Great Cinematographers, Part 13: Russell Metty

Russell Metty (1906-1978), best known for collaborating with director Douglas Sirk on ten films in the 1950s, had a long and illustrious career in Hollywood. Besides Sirk, he worked with many other greats, including Howard Hawks, Edward Dmytryk, William A. Wellman, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, John Huston, Henry Koster, Delbert Mann, Norman Jewison and George Roy Hill. In a career spanning over four decades, Metty proved he had an unmatched flair for a certain style of color, light and shadow.

All That Heaven Allows (1955, dir. Douglas Sirk) – Sirk’s romantic masterpiece is permeated by a glossy, beautiful blue light that almost glows in the windows, enhancing the melodramatic feel of the film. Another thing to note is the use of a mirror’s reflection, a touch that I have observed in other Sirk films (his version of Lubitsch’s fondness for doors, I guess). I also love the quick and effective camera movements toward and then away from Gloria Talbott when she says her amusing line about Freud.

Written on the Wind (1956, dir. Douglas Sirk) – Again Metty captures that lustrous, melancholy blue aura, helping to elevate what could have been a tawdry soap opera into the realm of high art. Shadows overwhelm the room, nearly obscuring the features of Dorothy Malone and Rock Hudson, but the darkened surroundings fit the mood of the scene perfectly.

Touch of Evil (1958, dir. Orson Welles) – The famous opening shot of the film shows almost three and a half minutes of an uninterrupted take, in which Welles and Metty used a camera crane to track the movement of a car through its environment. The pacing of the shot works so well, building the tension for the conclusion that you know is coming.

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