Friday, May 11, 2012

James Wong Howe


In 1969 while in pursuit of the objectives of my Louisiana film development project (see previous posts) I spent some time with the production of LAST OF THE MOBILE HOTSHOTS being filmed in St. Francisville. I invited my friend, Sid Hanna, to accompany me on several trips to the set. Sid was an amateur photographer and was eager to exercise his newfound hobby. Sid’s photo equipment was top quality. This script was a Gore Vidal adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play. Directed by Sidney Lumet, his principal cast consisted of James Coburn, Robert Hooks and Lynn Redgrave. The cinematographer was the award winning James Wong Howe.



On one particular visit to the set I asked Sid to accompany me because I wanted pictures taken. On this occasion the production crew was readying an old 2-story house for an onslaught of flood waters. The crew had spent weeks installing wooden water shoots behind all the windows and a cistern on the roof (not visible from key camera positions). The scene was a river levee break with rushing flood waters overtaking this house and creating the effect of huge belching gushes of water spewing from all the windows out into the front yard. The “money” shot was to be done at night. The plan on this day was to do a test run of the flooding waters through the house. I asked Sid to standby because I wanted some shots of this event. Sid and I were fascinated at the ingenious professionalism of James Wong Howe, the cinematographer. He never used a light meter. He would simply hold his hand in the target light and instruct his camera operator on what ASA setting to use. Amazing! Howe held more cinemagraphic awards than any other of his class.


OK, back to the flood story. The count-down was beginning and again I asked Sid to be ready. ..4..3..2..1…. WHOOSH! The cistern was opened and the test went beautifully. The yard, which had been levied to contain the flood waters, suddenly filled and the test was declared a success. I looked over at Sid. Nothing. I said “Sid, you didn’t take a picture?” He said “I’m going to wait til tonight to get the ‘real’ thing. I don’t want to waste any film.” Over-hearing this, Howe said “Sid, film is cheap when you use it; it’s expensive when you don’t use it.” Wisdom from the master and, unfortunately so true. Neither Sid nor I got back out to the set that night.  We never got that shot. Sid’s “unshot film” proved to be expensive indeed.







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