Cinematography Week: Gregg Toland and Russell Metty

Gregg Toland

Gregg Toland 

Predictable, I know, but really, who can possibly dispute or overlook Toland’s place in the history of cinematic art. Not only did Toland shoot Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, largely revered as the greatest film of all time, he also shot two of John Fords great non-westerns How Green was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath.

Toland’s breakthroughs on Citizen Kane have became somewhat of a given in any discussion of the film. He pioneered the deep-focus technique, an example of which can be seen below.

The joy of deep focus is the democracy of its frame. With everything in focus the eye can choose where to look. This astonishing breakthrough allowed a director like Welles, whose background was in theatre, to stage complicated action across different planes of the frame. The above sequence not only illustrates the brilliance of Tolands’ deep focus but shows how beautifully he could move the camera (even through tables!)

But Toland was no one-trick pony and his work on The Grapes of Wrath is markedly different from Kane, notably for its pseudo-documentary aesthetic. The constant however is the beauty of his lighting, particularly in the understated conversation scenes. Toland was always doing something interesting regardless of the scene, and it’s not difficult to see why he remains perhaps the most influential cinematographer of all time.

Russell Metty

Russell Metty

Russell Metty shot a heap of pictures, including Bringing Up Baby for Howard Hawks, All that Heaven Allows for Douglas Sirk as well as Spartacus for Stanley Kubrick. Each is notable for its camera work, which is respectively understated, sumptuous and epic. It is however another Welles picture that I’m going to mention him for and it is of course Touch of Evil.


Below is the famous opening shot, arguably one of the most complicated and revered in history. Altman would famously quote it in The Player and P.T. Anderson and Martin Scorsese clearly took its influence on board. I don’t think there is a better opening shot in cinema and I doubt there ever will be. Marvel at it’s virtuosity.


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