PAINTING WITH LIGHT: The Art of Film Noir
Not long ago, someone asked about a good book on lighting for cinematographers. I recommended Painting With Light by John Alton. Alton was cinematographer for Anthony Mann, well-known Film Noir and western director from the 1940's and 50's. Even today, this book is considered the most important ever written on the subject of lighting and cinematographyin short, what gives a film its "look." Cinematography and lighting control mood, point-of-view and framing, which do as much to tell the story of a film as any other element. And no style of film is more unique in that respect than Film Noir.
Some of John Alton's films are T-Men (film noir), The Black Book (film noir), Border Incident (film noir), He Walked By Night (film noir), Father of the Bride, An American in Paris (one of the two greatest musicals ever made, for which he won an Academy Award), The People Against O'Hara, The Teahouse of the August Moon, The Brothers Karamazov, Elmer Gantry, etc.
Some of Anthony Mann's films are Desperate (film noir), T-Men (film noir), Raw Deal (film noir), The Black Book (film noir), Border Incident (film noir), Side Street (film noir), Winchester '73, Bend of the River, The Glen Miller Story, The Far Country, The Man From Laramie, Men in War, The Tin Star, God's Little Acre, Cimarron, El Cid, Fall of the Roman Empire (one of my favorites), etc.
These guys are terrific. I've said it before, but here it is again: as a low-budget filmmaker, you can't do better than to imitate the film noir style of Anthony Mann and John Alton. Their films are gritty, powerful and innovative for their time, and they worked with budgets that were relatively low (at least during their film noir period).
For those who don't know, Film Noir is a style as well as a category (genre) of film from the 1940's that was America's answer to the art films coming out of Europe at the time. They were, typically, low-budget, black and white, darkly lit with high contrasts for dramatic intensity, usually employing extreme camera angles; gritty in story as well as look, highly dramatic, often true, usually concerned with police, undercover men and gangsters; often employing a semi-documentary (or docudrama) style, usually suspense-thrillers.
It was a totally new look for film, and it fit the mood of the country at the time. We had just come out of World War II, and people no longer wanted glossy, colorful escapist fare like MGM had been producing; but realistic stories about real people in difficult circumstances, similar to what they themselves had just experienced in the war. Europe was already producing those types of films, but it took awhile for America to catch on. But when they did, look out! Film Noir gave an edge to film that it had not had since the era of silent pictures. Warner Brothersalready known for their realistic bio-pics and gangster storiesalong with Fox, were the studios who picked up most on the trend.
Film Noir is enjoying a revival today because of recent releases on DVD by Fox and others. Also, there are some recent films that imitate the realistic grit of Film Noir without imitating the look, among them L.A. Confidential (very adult) and Momento (haven’t seen it, but understand it follows the style); and at least one that imitates the lookThe Man Who Wasn’t There. Even though The Man Who Wasn’t There was done by the Coen brothers (Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, Raising Arizona and Hudsucker Proxyall extremely well done); it was highly unsuccessful. It didn’t come across as realistic, and that HAS to be a priority. I think the filmmakers miscalculated by setting the film in the same time period as Film Noir (the late 1940’s). If they had set it in the present, and then given it the film noir look, it probably would have worked.
I don’t agree with some who say that Film Noir depicts a hopeless, desperate world, although it certainly can. Rather, I think it takes the elements of good drama and intensifies them, so that suspense is heightened, drama magnified, the difference between good and evil more clearly defined, conflict increased, etc. In the hands of a master, it is, perhaps, the flip side of melodrama (which is very UN-realistic) on the drama end of the genre spectrum (opposite comedy); and one of the best ways to show the struggle between the flesh and the spirit in a person’s life: perfect for a movie like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Waitsel Smith, June 15, 2006
The shots at the top of the page are from He Walked By Night, and are in the film noir style. By way of comparison, below are some of John Alton's shots from An American in Paris, for which he won the Oscar. They are NOT in the film noir style, although you can see the influence.