We Will Never Know Their Names, But That’s Fine, Too

Whenever you read books or articles on film noir, you encounter expressions like this:

Another influence on the visual style of the films was the development of camera and lighting technology in the late ‘thirties: faster film stock, coated lenses (which significantly increased the light transmission) and more powerful lights.
– ‘Film Noir, Introduction’, Michael Walker, in “The Book of Film Noir”, edited by Ian Cameron, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1992

In fact, almost all literatures I have been reading recently reiterate the same thing: faster film stock, high-speed lens and powerful light. Some critics inserted these lines in the beginning of their writings so that they can go on rumbling about the analysis of film noir stylistics and aesthetics. I started to wonder, what are they? How did they differ from the previous technologies? So I dug a little deeper into this little problem.

First, a little of background. There is a vast pool of literature and writing on the definition of film noir. Some people say it is a certain style of filmmaking, prevalent in 1940s and 50s. Some define it as a visual style. Others define it as a manifestation of a certain psychological condition of the era. Or simply a genre. Yet others say a film has to have a set of traits to be a noir, such as femme fatale or brooding atmosphere. I am not quite sure the discussion of such matters would ever be productive, so I leave it as it is. For the sake of this post, I will discuss about the technologies, which enabled some of the filmmakers (directors, cinematographers etc.) in late 40s and 50s to achieve a certain kind of visuals. The most obvious examples would be low-key, high-contrast (night) scenes with a limited number of light sources, especially shot on location. You can find a fine example of this kind in ‘T-Men (1947)’ directed by Anthony Mann and shot by John Alton. In fact, I read someone claiming that ‘T-Men’ cannot be classified as film noir since it is in the semi-documentary style and doesn’t have a femme fatale in it. Good. I don’t care. My interest is a certain visual look you often find in crime dramas and other melodramas in late 40s and 50s Hollywood films.

Another keyword is ‘often’. These low-key, ‘chiaroscuro lighting’ had existed for a long time even before 40s. Billy Bitzer shot a dark interior with only few sources of light in 1910s. German Expressionism were full of ‘chiaroscuro’. If you look at some of James Wong Howe’s works in 1930s, you would find very impressive imageries playing with light and shadow. These were special, if not isolated, cases, however. The bulk of products up until 1940s were not as ambitious nor as experimental. Many filmmakers preferred brighter, well-lit images with shallow depth of focus. Was it an aesthetic issue? Maybe. But, more importantly, you need an experienced cinematographer like Howe, who was willing to take awful chances, to achieve such low-key visuals in 1930s. Because, if you fail, and there was a substantial risk, you would end up with dark, severely underexposed camera negatives, which certainly infuriates studio executives. Many cinematographers would rather have well-lit pictures instead of impressive chiaroscuro, just to be on the safe side. These new technologies, however, lowered these risks, so that they would safely explore the plays of light and shadow, if needed.

Faster Film Stocks

Two major supplier of film stocks in Hollywood back in those days were Kodak and DuPont. In 1938, almost simultaneously, these two companies introduced the new lines of film stocks. Kodak introduced Plus-X and Super-XX, while DuPont introduced DuPont II. The previous Kodak product, “Super-Sensitive”, which was introduced during the end of silent era, had the rating of only 25 Weston, equivalent of ASA 32. Plus-X had 40 Weston (ASA 50) and Super-XX had 80 Weston (ASA 100). By the end of 1930s, Kodak apparently discontinued “Super-Sensitive”, as their Plus-X had became the industry standard.

The tables below are results of survey done by William Stull, A.S.C., published in July 1940 issue of American Cinematographer. This is an amazing study. He thoroughly researched illumination conditions used by the major Hollywood cinematographers at the time. Here, you can see the illumination readings in footlight candles (x10 will give you numbers in lux), f-stops, and film stocks they were using. Twentieth Century Fox was the only studio, which did not provide the detailed data, claiming that the studio had standardized the lighting and camera setups across their productions. I noticed, for example, the average footlight readings of MGM cinematographer settings were considerably higher compared to, say, those of Columbia cinematographers. And, of course, the differences showed up in their products. James Wong Howe was working at very low illumination, so was Theodore Sparkuhl. I think these readings were not meant to be anything but the snapshot example of the practices among cinematographers, so you shouldn’t read too much in these numbers. In any case, the film stock in use were either Plus-X or DuPont II.



Super-XX was more sensitive (and unavoidably more expensive) film stock. This film stock was used in Citizen Kane by Gregg Toland in 1940. Super-XX enabled many of the celebrated deep-focused shots in the film, in which Toland claimed to have used f8 or f16 stops even.

Now these were the choices of the film stocks available in 1940s. Kodak did not introduce another new film stock until mid-50s. Characteristic chiaroscuro shots in Nicholus Musuraca’s or John Alton’s works were certainly shot on Plus-X or Super-XX. Since many of Alton’s works were done in poverty row studios, it is probable he used more affordable Plus-X stock. Considering that the standard stocks of later years were either ASA 100 or 200, and that digital era has just made ASA ratings arbitrary, these ‘faster’ stocks were still quite slow in modern day terms.

Here is a strange little story about Kodak’s Plus-X and Super-XX. They were also marketed as still photography stocks, packaged in the ever-eye-catching yellow cardboard boxes. In late 1945, Kodak realized that their products were experiencing ‘fogging’, graying of the image, resulting in loss of contrast in the developed film. It turned out that their cardboard boxes were contaminated with the radioactive fallouts from the Trinity Test in July of that year. Kodak had been very sensitive about the choice of their packaging, since the previous cardboard materials had been contaminated with Radon. They had discovered that the raw materials from the mill located in Indiana were free of radioactive materials, so they made an exclusive contract with this mill. However, the fallouts from the Trinity Test contaminated the river this mill used for manufacturing, and its product, the cardboard, emitted gamma-rays, which caused fogging of raw film stocks. Since the atomic bomb test was kept secret, Kodak scientists didn’t know the exact cause but assumed there must had been an nuclear explosion somewhere nearby. According to Ansel Adams, a renowned photographer, ‘a hot cloud’ from the Trinity Test also hit the Union Pacific fright train bound to Los Angeles, which contained a lot of Kodak photographic and X-ray films. A doctor in Yosemite called him up and showed a fogged X-ray film. The DuPont plant in Parlin, N.J. had to be shut down, since their air intake contaminated the manufacturing line. The Kodak plant in Rochester was fine, since it cycled air internally. When U.S. restarted nuclear testing on the U.S. soil again in 50’s, Kodak demanded the government to notify Kodak the schedule of the test beforehand.


High-speed Lens

The major breakthrough in the field of optical technology in 1930s was the invention of reflection/anti-reflection coating. This was basically due to the newly developed process called vacuum deposition. This technique enabled optical industry to produce uniform, optically flat mirrors. It also made partial translucent mirrors used for range finders possible.

It was known that incoming light reflects back at the interface between a lens and air, resulting in less light coming through the lens. This is due to the difference in optical index between glass (lens) and air, and as long as silicate glass was used, it is unavoidable. In 19th century, however, many photographers knew the aged lens tends to have a brighter image, possibly due to diminished reflectance at its surface. Its surface was ‘eaten away’ over the time, producing a very thin porous layer, which has a smaller optical index (close to that of air). Aging lenses was fine for hobbyists, but artificially creating a very thin layer of this nature was a challenge. In late 1930’s, the researchers at Zeiss and California Institute of Technology independently developed the anti-reflection coating on lenses using vacuum deposition technique. Thin deposition of MgF or other metal fluorides produced high transmittance for a lens. ‘Treated lenses’ as they were called, brought many favorable features to cameras and projectors. A camera lens is a set of multiple lenses, and uncoated older lenses caused multiple reflections among themselves. This resulted in grayer background and resolution loss. The figures below show the striking difference in contrast and resolution between coated and uncoated lenses. This was a great news for cinematographers who was exploring deep-focused, crisp images under darker illumination, when their story demands such a ‘mood’. Another improvement was loss of flare. When a strong illumination is in the view, multiple reflections in an uncoated lens caused flares. New coating suppressed this phenomenon, prompting many photographers and cinematographers to employ bold angles and compositions.

From “Speed Up Your Lens Systems”,
J.S.M.P.E., 35., p.4 (1940)

Interestingly, this technique of vacuum deposition is still the dominant method to produce the anti-reflection coating on lenses. From your SLR camera to a projector in your living room, the lenses have this coating (and plus anti-scratch coating).


Also around the same time, different types of lamps were introduced providing cinematographers wider variety of choices. One of them was called photoflood. These incandescent bulbs provide intense light over wide range of visual spectrum, suitable for color photography. Because they are small and operates at a lower voltage, they were extremely useful in location shooting. Arc lights were improved as well. Manufacturers introduced a variety of high-power arc lights with low noise (earlier arc lights produced audible noises which interfered with sound recording).

Science, Technology and Standardization

In the table above, you may have noticed there were three cinematographers who did not use meters: James Wong Howe, Frank Redman and Stanley Cortez. They were working on what we call experience and expertise. You may call them ‘artists’ or ‘craftsmen’. However, the use of meters and other technological tools during the shooting were becoming a norm at the time. I think there were several reasons for this modernization of the process. First, the studios demanded the consistent quality from all the productions including B-pictures to differentiate their brand from the others. This is quite evident in Twentieth Century Fox’s case. Fox claimed its cinematographers use the setups specified by the studio, rather than they work from their expertise and knowledge. The ‘standardization’ of production process, including print developments, was spreading through Hollywood, to control the quality of their product. Up until early 30s, negative and print developments were kind of dirty garage work, where seasoned workers ‘knew’ their ‘soup’. But in late 30s, many industry leaders began to realize the need to control the development process rather than having a variety of development formula. In 1940, Warner Brothers opened their new facility for development works, and it was a well-designed, very modernized ‘factory’. The dust control was in place, whole building was air-conditioned and temperature and humidity were controlled. Emergency power supply was built so that they could provide the power within 5 seconds of blackout. And most of all, the concept was to control – it had a chemical laboratory for checking their development solution (formula) constantly. Asked about how many different formula Warner Bros. had, Mr. Spray Warner Bros. replied:

It is not the formula as originally written on the paper that counts, but the maintenance of that formula in a certain definite concentration at all times. In other words, it is a standardization problem, rather than so many grams of this and so many grams of that.
[J.S.M.P.E., 35. p.294 (1940)]

Or Mr. Evans:

When four laboratories say they are using the same formula, they are not, in the ordinary case. They start out with the same formula, but the technic of replenishment leads to a different formula in all four laboratories. Agitation and temperature and speed of the machine all enter into the picture, very decidedly; but in addition, there is the difference that four persons, each using his own technic of replenishment, will arrive at four different stable conditions.
I would like to enter a plea, now that we have analytical methods for developers, that we start writing the formula for the used developer, not the one that we start with.[ibid.]

In fact, since early 40s, there were number of studies regarding the development solution formula consistencies after the usage and replenishments. This trend of standardization and quality control lead to John Alton’s comment in his book, “Painting with Light”:

With modern laboratories came chemical engineers, and with them came science; today photography is based on science.

In fact, there were a variety of inventions and technological advancements, which were indirect and less obvious. It was a concerted effort. Even though the film history and criticism tend to focus on “influential figures” and “innovative individuals”, there were hundreds of thousands of engineers and scientists, technicians and artists. Today, in the era of digital filmmaking and video streaming, the ocean of technology is vast and immense. You may read about celebrated “visionaries”, who have incredibly rich “visions” about what they want to achieve. But it is a two-way street. Sometimes these visions do influence the course of the technologies, while technological advancement itself affects these visions, as they make ‘visionaries’ realize what they would like to do with them. Well, the hype about these visionaries are not necessarily a bad thing, since it usually motivates the commerce.

So, whenever you see a “film noir” next time, I hope you remember tens of thousands of people who made that film possible more than half a century ago. We will never know their names, but that’s fine, too.

Literary Genealogy of Rashomon (Part 1)

The Model of Rajoumon (Rashomon) (The Museum of Kyoto)

The word ‘Rashomon’ has now firmly acquired the place in English vocabulary. Even a person who has never seen the Kurosawa’s film uses the term. In Wikipedia, the word “Rashomon Effect” is defined as a term “to refer to contradictory interpretations of the same events by different persons, a problem that arises in the process of uncovering truth”. The word also found its entry in OED in the recent edition. In the film Rashomon, there is a crime and there are witnesses (suspects and victims). Each witness tells a story about the crime, – how it happened, who did what, – but each account is different from one another. We speculate why they contradict each other, – these may have been altered by their various emotions, cheated out by their vanity or obscured by their conscience.

Japanese use the different expression for that kind of a messy situation – ‘in a grove’. We say ‘the truth is in a grove’, meaning you will never know what really happened, since everyone involved is telling a different story. The expression comes from the title of a short story, In a Grove, published in 1921.

The film Rashomon is based on two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892 – 1927): In a Grove (藪の中, 1921) and Rashomon (羅生門, 1915). The major part of the film – the witnesses of a crime testifying in the court – is derived from In a Grove. Between these accounts of witnesses, we see three people taking refuge from heavy storm under the Rashomon, a giant gate of the ancient city of Kyoto. While waiting the weather to clear up, they discuss this court hearings. This part is not a faithful adaptation of the original Rashomon story, but shares the underlying theme. You can find the plot summary in Wikipedia and English translation of the story here and here.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa is a giant in Japanese literature. His craft of storytelling, – especially short stories -, has never been surpassed and never will be. He often drew his inspiration from old Japanese tales or Chinese literatures, but modified it and narrated it in a paradigm of modern anxiety. Both In a Grove and Rashomon have their origin in Anthology of Tales from the Past (今昔物語集, Konjaku Monogatari-shu), a collection of more than one thousand tales, compiled and edited in the 12th century Japan.

The original short story Rashomon is based on a tale called A Thief Climbing Up the Rashomon, Discovers Dead Bodies collected in Anthology. Many stories collected in this 12th-century Anthology are considered far older and this tale was probably from the 9th or 10th century, during the Heian Period. The Heian Period was the age of aristocrats and royal families, before the age of warlords. The original tale collected in Anthology is as follows: A thief, waiting for the darkness of a night, hid himself on the top floor of the Rashomon. There, he discovered a dead body of a young woman, and was stunned by an old woman pulling off hair from the dead body. The thief was frightened at the sight, but found out the old woman was trying to make a wig out of hair to make money. He robbed their clothes and hair pulled off from the dead and ran away.

The Pages of the Original Rashomon Story from Anthology, Suzuka-Edition, the Oldest Surviving Manuscript
(University of Kyoto Library)

Akutagawa kept the original plot element intact, but added the dynamics of modern drama. In his story, the man is not a thief at first. He becomes a thief in the story. It is one of the most devastating moment among his works, annihilating conscience, stabbing a sharp blade deep into dignity and hanging the last shred of compassion by its neck.

In a Grove is based on a tale called A man traveling to the country of Tanba with his wife, assaulted by a thief in the Oe Mountain also collected in Anthology. This tale is also considered from the 9th century. A man was traveling with his wife in deep mountains. He was on foot, carrying a bow and arrows, his wife on a horse. Another young man appeared on the road, and accompanied them. This young man carried a long sword, which he boasted as a legendary sword from the country of Mutsu. They exchanged their weapons, as the man thinking he was getting a great deal. Then this young man turned a table and threatened them with an arrow. He tied up the man with a rope, raped the woman and took their horse, the bow, the arrows and the sword. The narrator comments the stupidity of the man and praises the cleverness of the young man.

As you can see, there is no element of ‘Rashomon effect’ in the 9th century original. While keeping the historical context and background intact, Akutagawa completely renovated its narrative, structuring it in seven separate ‘testimonies’. Each testimony was written in first-person narrative, – using ‘I’ as its narrator -, in the manner of modern court proceedings or judicial records. During the Heian Period, the legal system in the city of Kyoto was overseen by a judge called ‘Kebi-ishi’, who presided over the ‘Shira-su’, – a courtyard of white sands. Kebi-ishi never speaks, – in the novel, and in the film as well. We never know the verdict. It’s not that who took the rap (probably Tajomaru did), but it is about the maze of ‘truth’.

Many scholars suggested that, for this ingenious storytelling, Akutagawa might have drawn inspiration from two literary predecessors, – The Ring and the Book (1868-69) by Robert Browning (1812 – 1889) and The Moonlit Road (1907) by Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1913).

[to Part 2]

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Lunchbox and Life Insurance


Michael Koresky explains the word ‘flunky’ from the title of Naruse’s silent film as ‘a loose translation of koshiben, which denotes a low-wage earner who brings his lunch to work’. I think this is excellent translation to capture the essence of the film in a single word. To help us understand how an insurance agent Okabe would have lived back in 1931, I explore a little bit more.

Koshiben, short for Koshibento, literally means a Bento (lunchbox) strapped to one’s waist (or back). This is the image of a worker bringing his own lunch to the office. The word seems to have entered into Japanese vocabulary back in Edo era, first to describe lunchbox for travelers, then lower-class government clerks, who bring such lunchboxes to office. Throughout 19th century, office clerks and workers were called as such rather contemptuously (1). Since Tokugawa/Edo-era feudal system was based on hereditary social classes, these lower-class clerks and bureaucrats would stay as they were (and their ancestors had been) for all their lives. Then the Meiji Government tried to modernize the society through legislation and deregulation in the last half of 19th century. One of the most influential social transformation was brought by modern education systems, which was established in 1872. Education created the class of people who were not only able to read and write but also to engage in more “intellectual” labor. And of course, modernization of commerce and industry, especially through technologies from Europe, expanded the capital of the nation to invest in more modernization including armament. These nation-wide revolution resulted in radical shift in labor force. In 1850’s, more than 80% of population was farmers; by the time of Naruse’s FLANKY, WORK HARD, it was less than half (2). These educated people anticipated the higher income and better social status. Instead, most of them ended up being “Koshiben”, precisely because there were too many of them.
The emergence of “intellectual” workers and their struggle, especially after the market crash of late 1920’s, brought about the theme of contemporary ‘being’. People no longer fight against Nature (as farmers do) to survive, but juggle papers and numbers to bring food to the table. These lower-class white-collars were poignantly photographed in silent films of 1930’s, such as Okabe in FLANKY, Okajima in Ozu’s TOKYO CHORUS (1931) and the memorable Father in I WAS BORN, BUT…(1932). Their parents believed higher education would secure better paying jobs and social status, but the reality has bitten their hope hard. You would recall the quiet abandon in the conversation between the mother and her son in Ozu’s THE ONLY SON (1937).

I found it striking that Okabe in Naruse’s FLANKY is a life insurance salesman. The film was made during the darkest hour in the financial sector during the worldwide Depression and especially the Japanese insurance companies were hit hard (3). To patch up their losses, the companies drove their salesmen to ever-fierce nasty competition, which actually resulted in legislation to prevent excessive marketing and sales fraud (August 1931)(4). To the contemporary viewers, the feud between Okabe and his rival to win the contract must have been a familiar one, though exaggerated and hilarious. Another interesting point, I think, is that the concept of life insurance is diagonally related to Naruse’s own obsession – exchange between a man’s life (a woman’s life, rather) and money. He repeatedly worked on the variation of this kind, – parents forcing one’s daughter to marry a wealthy man, a family trying to separate two lovers based on their financial decisions, or a mistress searching for her soul only to be trapped in web of wealth. During thirties, this genre of poor women’s tale was popular, but Naruse emphasized this concept of exchange in a way nobody else did. He consciously photographs the persons in charge, – parents, a wealthy man etc. – manipulating a heroine’s circumstances so that they would be benefited financially. Life insurance is not about selling loved one’s life, but the fact that Okabe cunningly promoted the insurance to a wealthy woman when her son had gone missing is all the more discomfiting.
Since Okabe is employed by the insurance company, he must have some level of higher education. Okabe and his wife must have seen better times, as evidenced by their wedding photograph. However, their life is not what they envisioned. It is full of cliche for those who are living just below the poverty line. Dodging the landlord for overdue rent, not being able to afford their kid’s toy, mending a hole in a shoe. Okabe’s profession is all the more remarkable, since it has little to do with necessity of daily life, but with investing in the future. He is probably a man most far removed from the vision of future, just trying to make ends meet. This irony was still amusing in this film, but Naruse’s later films resonate with more somber tones, deeper in agony and abandonment. For those who are not born with prestige, affluence doesn’t come easy. It usually means putting price tags on their bodies, literally.

Written and Directed by Mikio Naruse
Cinematography by Mitsuo Miura
Produced by Shochiku Studio
Starring Isamu Yamaguchi, Tomoko Naniwa

(1) Shokyoku Shibata (1897-1966) has written an excellent essay on this class of white-collar workers and their portrait in modern literature (‘Meiji No Wadai’, Chikuma Gakugei Bunko, 2006). ‘Ukigumo’ (Teishimei Futaba), ‘Namiki’ (Touson Shimazaki) and ‘Mouri-Sensei’ (Ryunosuke Akutagawa) all describes the scene Koshiben workers going home, seemingly depressed. The street that runs over the Kanda Bridge was called ‘Koshiben Street’ (a part of Hongo Street today), because many clerks were working around the area.

(2) The figures are from “100 Modern Japan Cartoons” by Isao Shimizu. One of the selected cartoons in the book is called “The Hell of Salarymen”.

(3) Of the 33 insurance companies at the time, 28 of them were not able to pay the dividend.

(4) Japanese version of the law can be read here.

Copyrighted materials, if any, on this web page are included as “fair use”. These are used for the purpose of research, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).