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Cinematography By Russell Harlan
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Cinematography by Russell Harlan
Sunday, July 24 - 2 Films

Russell Harlan was a rarity in the early days of Hollywood; he was a hometown boy. Born in Los Angeles on September 16, 1903, the Los Angeles Harlan grew up in was nothing like the concrete jungle it is today. Sunset Boulevard was a dirt road and Hollywood was a farm belonging to Mrs. Wilcox. There were no studios then - production was done in the East, but that would soon change as companies headed west to escape Thomas Edison's Patents' Trust. In Los Angeles, early filmmakers found sunshine 350 days a year (important in a time when cinematographers shot everything outside) and diverse scenery all within a day's drive from town. Russell Harlan watched the town and the industry grow up in front of him and in 1924 he joined that industry, working as a laboratory assistant at the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Players company (later to become Paramount).

Little is known about Harlan's personal life, and there are no records indicating which films he appeared in, but many sources say that he was Gary Cooper's stunt double from 1928-1929. During this time, he also acted as a lighting-double (a stand-in) and it was perhaps this experience, watching cinematographers light sets, that stirred Harlan's interest in photography.

Harlan's first (uncredited) work as an assistant cameraman was on the Paul Lukas and Kay Francis feature The Vice Squad (1931), directed by John Cromwell. From 1931 until 1937, he did not receive screen credit and so that work remains unknown. His first official credit was for the Hopalong Cassidy B-Western, North of the Rio Grande (1937), where he was listed as "Russel" Harlan.

Between 1937 and 1944, Harlan worked on the Hopalong Cassidy serial, shooting over thirty films for director Lesley Selander. His work impressed the producer Harry "Pop" Sherman enough to hire him when Sherman moved into higher-budgeted pictures. In 1944, he was picked by veteran director Lewis Milestone to shoot his war film A Walk in the Sun (1945) and this film took Harlan out of the "B"s forever.

Russell Harlan's most famous collaboration was with director Howard Hawks. Beginning in 1946, when production began on Red River (1948), until Man's Favorite Sport? (1964), they made seven films together. Harlan's style suited Hawks perfectly on Red River . As John Baxter wrote in his entry on the cinematographer in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Hawks and Harlan "created a bleak and unromantic picture of the west that had hardly been seen since the days of Thomas Ince and William S. Hart. Hawks was never a director of vistas and, in this, Harlan precisely echoed his vision. The dense, harsh lighting style for Red River was carried forward intact into Hawks' claustrophobic science fiction/horror film The Thing [(1951)] and then, almost immediately, into The Big Sky [(1952)], a film that introduced a Hawksian intimacy into the spacious world of the pioneer fur trappers." That world nearly proved fatal for Hawks . While shooting The Big Sky , Howard Hawks went fishing with a friend on the Snake River when a dam was opened and rushing water capsized the boat. They were saved when Harlan and his camera crew just happened to see them clinging to trees.

In 1949, Harlan shot what is arguably, for students of cinematography and film noir, his technical masterpiece, Gun Crazy (1950). The film revolved around a gun-obsessed couple (played by Peggy Cummins and John Dall) who commit robberies. A bank robbery scene, shot in real-time, is mentioned in several books on film noir. Harlan and his crew removed the back of a stretch Cadillac in order to fit a 35mm camera (much larger than today), and as the actors drove around Montrose, California, the camera filmed everything through the windshield, making it seem like a documentary. While Gun Crazy was not a box-office hit, Harlan's work influenced many filmmakers, including Jean-Luc Godard, when he shot Breathless (1960).

Harlan's experience on Land of the Pharaohs (1955) proved to be both physically and mentally challenging. The Egyptian locations were difficult and there were fights among the extras, during which a man was killed. On another day, the extras revolted and attacked the crew. Hawks and Harlan had to throw rocks at them to keep them back. Seeing the crushing poverty of Egypt, and how it affected the children living there, sent him into a deep depression. By the time he was to go on to Rome to shoot the interiors, he was too exhausted and Lee Garmes had to replace him for some interiors. Harlan also managed to shoot B-roll footage as well as a short promotional film for Egyptian tourism in exchange for Warner Brothers being allowed to film in the country. He would later return to Rome and film some additional sequences there for Land of the Pharaohs.

Given his talent, it is surprising that Russell Harlan never won an Academy Award, although he was nominated six times. In 1962, he competed against himself for both Hatari! and To Kill a Mockingbird , and likely split the vote. His other nominations included The Big Sky , Blackboard Jungle (1955), The Great Race (1965) and Hawaii (1966).

Harlan worked occasionally in television, beginning in 1952 when (billed as "Russ" Harlan), he shot episodes of Schlitz Playhouse, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, and Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color . Unlike many of his contemporaries, Russell Harlan's talent kept him in demand for "A" pictures until his retirement, following Blake Edwards Darling Lili (1970). He died on February 28, 1974, at the age of 70, in Newport Beach, California.

by Lorraine LoBianco

SOURCES:
Baxter, John "Harlan, Russell", International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers
Eagan, Daniel America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in The National Film Registry
Erickson, Hal All-Movie Guide
The Internet Movie Database
McCarthy, Todd Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood

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