Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of James Wong Howe

James Wong Howe is one of cinema’s most celebrated cinematographers. With a career spanning from the silent era to the color film in the 1970s, Howe was the source of much of the innovation we see when watching film noir to even film today. Known for his use of dramatic lighting and shadows, a number of stylish flourishes in film noir can be attributed to Howe and his use of deep focus preceded its use in Citizen Kane by ten years. Fans of Yorgos Lanthimos and his use of wide-angle lenses will also find much to admire in Howe’s cinematography. This September, we remember the work of one of cinema’s greatest behind the camera, James Wong Howe.

Out of the Fog (1941)

Out of the Fog often lives up to its name with the film’s appearance covered in the fog that billows above the waterways where Jonah (Thomas Mitchell) and Olaf (John Qualen) like to fish at night. As local chiseler Harold Goff (John Garfield) moves in, demanding payment for Jonah and Olaf to use their own boat, the whispery fog takes on an ominous tone with Goff lurking on the pier above waiting to strike. Directed by Anatole Litvak, the film has a distinct “lived in” quality that brings it to life with James Wong Howe’s work essential in creating this energy. The hustle and bustle of a nearby diner where the men eat is presented in medium shots with plenty of movement and collisions all over the frame. Of course, the pier is a center point of the film with the dark shadows of the pathways above, the low-angles of Goff looming over his latest mark, and the eerie waters where Jonah and Olaf plot a way to be free, making for striking work. Howe’s skill in capturing faces, however, is what brings the melodramatic core of Out of the Fog out – after all, Goff also is dating Jonah’s daughter Stella (Ida Lupino) while Jonah is desperately trying to make ends meet while paying this extortionist. Close-ups with soft lighting on Mitchell and Lupino’s faces draws us into their emotional state while letting these great performances shine. There is a lot to love about Out of the Fog and James Wong Howe’s work is a highlight. – Kevin Jones

Bell, Book, and Candle (1958)

From the outset, the look and feel of Bell, Book and Candle sets the tone. Set at Christmas with snow falling all over, the warm blues and chilly whites of the screen take hold, both in the streets and inside the apartment where Gillian (Kim Novak) and Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) – two modern-day witches – live. As the action moves into a mystical nightclub – aptly named the Zodiac Club with a glowing neon-sign and a snow-covered yellow path to the door – where warlock Nicky Holroyd (Jack Lemmon) works, James Wong Howe’s camera scans the blue painted walls and moves throughout the club where the dimly lit lights seem to have a blue/green tint to them. This is a world of magic.

The dimly lit club with just flashes of the color on the actors’ faces and shadowy performances (including plenty of silhouettes and profile shots), Howe’s camera seems to float at all times, while taking advantage of the full depth of field. Tracking shots of Gillian walking in the streets with Nicky in the back, performing magical tricks on the street lights with color flashing on-and-off as the camera floats there is a real highlight. Howe’s work shines further as the romance between Shep (James Stewart) and Gillian blossoms and even as it faces challenges. The shock and dramatic pull of the camera as Gillian’s love curse on Shep begins to work (coupled with the great score) grabs the viewer’s attention while possessing a whimsical energy. Close-ups that allow Stewart and Novak’s expressive faces to dominate the screen and tight framing as they wrap one another in their arms draw the audience into their deeply felt romance. Bell, Book and Candle is a film overflowing with an otherworldly mood, feeding off of its setting and look at every turn. Howe conducts the film’s appearance and mise en scène with a masterful touch, utilizing every inch of the frame to instill that sense of wonder when these witches are about and, especially, when one of them begins to fall in love. – Kevin Jones

Hud (1963)

James Wong Howe had done work with Westerns before, but his work on Hud would not only win him his second Academy Award for Black & White cinematography, but would also be a hallmark in the Western’s long history of visual storytelling. Based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, Hud (Paul Newman) is a cynical rancher with a huge chip on his shoulder against his father (Melvyn Douglas). The relationship between them could be seen as an allegory of the noble West of the past as embodied by his father and the more mercenary outlook of the new West as embodied by Hud. Howe makes desolate landscapes and claustrophobic interiors into dramatic stages for loaded dialogue and emotional and physical violence. Most notable would be his cinematography at night, with his masterful use of fill lighting. Characters are lit so precisely that it puts most modern movies that are lit so dimly even during the day to shame. Howe is known for his shots with wide-angle lens, which is appropriate for Westerns, but his scenes of violence such as the massacre of the sick cows and Hud’s attempted rape of Alma (Patricia Neal) are shot in a way to maximize the violence and brutality that wouldn’t seem out of place even today, despite the lack of bloodshed. Hud would have been a notable movie without Howe’s cinematography. Newman does his best work as a character that is perpendicular to his almost otherworldly beauty. But it is Howe’s work that elevates a solid story to an epic tragedy. – Eugene Kang

Seconds (1966)

Released in 1966 and nominated for the Palme d’Or, Seconds was met with boos at the Cannes Film Festival. Later when the film would be released in theaters, it was a box office bomb. Given its positive critical reception today, it is clear that a different audience was intended for this film than that in the 60s. Though it’s not hard to see why audiences at the time weren’t ready.

Seconds stars Rock Hudson as the reborn Tony Wilson, quite literally reborn. The film begins with depicting the life of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a New York banker who finds his life unfulfilling. When he is contacted by a friend whom he thought deceased, Arthur is told to go to an address and he arrives at the headquarters of the Company. He is drugged and when he comes to is told that the Company can fake his death and provide him with a fresh start through plastic surgery. He is provided with a new appearance, fingerprints, and even occupation. Arthur Hamilton is no longer Arthur Hamilton – he is Tony Wilson, a wealthy painter. Wilson’s new life at first appears euphoric – he now has a career he enjoys, he falls in love – but his new life begins to unravel when his discontent resurfaces. 

Howe’s disorienting camerawork at a party transforms 1960s hedonism into horror, and Wilson’s challenges in adjusting to his new life are captured through Howe’s camera. Scenes at the Company are exceptionally filmed in black-and-white through wide-angle lenses and grant the film a sinister touch. Seconds will dwell on audiences who are seeing it for the first time, and in retrospect was one of the most innovative films of the 1960s in large part due to James Wong Howe’s cinematography. – Alex Sitaras

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