Cinematographer Research Project – James Wong Howe

Basic Research Project – James Wong Howe

I have decided to do my research project on the legendary Hollywood cinematographer James Wong Howe. My primary reason for choosing to research Howe was because I had really only developed an eye for cinematography that was modern, and more specifically, in colour. I was very ignorant towards black-and-white cinematography and what exactly made it stand out. Therefore I thought it would be a good idea to choose a cinematographer who has really encapsulated as well as pushed the boundaries of black-and-white cinematography, as well as cinematography in general, as a means of educating myself.

James Wong Howe got his start as a clapper boy for Cecil B. Demille pictures before eventually, through many steps, becoming a cinematographer. He began his career at the dawn of Hollywood, making his first picture in 1917, stretching his career all the way to 1975, having shot well over 100 films. He was notable for a lot of technical innovations in cinematography, most notably his use of deep-focus photography in his 1931 film, Transatlantic, 10 years before Gregg Toland used it in Citizen Kane. Other innovations include using black velvet to make an actor’s blue eyes register as dark on screen, as auto chromatic film stocks during that time made blue eyes show up as white, as well as operating a camera while sliding around on roller skates to capture boxing scenes in the 1947 film, Body and Soul.

In watching Howe’s films and looking at interviews with him he comes across as a very pragmatic, no-nonsense cinematographer. He had a very logical approach to his lighting and problem solving, often showing a very resourceful process to many problems.

For example, for 1958’s The Old Man and the Sea, “the script called for a bird to land on Spencer Tracy’s boat, and for Tracy to talk to it. But all the birds flew up to the rafters; none would go anywhere near Tracy’s boat, which was floating in a big indoor tub representing the ocean. Finally Howe suggested weighting the birds with B.B.s, so they’d have to land on the boat or sink.”

In a documentary about James Wong Howe, he goes over much of his philosophy regarding cinematography, and there also includes an interesting segment where he demonstrates and runs through his lighting process. For interiors, he will usually start by figuring out the key light first, then working all of the other lights to match the key light when filling out the rest of the room.

Howe was known for his use of hard light, which a lot of the times resulted in very interesting and striking contrasts of light. This is evident in both Sweet Smell of Success, as well as Hud. His use of high contrast lighting on his actors faces were always linked to its use in a narrative sense, often to elicit a particular feeling regarding a character.

Here, in Sweet Smell of Success, Burt Lancaster’s face is lit with hard light, creating hard shadows stemming down from the frame of his glasses, providing a sinister and dangerous feeling to his character, while Tony Curtis is lit much more evenly in comparison to Lancaster. The hard shadows also fall on Lancaster’s suit, making the blacks in it even deeper. This shot is cut in response to this reverse angle below:

Here, we can see that these actors are lit much more conventionally, and in response to the shot of Curtis and Lancaster. The man on the left is cast into shadow, the blonde woman lit very flatteringly and the man on the right shot much more evenly in comparison to Lancaster. All of these lighting decisions come from character and narrative motivation, where Lancaster’s intimidating nature is emphasised by Howe’s light and the senator that he is talking to is lit in a way that diminishes him in respect to Lancaster.

Howe was always motivated by the script and lit his actors accordingly, he notes in an interview with Roger Ebert that he lit “every character to emphasize that character’s inner quality. For Melvin Douglas, shadows and isolation. For Paul Newman, contrast. For Brandon De Wilde, open and simple lighting to emphasize his youth”. Howe was always motivated and consistent in this sense, even saying in an interview once that he was “subservient” to the script, that the script could not be changed and that it was the cinematographer’s job to work around the script.

Here are some frames of how he lit his actors in Hud.

Here we can see an example of his signature use of low-key lighting, which is both very striking to look at while also remaining consistent with the narrative motivated decision to create contrast on Paul Newman’s face.

Here is another shot that contains dramatic low-key lighting from The Rose Tattoo, where the key light is very low in volume and what lights Marisa Pavan on the right is what would otherwise be the fill light.







Here is one of the most striking uses of light in Hud, everything from the composition to the very dramatic lighting has stuck with me. Howe has cleverly managed to show both Patricia Neal and Brandon De Wilde’s face in light while obscuring Paul Newman’s face in almost complete darkness. The constant sharp contrast between white and black throughout this shot is astonishing, not just on the actors’ faces, but also the balance in black and white regarding the props (beds, desk), to the even black and white split down Paul Newman’s left arm.

Even though Howe used hard light a lot of the time to create shadows that caused contrast in his actors face, he could also light them very flatteringly with hard light, here is an example from the same movie and of  Patricia Neal and Paul Newman as well for easy comparison.

The light on both actor’s faces is very flat, and the lack of contrast that you see reflects the scene’s warmth.

Here is another example of Howe’s style of lighting actors, only this time with soft light. The key that comes in from the left is very soft and adds a texture to the actress’ hair, while also giving off a radiant glow that seems even more prominent because of not just the hard but the coat. She is also very evenly lit, with no discernible or obvious shadows falling upon her face.

Here are some examples of when James Wong Howe used deep focus photography in Hud, as well as Sweet Smell of Success.

After studying James Wong Howe’s cinematography I feel much more comfortable understanding classic cinematography and especially black-and-white photography. Seeing a lot of Howe’s work has inspired me in two main aspects: hard light and deep focus. I have now become a lot more interested in learning how to use hard light and the discipline and precision behind it. His very malleable and adaptable style has influenced me a lot with making me think of cinematography in a more holistic sense and from a bigger perspective, as well as in a very pragmatic and logical approach. The cinematography must serve the narrative, but as James Wong Howe has shown consistently throughout a career of over 50 years, that doesn’t mean that you can’t produce beautiful and striking images.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *