Obituary: John Alton
Tuesday 25 June 1996
Alton was born Aldan Jacko, in Hungary, in 1901. He emigrated to New York in 1919 and five years later was working as a laboratory technician for MGM in Hollywood. Signed as a cameraman by Paramount in 1928, he was sent to Europe to head their camera department in Paris, where he frequented the art galleries. "The great artists were lighting masters before Hollywood existed," he said, "starting with Rembrandt." The producer Howard Koch later stated that when Alton worked on a film "black-and-white was so beautiful it was almost like it was painted".
Asked to design Argentina's first sound-film studio in 1932, he stayed in the country for seven years, writing, directing and photographing several features and marrying a local journalist, Rozalia Kiss. On his return to Hollywood he shot his first American feature, The Courageous Dr Christian (1940).
Working on B movies with very restricted budgets at Republic, Monogram, RKO and Eagle-Lion, Alton became popular with directors for his imaginative use of limited resources. His lighting and camera angles did much to add lustre to the ice-skating sequences of Vera Hruba-Ralston in Ice Capades Revue (1942), Lake Placid Serenade (1945) and Murder in the Music Hall (1946), and lent distinction to such exploitative melodramas as Enemy of Women (1944, about the love-life of Dr Goebbels) and The Lady and the Monster (1944).
His first film with Anthony Mann, T-Men (1947), was an instant hit, even gaining a spread in Life magazine, which was almost unheard of for the product of a low-budget studio (Eagle-Lion). The story of government agents infiltrating a counterfeiting gang is routine, but its telling, from the opening night-time shootout staged in strange perspectives, is not. The oppressive close-ups of half-illuminated faces, the use of deep focus, dissonant lighting and baroque compositions gave the film distinctive vigour and established the reputations of both Alton and Mann.
The team's next film, Raw Deal (1948), was set partly on San Francisco's docks - an excuse for Alton to make expressionistic use of fog, netting and dark shadows. He Walked By Night (1948) was credited to Alfred Werker, but Anthony Mann directed all the exteriors, which were filmed on real locations and given Alton's individual brand of lighting, notably his use of just one small light source starkly illuminating the Los Angeles drainage pipe through which the killer makes his final flight.
The next Mann-Alton collaboration, Reign of Terror (1949), portrays the French Revolution in noir terms, and Mann praised Alton and the set designer William Cameron Menzies for creating seemingly lavish effects from a minuscule budget. Mann's breathless pacing and some of Alton's most extreme lighting effects and camera set-ups make this one of their most delirious entertainments.
The work of Mann and Alton had been noted by MGM, who offered them contracts and teamed them for Border Incident (1949), a film modelled closely on T-Men, with the heroes now immigration officials investigating the smuggling of low-paid Mexicans into California. Alton's use of chiaroscuro lighting gave majestic beauty to the landscapes, but the film's dark tone and modest pretensions were far from the gloss associated with the studio. "When it came out, MGM were flabbergasted," said Mann. "It wasn't anything they thought a motion picture should be!"
Alton's tenure at MGM was stormy. Popular with producers who admired his cost-cutting methods and speed at setting up, he was less popular with the studio's established cameramen who used masses of lights, far more assistants, and were accustomed to be given time to assess possible compositions and lighting schemes. He had also written a book, Painting with Light, which some felt gave away too many trade secrets.
When Vincente Minnelli, unhappy with the work of the cameraman Alfred Gilks on An American in Paris, insisted on Alton's filming the ballet sequence, it added to the resentment. "With Gilks, every little thing was lit," Minnelli told the writer Donald Knox, "and there were certain things that had to have mood. Alton had never worked in colour . . . he'd done some very fine black-and-white things at Eagle-Lion. He was disliked, however by the other cameramen - they all thought he was egotistical. But he was so fast and used so few lights. I got along just wonderfully with him. I felt that the ballet needed someone who would live dangerously."
The film's star and choreographer Gene Kelly added that a lot of cameramen became stubborn when new lighting effects were suggested. "We found Alton willing to try anything, when we were used to cameramen saying, 'You're nuts, you can't try that.' " "The secret of the ballet's photography," said Alton, "was the smoky quality, which changed all the colours to pastel." Keogh Gleason, the set decorator, recalled that the electricians' union tried to stop Alton cutting down on the lights. "Of some 60 lights, Alton would only use three or four, which cut down tremendously on labour. It's a wonder he didn't have a light dropped on him . . ."
With sections based on the paintings of Dufy, Toulouse-Lautrec, Utrillo, Henri Rousseau, Van Gogh and Monet, the ballet is a tour-de-force of dance, music, movement and colour with stunning variations of mood and light, and is generally regarded as the reason the film won the Academy Award as Best Film of 1951.
Alton started to work with Kelly again on his next musical, Singin' in the Rain, but after a few days shooting Kelly and his co-director Stanley Donen replaced him, averring that his work was "too dark". His first collaboration with Minnelli had been on Father of the Bride (1950), and he joined the director three more times - for the sequel, Father's Little Dividend (1951), the diluted but effective screen version of Robert Anderson's play Tea and Sympathy (1955), and the comedy Designing Woman (1957).
Alton's volatile relationship with some of MGM's executives led to several projects outside the studio. Harry Essex's I the Jury (1953), the first film to be made from a Mickey Spillane thriller and the only noir to be filmed in 3-D, is notable only for Alton's distinguished work, and enthusiasts have been known to watch it on television with the sound off to concentrate on the photography.
Alton's final two noirs, though, are excellent examples of the genre: Joseph H. Lewis's The Big Combo (1955) and Allan Dwan's Slightly Scarlet (1956). The former is both brutal and erotic with a sense of pessimistic fatalism reflected in the low-key, high-contrast camerawork. It is literally one of the darkest of Alton's films, with minimal set-dressing. Virtually the entire film takes place at night, with the actors in dimly lit rooms. For the final scene, Lewis told Alton he required an airport set. "Just drape the set in black velvet," said Alton, "and we'll put a revolving light that goes around. You'll have an airport in about 10 minutes." The result was totally convincing and, with some banks of mist added, bleakly atmospheric. Slightly Scarlet, the best of several Dwan-Alton films and an intriguing tale (from a James M. Cain story) of ambiguous motives and ambivalent relationships, is enhanced by Alton's garish colour palette.
Among Alton's last films were Daniel Rann's transposition of the Broadway hit Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), and three films for the writer- director Richard Brooks, The Catered Affair (1956), The Brothers Karamazov (1958) and Elmer Gantry (1960), which had some striking examples of his flair for creating pools of light, and for which its star, Burt Lancaster, won an Oscar.
Alton started work on Lancaster's next project, The Birdman of Alcatraz, but when he and the film's first director Charles Crichton were fired he suddenly dropped completely out of the Hollywood scene for 30 years, to travel and to paint ("I wanted to live," he later said). Widowed in 1987, he re-emerged into public life in 1993 when the Telluride Film Festival paid him tribute. His critical reputation having grown, he was given a Life Achievement Award by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and started to attend festivals and to give lectures and interviews until a hip injury precipitated a decline in health.
In the preface to his book, republished last year, John Alton states that his goal was "capturing bits of light at rest on things of beauty".
Aldan Jacko (John Alton), cinematographer: born 5 October 1901; married Rozalia Kiss (died 1987); died Santa Monica, California 2 June 1996.
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