My favourite documentary of all, bar none. This is the story of the often overlooked part of cinematographers or DP (Director of photography) on film from 1915 to the 1990s. Whenever I couldn’t think of what film to watch, I would (and still do) put this film on, over 100 films covered in 90 minutes.
Before this film I had really only ever had looked at Gregg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane, but this film makes you think that a great director needs a great DP and so it is the DP that makes the wonderful images that make up a wonderful film.
Billy Bitzer shot all of “Birth Of A Nation” with one hand held camera and he continued to work with Griffith on “Intolerance” and “Way Down East”, there was no special effects, this was one man shooting Lillian Gish on the ice on “Way Down East” and it wasn’t until the 20s that electric cameras came in, so the problem you have with films from this era is that you have a hand operated camera and it is impossible to now recreate what they were shooting. Then in the 20s German cinema changed everything with “The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari”, “Nosferatu” and “The Golem” some of these directors came to Hollywood such as Murnau who with Charles Rosher & Karl Struss made one of the milestones of cinema “Sunrise” with so much movement of camera, but in the same year 1927, sound happened and the art of film was put back 10 years, until the camera could move again.
Some actors such as Garbo could insist on a DP, as she did with William Daniels who shot virtually all her films at MGM and created the Garbo myth. With Dietrich, Lee Garmes lit her differently so all you are looking at is Dietrich, just look at “Shanghai Express”.
Gregg Toland created this amazing deep focus affect for Citizen Kane so everything was in focus, but look at his work on The Grapes OF Wrath and The Long Voyage Home for John Ford and then came film Noir. The dark and shadows of John Alton on The Big Combo, Nicholas Musuraca on Out Of The Past, Ernest Haller on Mildred Pierce and Russell Metty on Touch Of Evil.
Technicolor was something else again, the two colour of Ray Rennahan on Mystery Of The Wax Museum, the same DP on the three colour Becky Sharp, Harold Rossen on Wizard Of Oz, Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito on Adventures Of Robin Hood, Ernest Haller, Ray Rennahan & Lee Garmes on Gone With The Wind.
With scope and the 50s/60s, the French New Wave things changed to James Wong Howe’s work on Sweet Smell Of Success, Hud and Picnic, Freddie Young’s work on Lawrence Of Arabia, Raoul Coutard on Jules Et Jim, Vittorio Storaro’s work on The Conformist.
Then came the 70s, a new bunch of directors used a new bunch of DPs :- Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Godfather Part II, Annie Hall), Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), Victor J Kemper (Dog Day Afternoon), Owen Roizman (The French Connection), John Alonzo (Chinatown), Bill Butler (Jaws), Nestor Almendros & Haskell Wexler (Days Of Heaven), Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), Gilbert Taylor (Star Wars) and Jordan Cronenwerth (Blade Runner).
What I have given here is basically just a list of names, but the images stay with you forever and you realise why you fell in love with film in the first place, but this film just starches the surface and British cinema isn’t really spoken about (besides Lawrence Of Arabia and Oliver Twist (1948)) and Foreign film is just touched upon, but isn’t that really the point of a great documentary, it can open a door that you can then open a whole host of doors.
DF Viewing 22/05/1994 on Channel 4