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Painting With Light

Deep in the shadows of Film Forum's noir series

The star of Film Forum's copious series is not an actor or director. It's John Alton, film noir's major cinematographer, a great creator of shadows and foreboding images. His vision was ideally suited for low-budget work—he used few lamps and avoided standard setups, adapting old expressionist techniques to the new desire for realism. Alton was largely responsible for the look of some of this retro's more celebrated pictures: among them, Joseph Lewis's The Big Combo, Anthony Mann's Raw Deal, and Allan Dwan's Slightly Scarlet, which confirmed that Alton's imagination in lighting was as distinctive in color as it was in black-and-white. But one of the highlights is a rarely shown Alton credit, Bernard Vorhaus's The Spiritualist (1948), in which Lynn Bari, haunted by the voice of her dead husband, consults bogus medium Turhan Bey. This surprising low-budgeter takes place in and around a spooky mansion overlooking the Pacific, with ample room for Alton's depth-of-focus shots and mirror effects.

The femme fatale was as essential a noir ingredient as low-key lighting. In Gerd Oswald's Crime of Passion (1957), ruthless and ambitious Barbara Stanwyck balls San Francisco's chief of police to advance the career of her detective spouse and gets herself a gat when things don't work out as planned. Hell hath no fury like Stanwyck scorned, but she has some competition from Audrey Totter as the adulterous wife of mild-mannered Richard Basehart in John Berry's Tension (1950)—it's the archetypal noir situation of an essentially good man driven to the edge of sanity by a cruel and manipulative woman.

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See also:
  • Pickup on Houston Street
    Killer B's: Sprawling retro of lesser-known noirs celebrates an ultra-gritty nihilism
    by Michael Atkinson
  • Amnesia was endemic in shell-shocked postwar noirs. Richard Fleischer's The Clay Pigeon (1949) stars Bill Williams as a war veteran who has lost his memory and is accused of treason and murder. A taut tale based on a true incident in which a serviceman recognized his Japanese prison guard on the streets of L.A., this brisk and largely forgotten B is a pleasant surprise, livelier than any of Fleischer's lavish and characterless later super-productions.

     
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