Magazine article American Cinematographer

John Alton: Master of the Film Noir Mood

Magazine article American Cinematographer

John Alton: Master of the Film Noir Mood

Article excerpt

The late cinematographer's influential work formed the very foundation of the "dark film" style.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1923, FIVE LADS DROVE ACROSS THE country, full of optimism, joie de vivre, and the excitement of all things new. Upon arriving in California, they parked on Hollywood Boulevard, in front of the Egyptian movie palace. In the lobby, a Gypsy fortune teller read their palms. Each of them, she said, would seek his fortune elsewhere - save for the fifth lad. "You, I tell different," she said. "You'd better stay here. You're going to make it."

That lucky lad was John Alton, a cinematographer whose art has been lauded at recent film festivals in Vienna, Japan, Argentina, Telluride, and San Francisco, as well as in retrospectives at the American Museum of the Moving Image and the Pacific Film Archives. Alton's influential legacy was not always so celebrated, however; in fact, his achievements nearly slipped into oblivion before being rediscovered in the past several years.

Born in a castle in 1901, in a village on the Austrian border of Hungary, Alton lived to a ripe old age before dying on June 2, 1996 in Santa Monica. A child prodigy who sketched constantly, he had his own darkroom by the age of 5. One day, he saw a man on the street grinding a little box; inside the box, pictures danced on a screen. The man explained, "These are motion pictures, pictures that move." Alton had never seen such a thing, and was instantly fascinated.

At 18, he set sail for New York to live with a prosperous uncle, and to take up studies in photochemistry. Alton soon found himself thrust into the movie business in his newly adopted city. "One day, I had the nerve to drop the books, and I went down to look at the pictures," he recalled. "I stopped at the gates of the Cosmopolitan Studio. All of a sudden a door opened, and a man grabbed me by the shoulders and said, 'Hurry up! We're waiting for you!'

"They put me in a dressing room, stuck me in a uniform, and put me next to Marion Davies, a big star at that time. At the end of the day, they gave me a check. Well, at home I used to get $1.50 a week, and here they gave me $12.50, for one day. So I lost my balance. They called me back the next day to work. I call it 'work,' but I just stood next to Marion Davies, the star. That's all I did! Then we went on location. In 30 days, I became a millionaire [by my standards]. I never went back to the college. I don't even know where I left the books!"

Having found work at the Paramount Studio lab, Alton soon saved enough cash to buy a car and venture to California. He landed his first studio job at MGM's recently bought Culver City lot, where he quickly became a cameraman.

Alton honed his cinematographic skills shooting Westerns for "Woody" Van Dyke, a man who valued the input of his cameramen and often defended their interests when no one else would. Van Dyke once said, "You fundamentally still have the old stereoscope as your basis to work from, but somebody's got to get that picture on the wall. It doesn't make any difference if that figure talks or sings; it's still a picture, and the picture will always be the basis of the movies. What you see with the eye is the important thing that governs your thinking and [that's] what people are looking at."

Alton next took charge of the camera department at Joinville Studios in Paris. He was soon trekking across Europe and Asia, where he shot short subjects and foreign-language features. In his spare time, he devoured music and books, and absorbed as much as he could of the art flourishing in museums and galleries, on movie screens, and on the streets.

In 1932, Alton was offered the opportunity to design and supervise a five-acre studio in Buenos Aires. The coming of sound had left the thriving Argentinean film industry high and dry, and he stayed there for six years. Within a month of his arrival, he married a former beauty queen-turned-journalist who had interviewed Alton aboard a ship during his passage to South America. …

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