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Cinematography by John Alton
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Border Incident

Cinematography by John Alton - 10/19

The Hungarian-born John Alton, who emigrated to the USA in 1919, shot his first films in Argentina in the 1930s and began his prolific Hollywood career with "The Courageous Dr. Christian" (1940), directed by Bernard Vorhaus. He demonstrated a masterful command of chiaroscuro, the representation of light and shade without regard to color, with his work for Anthony Mann, notably "T-Men" (1947), Border Incident (1949) and The Black Book (1949). Alton became known as a master of film noir, as well for his visual puns, usually involving shadows.

In the 50s, Alton shot a series of films for Allan Dwan as well as four of Vincente Minnelli's glossy MGM productions. Among his efforts for the latter was the final ballet sequence in "An American in Paris" (1951), for which Alton shared a Best Cinematography (Color) Oscar® with Alfred Gilks. He also worked a number of times with Richard Brooks, notably on "Elmer Gantry" (1961).

Alton always claimed to have entered films accidentally. A child prodigy with an interest in painting and photography, at age 18 he moved to New York from his native Hungary to live with a wealthy uncle. According to Alton, while in college, he went to Cosmopolitan Studios to try to observe filming when he was literally dragged off the street, dressed in costume and placed next to Marion Davies during a scene from one of her films. He was paid (to him) the extraordinary fee of $12.50 for his efforts and promptly ended his academic life. (He later claimed he never even bothered to pick up his books at school.)

Alton worked his way up from lab worker to director of photography and was reportedly so devoted to his craft that he would claim not to hear what the actors in scenes were saying, so enslaved was he to the light on their faces. He moved to Hollywood in 1923, but by the early 30s was back in Europe heading Paramount's camera department in Paris. Alton then went to Argentina where he helped to establish a studio, worked as a cinematographer and made his directorial debut ("El hijo de papa" 1933). He returned to Hollywood at the end of the decade and took a hiatus to serve in the US Signal Corps during WWII. It was not until 1947 that he began to be recognized in Hollywood as a remarkable director of photography, primarily stemming from his association with director Anthony Mann on the low-budget film noir "T-Men". In the film, Alton employed one of his many "visual puns" by using a statue of Abraham Lincoln to cast a shadow on a thug, thus suggesting that the US government's G-men were "shadowing" the mob. Alton's subsequent noir period has brought comparisons between his work and that of Rembrandt; indeed, as Alton wrote in his 1949 book, "Painting with Light", the influence of canvas art on photography was profound. Alton shot as many as five films a year during this period and his use of shadows set the standard; his appreciation of atmospheric lighting demonstrated the expressionistic antecedents to noir.

By 1950, Alton had been lured to MGM, where he adapted to the studio's style, amazed to have hours to do a close-up when he was used to filming practically half a movie in the same time. Oddly, the studio assigned him to Vincente Minnelli's "Father of the Bride" (1950) and its sequel "Father's Little Dividend" (1951). But also in 1951, Minnelli used Alton to shoot the final sequence for "An American in Paris", which, while in color, required lighting which would speak to the internal feelings of the dancers. The external representation of the internal was the essence of expressionism and Alton excelled. Minnelli also used Alton for the film adaptation of the controversial stage play, Tea and Sympathy (1956). He was back working in the "darker" modes for Richard Brooks in the 50s with "Battle Circus" (1953), "Take the High Ground" (1953), "The Catered Affair" (1956), with its drab world of common folk, "The Brothers Karamazov" (1958) and the very dark "Elmer Gantry".

Alton also worked extensively with film pioneer Allan Dawn in the 50s, mostly in decidedly B-pictures. In 1962, Alton was fired from "Birdman of Alcatraz" when director Charles Crichton was replaced by John Frankenheimer. At that time, he decided to "retire" from active work in the film industry. Instead, Alton chose to work more in painting and theorizing and became a near recluse living in Europe and South America. He did not return to the USA for many years. Before his death at age 94, he enjoyed the retrospectives of his work, often amazed and pleased that at these events his B-movie work (The Big Combo [1955], Hollow Triumph [1948]) was shown more often than his A-films at MGM and other studios.

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Biographical data supplied by TCMdb

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