John Alton: Cinematography’s Outlier, Part Three


On Saturday evening, September 17, 1966 at 9 pm, CBS-TV aired the pilot for a series that was to become one of the most successful in television history. Over seven seasons, ending in 1973, its 171 episodes followed a set format yet, like a chess game, seemed to have infinite options. Each week the Mission Impossible crew were recruited for a cat and mouse skirmish against clandestine forces and dangerous criminals threatening the United States, a sobering reality in an era still boiling in the decade’s cauldron of confrontation called ironically, The Cold War.

In the pilot’s opening scene Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) exits a freight elevator, walks into a shop, and asks the young woman standing at a file cabinet about a specialty phonograph recording. The proprietor enters, dismisses her, and asks Briggs, “Exactly what recording were you looking for?” Briggs replies, “Pavanne in G by Ernest Vaughn and the Pan Symphonic Orchestra, 1963.” The man gives him a red parcel, then leaves, closing the door behind him. Briggs unwraps and places a vinyl disc on a nearby player. Music begins. He moves the tone arm toward the center, resets it and listens:

Good morning, Mr. Briggs. General Rio Dominguez, the dictator of Santa Costa, makes his headquarters in the Hotel Nacional. We've learned that two nuclear warheads furnished to Santa Costa by an enemy power are contained in the hotel vault. Their use is imminent. Mr. Briggs, your mission, should you decide to accept it, would be to remove both nuclear devices from Santa Costa. As always, you have carte blanche as to method and personnel, but of course, should you or any member of your IM Force be caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your action. As usual, this recording will decompose one minute after the breaking of the seal. I hope it's "welcome back," Dan. It's been a while.

Smoke rises from the disc as it self-immolates, a motif that heralds every episode’s recorded assignment. The “welcome back” sign-off thrusts us into a storyline that seems to be ongoing even though this is the audience’s introduction.

02_recording destroys

Several scenes follow that reveal the series’ template, as the team leader examines a package containing photos of the proposed human target and his selection of the ad hoc team. In a following scene, the assembled MI cast is presented with the mission’s goal.

Photographically, these initial scenes are shot in a then conventional TV series style: full, straight on lighting and eye level camera angles. Any routine TV cinematographer could have shot this exposition. But once the MI team lands in the mission’s Banana Republic, a much different camera and lighting style moves to center stage, with the camera coverage becoming more dramatic; the lighting quickly reveals itself as the signature style of director of photography John Alton.

Alton’s last feature credit had been the luridly colorful Grand Guignol spectacle of Elmer Gantry, released in July 1960. Just the month before had seen the release of Alton’s b/w, sci-fi potboiler 12 to the Moon. A year later, Burnett Guffey replaced Alton on Birdman of Alcatraz. After that, nothing. Alton gave every indication of finally making good on his threat to get out of the movie business.

What brought him out of a five-year hiatus in 1966, and what caused him to decide to not photograph anything after that, has remained one of those tantalizing questions. He often said he just wanted to travel, to paint, to be with his Argentinean wife, Rozalia. But at 65, he was not yet at an expected retirement age; many of his peers continued to work into their 80s.

Alton had long been considered to be an outsider, and once he resigned from the ASC for a second time in 1954, many cinematographers simply dismissed him. Whether Alton’s discontent was some personal animosity toward the then ASC president, or a lingering resentment over his MGM peers’ protest of his Academy Award for the ballet sequence in An American in Paris, is one of those mysteries scholars may some day resolve.

I had intended to conclude my own adventures in Alton research with the last blog. The photo of his dedication to me on the title page of his book seemed a fitting valediction. But I just couldn’t get this final photography credit out of my mind. Alton had never photographed anything for television before: why a series pilot as his swansong? Was it an attempt to embrace a powerful, broad-based medium? Was it an attempt to explore a photographic synthesis of  his b/w and color light, more darkly, of thwarted hopes?

Purely on a hunch, I typed “Mission Impossible TV Pilot” in the YouTube search box. The pilot came up. An hour later, after watching it in decent resolution, I began to understand what Alton had possibly been up to.

What I would like to do in this piece is simply take you through several dozen frame grabs from the pilot as an impromptu guide to my own thoughts. I’ve watched the episode several times now, but please don't excoriate me if I've messed up the continuity or have gotten some plot detail wrong. I’m neither a “Trekkie” nor a… (What do you call a MI fan?)

The action of the pilot was set on stage sets with exteriors at a single location, Mount St. Mary’s College in Brentwood, which served as the Hotel Nacional.

Two angles establish the arrival circle at the hotel, the second angle being a classic Alton high shot over a foreground figure.

03_mt. st. mary's
04_high angle soldier

The MI team arrives at the lobby check-in desk as Martin Landau is revealed in a rearview mirror attached to his wheel chair. He is disguised as Barbara Bain’s infirm husband, and she is revealed in the same shot in a dolly tilt up from the mirror.

05_landau rear view mirror

Bain, waiting at the check-in desk, is photographed in a luscious close-up straight out of Alton’s beauty lighting notes from Painting with Light.

06_bain beauty close up

Peter Lupus, the muscle of the team, carries two large salesman’s “sample cases” into the hotel’s vault; this also happens to be the repository for the two atomic bombs the team has been sent to decommission and smuggle back to the USA. A light above the vault door spills a red pool over the entrance; inside, a garish green fluorescent whose source is never seen, floods the claustrophobic interior with an anxious tension that drenches later scenes inside the vault.

07_vault green light
08_vault overhead

An overhead shot reeks of a voyeur’s perspective, an angle that recurs often in the episode. It is juxtaposed with a dramatic low angle of Lupus.

09_green close up

A panning shot of Lupus leaving the vault defines the broken foreground space that frames many shots, whether through foreground furniture, screens or grilles.

10_split screen vaule exit
11_bain on phone

Inside the vault, Wally Cox, guest star for the pilot, emerges from one of the large bags left in the dark vault and sets about working on the door’s lock. In several scenes we see him breaking the combination in order to facilitate escape once the team has removed the bombs. At first, the only light he wields is a kind of handheld sun-gun, which rakes the black room. Then he turns on an overhead light. The very noir lighting  in this first vault scene must have had the network panicked when they watched the dailies.

12_vault int. with sun gun
13_wally cox in vault

Even after Cox turns on the overhead light, camera angles through a foreground shelf are destabilizing.

14_cox at the vault lock

When Hill is in the vault later on, with the bound General Dominguez, also played by Landau, because Cox has broken both hands in a door (please don’t ask) the light is only slightly more revealing.

15_briggs in vault with sun gun
16_briggs cu

Cox replaces the lock cover in a noiresque angle.

17_cox reaches for safelock

In an air duct of striated light, the team’s mechanical genius, Gregg Morris, installs eavesdropping bugs.

18_gregg in air duct

Bain provides impromptu distraction to a nosey colonel who has become suspicious of Landau as the disguised general. It is a brief comic respite from the visual tension created by increasingly dramatic camera angles and lighting.

19_bain in towel

Several improbably high angles reveal the team in their hotel suite, next to the large bags that will soon contain the stolen bombs, along with Cox, once he has finished his work in the vault.

20_hi angle hotel room

There is a direct cut from the overhead shot to a low angle of Cox inside the bag.

21_direct cut cox in trunk

In a later scene, after he has broken his hands in a slamming door when the team captures the general, Hill and Lupus again release Cox from the bag. This lovely night shot is sourced by a single light from outside the window.

22_freeing cox from case

As is this shot when Hill and Lupus approach guards at the general’s door, shadows looming on the wall. One of Alton’s tropes is a low angled single hard light casting high shadows on the walls.

23_single low source w shadows

An insert often opens a scene before clearing to reveal main character action by a pan or dolly. Here, Landau watches in the background as Bain accepts cash.

24_bain hands off money landau in bg

And sometimes a scene opens with a character facing camera in close up, as here with Landau, who then moves toward the background TV in order to study  the general’s body movement.

25_landau begins disguise

Another characteristic Alton angle is an elevated over the shoulder shot with two main characters split by a dominant foreground figure.

26_OS waiter to Hill

In their many 40s noir features Alton and director Anthony Mann shot scenes with minimal coverage, especially a raking two shot. This is not only a dramatic angle but it maintains a sense of extended time. Alton uses this several times in the MI pilot.


In the final sequence, the MI team is escaping in cars carrying the bombs, racing to rendezvous with a small jet. They deploy a smoke screen behind the van to disrupt the pursuing military. A POV silhouette from inside one of the jeeps evokes the final silhouetted shots of many Alton’s movies.

28_soldiers pursue MI team

And the transfer to the waiting jet.

29_on the tarmac

Many MI fans have long regarded this pilot as the benchmark for the entire series. It’s easy to understand why. The audience is introduced to a lot of plot gimmicks, such as disguises that figure in many subsequent episodes—but here in the series pilot there is a near visceral pleasure in seeing the “tools of the trade” being put to use in Alton’s almost fetishistic inserts.

In considering the writing and plot structure of the series, critics have  not noted just how significant Alton’s contribution is to creating dramatic tension: obviously in the compositions, camera movement, and lighting techniques that are his stock in trade—but also in the editorial transitions, a facet of the cinematographer’s work that is often overlooked. Scene after scene blends into the next one with a shadowy wipe, a camera move, a door opening or closing, a foreground movement crossing the frame. The technique is so consistent throughout the pilot that it is evident these transitions were carefully planned and, likely, not by the director, but by Alton.

The director of the pilot, Bernard Kowalski, was very experienced in series work, but he directed only two more episodes of MI, both in the first season. I’ve watched both of them, photographed by the same cinematographer, Charles Strumer. The visuals are serviceable, but show none of the imaginative camera angles, compositions, and transitions that pervade the pilot. Camera angles in these other Kowalski episodes are almost always straight on, eye level; close-ups are almost always flat lit. Night exteriors are done day for night with little effort to suggest other sources than “moonlight.”  Had the visual style of the pilot come from Kowalski’s direction, there should have been some hints of it in these episodes. If you care to watch the other two Kowalski episodes, they are also on YouTube and titled Fakeout and A Spool There Was.

If you are a cinematographer or a fan of film noir style, you will easily recognize Alton’s signature noir tropes in the MI pilot. The stylized color lighting of some sequences also evokes Alton’s 50s color features, starting with An American in Paris and peaking in Elmer Gantry and The Brothers Karamazov.

But nothing is as convincing as watching the  MI pilot. Shortly before the publishing of this essay YouTube disabled the pilot version I had watched. I did find several other ones and they are embedded below, both of them in four parts. The first one has an annoying advert. banner that doesn't fade away. The second one, at a slightly higher contrast level, has Greek subtitles. With a search you may find a non-compromised version. In any case, it's well worth watching the entire pilot.

I suspect that Alton accepted this assignment because he was intrigued by the challenges presented by the small screen, curious to know if the same elements that had constituted his large screen feature film style could be translated effectively to episodic television. Though not much dramatic series television rose to that high level for years, the answer is a resounding YES.

30_alton credit

Next:  "Orphan Films" and Milestone's restoration of "Portrait of Jason."



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