John Alton: Cinematography’s Outlier, Part One


In a much-contested field, he was the original “Prince of Darkness.” Yet, his book on cinematography is titled Painting with Light. On the basis of his many Westerns and film noir features, you would imagine he’s a quintessentially American “guy,” but he was born in Hungary. His first dozen credits are Spanish language Latin American features and he was widely regarded by his Hollywood peers as a foppish elitist. He was a singular master of inky black and burning white lighting, yet his only Academy Award was for the stunning color palette of An American in Paris, a movie for which he photographed only a single dance sequence. His Imdb page lists over 100 pictures, yet all are features save one—and that’s the pilot for the TV series Mission Impossible which he photographed a half dozen years after his de facto retirement. Yes, John Alton was a cinematographer of contradictions.

Last year, Mary Francis, Executive Editor of Music and Film Studies at UC Press asked me to write a foreword to a new paperback edition of Alton’s book. The existing edition included a comprehensive biographical introduction of Alton’s career by critic Todd McCarthy, who had been a writer/producer on the 1992 documentary Visions of Light. That film had included a discussion of film noir and Alton’s work on The Big Combo, a late masterwork of the noir decade.


Final scene at foggy airport, “The Big Combo.”

Final scene at foggy airport, “The Big Combo.”

Alton had been reclusive from Hollywood circles for over 25 years, but he made a surprise appearance at the documentary’s premiere at the NuArt Theater in Santa Monica. He was over 90 at the time. When he walked down the aisle sporting his signature French beret, the several dozen attending cinematographers, many stars in their own right, rushed to pay homage. It was a second coming out for the man who had been living quietly in Palm Springs. Tributes began to flow.

I didn’t want to repeat material from McCarthy’s well-researched introduction in my foreword to his book. McCarthy and Alton had become friends, and the critic had an opportunity to review much of Alton’s work and thoughts in several public appearances including the Telluride Film Festival. Instead, I read through Alton’s file of the ASC papers, now housed at the Academy’s Herrick Library. I found a revealing record of Alton’s on and off activities as a member of the American Society of Cinematographers from the time of his first initiation in 1937, sponsored by a then relatively unknown Stanley Cortez, who was to achieve acclaim photographing Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and again a decade later with Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.

In January 1944 Alton resigned from the ASC, against the advice of many colleagues, for reasons still obscure. He must have realized the mistake of doing this in such a tight-knit community as Hollywood cinematographers then were, because barely a year later he asked for re-instatement which was granted by the Board of Governors with the support of fellow cinematographer Leon Shamroy, a powerful force in the Society. At this point, Alton came fully into his own with a series of low budget but powerfully visualized crime pictures for directors Anthony Mann, Joseph Lewis, and especially for his close friend, the soon to be blacklisted Bernard Vorhaus. He and Nick Musaraca became the top cinematographers for these hard-bitten crime dramas that were cinematic metaphors for the general psychic malaise of the country still coming out of WWII, mired in the existential anxieties of the developing Cold War, and of the Congressional witch hunt for subversives in Hollywood that started in 1947.

“The Crooked Way,” 1949.

“The Crooked Way,” 1949.

But the ride on Alton’s ASC merry-go-round was not yet over. In March 1954, several years after winning his Academy Award for American in Paris, the unpredictable cinematographer again resigned from the ASC, choosing language in his letter that was almost verbatim that of his 1944 withdrawal letter. This time his quitting was for good. I had always wondered why the screen credit of Alton’s last dozen or so films did not read “ASC”. The six low budget features, most of them Westerns, that he did with director Allan Dwan in the mid 50s, as well as his last films with Richard Brooks, including his swansong, that superheated riot of color and expressionistic camera, Elmer Gantry, did not have the ASC attribution, nor does his most lauded noir credit, The Big Combo.

Bible thumping Burt Lancaster in “Elmer Gantry,” 1960.

Bible thumping Burt Lancaster in “Elmer Gantry,” 1960.

After Elmer Gantry Alton’s career seemed to spin out of control. Whether his alienation from his cinematographer peers had any bearing on this or whether his own very high opinion of himself and his work finally reached an inevitable breaking point in his discontent with the film industry—is purely conjectural. What is in the record is that young director John Frankenheimer, who had himself replaced Charles Crichton, replaced Alton on his last assignment, Birdman of Alcatraz. Alton protested to colleagues that he and Argentinean wife Rozalia Kiss wanted to travel anyway, to study art. It was no accident that his book was titled PAINTING with Light. But this may have been a smoke screen for his disaffection as I found in his ASC papers at the Herrick Library, letters he wrote to both George Stevens and George Cukor – lauding in no faint terms the merits of his own work. On November 15, 1964, Alton wrote Cukor to praise Cukor’s My Fair Lady as “one of the greatest films of all time… It awakened in me an ambition: TO PHOTOGRAPH A FILM FOR YOU.” The caps are Alton’s and the subtext seems to me to signal to Cukor that the director would be the greater benefactor in such a collaboration. He continued, ”Although I have been absent from Hollywood, the time thus spent has not been in vain.” Alton explains to Cukor his ongoing study of color, which many colleagues felt had run amok in his lighting for Brooks’ The Brothers Karamazov. While the colors are muted in this clip, consider the classic Alton noir lighting:

Although there had been hints of expressionistic color in My Fair Lady, it is difficult to imagine that the aesthetic bent of the always-genteel Cukor could mesh with that of the showy Alton, whose Matisse, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Fauvist bold color slatherings brought howls of protest from colleagues as far back as An American in Paris. In closing, Alton suggested to Cukor in heraldic caps, “I WOULD GREATLY APPRECIATE AN OPPORTUNITY TO TAKE PART IN SOME COMPETITIVE TESTING FOR YOUR NEXT PRODUCTION.” I found no reply from Cukor among the director’s papers.

But even two years before retirement, and ostensibly burning out, Alton wrote to George Stevens, on January 16, 1958. Stevens, like Cukor, was an “A” list director of broadly humanistic dramas. Early in his career Stevens had been a cinematographer with dozens of photography credits dating back to 1923, including a number of Laurel and Hardy two-reelers for Hal Roach. Alton wrote Stevens the year before the release of his 1959 bio-drama, The Diary of Anne Frank, photographed by William C. Mellor (Mellor earning an Oscar for his black-and-white photography.) Alton began, “What a powerful instrument the motion picture camera can become in your hands. So I have decided that before I retire, I shall have to photograph one of your pictures.” He went on to describe his love/hate affair with MGM citing his “ABSOLUTE NEW APPROACH” to color in The Brothers Karamazov. Alton concludes: “Should you ever be in need of a man of my caliber, I shall be glad to hear from you.” Such a self-serving, even unctuous, sign-off would seem to bode no response. But the affable Stevens did reply on February 6. “Nothing would make me happier than an opportunity for this kind of an association in the future,” he wrote simply. Stevens would direct only two more films. On The Greatest Story Ever Told he used Mellor again, along with Loyal Griggs, and on his final film he chose the great cinematographer of the early Nouvelle Vague films, Henri Decae. A Stevens/Alton linking remains one of those “what if” questions of film history.

Director Allan Dwan, Arlene Dahl, John Alton on set of color noir feature “Slightly Scarlet,” 1956.

Director Allan Dwan, Arlene Dahl, John Alton on set of color noir feature “Slightly Scarlet,” 1956.

Producer Chester Erskine, John Alton, Barbara Stanwyck on set of “Witness to Murder,” 1954.

Producer Chester Erskine, John Alton, Barbara Stanwyck on set of “Witness to Murder,” 1954.

I examine the whole cloth of Alton’s ASC comings and goings in more detail in the foreword to the new UC Press paperback edition of his book. Unraveling the threads of his career yields no less an enigmatic pattern than the motivations of his films’ antiheroes. You can find the book here:

University of California Press: Painting With Light link

New UC Press edition.

New UC Press edition.

Whatever reasons Alton may have had for his early retirement and self-imposed exile from Hollywood, he and Rozalia continued to live for years in central Hollywood. But Alton’s coming out at the premiere of Visions of Light signaled a late incandescence in his life. His subsequent public appearances were of a genial nonagenarian sporting a dark beret, still generous locks spilling onto his neck, framed by a bow tie.

The year before he died, Alton was invited to the ASC Clubhouse to be honored during a monthly members’ dinner. He and his ASC sponsor from December 1937, Stanley Cortez, sat at separate tables in the L-shaped room. They were eyeing one another across the way, but neither made a move toward the other. Clearly, there was some unresolved history between the two of them that those of us in the room could only surmise. Did it go back to Alton’s two withdrawals from the Society, or was it more personal? None of us were aware that Cortez had been his original sponsor, and Cortez remained unusually mum. Stanley was quick on the challenge to anyone who disagreed with him at Board meetings, but many of us knew that his sentinel-like demeanor at the ASC portal was partly a front; somewhere inside that glowering visage resided a more mellow soul. Whatever old resentments might present a chasm between these two artists, several of us, including recent president Woody Omens, felt it was time for rapprochement. We led Stanley over to Alton’s table. There was a slight hesitancy but Stanley made the first gracious move and they embraced each other. I was aware, as never before in my professional life, that here was a direct connection to a golden age of American cinematography. I think it was Woody who took a photograph of Alton, Cortez and me standing next to the fireplace, above which is the ASC insignia. Alton is in a dark suit, his bow tie askew to the left; Cortez, ever dapper, wears a white jacket with an ascot. His right arm rests on Alton’s left shoulder. I stand between the two Lions in Winter like the cat that ate the canary, an unlikely acolyte in his early 50s, not yet with a trace of grey hair.

Alton, Bailey, Cortez at the ASC Clubhouse, September 1995.

Alton, Bailey, Cortez at the ASC Clubhouse, September 1995.

Next: John Alton, Part Two, and the new UC Press edition of “Painting With Light.”



7 Responses to “John Alton: Cinematography’s Outlier, Part One”

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  • Thanks for this essay, John. And I absolutely love the photograph, of you with Mr. Cortez and Mr. Alton! It reminds of the great privilege I’ve had in being associated with the ASC. I’m looking forward to Part 2. — DH

  • Nice article John! Very interesting behind the scenes of the ASC stuff and yet most honorable! Thank you!

  • John,

    Thanks for a great story about someone behind the camera. We seem to have more info on those in front of the camera, but very few about those that bring the stories to life such as the crews that performed the camera work, the lighting and the sound. The list could include the editors and so many others, but you are certainly on my list for the stories that give us some feel for those behind the camera. I shall add “Painting With Light”, to my library.
    Regards, Chuck Abbott

  • Excellent article on one of the greats. I was just watching new Bluray of Big Combo the other night, beautiful photography.

  • Another wonderful article, John. Of course, I have a copy of Painting With Light in my library. Now I need to buy the new release with your forward!

  • Alexander Ballinger

    Great blog and thanks for your (obviously) fruitful Alton research. Looks like another edition of Painting with Light will have to join my much-read, much-battered copy on my groaning film book shelves…

  • John:

    A wonderful article. I loved the story about the 1995 dinner – great stuff!

    His work on “The Big Combo” is amazing, but I am always in awe of his amazing lighting on “Border Incident” in 1949. Talk about the “prince of darkness!”

    I have always thought that if anyone were to write an article or a book about a cinematographer as auteur, you would have to use Alton as your reference point.

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