Wednesday, October 1, 2014

John Alton: Master of Light and Shadow

                                                                                                                                    from Raw Deal (1948)                                                               

     In the world of Film Noir in the 1940s and 50s, few filmmakers had as profound an impact as John Alton.  The Hungarian-born photographer/cinematographer took the highly stylized shadows of German Expressionist masterpieces like Fritz Lang's M and it's American descendents Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon and applied them to low budget American gangster movies to great success.  His mark was made with his early collaborations with director Anthony Mann on T-Men in 1947 and Raw Deal in 1948 and peaked in 1955 with The Big Combo.  These films dove deeper into the shadows than anyone else had dared, a place that only Alton was able to navigate and accurately capture on film.  He had complete mastery over light, oftentimes giving only a sliver to slice dramatically through the darkness.  The actors puppeteered long shadows across the walls and ceilings until these silhouettes were almost characters themselves.  Gangsters oozed out into view from a sea of black ink on the screen, and beautiful damsels stood silhouetted under a street light with an eerie fog rolling in, photographed like an urban Ansel Adams piece.  Alton had an impeccable eye for composition and possessed flawless design instincts.  Nearly every shot is perfectly balanced, every element from the foreground, middle ground, and background worked together, and the actors oftentimes walked through these various levels as if they are on completely different planes.  Shadowed figures in the background lurch towards us through a back lit hallway, and just when they disappear into the murk, they emerge in front of us under dramatic lighting.   He utilized the full range of camera angles, from low worm's eye views to high, tight down shots,  extreme closeups balanced with wide panoramas and everything in between.  Alton also had an adventurous eye to place the camera in unusual positions... looking up through a table lamp to a group of scheming thugs, impossibly dramatic shadows drawn on their faces... behind a heavily silhouetted figure in the extreme foreground, dividing the screen down the middle with action to the far left and right. He was fearlessly creative.  Alton's early Noir films were created cheaply and on the fly for small independent studios and was given complete creative control. Later, while neck deep in the rigid confines of the Hollywood movie making machine, Alton still played by his own visual rules, but it came at a price. He constantly battled for his visions. Eventually, Alton had enough fighting with ignorant producers and retired from filmmaking in 1960.

It is worth noting that although Alton is most famous for his shadowy Film Noir films, he put his stamp on several color films later in his career.  He won his only Oscar Award for his work on the famous ballet scene from An American in Paris, world-renowned for its beautifully saturated hues.  Also worth mentioning is his work on the pilot for the Mission: Impossible television series in 1966.  Alton curiously emerged from retirement to work on this single episode and it still looks fantastic, like a piece of technicolor pop art (and a precursor to Jim Steranko's innovative Nick Fury books for Marvel Comics later that year).  He returned to retirement when filming was finished and faded into obscurity.  In the years since, filmmakers like Martin Scorsese have hailed him as a visionary and his work has now come back into critical view.  John Alton passed away in 1996 at the age of 94.

Here is a short but effective documentary on Alton:


T-Men (1947) (full movie)

Raw Deal (1948) (final sequence.  full movie streaming on Netflix)

He Walked By Night (1948) (full movie)

The Big Combo (1955) (full movie)

Mission: Impossible (1966) (full pilot) (streaming on Netflix)

Mission Impossible 1966 S01E01 - Pilot by madonna-jackson

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