John Alton: Cinematography’s Outlier, Part Two

Dolores Hart touches up John Alton on set of “Lonelyhearts.”

Dolores Hart touches up John Alton on set of “Lonelyhearts.”

At the end of the preface to his book, Painting With Light, cinematographer John Alton (a master of darkness) says he wrote the book not as a technical work, but from

a desire to share the fruits of his experience with kindred souls who also delight in capturing bits of light at rest on things of beauty.

I don’t know whether this oft-times enigmatic man is playing with his readers or if he is dead serious. He does expend considerable ink in the book explaining his theories of beauty lighting, especially describing his “test light” wand:

This device, a new combination of existing electric lamp parts, can be assembled by the student at home. It consists of a two-foot aluminum tube at the end of which is an electric socket holding a frosted bulb. Over the bulb is a shade to keep the light out of the photographer’s eyes. Through the tubing passes an electric cord long enough to reach the nearest electrical outlet, where it is plugged in.

Alton and his "testlight" with Joan Bennett.

Alton and his “testlight” with Joan Bennett.

One can imagine the mustached, fedora-ed, always dapper author waving this light stick around his leading lady’s head searching for the most flattering angle to set her key light.

Joan Bennett “Hollow Triumph.”

Joan Bennett “Hollow Triumph.”

This demonstration is highlighted in Chapter 5, “The Hollywood Close Up,” which also includes a section on “Luminart, The Eight Light System,” with Alton’s three A, B, C circles for creating a lighting scheme. While not relevant to the simpler, more source motivated style of contemporary color cinematography, it is still a roadmap to one style of the classic era of major studio hard lighting. Alton is exacting, one could even say dogmatic, about his approach, but his presentation remains the clearest one I have read about the near ritualistic lighting techniques of the time.

Alton's lighting circles.

Alton’s lighting circles.

The anomaly in the book is that he spends so little space presenting those noir lighting techniques for which he is most remembered. In Chapter 3, “Mystery Lighting,” Alton discusses fire effects, from cigarettes, fireplaces, candles, to campfires, but he devotes only two pages to presenting what he calls “criminal lighting,” and has only two illustrations. An ambitious YouTuber, John Noe, has made a video of frame grabs from eleven of Alton’s noir movies from the 1947 T-Men to the 1955 The Big Combo. It’s a casebook of noir tropes, not just the well-known single source hard key lights, often from a low angle or from a table lamp prominent in the scene—but to the dramatic and dynamic compositions that often play second fiddle to lighting in many academic discussions of noir.

One of Alton’s key compositional devices is a low, wide-angle lens foreground close-up, camera tilted toward the set ceiling, featuring background actors low in the frame.

“He Walked by Night”

“He Walked by Night”

“Mystery Street”

“Mystery Street”

Many of the lighting and camera techniques of Alton’s seminal noir period became so much his style that they spilled over into non-noir films of the period, fascinating detours off the noir, hard-bitten highway. Two of the best directors that Alton worked with in this period are Bernard Vorhaus and Anthony Mann. Vorhaus was also Alton’s close friend and they made eight films together. Vorhaus and his wife were dedicated leftists, having supported the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War. But in 1951, the director became a victim of the Hollywood blacklist when another director, Edward Dmytryk, gave his name to the House investigating committee on Communists in Hollywood— and Vorhaus’ and Alton’s collaboration ended— as Vorhaus headed, like many leftists, for the unlikely haven of Europe.

Their final film, The Amazing Mr. X , featured beautiful exterior day for night footage on a beach, seamlessly intercut with studio lighting and back projection in the scene’s close-up dialogue coverage. This film is an anomalous straight drama smack in the middle of Alton’s noir period. Little seen today, it remains one of his most accomplished credits, its haunting dream-like images a counterpoint to the rawness of noir.

“The Amazing Mr. X”

“The Amazing Mr. X”

You can dip into it here as the beach scene is featured early on, starting at 7:00 in the first encounter between Lynn Bari and Turhan Bey. The video is quite dark.

But like any Alton film it’s best seen on DVD.

Amazon.com – The Amazing Mr. X  DVD link

An even more anomalous film of Alton’s noir period is The Black Book, directed by Anthony Mann in 1949. Also known as The Reign of Terror, it tracks the rise and fall of Robespierre during the late phase of the French Revolution. Almost perversely against the grain of typical historical dramas, Alton and Mann engulf the film with every tic and trope of film noir style they had crafted in earlier films like T-Men, and Raw Deal.

“The Black Book”

“The Black Book”

Instead of car chases and shootouts, there are careening horse-drawn carriages and sword fights and through it all the deep shadows and penetrating light shafts that constitute the genre’s grammar. In many ways, The Black Book is the purest exemplar of Alton’s noir style as its eighteenth century setting is so alien to noir’s urban, contemporary world.

Amazon.com – The Black Book DVD link

Painting with Light was published by The Macmillan Company in 1949 smack in the middle of Alton’s major noir credits. On the title page and below the author credit a line reads “Member of the American Society of Cinematographers.” This line is not in the subsequent editions including those of UC Press. A dedication does appear in all editions:

To My Dear Wife Rozalia, whose infinite patience and encouragement made this book possible.

In the original edition a page also credits department heads of Eagle Lion Studios, where many of his noir films were shot. Studio executives placed their facilities at his disposal for the author’s photos of sets and equipment.  Chapter Two of the new edition retains all of Alton’s illustrations of lighting and grip equipment, a lexicon of the large-sized and even unwieldy units, especially the many sized arcs, relics today, but never bettered for evenness of illumination, and especially for their razor sharp shadows that are a signature of noir style.

Twin lamp 65 amp Duarcs, used mainly for diffused fill.

Twin lamp 65 amp Duarcs, used mainly for diffused fill.

Alton also presents his “theory of illumination” through illustrations of a white sphere and a cube and states that

Because the screen in the motion picture theater is a [sic] one-dimensional flat surface, it is imperative that we photograph everything from an angle from which most surfaces of the subject are visible to the camera.

cubes and spheres

This may be rote for the intended “student,” but Alton rarely practiced his own advice as his frequent low angled camera captured dramatic environments but caught many complex surfaces at a flat raking angle.

Another consequent of Alton’s low angle style is the inclusion of set ceilings. Either the studio sets had built-in ceilings or, in the case of practical locations, were selected with the intention of including low ceilings as compositional, even dramatically claustrophobic, elements.

The subject of set ceilings is its own theme in set design and lighting. Earlier, George Barnes and Gregg Toland had sometimes favored photographing ceilings. But the practice became habitual, even ritualistic, in Alton and Nick Musaraca’s noir films. Alton talked about it in a trade interview with journalist Virginia MacPherson:

I don’t see [use?] any top lighting. Other cameramen have heavy arcs and lights all around the top of a soundstage. I put my lights on the floor. This way the actors come out looking like people, not masks.

Alton was referring to the industry-wide practice of ringing the set with scaffolds hung from the stage “permanents,” the large steel beams bridging the stage roof. Heavy chains supported these railed wooden walkways where a crew of grips and electricians spent their workday. The “juicers” focused the lights at the command of the lighting gaffer who worked from the floor. Grips modeled the lights with a bevy of cutters and flags hung from the safety rails. The shadows sank down low on the set walls and were easy to cut just above the actors’ heads. You can see this light and shadow scheme in almost any studio film of the 30s-50s. The scaffolds commonly were called “greenbeds” because of the dominant color of the wood floor grid. Greenbeds are still sometimes found on standing sets of episodic TV shows. Contrary to what Alton insisted, these hanging scaffolds were very fast to light from. When placed low on the floor, as Alton often did, movie lights are tricky to hide behind desks and furniture, especially with a moving or steadicam camera. But low set lights do cast dramatic shadows from the actors.

The hard lights of black and white noir often feature a hot key light against an ambiguous dark surround, with a bright white accent in the background, creating a sense of deep space.

“The People Against O' Hara”

“The People Against O’ Hara”

At the time of the publication of Painting with Light there was still a lot of mumbo-jumbo about cinematography. Every cameraman had his little box of secret filters and nets, and his personal way of exposing negative. Even when I began as an assistant in the late 60s, there were plenty of cinematographers disinclined to mentor students, even their own assistants. Some cinematographers would whisper the lens setting to the camera assistant as though this were the key ingredient in a secret sauce. I worked with only a few of these veterans, as they were too far insulated inside the union hierarchy for a tyro like me to approach. In an era of tie-dye, they still wore jackets and ties on the set. Alton’s tell-all book must have seemed a violation of the trade’s cabbala-like secrets.

Purely on the basis of the outmoded equipment illustrations and on Alton’s less than nimble writing style, it may seem easy to read Painting with Light with the slight condescension of a contemporary sensibility. But this would be a mistake, because the book is a window into its time frame as well as to the broader ideas the author has of evolving film technology. Were he writing today, it’s easy to imagine his probing mind looking at LED, KinoFlo and HMI lights as valuable tools to create the dramatic visual frame for the intense character and narrative exposition he sought. Adding digital video cameras to the mix would surely get his creative juices surging.

The book’s fourteen chapters range from an introduction of cameras, lights and grip equipment, with sidebars of some of his personal “trick rigs,” to sections on the laboratory and how to set up a portrait studio. He presents ideas for improved theater projection and in a concluding chapter uses the camera as a metaphor for the human sensory system and brain. It’s a glimpse into Alton’s philosophic musings and calls to my mind at least, the whimsical image of Dziga-Vertov’s stop-motion kinetic camera and tripod. Although Alton is deemed king of the noir style, Painting with Light reveals the beating heart of a portrait photographer.

Leslie Brooks “Hollow Triumph.”

Leslie Brooks “Hollow Triumph.”

It’s hard to imagine him praising another photographer, but the spirits of George Hurrell, Donald Ritchie, even Herb Ritts, must hover around him in a cinema empyrean, the locus of light.

There have been many valuable books on cinematography; several of them are interviews, such as Leonard Maltin’s still worthy profiles of five venerable veterans:

Amazon.com – The Art of the Cinematographer

And of UC Press’s Masters of Light which is in a new edition with a new foreword in which I update the work of the 15 profiled cinematographers:

12_MastersOfLight

University of California Press: Masters of Light 

Others are personal memoirs, from Karl Brown’s Adventures with D.W. Griffith and Virgil Miller’s Splinters from Hollywood Tripods to Jack Cardiff’s Magic Hour.

But there is nothing I have found that is as uniquely idiosyncratic as Painting with Light.

During the September 1995 dinner tribute to Alton at the ASC Clubhouse I asked the 94-year-old “Master of Light” to sign my copy of his book. Below his signature,  generously inscribed, “From one artist to another,” an indulgence to an admiring, younger colleague.

13_SIGNED BOOK

 

Next” John Alton, Part Three and his only television film.

4 Responses to “John Alton: Cinematography’s Outlier, Part Two”

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  • John,

    in 1978, when I first came out to Los Angeles trying to land my first job in the business , I was taken under the wing of William “Bill” Norton, the Cinematographer of “Laverne and Shirley” at that time. He gave me a copy of “Painting with Light,” and insisted I had to read it, which I did. Sadly, I somehow have misplaced my copy of the book.

    I just looked him up on IMDB, and they clearly have his birth date wrong, as when I met him he was already in his 70s, and recalled for me stories of assisting on “The Ten Commandments.”

    It was Bill that introduced me to Skip Nicholson, which led to my first job at Technicolor working for Skip and Jay Cipes.

    Anyway, it meant a lot to me to read your piece here about this remarkable book, and then even more remarkable man that wrote it.

    Thank you,

    Rob

  • Thank you very much for these pieces, John. To be written about by one of the greatest cinematographers is its own testament to Alton’s contribution to the art. Thank you for your own contribution, in writing as well as in film.

  • JOHN ALTON one of the best DOP ever

  • Hi John,
    Due to your blogs, I watch sooo many terrific films! I wasn’t able to get access to many Gabriel Figueroa films, though I did watch The Fugitive.
    There are so many John Alton films available to watch on youtube. I’ve already watched ‘He Walked By Night’ and ‘The Crooked Way’ as well as the MI pilot.
    Anyway, my question is this; how much time did they have to light back in those days? It seems that a lot of his work was done on location. Even if it is studio work, the lighting is so sharp, so specific, it seems that it must have taken quite awhile. And the lighting on the woman is obviously so careful. Were the actors into, or frustrated by what seems to be a need for them to hit very specific marks quite often.
    Of all the crazy fantastic stuff he did lighting wise, I have to say, I really really love his interior car lighting. I have his book (with your new forward) and look forward to reading about what he did to achieve that look.
    Thanks again for taking the time to research and write these terrific posts.

    JOHN’S REPLY: Howard, both Figueroa and Alton did many features in less than 20 days– sometimes much less. When I began in film as an assistant, many cinematographers were still using hard light, esp. for episodic TV. There was a near programmed ritual of placement for key, kicker or backlight and fill. The hard light made it easy to control the light and shadows. Grips could almost wordlessly set wall cutters without a word from the DP. It was formulaic, but efficient and fast. Closeups were always keyed in the direction of the “look,” even if the master shot had not been. The high greenbeds (avoided by Alton, who lit from the floor, often very low) always had several grips and lamp operators up top all day with a ring of lights in position around the whole set perimeter. Having little on the floor made for speedy setups.

    Both Alton and Figueroa lit with few units and embraced the aesthetic of the strong single key with little fill except for beauty closeups. Freeze frame on any of their wide shots, study them, and you’ll realize how few lights are actually used. Also, it was an era when shots were allowed to play for extended time and it was not required to “cover” every movement, tic or turn in a closeup, or wallpaper the scene with Michael Bay 2 second cuts.

    Look again at the “Malaguena Salerosa” scene and you’ll see how few shots there are.

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