Archive for the ‘Cinematographers’ Category

Google decided to honor the great cinematographer James Wong Howe today. It’s not his birthday — The Thin Man was released on this day back in 1934.

Another way to pay tribute is simply to look at some of his incredible work. Here’s a frame from Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947), one of Howe’s few Westerns.

His work on Hud (1963) and Seconds (1966) was particularly jaw-dropping. With black and white, few came close to what he could do.

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Hellfire TC

So far, the great cinematographer Jack A. Marta has hardly been mentioned here. I’m ashamed and with today’s Wild Bill Wednesday, I’m taking care of it. So many outstanding movies. What Price Glory (1926). The Night Riders (1939). Dark Command (1940). Flying Tigers (1942). Hellfire (1949). Trigger, Jr. (1950). Spoilers Of The Plains (1951). The Last Command (1955). The Bonnie Parker Story (1958). Cat Ballou (1965). Duel (1971).

On that last one, Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough TV movie Duel, Marta’s experience shooting outdoors in the desert helped get the thing completed on its 10-day schedule.

Steven Spielberg (from the excellent book Steven Spielberg And Duel: The Making Of A Film Career): “Jack was a sweetheart. He was just a kind, gentle soul who you know had never worked that fast in his entire career; none of us had, and yet there was nothing he didn’t do or couldn’t do, and he really enjoyed himself.”

No offense to Mr. Spielberg, but I have a feeling Duel‘s 10-day shoot, though exhausting, was probably nothing new for Marta, who’d done beautiful work on Republic’s tight schedules, in both black and white and Trucolor, and worked on plenty of television shows like Route 66 and Batman.

When Elliott co-produced Hellfire (below) for Republic release, a film he saw as a very special project (and considered his best film), Jack Marta was the director of photography. Was he randomly assigned the job by Republic, or did Elliott request him after working together on The Gallant Legion (1948) and the Trucolor The Last Bandit (1949)? (I’m getting pretty good at finding new ways to sneak Hellfire into this blog.)

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Allan Dwan sketch cropped

Director Allan Dwan’s career was as old as the Movies themselves, and many of the early technical developments were his doing. Going into the mid-50s, he was still making innovative, unique, personal films — usually for smaller studios that would leave him alone and let him do what he did best.

I went Wig City over Allan Dwan’s films of 50s, thanks to DVDs of his work from VCI, and that helped spawn this blog. So I was really stoked to hear about The Museum of Modern Art’s Dwan series — which will include several of those Westerns.

From the MoMA web site: The Museum of Modern Art presented a major retrospective of Dwan’s films in 1971, with Dwan in attendance, and while another exhibition was certainly due after 42 years, this series was prompted by the publication of Frederic Lombardi’s definitive study of Dwan’s work, Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the of the Hollywood Studios (McFarland, 2013).

If you can make it to any of these, by all means do so. The Westerns are:

June 14-15, 18
Frontier Marshal (1939)
With Randolph Scott, Nancy Kelly, Cesar Romero, John Carradine, Ward Bond.
This was once almost impossible to see (the bootleg tape I had of it was impossible to see). Another take on the O.K. Corral story. I prefer Randolph Scott with more age on him, but this is a really cool film.


June 24-25
Woman They Almost Lynched (1953)
With Audrey Totter, Joan Leslie, John Lund, Brian Donlevy, Ben Cooper.
Dwan made a string of films for Republic that are worth seeking out (Olive Films, you reading this?), with Sands Of Iwo Jima (1949) being the best known. Dwan approaches this as a spoof — evidently, he didn’t see any other way — and the results are terrific.

June 29-30
The Restless Breed (1957)
With Scott Brady, Anne Bancroft, Jim Davis, Scott Marlowe, Evelyn Rudie.
Dwan’s last Western. A revenge tale gets a light comic touch.

Picture 45

July 3,5
Tennessee’s Partner (1955)
With John Payne, Rhonda Fleming, Ronald Reagan, Coleen Gray.
John Alton’s Superscope cinematography almost steals the show, making the Iverson Ranch look like the most beautiful place on earth.

July 3, 6
Silver Lode (1954)
With John Payne, Dan Duryea, Lizabeth Scott, Harry Carey, Jr.
A key 5os Western, and the damnedest McCarthy comment you’ve ever seen. Again, Alton and his cameras roam the ranches of Hollywood to amazing results.

Be sure to look at the complete listing. I highly recommend Slightly Scarlet (1956), an incredible Technicolor, Superscope film noir shot by John Alton.

Thanks to Stephen Bowie.

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If there’s any cinematographer whose work deserves the red carpet treatment on DVD, it’s John Alton.

Alton was a master.  He worked fast — coming to the set fully prepared and not using a lot of lights. And while “painting with light” was his thing, evidently diplomacy was not. He was fired a lot, until he finally got fed up with the whole business and vanished. Along the way, he went from pictures like An American In Paris (1951), his first color film — and the one that earned him an Oscar, to film noir with Anthony Mann (T-Men, Border Incident, etc.) to cowboy pictures at Republic (Wyoming).

In 1954, Alton found himself at RKO, working with director Allan Dwan on a series of medium-budget films produced by Benedict Bogeaus. These pictures gave Dwan a level of authority (or maybe he simply took charge of things) he hadn’t enjoyed since the silent days. However it came about, he really made the most of it.

Allan Dwan: “John Alton was a fine cameraman and we hit it off well. He was good for us because he’s wonderful with lights — very economical.”

From 1954 to 1956, Dwan and Alton made seven pictures together, all produced by Bogeaus for RKO.

Dwan: “Never over around $800-850,000. About three weeks shooting each — 15 days. That was the design. They were token pictures to keep the studio alive — Hughes wasn’t interested in a big splurge. And none of our pictures warranted a big budget — they all went out and got their money back plus a profit.”

The next to last of these “token pictures,” and the third Western of the bunch, was Tennessee’s Partner (1955) — in Superscope with prints by Technicolor. (Dwan would later list it as his favorite of the films he made for Bogeaus and RKO.)

John Payne is Tennessee, a gambler who’s set up shop in Rhonda Fleming’s saloon — the Marriage Market in Sandy Bar. Ronald Reagan is Cowpoke, who saves Tennessee’s life. Tennessee later proves that Cowpoke’s fiancé, Colleen Gray, is a gold-digger (named, appropriately, Goldie). Speaking of gold, there’s a subplot involving Grubstake McNiven (Chubby Johnson) striking it rich.

Dwan: “…this was a good, honest story, and I liked Bret Harte… I believe the original story was more tragic than ours, but it was very definitely more downbeat. And it was a short story, so we had to stretch it out some way or other.”

To stretch it, they seemed to have played up the humor and action. Dwan’s breezy direction and John Alton’s luscious cinematography make this a real piece of eye candy — aided by the art direction of Van Nest Polglase (Citizen Kane). The way the camera glides through Rhonda Fleming’s gambling hall is worth the price of admission. Then there’s its Technicolor tour of the Iverson Ranch in the last two reels. It’s a gorgeous, yet completely unpretentious, story of friendship and double-crosses.

Tennessee’s Partner has been available on DVD, in a nice full-frame transfer, from VCI for years. Superscope extracted a 2:1 anamorphic image from a full-frame negative — which is what the new edition, again from VCI, replicates. (The lack of a Superscope logo in the credits indicates that full-frame source material was used.) As far as color and sharpness go, this is comparable to their first release. But with the new attention to the framing, Alton’s camerawork is even more impressive. He’s quoted somewhere as saying “It’s not what you light — it’s what you don’t light.” And the 2:1 image, especially in the gambling scenes, really highlights the way he used darkness.

VCI gives us original trailers to Tennessee’s Partner and the other Dwan/Alton/Bogeaus titles they have available. Seen together, they really had me wanting to put together a marathon some weekend.

With a new edition of any film, in any format, there’s always the question of value. Is this worth reaching into my wallet for, again? In my case, certainly, as I’ve been dying to see how Tennessee’s Partner looked in Superscope. For those who own the full-frame version, it’s a matter of personal taste. For the rest, it’s a good picture — a significant 50s Western — and this is by far the best it’s ever been presented on video. Get it here.

[The Allan Dwan quotes come from Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer by Peter Bogdanovich, one of my favorite film books.]

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Watching Jack Slade (1953) — an unjustly obscure, and quite nasty, Allied Artists picture starring Mark Stevens, Dorothy Malone and Barton MacLane — I noticed cinematographer William Sickner in the credits (“photographed by” it reads).

His name pops up a lot — the IMDB lists over 350 film and TV credits. And his filmography provides a cross section of genre film making in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Serials such as The Phantom Creeps (1939), Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (1940) and The Green Hornet (1940). Series pictures like The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Falcon In San Francisco (1945), along with entries in the Charlie Chan, The Shadow, Joe Palooka and Bowery Boys cycles. And, of course, B Westerns with Buck Jones, Tex Ritter, Johnny Mack Brown, Dennis Moore, Rod Cameron and George Montgomery, to name just a few.

Moving to television, Sickner shot episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Restless Gun, Mike Hammer, M Squad, Medic (he won an Emmy for this one), Bachelor Father, The Deputy, Leave It To Beaver and more.

A craftsman who could adjust to whatever he was working on — from the Mummy to the Cleavers (though his darker, moodier work looks more impressive today) — Sickner passed away in 1968, long before anyone cared enough about this sort of stuff to think to interview him. What a shame.

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