Cinematographer. Nationality: Hungarian. Born: Sopron, Hungary, 5 October 1901. Career: Began film career at Cosmopolitan Studios, New York; Lab technician, MGM, 1924; cameraman, Paramount; worked on Spanish-language films in France and South America; returned to Hollywood, 1937 (some sources say 1939). Awards: Academy Award, with Alfred Gilks, for An American in Paris, 1952; Career Achievement Award, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, 1993. Died: Santa Monica, California, 2 June 1996.
Films as Cinematographer:
Los Tres Berretines [uncredited] (+ d)
El Hijo de papá (+ d, pr, sc)
Big Calibre (Bradbury)
El Pobre Pérez (Amadori)
Caminito de Gloria (Amadori); Puerta cerrada (Saslavsky)
Remedy for Riches (Kenton); Dr. Christian Meets the Women (McGann); Three Faces West (The Refugee) (Vorhaus); The Courageous Dr. Christian (Vorhaus)
The Devil Pays Off (Auer); Forced Landing (Wiles); Melody for Three (Kenton); Power Dive (Hogan)
The Affairs of Jimmy Valentine (Unforgotten Crime) (Vorhaus); Ice-Capades Revue (Ice-Capades; Rhythm Hits the Ice) (Vorhaus); Johnny Doughboy (Auer); Moonlight Masquerade (Auer); Mr. District Attorney in the Carter Case (The Carter Case) (Vorhaus); Pardon My Stripes (Auer)
The Lady and the Monster (The Lady and the Doctor; Monster and Tiger Man; Tiger Man) (Sherman); Lake Placid Serenade (Sekely); Storm Over Lisbon (Inside the Underworld) (Sherman); The Sultan's Daughter (Dreifuss); Enemy of Women (Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels; Mad Lover; The Private Life of Paul Joseph Goebbels) (Zeisler); Atlantic City (McCarey)
Girls of the Big House (Archainbaud); Song of Mexico (FitzPatrick); Love, Honor and Goodbye (Rogell); I Was a Criminal (Captain of Koepenick; Passport to Heaven) (Oswald)
Affairs of Geraldine (Blair); A Guy Could Change (Howard); The Madonna's Secret (Thiele); The Magnificent Rogue (Rogell); Murder in the Music Hall (Midnight Melody) (English); One Exciting Week (Beaudine)
Driftwood (Dwan); The Ghost Goes Wild (Blair); Hit Parade of 1947 (McDonald); T-Men (Mann); The Trespasser (Blair); Winter Wonderland (Vorhaus); Wyoming (Kane); Bury Me Dead (Back Home From the Dead) (Vorhaus); The Pretender (Wilder)
Canon City (Wilbur); He Walked by Night (Werker, Mann [uncredited]); Hollow Triumph (The Scar) (Sekely); Raw Deal (Mann); The Spiritualist (The Amazing Mr. X) (Vorhaus)
Captain China (Foster); The Crooked Way (Florey); Reign of Terror (Black Book) (Mann); Border Incident (Mann); Red Stallion in the Rockies (Murphy)
Grounds for Marriage (Leonard); Mystery Street (Murder at Harvard) (Sturges); Devil's Doorway (Mann); Father of the Bride (Minnelli)
It's a Big Country (Brown, Hartman, Sturges, Thorpe, Vidor, Weis, Wellman); An American in Paris (ballet photography) (Minnelli); The People Against O'Hara (Sturges); Father's Little Dividend (Minnelli)
Talk About a Stranger (Bradley); Washington Story (Target for Scandal) (Pirosh); Apache War Smoke (Kress)
I, the Jury (Essex); Take the High Ground! (Brooks); Count the Hours (Every Minute Counts) (Siegel); Battle Circus (Brooks)
Cattle Queen of Montana (Dwan); Duffy of San Quentin (Men Behind Bars) (Doniger); Passion (Dwan); Witness to Murder (Rowland); Silver Lode (Dwan)
The Big Combo (Lewis); Pearl of the South Pacific (Dwan); Escape to Burma (Dwan); Tennessee's Partner (Dwan)
Slightly Scarlet (Dwan); Tea and Sympathy (Minnelli); The Teahouse of the August Moon (Mann); The Catered Affair (Wedding Breakfast) (Brooks)
Designing Woman (Minnelli)
The Brothers Karamazov (The Murderer Dmitri Karamazov) (Brooks)
Lonelyhearts (Miss Lonelyheart) (Donehue)
Elmer Gantry (Brooks); Twelve to the Moon (12 to the Moon) (Bradley)
Mission: Impossible (TV Series—pilot only)
By ALTON: book—
Painting with Light, Berkeley, 1995.
On ALTON: book—
Coursodon, Jean-Pierre, ed., American Directors, vol. 1, New York, 1983.
On ALTON: articles—
Comer, B., "John Alton, ASC to Be Saluted by Museum of the Moving Image," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 75, no. 5, May 1994.
Obituary, in Variety (New York), vol. 363, no. 6, 10 June 1996.
Handzo, Stephen, American Cinematographer (Hollywood), September 1996.
Obituary, in EPD Film (Frankfurt), vol. 13, no. 9, September 1996.
Obituary, in Positif (Paris), no. 427, September 1996.
Sarris, Andrew, in Bright Lights vol. 1, no. 4, Fall 1996.
Obituary, in The Performing Arts, 1996. Film, Television, Radio, Theatre, Dance, Music, Cartoons, and Pop Culture, by Harris M. Lentz III, Jefferson, N.C., 1997.
* * *
It is often claimed that film noir is more a matter of visual style than of content. If so, cinematographers no less than directors and screenwriters should perhaps be listed among the true auteurs of the noir cycle, and John Alton would certainly rank as one of its prime exponents. In the heyday of the cycle—especially in the early thrillers of Anthony Mann and in Joseph H. Lewis's cult classic, The Big Combo—Alton created archetypes of noir's main genre, the urban thriller. But he also ingeniously extended the idiom into genres with which it is less readily associated, such as the western and the costume drama.
Alton's eclectic professional background provided ideal training for the financial and stylistic economies of noir. Born in Hungary, he started his film career at the Cosmopolitan Studios in New York before heading for Hollywood to shoot low-budget silent westerns for the notoriously fast-working "One Shot" Woody Van Dyke. From there he moved to the Paramount studios at Joinville near Paris, then spent six years heading up a new studio in Buenos Aires. on returning to Hollywood in 1939 he found himself assigned to several years of negligible B-movies. By the time he encountered Anthony Mann, he knew just how to lend an aura of quality to the most shoestring production.
For some years Alton had been trying to persuade the directors he worked with that a cinematographer didn't simply "pump light into a scene. The light has to tell something. There's a meaning, and it establishes a mood." In Mann he at last found "a director I can really sit down and talk with," someone sensitive to the subtleties of light and shadow. In T-Men, their first film together, and its successors, his "intense downbeat virtuosity," as Stephen Handzo put it, meshed with Mann's acute spatial sense to produce "an unmistakable style: deep perspective compositions with half-illuminated faces in the foreground . . . distant backgrounds, ceilinged sets, pervasive darkness and gloom created through high-contrast lighting and filters, angular composition, all creating a screen space at once expansive yet oppressively fatalistic."
Mann readily paid tribute to Alton's skill in helping him achieve the maximum effects with the minimum means. For The Black Book, working to the usual modest budget, Alton contrived a richly atmospheric evocation of Revolutionary France, turbulent and treacherous, largely from shadows and silhouettes. He created an equally alienated visual mood for the location exteriors of Border Incident, as also for Devil's Doorway, the first in Mann's great series of westerns.
Though his film noir work is in many ways his most interesting, Alton was too professional a craftsman to limit himself to a single style. His association with Allan Dwan, which began with Driftwood, took in several of the veteran director's autumnal late westerns, including Silver Lode and Tennessee's Partner. To these he brought an austere lyricism, gently melancholy in its clarity, and long, elegant but unobtrusive tracking shots. In Dwan's Slightly Scarlet he demonstrated another facet of his talent, matching James M. Cain's over-heated melodrama with a Technicolor palate of startlingly garish hues set off by areas of deep shadow. The result, according to Andrew Sarris, was "one of the most eye-boggling American movies ever made."
Other directors with whom Alton often worked included Vincente Minnelli and Richard Brooks. His Minnelli films saw him turning the glossy MGM house-style to advantage—as in Father of the Bride, where Spencer Tracy's nightmare vision of the wedding ceremony crumbling into disaster is all the more surreal for being shot with such knife-edge crispness. Alton's sole Academy Award came for his work on the climactic final ballet of An American in Paris, set to Gershwin's tone poem. Whatever the pretensions of the ballet itself, there is no gainsaying the virtuosity of Alton's lighting and camerawork.
For Brooks, Alton produced moodier, more downbeat effects, sometimes—as in The Brothers Karamazov—deliberately jarring. In an attempt to suggest the psychological turmoil of Dostoyevsky's characters, he devised an expressionistic lighting scheme that threw deep shadows of saturated primary colours, a technique widely dismissed as crude and overemphatic. A similar approach, but more subtly applied, worked far better in Elmer Gantry. John Fitzpatrick noted how Alton's photography "catches the Dust Bowl reds and browns by day and casts them against blue-black voids at night." Many of the movie's nocturnal episodes, though filmed in colour, convey a noirish feel of claustrophobic obsession.
Alton's last masterpiece of pure noir cinematography was The Big Combo, routine gangland-vengeance stuff transmuted by its visual treatment. Jean-Pierre Coursodon observed how "Lewis's carefully studied spatial organization and positioning of actors, matched by John Alton's masterful balance of sparse lighting and engulfing darkness in predominantly deep-focus setups, create a dazzlingly rich texture which at times . . . verges on the abstract." In its blend of trash content and sheer overwrought style, The Big Combo strikingly exemplifies how, in the hands of a master like Alton, cinematography can on occasion take precedence over script, acting, and possibly even directing, in determining the key quality of the creative mix.