“He [Polanski] said, ‘Johnny, please no diffusion on the lens; I don’t want a Hollywood look.’ So I borrowed an idea that the great Jimmy Wong Howe had told me about. I used Chinese tracing paper to shift the light and color so that it turned beige and gold. Roman liked it.”
John Alonzo (Director of Photography on Chinatown)
LA Times article by Myrna Oliver
Cinematographer John Alonzo was born in Dallas, Texas but spent most of his early youth in Guadalajara, Mexico. His career in production started at WFAA-TV in Dallas. And before he died in 2001, he accumulated quite a resume that included doing camerawork for National Geographic Specials and The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau, as well as being director of photography on Scarface, Star Trek Generations, Harold and Maude, Sounder, Steal Magnolias, and Norma Rae. (Two less remembered films in which he was DP on that are worth revisiting are Conrack and Cross Creek.) Alonzo won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lighting Direction (Fail Safe) and an Oscar-nomination for Chinatown.
But it is his work on Chinatown that is his legacy. He took over shooting after the first week of production when the original DP, Stanley Cortez, had a falling out with director Roman Polanski on how to photograph Faye Dunaway. Cortez wanted to use defused lighting and long lens and Polanski wanted a harder, more realistic shot. According to Buzz magazine, before Alonzo officially replaced Cortez on the film he spent the weekend watching Polanski’s films Cul de Sac, Repulsion, Knife in the Water—with Polanski.
I can’t remember if it was on one of the Chinatown commentaries where Alonzo talked about sending the large grips trucks away and using a minimalistic approach to lighting the film. He often shot with a wider angle lens that sometimes on Dunaway’s close-up shots had the camera just two and a half feet from her face. The exact opposite of traditional Hollywood movie star glamour style. In many ways Chinatown is a complex movie, but it also a great example of simplicity. A simplicity on the other side of complexity.
Watch the following scene from Chinatown; Three actors, three minutes, all done in one take. (Spoiler alert. If you’ve never seen the film just turn the sound off and watch the photography.)
You can learn more about Alonzo in the documentary The Man Who Shot Chinatown.
P.S.—Much of Chinatown was shot with a 40mm lens, which legend has it that was the same focal lenght used to film the entire movie The Godfather (1972) . To learn more about cinematography check out the podcasts that the American Society of Cinematographers produces.