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Reel Life: he paints by light

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John Alton was first exposed to motion pictures in Hungary, where he was born in 1901. "On a street in Budapest, when I was 10 or 11, I saw a man with an old box camera cranking it by hand. I asked what he was doing and started helping him, carrying equipment." A decade later, after getting out of school, Alton looked the man up--he was a Fox newsreel cameraman--and went to work as his assistant.

Alton soon traveled to, and worked in, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, and finally the United States. He became a student at City College in New York and one day passed by the old Hearst studios. "I went to the gate, and was suddenly enlisted to play the role of a guard, standing next to Marion Davies." He was paid $12 at the end of the day, which compared well with the dollar a day he was then receiving.

Alton was hooked. He dropped out of college and bought a car with five other hopefuls. They drove out to Hollywood--it was 1924--arriving in time for the opening of The Thief of Bagdad. By 1928, Alton was a cameraman for Paramount; in the 30s he worked in Argentina for seven years before returning to this country. After establishing himself as one of the most distinctive Hollywood cinematographers, he quit the business abruptly in 1960 to travel; he says now that he "deliberately hid."

Alton is best known today for his black-and-white cinematography in a number of dark, brooding films of the 40s and 50s like T-Men and The Big Combo. "These were all small pictures," Alton acknowledges, "but unimportant as they were, people noticed them as landmarks in lighting."

Part of what makes these films so extraordinary is Alton's use of relatively few light sources. Director Anthony Mann called his work "maximum performance with minimum means." Instead of appearing in diffused light from many directions, faces are finely chiseled; the light's clarity makes it almost physical, palpable. When a background character shrouded in darkness lights a match, the only light on his face seems to come from the match, while another character is lit in a different way and from a different direction. Instead of the composition being illuminated evenly and consistently, and as is so often the case blandly, each Alton image has a different and varied light scheme. (Alton's 1949 book, Painting With Light, long out of print but available in some libraries, is a compendium of lighting techniques; he's currently writing a second book on the subject.)

Early Hollywood photography was unsophisticated, Alton thinks. "All they did in the old days was pump in a lot of lighting to get exposure. Everything was evenly lit, like a musical comedy." But Alton's effects are not bravura for their own sake: "Light establishes the mood and so helps to tell the story." At the end of The Big Combo (directed by Joseph H. Lewis), the night fog that enshrouds a private airport prevents the villain from escaping; Alton's fog is unusually bright, suffused with a light that seems confrontational, almost a physical barrier.

Alton learned his craft not only by shooting film but by processing his own still photographs at home as a young man. He also studied photochemistry in school and worked in a motion-picture lab, experiences he considers essential for any cinematographer. But there is another influence on his work: "I studied painting. On vacations I would go to Paris and other cities, look at the paintings in museums, and make still photographs of them. Back in Hollywood I would read a script, and study the photographs I had made in these museums. Then in some shots I might try for a Rembrandt feeling . . . "

Alton also paints for pleasure, and has for most of his life. At 91 he's working on a painting of a young belly dancer. "It's one of the greatest medicines--it benumbs all your nerves, you don't feel pain, it puts you into a kind of daze."

Seven of the finest Alton films, six of them directed by Anthony Mann, are being shown this month at the Film Center, beginning Friday with T-Men at 6 and The Big Combo at 7:45. The others are Raw Deal, Border Incident, He Walked by Night, Devil's Doorway, and The Black Book, through July 31 at the Film Center, Columbus Drive at Jackson. Tickets are $5, $3 for Film Center members. Call 443-3733 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew Taylor.

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