The Inventive Versatility of James Wong Howe

James Wong Howe

From the early 1920s to the mid-1970s, cinematographer James Wong Howe shot more than 130 features and scored ten Oscar nominations and two wins. His use of deep focus and wide-angle lenses on William K. Howard’s Transatlantic (1931) presaged Gregg Toland’s work on Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane ten years later. With a handheld camera, he swirled around John Garfield in the boxing ring for Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947)—on roller skates. If the mood of a scene called for natural light, he might use the reflection off tin cans rather than plug in an electric light and fiddle with filters. How It’s Done: The Cinema of James Wong Howe, a nineteen-film retrospective, opens tomorrow at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York and runs through June 26.

Wong Howe spent the first five years of his life in China before his father moved the family to the humble town of Pasco, Washington, where he ran a general store. The boy was bullied in school, and as a teen, Wong Howe took up boxing for a couple of years. In Los Angeles, he swept floors and worked as a clapper boy at Famous Players-Lasky Studios before eventually landing a job as an assistant to cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff.

The pivotal moment in Wong Howe’s early career came when he was called to shoot stills of Mary Miles Minter for Charles Maigne’s Drums of Fate (1923), a silent drama that has since been lost. At the time, studios were shooting with orthographic film, which tends to read blue as white, sinking blue-eyed actors into the silent era’s version of the uncanny valley. Wong Howe had Minter look at a black velvet curtain behind him, and the reflection gave her eyes a more natural hue. He used the same trick for all her close-ups. “The word went around at cocktail parties that Mary Miles Minter had imported herself an Oriental cameraman, who hid behind a velvet curtain and magically made her eyes turn dark,” Wong Howe said. “After that, I was never out of work.”

Wong Howe won his first Oscar for his work on Daniel Mann’s The Rose Tattoo (1955), starring Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster, and it was Lancaster who insisted that Wong Howe shoot Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, the noirish story of a Broadway gossip columnist and a press agent trying to play each other is known for its rat-a-tat dialogue (“Match me, Sydney”), but Paul Cronin suggests giving it another watch with the sound off. “Assisted in no small part by cinematographer James Wong Howe’s crisp, glistening, high-contrast location photography, his low-angled, smoke-filled framing and technique of washing the walls ‘with oil to get the glitter,’ Mackendrick understood how much of the storytelling’s heavy lifting could be done with blocking, costumes, lighting, props, and the camera,” wrote Cronin in 2011.

Working with Martin Ritt on Hud (1963), Wong Howe won his second Oscar, and as Nicolas Rapold notes in the Financial Times, he “later spoke of lighting each actor to channel their ‘inner quality,’ including Melvyn Douglas’s weathered patriarch, somber in shadow. Paul Newman rarely looked better than here as the brash, handsome lady-killer Hud, swaggering and leaning in Wong Howe’s compositions.”

Wong Howe’s work on John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), the story of a middle-aged banker who fakes his own death and takes on a new identity, is a virtual showcase of his inventive versatility. “Body-mounted cameras and headache-inducing wide-angle lenses show the perspective of a man (John Randolph, looking like a miserable Jacques Tati) who is full of regret and uncomfortable in his own skin,” writes Rapold. “When he becomes a new person (Rock Hudson), Wong Howe shoots scenes of a beach-house party and a proto-hippie Bacchanalia with mobile camerawork that suggests reckless abandon.” Rapold wraps his survey of an illustrious career with a word from renowned British cinematographer Roger Deakins: “With all of our modern technology there is no one who can match James Wong Howe’s ability to control light in the service of the story.”

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