Odds Against Tomorrow 4

The 1959 movie Odds Against Tomorrow culminates in a heist of this bank in Hudson, upstate New York. That door and clock are significant in the holdup scene.

I noticed the similarity between the woman walking down the street and one of my favourite Harry Callahan photographs, ‘Chicago’, 1961, dated only two years later than the movie.

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Harry Callahan, ‘Chicago’, 1961

See my other posts on the photography in Odds Against Tomorrow:

Odds Against Tomorrow 1, Odds Against Tomorrow 2, and Odds Against Tomorrow 3.

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Lawrence and Freddie

When you see the film Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen you realize how great its Director of Photography Freddie Young was. He won an Oscar for it.

But I’m not just talking about Young as a cinematographer, I’m referring to the composed shots that appear on the screen as beautiful still images, as photographs.

One of the greatest single shots in cinema, the three-minute mirage sequence in which a figure slowly emerges from the desert haze, is a wonderful three part composition – see that tiny speck on the horizon in the image above? It’s a great suspenseful moment in the film, but visually it also functions as an elegant still photograph. There are many throughout the film. As well as being a great movie, Lawrence is also a great portfolio of landscape photographs.

The desert is a character in Lawrence and you often gaze at it as if at a star. The film immerses you in it, it paints the desert across the screen. There are points in the film where it is such an astonishing sight the filmmakers just leave it there on the screen so you to take it in.

This seems close to the indexical nature of still photography, its role of pointing, as if it’s saying “look at that.” You could argue that there is a distinct genre of ‘still’ photography contained within movies, images that have some DNA of the still within them and could be lifted out and printed. Despite plot, character, sound and movement there is also that purely optical component, subordinated to story but staying in the mind anyway. It must leave some residue in photographic culture.

William H. Daniel’s Naked City

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Click on these images to see New York in 1948.

They show the city just after World War II, but just before the prosperity boom of the 1950s; it’s a hardworking city, energetic and unpretentious. The images are by William H. Daniels, whose work, you might agree, resembles that of Weegee and Berenice Abbott, both photographers of Gotham City at that time.

But Daniels was not a still photographer like Weegee and Abbott, he was a Hollywood cinematographer who received an Oscar for this work. These are stills from the 1948 movie The Naked City which was shot on location in New York.

In 1945 Weegee had published a book of his press photos of murderers, drunks and corpses and called it The Naked City. Hollywood producer Mark Hellinger, who had been a columnist in New York, bought the title from Weegee intending to make the movie with a similar degree of grittiness. He determined to shoot it on location in the city which was almost unknown at that time when most movies where made on the studio backlot in Hollywood. It gave the film a surprising sense of reality, like a documentary. The movie was a hit.

Compare William H. Daniels’ images with Weegee photographs here, and Berenice Abbott photographs here.

See my other posts on this subject, Berenice Abbot’s Changing City , Berenice Abbott’s Naked City and Those faces, those suits.

Kane enabled

Last night I saw Citizen Kane again. Like many film lovers of my generation, it has a special place in the heart, a dream of perfect cinema. The thrill is always a little different and last night it was the electrifying originality, the daring, the showmanship that struck me. It’s a film of shocks: you are constantly surprised by each new transition and the rush of ideas.

Like all films it was made from a collaboration of talents. Welles was right when he shared the main credit with his cinematographer, Gregg Toland. Kane is a film for photographers.

Toland achieved unusually deep images, rare at that time and often commented upon in Citizen Kane. Depth-of-Field is the degree of sharpness in a photograph, near and far from the camera. To achieve this he needed a small lens aperture, down to f16, very difficult in the relative dimness of a studio set. How he managed that was due to a number of unique factors:

1. Using the highest speed film available, the new Eastman Super XX, rated by today’s standards as 250 ISO.

2. Use of the 35mm focal length lens instead of the more usual 50mm lens. A wide angle lens gives greater depth of field.

3. Having coated lenses, a new invention which cut down flare and gave much better light transmission, as much as one f stop.

4. Shooting with the new Mitchell BNC 35mm camera. Its internal sound dampening – instead of the external blimp which required shooting through a sheet of glass – meant the image was sharper and had 10% more light transmission.

5. The use of arc lights which, because of their near-Daylight colour temperature, exploited the full sensitivity of the film. The sets were lit very brightly, much brighter than normal, to get more light through the small aperture.

You can see from this the technological sophistication of film making in Hollywood and how innovations in the science of cinematography could enable a new aesthetic. Citizen Kane’s artistic innovations were enabled by technical ones.

These details were sourced from an excellent paper by Patrick Ogle, ‘Technological and Aesthetic Influences on the Development of Deep-Focus Cinematography in the United States’. It gives a lot of information about film-making in Hollywood at the time of Kane. You can read it by clicking here: Movies and Methods: an anthology.

Odds Against Tomorrow 3

For a Hollywood genre film Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959, was experimental and arty. The story hinges on the racial conflict between white man Ryan and black man Harry Belafonte. The opening shot was filmed on infra red film which bleached the skin of the racist character, played by Robert Ryan above. A moment after this shot he racially mocks a little black girl.

The movie’s director Robert Wise said this: I did something in Odds Against Tomorrow I’d been wanting to do in some pictures but hadn’t had the chance. I wanted a certain kind of mood in some sequences, such as the opening when Robert Ryan is walking down West Side Street…I used infra-red film. You have to be very careful with that because it turns green things white, and you can’t get too close on people’s faces. It does distort them but gives that wonderful quality—black skies with white clouds—and it changes the feeling and look of the scenes. -Robert Wise, from wikipedia.

See my other posts on the photography in in this film: Odds Against Tomorrow 1, Odds Against Tomorrow 2, and Odds Against Tomorrow 4

Odds Against Tomorrow 2

The 1959 heist movie Odds Against Tomorrow was mostly shot on location in New York city and upstate New York. The locations were carefully chosen, each scene plays out in very distinctive place. It gives the film a sense of reality, as if the events could be happening right next to you. In these shots the skyscrapers are composed in relation to the actors. They become like characters in the film, echoing the toughness of the bank robbers. The bottom two images could almost be still photographs, like portraits in Life Magazine.

See my other posts on the photography in this movie: Odds Against Tomorrow 1Odds Against Tomorrow 3 and Odds Against Tomorrow 4