John Alton: Noir Cinematographer
So much of Film Noir is evoked by the stylized images captured by the Directors of Photography/cinematographers; the moody & oppressive city scapes, the shadows & contrasting light, the vertical & horizontal lines thrown on characters & low angle photography to evoke doom & foreboding. Many of the greatest Films Noir were shot on low budgets, so creativity & cost effectiveness were at a premium. DP's were tasked with limiting the scope of the image, as well as giving the image depth & character. The best of the movement are legendary & have influenced how films have been shot ever since. Nicholas Musaraca (Out of the Past '47) was RKO's house DP for moody black & white, Milton Krasner (The Set Up '49) used simple images to evoke emotion, John Seitz (This Gun for Hire '42 & Double Indemnity '44) worked to create many Noir standards, but my favorite DP may be John Alton, who shot some of the moodiest & beautiful films, mostly for independent producers.
In films like T-Men ('47) & Raw Deal ('48), for director Anthony Mann, & He Walks at Night ('48) for director Alfred Werker, Alton took standard police procedurals & turned them into works of great beauty. Characters faces are cleaved by sharp lines of ink black darkness, while light often sneaks up behind them. Vertical lines imprison antagonists as they fight for escape. Light & dark are constantly at war in beautifully shot three dimensional frames that allow for both vertical & horizontal movement in & out of the viewers eyes. In The Big Combo ('55), Alton's Noir masterpiece, it is a scene of back lit fog in the film's climax that encompasses the feeling of impending death. It is both beautiful & terrifying at the same time & is an image that is not easily forgotten.
Strangely enough, Alton received his only Oscar for Best Cinematography for An American in Paris ('51), his first movie shot in color. He retired from film in 1960, but shot the pilot for the TV show Mission: Impossible in 1966, before disappearing from sight for nearly 30 years. He showed up at the premiere of Visions of Light ('92), the seminal documentary on cinematographers of the golden age of Hollywood, in which his work is featured. His work in Film noir not only helped shape the movement, but illustrates the brilliance & beauty of the moving image in black & white.