Five Fave Classic Cinematographers, Pt. 1: John F. Seitz

If anyone out there has attended a TCM Party hosted by me, you know I always natter on about great Old Hollywood cinematographers, the crisp blacks and whites and beautiful contrast they produced, etc. etc. There are a few names that come up repeatedly, more often than most. Gregg Toland — Citizen Kane, Ball of Fire, The Little Foxes, The Best Years of Our Lives — is an obvious possibility, as is Jack Cardiff — A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes. But with this post I’m beginning a series about five less well-known DPs who are equally deserving of some attention.

John Francis Seitz of the American Society of Cinematographers, c. 1936

I’m going to start with John F. Seitz, ASC. Seitz is probably best known for the films noir he worked on with Billy Wilder, Sunset Blvd. and Double Indemnity, which I was admiring last Sunday as I watched it for the bazillionth time. All of Seitz’ trademarks — inky blacks and brilliant whites, “differential illumination of different regions of the screen,” “Rembrandt north light,” and low key lighting — are present in Indemnity, creating some of the most influential noir images ever made.




Double Indemnity screen caps are from the fabulous Bluscreens blog.

I find these two parallel scenes particularly striking examples of how Wilder and Seitz worked together so well…in both Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) walks into the room and sits down in front of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), but the angle is slightly different, and the lighting serves as a barometer for their relationship.

From sunny days...
From sunny days… trouble in paradise.
…to trouble in paradise.

Gifs by A Modern Musketeer.

Some of Seitz’ work on Sunset Blvd.:

Sunset Blvd. caps from DVD Beaver.

Indemnity and Sunset are just two of Seitz’ 163 films, made over more than 4 decades. Born in 1892, Seitz began as a lab tech in Chicago in 1909 and was working in movies as a director of photography by 1913, continuing through his last film, Guns of the Timberland (1960). He held 18 patents for photographic devices and processes — including dissolve techniques and the matte shot, which he fine-tuned while working on Rex Ingram’s Trifling Women (1922). The collaboration with Ingram was key to Seitz’ career:

Ingram was a great pictorialist; everything in his pictures was subordinate to the image. Collaborating with a cameraman of genius, John Seitz, he created some of the most beautiful films of the entire silent era.
Kevin Brownlow and John Kobal, Hollywood: The Pioneers

Seitz’ other works include some of my favorite movies: Sullivan’s Travels and This Gun For Hire, both with Veronica Lake; Five Graves To Cairo and The Lost Weekend, also directed by Wilder; and The Big Clock, which like Weekend, starred Ray Milland.  These are just a fraction of his output. How does one person create all those stunning images? Perhaps it was his willingness to experiment:

Where [others] might be inclined to play it safe by using tried and true techniques, Seitz doesn’t hesitate to stick his neck out to try for the unusual and original effect — and he invariably comes up with an exciting result. Far from being a trickster out to create an effect for its own sake, [he] remains an alert experimentalist, constantly searching for new approaches and original camera techniques to make the motion picture a more dramatic medium. There are no clichés in his style – as modern as tomorrow, rugged, forceful and, above all, alive. He insists that cinematography must exist to tell the screen story, rather than stand out as a separate artistic entity.
Herb Lightman, “Old Master, New Tricks,” American Cinematographer, September 1950

I can’t pretend that this post is in any way a definitive or comprehensive analysis of Seitz’ work, but I hope that it will compel a few to see some of it for themselves. TCM is offering two opportunities on Monday, April 15. One of the silent films he worked on, Mare Nostrum, directed by Ingram, is on at midnight Eastern time. According to TCM’s site, “British director Michael Powell, who worked on Mare Nostrum as a grip, would cite Ingram as one of the influences on his own visionary epics, including Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).” Also, one of the pre-codes Seitz shot, Ladies They Talk About (1933), also starring Stanwyck, is scheduled for 6:00 a.m. Eastern.

And now, a very belated THANK YOU: Sincere and heartfelt gratitude to whoever was so kind as to nominate me for not one but two 2013 LAMMY Awards, Best Classic Film Blog, and Best Blogathon/Meme for 31 Days of Oscar, credit for which I share with Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled and Aurora of Once Upon A Screen. There isn’t much chance of my getting through to the next round, but this is one case where I can honestly say the nomination is the award. Tune in to the LAMBcast on Monday at 9:00 a.m., featuring Aurora, to hear the final nominees.

10 thoughts on “Five Fave Classic Cinematographers, Pt. 1: John F. Seitz

  1. Congrats on the LAMMY nominations!

    I’m a big fan of Seitz’s work. Double Indemnity is probably my favorite film of his, but his style was very consistently striking. Even in later films like Many Rivers to Cross, where the cinematography is very understated in comparison with his noirs, he did great work. Nice post! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Lindsey. Double Indemnity is probably my favorite as well. I’ve never seen Many Rivers to Cross, I need to check out more of his later color work. Thanks for your comment & kind words 🙂

  2. Hi, Paula:

    Outstanding post and critique!

    Seitz always struck me as working in the same arena as James Wong Howe, but much more comfortable with shadows and shades of gray. Almost the flip side. As your photos of Walter Neff and company so wonderfully illustrate.

    While with ‘Sunset Boulevard’ the cinematography should be credited as a major player along with William Holden. Incredible sense of not right, slightly off kilter, eerie mood in that cinematic gem!

    Where Howe proved himself a master of defined shadow and razor sharp light. Seitz went for softer, more muted approach. And succeeded where others might fail.

    1. Thank you Jack. James Wong Howe is another of the five I have planned 🙂 I agree, Seitz wasn’t afraid of shadows. One of the articles I read said that Seitz shot some scenes in such low light that a few of his directors worried that there wouldn’t be any usable footage…but there almost always was.

  3. Great post, Paula! You mention two of my fave films – and probably the worlds! I always reference the Neff Dietrichson scene comparison you note in your gif as well – I love the contrast in characterization in both, of course more professionally stated by you that I would ever do. I am always particularly taken with how SHE sits in the chair, demurely, almost tiny in the early scene and completely commanding of it and Neff later. Just brilliantly done all around!

    And Sunset Blvd., WELL! PERFECTION!


    1. Thanks Aurora! Yes, those two scenes are a total 180. The other thing I’ve always noticed about those scenes is how warily Neff moves…a lot slower than he was in the beginning!

  4. Great post Paula! I love that you’re spotlighting one of cinema’s unsung heroes. The visuals here are spectacular, I think b&w films are inherently classier for some reason. I really must see Sunset Blvd pronto, esp since I’ve now seen All About Eve.

  5. Dear Paula: Thank you so much for your very kind words about my dad, John F. Seitz, whose 121st birthday was June 23. Believe me, he was quite a guy and like so many of those in the early stages of the motion picture business had to make it up as they went along because there were no “can’t dos.”

    1. I have no doubt of it, I only wish I could have been “a fly on the wall” when some of these pictures were being made. You are so welcome…writing this post was a pleasure as I very much admire your dad’s work. Thanks very much for stopping by!

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