Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for the ‘Career Retrospectives’ Category

Black & White Cinema – A Short History on TCM

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

I was honored to have Robert Osborne discuss my book Black & White Cinema on TCM last night.

For a special evening of black and white films on October 7, 2015 entitled “Artists in Black and White,” showcasing the work of such brilliant cinematographers as James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Haskell Wexler and Karl Freund, Robert Osborne and Turner Classic Movies ran a series of five films that best exemplify the brilliance of monochrome cinema during the classical Hollywood studio era, including Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (photographed by Toland) and Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (shot by Wexler).

Introducing the films, Osborne remarked that “there’s an interesting new book by Wheeler Winston Dixon called Black & White Cinema: A Short History, and it tells the history of black and white movies, its origins and impact, and it’s really well worth reading. It’s filled with all kinds of insights about black and white cinematography, and the many artists who mastered the tricky interplay in capturing light and shadow.”

Needless to say, I thank Robert Osborne and TCM for their interest in my work, and TCM, as always, is a national treasure – the last place on television where one can see the classics, complete and uncut, in their original aspect ratios – with no commercials. Many thanks, and long may TCM continue into the future!

Black and White Cinema is available in Kindle, paperback and hardcover formats – check it out now!

Director Chantal Akerman Dies at 65

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

The brilliant filmmaker Chantal Akerman has died unexpectedly in Paris.

As reported by Rachel Donadio and Cara Buckley in The New York Times just minutes ago, “Chantal Akerman, the Belgian filmmaker whose ruminative, meticulous observation of women’s everyday and inner lives, often using long, protracted takes, made her a pioneer in feminist and experimental filmmaking and influenced generations of directors, has died in Paris. She was 65.

Her death was confirmed by her sister, Sylviane Akerman, and by Nicola Mazzanti, the director of the Royal Belgian Film Archive, which had worked closely with Ms. Akerman over the years and restored her films. Mr. Mazzanti said the cause and precise date of her death, which he said he believed had occurred in the past few days, were not yet known.

Born in Brussels to Polish Holocaust survivors, Chantal Akerman was inspired to begin making films after seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 Pierrot le Fou as a teenager. At age 25, she made her groundbreaking 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which follows a housewife in real time over the course of more than three hours as she prepares food, does chores, and receives clients paying for sex. The minimalist repetition builds up quietly to a traumatic climax.

Jeanne Dielman is a film that created, overnight, a new way of making films, a new way of telling stories, a new way of telling time,’ Mr. Mazzanti said. ‘There are filmmakers who are good, filmmakers who are great, filmmakers who are in film history. And then there are a few filmmakers who change film history.’”

The director of more than forty films, Akerman’s work specialized in deep contemplation of her subjects, and resolutely refused to cater to public tastes. Most recently, she was teaching filmmaking at CCNY in Manhattan, and her latest film, No Home Movie, has just been selected for the upcoming New York Film Festival.

A documentary consisting of detailed conversations with her mother, Natalia, an Auschwitz survivor who recently died, the film was inexplicably booed at the recent Locarno Film Festival, and as The Times reports, the initial hostile reception of the film was “devastating [to] Ms. Akerman, who friends said had been in a dark place of late, and who had previously suffered emotional breakdowns.”

That’s all we know now, except that her films will live on, and that her place as someone who changed the language of cinema is absolutely assured. All across the world, tributes are pouring in, but nothing can really capture the brilliance of her work, which must be seen, and experienced, to be truly appreciated.

Chantal Akerman – one of the masters of modern cinema.

Terence Stamp – An Actor’s Unusual Life

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in the 1967 version of Far From The Madding Crowd.

Though most people know him today almost solely as General Zod in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, Terence Stamp has had a long and deeply varied career. On March 12, 2015, Stamp sat down with Andrew Pulver of The Guardian for a detailed interview, which makes for fascinating reading, both as an overview of the actor’s life, but also as a reminder of the whimsical nature an acting career – one moment you’re hot, the next moment, nothing.

As Pulver notes, “It’s funny how things work out. Now 76, Stamp had a fantastic 1960s, during which he starred in a handful of imperishable classics (Billy Budd, Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, Pasolini’s Theorem) and consorted with some of the era’s most beautiful women (Julie Christie, Jean Shrimpton, Brigitte Bardot). His career fell off a cliff at the start of the 1970s, the drought ending with an improbable offer to play General Zod in the first two Superman movies.

A peripatetic revival followed, with occasional juicy roles (The Hit, Wall Street, The Adventures of Priscilla – Queen of the Desert, Song for Marion) alternating with pay-the-bills Hollywood (Young Guns, Elektra, Wanted). Retro fetishism started in 1999 with the Steven Soderbergh-directed The Limey, in which Stamp played a Get Carter-ish avenging gangster, and has continued to the present day, with Stamp currently lionized by another 60s-fetishising film-maker, Tim Burton, with roles in Big Eyes (as a snooty art critic) and the yet-to-be-completed Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

But cinema has a habit of folding back on itself; this week sees the reissue of one of those imperishable 1960s films, Far From the Madding Crowd, an adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel, in which Stamp plays the coldly raffish Sergeant Troy opposite Julie Christie’s Bathsheba. Spruced-up and spring-cleaned, and just less than half a century old, Far From the Madding Crowd is something else: they really don’t make them like this any more.

Almost three hours long, smeared with mud and sheep dung in its grimly realistic recreation of early 19th-century Dorset, and benefiting from performances from actors at the top of their games, it glows on the screen exactly the way it must have when first released in 1967. At the time, however, it was considered a disaster: poor reviews, especially in the US, and a general inability to see past the with-it celebrity personas of Stamp and Christie, translated into underwhelming box-office and a severe career misstep for its director, John Schlesinger.

These days, Stamp is sanguine about the film, which has regained some cultural currency with the impending release of another adaptation, featuring Carey Mulligan in the Julie Christie role and Tom Sturridge in Stamp’s. [Said Stamp,] ‘It was the first really commercial project I got involved with, and I was rather shocked by the reaction. I thought it had everything.’”

An excellent interview; read the entire piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Article in Senses of Cinema 76 – “Being Elizabeth Bishop”

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

I have a new article on Barbara Hammer’s new feature film Welcome to This House in Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “Barbara Hammer’s Welcome to This House: A Film on Elizabeth Bishop (2015) is that rarity among documentary films – rather than the usual succession of talking heads, shot in a utilitarian fashion, as befits its subject the film is a primarily poetic project, which inhabits the world of Bishop and her poetry, entranced by the beauty of life in all its forms.

As the film’s press materials note, ‘Welcome to This House is a feature documentary film on the homes and loves of poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), about life in the shadows, and the anxiety of art making without full self-disclosure, filmed in Bishop’s ‘best loved homes’ in the US, Canada, and Brazil.’ It is also much more than that; it is an act of love and resurrection, in which Bishop emerges from the shadows as a fully rounded personage, freed from the constraints of society which so often failed to accept her for who she truly was.

In the film’s opening sequence, for example, photos of Bishop and the covers of her books give way to a view from the front porch of her home in Nova Scotia, with flowers and the image of a young Elizabeth intertwined in a tapestry of memory and abstract wonder. As the scene progresses, there are equally dreamlike images of her typewriter, and then a child’s hand writing ‘Elizabeth’ on a chalk slate, as the soundtrack hums and whirs with the sounds of an indolent, mesmeric summer. This gives way to reminiscences of how Bishop was left with her grandparents as a child, deprived of a mother and father, and how she grew up in world of her own creation as a result.

There are, of course, numerous archival materials interwoven throughout the film, but more than anything, Welcome to This House is a film about being Elizabeth Bishop, about finding one’s self as an artist, something that Barbara Hammer has being doing for her entire life, over a body of work that covers more than 80 films and four decades of continuous artistic production. In many ways, Welcome to This House is the sort of film that could only be made by a director after years of patient dedication; effortlessly mixing the past, the present, the imaginary and the real to evoke the inner life of Elizabeth Bishop, all the while demonstrating Hammer’s absolutely assured grasp of the moving image.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

New Book Published – Black & White Cinema: A Short History

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

I have a new book out today from Rutgers University Press – Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

From the glossy monochrome of the classic Hollywood romance, to the gritty greyscale of the gangster picture, to film noir’s moody interplay of light and shadow, black-and-white cinematography has been used to create a remarkably wide array of tones. Yet today, with black-and-white film stock nearly impossible to find, these cinematographic techniques are virtually extinct, and filmgoers’ appreciation of them is similarly waning.

Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s. Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist.

Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema. More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than forty on-the-set stills, Black and White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era.

Here are some early reviews:

“Dixon covers the entire history of black and white movies in one volume, and talks about the films and cinematographers who created these films, and often got little credit for their work. Fascinating and compelling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves movies.”—Robert Downey Sr., director, Putney Swope

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” —Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.”—David Sterritt, author of The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America

“In his latest book, Black and White Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon rediscovers the art of cinematography in those glorious black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s classic age.” –Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

My thanks to all who helped with this very complex project.

Trailblazing Women Directors on TCM in October

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

Here’s an amazing series of films that you simply can’t miss.

As Cynthia Littleton reports in Variety, “Turner Classic Movies has teamed with Women in Film, Los Angeles, for a programming initiative designed to highlight the work of women behind the camera in the movie business.

In the month of October, actress-director Illeana Douglas will host a twice-weekly Trailblazing Women series featuring movies directed by women. Douglas’ wraparound segments will feature interviews with filmmakers and discussion of statistics compiled by Women in Film about gender disparity in the film business, notably the 5-to-1 ratio of men working in film production compared to women.

TCM and WIF LA are building out a dedicated section of the TCM website focusing on the history of women in the film biz, WIF LA’s studies on gender issues and links to various resources for aspiring female filmmakers.

Trailblazing Women grew out of TCM’s effort to curate a month’s worth of movies directed by women. The idea was sparked when Charlie Tabesh, TCM’s senior VP of programming, saw that TCM had obtained rights to 2008’s The Hurt Locker, the movie that made Kathryn Bigelow the first woman to win an Oscar for directing.

‘We were pondering what preceded Bigelow and The Hurt Locker,’ TCM general manager Jennifer Dorian told Variety. ‘Our job at TCM is to think about the long view and the entire spectrum of film history. (Tabesh) put together a look at women pioneers going back to 1906.’

As the package came together, Dorian realized that there was an opportunity to add a ‘pro-social’ layer to the effort, which prompted her to reach out to Women in Film LA. ‘We recognized that this is a timely and topical issue, and that we could not only create awareness of women’s historical contributions but shine a light on today’s issues and bring resources and information to today’s generation of filmmakers,’ Dorian said.

Trailblazing Women will be a multi-year project for TCM, with a similar monthly showcase planned for 2016 and probably 2017, Dorian said. The inaugural effort is focused on the work of female directors, but future showcases will delve into other disciplines such as writing and producing.

The series launches Oct. 1 and will air Tuesdays and Thursdays in primetime, encompassing more than 50 films. The series begins with film historian Cari Beauchamp discussing the work of pioneers including Alice Guy-Blaché, Dorothy Arzner, Agnès Varda and Lina Wertmuller. Other directors who will co-host nights alongside Douglas are Allison Anders, Julie Dash, Connie Field, Amy Heckerling, as well as producer and WIF LA president Cathy Schulman.”

This is an something really special – get the schedule by clicking here, or on the image above.

Black-and-White is Dead. Long Live Black-and-White!

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Peter Monaghan has very kindly interviewed me on my new book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History.

Writing in Moving Image Archive News, Monaghan notes that “set to appear in November 2015 from Rutgers University Press, Black and White Cinema: A Short History describes a range of styles of black-and-white film art, and how they arose to create the distinctive looks of Hollywood romances, gangster dramas, films noirs, and other styles.

But Dixon, a film historian and theoretician at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he coordinates the film studies program, is also a seasoned filmmaker, and that provides him with a keen eye for how black-and-white film was made. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including A Short History of Film (2nd edition 2013; with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (2013); and Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012).

In this interview, he explains why black-and-white cinematography will not return, not just because black-and-white film stock is near impossible to acquire, but moreover because the skills and techniques needed to film with it are almost irreversibly moribund.

Why do you quote this, from Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love, as an epigraph to your book? The angel said, “I like black-and-white films more than color because they’re more artificial. You have to work harder to overcome your disbelief. It’s sort of like prayer.”

To me black and white is more sensuous. It’s such a transformative act to make a black-and-white film. You are entering an entirely different world, right from the start. It’s so much more of a leap into another universe. Color films and particularly color 3-D films attempt to mimic some sort of spectacular reality, whereas black-and-white films are really a meditation on the image.

It’s a medium that dominated film production up until 1966, as the normative medium in which films were created. Cameramen had the ability to look through the camera and see the world in black-and-white even though what they were seeing on the set was color. As a viewer, you have to accept its completely artificial world, so it requires a bit more of you. I think that’s what the Carroll quotation is about.

And in the 1940s you’d go to a film already willing to be transported, wouldn’t you?

Absolutely, but I don’t think audiences in the 1940s even thought about it, or the ’50s. Or even the ’60s. They just went to the movies, and expected black and white — it was the way movies looked. A black and white world.”

You can read the entire interview by clicking here, or on the image above. Thanks, Peter!

Peter Collinson’s The Penthouse (1967)

Friday, August 28th, 2015

Martine Beswick, Tony Beckley and Norman Rodway- a deadly trio in Peter Collinson’s The Penthouse.

I have always had a weakness for Peter Collinson’s film The Penthouse, based on C. Scott Forbes’ play The Meter Man, in which three miscreants, Tom (Tony Beckley), Dick (Norman Rodway) and Harry (Martine Beswick) invade the borrowed luxury flat of two lovers involved in an illicit tryst – Barbara (Suzy Kendall) and Bruce (Terence Morgan). It’s a bleak little film, superbly photographed by the gifted Arthur Lavis, offering an uncomfortable taste of what was to come in the 70s and beyond, as social proprieties crumbled, and people became more and more self-absorbed, selfish, and narcissistic.

There are strong echoes of Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Heathcote Williams in the film’s script, which some viewers might consider a precursor of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which Haneke filmed twice in 1997 and 2007. Here are two people comfortably ensconced in what is supposedly a safe, domestic haven – even if it is an adulterous one – and by the simple act of answering the door, their lives are transformed forever – for the worse – by complete strangers.

However, Haneke’s film involved a great deal of physical cruelty and violence; Collinson’s film makes the entire ordeal psychological, and the film is much the better for it. In short, it’s more restrained, more cerebral, and an altogether superior film.

But all of this has a twist ending, worthy of the film itself – there has never been a legal DVD release of the film, though terrible bootlegs can easily be found on the web, along with the film’s trailer, but none of these materials give one any real sense of the film, or of Collinson and Lavis’s superb CinemaScope framing, color design, and the riveting performances of Beswick, Beckley, and Rodway.

At the time the film came out, Roger Ebert was a big fan, and sought the then-28-year-old Collinson out for an interview, during which he noted that “the headline on the press release describes Peter Collinson as ‘the man who came from nowhere and is on his way to somewhere.’ ‘Just precisely where, they don’t say,’ Collinson grinned. ‘I’m not one of these directors with his life-span all mapped out, and a deep ponderous philosophy to put into my films. All I want to do is make movies as well as they can be made. Period. No philosophy.’

Collinson, at 28, has made two movies: The Penthouse and Up the Junction. Neither has been commercially released yet, but Penthouse got a warm reception at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals. Although almost nobody outside the movie business has even heard of him, Collinson is probably the hottest young director in England right now. Stories of his working methods in The Penthouse are related by other directors with a touch of awe. He made it in 24 days for less than $100,000, and supplied his studio with a finished print two days after shooting ended.

‘That makes you popular at the front office,’ Collinson said, ‘but it doesn’t mean a thing if the movie’s no good. I don’t cut corners to save anybody money. But I don’t fool around. A lot of directors will shoot a scene from every conceivable angle, tying up actors, wasting time, spending a fortune on salaries and overhead. Then they get into the editing room and try to figure out which angle looks best. Not me. I figure the shot out in my head and shoot it just once or twice. I edit in the camera, you might say, so when the shooting’s over I have a movie . . .”

His story is unusual. The son of itinerant provincial actors, he was an orphan at 8 and a ’street urchin,’ by his own admission, at 10. Through a series of improbable chances, including acting experience at an orphanage for the children of theater people, he gradually worked himself into the theater and then into television as a BBC director.

He got into movies rather casually, buying all option on Nell Dunn’s best-selling Up the Junction for $1,000 and then proposing himself as its director. He was given the low-budget Penthouse to do first, as a warm-up, and produced a shocking thriller with a bizarre surprise ending.

The story concerns a real estate agent and his mistress, held captive in a penthouse by two very peculiar men named Tom and Dick. Their cohort, Harry, lingers offstage until the final incredible scenes. It is a suspense movie, ‘a thriller’ Collinson says. The audiences at Cannes and Berlin found a psychological message in it, but Collinson doesn’t care.

‘I make movies to entertain,’ he said. ‘This may sound funny, but I don’t have any desire to communicate my own opinions to anybody. I think the director should be the medium by which the audience gets the story, and that’s all. A good director is a good storyteller.’

Collinson’s next film will be The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine. The budget is $2,800,000, and Collinson noted wryly: ‘My salary will be bigger than the total cost of ‘Penthouse.’ But my methods won’t change. I want my movies to be fun to watch because they challenge their audiences to keep up. Audiences aren’t as stupid as many people believe. Orson Welles knew that, and it damned him in Hollywood for years.’

He smiled. ‘That could happen to me, too,’ he said. ‘But I think times have changed, and there’s an audience for a thoughtful movie now. Still, if I bomb as a director I’ve still got some other things to do. I barnstormed the country as a teenager, playing in second-rate variety shows. I can still do a mean turn as the back legs of a calico horse.’” Paramount Pictures released the film,  and then it vanished. I’ve never seen it offered on television, even on TCM, which has a reference page for the film.

Of course, The Italian Job was a huge hit, and was subsequently remade by directed F. Gary Gray in 2003 into an even bigger hit, but after that, Collinson struggled to find his footing within the industry, and despite his protestations that he simply wanted to be an an entertainer, he clearly was interested in doing more social commentary, but soon found himself adrift in a series of mediocre films, during which his temper frayed, and his health failed.

Collinson died of cancer at the age of 44, leaving a career of largely unfulfilled promise. The Penthouse is his simplest, bleakest, most adventurous film. Don’t let anyone tell you anything more about the plot, which has one surprise after another nestled inside each turn of the narrative, but hopefully, someone will bring the film out in its proper aspect ratio, and you can see for yourself where the 1960s were headed – into a commercial wilderness of endless consumption and self-value, in which surfaces are more important than the depths they conceal.

The Penthouse (1967) – another forgotten film that deserves a proper DVD release.

Nicholas Musuraca, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

L to R: Jane Greer, Robert Mitchum, Jacques Tourneur, and Nicholas Musuraca on the set of Out of The Past.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I have a new book coming out in a month or so, entitled Black & White Cinema: A Short History. Writing the book was a tremendously difficult task, and I also had to cut a lot of interesting “sidebar” material that I would have liked to include to keep it at a more reasonable length. In my section on Nicholas Musuraca, one of the greatest of all Hollywood cinematographers, especially in his black and white work, I had to omit most of a fascinating 1941 interview with the cinematographer for reasons of space, so, in the run up to the book’s publication, I’m going to offer in this blog some sections on various cinematographers that aren’t in the final version of the text. Nick Musuraca seemed like an ideal place to begin.

As I wrote in the first draft of the book, “Musuraca was a major figure in the 1940s in Hollywood, whose visual style is instantly recognizable over a wide range of films, in a career that spanned more than four decades worth of work. Although he was deeply secretive about his personal life, even with his colleagues (a brief item in American Cinematographer from February, 1941, notes that “trade-papers report Nick Musuraca, A.S.C., secretly married early last month. If it’s so — congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Nick!”) at least some of his trade secrets have come down to us through second-hand sources, and at least one interview, conducted by Walter Blanchard. This is the period in which Musuraca did his best work, the work for which he is remembered, but what is truly astonishing is how much work he did, and despite his noir typing, how many different styles of cinematography he embraced.

One of his finest efforts was his cinematography on Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), considered by many to be one of the first noir thrillers ever made, with perpetual tough guy Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey, a former private investigator who now runs a gas station in Bridgeport, California, in a futile attempt to escape his shadowy past. But when smooth crime boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas, in one of his earliest roles) asks him to find his “girlfriend” Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who has absconded with $40,000 of Whit’s money, things just get more complex from there, and soon Jeff is smitten with Kathie, and smooth talked into betraying Whit, and, of course, as in any true noir, everything ends very badly.

As George Turner noted of the film, “Out of the Past was generously financed and shot in 64 working days (an unusually long schedule at the time), mostly on the sound stages at RKO’s Hollywood studio and the Pathe lot in Culver City, [with] extensive location scenes with several of the principals made in the Lake Tahoe area on the California-Nevada boundary and second unit work from Acapulco, New York and San Francisco…The picture united for the third and final time one of the most remarkable director-cinematographer teams the industry has produced: Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Musuraca.

Tourneur, husky but mild-mannered, was usually relaxed and seemingly devoid of temperament on the set, always keeping his actors at their ease and relying heavily upon Musuraca’s know-how to produce the combination of mystery and visual beauty essential to these films. He did not agree with the cinematic convention that heavy drama must be lit in a low key, comedy in high key, and romance in soft focus, but that the style should be determined by the logic of the scene.

‘For example, a vast amount of real-life drama occurs in hospitals, and a modern hospital isn’t by any means a somber appearing place,’ he pointed out. ‘Everything is light-colored and glistening; what’s more, everything is pretty well illuminated — trust these medical men to see to it that there’s enough illumination everywhere to prevent eyestrain. So why should we always have things somber and gloomy when…we try to portray sad or tragic action in a hospital?’

‘In the same way, if there’s no logical reason for it, why should comedy always be lit in a high key? Sometimes your action may really demand low-key effects to put it over…all too often we’re all of us [i.e., Musuraca’s A.S.C. colleagues] likely to find ourselves throwing in an extra light here, and another there, simply to correct something which is a bit wrong because of the way one basic lamp is placed or adjusted…If, on the other hand, that one original lamp is in its really correct place and adjustment, the others aren’t needed. Any time I find myself using a more than ordinary number of light sources for a scene, I try to stop and think it out. Nine times out of ten I’ll find I’ve slipped up somewhere, and the extra lights are really unnecessary.’”

Click here, or on the image above,  for a great clip from Out of The Past.

Musuraca had a clearly defined strategy in his classical 1940s work, and the uncanny ability to size up any scene and discern almost immediately precisely what tools he would need to effectively present the desired image on the screen — and Musuraca brought this same instinct for simplicity to his exterior work, as well.  As he told Walter Blanchard in 1941,

‘The same [technique of simplicity] applies to making exterior scenes. One of the commonest sources of unnecessary complication is in overdoing filtering. Just because the research scientists have evolved a range of several score filters of different colors and densities isn’t by any means a reason that we’ve got to use them — or even burden ourselves down with them! On my own part, I’ve always found that the simplest filtering is the best. Give me a good yellow filter, for mild correction effects, and a good red or red-orange one for heavier corrections, and I’ll guarantee to bring you back almost any sort of exterior effects (other than night scenes) that you’ll need in the average production.

And by the way — when in doubt about filtering — don’t. Nine times out of ten you’re better off that way, especially if there are people in the scene. The best example of misdirected enthusiasm for filtering is in making snow-scenes. I remember a while back I was on location doing some such scenes. As we approached our first set-up, my crew came to me and asked what filter they were to use. When I told them none, they couldn’t believe me. Everyone used some sort of filter in the snow! But what have you really got to filter? Your snow will render as an extreme white, no matter what you do. The evergreens, trees, rocks and so on will come out good and dark. You’re going to have extreme contrast no matter what you do. Under these conditions the sky automatically will take its proper place in rendering a pleasing picture. So why filter?

Filter to control that contrast, you say? I don’t agree. Most filters tend to increase contrast; in snow, even a Neutral Density filter will do so, for while it may hold back the snow, it will also hold back the dark areas. My experience has been that the real secret of good snow scenes is correct exposure — correct exposure for whatever part of the scene is most important to your shot. Usually it will be the people, and especially their faces. Expose for them, and the rest of the shot is likely to be all right.

This works out in practice, too. On the occasion I mentioned, my crew couldn’t be persuaded that my decision not to use the filter was or could be correct. They were very polite about it, but I could just feel them thinking, ‘Poor old Nick — he’s a back-number!’ [i.e., “out of date”] So I told them to make one take filtering as they thought they should. The operative [cameraman] saw to it that that take was unmistakably marked ‘print’ in that day’s negative reports! He was the first man in the projection-room next day, too, when we ran the rushes.

All went well until his shot came on. It was off-balance and unbelievably contrasty. The director hit the ceiling, and the operative wished he could sink through the floor! Immediately after, the un-filtered scenes came on — and were perfect. Since then, that gang has been a whole lot less ready to suggest using filters except where they were demonstrably necessary!’”

Black & White Cinema: A Short History will be out shortly; more “trims” coming soon.

Dorothy Arzner – Starmaker

Sunday, July 12th, 2015

Here’s an interesting article on pioneering feminist director Dorothy Arzner.

As Ella Morton notes in the web journal Atlas Obscura of this talented but often forgotten filmmaker, “type the name ‘Dorothy Arzner‘ into Netflix’s search bar and you’ll get zero results. It’s an odd outcome, considering Arzner, a prolific golden age film director, has 16 feature films—among the most of any woman in Hollywood, ever. She gave Katharine Hepburn one of her first starring roles. She navigated the transition from silent films to talkies with panache, inventing the boom microphone in the process. And yet, she is largely unknown today.

Born in San Francisco in 1897, Arzner attended the University of Southern California with the intention of becoming a doctor. World War I interrupted her studies, but when it was over, she decided not to go back to medical school. ‘I wanted to heal the sick and raise the dead instantly. I didn’t want to go through all the trouble of medicine,’ said Arzner, according to [Judith Mayne's indispensable] book Directed by Dorothy Arzner. ‘So that took me into the motion picture industry.’

Arzner’s film career began in 1919 with a trip to the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation—the film studio that would later become Paramount Pictures—at the invitation of director William DeMille. Exploring the various departments, Arzner gauged which aspects of filmmaking held the most appeal for her. ‘I remember making the observation, if one was going to be in the movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do,’ she said, according to [Donna R. Casella's] essay What Women Want: The Complex World of Dorothy Arzner and Her Cinematic Women.

It would take years, however, before Arzner got the chance to prove her directing chops. She began working at the studio as a script typist, tapping at a typewriter all day. Though the work was humdrum, the opportunity to read major Hollywood scripts helped hone her instincts for what made a good film. The short-lived stint as a script transcriber—she was a less-than-stellar typist, and lasted only three months—was followed by a solid run in the Paramount editing bay.

In 1922, while editing the dramatic film Blood and Sand, about a peasant who becomes a champion bullfighter, Arzner saved money by intercutting stock footage of bullfights into the narrative. It was a shrewd move that both endeared her to the purse-string holders and helped establish her as a filmmaker with a keen eye.

By 1927, Paramount was ready for Arzner to take the reins on a studio feature. They assigned her Fashions For Women, a silent film about a cigarette girl named Lulu who impersonates Celeste de Givray, the best-dressed model in Paris. The novelty-ridden hi-jinks—actress Esther Ralston played both roles—didn’t set the world on fire, but the film gave Arzner the opportunity to put what she’d learned into practice. And there was much more to come.”

There absolutely is “more to come” – click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • Frame by Frame: Science Fiction Futurism
    UNL Film Studies Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses the 2015 Ridley Scott film "The Martian," and the accuracy (and often inaccuracy) of science-fiction films at predicting real advancements in science and technology. […]
  • Frame by Frame: Batman v Superman
    UNL Film Studies Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses the genre of comic book movies in the context of "Batman v Superman."  […]

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website