John Alton


Director Of Photography

About

Also Known As
Johann Altmann
Born
October 05, 1901
Died
June 02, 1996

Biography

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" (1...

Biography

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) and "Border Incident" (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. 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 "The 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 at Republic was shown more often than his A-films at MGM and other studios.

Filmography

 

Cinematography (Feature Film)

12 to the Moon (1960)
Director of Photography
Elmer Gantry (1960)
Photography
Twelve to the Moon (1960)
Director Of Photography
The Brothers Karamazov (1958)
Director of Photography
Lonelyhearts (1958)
Director of Photography
Designing Woman (1957)
Director of Photography
Tea and Sympathy (1956)
Director of Photography
Slightly Scarlet (1956)
Director of Photography
The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956)
Director of Photography
The Catered Affair (1956)
Director of Photography
The Big Combo (1955)
Director of Photography
Pearl of the South Pacific (1955)
Director of Photography
Tennessee's Partner (1955)
Director of Photography
Escape to Burma (1955)
Director of Photography
Duffy of San Quentin (1954)
Director of Photography
Witness to Murder (1954)
Director of Photography
Passion (1954)
Director of Photography
Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)
Director of Photography
The Steel Cage (1954)
Director of Photography
Silver Lode (1954)
Director of Photography
I, the Jury (1953)
Photography
Count the Hours (1953)
Director of Photography
Battle Circus (1953)
Director of Photography
Take the High Ground! (1953)
Director of Photography
Talk About a Stranger (1952)
Director of Photography
Washington Story (1952)
Director of Photography
It's a Big Country: An American Anthology (1952)
Director of Photography
Apache War Smoke (1952)
Director of Photography
An American in Paris (1951)
Ballet Photographer
Father's Little Dividend (1951)
Director of Photography
Grounds for Marriage (1951)
Director of Photography
The People Against O'Hara (1951)
Director of Photography
Father of the Bride (1950)
Director of Photography
Mystery Street (1950)
Director of Photography
Devil's Doorway (1950)
Director of Photography
Captain China (1950)
Photography
The Crooked Way (1949)
Cinematographer
Red Stallion in the Rockies (1949)
Director of Photography
The Black Book (1949)
Director of Photography
Border Incident (1949)
Director of Photography
The Spiritualist (1948)
Director of Photography
Raw Deal (1948)
Director of Photography
He Walked by Night (1948)
Director of Photography
Hollow Triumph (1948)
Director of Photography
T-Men (1948)
Director of Photography
Canon City (1948)
Director of Photography
Bury Me Dead (1947)
Director of Photography
The Pretender (1947)
Photography
The Trespasser (1947)
Director of Photography
Driftwood (1947)
Director of Photography
Winter Wonderland (1947)
Photography
Hit Parade of 1947 (1947)
Director of Photography
Robin Hood of Texas (1947)
Director of Photography
The Ghost Goes Wild (1947)
Photography
Wyoming (1947)
Director of Photography
The Magnificent Rogue (1946)
Photography
The Madonna's Secret (1946)
Photography
One Exciting Week (1946)
Photography
A Guy Could Change (1946)
Photography
Murder in the Music Hall (1946)
Ice seq Photographer
Affairs of Geraldine (1946)
Photography
Love, Honor and Goodbye (1945)
Photography
Girls of the Big House (1945)
Photography
Song of Mexico (1945)
Photography
Mexicana (1945)
Loc Camera
Enemy of Women (1944)
Director of Photography
Lake Placid Serenade (1944)
Photography
The Lady and the Monster (1944)
Photography
Storm Over Lisbon (1944)
Photography
Atlantic City (1944)
Photography
The Sultan's Daughter (1944)
Director of Photography
Ice-Capades Revue (1942)
Photography
Affairs of Jimmy Valentine (1942)
Photography
Johnny Doughboy (1942)
Photography
Pardon My Stripes (1942)
Photography
Moonlight Masquerade (1942)
Photography
Melody for Three (1941)
Director of Photography
Mr. District Attorney in the Carter Case (1941)
Photography
The Captain of Koepenick (1941)
Director of Photography
Power Dive (1941)
Director of Photography
Forced Landing (1941)
Director of Photography
The Devil Pays Off (1941)
Photography
The Courageous Dr. Christian (1940)
Photography
Dr. Christian Meets the Women (1940)
Director of Photography
Remedy for Riches (1940)
Photography
Three Faces West (1940)
Photography
La vida bohemia (1938)
Fotógrafo [Photographer]

Cast (Special)

Glorious Technicolor (1998)

Life Events

1923

Moved from NYC to LA

1924

Was lab technician with MGM

1928

First film as cameraman at Paramount; worked on "Spoilers of the West" and "Wyoming", both produced by David O Selznick

1931

Went to Paris as head of Paramount camera department

1931

Went to Paris as head of Paramount camera department

1932

Installed studios for Lumiton and Sono Film, Argentia

1933

First film as director of photography, "Los tres Berretines" (Argentina)

1933

Directorial debut with the Argentine film "El hijo de papa"

1937

Returned to the USA

1940

First US film as director of photography, "The Courageous Dr. Christian"

1947

Had career breakthrough as cinematographer on "T-Men"

1949

Wrote book, "Painting With Light"

1950

First worked with Vincente Minnelli, "Father of the Bride"

1951

Was director of photography on final ballet sequence for "An American in Paris", directed by Minnelli; shared Best Cinematography (Color) Oscar

1953

First worked with Richard Brooks, "Battle Circus"

1960

Shot "Elmer Gantry" for Richard Brooks

1962

After being fired from "Birdman of Alcatraz"; left the film industry; decided to devote time to traveling and painting instead

1993

Attended a tribute held for him at the Tellrude Film Festival

Videos

Movie Clip

12 To The Moon (1960) - No Air Detected Lunar landscaping, and not much fuss about any giant leaps, the first moon landing, with Ken Clark as American Captain Anderson leading the group, Cory Devlin the Nigerian astronomer, and Richard Weber as the Israeli crew member, recording events, some unexpected, in 12 To The Moon, 1960.
12 To The Moon (1960) - World-Shattering History After symphonic credit sequence, silent star Francis X. Bushman (who was seen frequently on TV by this time) introduces the movie, the idea and the astronauts, Robert (billed as “Bob”) Montgomery Jr., John Wengraf, Tema Bey, Anna-Lisa, Roger Til, Phillip Baird, Michi Kobi, Tom Conway, Cory Devlin, Richard Weber, Anthony Dexter and Ken Clark, in 12 To The Moon, 1960.
12 To The Moon (1960) - Everyone Acting Artificially Calm Looks like Noah’s Ark with lawn loungers from Sears, in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite, the ship just launched and the multinational crew communing, with Ken Clark, Anna-Lisa, Phillip Baird, John Wengraf, Roger Til, Robert (“Bob”) Montgomery Jr., and Richard Weber as the Polish-born Israeli who tangles with Tom Conway, as the Soviet Orloff, in Columbia’s low-rent 12 To The Moon, 1960.
People Against O'Hara, The (1951) - Three Beers Nicely staged urban crime by director John Sturges, photographed by John Alton, character actor Jay C. Flippen the sailor-bystander who will turn up later, opening The People Against O'Hara, 1951.
People Against O'Hara, The (1951) - We Plead Not Guilty First court appearance for Spencer Tracy as recovering-alcoholic and ex-prosecutor Curtayne, defending accused killer and family friend Johnny (James Arness), John Hodiak the prosecutor, Henry O’Neill the judge, then a jail visit, angered because Johnny isn’t telling him everything, in The People Against O’Hara, 1951.
People Against O'Hara, The (1951) - Old Friends The O'Hara's (Louise Lorimer, Arthur Shields) appeal to their old neighbor, the recovering alcoholic prosecutor-turned-defense lawyer Curtayne (Spencer Tracy) on behalf of their son, early in John Sturges' The People Against O'Hara, 1951.
Border Incident - Open, Braceros Opening credit sequence for director Anthony Mann's Border Incident, 1949, with Ricardo Montalban, followed by newsy narration about migrant "Braceros," cinematography by John Alton.
Border Incident (1949) - I Can Be Very Impatient From a grisly depiction of undocumented Mexican “braceros” robbed and murdered entering the U.S. looking for work, director Anthony Mann follows John C. Higgins’ script into plain exposition, introducing George Murphy and Ricardo Montalban as Rodriguez and Bearnes, Harry Antrim and Martin Garralaga their bosses, in Border Incident, 1949.
Border Incident (1949) - How Can Business Be Bad? Howard Da Silva as American Parkson, leader of a ring that smuggles in exploited workers from Mexico, calls his contacts (Sig Ruman, Arnold Moss), who are then visited by undercover American agent Bearnes (George Murphy), whose mission is to plant stolen immigration permits, in director Anthony Mann’s Border Incident, 1949.
He Walked By Night (1948) - This Is Los Angeles Narration by Reed Hadley introduces Los Angeles to the world in the true-crime thriller He Walked By Night, 1948, directed by Alfred Werker, from a script by Crane Wilbur and John C. Higgins.
He Walked By Night (1948) - How About My Army Discharge? Officer Rawlins (John McGuire) catches crook Davis Morgan (Richard Basehart) nearly in-the-act, leading to the fateful shooting incident in He Walked By Night, 1948, featuring cinematography by John Alton.
He Walked By Night (1948) - Hand Me That Hammer Crime-lab whiz Lee (Jack Webb) works some magic for cops Jones (James Cardwell) and Brennan (Scott Brady), impressing Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) in He Walked By Night, 1948.

Trailer

Father's Little Dividend - (Original Trailer) In the sequel to Father of the Bride (1950), Spencer Tracy discovers the joys and pains of grandfatherhood.
Devil's Doorway - (Original Trailer) A Native American Civil War hero (Robert Taylor) returns home to fight for his people. Directed by Anthony Mann.
Count The Hours - (Original Trailer) A lawyer (MacDonald Carey) defends a migrant worker in a sensational murder trial in Don Siegel's Count The Hours (1953).
Border Incident - (Original Trailer) Police try to crack down on the illegal immigration racket in Border Incident (1949) starring Ricardo Montalban.
Battle Circus - (Original Trailer) See how Hollywood portrayed a M*A*S*H unit during the Korean War in Battle Circus (1953) starring Humphrey Bogart.
Witness To Murder - (Original Trailer) Barbara Stanwyck fights to convince the police that she is a Witness To Murder (1954).
Mystery Street - (Original Trailer) Criminal pathologists try to crack a case with nothing but the victim's bones as a lead in Mystery Street (1950).
Tea and Sympathy - (Original Trailer) A faculty wife risks her marriage to help a troubled student who questions his own sexuality in Tea and Sympathy (1956) starring Deborah Kerr.
Teahouse of the August Moon, The - (Original Trailer) Marlon Brando plays an Okinawan interpreter for the occupying U.S. Army in the comedy The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956).
Catered Affair, The - (Original Trailer) Ernest Borgnine is exploiting his Academy Award from Marty, 1955, in the fancy MGM trailer for his next Paddy Chayefsky-based drama The Catered Affair, 1956, with Bette Davis and Debbie Reynolds.

Bibliography