Overweening Generalist

Sunday, October 16, 2011

More of My Hungarians: John Alton, Mister Film Noir

Just so we're all on the same page here, watch this first. It's 5 minutes long. Go ahead and skip it if you're a film noir junky, though:

John Alton - who some of my film noir friends and I call "Mister Film Noir"- was born on 5 October, 1901 in Sopron/Odenburg, Hungary, died June 2nd, 1996 in Santa Monica, California. He made an enormous number of films - in both Hollywood and Argentina - many of them for very small studios, as "B" pictures. His visual style is one of the great joys in my life and Alton is one of my favorite artists in any medium. And he was "only" a cameraman! A "DP" in the screen trade, or Director of Photography. Ahhh, but he was the Paganini of the DPs!

And his dazzling use of camera angles and especially the use of lighting techniques was/is, to me, transcendent. I can watch an Alton film with the sound off and just marvel at the mood and imagery. Check out this sequence from Raw Deal, a 1948 noir Alton shot with Anthony Mann as director. The male actor is Dennis O'Keefe and the female is the always wonderful Claire Trevor:

Alton had the uncanny ability to use a vast array of camera and lighting effects that complemented the story. I would even go so far as to say his camerawork overall added another, deeper - I hesitate but will proffer "profound" - dimension to any film he worked on, because his virtuosity, in the highest aspirations of the German Expressionistic aesthetic, brought subconscious layers out from "under" the film's surface "meanings." But the psychology of perception forces me to admit, this is only my gloss.

Any film has the writer's/director's/actors'/and other of the filmmakers' intent; once the film is released diverse members of the audience may perceive aspects that were unintended by the makers, or, to choose a bit of fanciful flight, were unconsciously incorporated by the makers, and picked up by (some, but not all?) the audience.

It seems to me that Alton's work fits squarely with this idea. Any film I've seen that he worked on stays with me for days after. Such are the peculiar qualities of light that play upon human consciousness. Hey, they're almost all films noir, but I will find my mind is still interpreting something a few days later, at some odd moment, like when I'm in the shower or brushing my teeth, or sweeping the patio. Ostensibly the great noir films Alton worked on were "merely" crime films, as some relatively clueless critics have written. Oh, no. I think there's much more going on. But you'll have to watch Raw Deal, The Crooked Way, T-Men, The Black Book, Border Incident, The Big Combo, Mystery Street, Witness to Murder, The People Against O'Hara, and the stunning color-noir Slightly Scarlet and see for yourself.

Here's a trailer for He Walked By Night, a film released in 1949 with lots of Los Angeles area locations and night-for-night shots. It's 31 seconds long and someone added modern music to the trailer, but the imagery here looks like the greatest Fritz Lang Expressionistic film from the early 1920s:

No noir camerman ever captured the dark, mean streets of labyrinthine Los Angeles between the years 1945-55 like Alton, in my opinion. Other noir films Alton shot that featured Los Angeles exteriors were The Crooked Way, Hollow Triumph (AKA The Scar), The Big Combo, Talk About A Stranger (suburban LA), and a lot of the incredible T-Men.

In perhaps the most influential essay on noir, "Notes On Film Noir," published in 1972 by Paul Schrader and also collected in Film Noir Reader (first volume), edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, Schrader writes:

"Perhaps the greatest master of noir was Hungarian-born John Alton, an expressionistic cinematographer who could relight Times Square at noon if necessary. No cinematographer better adapted the old expressionist techniques to the new desire for realism, and his black-and-white photography in such gritty film noir as T-Men, Raw Deal, I, The Jury, The Big Combo equals that of such German expressionist masters as Fritz Wagner and Karl Freund." - p.56, Film Noir Reader

Some directors loved to work with Alton, and perhaps most notable, noir-wise, was Anthony Mann. Robert E. Smith elaborates: "A favorite Alton technique frequently employed in the Mann films is to dispense with lighting from above altogether, using only lateral illumination. The consequent reduction in light intensity greatly lengthens and accentuates shadows, resulting in a very dramatic lighting scheme of small points of illumination, around which strikingly deep shadows fall. Large portions of the mise-en-scene are thereupon drenched in darkness, lit just enough to vaguely distinguish whatever objects might be there. Often the only source of illumination will be the studio's artful and often poetic approximation of natural light, such as the moonlight which shines through the venetian blinds of Marsha Hunt's bedroom in Raw Deal..." - p.191, ibid, "Mann in the Dark: the Films Noir of Anthony Mann"

Another director, Joseph H. Lewis, was asked about working with Alton on Lewis's film The Big Combo:

Q: How about John Alton on The Big Combo?

Lewis: The man was, unfortunately for him really, so good, so brilliant, so magnificent. He was too good for the studio that he was at, and he frightened all other photographers. He frightened the heads of the photographic departments. He frightened the executives who hire the photographers. And what was the result? They kicked him out. [More on this later: the OG]

Lewis continues: All you had to do was say to him, "Look, John, I see a girl coming out of a door that only has one little inch-wide streak of light. And as she comes through that light comes clean across her face, but only one inch at a time. And she emerges from darkness now into another sun-lit room and passes through that only for an instant. Then into complete darkness so you only see a silhouette of her against a white background. This is how I see it, John." Now, you know, I was only shooting off the top of my head. He'd say, "Fine." And I'd go sit for a few minutes and suddenly he'd say, "Ready." I'm not kidding. He had them all buffaloed with his technique. Me, too. It was magic. He'd put a light there, a backlight there, and a front light kicker here and say, "Ready." - p.83, Film Noir Reader 3

Here's the director John Sayles talking about another Mann-Alton noir, Border Incident, released in 1949. It's 2 minutes, 53 seconds:

Sayles opines that Alton was influenced by Gabriele Figueroa here, especially in "low-angle" shots, but I think Sayles is shooting from the hip: Alton had an entire theory of low-angle shots well considered before he ever went into Mexico. (Much of Border Incident was shot in Mexicali, according to the 3rd edition of the encyclopedia Film Noir, edited by Silver and Ward.) Alton likely got the low angle nuances nailed with all of his work in Argentina before he returned to America after ten years. (See his filmography.)...Speaking of Ricardo Montalban (as the above trailer did, briefly), Alton worked with him again, less than a year later on Mystery Street, which your public library or NetFlix might have. It's a solid noir film with Montalban as a scientifically-minded detective and he's good, but, to me - surprise! - it's Alton's style that steals the show...

Alton wrote a book on his techniques, titled Painting With Light. Most of it is textbook-ish, and quite technical. But get a load of some of the chapter titles: "Mystery Lighting," "Special Illumination," and "Visual Symphony." Just as Paganini's Caprices set the bar higher for every virtuoso violinist in Europe for at least 50 years during the 19th century, so Alton's book is his technical manual for dazzling camera and lighting virtuosity. If you're not interested in the arcane technical minutiae of camera and lights for movies, read Todd McCarthy's wonderful introduction to the book, which is perhaps the best biographical writing on Alton that I've seen.

[For more information on John Alton, see HERE and especially HERE.]

John Alton said that "black and white are colors." He thought that studio lighting absolutely required the simulation of natural light, at the service and aim of what he called texture. He thought it essential that the DP think like a DP and not like a director, and that a new director who once worked as a DP must try to only think like a director. As Alton said, "I didn't become a director because every time I looked at a scene, I saw the light on the actors' faces, and didn't hear what they were saying, so I knew I wasn't going to be a good director."

What amazes me is that he accomplished all of this while working on some of the cheapest - but great! -B movies of the late 1940s, when studios had very little money. But that's why studios like Republic and Monogram loved him so much: not only was he extremely good, but he worked at such a speed that it saved them money.

Actually, the drive to save money seems to favor an artist like Alton. Not in remuneration, but in freedom to stretch out his craft in an almost luxurious way...The old studio system allowed very many gifted artists to work "a lot" and in Alton's case it amounted to a series of technically breathtaking bravura performances...

In 1951 Vincent Minelli brought in Alton to film a dance sequence for his film An American In Paris. The DP for the rest of the film felt slighted, but Minelli said he'd wanted to do something edgy by bringing in Alton...to film in color. And Alton won an Oscar for his work then. Alton lost the job on Singin' In The Rain precisely because his style was "too dark." (And I for one am glad Alton lost that job!)

The thing that Joseph H. Lewis said about Alton frightening others? Eventually Alton got sick of Hollywood and the egos and attitudes and became a sort of Garbo figure. (He did photograph the pilot episode for TV's Mission Impossible, though.)

There is so much I've left out about John Alton, one of my favorite Hungarians. But I must add this passage, from his Painting With Light, because it reveals something about his feel for noir films:

"To realize the power of light and what it can do to the mind of the audience, visualize the following scene:

"The room is dark. A strong streak of light sneaks in from the hall under the door. The sound of steps is heard. The shadows of two feet divide the light streak. A brief silence follows. There is suspense in the air. Who is it? What is going to happen? Is he going to ring the bell? Or just insert a key and try to come in? Another heavier shadow appears and blocks the light entirely. A dim hissing sound is heard, and as the shadow leaves, we see in the dim light a paper slip onto the carpet. The steps are heard again...This time they leave. A strong light appears once more and illuminates the light on the floor. We read it as the steps fade out in the distance. 'It is ten o'clock. Please turn off your radio. The Manager.'"

I suspect we have another modern Illuminati with John Alton, but maybe that's just me...

Finally, here's a short titled "John Alton: Cinematic Poet."It's a 58-second edited clip from the climax of He Walked By Night, the culmination of a manhunt through the sewers of Los Angeles after a Unabomber-like figure, played by Richard Basehart. Many people think the idea here was stolen from the far more famous film, The Third Man, but He Walked By Night was shot at roughly the same time as Sir Carol Reed's film, or possibly slightly before. It depicts a modern underworld of the Fallen quite graphically. No dialogue is necessary. It's all texture and light and gloomy and doomy, with violence-sodden mood. It feels incredibly desperate, claustrophobic, and Sartrean No-Exit-ish to the nth to me, maybe even gnostic. Note: it's just after World War II and the LAPD has already incorporated military weapons. See what you think about this Doomed World:


Darla Sue Dollman said...

Thank you for this thoughtful tribute to the talents of John Alton. Few people even know his name, or understand his contribution to film, and you've managed to honor him, and his work, with great respect for his genius. Well done!

michael said...

Darla Sue-

Your kindness is appreciated. I found it difficult to make the article as short as it was. I had tons of interesting stuff on Alton, but then I realized that if people read the piece and watched the clips, I was asking for probably too much of their time.

Oh well.