Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Joseph Biroc

The other day, as I was writing my regular DVD-column (for the Swedish film magazine Filmrutan), I did some research on the cinematographer Joseph Biroc. As it turned out, he was the link between several films that's been on my mind lately. I knew he shot Emperor of the North Pole (1973), which was my starting point, but as it turned out, he also shot Airplane! which celebrates its 30th birthday this year and which I tweeted about the other day. He also shot, much earlier, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), together with Frank Capra's regular DP Joseph Walker (I always confuse the trio Joseph H. August, Joseph A. Valentine and Joseph Walker) and a whole range of films in between. He did some 12 films with Robert Aldrich, including Emperor of the North Pole, and also several films together with Samuel Fuller. It would seem that most of his films were along that line, tough and violent. Or, as in the case of Airplane! and Blazing Saddles (1973), absurd comedies of the more hilarious type.

So what is my point exactly? Well, two things actually. One is that I sometimes associate a particular cinematographer with a particular style, even though they may have worked in many different styles. Mention the name Joseph MacDonald (yet another Joseph...) and I immediately think about the exquisite beauty of My Darling Clementine (1946), crisp shots of open skies and empty streets. And yet he also shot one of the most beautiful of noirs, Call Northside 777 (1948), responsible for the heartbreaking shot of a little woman scrubbing a seemingly endless floor. Mention Gunnar Fischer*, and I think about the shot of a happy girl in a row boat in Summer Interlude (Sommarlek 1951). Vittorio Storaro equals The Conformist (Il conformista 1970). And so on and so forth. But sometimes it might actually be correct in associating a particular cinematographer with a particular style, a particular type of film.

My other point is that studying a cinematographer over a long career could be a fun and instructive way of looking at how films and the look of them has changed over the years, and how the technical equipment has changed as well. It could be a way of structuring the historical research.

I don't know much about Biroc, but I know that he was with the Signal Corps during World War 2, and filmed the liberation of Paris, and that he won the American Society of Cinematographer's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1988. He also lived to be 93 years old, which is not bad at all.


Joseph H. August shot, among other things, two of the most beautiful films ever made, They Were Expendable (1945) and The Portrait of Jennie (1948), his last film.

Joseph A. Valentine shot, among other things, three films for Hitchcock, Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Rope (1948).

Joseph Walker also worked with Hawks on two films, including Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and His Girl Friday (1940), besides being DP on 18 of Capra's films.

*Corrections 2011-07-09. I initially wrote that Göran Strindberg was cinematographer for Summer Interlude. Not sure why, he's good enough to be given credit for his own films...

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