Most movies today are shot in high-definition digital and viewed on ever-smaller screens. Here are four cinematographers of yore who actually shot their films...on film.
Gregg Toland is the first whose name I can recall recognizing in the credits. Not surprising, since he shot Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane.” Toland didn’t invent deep-focus cinematography (in which background and foreground are equally clear), but he fully exploited its possibilities in that film and William Wyler’s “The Little Foxes” (both from 1941), among others.
As an aesthetic strategy, deep focus allows the viewer to take in the totality of a scene and choose what’s most important: In effect, we do our own editing within the frame. It’s a less coercive, more open approach to storytelling.
Toland drew heavily on the German Expressionists for parts of “Citizen Kane” (think of those stark compositions inside Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu fortress).
Toland was equally masterful in widely divergent styles. His work on Wyler’s “Wuthering Heights” (1939) is highly romantic. For John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) he approaches the lyrical austerity of the Depression-era photography of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.
His deep focus compositions heightened the emotional resonance in Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), that masterpiece about returning Word War II vets. Toland died two years later, just 44 and at the height of his powers.
Another cinematographer who experimented with deep focus and had a startling range of styles was James Wong Howe, who began as a slate boy for Cecil B. De Mille and became one of Hollywood’s most sought after cinematographers, especially by leading ladies who glowed under his low-key luminosities. (Hedy Lamarr, for example, in “Algiers”).
Howe started out as a boxer, so perhaps it’s not surprising he came up with the idea of shooting John Garfield’s prizefight scenes in Robert Rossen’s “Body and Soul” (1947) on roller skates. The dynamism of those scenes would be unmatched until Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (1980). Michael Chapman’s cinematography for that film is virtually a homage to Howe.
Howe also had a highly productive collaboration with director Martin Ritt on “Hud” (1963), which, though it doesn’t derive from Hemingway, closely approximates the stripped-down elegance of his prose. He imparted a lush gravity to Ritt’s underrated “The Molly Maguires” (1970), starring Sean Connery as an Irish mineworker in Pennsylvania.
Gordon Willis’s cinematography on Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather Part II” (1974) earned him his nickname, the Prince of Darkness, but never was darkness used to greater metaphorical effect. Corruption and redemption were rendered in tonalities Caravaggio might have envied.
Like so many of the finest cinematographers, Willis was highly influenced by the great painters. This influence reached its apotheosis in Herbert Ross’s extraordinary 1930s-style musical “Pennies From Heaven” (1981), which references the work of Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper (especially his all-night diner “Night Hawks”).
Willis is the same man who gave Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” (1972) a loose, sunny airiness and then, for “Zelig” (1983), mimicked the drear graininess of old black-and-white newsreel photography.
And then there is Haskell Wexler, who in Hal Ashby’s “Bound For Glory” (1970) did for the Dust Bowl in color what Toland had done for it in black and white. Employing a vibrant, wide-ranging palette, he somehow managed to make poverty still look like poverty.
In a more commercial vein, Wexler’s use of eye-popping colors heightened Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) and “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968). He could light a studio set with the best of them, as in Mike Nichols’s black-and-white “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966), for which Wexler won an Oscar. At the opposite extreme is his hand-held, free-form guerilla filmmaking style in “Medium Cool” (1969), which he also directed.
Directors are often -- and mistakenly -- credited with being the sole “authors” of a movie. Cinematographers know different.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).
Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on Venice and Craig Seligman on books.