Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Posts Tagged ‘Film History’

Frame by Frame Video: Film Noir

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Here’s a brief Frame by Frame video, directed by Curt Bright, in which I discuss Film Noir.

The scene above is from Jacques Tourneur’s noir classic Out of the Past (1947), and in this video I briefly discuss some of the more dominant characteristics of noir, in a video which was produced roughly at the same time my book Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia came out. Oddly enough, I never blogged directly on this video, and it’s too good to pass up, so here it is.

When Choice: The Library Journal reviewed Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia, they noted that “Dixon seeks to broaden the scope and definition of film noir by focusing on its most dominant motif–paranoia. Concentrating on that impulse, and also on fear and violence, the author demonstrates that these all-encompassing aspects of film noir are found not only in gangster/detective films of the 1940s but also in such genres as science fiction and horror.

Beginning with the pre-Code era, Dixon guides the reader through a comprehensive overview of the evolution of film noir to its present form, along the way presenting an enlightening examination of American and British society and politics and revealing the role film noir has played during certain periods.

[Dixon] demonstrates how film noir serves to contradict the false “feel good” images mediated to the public through movies and television programming. [Dixon]’s observations illustrate how paranoia, as constructed through the lens of film noir, proves more relevant than ever in lieu of the veil of fear that envelops every aspect of post-9/11 life.”

And that’s still true today – noir tells us how things really are.

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come

Monday, December 21st, 2015

An absolutely essential book on one of the most influential cinema artists of all time.

James Curtis’s William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come is easily one of the best film books of 2015. It manages to pull off an amazing feat; it’s prodigiously researched, but it never succumbs to a recitation of mere facts; it includes an enormous amount of personal detail, but never gets lost in a forest of statistics.

It is above all a supreme synthesis of history and theory, treating all of Menzies’ work, whether as a director or a production designer (or often, as both simultaneously) with great care and respect, illustrated with a stunning array of color and black and white plates, including many rare behind the scenes shots that really put the reader into the center of the narrative.

Most of all, it is the careful, conscientious, but never pedantic style of the book that impresses. Curtis clearly knows Menzies’ work inside out, and yet he wears this knowledge easily, creating an accessible, reasoned, brilliantly written book, one of the most carefully detailed and critically measured volumes written on any historical figure, no matter what their profession.

Time and again, I was struck by the carefully reasoned tone of Curtis’s work, his sharp yet graceful prose style, and the remarkable way in which he managed to gather such an incredible amount of material in one volume, and make the whole thing flow so smoothly – it’s easily his finest book. The design of The Shape of Films to Come is another plus factor; the volume is overflowing with images, and the layout of the text and illustrations – something Menzies would appreciate – is impeccable.

Curtis’s book is thus a supreme achievement on every level, and for those who don’t know Menzies or his work, it opens up a world of wonder and amazement – often amazement at how much Menzies managed to accomplish on many of his assignments with very little in the way of a budget.

From Menzies’ production design on Gone With The Wind, to his science-fiction children’s nightmare Invaders from Mars, to the pioneering futuristic epic Things To Come, to his work on such projects as The Whip Hand, Address Unknown, The Maze, Around The World in 80 Days and numerous other films, Curtis meticulously details Menzies’ long career, a life filled with hard work and a good deal of tragedy, but one which ultimately left us with some of the most memorable images in cinema history.

In short, this is a must read for anyone with even the remotest interest in the cinema, and a singular accomplishment in every respect. The Shape of Films to Come gets my highest possible recommendation – this is literally a flawless book. And considering the massive amount of detail that went into it, that in itself is a stellar accomplishment. Once you pick this book up, I guarantee you won’t put it down.

This is a major work of scholarship, history and theory, and a genuine delight to read.

Ration Books and Rabbit Pies: Films from the Home Front

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Here’s a fascinating collection of British wartime short films – another treat from the British Film Institute.

As CineOutsider reports, “continuing the BFI’s work of unlocking film heritage in Britain, this fascinating DVD collection brings together a selection of public information films, propaganda shorts and adverts from the Second World War, drawn from the BFI National Archive, and contains films that give essential advice to a nation living in an age of austerity.

Originally shown in cinemas to British audiences during the Second World War, these films served to boost morale, covering topics which include rationing, staying healthy, how to grow vegetables, cooking tips and salvaging and recycling. These films were crucial to the British war effort and the campaign messaging has been much reproduced in modern advertising to this day.

Highlights of the collection include Tea Making Tips (1941), with ‘the six golden tips’ for making the perfect cuppa; director/artist/animator Len Lye’s When the Pie Was Opened (1941); Did You Ever See a Dream Talking (1943) starring comedian Claude Hulbert playing a Home Guard volunteer; Wisdom of the Wild (1940), a wartime twist on the long-running Secrets of Life natural history series; the Wicked Witch (1943), an advert for Rinso and A-Tish-oo! (1941), an instructional film on how to make a face-mask.”

There’s also a collection of Food Flash mini-shorts, each about 15 seconds long, which cover everything from ‘victory meals’ to the necessity of reporting rat infestations to the local council to prevent them from raiding food supplies. All the films are very brief, and together they give a fascinating look at a time and place long vanished from authentic recall for most people.

There’s nothing like living history – which this DVD supplies – to bring the past back to life before our eyes. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy from the BFI, and it’s a pip! You won’t see these films anywhere else – pick up a copy, and support the BFI, and international film history.

A fascinating collection – absolutely worthwhile, and beautifully restored.

Godfathers of Comic Book Films

Friday, November 27th, 2015

Before the Marvel and DC Universe, these were the pioneers who created the comic book film.

In this one astonishing shot, taken at a nostalgia convention in 1973, some of the greatest action directors of all time stand with cast members, a cinematographer, and stunt men who helped to create such classic serials as Spy Smasher, Captain America, Superman, Batman and many others – in their original versions as Saturday morning serials in the 1940s and 50s – working for most part for Republic Pictures, the studio that created the modern action film.

From left to right, director William Witney, who helmed numerous serials with his friend and colleague John English, in addition to directing a stack of classic Westerns – and incidentally, he’s Quentin Tarantino’s favorite director; Billy Benedict, a reliable sidekick in numerous action films of the era; Spencer Gordon Bennet, dean of serial directors, with hundreds of films to his credit; and Bud Thackery, sporting a goatee, an ace action cinematographer who later finished up his career at Universal in the 1960s.

Continuing on, stuntman George DeNormand stands in the back; Frank Coghlan Jr., who played the role of Billy Batson, Captain Marvel’s alter-ego in the serial of that name; Kirk Alyn, the original Superman in two serials, both directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; legendary stuntman “Crazy Duke” Green, whose specialty was running up walls and then launching himself into space during a fight scene; the equally capable stuntman and actor Tom Steele; and stuntman Davey Sharp, whose credits as a stunt double number into the thousands.

Just watching these amazing professionals at work, knocking out three and four hour serials in 30 days on budgets in the $200,000 range, or lower, is an amazing sight – a look into the past of motion pictures, before CGI and motion capture replaced feats of genuine athleticism and skill. None of these people thought twice about working twelve hour days, or longer, six days a week, for decades at a clip, to deliver the thrills that entranced audiences in the middle part of the 20th century.

Let’s not forget them now – they created the comic book film.

Lost Walt Disney / Ub Iwerks Cartoon Found

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

A print of the silent cartoon Sleigh Bells – long thought lost – has been found at the BFI Archive in London.

As The British Film Institute notes on their website, “The BFI National Archive and Walt Disney Animation Studios are pleased to announce the rediscovery of a rare, long-lost, Walt Disney animated film, Sleigh Bells (1928) featuring the first ever Disney character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a long-eared precursor to Mickey Mouse.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was invented by Walt Disney in 1927 and was loved for his mischievous and rebellious personality. A number of other films do survive but Sleigh Bells has been, until now, a lost film, unseen since its original release. The animation in the film was accomplished by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, both of whom went on to create the character of Mickey Mouse, following a contractual disagreement with Universal Pictures, for whom they had created the Oswald films.

The print of Sleigh Bells (1928) was preserved in the collections of the BFI National Archive. The exciting rediscovery was made by a researcher browsing the online catalogue of the BFI National Archive’s holdings. Walt Disney Animation Studios have taken this unique surviving film print and created both a new preservation print and digital copies. The film has a running time of approximately six minutes.”

It’s not surprising to me that the film turned up in the BFI Archives; they’ve been way ahead of the United States since the 1940s in cataloguing and preserving classic films from all over the world, when the Hollywood studios themselves did little to preserve the treasures of the past. But now you can see this bit of history for yourself, thanks to an archive that really cares about the history of the cinema. Hats off the to the BFI!

Click here, or on the image above, to see a clip from Sleigh Bells.

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.

The Rebranding of TCM

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

TCM is really just reaching out for a wider audience – which is great news!

As Will McKinley notes in a really interesting post in his website Cinematically Insane on the indispensable Turner Classic Movies channel, the last network to broadcast classic films uncut, commercial free, and in their proper aspect ratios – this does not mean adding commercials – it’s simply reaching out for a wider audience. As McKinley writes, in part: “to understand what’s happening at TCM we need to go back to last fall, when a company-wide cost-cutting initiative hit Turner Broadcasting.

TCM lost approximately 15 staffers to layoffs and buyouts – far fewer than other Turner networks, but still a tragedy (a staff of approximately 45 remains). Following the restructuring, TCM emerged as a separate and autonomous entity within Turner and gained a new general manager, Jennifer Dorian [the new TCM general manager] with a mission to ‘grow’ the brand.

A 15-year Turner veteran, Dorian had previously led the rebranding of TNT in 2000 and TBS in 2004, as well as the re-launch of Court TV as truTV in 2007, so some change in the channel’s identity was to be expected. That the change did not involve the addition of commercials – as happened at the previously ad-free Turner network Boomerang – was (and continues to be) welcome news.

‘NO COMMERCIALS. EVER. EVER. EVER. EVER,’ Ben Mankiewicz assured fans today, luring at least one or two off the digital ledge. And TCM Senior VP of Programming Charles Tabesh was even more definitive: ‘when AMC went commercial many years ago, the cable affiliates freaked out, because they were getting a lot of complaints from subscribers and they wanted to make sure that TCM never added commercials,’ he said. We’ve never had plans to add commercials. I think it’s actually written into some of our affiliate agreements.’”

“No commercials ever” – great news, and you can read the entire article by clicking here.

Jean Renoir

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Jean Renoir – the most humanist of all filmmakers, something desperately needed now.

The distinguished and prescient film critic Michael Atkinson recently had this to say, in part, about the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir, who is, to my mind, one of the greatest film directors – along with Ozu, Bresson, and a few others – to ever work in the moving picture medium. As Atkinson notes, “in the shadow of the recent decennial Sight & Sound best-movie-ever poll, in which Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) supplanted the long-standing numero uno Citizen Kane (1941), let us just say without quibbling that Jean Renoir’s Le Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) is the only genuine competition for the primary slot, and indeed it has claimed #2 or #3 status on the poll for half a century.

No slight to Vertigo is intended, and such is the consequence of rendering cultural opinion by way of crunched numbers and democratic aggregation. But Renoir’s pitch-perfect masterpiece (which has held as the fourth-greatest-ever) is more vital than ever for an art form slowly evolving into computer-generated carnival rides and empty-hearted noise, and that is because it is quintessentially Renoirian, that is, a bottomless harvest of humanity, which is seen in all of its thorny idiocy and yet viewed with the fiercest ardor ever put on celluloid.

If we were a sane species, it’d be Renoir that young filmmakers would take as a model, not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. Saying that Renoir is one of maybe seven unassailable masters in the history of cinema is not unlike saying the ocean is large and blue; demonstrating a shrugging nonchalance about his best films should and will peg you to those that know about these things as a flat-out pretender.

Simply, Renoir consistently took on the most complex territory available: the matrix of human camaraderie, the crystalline beauty of social respect and unexpected mutual empathies, the painful distance between the poles of a friendship under pressure, the folly and deathlessness of crazed romance. For Renoir, the tensile strength of love in all of its realizations was an inexhaustible subject, and no one explored it as wisely and whole-heartedly as he did.”

I once taught an entire semester of Renoir from the silents to his last TV movie, and through his films, he consistently amazed the class with his ability to work in any genre, and to always bring out the best in the performers, and to be, above all, forgiving – forgiving of human frailties and vanities, brave enough to make films that directly criticized French lassitude on the eve of World War II, smart enough to come to the United States for the duration of the conflict, but then to return to his homeland, and au courant enough to effortlessly make the switch from silents, to sound, to color, to three camera television shooting, and make it all look easy – eternally modern, eternally humanist.

Yes, if we were a sane species – Renoir would be constantly revived and screened.

James Wong Howe, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

James Wong Howe knew how little the public understood cinematography – and wasn’t afraid to say so.

In December 1945, as reported in the American Cinematographer, “Stephen Longstreet, a nationally-known novelist, editor, critic and currently a motion picture scenarist, made passing comment that ‘brilliant cameramen are the curse of the business’ in an article appearing in the August issue of the Screen Writers Guild monthly publication The Screen Writer. He generated a quick retort from James Wong Howe, ASC.

Replying with an article published in the October issue of The Screen Writer under the title ‘The Cameraman Talks Back,’ Howe described the important contributions of the director of photography to the overall results of a motion picture production. It’s one of the best explanations of the many responsibilities and achievements of the cinematographer, and makes decidedly interesting reading. As Howe wrote:

‘I agree with the criticism of placing camera gymnastics and an epic of sets over, or in place of, story values. I take issue with the statement that this is the fault of brilliant cameramen, and that “dumb cameramen” are a necessity for good pictures, along with less money, a good script, old standing sets and some lights and shadows. Who makes the lights and shadows which creates emotional tones on the screen? They don’t come on the old sets. The cameraman makes them.

The trouble with many critics and ex-critics is that for all their skillful talk, they don’t understand the techniques of motion pictures. They still criticize movies from the viewpoint of the stage. This results in any number of false appraisals, but the one with which I am concerned here is that this approach leaves out the cameraman entirely. For the stage, there is the audience eye.

For movies, with their wider scope and moving ability, there is the camera eye. If these two were one and the same kind of production, the cameraman’s part would merely be to set his camera up in front of the action as a static recorder, press a button and go fishing. Let the lights and shadows fall as they will, or better still, paint them on some old sets. The director, the actors, the writers, the producers, the bank — and the audience and critic — would object to this, but there you have the recipe for making movies with a dumb or inanimate cameraman.

This critical ignorance affects the cameraman in still another way. When the photography of a picture is good, the critic usually praises the director for his understanding and handling of the camera. It is true that a good film director knows and makes use of this knowledge, but the good cameraman is not merely a mechanic to carry out his orders.

His contribution may be technically expert and artistically creative. His understanding of the dramatic values of the story will carry over into his creation of mood. His manipulation of lights for such effects requires both technical and skillful imagination. His handling of the camera on certain action produced by the writer and interpreted by the director may well contain some added dramatic value of its own, which enhances and further interprets.

A scene from Hud (1963), photographed by James Wong Howe – masterful work in black and white.

Camera gymnastics and strange angles are not what I would call the stock of a “brilliant cameraman.” A man of limitations, director or cameraman, may use these mechanics to cover his thinness of understanding. Some of the most well-known writers possess technical skill and slickness and very little else. A limited writer can do far more harm, or lack of good, than a limited cameraman, because of the power of word and thought. I believe that the best cameraman is one who recognizes the source, the story, as the basis of his work.

Under the best conditions, the writer, the director and the cameraman would work closely together throughout the production. In spite of the present setup, a measure of cooperation is achieved, especially between the director and cameraman. Writers have often consulted me on how to get over certain scenes with lighting and the use of lenses.

Sometimes, as now, I am tempted to detail some of the work of a cameraman in an effort toward further cooperation. By its varied parts, he faces a job of integration on his own. Throughout the picture, there is that shared responsibility of keeping to the schedule; this, with all its other implications, means the executive ability to keep the set moving. He has a general responsibility to fuse the work of all the technical departments under his direction in order to achieve the equality of the story.

He is concerned with the makeup and the costume coloring. He works with the art director to see that the sets are properly painted to bring out their best values photographically. (I refer here to black-and-white, as well as color film.) For the same reason, he confers with the set director as to the colors of furniture, drapes, rugs.

The cameraman alone is responsible for the lighting, which is a part of photography but often referred to separately.

John Frankenheimer, James Wong Howe, and star Rock Hudson on the set of Seconds (1966).

Naturally, the cameraman studies the script. His main responsibility is to photograph the actors, action and background, by means of the moving camera, composition, and lighting — expressing the story in terms of the camera. I believe in a minimum of camera movement and angles that do not violate sense but contribute intrinsically to the dramatic effect desired.

“Unseen” photography does not at all mean pedestrian photography; in its own terms it should express emotion, and that emotion, according to the story, may be light, somber, sinister, dramatic, tragic, quiet. Within this frame there may be “terrific shots,” but there should be none outside it for mere effect. Photography must be integrated with the story.

The cameraman confers with the director on: (a) the composition of shots for action, since some scenes require definite composition for their best dramatic effect, while others require the utmost fluidity, or freedom from any strict definition or stylization; (b) atmosphere; (c) the dramatic mood of the story, which they plan together from beginning to end; (d) the action of the piece.

Because of the mechanics of the camera and the optical illusions created by the lenses, the cameraman may suggest changes of action which will better attain the effect desired by the director. Many times, a director is confronted with specific problems of accomplishing action. The cameraman may propose use of the camera unknown to the director which will achieve the same realism . . .

These things may amount to no more than ingenuity and a technical trick, but they carry over into the dramatic quality of a scene. There are many studio workers behind the scenes whose contributions toward the excellence of a motion picture never receive the credit, because outsiders have no way of discovering where one leaves off and another begins.’”

Read more in my new book Black & White Cinema: A Short History, out September 17th 2015 from Rutgers University Press.

Floyd Crosby, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

Director Fred Zinnemann (seated); DP Floyd Crosby standing (with glasses); and star Gary Cooper on the set of High Noon.

My new book, Black and White Cinema: A Short History, is coming out in a few weeks – I already have the advance proof copy – and Amazon has listed their official release date as September 17th; it goes to press on September 4th. I’m really happy with the finished project, but as with my entry on Nick Musuraca earlier in this blog, there were sections of my original text that had to be cut for reasons of space.

So here’s some additional material on the great cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and the long, often odd trajectory of his distinguished career.

As I wrote in the original draft of the book, “Floyd Crosby was another master of black and white cinematography, who early on in his career served as an assistant of sorts on W. S. Van Dyke’s and Robert Flaherty’s White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). But as Crosby told historian Mark Langer, ‘when Flaherty went down there [Tahiti], it was supposed to be a co-direction, but he didn’t direct any of it. Van Dyke directed it all. But I went down there and got a job, just as an assistant cameraman.

I was there, I think, three months, and then Flaherty left, and I came back when he did…Flaherty had no idea of how to direct a story film. All his work had been with documentaries, where he’d tell the natives to go fishing or do something he didn’t already know, and then he’d photograph it. He’d never done any story direction and this was a story picture and he was completely lost in it. Van Dyke did the whole thing.’

Van Dyke was known as a tough, no-nonsense director, commonly referred to as ‘One Take Woody’ for his speed and proficiency on the set, and as with many of the key directors of the 1930s, his career stretched back to the silent days, with The Land of Long Shadows (1917), and in the early sound era, by the astonishing accomplishment of Trader Horn (1931), shot on location in Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in synchronized sound, using an enormous crew, and the talents of Clyde De Vinna as cinematographer.

[De Vinna, who was the principal cameraman on White Shadows on the South Seas, took advantage of the opportunity to shoot literally miles of 'second unit' footage of native dancers, ceremonies, and everyday life for later use as stock footage in other productions, and indeed, the Trader Horn materials shot by De Vinna informed the spectatorial vision of Africa for more than thirty years, endlessly recycled in numerous 'jungle' films, and in the 1950s, such television series as Ramar of the Jungle (1952-1954)].

For his next project, Crosby worked on F. W. Murnau’s and Robert Flaherty’s Tabu (1931), but again, the collaboration was uneasy at best. As Crosby put it, when they arrived on location in Bora Bora, Flaherty rapidly demonstrated that he had no idea how to create a fiction film. As Crosby told Mark Langer, ‘the trouble was this. The idea that it was to be a co-production, and to be co-directed.

But when they got down [to the location], there was the same old story, that Flaherty couldn’t direct and Murnau was an expert, so Murnau was directing. In fact, he said to me one day, “My, I wish Flaherty could direct.” He said, “I’m sick. I don’t feel like working for a few days, but we can’t stop, and I wish Flaherty could take over.” But he knew he couldn’t. And Flaherty was upset because Murnau took over the picture.

Murnau was a great director, you know, and he was a very interesting workman, but personally had all kinds of problems. He was an arrogant person — and he and Flaherty hated each other. At least Flaherty hated him. Flaherty used to three times a day tell me how much he hated Murnau… At the end of the picture, Murnau had some titles made and asked me to shoot them.

One of the titles was “And at the camera — Crosby.” I said, “This is not the correct credit. The credit is Photographed by . . .” He said, “You won’t shoot it then?” And I said, “No. I won’t shoot it.” So we were hardly speaking after that. Then, of course, when Paramount made the titles, they gave me the correct credits.’

Floyd Crosby on the set of Tabu, behind the camera.

Despite all of this friction, the finished film is an evocative, deeply romantic and ineffably tragic work, which not only won Crosby the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, but also was selected by the National Board of Review as one of the Top Ten Films of 1931, and, in 1994, chosen by the National Film Preservation Board for the National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically [and] aesthetically significant.’

In Crosby’s laconic reckoning of Tabu’s success, he told Langer that ‘…it came out well enough to get the Academy Award. It was a little uneven, I must admit. And you know, this was before the days of exposure meters, and one day Flaherty was developing some film and we were talking outside and we forgot about it. The film was ten minutes in a three and a half minute developer. So we had to shoot that over again, you know.’

And for Flaherty, Crosby maintained a certain measure of respect, as opposed to his feelings on working with Murnau. As he told Langer, ‘I learned things. They weren’t things that I was particularly able to use, but the good thing about [Flaherty] was that he would make a good documentary without trying to louse it up by bringing in a lot of other things to make excitement, that had no business in the picture.

You know, so many people go out to make a documentary, who want to make something that’s going to sell, so they try to bring in some Hollywood elements of excitement, and it ceases to be a really true documentary. Well, he didn’t do that in his films. He was honest about them.’

Crosby went on to shoot a series of documentaries in the 1930s, such as Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931), often cited as one of the first sync sound documentaries, shot in Mato Grosso, Brazil; Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936); Joris Iven’s The Power and the Land (1940), as well as working on Orson Welles’ aborted semi-documentary It’s All True (1942), with cinematographers Joe Noreigo, Joseph Biroc, William Howard Greene, Harry J. Wild, and George Fanto; the film was shelved, and the materials vaulted for fifty years, before the production emerged in a reconstructed version in 1993; Crosby photographed the ‘My Friend Benito’ sequence of the film, which was actually directed by Welles’s associate Norman Foster.

Crosby on location for Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness

In his later work, one of Crosby’s most impressive achievements was his parched, unadorned work on director Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which, ironically, led back to Crosby’s work with Flaherty, as Zinnemann had a strong affinity for Flaherty’s work, along with a personal connection to the director. As Zinnemann told Brian Neve,

‘Flaherty wrote me a letter of introduction in 1931, and as a result I got a job at Goldwyn. He influenced me in every possible way, not only technically, but also in what I learnt from him by being his assistant, his whole spirit of being his own man, of being independent of the general spirit of Hollywood, to the point where he didn’t worry about working there.

That’s probably why he made only five or six pictures in his life. But he influenced me in his whole way of approaching the documentary, which he really initiated with films like Nanook of the North. I learned from Flaherty to be rather uncompromising an to defend what I wanted to say, and not let someone else mix it up. He had the true feeling of a documentary director — he took life as it was. This influenced me enormously because I found myself almost subconsciously following his style in films like High Noon …’

And so, when Zinnemann shot High Noon, he argued that, ‘if you want to make a picture like High Noon, and you want to make it feel like the world felt in the days of the Civil War in America, that kind of gritty, dusty feeling, you had to get a cameraman who knew how to handle that, like Floyd Crosby,’ with the result that the film had a cinematographic style very different from other films of the period.

As Zinnemann noted in another interview on High Noon with historian Alan Marcus, ‘I wanted to organize High Noon in the way a documentary would have been made at that time when the action happened. Except that in the 1880s there was no such thing as motion pictures. So that in using the style, the cameraman Floyd Crosby and I studied very carefully contemporary still photography, particularly the photographs of Mr. Lincoln’s [still] cameraman [Matthew Brady] who photographed parts of the Civil War in America.

That meant that we used a grainy kind of print, deliberately grainy and flat, with a very white sky, instead of a dark sky with pretty clouds on it. So, it reasonably looks a bit like photography of that period and gives it a feeling of being authentic, which was not the usual method at all at the time when this film was made.’

A superb setup by Crosby from High Noon ; Will Kane alone, deserted by the townspeople.

The completed film won four Academy Awards — Best Actor (Gary Cooper), Best Film Editing (Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad — this is a whole story in itself, as Elmo Williams’ near ‘real time’ — actually slightly stretched out, rather than strictly accurate — editing of the final cut of the film considerably tightened up the flow of the narrative), and Best Music and Best Original Song for Dimitri Tiomkin.

For his part, Floyd Crosby won a Golden Globe for his work on High Noon, and though the film was generally well-received critically, it infuriated the more politically conservative members of the Hollywood community. With its script, by Carl Foreman, depicting the craven, cowardly members of a small Western town refusing to help the town’s marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), when his arch nemesis Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), whom Kane has sent to prison, comes back explicitly to kill Kane, High Noon painted a deeply unflattering picture of American society, and was widely seen as a political allegory, commenting on the Hollywood Blacklist of the era.

As a result of this, the film’s scenarist Carl Foreman was blacklisted himself, and Floyd Crosby, as a sort of ‘collateral damage’ to the entire affair, found himself “grey listed” — not officially on the blacklist, but definitely out of favor.Out of this, however, came the final, blazingly brilliant act of Crosby’s career, a long alliance with legendary director Roger Corman, starting with the six day Western Five Guns West in 1955.

Rather than looking down on Corman’s output, Crosby became Corman’s most prolific cinematographer, lensing everything from the stark, black and white imagery of Reform School Girl and Teenage Doll — with one ‘A’ assignment in between, John Sturges’ and Henry King’s production of The Old Man and the Sea, based on Hemingway’s novel, photographed by Crosby and James Wong Howe — before slickly moving into color work for Corman on House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961), along with many other films for the director.

For his part, Crosby observed that – much to his surprise -  he didn’t have to tell Corman as much about how to direct as with some of the other helmers he’d worked with in his career; and as Corman told historian Lawrence French of working with Crosby, and of Crosby’s unjust treatment at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the early 1950s, working with Crosby was both practical and delightful:

‘Floyd was certainly not a communist, but during the fifties, some studios did not like him. However, that meant nothing to me. I used him simply because he was a good cameraman. I remember Floyd talking about that, and saying it was somewhat ironic that his patriotism should come under questioning, after he had served in the Army Air Corps command during World War II as a Captain, working with [the pioneering documentary filmmaker] Pare Lorentz on combat documentaries and winning citations for bravery. Floyd was really a great gentleman and a brilliant cameraman.

Crosby lights Barbara Steele on the set of Corman’s The Pit and The Pendulum

I went on to use him for my first film as a director, Five Guns West, and he was probably the best cameraman I ever worked with. He was quick, efficient and gave me the kind of quality that you would normally associate with much bigger studio films. We got along very well, and although he was somewhat older than I was, we became very good friends and I had great respect for him and for his work.

It’s not that difficult to get a good cameraman if the cameraman has hours to set up each shot. It’s not difficult to get a cameraman who works quickly. He just sets up a few lights, and says he’s ready to shoot. But to get somebody to work quickly and does fine work is very unusual. [Crosby could do that].’”

Floyd Crosby, another master of the black and white cinema.

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.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

RSS Recent Frame by Frame Videos