John Alton’s movies are the real deal.
To understand why this cinematographer has a devoted following, go back to many of the film noir classics and see how they don’t always look like the high-contrast, textbook noir standard. There are many shadows, dark alleys, and troubled antiheroes in the oldies, but were they really that visually stark? The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, and Laura are all beautifully shot, but they largely float around in a sea of grays that complement the dark and the light. And so it almost seems like classic film noir never looked as high-contrast as its reputation, as if today’s image of noir imagery must be exaggerated.
But that is simply untrue, and the reason is John Alton.
Often remembered for what noir fans recognize as his trilogy—the Eagle-Lion-produced crime thrillers T-Men, He Walked by Night, and Raw Deal—Alton worked across genres and studios, and even on some fairly conventional movies. But given a creative director to let him loose in T-Men’s Anthony Mann, Alton was off to the races. Collaborating with Mann on a modest budget at a smaller studio was the perfect catalyst for artistic combustion, and Alton painted in furious blasts of white light against the darkest of shadows, going on to more artistic triumphs in the 1940s and ‘50s.
You don’t have to know the word “chiaroscuro” to know that it is amazing when you see it … and how many other movies are remembered for the name of a DP instead of a director?
The Big Combo is a prime example of John Alton’s work. Released in 1955, years after the trilogy and his collaborative Oscar win for the beautifully saturated color of An American in Paris, Alton made what could be called his definitive word on the entire noir style. Every Alton trademark is here: dark compositions with selective spots of bright light, characters sharply lit to isolate them, a sense of dimension between foreground and background, and the use of entrances and vertical bars to frame the actors. And when the movie shifts to those inevitable bits in bright daylight or neutral lighting, you just know another fantastic noir setup is around the corner. And it is.
But for all of Alton’s expert visual flair, it always supports a larger whole. Besides being essential film noir, The Big Combo is a fantastic crime thriller, with veteran director Joseph H. Lewis, a quotable script by Philip Yordan, a driving musical theme by David Raksin, and a great cast all the way down to a slew of fine supporting players (like the instantly recognizable Lee Van Cleef). The main characters are notably questionable and unstable, Cornel Wilde’s detective stating that “It’s my sworn duty to push too hard.” That line seems like a motto for himself, Richard Conte’s gangster enemy, and Jean Wallace as the woman they both love. The entire movie has pushed too hard by the time it reaches its conclusion, with a striking and frequently referenced nighttime shot. (You’ll know it when you see it.)
“First is first, and second is nobody,” Richard Conte states in a character-defining moment. In film noir, John Alton is first, and The Big Combo is one of his best.