A Pair of Aces: John F. Seitz, ASC and Billy Wilder

The cinematographer and writer-director teamed to create some of American film’s most indelible images.

ASC Staff

By Jeffrey Couchman

At top, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurry in Double Indemnity (1944).

John F. Seitz, ASC liked to keep things simple. In a September 1950 article on Sunset Boulevard, AC editor Herb Lightman observed that Seitz believed “cinematography must exist to tell the screen story, rather than to stand out as a separate artistic entity.” Billy Wilder also liked things simple. In his book Conversations With Wilder, Cameron Crowe praised the director for a body of work “without one overly complicated shot.” Wilder replied, “If it does not follow the story, why? It’s phoniness. The phoniness of the director.” Thus two master craftsmen found common ground when they collaborated on a series of significant films: Five Graves to Cairo (1943), Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). 

This article originally appeared in AC, March 2003. Some images are additional.

Each work has its niche in film history. Five Graves to Cairo is an example of World War II propaganda that still holds up partly because of its cinematography. Double Indemnity epitomizes the look of film noir — a term not yet invented when the movie was made — and exerts stylistic influence even today (witness The Man Who Wasn’t There). The Lost Weekend was Hollywood’s first serious film about alcoholism and demonstrated photographic techniques that were unorthodox in 1945. And Sunset Boulevard remains one of the ultimate insider films about Hollywood. “A half-century later, it’s still ahead of its time,” declares film historian Sam Staggs in his recent book Close-up on Sunset Boulevard.

By the time Seitz joined Wilder, he had nearly 30 years of experience as a cinematographer. In contrast, Wilder, who died at age 95 in March 2002, was directing his second Hollywood feature. (The Major and the Minor had come first.) 

In 1909, the 16-year-old Seitz began working as a lab technician at Essanay in Chicago. Within a few years he was processing film and shooting titles for the St. Louis Motion Picture Company. When he moved to its Santa Paula, California, branch in 1914, he was promoted to cinematographer. Two years later he joined the American Film Company in Santa Barbara, where he shot films for director Henry King. His work eventually caught the eye of Metro director Rex Ingram, and in 1920 Seitz and Ingram began a long, productive association. They made 12 silents, including The Prisoner of Zenda and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The latter made Rudolph Valentino a sensation, thanks in part to Seitz’s smoldering portraits of the devilish lover. 

John F. Seitz, ASC

In the sound era, Seitz shot several Shirley Temple movies, creating more mythic film images, such as the radiantly lit close-ups in Curly Top. He photographed 20 Alan Ladd films and worked repeatedly with directors John Farrow (notably on The Big Clock) and Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero). Throughout his career, Seitz also worked on technical innovations such as the matte shot, which he first used in Ingram’s Trifling Women (1922), and 3-D films that could be viewed without glasses. By the time he died in 1979, at age 85, he had 18 patents to his credit, including those for the matte shot and for a method of altering the film format within a single film.

Seitz’s versatility as a cinematographer is well displayed in the films he made with Wilder. Each has a distinctive look, and each conveys a strong sense of place. “I always try to dramatize the locale of a story photographically,” Seitz told AC in 1950. Of course, the environments of the films were also achieved through the art direction; Hans Dreier supervised Ernst Fegté on Five Graves to Cairo, Hal Pereira on Double Indemnity, Earl Hedrick on Lost Weekend and John Meehan on Sunset Boulevard. But Seitz’s cinematography lends the settings such presence that they almost become characters in their own right. 

Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).

Five Graves to Cairo, which Seitz considered his best work, is set in a bombed-out hotel in the Libyan Desert. The desolate locale is established in the opening sequence when a tank with a dead crew climbs up and down an endless stretch of gray-and-white dunes. Seitz’s photography has a surreal quality. When a lone survivor (Franchot Tone) falls from the tank, ridges of light and shadow in the sand around him form patterns worthy of a modern-art canvas. After a trek over sun-drenched dunes, he comes upon a village — black shapes at the edge of a gleaming sea. The entire sequence is a visual paradox: starkly realistic, yet dreamlike. Ed Sikov, author of the Wilder biography On Sunset Boulevard, notes that this opening “is so breathtakingly beautiful that the art actually threatens to overwhelm the revelation of character, a rarity in Wilder’s career.”

The sand-dune sequence was shot outside Yuma, Arizona, and the Egyptian village was constructed with painstaking attention to detail near Indio, California. In an American Film Institute oral history from the early 1970s, Seitz explained to interviewer James Ursini that on location, “I used minus reflectors [and] black velvet …. All we had was light from the sky, nothing else. I’ll give Billy Wilder some credit for it because we discussed the effect. We were trying to simulate heat. We tried some other things, but we didn’t need them. This was enough.”

Indeed, a sense of heat pervades the film. Even inside the hotel, the desert sun outside the walls can’t be forgotten; perspiration shines on the bald pate of Field Marshal Rommel (Erich von Stroheim), and hot spots gleam on the faces of other characters. Using only light filtered through latticed windows and slats in the roof, Seitz establishes the rhythm of hot days with illumination that evokes morning and afternoon. His use of light and shadow also contributes to the film’s atmosphere of mystery. 

Erich von Stroheim as infamous German General Rommel.

According to the press book for Five Graves to Cairo, the hotel was built on a single-stage “and was, in effect, one huge set.” It consisted of 12 four-walled, interconnecting rooms. Seitz, the book continues (with perhaps only slight hyperbole), found the construction “one of the most ‘shootable’ sets ever erected.” The single set allowed the camera to track along a corridor or crane from floor to floor, thus pushing the action forward and maintaining a clear sense of geography within the hotel, which is rendered as a place of intrigue and danger. 

That danger is artfully portrayed during a night sequence in which a Nazi officer (Peter Van Eyck) and Tone’s English soldier fight hand to hand. The Nazi drops a flashlight, and the camera tilts down to stare at the round lamp while the men struggle offscreen in the dark. Two gunshots produce flashes of light at the edge of the frame, and we then follow the flashlight’s beam as a hand picks the light source up and reveals the dead Nazi on the floor. Offering only a shadowy glimpse of death’s aftermath, the image heightens the scene’s drama and suspense. (Seitz’s lighting of the scene is reminiscent of an effect he achieved some 20 years earlier in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which depicts soldiers on a dark battlefield lit by the ghastly flare of a bomb.)

Von Stroheim and Wilder confer on the set.
Von Stroheim and Wilder confer on the set.

With Double Indemnity, Seitz took his experimentation to extremes. The film tells the tale of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who commit murder for an insurance payoff. Although Seitz was proud of the movie, calling it “almost a perfect picture,” he was modest about his brooding cinematography: “Well, that was appropriate to the mood of the story,” he told the AFI interviewer.

The film is a drama of the night; the story unfolds on lonely streets, in rooms made claustrophobic by encroaching shadows — everywhere, darkness shrouds the landscape. Within his dark compositions, Seitz creates highlights that draw one’s attention to, for example, Phyllis’ glinting eyes or a gun she is planting. He even uses shadows within shadows for dramatic effect, as when Walter’s shadow falls on a background wall of the darkened room where Phyllis sits, waiting for the kill. 

In a 1970 conversation with Michel Ciment, Wilder praised Seitz’s technique on the picture: “He was very gutsy …. He went to the limits of what could be done.” Even in daytime interiors, Seitz keeps his levels low, often breaking up soft light with Venetian blinds to achieve a dim, hazy effect. Wilder told one interviewer that he wanted the look of dust “when the sun kind of slants through the windows of those old, crappy Spanish houses.” To attain that look, Seitz created a powder, apparently made from magnesium or aluminum, and blew it into the air just before the cameras rolled. 

In the film-noir classic Double Indemnity, hot dame Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) lures insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurry) into a murder plot. Working from a first-rate script filled with snappy dialogue, Seitz used moody lighting to underscore the antihero's dilemma.

Settings like that Spanish house in Los Feliz, the Hollywood Bowl or a midnight street lined with palm trees give Los Angeles a vivid presence in Double Indemnity. For film critic Richard Schickel, “no movie, documentary or fictional, offers a better sense of how the Los Angeles of its moment looked.” Yet we barely glimpse the bright sunshine — and whenever we do, it shines with ironic effect, as in the scene where Walter pays his first, jaunty visit to Phyllis’ house. The lack of Southern California sun points up the way Double Indemnity conveys more than a sense of an identifiable city. The filmmakers created a realm of dark human behavior — the place where greed, lust and murder hold sway. 

The cinematography is both realistic and symbolic. The opening sequence sets the pattern: on a nighttime street, a car speeds down a hill while the welding torch of a work crew flashes in a corner of the screen. The flaring torch adds menace to the shot, which otherwise seems almost like a documentary image. That flaring light is later echoed in the murder scene. The camera holds on Phyllis while her husband is being murdered in the car seat beside her. Around her face, which is lit to emphasize her steely expression, the intermittent flicker from streetlamps creates a sort of lightning, a Gothic effect of violence and horror. 

Wilder mentioned Fritz Lang’s M as an influence on the cinematography of Double Indemnity, but even as the drama leans toward the expressionistic, it never employs the stylized effects of German Expressionism. The Lost Weekend, however, does use them to take us inside the mind of Don Birnam (Ray Milland) as he struggles with alcoholism. In Wilder Times, Kevin Lally observed that “John Seitz’s camerawork reveals more German Expressionist influence than any film in Wilder’s canon. (The shot in which Don’s mind transforms the entire drinking cast of La Traviata into swaying overcoats containing his whiskey bottle could have come straight from a 1920s German film.)”

In many of his works, Seitz places something in the foreground — a tree branch, a lamp — to add visual interest, but in The Lost Weekend such placement often conveys Birnam’s psychological state. In a liquor store, bottles on a shelf stand between the camera and Birnam to emphasize his fixation on them. Outside a pawnshop, desperate to hock his typewriter, he stares in through the crisscrossed bars of an iron gate; behind him, the Third Avenue El forms a grid of shadows. The graphic composition imprisons Birnam and heightens the sense of his despair. 

Ray Milland stars in The Lost Weekend (1945) as the hopeless alcoholic Don Birnam, imprisoned by his cravings in a harrowing drama that became a landmark for its handling of mature subject matter.

Another sequence directly portrays the workings of Birnam’s mind. While he slumps in a chair, hemmed in by ominous shadows, we see his hallucinations: a mouse wriggling in a crack in the wall, a bat and its shadow circling the room, the bat diving on the screeching mouse. (The film’s “special photographic effects” were created by Gordon Jennings, ASC.) It is noteworthy that the film enters Birnam’s delusional POV in a single shot, without a wavy dissolve or another effect. The camera moves past him, gazes at a window as day fades to night, then pulls back to find Birnam still slouched in his chair. The straightforward transition underscores the fact that the film is chiefly a realistic work. 

Wilder wanted a somber look that would be appropriate for the grim story. Seitz, whom Wilder once called “the most realistic” of his cinematographers, accommodated him with stark imagery. In his AFI interview, Seitz recalled that when Birnam demands a bottle from a clerk in a liquor store, “we made a close-up of him and I made it just as harsh as possible.” Seeing the rushes, Milland “shuddered,” while screenwriter Charles Brackett called it “the most eloquent close-up” he had ever seen. “So Bill said, ‘Can you match it for the rest of the film?’” Seitz continued. “We did most of the effect on Milland’s face with makeup and the orange-yellow filter, which really made him look God-awful. So that gave us something to shoot [for] for the rest of the film.”

As if trying to look as deeply as possible into Birnam’s agony, Seitz set up an extreme close-up of the man’s eye as he wakes from a stupor. “We talked about it beforehand, Charlie Brackett, Billy and I,” the cinematographer explained. With the camera on a boom, he brought the lens within six inches of the actor’s eyeball. “We had a special-effects lens. I said, ‘Ray, don’t breathe, don’t breathe, don’t breathe.’ I had just a little light. We had a guy to change the focus, and so we went back on the dolly.” The eyeball rolls from side to side in bewilderment, and the image then blurs and refocuses as the camera pulls back to a medium view of Birnam stumbling out of bed. The shot rivets the viewer to story and character. 

Setting the extreme close-up on Milland.

In the name of realism, Wilder insisted on-location shooting for the film’s New York exteriors. He even tried to shoot inside P.J. Clarke’s bar, but found it more efficient to recreate the space as a four-walled set at Paramount. At times, the camera was hidden inside delivery trucks or in a packing crate on the sidewalk. By using such techniques, Seitz and his crew achieved the documentary feel Wilder was after. Scenes of Third Avenue, Bellevue at dawn or the Manhattan skyline, especially the opening pan from the distant city to a bottle hanging outside Birnam’s window, plunge the viewer into a constricted cityscape of pawnshops, watering holes and hopeless streets. 

In mingling down-to-earth and hallucinatory imagery, The Lost Weekend illustrates an aspect of Seitz’s work that more than one writer has mentioned: his ability to employ different visual styles and still create a unified picture. In Sunset Boulevard, the story again moves between two planes, and Seitz captures both with cinematography that AC editor Lightman called “honestly realistic, yet suffused with an aura of otherworldliness.”

The everyday Hollywood, where Joe Gillis (William Holden) struggles as a screenwriter, is conveyed through documentary-like shots at such locations as the Alto-Nido apartments, the Bel-Air golf course and the Paramount lot. Despite Seitz’s belief that “the least interesting time of the day is noon,” day exteriors often feature the glare of midday sun. They are an effective contrast to the film’s more exotic locale, the shadowed, secluded estate of silent-screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Seitz’s lighting within her mansion gives only a hint of sun beyond the cluttered walls and creates a suffocating atmosphere. Desmond’s decadent domain is revealed largely through deep-focus shots that keep the vast spaces of her rococo mansion in sharp view. 

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) plays to the cameras in Sunset Boulevard (1950).

“To achieve this extreme depth of field,” Lightman explained, “it was necessary to use a greatly intensified light level and to lantensify the film in order to stop down the lens aperture sufficiently.” The latensification, which was used for about 15 percent of the film, added perhaps two stops to the film speed. This allowed Seitz to use a practical lamp on the set as the key light in at least one scene. He could also shoot night for night and create, along with other effects, the Gothic gloom of the backyard funeral for Desmond’s pet monkey (a scene that Wilder reportedly described to Seitz as “the usual dead-chimpanzee setup”).

As in The Lost Weekend, deep focus is sometimes used in expressive ways for Sunset Boulevard. When Desmond’s servant Max (von Stroheim) plays the pipe organ, his white-gloved hands loom in the foreground. Gillis, furious at having his belongings moved to the mansion without his knowledge, rushes up from behind. The perspective is such that Max’s hands hover briefly over Joe’s head, making the butler look like a puppet-master controlling Gillis. 

Despite such moments, the cinematography of Sunset Boulevard is in many ways the most understated of all the Wilder-Seitz films. Even the famous shot that looks up at Gillis face-down in a swimming pool (achieved by shooting into a mirror at the bottom of the pool) is presented without flourish, as simply the most natural way to view a floating corpse. 

Seitz did some of his best work with Wilder — four of his seven Academy Award nominations were for the Wilder films. The others were for The Divine Lady and When Worlds Collide (an honor shared with W. Howard Greene, ASC and Rogue Cop.) Seitz never won an Oscar, but he was honored by the ASC for Sunset Boulevard. He also had the satisfaction of being in New York when three of his pictures — Casanova Brown, Double Indemnity and Hail the Conquering Hero — were running simultaneously. He commented on that accomplishment in his AFI interview, and his words, in their understated pride, are a fitting summation of his life’s work: “That was pretty good.”

Von Stroheim maintains a stoic mien as Swanson prepares for her very memorable close-up.
Von Stroheim maintains a stoic mien as Swanson prepares for her very memorable close-up.

Restoring Sunset Boulevard

The original nitrate camera negative of Sunset Boulevard self-destructed years ago, well before Paramount embarked on a dedicated preservation program in 1986. When the studio decided to restore the film for 35mm and home-video release, it had to use a dupe negative as the basis for their work. “The dupe had a lot of printed-in defects, including dirt and scratches,” says Phil Murphy, Paramount’s senior vice president of operations in the television division. “Certain sections had been poorly exposed. Improper turbulation resulted in mottling and streaking, problems that in an optical world would be difficult to repair.”

Murphy supervised the restoration, leading a Paramount team that included Barry Allen, executive director of broadcast services; Garrett Smith, vice president of digital mastering operations, and head librarian Steve Elkin. They spent 14 months running tests with four different vendors to see who could provide the best digital solutions. The test footage, from the scene that shows Joe Gillis speeding along Sunset Boulevard to his first encounter with Norma Desmond, offered excellent samples of John F. Seitz, ASC’s cinematography. “The sequence goes through about every dynamic of lighting that’s in the movie,” notes Murphy. All of the vendors successfully removed dirt and scratches, but the mottling and density shifts across the frame proved more difficult. “The trickiest part was trying to get a film-like texture put back onto film,” Murphy observes. “We didn’t want it to look like video. Lowry Digital Images surfaced as the winner.”

"I am big. it's the
pictures that got
small!" Faded
silent-movie star
Norma Desmond
(Gloria Swanson)
recalls her glory
days for hack
screenwriter Joe
Gillis (William
Holden) in Sunset

Lowry technicians, supervised by founder and CEO John Lowry and restoration manager Pat Cooper, scanned the dupe negative at 2K resolution. (Tests had shown that because they were starting with a dupe rather than a camera negative, 2K could capture all the detail in the image.) The team spent the next 10 months identifying hundreds of minute flaws in every frame, including deep gouges in the film, and writing software that enabled a battery of 300 computers to make the repairs automatically. A few defects that eluded the computers were corrected by hand. The restoration team was especially concerned with contrast, overall brightness and maintaining the proper granularity. “These were all factors that we kept going over and over and over,” says Murphy. 

The Paramount team then decided to screen their work-in-progress for a select audience. Murphy recalls, “We said, ‘Let’s increase the number of eyes looking at this to make sure we’re on the right track.’” 

Among those who assembled for the screening last summer were cinematographers Victor J. Kemper, ASC and Laszlo Kovacs, ASC; Bob Gitt, preservation officer at the UCLA Film and Television Archive; AC editors Stephen Pizzello, Rachael Bosley and Douglas Bankston; Loren Nielsen, founder and principal of Entertainment Technology Consultants, and producer/ director Steven-Charles Jaffe. 

The group compared footage from the restoration with a nitrate Library of Congress print made from the original camera negative in 1951. (Paramount also compared a studio print of uncertain date and determined that its look was identical to the copyright film. After returning Sunset Boulevard to the Library of Congress, the restoration team used the studio print as a reference.) 

“Overall, people were impressed with the digital cleanup and the sharpness,” Murphy recalls. But he affirms that the additional eyes were helpful in recognizing a lack of depth in the image at that point in the restoration. Some viewers also noticed an unusual effect “in the way the digital system replicated items when the camera was panned,” he adds. “It’s not as though [the image] smeared. It wasn’t macro-blocking. It was something that doesn’t have a name.” The Lowry team subsequently corrected that anomaly and increased depth by adjusting its recorders when converting from a data format back to film. 

Much of the discussion at the screening concentrated on nuances of contrast and brightness. “There were a lot of remarks about the blacks in cloth, or the way whites were handled — we went on for perhaps 20 minutes about the detail in someone’s shirt,” Murphy notes. Seitz’s stylized lighting of Desmond’s mansion purposefully gives the setting a “dated, tired look,” he adds. “When we first looked at the [Library of Congress] print, it appeared a lot darker than we would choose on our own to make it.” Indeed, in a scene where the butler Max stands in the shadows of a garage, the dupe negative revealed more detail than what appeared on the print. “So that became a point of interpretation,” Murphy acknowledges. “Do you want to have more than they showed originally just because it’s there, or purposely time it down to keep it murky?” Comments from the invited guests supported the Paramount team’s instinct to retain “the dark overall cast” of the 1951 print.

Throughout the timing process, which was handled by Romeo Fornoles at Image Laboratory, the goal was to remain faithful to the filmmakers’ original intentions. That principle also guided the restoration of the film’s mono soundtrack, which was done by John Polito of Audio Mechanics. 

“We wanted to show Sunset Boulevard in the best possible way using this new technology,” Murphy concludes. “We weren’t charged with reshooting or remaking this movie. We would be wildly successful just to let it be the way they originally did it.” 

— Jeffrey Couchman

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