Friday, 17 February 2017

Joseph MacDonald

Joseph MacDonald was usually called Joe and he was born in Mexico City in 1906. He studied mining engineering at University of Southern California, and began working as an assistant cameraman in 1921 for First National. Eventually he got a contract at Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation as Director of Photography and he worked there from 1935, the same year that Twentieth Century Pictures merged with Fox.

His first two films were part of Fox's Spanish-speaking productions, Rosa de Francia (José López Rubio and Gordon Wiles 1935) and Te quiero con locura (John Bolan 1935), and then he spent several years shooting more or less B-movies and serials, like Charlie Chan in Rio (Harry Lachman 1941). In 1943 he was DoP on Wintertime, directed by John Brahm and starring the Norwegian ice skating champion turned actress Sonja Heine, which might have been the first film when he was credited as Joe rather than Joseph. The mid-1940s is also when he began making more prestigious films, and when he became one of the greatest cinematographers in film history.

In 1944 he shot Otto Preminger's In the Meantime, Darling. While made shortly before Laura and so before Preminger became Preminger it is still a major film (by major I do not mean that it is a great film, it is sweet but forgettable, but a proper feature with box office potential). But his first peak year was 1946 when he shot Henry Hathaway's The Dark Corner and, especially, John Ford's sublime My Darling Clementine. The latter is one of the greatest films ever made and that is partly due to the beauty of the cinematography. Have there ever been skies as the ones in My Darling Clementine? The film has depth, character, humanity and sadness, all of the usual Fordian elements, but the look of it is even by Ford's standards exceptional.

But The Dark Corner is more typical of the type of films MacDonald made for the next 10 years or so, when he would primarily shoot films that were a mixture of urban realism and film noir, like The Street with No Name (William Keighley 1948) and another by Hathaway, Call Northside 777.

James Stewart in Call Northside 777

Mark Stevens in The Street with No Name

He did a fine Western with William Wellman, Yellow Sky (1948), with a very graphic depiction of the salt desert, and three films directed by Elia Kazan, where the images is the best thing about them: Pinky (1949), in the deep South, filled with Cypress trees, Panic in the Streets (1950), shot in New Orleans, and Viva Zapata! (1952), shot in Colorado and New Mexico. The usual beauty of MacDonald's images is there, combined with a very rich texture.

In the 1950s he turned to colour, at which he was equally brilliant. One of the most magical of Technicolor films, Hathaway's Niagara (1953), was shot by him with an almost surreal touch, both indoors and outdoors. Just look at this shot, from inside a bell tower:

The same year he did the very first CinemaScope film, Jean Negulesco's How to Marry a Millionaire and, in a style more associated with his films from the late 1940s, Pickup on South Street, one of Samuel Fuller's best films. Fuller and MacDonald also did a couple of CinemaScope films, Hell and High Water (1954) and House of Bamboo (1955). The second one is shot in Japan, and had MacDonald experiment with Japanese influences.

He seems to have taken to the look because two years later he shot Frank Tashlin's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? as if it too was set in Japan. Look at the office here, it would have made Yasujiro Ozu proud:

Tony Randall lights a pipe

Nicholas Ray also worked with MacDonald on two films, one of which is among Ray's absolute best, Bigger Than Life (1956). The other is the weaker The True Story of Jesse James (1957).

James Mason in Bigger Than Life

The films he shot in the 1960s are a varied bunch, for different studios. A famous, or infamous, title is Walk on the Wild Side (Edward Dmytryk 1962), one of at least eight films he did with Dmytryk. There are also some less than successful spectacles directed by J. Lee Thompson. Their weaknesses though were not the images, the splendour of which almost deserves their own post. MacDonald also shot John Huston's eccentric thriller The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) and a very fine film by Robert Wise, The Sand Pebbles (1966), an allegory of the war in Vietnam set in 1920s China. His last film, released after his death, was Mackenna's Gold (J. Lee Thompson 1969).


Films are often selected by who acts in them or who directed them, but in some cases who photographed them can also be a reliable sign. And few cinematographers are as reliable as Joe MacDonald. From 1944 onwards the majority of the films he made are worth watching, and a remarkably large number of them are exceptional. He is not as famous as John Alton, Gregg Toland or James Wong Howe, and he does not seem to have patented any innovations as many other cinematographers have (John F. Seitz for example held 17 patents). He never won an Academy Award (but was nominated thrice) nor was he ever elected president of the American Society of Cinematographers. At Fox he worked in the shadow of the great Leon Shamroy. But maybe he was satisfied with that, confident in his own capabilities? 

Yellow Sky

The Robe (Henry Koster 1953), shot by Leon Shamroy, was the first CinemaScope film that got a release, but How to Marry a Millionaire was made simultaneously and finished earlier. Since The Robe was considered more prestigious it was released first.

I said that In the Meantime, Darling was made before Preminger became Preminger, but it is still the case that it breaks with a taboo (by showing a man and woman in bed together), has typical long takes, and has a prominent role for an African American character, played by Clarence Muse. So while not prime Preminger there are still admirably things to be found in it. It is also Jeanne Crain's first leading role, the woman with the softest voice in Hollywood.

For the rest of his time at Fox, Preminger worked primarily with another Joseph, LaShelle, as his cinematographer.

In case you are wondering about Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl 1945), it was not shot by MacDonald but by Shamroy. 

Friday, 3 February 2017

Wild River (1960)

While produced and directed by Elia Kazan, Wild River (1960) in many ways feels like the opposite of a Kazan film. It is quiet, restrained, meandering and with a poetic touch in the use of the landscape. The river in question is the Tennessee river and the film is set right after the Roosevelt administration created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933 to deal with the problems caused by the constant flooding along the rivers in the area and its costs in terms of lost land, buildings and lives. It was also part of the New Deal, to help against poverty and unemployment. One thing TVA did was to build dams to control to flow of the rivers and provide electricity to areas which had never had any. Wild River is about all that. It is also about the legacy of slavery in the South, and the continuation of abject racism in the 1930s.

It might sound like a documentary but it is a work of fiction, although it opens with documentary footage of a severe flood and a man telling a reporter how he lost his children in the river. Then the film switches to colour and to the main character, the TVA man Chuck Glover, played by Montgomery Clift. He arrives in this backward place, to which progress has not yet come, by air plane; kind, well-meaning and modern. He is not at all equipped for this old world, or so it seems at first. His primary task is to get an old woman to leave her house on a small island that will be submerged when the dam is ready. She was born in that house and on that island, and she intends to be buried on it too, like her parents and husband. She is also running the place like her own fiefdom, with a large number of African-Americans living and working there and over which she rules. So she refuses to leave. It becomes a battle of wits between Chuck and the old woman, Ella Garth, played by Jo Van Fleet.

There is also another woman, Ella Garth's granddaughter Carol Baldwin, played by Lee Remick. She is a widow since three years and now lives with her two little children and her grandmother, but she is lonely and has not been with a man for a long time. When Chuck arrives on their little island, a handsome and sophisticated man, Carol almost immediately reaches out to him and he responds in kind. Her children, a boy and a girl, also reach out to him in one of the many moving aspects of the film. They too have obviously been unhappy and missing something, without understanding it, so now when a father figure turns up they cling to him.

There are many strengths to the film, beyond the moving emotional undercurrents. One is the complexities of the story. In the beginning Ella Garth and Chuck Glover are each other's opposites but as the film progresses Glover is slowly becoming more of a friend, who really understands her and can sympathise with her (in that way he symbolises Kazan's own changing perspective on the story). He even has to defend her against her own family as she is eventually abandon by everybody except an old farmhand called Sam, played by Robert Earl Jones.

Sam and Chuck

The location shooting is another of the film's strengths, it has a natural, earth-like texture. The cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks has done wonders, both with interiors and exteriors. Wild River has sometimes been called Fordian, and it is understandable. The ambience and look of the film does resemble John Ford, which is another way of saying it is different from Kazan's other films. But that is not to say that Kazan is completely invisible.

The use of mist and smoke has been a hallmark of Kazan's visual style since his early filmmaking days in the 1940s. A later striking example is Blanche DuBois appearing out of the smoke at the train station in the beginning of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Another prominent example is on the square in front of the church in On the Waterfront (1954) were Terry Malloy has his first meeting with Edie Doyle, and later an important talk with Father Barry. It is always covered by white smoke. Wild River also uses it to great effect, like in the image below, around the raft that takes people to and from the island.

Another key element of Kazan's aesthetics is the expressive use of natural sounds, and often of subjective sound, the characters hearing things that are not there but only in their heads, and here too Wild River shines. And Kazan of course almost always addresses social and political issues, as he does her, only he is rarely as subtle as in Wild River. While a few local rednecks are clearly bad guys, everybody else operate in a more grey area. While it is inevitable that Ella Garth must leave, it is still a tragedy that it is inevitable. Tradition, progress, environmental issues, racism, politics, sex, corruption and violence; there are many subjects that appear in this film and yet it is so delicate, so relaxed and so exquisite, it is barely noticeable.

But what is noticeable is the acting, which is wonderful. Especially Jo Van Fleet. It is one of my favourite performances of all time, remarkably rich, deep and nuanced. She was 45 when she played the role, although Ella most be around 80, and she has such quiet authority and strength. But the others, like Clift and Remick, are also superb. Those two are simultaneously vulnerable and bewildered, needy and forceful.

So Wild River is a special film. It has always been the one Kazan with which I find no flaws, perhaps his only great film. It was not a success when it came out, which Kazan blamed on the poor marketing. But then it might also have been a hard film to market. But box office returns do not tell the truth about a film. Watch it and you will see.

Wild River makes for a good companion piece to Still Life (Jia Zhangke 2006).

For all of Kazan's fame for his way with the actors, in a film like Pinky (1949) it is the atmosphere and the use of sound that are the only good aspects of it. In Viva Zapata! (1952) it is Joe MacDonald's cinematography and John Steinbeck's script that makes the film, and the acting is more a weakness than an asset. Even Marlon Brando feels like an odd fit in that one.