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James Wong Howe: Master Artist

“You can paint it too fine.”1

These are the words of a master artist, cinematographer James Wong Howe, from an interview with film expert Scott Eyman, and words that show a rare understanding.

It takes years of continued practice—with a percentage of mistakes included—to become excellent at anything. To have all the basic skills accounted for and converted into the polish of being good. Combine that ability with experience, taste, willingness to experiment, and versatility. Mix it with high standards by way of a practical approach—do the best job one can do under the circumstances. And then don’t forget the valuable old truism that learning never ends in any field, even for the greatest.

But it takes something more to know when perfect is the enemy of good, when to let the work go and leave it alone.

James Wong Howe had an ambition to be a pilot, but ended up a great cinematographer in a career that began in the Silent Era and concluded in the 1970s. Arriving in the U.S. from China in childhood, Howe would have such life-shaping experiences as working as a boxer, while his interest in aviation brought him to Los Angeles and into contact with the film industry. By 1923 he had risen from his entry level beginnings to being credited as a cinematographer, and then racked up some two dozen silent credits before moving into sound film and thereafter worked for decades, nearly to the end of his life. And while Howe has been categorized as a master of high contrast, noir lighting—something he certainly did very well—his whole career suggests that his true specialty was not being a specialist. From his well-known early use of deep focus on elaborate sets in Transatlantic (1931), to his final feature, the big Hollywood musical Funny Lady (1975), Howe’s great talent was put in the service of covering all sorts of ground, across genres, a handful of directing stints, and expert guidance to younger cinematographers on the way up.

Howe’s onscreen artistry can be gauged best in the comparisons and contrasts of two strikingly modern films that he shot in the classic era, Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Hud (1963). Both movies are studies of charming, subtle, whip-smart monsters who hurt the ones they love, and of people trapped by their scheming, selfish ways. Amazingly dark for their time, both pictures are polar opposites on the surface, one set in the heavily populated bustle of New York City and the other in a small, quiet Texas town. Howe’s camerawork is equally adept in each setting, bringing out the similar inner truth of each.

In Sweet Smell of Success, Howe’s lensing for director Alexander Mackendrick feels ahead of its time. The camera prowls and stalks, pulling out for emphasis, swinging around to block or reveal a character being referenced, the sort of kinetic motion that classic era films generally don’t have—especially when focusing on characters in medium or close shots. When the classic era camera moved, it was often in long shot and covering a lot of terrain, but Howe’s moving camera here would have fit in with the French New Wave of the sixties or the New Hollywood of the seventies. Howe also used his favored high-contrast lighting in Sweet Smell of Success, the almost noir visuals accentuating the off-kilter dialogue of Clifford Odets’ script, the film’s tone made visible in such repeated motifs as Burt Lancaster’s blank yet threatening face, often harshly lit. Seated at his table like the center of his newspaper universe, Howe’s lighting creates a disconcerting and inhuman quality in Lancaster, an actor who otherwise could project an intense or warm humanity.

In Hud, Howe lit another selfish monster in the title character as played by Paul Newman. But the effect is more layered and hidden in this slightly later film. There is little stylization in Howe’s filming of Hud, and the high-contrast lighting seems muted in comparison as the wide open spaces of the southwest are given room to breathe onscreen, worlds apart from big city press agents and columnists. The setting of Hud feels lonely and austere, not cramped but a little too open, a modern-day West without the romanticism of the old-fashioned Western stories. The Monument Valley of John Ford is literal and metaphorical miles away from these ordinary lives. Paul Newman as Hud looks as engaging as typical Newman, who could often tread outside the lines of a likeable protagonist; there is no visual dehumanization of him comparable to the earlier film’s images of Burt Lancaster as almost an immovable machine. But the tranquil surfaces are exactly what gives Hud its power, as dark undercurrents surface and envelop a troubled family. And for average characters in a slice-of-life story, Howe does not exaggerate the look of their world or anything about them. They reveal themselves naturally in a film where clear visual cues do not overwhelm the story, where a master cinematographer steps back and lets it all appear to happen with invisible artistry.

Which harkens back to Howe’s admonition against perfectionism. Howe said it to Scott Eyman in the context of a more conventional Western he filmed, The Oklahoma Kid (1939), co-starring James Cagney with Humphrey Bogart. Appalled that some lighting equipment was visible in one shot, Howe alerted the studio and was told to not worry about it. Then he found to his own surprise that even he did not notice the mistake when watching the finished movie. And that combination of humility and adaptability is the mark of the artist, of the personality that loves the work and keeps ego out of the equation, a master willing to keep on learning.

(Howe quote and anecdote are from his interview with Scott Eyman in Five American Cinematographers, Scarecrow Press, 1987, p. 79.)


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