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.

SeitzCamera-1936
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.

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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…
...to 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.