Magazine article American Cinematographer

Guilty by Suspicion: An Indictment

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Guilty by Suspicion: An Indictment

Article excerpt

It's in a smoke-filled room in the nation's capital in 1951 as David Merrill testifies before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. Surrounded by photographers and their blinding flashbulbs and a crowd of curious onlookers, he walks confidently up to the witness chair.


Take a closer look.

It's 1990, and instead of a Washington, D.C. courtroom, we're in an Elks Lodge in Pasadena, California. And that's dry ice, not a haze of cigarette smoke through which Robert DeNiro cuts during the final scene of Guilty by Suspicion, a film written and directed by Irwin Winkler. Director of photography Michael Ballhaus calls it the story of a "dark period in American history."

The central character, David Merrill, said Ballhaus, "is a successful director, on top of his career, about to start a picture in France." Suddenly, he is called before the committee and blacklisted, unable to complete his film or find work elsewhere.

Ballhaus, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1989 for The Fabulous Baker Boys, began his career as a television cameraman in his native Germany. Even for a professional with 27 years of behind-the-camera experience in Europe and the United States,the subject matter for Guilty by Suspicion demanded special consideration and brought unique challenges.

This is not the first time Ballhaus has worked on a picture set in the McCarthy era. The House On Carroll Street, Ballhaus recalled, had a similar theme and story, "but not the look. This one is a lot darker, a lot more personal. It's a character piece, about a man who suddenly loses everything."

To convey a sense of the era's bleakness, Ballhaus chose to shoot in a film noir style reminiscent of pictures made in the 1950s. "You're normally used to another style when you shoot movies today," he explained. "Because the light is usually soft, and you want everybody to look pretty, you avoid shadows. Trying to do a film noir means that you have to change the whole work system. Now a shadow is not something you have to avoid - you are looking for shadows. You're trying to light things so you get shadows. And it's not the only issue anymore to make everybody look pretty and wonderful; if s more important to have the look right for the scene. When I talk to the gaffer, we have to constantly remind each other that we want shadows, we want dark, we want low lights and all that you normally don't do. You don't normally place a light in a way that you've got a big shadow on the wall, so it was a challenge to shoot this film differently."

To achieve the desired effect, Ballhaus used a variety of techniques, including overlighting certain scenes, and underlighting others. For the most part, he said, he used one key light throughout. 'Tm using a lot less fill light than normally. Sometimes it s really only a strong backlight and a soft fill, and thaf s about it."

On Guilty by Suspicion Ballhaus and his crew experimented with a new device called Light Comb which enables them to use a soft light directionally. The tool itself is manufactured for the airline industry, attached to a flag.

Demonstrating the Light Comb, key grip Herb AuIt explained its usefulness. "It eliminates the need for siders and toppers and other cutters," he said. "You can put different kinds of diffusion on it, on the back or you can put it in front of the light, and pan or tilt, and really dial the light to adjust it to wherever you want it. This way, you can direct your light on a person's face, without lighting up the wall beside him." Ballhaus also utilized various camera angles on the shoot, many of which contributed to the film noir look. Rather than placing the camera at eye level, he photographed scenes from a slightly lower or higher vantage point than is customary in today's films.

Ballhaus made extensive use of zooms, as well. "I am not opposed to zooms if they are subtle and if you use them right," he said. "And I'm using them a lot, but not simply to go straight in. …

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