Leon Lewis (Ed.), John Alton: Essays on the Cinematographer’s Art and Craft (McFarland, 2020)
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Widely regarded as epitomizing the visual style of high film noir as it approached its baroque period from the late 1940s, cinematographer John Alton’s work in the genre took a thoughtful approach to light, shadow, and their mysterious rapprochement in postwar narratives of fear, alienation, and paranoia. I will never forget the final shot of The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955) in which the girl pauses briefly near the cop following the final shootout between cop and gangster at a foggy aircraft hangar, the two lit only by a single floodlight beam swinging above them. In the words of Janey Place and Lowell Peterson: “Silhouetted figures standing in a rigid position become abstracted Modern Man and Woman. The backlighting of heavy smoke and an ominously circling light visible in the background further abstracts the environment into a modern netherworld.” Given the resonance of Alton’s work, it is a pity that the writing in these essays seldom matches the acuity of Place and Peterson’s 1974 piece.
Respected by some at the studios, sneered at by others, always in trouble with the electricians’ union, Alton was unusual among his peers in the sense that he took an academic, as well as film-industrial, interest in light and darkness and what they are capable of showing and suggesting about people, dramatic situations, and sociopolitical climates. Working with a range of directors from the veterans Allan Dwan and Bernard Vorhaus, to postwar masters Vincente Minnelli and Anthony Mann, Alton brought an intelligence and a craft to indifferent and superior projects alike, a body of experience that he would distill into a book – Painting with Light (1949) – now a key text for industry practitioners as well as cinephiles. Alton’s seminal influence is borne out in his own words as he attempted to catch the reflection of “passing automobile headlights on the ceiling of a dark interior” and “fluctuating neon or other electrical signs.” The 1992 documentary Visions of Light (Glassman, McCarthy & Samuels) pays particular attention to Alton’s work in film noir and contains tributes by a number of recent directors of photography. The precise descriptions of cinematographic practice contained in Painting with Light echo through the pages of Lewis’s collection.
Lewis’s book, by comparison, is variable in quality and execution. Flirting from the outset with the idea that Alton can be regarded as an auteur but failing to properly make its case, the collection falls prey on the one hand to inadequately accounting for the collaborative nature of Hollywood studio filmmaking – a missed opportunity given Alton’s seminal collaboration with Anthony Mann – and on the other to closely analysing lesser works in Alton’s canon, a preoccupation that sometimes marred even the classical criticism of auteurism’s French practitioners in the 1950s. The latter fault finds the reader trudging through exacting visual accounts of such as Cattle Queen of Montana (Allan Dwan, 1954) or Father of the Bride (Vincente Minnelli, 1950) and arriving at the end without any specific desire to see these films. Brian Faucette, writing about the much more Altonesque Raw Deal (1948) in one of the book’s most memorable essays, makes one of its few attempts to account for the creative rapport between Alton and Mann. But such commentary comes few and far between in a book with such a yen to make the case for Alton’s authorship. Lewis’s introduction harks back to seminal auteurist authors of the 1960s and 1970s such as Andrew Sarris and Peter Wollen, but I kept wondering if any of the writers marshalled here are acquainted with the film-theoretical work of such 1980s academics as Thomas Schatz, David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Staiger, whose accounts of the complexity of big-studio methods and protocols were a corrective to the over-enthusiastic and unexamined auteurism of the 1970s.
The porous relationships between genres seem pertinent to the work of a DP who shot films noirs, westerns, even musicals. Aside from Faucette’s engrossing piece, other essays toy with the intriguing possibilities of generic hybridization. Tom Wallis makes a valiant attempt to show how the existential urban angst of Alton’s noirs could be fruitfully translated onto the high bright plains of the western, disturbing seeming moral, political, and generic certainties that had seemed sacrosanct since Hollywood’s silent days. But again, the examples chosen from Alton’s oeuvre do not come across, even in Wallis’s detailed prose, as films that one might seek out and watch. More successful is Zackary Vernon and Jessica L. Martell’s essay on The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940) and Mann’s Border Incident (1949). Coining the term “farm noir” to account for some films (the authors do not speculate further than the Ford and the Mann), the authors propose a subgenre that found the deep-focus chiaroscuro of film noir used to delineate crises in US agriculture in the mid-century decades. In one of the richest pieces in the book, Vernon and Martell examine the way in which, respectively, Gregg Toland’s and Alton’s cinematography express landscape, the impact of capitalist exploitation, and moments of human empathy in such a way as to find a compelling link with contemporary tales of urban alienation we most readily associate with film noir. However, it is perhaps symptomatic of this volume’s overall thinness that the authors spend half of the essay discussing a film that Alton had nothing to do with, whatever the insights gleaned from their cinematographic and socio-historical analysis. One of Vernon and Martell’s most astute observations is to suggest, in our age of foreign labour exploitation and dereliction of the soil, how these films seem to gain fresh relevance. Meanwhile, their close analysis of Alton’s cinematography in Border Incident makes the reader want to catch up with it.
Elsewhere, Toney Frazier’s examination of female characters in Mystery Street (John Sturges, 1950), The Big Combo, and Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960), while welcome, is marred by Frazier’s over-enthusiastic prose. Of Richard Conte’s Mr Brown in The Big Combo: “What a nasty-bastard performance he gives!” Elsewhere, Jeffrey P. Martell’s “Werner Herzog is full of shit” finds the writer failing to observe the rigour and decorous tone good academic writing requires. Faucette’s prose too, while exacting in its analysis of Raw Deal, sometimes borders on the pedestrian. Glancing at the writer credits at the end of the book, it seems that many hail from English departments or have academic literature backgrounds. You are reminded of the emergence of Anglo-American auteurism from the corridors of literature departments in the 1970s. But 40 years on, this book might have benefitted from more input from Film Studies people. McFarland might also have hired a competent proofreader in the final production stages. The reader comes across numerous glitches – “Ernest Lubitsch,” “Shrader,” “Szigmond” – that often jar, while perennial references to “the viewer,” as opposed to “the spectator,” break a cardinal film scholarship rule.
Occasionally you come across a passage here that does seem to nail this important though elusive figure. Of T-Men (1947), A. B. Adcock writes: “The art is so persuasive as to supersede the ‘action’ of the film; the violence and tension of most scenes are parsed from static camera positions, where characters’ actions are supernumerary to Alton’s arrangement of light on and around them.” Adcock seems to capture here something of the suggestiveness that haunts Nicolas Musuraca’s collaboration with director Jacques Tourneur in Val Lewton’s horror films of a few years earlier. Yet overall, this is a disappointing collection on a key figure of postwar modernist American filmmaking, a book lacking the sensitivity of Chris Fujiwara’s on Tourneur (The Cinema of Nightfall, McFarland, 1998). It is a book of moments and parts that warrant its place on the bookshelf, but the texts are often let down by sloppy writing, laboured analysis, and irrelevant inclusions.