Anthony Mann and John Alton are one of the most overlooked partnerships in Hollywood history. And one of the greatest. In fact, I love them as a team so much, that when Once Upon a Screen and Classic Movie Hub announced their Dynamic Duos blogathon, they were the first ones I thought of. I was hoping a director-cinematographer duo would be allowed and whadda ya know?
Mann and Alton made five films together: T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked By Night (1948) (Mann was uncredited), Reign of Terror (a.k.a. The Black Book) (1949), Border Incident (1949) and Devil’s Doorway (1950).
T-Men is an all-time favorite. The first time I watched it, I was mesmerized. I loved how tense the plot was – two Treasury men go undercover in order to take down a counterfeit ring -, I loved the tight friendship between Dennis (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony (Alfred Ryder) – somebody please come with a bromance name for these two – and I loved the shadows. Which is a given in film noir, but when John Alton is responsible for them, it’s something else. The opening scene is without a doubt one of my favorite moments in the history of cinema. I’m so obsessed with it, I wrote a poem about it (Don’t laugh, it was for a competition). I think it’s one of the coldest, most gasp-out-loud frightening sequences in noir and it’s all about the lighting. Our villain coming out of the shadows only to be perfectly framed by the light as he shoots is a glorious moment. And the whole thing sets the mood perfectly for what I think is probably the most tense noir of all.
In Raw Deal (1948), Joe (Dennis O’Keefe) is getting out of prison with the help of his girlfriend (and the film’s narrator) Pat (Claire Trevor) and he’s ready to go after the man (Raymond Burr) who put him there in the first place. There’s a wonderful sense of increasing tension in Raw Deal, and the last ten minutes of the film are some of the most unbelievably dramatic in noir history, starting with the scene in the boat. Joe standing in the doorframe, with the light from the outside coming through it as he makes plans for the future, and Pat’s barely lit face as she deals with her emotional turmoil is a beautiful contrast and the perfect segway into the fog-soaked shoot-out climax. This is one of Mann-Alton’s best moments, in my opinion.
And if we’re going to talk about shoot-out climaxes, He Walked By Night (1948) has to be right up there. In this seci-documentary noir, LA cops are on the hunt for an astonishingly clever criminal, played by Richard Basehart. Technically, Anthony Mann was uncredited, but he did co-direct it with Alfred L. Werker and that Mann/Alton magic is very much still there. The stark, no-nonsense low-key lighting gives this docu-drama that delicious noir feel and it never goes unnoticed. The film’s exhausting, strikingly dark (literally) ending is one of Alton’s finest moments.
Their fourth film together, Reign of Terror (or The Black Book) (1949) is a mix between historical and noir, with just a touch of B-movie bizarreness (and that’s a compliment). The plot revolves around Robespierre (Richard Basehart), France’s most powerful man and wannabe dictator, and his obsession with the retrieval of the Black Book of Death during the French Revolution. Mann and Alton’s camera work and lighting creates a sense of claustrophobia and tension – Charles (Robert Cummings) and Madelon (Arlene Dahl)’s first encounter is a stand-out moment – that remains throughout the film.
Plot-wise, Border Incident (1949) is rather similar to T-Men: two federal agents, Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) and Jack Bearnes (George Murphy), go undercorver to try and stop the smuggling of Mexican migrant workers across the border to the USA. Alton’s cinematography provides Border Incident with a sense of urgency, claustrophobia and danger in the midst of all that Imperial Valley openness and the contrast between the two highlights the seriousness of the subject matter even more. The film’s iconic quicksand ending is only its second best scene, after the tractor scene, which is probably one of the most horrifying moments in film noir history and if you think Mann is going to spare you the details, think again.
Their sixth and final film together, Devil’s Doorway (1950) follows Lance Poole (Robert Taylor), an Indian who won the Medal of Honor, as he returns home from the Civil War to raise cattle, only to find anything but a hero’s welcome from the people who want to take his land. This is Mann’s first Western and we begin to notice the elements that would forever be associated with his 1950s period, in particular the psychological and emotional depth of the main character, played wonderfully by Robert Taylor. Alton’s dark imagery createst tension and conflict, most notably in the bar confrontation scene, right from its stunning opening shot.
Starting with T-Men and ending with Devil’s Doorway, Mann and Alton created visual symphony and I wish they’d carried on making films together. They are, without a doubt, one of my favorite movie duos ever and one that I go back to every once in a while, to be mesmerized all over again.