John Alton

Active - 1932 - 1960  |   Born - Oct 5, 1901   |   Died - Jun 2, 1996   |   Genres - Drama, Crime, Mystery, Comedy, Romance

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While cinematographer John Alton was adept with color photography, he was at his arguable best when using black and white. Indeed it is in the shadowy realm of film noir that he is best known. In that genre, Alton possessed the rare ability to photograph exterior shots as effectively as studio work. Starting at MGM as a lab technician in 1924, Hungarian-born Alton became a cameraman within four years. He went to Europe with Ernst Lubitsch to film backgrounds for The Student Prince (1927) and ended up staying in Paris for a few years heading the camera department of Joinville Studios. Alton moved to Argentina in 1932 to design the country's first sound film studio. He spent seven years there and returned to Hollywood with a dozen films under his belt, a directorial credit for Papa's Boy, an award for best photography from the Argentine film industry and a wife, journalist Rozalia Kiss -- they would remain married until her death in 1987. Back in Hollywood in 1940, Alton found that he couldn't rely upon his foreign reputation to secure a big-studio assignment. Setting his sights a bit lower, he chose to work at Republic, a B-picture factory which prided itself on the excellence of its photography. Alton quickly established himself as a talented cinematographer, able to work quickly and create a wide range of effects in varying conditions. Perhaps an early exposure to German Expressionism during his European childhood affected him, for Alton showed special affinity for highly contrasted black and white photography and unusual camera angles designed to symbolically enhance and sometimes mock the onscreen action. Such techniques made him ideal for film noir; one of the best examples of Alton's noir work can be seen in Big Combo (1955). Following WW II service with the Army, during which time he rose to the rank of captain, Alton returned to Hollywood and worked with other B-studios such as RKO and Monogram. By this time, he had often worked with director Anthony Mann and when Mann went to MGM to do Border Incident (1949), Alton followed. During his tenure with MGM, Alton became one of Vincente Minnelli's preferred lighting directors and was responsible for shooting Father of the Bride (1950), Father's Little Dividend (1951) and most notably An American in Paris (1951) his first work in Technicolor. For this latter film, Alton won an Oscar for shooting the ballet sequence. Other Minnelli films include Tea and Sympathy (1956) and Designing Women (1957). Alton also frequently worked with Richard Brooks on such films as The Brothers Karamazov (1958) and Elmer Gantry (1960). Throughout the '50s, Alton was in and out of MGM due to numerous disagreements of political and personal natures with various studio executives. When he and director Charles Crightton were abruptly released from Birdman of Alcatraz in the midst of production Alton decided to permanently quit the motion picture industry. Instead, Alton spent his days travelling, writing books on photography and working on his painting. In the 1970s, a new generation discovered his film work, but Alton remained elusive until 1993 when he resurfaced and attended a tribute for him at the Telluride Film Festival. After that, Alton showed up at a tribute in Vienna and for a retrospective at New York's Museum of Moving Image.

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