Reign of Terror aka The Black Book (Anthony Mann1949)

A world lived in shadows, where silhouettes hold conversations, make love and conduct hideous acts of torture. John Alton’s play with chiaroscuro pushes the film into abstracts; or better yet into negative space, the kind loved by Manny Farber. Reviewing The Naked Spur (1953), Farber described director Anthony Mann as the “Marquis de Sade of the Metro directing crew ”… Someone who is “good at making action films come to life after the sun sets, when in delicately underlighted episodes he demonstrates that nothing is more fascinating than an objective study of nihilistic evil, death and destruction.” The description works just as well for Reign of Terror.

The screen grabs are taken from an exquisitely claustrophobic sequence where veils and mirrors conceal and reveal characters and their doubles …

Few cinematographers have had as decisive an impact on the cinematic medium as John Alton. Best known for his highly stylized film noir classics T-Men, He Walked by Night, and The Big Combo, Alton earned a reputation during the 1940s and 1950s as one of Hollywood’s consummate craftsmen through his visual signature of crisp shadows and sculpted beams of light. No less renowned for his virtuoso color cinematography and deft appropriation of widescreen and Technicolor, he earned an Academy Award in 1951 for his work on the musical An American in Paris.

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First published in 1949, and long out of print since then, Painting With Light remains one of the few truly canonical statements on the art of motion picture photography, an unrivalled historical document on the workings of the postwar, American cinema. In simple, non-technical language, Alton explains the job of the cinematographer and explores how lighting, camera techniques, and choice of locations determine the visual mood of film. Todd McCarthy’s introduction, written especially for this edition, provides an overview of Alton’s biography and career and explores the influence of his work on contemporary cinematography.

Painting With Light was the first book on cinematography written by a major Hollywood cameraman. Published in 1949 and now put back into print, it is one of the best and most unusual books in the field. Written with good humor and full of helpful diagrams and photographs, it is certainly the most entertaining. Its technological discussions are dated, but Painting With Light remains relevant because its primary focus is on light itself and the many complex ways the camera crew can manipulate it. This new edition contains a biographical introduction by Todd McCarthy, who describes how the man who shot the strikingly colorful ballet sequence in An American in Paris also helped define the stark, haunting style of the film noir.

Available from Amazon.


The An American in Paris ballet - Cinematography by John Alton 
(read the full post by clicking the picture) 

Alton […] loved fog and smoke. He certainly used this to great effect in his Noir films. But it was in An American in Paris that his smokey aesthetic got the technicolor treatment. He explained, “The secret of the ballet’s photography was the fumata [smoky] quality, which changed all the colors to pastel…. I was inspired, like everybody else on the picture, by the electrical force Gershwin’s music generated. In my case this showed itself in the way I used light.”

(“taxi driver”, directed by martin scorsese: 1976)

turner classic movies, in partnership with “the film foundation”, will present “scorsese screens” with academy award-winning filmmaker and champion of film preservation martin scorsese, who will write an exclusive monthly column for and tcm’s “now playing” viewing guide. scorsese, who recently took home an emmy for directing the pilot for hbo’s acclaimed series “boardwalk empire”, will provide insight on the various films and programs on the tcm schedule. scorsese’s debut piece on october programming is currently available on 

scorsese’s october column on looks at the films of director nicholas ray, whose career will be celebrated throughout october in honor of his 100th anniversary; ray’s movies include the groundbreaking film noir “they live by night” (1949). 

scorsese also celebrates the artistic brilliance of film noir cinematographer john alton, whose work will take center stage with a tcm marathon on october 19. scorsese writes, “…anything photographed by alton is an event. he was an artist.” 

“the film foundation” is a nonprofit organization established in 1990 by martin scorsese dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history by providing annual support for preservation and restoration projects at the leading film archives.