE* (Vincente Minnelli, 1950)

*MYSTERY STREET* (John Sturges, 1950)

*DEVIL'S DOORWAY* (Anthony Mann, 1950)

*AN AMERICAN IN PARIS* (ballet sequence only) (Vincente Minnelli, 1951)

*SILVER LODE* (Allan Dwan, 1954)

*THE BIG COMBO* (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955)

*TEA AND SYMPATHY* (Vincente Minnelli, 1956)

*SLIGHTLY SCARLET* (Allan Dwan, 1956)

*THE CATERED AFFAIR* (Richard Brooks, 1956)

*TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON* (Daniel Mann, 1956)

*DESIGNING WOMAN* (Vincente Minnelli, 1957)

*LONELYHEARTS* (Vincent J. Donehue, 1958)

*ELMER GANTRY* (Richard Brooks, 1960)

 

Sources

 

Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer (Bogdanovich, P.)

Anthony Mann (Basinger, J.)

Through a Lens Darkly: The Life and Films of John Alton (McCarthy, T. -- Introduction to Painting with Light (Alton, J.))

Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors (Bogdanovich, P.)

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Awesome article, ChiO! I'm so glad you posted it.... now maybe we can get some other noir buffs over to visit..... I'm embarrassed to say that I have only seen Border Incident out of all the movies Alton made. Oh, and American in Paris, of course.......I really need to start seeing more noir......

 

I'm so sorry you missed the documentary..... :(

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Hey, I am not going to go into much detail here, but Jake Holman posted a scene on the Western Rambles thread a few days ago, and I couldn't get it out of my mind.

 

It is from the movie Shane, from the final 5 minutes or so. I wanted to post it here because the scene starts with the most amazing shot I can remember seeing in a long time. The cinematographer was Loyal Griggs, and I know absolutely nothing about him. I don't know if he thought of the shot. I am inclined to think it was George Stevens' idea. But whoever thought of it, it's an incredible bit of camera work, especially considering the information about light and weather that we were just talking about.

 

*SPOILER*

The clip is from the end as I said, so don't watch if you have never seen the end of the movie or don't want to ..........

 

 

 

Now, take a look at the first shot, (it's a little dark and fuzzy because of youtube, but impressive nonetheless) the one in which the camera follows Shane down the hill, all the way across the prairie and down to the right - a 180 degree turn..... and then check out the subsequent 8 or so shots following it, the light and clouds are so well matched... I don't know if this weather was an accident, but the cameraman was a genius the way he caught that gorgeous sky from all directions.......

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFquzxwYoeE

 

Message was edited by JackFavell for stupidity. I forgot to put in the link..... :)

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Annie Laurie, I've always assumed you picked your pen name from the Lillian Gish silent - could it be that I made a mistake and it is actually from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn instead? Seeing it the other day I realized how crucial the name is in the movie......

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