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Russell Metty Profile

The job of the cinematographer is not just to record what the actors do and say, it is also to use light and shadow, shades of color, low angles and high to create an atmosphere or another world. One of the greatest of these was Russell Metty, as evidenced in films such as The Stranger (1946) and Touch of Evil (1958).

Born in Los Angeles on September 20, 1906, just as the film industry was getting its start in that city, Metty began his career working as an assistant at the Standard Film Laboratory in 1925. From there he worked as a second camera operator then camera operator at Paramount Studios in the early 1930s, moving next door to RKO in 1934. He would eventually work for nearly all the Hollywood studios, including a long-term contract at Universal.

It was at RKO that Metty was given the chance to become a cinematographer, working with director Howard Hawks on Bringing Up Baby (1938), one of his earliest efforts. The studio was impressed enough to bring Metty, although uncredited, to work on the studio's reshoot of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Orson Welles had used cinematographer Stanley Cortez to create the distinctly gothic atmosphere necessary for his adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel. RKO was not happy with Welles' film, thinking it too depressing. While Welles was out of the country making a propaganda film for the U.S. government to help boost relations with Latin America, the studio brought in Fred Fleck and Robert Wise to direct additional scenes and Russell Metty to shoot them. Welles wasn't happy that the studio reshot his film but he was impressed with Metty's work, hiring him a few years later to film his atmospheric The Stranger and later in the 1950s for one of his best, Touch of Evil.

Metty worked with some of the greatest directors in Hollywood like Hawks, Welles, John Huston on We Were Strangers (1949) and The Misfits (1961), William Wellman on Story of G.I. Joe (1945), and King Vidor on Man Without a Star (1955); he made no less than ten films with Douglas Sirk from 1953 to 1959, including three of his best efforts: Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Written on the Wind (1956). Russell Metty would finally win an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, but it would be for a film that caused him more problems than any other: Spartacus (1960). The problem was not the demands of the film but rather the director – Stanley Kubrick.

Metty had been hired by the original director, Anthony Mann, who had been fired by star Kirk Douglas in favor of Kubrick, with whom he had worked on Paths of Glory (1957). Kubrick himself had been a photographer and a cinematographer, which might have made him more sympathetic when he became a director. It didn't. Kubrick was meticulous in everything that he did and being a card carrying member of the cinematographer's union, he micromanaged Metty, who complained to Kirk Douglas that Kubrick was taking over his job. Kubrick finally told Metty to sit and do nothing. Metty, frustrated, did just that and Kubrick considered himself the 'real' cinematographer on the film. When Russell Metty's name was read out as the winner of the Best Cinematography (Color) Oscar® for Spartacus, it must have been bittersweet for both men.

With a body of work as impressive as his, Metty didn't need the Academy Award to help him get work. He was constantly in demand through the 1960s and 1970s with The Misfits for Huston, two films with Doris Day Midnight Lace (1960) and That Touch of Mink (1962); Henry Koster's Flower Drum Song (1961), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968).

In the late 1960s, Metty turned to television, working on Marcus Welby, M.D., and many episodes of Columbo and The Waltons. His last project was an episode of the short-lived series Delvecchio in 1977. Russell Metty died on April 28, 1978 in Canoga Park, California at the age of 71.

by Lorraine LoBianco

Sources:

The Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers
All-Movie Guide
The Internet Movie Database