"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

James Wong Howe

Next in an occasional series on Western cinematographers

Master of light and shadow
James Wong Howe ASC (1899 – 1976) was another of the great Hollywood cinematographers. As far as Westerns were concerned, he shot thirteen, from Told in The Hills (Paramount, 1919), in which he was credited as assistant cameraman, to Hombre (Fox, 1967) in which he was Director of Photography.

“Jimmy”, as he was known in the trade, was very talented. He was nominated for no fewer than ten Academy awards and won two, once in 1964 for the fine semi-Western, Hud (Paramount, 1963).

Born in Canton in 1899, he wanted to be a prizefighter but settled for working as a photographer’s assistant and then worked his way up in movie studios, doing his early work for Cecil B DeMille.

A master of lighting, he used shadow to huge effect and was one of the first to use deep-focus, keeping both foreground and background sharp.

There was a problem with early film stock when showing blue eyes; they came out dull and weak. Howe perfected a way of making them shine, thus earning the undying gratitude of blue-eyed stars, especially the female of the species. He became perhaps the most famous movie cameraman in the world in the 1930s.

After shooting 15 pictures for MGM he moved over to Warner Bros and won his first Oscar nomination for Algiers in 1938.

His career suffered a dip in the 1940s when he was discriminated against because of his ethnicity and although he was never black-listed, he was held in suspicion for his political views. But there was a revival in his career in the 50s as McCarthyism was discredited and by the late 1950s he was once again at the top of his profession.

Bad health in later life forced him into retirement. It is said he had to turn down The Godfather. He collapsed while working on Funny Lady and died in 1976.

His wife Sanora said after his death, “If the story demanded, his work could be harsh and have a documentary quality, but that quality was strictly Wong Howe. If the story allowed, his style was poetic realism, for he was a poet of the camera.” One belief he held which is hugely to his credit was that he refuted the auteur theory. And who better to argue that a film is not the ‘work’ of a director alone but the result of the combined artistry of a large team, among whom, clearly, the director of photography would loom very large.

As far as Westerns go, I haven’t seen the early silents Howe worked on, Told in the Hills in 1919, for example, or The Call of the Canyon, in 1923. Of the later cowboy films, The Oklahoma Kid with James Cagney was a pretty ordinary Western but with some attractive aspects visually thanks to Howe, The Baron of Arizona (Lippert, 1950) was a Samuel Fuller semi-gothic horror, giving Howe scope, and The Eagle and the Hawk (Paramount, 1950) was a minor John Payne oater. But of course even less remarkable movies can be visually attractive. It’s often a saving grace. Viva Villa! in 1934, however, directed by Jack Conway, Howard Hawks and William A Wellman, on the photography of which Howe worked with Charles G Clarke, is a great movie.  Even the short extract (external link) on YouTube will give you a good idea of the quality of the photography (you have to ignore the annoying music).

Drango in 1957, a Jeff Chandler picture, wasn't bad and The Glory Guys (1965) might have been fine, a Major Dundee ante diem, but Peckinpah was pulled from the project and replaced by stodgier Arnold Laven, and the result was mediocre. Really Wong's Western fame rests on three pictures: Pursued (Warner Bros, 1947), directed by Raoul Walsh; The Outrage (MGM, 1964) and Hombre (Fox, 1967), both directed by Martin Ritt.

Pursued I have already discussed on this blog. Click here if you want to read more about it. Certainly the chiaroscuro and harsh landscapes serve to accentuate the film’s psychological aspects (it was an early Western noir) and its memorable images remain with you long after you’ve watched the movie. It’s a 4-revolver picture and one of the main reasons for that (apart from Robert Mitchum, obviously) is the visual.

As for The Outrage, when I first saw this movie I wrote in my notes, “A rather boring black & white play. Newman hams it up as a Mex bandit. Laurence Harvey spends most of play tied to a tree and gagged - so that’s good. Bloom has a fake Southern accent. EGR has best part.” On balance, I still think that’s basically true but I have revised my opinion slightly upwards on further viewings and I don’t think now that it’s as bad as that. Part of the reason is the James Wong Howe photography of the Arizona scenery, which plays with light and shadow. The whole tone of the story is dark and one of foreboding, from Howe’s introductory slow zoom on the night-time railroad depot in the pouring rain onwards. I can maybe do a full review another day.

Which brings us to the excellent Hombre. What a fine movie Hombre is. Martin Ritt is not perhaps in the forefront of great artistic Western directors (unless you count Hud as a Western) yet he gave us one of the best cowboy films of the 1960s.

I've done a full review here but right now it’s perhaps enough to say the movie is finely photographed by Howe in sweeping Arizona locations, some of them mountainous. The panoramic high country is shown as very beautiful and accentuates the isolation of the characters. Critic James Agee called Howe one of "the few men who use this country for background as it ought to be used in films." In Hud, also for Ritt, Wong Howe once again used a landscape, in this case the arid West Texas plains, to highlight the isolation and independence of the film’s hero played by Paul Newman.

All this is enough, therefore, pardners, to put Mr. Howe right up there on the Western Mount Parnassus (which lies, as you know, somewhere in the Rockies) along with Surtees père et fils, Lucien Ballard, Vilmos Zsigmond, John Bailey, Roger Deakins and those Fordian giants of old, Hoch, Glennon, MacDonald, Biroc, Stout and Clothier.

That is my homage to James Wong Howe ASC (1899 – 1976).


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