James Wong How
feature by Carrie Gorringe, 21 June 2002

28th Seattle International Film Festival

A well-earned retrospective of the work of master cinematographer James Wong Howe (1899-1976) was on display at this year's SIFF. Howe, born in China, had a career that stretched back to Cecil B. DeMille's early silent films. Progressing from the assistant to DeMille's cameraman, to "slate boy" to cinematographer in rapid succession, Howe's work was characterized by his use of light, shadow and camera movements that were always meticulously planned (nothing in a film lensed by Howe ever occurred by accident), and also so subtly executed that the audience remained unaware of his meticulous planning . Like a professional athlete, Howe worked hard to make it all appear effortless.

Four of Howe's films -- The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Pursued (1947), Picnic (1956) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957) -- were featured in this year's festival. In his black-and-white works, Howe achieved the near-impossible feat of presenting the entire spectrum of white though grey to deep black, while maintaining a strong separation between each on-screen element. The only color film in the lot, Picnic is completely saturated with a medium-blue hue throughout every frame, symbolic of the uncertainty and elusiveness of happiness in this corner of small-town America. Howe brought to Sweet Smell of Success the diamond-hard and razor-sharp images of noir. Unequivocal black-and-white imagery underscored the open malevolence of and power of gossip columnists during the waning years of the studio system -- an era in which subtle but well-placed hints about any sort of misdeed could still spell ruin for a career. For a master such as Howe, this tribute is just a taste of his capabilities (he shot over 125 films during the course of his career, among them the chilling Seconds (1966); Hud (1963); Body and Soul (1947); The Thin Man (1934); and the Marlene Dietrich/von Sternberg vehicle Shanghai Express (1932)). It's a career filled with the vast realization of the extent of an individual's considerable talent and range, one that few Hollywoodites could match but many would envy.


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