John Alton and Film Noir: Painting with Light and Shadow

RAW DEAL (1948)

To view Raw Deal click here.

A shadowy, expressive photography defines film noir. It creates the kind of heavy mood and atmosphere that the German Expressionists called stimmung. The genre seemed to bring out the best in cinematographers, but two have been singled out by scholars and historians—Nicholas Musuraca and John Alton.

Musuraca photographed noir favorites such as Out of the Past (1947) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953), while John Alton’s work in the genre was in B-movies for directors Steve Sekely (Hollow Triumph [1948]), Joseph H. Lewis (The Big Combo [1955]), and Anthony Mann. Alton shot six films for Mann; five of them are streaming on FilmStruck, including the noir Raw Deal (1948).

Alton worked in other genres, shooting a number of prominent A-budget films such as Father’s Little Dividend (1951), Tea and Sympathy (1956), The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) and Elmer Gantry (1960). He also shot the final ballet in American in Paris (1950), earning the respect and admiration of director Vincente Minnelli. But, it was his work in film noir that allowed him to push boundaries, particularly in The Big Combo, which is singled out by John Bailey in the documentary Visions of Light (1992) for its extreme contrast of lights and darks. However, Raw Deal is my favorite Alton-Mann collaboration not only for the notable cinematography but also because it is narrated in voice-over by the femme fatale—a twist to the usual first-person narration by the hard-boiled male protagonist.

RAW DEAL (1948)

Claire Trevor stars as Pat, the femme fatale who may not be as greedy and manipulative as other fatales in film noir, but she does cause the downfall of the protagonist Joe, played by Dennis O’Keefe. Pat helps Joe escape from prison, where he was serving time for a crime committed by racketeer Rick Coyle, played with the usual menace by Raymond Burr. Marsha Hunt costars as the good girl, Ann, a prison social worker who competes with Pat for Joe’s affections. When the trio go on the lam, the love triangle impedes a clean getaway. John Alton’s unusual compositions and expressive use of light and shadow heighten the tension created by both the situation and the emotions.

RAW DEAL (1948)

According to film critic Todd McCarthy, no one’s blacks were blacker, shadows longer or focus deeper than John Alton’s. He illuminated scenes with the fewest lights possible, sometimes using a single light source. The dark shadows and bright light tended to sculpt the actors’ faces, giving them gravity and weight. Sometimes, the light danced off the contour of a body, the brim of a hat, or the edge of a gun. I was not surprised to read in Alton’s book, Painting with Light, that he was influenced by Rembrandt. After Joe escapes from prison, Pat is there to whisk him away in a getaway car. As they race through the streets, Joe changes clothes in the back seat. Lit with a single source, the scene has so little light that Joe’s face continually shifts in and out of the shadows as he adjusts his clothes. Alton claimed he shrouded the action in blackness because he wanted his imagery to match the darkness of the shady world the characters inhabited.

In an A-budget film at a studio like MGM or Paramount, Alton would never have gotten away with shrouding the actors’ faces in shadow. For studio execs like Louis B. Mayer and Adolph Zukor, the stars were the reason viewers went to the movies, so their glamorous faces and personal charisma should not be covered in darkness. But, as Alton wrote, “No face can be more mystifying than where the features are hidden in the dark, blending into the mysterious background. . . .” Alton’s statement perfectly illustrates a shot near the end of Raw Deal when a jealous Pat withholds information from Joe about Ann. She reclines on the motel bed in the shadowy foreground, her thoughts a mystery.

Alton is credited with pioneering the lighting motif in which a slanted shaft of light is sandwiched between shadows, creating a dramatic channel of light. In Raw Deal, the scene in the police station where the detectives are putting the pieces together is lit in this way. Oddly, the station is the blackest interior in the film, with the shaft of light barely illuminating the cops. The detectives’ office is darker than any of the places where Joe, Pat and Ann hide out; it’s even darker than Rick’s penthouse, where he conducts his nefarious business. The scene creates a negative connotation for the police, foreshadowing the requisite bad end for the likable noir protagonist. As Alton said, “Sometimes, it’s not what you light; it’s what you don’t light.”

The most dramatic lighting occurs in the confines of a taxidermy shop where Joe was supposed to rendezvous with a henchman named Fantail. When a raucous fight breaks out, Joe and Fantail smash through the back door of the shop where the actual taxidermy occurs. High contrast lighting illuminates the mounted animal heads on the wall—eerily trapped as trophies in ways that nature never intended. Shelves with tools and a huge net hanging from the ceiling create shadows that entrap the participants literally and figuratively. The baroque nature of the setting and lighting, and the web-like shadows predict the climax of this sequence in which good-girl Ann shoots a man in the back to protect Joe. She has sacrificed her personal integrity for the morally challenged man she loves, which traps her in the web of crime.

RAW DEAL (1948)

Alton’s stunning cinematography created a reputation for him in Hollywood, but many did not like him personally. Some called him arrogant; others found him to be too artistic, because he played fast and loose with the rules of the standard three-point lighting system. Sometimes, he lit scenes himself, which did not make the electrician’s union happy. However, he was fast, and that pleased producers and directors.

Unlike other streaming services, FilmStruck’s offerings are curated so that viewers can watch movies with a guided intent. The series Mann/Alton Noir was designed to illustrate the contributions of a director and his cinematographer to one of Hollywood’s most beloved genres. By watching Raw Deal, T-Men (1948), He Walked by Night (1948) and Border Incident (1949), viewers will see that Alton pushed the envelope in regard to noir photography. The opportunity is so good that we can forgive the fact that the fifth film in this series—Devil’s Doorway (1950)—is actually a western.

Susan Doll




3 Responses John Alton and Film Noir: Painting with Light and Shadow
Posted By SSWells : March 19, 2017 5:20 am

Though I am a novice to the deep intricacies and details of classic film, however, I am learning more and more as time goes by. But I still had been struggling with the meaning and descriptions of what was meant when a film was listed as noir.
That is before reading this very educational article which quite superbly illustrated the many aspects of the genre completely clearing up the remaining questions I had in my mind regarding the subject. EXCELLENT WRITING! Thanks.

Posted By Arthur : March 20, 2017 12:26 am

RAW DEAL is one of my all time favorites. You know the saying, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Film noir is bare bones, you are on your own, the studio not looking over your shoulder, let the creative juices flow, if you have any. And Alton had plenty.

Is there a word called “underdogishness?” No, of course there isn’t, but there should be. The hero, the film crew and the viewers are all in the same boat, scrappers who never even saw a silver spoon, who’ve all been through a RAW DEAL or two. And so this picture resonates.

Posted By swac44 : March 20, 2017 10:01 am

I didn’t know Alton’s name until I saw Visions of Light at the Toronto Int’l Film Festival, which appears to be unavailable, likely due to the copyrights on all the amazing clips it includes. Years later I’d finally get to see one of his best-known titles, The Big Combo in 35mm on a subsequent trip to Toronto. It was worth the wait.

And Devil’s Doorway may be a western, but as another Mann/Alton title, I’m dying to see it. I’ve probably passed it over numerous times in the TCM listings because it’s a Robert Taylor film, so it looks like it’ll be a Warner Archive purchase for me.

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