Joseph F. Biroc, ASC (1903-1996)

By Marc Salomon, AFC Consultant Member

[English] [français]

Last August, Robert Aldrich’s 1975 film Hustle was screened in cinemas again, which gives us the opportunity to take a look back at the career of an atypical and very important cinematographer : Joseph F. Biroc, ASC.
Une scène de "La Cité des dangers"
Catherine Deneuve dans "La Cité des dangers"
Burt Reynolds et Catherine Deneuve dans "La Cité des dangers"

Within the context of American cinema of that time, during which a new generation of cinematographers (Conrad Hall, Gordon Willis, Vilmos Zsigmond, etc.) invented a new approach to lighting, Biroc’s classic style of highly-contrasted images might come as a surprise. In this film, a criminal story combined with a romantic liaison between a police officer (Burt Reynolds) and a call-girl (Catherine Deneuve), Biroc creates a style of lighting that is highly directional and contrasted, totally arbitrary and unpredictable, that is never explicable by any light source on set. The principle of key-light is eminently well-suited to Catherine Deneuve’s screen presence.

Born in New York on 12 February 1903, Joseph Biroc began working in Paragon Studios’ labs at the age of 15, in Fort Lee, New Jersey (then the cradle of American cinema), and continued his apprenticeship for six years in various laboratories, which was then a mandatory step for apprentice cinematographers. Biroc went through all of the paces, starting with perforation of the film stock. At that time, in order not to run afoul of Edison’s monopoly, Kodak negatives were delivered in unperforated 120 meters reels to companies that were not members of the trust.

Tournage vers 1927. Joseph Biroc (au centre) et James Wong Howe (à droite)

He became a focus-puller for the first time in 1924 at Paramount Studios in Long Island, and then Biroc moved to Hollywood in 1927, where he worked with James Wong Howe, amongst others. Two years later, he was a cameraman at RKO, where he began working on speakies with Ray June on Roland West’s film Alibi in 1929.

He continued working at the same job for a dozen years for most of RKO’s major cinematographers (Leo Tover, Edward Cronjager, Henry Gerrard, Nicholas Musuraca, and Robert de Grasse especially). He even was responsible for most of the cinematography on certain productions without being named in the credits (Shall We Dance, in 1937, and Bombardier, in 1942, for example, which were respectively credited to David Abel and Nic Musuraca).

He worked on most of the various genres RKO produced : Westerns starring Richard Dix (like Wesley Ruggles 1931 classic film Cimarron), musical comedies starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as well as cosmopolitan melodramas. Additionally, Biroc was French cinematographer Lucien Andriot’s assistant on Irving Pichel’s 1933 film Before Dawn, a police comedy adapted from Edgar Wallace’s story “Death Watch”.

In their reference work Cinquante ans de cinéma américain (50 Years of American Cinema), Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier mention impressive master shots in Five Came Back (John Farrow, 1939), a film lit by talented Nicholas Musuraca (the master of shadow and contrast), with whom Biroc worked the following year on Tom Brown’s School Days, directed by Robert Stevenson.

Joe Biroc would always keep his taste for contrasted images and directional lighting on both black-and-white and colour films from his years spent at RKO. He remembered occasionally seeing cinematographers set up 5 kW spots on dollies with the camera : “I swore to myself I would never light that way.” When he filmed Wim WendersHammett, in 1982, Biroc told the following story : “When I was a cameraman, some years ago, I worked with a sensational cinematographer named Henry Gerrard. One day, he was filming a scene with a man standing up and a woman seated beside him to his right. The woman was lit from one side and the man was backlit from the other, and I said to him, “Henry, why are these two people lit differently ?” He was a funny guy, he put on his contrast lens, observed the scene, and said, “It looks great like that, doesn’t it ?” I answered, “Yeah, it looks really great,” and then he turned to me and said, “Do your best so that every scene you film looks as good as possible, no matter where the lighting comes from.”

Tournage de "L’Entreprenant M. Petrov" en 1937
De gauche à droite : Ginger Rogers et Fred Astaire, le réalisateur Mark Sandrich (assis), le chef opérateur David Abel (debout en costume sombre) et Joseph Biroc derrière la caméra
The "International Photographer" d’août-septembre 1986
Photo de tournage de Are These Our Children (1931) avec le réalisateur Wesley Ruggles assis devant la caméra, le chef opérateur Leo Tover debout à sa droite et Joseph Biroc derrière la caméra

His real beginnings as a cinematographer in his own right came in 1947 with William Wellman’s film Magic Town, a light comedy “à la Capra” (in which he worked with James Stewart), filmed in a palette of strong greys and deep blacks.

"Magic Town", de William Wellman, en 1947 (avec James Stewart et Jane Wyman), premier film de Joseph Biroc en tant que chef opérateur

My Dear Secretary, in 1948, starring Kirk Douglas and Laraine Day, was a sentimental comedy filmed in a subtle range of medium greys with lots of white. The following years would provide him the opportunity of working in a style involving more contrast and deep shadow, especially on the ‘film noir’ genre : Johnny Allegro, in 1949, and Loan Shark, in 1952 (two thrillers starring George Raft) ; The Killer that Stalked New York, in 1950, or Cry Danger, first film directed by Robert Parrish in 1951, that J.-P. Coursodon and B. Tavernier describe as a “remarkable crime thriller.”

The first half of the 1950s was marked by Biroc’s collaboration with Arnold Laven (three films), the first 3-D film (Bwana Devil), a film by Jacques Tourneur (Appointment in Honduras), and his encounter with Robert Aldrich. Arnold Laven’s first three films (Without Warning !, in 1952 ; Vice Squad, in 1953 ; and Down Three Dark Streets, in 1954) are generally categorized as semi-documentary thrillers, in the genre inaugurated by Henry Hathaway just after the war and sometimes under-appreciated for that reason. Without Warning ! describes the methods used in police investigations in order to unmask a serial-killer gardener, but in formal terms, Laven and Biroc opted for a daytime and sunny image, with interiors often filmed at a slight low-angle and prettily lit in a range of greys, which go against John Alton’s highly-mannered chiaroscuro style.

Vice Squad’s screenplay followed the same pattern, but had a more prestigious cast (Edward G. Robinson and Paulette Goddard) and, as a result, had a more elaborate ‘film noir’ style of cinematography. Lastly, Down Three Dark Streets, still focused on the FBI’s interrogation methods, presents a rich palette of dense greys with a few scenes bathed in a mastered penumbra without too many obvious effects.

From that same period, we will note that Biroc filmed the first-ever 3-D film (3-D NaturalVision) in colour using the AnscoColor process (process developed at the request of John Arnold, the manager of MGM’s camera department and derived from the German Agfacolor process. Its sensitivity was quite low : 16 ASA Daylight).

Tournage de "Bwana le diable" en 1952, avec le dispositif 3-D dit NaturalVision : deux caméras Mitchell face-à-face

Jacques Tourneur’s 1953 film Appointment in Honduras was a slow-moving adventure film that benefitted from beautiful Eastmancolor cinematography, full of contrasts and enveloping colours, partially filmed in the jungle : “I needed a 1,250 foot-candle key-light in order to film at f.4,” Biroc recalled. Indeed, Kodak’s first colour negative was produced in 1952 and had a very low sensitivity of only 16 ASA and was designed to be used in daylight conditions. Joseph Biroc was also one of the first cinematographers to regularly work for television. As early as 1950, he photographed five episodes of the TV series Dick Tracy. But it was in 1952 that he met Robert Aldrich on Straight Settlement, an episode of the TV series “China Smith”. The beginning of their long collaboration happened in 1954, with World for Ransom and continued until 1981 with… All the Marbles.

"Alerte à Singapour"
"Alerte à Singapour"

After the disappointment of John Brahm’s Benghazi, filmed in black-and-white and SuperScope, and Maxwell Shane’s thriller The Nightmare which was cruelly lacking in atmosphere, Biroc worked with Aldrich again in 1956 on Attack !, an unconventional war film that described the cowardice of an officer protected by his superiors. For that reason, the American army’s refusal to participate in any way in the film forced Aldrich and Biroc to be effective in their simplicity : few outdoor shots and few spectacular scenes, but all of the action is concentrated on the bodies, the faces, and is limited to a few sets arbitrarily structured by the play of light and shadow, a crisp image and a deep black-and-white.

"Attaque !"
"Attaque !"

The year 1956 also was the year Biroc met another Hollywood director who was just as atypical and nonconformist, Samuel Fuller, who wrote in his memoirs : “Joe was a great cinematographer, open to all of my craziest ideas for shooting angles.” They would film four films together in the space of two years : Run of the Arrow, China Gate, Forty Guns, and Verboten.

Samuel Fuller et Joseph Biroc sur le tournage du "Jugement des flèches"

On the subject of the first film – a violent and baroque tale of the extermination of American Indians and of the Civil War, filmed in Scope and Eastmancolor – Jacques Loucelles writes in his Dictionnaire du cinéma : “In formal terms, everything in Run of the Arrow is excessively perfect : the writing and the directing are in such harmony with one another (Fuller writes as a director and directs as a writer) ; Joseph Biroc’s Technicolor masterfully passes from furious and caustic to peaceful and serene.”

After that film came China Gate, a melodrama set during the Indochina War, filmed in a superb Scope and in black-and-white, and then Forty Guns, a very dark, formal, western, with its smoky photography and remarkable use of Scope.

Alas, despite those magnificient projects together, Joseph Biroc’s filmography often took long detours through lowbrow American commercial productions. It would be fastidious to provide the list here of all of the films he photographed, especially since many of them are no longer widely available. We will note, however, that he worked on three projects with veteran academic filmmaker Mervyn LeRoy : Home Before Dark, in 1958 (sombre melodrama starring Jean Simmons), The FBI Story, in 1959 (starring James Stewart), and The Devil at 4 o’Clock, in 1961 (starring Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra). We can forget Crane Wilbur’s 1959 film The Bat (a pale remake of a 1926 classic filmed by Arthur Edeson) where Biroc seemed uninspired ; we will mention Vincent Sherman’s film starring Richard Burton filmed in Alaska (Ice Palace, 1960).

Tournage de "Ice Palace" en 1960
Ray Danton et Diane McBain à droite, Vincent Sherman debout au centre et Joe Biroc accroupi avec son chapeau et sa Spectra à la main

Joseph Biroc didn’t return to the top of his game until 1964, when he filmed his third film with Aldrich on a Fox Production (Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte), that references RKO’s grand masters such as N. Musuraca and R. Metty via its deep shadows that cut up the space, the unexpected camera angles (high and low angles), the objects and pieces of furniture that block the frame to create a baroque and whimsical film that is in perfect harmony with Bette Davis’ hallucinating character. Biroc won his first Oscar nomination for this film (the award was won by Walter Lassaly for Zorba the Greek).

Générique de "Chut..., Chut..., Chère Charlotte"

Amongst the dozen other films he filmed with Aldrich, we will cite The Flight of the Phoenix (again starring James Stewart), The Legend of Lylah Clare (starring Kim Novak), Ulzana’s Raid (starring Burt Lancaster), Emperor of the North Pole (starring Lee Marvin), and, of course, Hustle in 1975.

At the end of the 1960s, Biroc also filmed three crime thrillers/detective films one after the other, all starring Frank Sinatra and directed by Gordon Douglas (Tony Rome, Lady in Cement, and The Detective) ; as well as a John Wayne film in 1973 (Cahill U.S. Marshal, directed by Andrew McLaglen), before sharing the Oscar in 1974 with Fred Koenekamp for John Guillermin’s The Towering Inferno, a famous disaster film in which he reportedly filmed the action scenes with the starring actors.

Faye Dunaway et Paul Newman dans "La Tour infernale"

But another form of consecration came at the end of his career in the early 1980s, when Wim Wenders undertook the direction of a film freely inspired by the life of Dashiell Hammett. A connoisseur of American cinema and a great admirer of Samuel Fuller (who played the role of the American mafia boss in The American Friend), Wenders naturally called on Joe Biroc in order to recreate in colour the style of lighting typical of American film noir at the end of the 1940s. Biroc was 78 years old at the time and had just finished photographing a parody disaster film entitled Airplane ! and was preparing to work with Robert Aldrich for one last time on …All the Marbles, a sort of road movie that was a melancholic and realistic dive into the universe of female professional wrestling.
The filming of Hammett experienced a few bumps in the road… Philipp Lathrop first did a week of screen testing and then Joe Biroc filmed for 10-12 weeks before taking a break to rework the screenplay. Shooting began again with Lathrop (Biroc had another engagement) and had to redo 85% of what had already been shot in order to take the changes in the screenplay into account ! But Biroc’s style remained intact, especially since Lathrop had received the same type of education, having worked for over ten years as a cameraman for Russell Metty.

Wim Wenders, Joe Biroc, Frederic Forrest et Samuel Fuller sur le tournage de "Hammett" en 1981

Lastly, we will note that Wenders gave Fuller the role of director of photography on The State of Things in 1982, who was named Joe, and about whom Wenders later confided to Michel Ciment : “My model for that character was Joe Biroc, the director of photography on Hammett, who had really impressed me, not only as a professional, but also as a person. He was 78 years old when we began shooting, he had been shooting for over fifty years, and had filmed many hundreds of films. But he always maintained a certain naiveté and looked at each project with a new eye, which is very rare in Hollywood where many people think that being a professional means being routine. From a certain point of view, he’s the most routine man I’ve ever met, but in that routine there was a great deal of curiosity and a great deal of affection for his work. Fuller knew that his role was inspired from Biroc and that is why I chose him. Biroc filmed four movies with Fuller and while shooting Hammett, when he was in a good mood, he would imitate Sam to perfection. I said to Sam, “Joe can imitate you perfectly. Can you imitate Joe ?” (Interview with Wim Wenders by Michael Ciment in Passeport pour Hollywood, Ramsay Poche Cinéma – 1992)

Joe Biroc passed away on 7 September 1996.

(Translated from French by Alex Raiffe)