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Posts Tagged ‘Black and White cinema’

Sidney Hayers’ Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) Restored to Blu-ray

Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Sidney Hayers’ 1962 Burn, Witch, Burn, finally gets the Blu-ray treatment - click here for the trailer.

As an anonymous reviewer on the website Movie Review Query Engine notes, “Night of the Eagle was the second film version of Fritz Leiber Jr.’s novel Conjure Wife (the first was Reginald Le Borg’s Weird Woman (1944), perhaps the best of Universal’s low-budget Inner Sanctum series of the 1940s). The film’s title was possibly meant to invoke memories of Jacques Tourneur’s earlier Night of the Demon (released in the US as Curse of the Demon, 1958); both films involve a rational scientist (in the case of Night of the Eagle, Peter Wyngarde) forced to accept the existence of the supernatural. All evidence points to the conclusion that the scientist’s American wife Janet Blair is the reincarnation of a witch, and a practitioner of voodoo. The actual villain is supposed to be a mystery, though the identity was made clear in the Leiber original and in both other film versions of Conjure Wife (there was a 1980 parody version titled Witches Brew). The supernatural aspect of Night of the Eagle is convincingly handled, including a knockout sequence with a wild eagle rampaging through the scientist’s tranquil study. With a screenplay by Twilight Zone stalwarts Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, the British-made Night of the Eagle was released in the US as Burn, Witch, Burn.”

Margaret Johnston in Burn, Witch, Burn – click here to see this scene from the film.

Adds David Pirie, an expert in British Gothic cinema in Time Out London, “made on a comparatively low budget, [the film deals with] is about a hardheaded psychology lecturer in a provincial university who gradually discovers that his wife Tansy and some of his closest colleagues are practicing witchcraft (in furtherance of campus politics). From the opening sequences in which Tansy (Blair) scrambles frantically round her house searching for a witch-doll left by one of the faculty wives, the whole thing takes off into a kind of joyous amalgam of Rosemary’s Baby and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? . . . Sidney Hayers shoots the whole thing with an almost Wellesian flourish, and the script (by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson) is structured with incredible tightness as the sane, rational outlook of the hero (Wyngarde) is gradually dislocated by the world of madness and dreams.”

Peter Wyngarde in the classroom, lecturing to a group of skeptical students.

These frame blowups from the new Kino-Lorber Blu-ray release of the film come from the excellent website DVD Beaver, which regularly reviews new DVD releases, grading them both on image and sound quality, as well as content and historical value. I’ve loved this film for many years, as an excellent example of black and white British Gothic filmmaking at its finest, and though she isn’t mentioned in any of the press materials, I think it’s only fair to give the deeply underrated Margaret Johnston a nod for her excellent, malevolent work in the film.

As Gary Tooze noted on the DVD Beaver website, “Burn, Witch, Burn is wonderful. I immediately got impressions of Tourneur’s Night of the Demon. I loved the story, the suspenseful build-up and Reginald H. Wyer’s (Island of Terror, Night of the Big Heat) cinematography. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray has immense value – a superb 60’s horror production looking very impressive, a Richard Matheson commentary and an interview. This is close to a masterpiece of its genre and we give it our highest recommendation!”

As do I – check it out now, if you’d like to see a real masterpiece of the macabre.

Forthcoming Book – Black and White Cinema: A Short History

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

I have a forthcoming book on Black & White Cinema from Rutgers University Press.

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.

More information here; my thanks to all who helped with this rather large project.

Freddie Francis, BSC, on The Innocents (1961)

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

Freddie Francis, the Oscar winning cinematographer, did some of his best work on The Innocents.

Freddie Francis was one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of the cinema, in addition to directing a number of underrated Gothic thrillers in the 1960s and 70s, but he is best remembered for his fantastic work in monochrome, or black and white, films.

One of his favorite films was Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), adapted from Henry James’ classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw. I knew Freddie from 1984 up until his death in 2007, and watched him at work on the sets of many of his films, including his last as a DP, The Straight Story (1999), which was directed by David Lynch and shot in Iowa in a mere 23 days.

I wrote a book on Freddie’s work, aptly titled The Films of Freddie Francis in 1991, conducted a lecture /screening of his work at the British Film Institute with him shortly thereafter, and frankly, I miss him a lot – he was a good friend, and a good colleague. When I shot my feature film What Can I Do? in 1993, it was Freddie who put me in touch for much of the technical staff who worked on the film, and though we never had a chance to work together formally, we remained close friends throughout the years.

In any event, Freddie and I had a friendly argument over the years that above all other formats, he loved black and white CinemaScope the best. Freddie always denied it, saying that such things as aspect ratios were just part of the business arrangement of setting up the production of a film, and as this excerpt from his autobiography demonstrates, there was certainly some truth to that – The Innocents started out as a project in Academy ratio, but was bumped up to CinemaScope at the insistence of the 20th Century Fox front office.

Nevertheless, as the triptych of stills above illustrate, once he was told that he had to shoot The Innocents in ’scope, Francis and director Jack Clayton embraced the format with such stylish assurance that it seems that the film had always been meant to be shot that way.

In Francis’ later films, it always seems to me that in his ’scope work, especially with his tendency to highlight the outer edges of the frame on the left and right, and leave the middle as a more atmospheric buffer, Francis was pursuing a conscious strategy that prevented his work from ever effectively being subjected to “pan and scan” treatment, which shows only a portion of the film. One of the most effective Gothic thrillers of all time, The Innocents is well worth seeking out and viewing – it’s a remarkable film in every respect.

You have to see The Innocents in its original format, as this interview clearly demonstrates.

Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1962)

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

On this appropriately bleak winter day, I sat down to view Ingmar Bergman’s stark masterpiece Winter Light.

From my forthcoming book Black & White Cinema: A Short History: “by 1962 with Winter Light, photographed by Sven Nykvist, Bergman had refined his vision into an austere, almost sculptural sensibility of blacks, whites, and varying shades of gray, striving for a complete simplicity in all his work. As Nykvist recalled of working with Bergman,

‘The whole crew meets two months before shooting to read the whole script, then we start to make tests. We build sets, and when everyone—the costume designer, the production designer, the makeup artist—is there, we make tests for the whole picture so we will never be surprised when we start shooting. We are already halfway through a picture when we start to shoot it, and that is psychologically very important for all the people because everyone, including the grips and electricians, feels that he or she is as important as all the others. . . . When you are operating the camera, you forget all about the other people around you. You just see this little scene and you live in that and you feel it. For me, operating the camera is a sport and it helps me do better lighting sometimes.

When Ingmar and I made Winter Light . . . which takes place in a church on a winter day in Sweden, we decided we should not see any shadow in it at all because there would be no logical shadow in that setting. I said, ‘Oh, that will be an easy picture for me because the light doesn’t change in three hours.’ Ingmar said, ‘That’s what you think. Let’s go to the churches in the north of Sweden.’ And there we sat for weeks, looking at the light during the three hours between eleven and two o’clock. We saw that it changed a lot, and it helped him in writing the script because he always writes the moods. . .

It has taken me 30 years to come to simplicity. Earlier, I made a lot of what I thought were beautiful shots with much backlighting and many effects, absolutely none of which were motivated by anything in the film at all. As soon as we had a painting on the wall, we thought it should have a glow around it. It was terrible and I can hardly stand to see my own films on television anymore. . . . I prefer to shoot on location because in the studio you have too many possibilities—too many lights to destroy your whole picture.’”

And as Roger Ebert observed of Winter Light in 2007, “on the day Ingmar Bergman died, the first film of his that came into my mind was Winter Light. Odd, because I had not seen it since teaching a film class in the 1970s. In the weeks that passed, I found it lingering there, asking to be seen again. What did I remember about it? That it was part of Bergman’s ‘Silence of God’ trilogy. That it was about a pastor who was unable to comfort a man in dread of nuclear holocaust. That the pastor rejected a woman who sought to comfort him. That Bergman and his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, sat in a rural church for a winter day to note how the sunlight moved through the space. In short, I hardly remembered the film at all, because those sparse memories were not enough to ignite a need to see it again. Yet I felt one. Finally I took Winter Light down from the shelf, watched it again, and was awestruck by its bleak, courageous power.

It is, first of all, much more complex than the broad outlines I held in memory. It is about more than God, silent or not. It is about the silence of a man, Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand), who speaks enough in the film but is unable to say anything of use to himself or anyone else. About another man, the fisherman Jonas (Max Von Sydow), obsessed by evil in the world, who calls God’s bluff, so to speak, by killing himself. About Marta, a schoolteacher (Ingrid Thulin) who cares for the pastor, loves him, worries about him, and is thanked by coldness and hostility. And it is about two monologues in which the pastor and the teacher describe their real feelings, and deeply wound each other . . .

The film’s visual style is one of rigorous simplicity. Nykvist does not use a single camera movement for effect. He only wants to regard, to show. His compositions, while sometimes dramatic, are mostly static. He uses slow push-ins and pull-outs to underline dialogue of intensity. His gaze is so unblinking that sequences with the potential to be boring, like the opening scenes of the consecration and distribution of hosts and wine, become fascinating: More is going on here than ritual, and there are buried currents between the communicants. Nykvist focuses above all on faces, in closeup and medium shot, and they are even the real subject of longer shots, recalling Bergman’s belief that the human face is the most fascinating study for the cinema.”

Fortunately, there is also a feature on the making of Winter Light, available on the Criterion DVD set of the Bergman “Silence of God” trilogy, of which Criterion’s program notes add that “the year is 1961, and Ingmar Bergman is making a movie. While planted on the scene as apprentice to Bergman, Vilgot Sjöman suggests to Swedish Television that they take the opportunity to record with the acclaimed director. In August, Sjöman and the television crew begin to capture what would become a comprehensive five-part documentary on the making of Winter Light, offering views of script development, set construction and lighting, rehearsals and editing, as well as intimate conversations with Bergman and members of his cast and crew. Footage from the film’s Swedish premiere delivers immediate audience reactions and the critics’ reviews the following day. Originally recorded on 16mm film, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie is presented here in its entirety for the first time outside of Sweden.”

A brilliant film, available on Criterion DVD; get a copy now, before it goes out of print.

New Article – Preliminary Notes on the Monochrome Universe

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International; click here, or on the image above, to read the entire essay.

In the essay, I note that “lately I’ve been thinking about black and white movies, and how they’ve almost completely disappeared from the current cinematic landscape. There are occasional projects shot in black and white, but with cinema rapidly becoming an all-digital medium, and black and white film stock almost impossible to purchase, color has taken over completely, either glossy and popped-out, or desaturated for a more dramatic effect, but always using some palette of color. Furthermore, while there have been numerous books on the use of color in the cinema, there has been no book-length study on the black and white film, and yet black and white cinema dominated the industry internationally for nearly seven decades, until the late 1960s.

Certainly, numerous cameramen and directors have weighed in on the use of black and white in their works, most notably John Alton in Painting With Light, but in each case, these works were created when black and white was still a commercially viable medium. Most of the texts I’ve encountered, with the exception of Alton’s book, and to a lesser extent Edward Dmytryk’s Cinema: Concept and Practice, written after the director had long since retired, treat black and white filmmaking as a part of everyday life, the main production medium for most movies, which at the time, it certainly was.

In these necessarily practical books, it’s about f-stops, filters and cookies, but very little about the aesthetics of the medium. Indeed, when Alton published his landmark study, he was famously excoriated by his colleagues as being a pretentious self-promoter; what cameramen did was work, nothing more, and any notions of artistic ambition were inherently suspect. In most of the books cited below, color is dealt with as a special case, which again, it was; but now, in the all color, all digital world of images we currently inhabit, black and white has become the anomaly. Thus, I wanted to set down some preliminary notes on my new project here, before they elude me; the title is Black and White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, the term used by British filmmakers until the medium’s demise in the mid 1960s.

And yet shooting in black and white is inherently a transformative act. As the filmmaker and opera director Jonathan Miller – whose beautiful film of Alice in Wonderland (1966) was elegantly photographed in black and white by the gifted Dick Bush – once observed in a conversation with me, the very act of making a black and white film transmutes the original source material, for life, as we know, takes place in color. Therefore, there is an intrinsic level of stylization and re-interpretation of reality when one makes a black and white film, leading to an entirely different way of cinematography. Indeed, it’s an entirely different world altogether, one that is rapidly slipping away from us as it recedes in the mists of the past.”

The book will take several years of work, but this is, at least, a start.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

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 wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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