Wednesday, September 20, 2006

That Touch of Metty

Russell Metty (1906-78), one of America's outstanding cinematographers, was born 100 years ago today. He's perhaps best known for executing the most celebrated sustained shot in movie history: the opening "bomb in the trunk" sequence of Orson Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL, but he has much, much more to his credit.

Metty got his start at RKO Radio Pictures in the early 1930s and photographed his first acknowledged classic less than a decade into his career: Howard Hawks' BRINGING UP BABY. This slapstick screwball comedy, which continues to cast an avuncular shadow over its genre almost 70 years later, is remarkable in many ways, not least of all for Metty's contribution, which incorporated trick photographic techniques that have not grown embarrassing or overly apparent over time.

Metty's affiliation with Orson Welles went all the way back to CITIZEN KANE (on which he served as a special consultant) and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (for which he shot some individual scenes); he was also the DP of credit on that important film from Welles' middle period, THE STRANGER. On all of these assignments, Metty proved himself one of the exemplars of film noir technique, a master of black-and-white who had no fear of plunging the screen into near-pitch.

Few cinematographers who distinguish themselves in black-and-white exert equal ability in the realm of color, but Metty was one of the exceptions to that rule. In the late 1940s, he became a contract cameraman at Universal Pictures (later Universal-International), where he shot MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID, a number of boldly colored B-Westerns (including TAZA, SON OF COCHISE), and eventually worked his way toward a series of collaborations that was arguably his most defining, at least in color: his work with director Douglas Sirk. Together, Sirk and Metty made MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, and WRITTEN ON THE WIND (now acknowledged classics of melodrama, the latter two available as Criterion DVDs), all of which broke new ground in terms of expressionistic and impressionistic uses of Technicolor photography and saturated gel lighting.

During this same period, Metty continued to make remarkable statements in black-and-white, including the widescreen Lon Chaney bio pic, THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES, starring James Cagney and WRITTEN ON THE WIND'S Dorothy Malone. He also left his visual stamp on a run of Universal-International horror pictures, beginning with CULT OF THE COBRA (1955) and carrying on through THE THING THAT COULDN'T DIE and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS -- sleek, atmospheric, and exciting. The late 1950s also found him working as one of a core group of cameraman who shot John Newland's classic series of psychic phenomena stories, ONE STEP BEYOND.

Metty made a few more films for Sirk while at Universal-International, including A TIME TO LOVE A TIME TO DIE, BATTLE HYMN and IMITATION OF LIFE. A less happy collaboration came in 1960, when Metty butted horns with Stanley Kubrick over the cinematography of SPARTACUS -- which Metty had been hired to photograph (by fired director Anthony Mann), but which Kubrick (Mann's replacement, and a cameraman in his own right) saw differently. The film proved a major episode in Metty's career when, ironically, he ended up winning his only Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1961, for SPARTACUS; he received his only other nomination the following year, for Henry Koster's FLOWER DRUM SONG. These were also Metty's Doris Day years, as he was the cameraman for her underrated proto-giallo thriller MIDNIGHT LACE, THAT TOUCH OF MINK, and THE THRILL OF IT ALL.

It seems odd in retrospect that Russell Metty was not Oscar-nominated for one of the most visually groundbreaking films of his career, John Huston's THE MISFITS -- the last completed film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. The film's intentionally harsh and gritty B&W cinematography helped to usher in a new era of unvarnished realism in motion picture photography, manifest for years to come in such films as HUD, SECONDS and IN COLD BLOOD -- the respective work of James Wong Howe and Conrad Hall.

Metty's fianl decade was a mixed bag, encompassing Don Siegel's MADIGAN, EYE OF THE CAT, THE OMEGA MAN (now a cult film, for reasons that escape me), and the WILLARD sequel BEN. The most important achievement of his later years was the trademark look he innovated for such beloved television programs of the late 1960s and early 1970s as MARCUS WELBY M.D., COLUMBO (he shot the Steven Spielberg episode "Murder By the Book"), and THE WALTONS. His last major assignment was photographing the host wraparounds for THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT -- Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney, Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lawford, Donald O'Connor, Liza Minnelli -- a dream assignment by any yardstick, and not a bad way to end a career.

Only two Oscar nominations for such a man? It's possible that Russell Metty was undervalued during his lifetime because he brought his talents to bear on too many B-pictures and A-melodramas, but the passing of time has shown his work (and the projects he chose to work on) to be tremendously durable. His signature styles -- stalking the shadows of night with a panther-like grace, or candy-coating tragedy -- were responsible for bringing many an intended B-picture and trash novel adaptation to the brink of art.

Pick one of the many great pictures he left us and watch his work in action tonight.

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