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Posts Tagged ‘John Alton’

Cinematography Roundtable – The Hollywood Reporter

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

The Hollywood Reporter’s Cinematography Roundtable is an invaluable video seminar.

As Gregg Kilday and Carolyn Giardina note in the text that accompanies this revealing half-hour discussion, “The visionaries behind some of the year’s most visually striking movies — Unbroken, Into the Woods, Gone Girl, The Theory of Everything, Noah and Mr. Turner — open up about everything from how to develop a relationship with a director to high-dynamic-range technologies

They’re sad that instead of projecting movies on film, theaters have turned to digital projection — even if it means they no longer have to worry about scratched or fraying prints. They’re resigned to the fact that reviewers never quite know what to make of their work. And especially when filming outdoors, they always keep one eye on the weather — in fact, veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, 65, confessed he has four weather apps on his phone to make sure he remains prepared.

Fortunately the sun was shining when Deakins, who recently finished shooting Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, got together at THR’s invitation with five fellow directors of photography: Into the Woods’ Dion Beebe, 46; Gone Girl’s Jeff Cronenweth, 52; The Theory of Everything’s Benoit Delhomme, 53; Noah’s Matthew Libatique, 46; and Mr. Turner’s Dick Pope, 67. They happily compared notes on their recent movies, which took them from the biblical realm of Noah to the 19th century British salons of Mr. Turner to the contemporary crime scenes of Gone Girl.

[But their work goes largely unappreciated by most observers. As Benoit Delhomme noted] ‘for me, it’s incredible to realize that what you can expect as a DP is to get one line at the end of the review saying just two words about your work.’ [Added Deakins,] ‘People confuse pretty with good cinematography. [The late cinematographer] Freddie Francis said there is good cinematography and bad cinematography, and then there’s the cinematography that’s right for the movie. I often feel that if reviewers don’t mention your work, it’s probably better than if they do.’”

Having just finished a book on the history of black and white cinematography on a worldwide basis, Black & White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, which will be published by Rutgers University Press in late 2015, I can attest that this is absolutely true. As fate or luck would have it, I knew Freddie Francis very well from 1984 up until his death, and watched him at work on the sets of several films he either directed or photographed, and it’s absolutely true that most reviewers and critics have absolutely no idea of what the DP does on a film, or the degree of input they have on the final project.

Most often, from the beginning of cinema up to the present day, directors are more than content to take all the credit for the visual design of a film, when in fact the choice of a DP on any given film tells you much about how the finished project will look. I often think about the bold black and white work of DP John L. Russell on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award – but lost out to Freddie Francis for Sons and Lovers – and while Hitchcock was certainly an assured and accomplished visual stylist, it’s clear to me that Russell’s work on the film was a major factor in the overall impact of the film.

But as with the DPs discussing their work here, credit often is not readily forthcoming, and so this discussion is an invaluable look behind the scenes for those who stick to a strictly “auteurist” view of the cinema – without the DP, you wouldn’t have any images on the screen at all.

The best DPs in cinema history, such as James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, Stanley Cortez, Nicholas Musuraca, Robert Krasker, John Alton, Boris Kaufman, Gunnar Fischer, Sven Nykvist, Karl Freund, Fritz Arno Wagner, John Seitz, Robert Burks and many others created an alluring and phantasmal world out of nothing more than light and shadow, transforming the real world into a cinematic trompe-l’œil which was so seductive and all – encompassing that it became an entirely new universe. It’s only right that we acknowledge and celebrate their contribution to cinema history.

You can see the entire video by clicking here, or on the image above.

12 To The Moon – A Very Strange Film, Indeed!

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

12 to the Moon is a very odd film; get the DVD, and see for yourself.

Since I’m in a David Bradley mood, I might as well post on his extremely peculiar science fiction film, 12 to the Moon (1959), just to let you know it’s out there. Most sources date the production as 1960, but in fact “according to an October 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, Columbia purchased the independent production in August 1959, intending to rush it into release to capitalize on the topicality of a space launch,” and the film itself bears a 1959 copyright date, though it was released in June, 1960.

As Nathaniel Thompson notes on the Turner Classic Movies website, “while mankind continued to see competition in space exploration between American and the Soviet Union for years to come, this film instead proposes an inaugural lunar expedition aboard the Lunar Eagle comprised of an international team of a dozen astronauts from the United States, Poland, Israel, Sweden, Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan, France, Brazil, Britain, Turkey, and Nigeria.

Needless to say, their harmonious intentions run into a few speed bumps along the way as basic human territorial behavior comes into play (though not surprisingly, the American played by TV actor Ken Clark remains the most composed of the bunch). Caverns filled with air pockets, mysterious ice walls, and startling alien messages are just a few of the surprises in store, while the crew’s additional animal passengers (pairs of cats, monkeys and canines) also come into play before the end after they’ve already dodged other menaces including a meteor shower.

Extremely strange and unpredictable, 12 to the Moon has the usual budget-deprived look of many second-tier science fiction films of the period, along with the expected avalanche of dubious science and plot holes larger than the moon’s craters. One big surprise for movie buffs arrives in the opening scene with the entire setup for the plot delivered to the audience by Hollywood’s first bona fide movie star, Francis X. Bushman, here playing “Secretary General of the International Space Order” (the kind of role normally given to an actor like Basil Rathbone).

Shot in just over a week for a reported $150,000, 12 to the Moon was released by Columbia in June of 1960 on a double bill with Ishirô Honda’s Battle in Outer Space. The lack of a reasonable budget or star power doomed many science fiction films to obscurity after their initial runs, though this film managed to stay alive thanks to frequent television screenings.

Some of the more familiar cast members for eagle-eyed movie buffs include Japanese-American actress Michi Kobi (best known for the Jeffrey Hunter/David Janssen war film, Hell to Eternity, 1960), Norwegian TV actress Anna-Lisa, and Robert Montgomery, Jr. (College Confidential, 1960), son of Hollywood actor Robert Montgomery and brother of Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery, and Tom Conway, a regular in numerous Val Lewton horror classics such as Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943). The Lewton connection continues to this film’s screenwriter, DeWitt Bodeen, who wrote both of the two latter films as well as 1962’s Billy Budd.

However, the most surprising member of 12 to the Moon’s personnel is undoubtedly its cinematographer, John Alton, an innovative Hungarian-born iconoclast who earned an Academy Award in 1952 for An American in Paris (1951). His demanding personality resulted in a patchwork career alternating between big studio films (Father of the Bride [1950], The Teahouse of the August Moon [1956], Elmer Gantry [1960]) and small programmers, though his work on the latter still produced remarkable results such as I, the Jury (1953), The Amazing Mr. X (1948) and The Big Combo (1955) — proving that for some artists, no project is too big or too small.”

Yes, it’s a very odd film; the French scientist, for example, who gets far too many closeups for no apparent reason for most of the film, suddenly reveals that he has secret pro-Soviet leanings, and urges the Russian member of the team to use the rocket ship they all inhabit to take over the earth with the use of some sort of atomic device; while the aliens who populate the moon take an unlikely interest in two cats brought along on the expedition, and demand that they be left for research purposes – why, we have no idea.

As if that isn’t enough, the German scientist on board has a Nazi father who murdered another crew member’s father during the era of the Third Reich, and yet the two manage to become boon companions; two other crew members become romantically involved, and are then trapped in a solid block of ice almost as a sort of punishment; another scientist is sucked under in the moon’s “quicksand” and also perishes. All of this happens in a flat, sort of matter of fact way; no one gets too excited, and the remaining members of the group are left to soldier on.

The moon aliens – who are never seen, incidentally – communicate with the group using a series of indecipherable hieroglyphics, which are nevertheless easily read by the Japanese member of the crew, and alternately issue threats and messages of peace, but not before the aliens succeed in freezing the entire earth and all its inhabitants with some sort of mysterious ray, which is in turn counteracted by the scientists by improvising an atomic bomb, and launching it from the ship into an active volcano, thereby generating enough heat to warm up the planet, during which two more members of the crew forfeit their lives. Whew!

Sound strange? It is, and despite the many obvious shortcuts used in the production, and the curious lack of motivation or even some semblance of logic in the film, it lingers in my memory, at least, as an warped but sincere attempt to create an international sense of purpose, in which all the nations of the earth combine to claim the moon jointly, rather than scrambling to be first. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a good film, but it’s a decidedly odd one, which never does what you expect it to, and goes careening off in any direction it feels like, with no regard for audience expectations. The film is readily available in an excellent transfer from Warner Archive, and at a running time of a mere 75 minutes, is certainly worth a look.

All in all, a very odd film indeed.

The Spiritualist, Bernard Vorhaus, and John Alton

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Turhan Bey in The Spiritualist

Finally available in a decent copy, Bernard Vorhaus’s bizarre and unpredictable noir/mystery The Spiritualist, also known under the much more prosaic title The Amazing Mr. X (which has nothing to do with the film at all), has apparently been in the Public Domain for many years, and many inferior copies of the film have appeared as streaming video downloads, cheap DVDs, and torrent downloads. But none of these versions capture the depth and luminous intensity of John Alton’s cinematography, enhanced by Vorhaus’s dream-like direction.

Now, finally, Warner Archive is putting out a version mastered from the original 35mm elements, and the result is extraordinary. The film itself is transformed into a dark, smooth vision, like something out of Jean Cocteau, and with all the imperfections of the cheaper dupes of the film removed, with emerges is absolutely extraordinary.

Here’s Warner Archives’ thumbnail description of the plot:

“Turhan Bey plays the mysterious spiritualist who convinces a beautiful widow (Lynn Bari, Orchestra Wives) and her young sister (Cathy O’Donnell, They Live By Night), that her dead husband is trying to contact her from beyond the grave. Richly photographed by famed cinematographer John Alton (Border Incident and The Big Combo), the dark, smoky interiors and fog-swept beaches give this [film] a gothic feel [ . . .] with stylish direction by Bernard Vorhaus (Bury Me Dead); sadly, this was one of his last films in the U.S. before being blacklisted.  This is the first and only DVD release of this film mastered from original 35mm elements.”

There were many great cinematographers at work in the 1940s, including Gregg Toland, Nicholas Musuraca and many others, but John Alton’s work is unique and immediately identifiable; he splashes light across the screen in bold streaks, and leaves large sections of the image in darkness for atmospheric effect. A renegade, Alton shot most of his films for minor studios on minimal budgets, where the bold simplicity he prized was also a valuable asset for producers.

Most of the action takes place in an enormous mansion, and Alton’s deep focus cinematography makes the most of the set, as well as some spellbinding exterior photography which is every bit as atmospheric and romantic as Henri Alekan’s work on Cocteau’s Beauty and The Beast, which this film constantly reminded me of throughout its 79 minute running time.

Seeing the film as it was meant to be seen is a revelation; proof, once again, that film is an inherently fragile medium, and that the only way to ensure that the films of the past remain with us in the present is through careful, continual preservation of their original camera negatives, as happily is the case here. The Spiritualist is far from a masterpiece, but seen with its original gloss intact, Alton and Vorhaus’s hypnotic vision bursts from the screen, once again with its full impact. 

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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