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Canton-born cinematographer James Wong Howe gets his due

Wednesday, Oct 20 2004
Screenwriters supply dialogue. Directors control action. But it's a film's cinematographer who furnishes mood and nuance. Far more than just camera operators, these artists make a thousand words unnecessary with the images they present. Will they shoot wide and flat, to impart a sense of desolation, or tight, to lend anxiety? Do they revel in emotional color or restrain their palettes to cool, crisp black-and-white? Should they lurk with their lenses in the shadows or expose the screen to clarifying illumination?

The surprising thing about Canton-born cinematographer James Wong Howe is that at various times in his career he chose to do all of these things. A glance at his long, diverse résumé reveals a chameleon who could translate claustrophobic domestic squalor on-screen (1952's squabbling-couple saga Come Back, Little Sheba) as easily as expansive country landscapes (1955's William Holden/Kim Novak soaper Picnic), grim wartime tableaux (the 1944 World War II flick Passage to Marseille) as realistically as frolicsome antics (Clara Bow's 1926 breakout, Mantrap).

But Howe's best work is showcased in his output of noirish films, the most famous of which is arguably the 1934 detective romp The Thin Man. His somber cinematography adds a bit of menace to Dashiell Hammett's witty, gin-soaked dialogue, beautifully balancing the picture's froth. Later efforts prove him a meticulous master of light and shadow, whether he's shooting Robert Mitchum as a wronged cowboy in Pursued (1947), a heartbreakingly young and hot Paul Newman as a cad on a downward slide in Hud (1963), or a surprisingly serious Rock Hudson in John Frankenheimer's surrealistic identity-switcheroo thriller Seconds (released in 1966 as a creepy follow-up to the director's notorious Manchurian Candidate).

This week the Castro spotlights 14 of Howe's films, two per day, a solid revel in his luscious camerawork. It's a suitable testimonial to a behind-the-scenes maestro.

About The Author

Joyce Slaton


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