Metty, Russell

Metty, Russell
   The eminent cinematographer who shot SPARTACUS was born in Los Angeles in 1906. He was employed as a laboratory assistant at Paramount Studios in 1925; in 1929 he went to RKO as an assistant cameraman. In 1935 he was promoted to director of photography. Metty moved from such big-budget films as Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938), with Katharine Hepburn, to low-budget films, such as The Falcon’s Brother (1942), an entry in the Falcon detective series, and back again with ease. His black-and-white photography on two Orson Welles films, The Stranger (1946), with Welles as a Nazi war criminal hiding out in New England, and Touch of Evil (1958), with Welles as a rogue cop, was outstanding. Physically, Metty was large like Welles, and even chewed on a cigar like Welles.
   Metty was renowned for his complicated crane shots, such as the one which opens Touch of Evil, in which the camera, mounted on a 22-foot crane, surveys the entire main street of a town on the Mexican border. Richard Chatten quotes Charlton Heston, who costarred with Welles in Touch of Evil, as saying that many cameramen would ask the director, “Do you want it fast or do you want it good?” Comments Heston, “With Russ, you got both. ”
   Metty was also adept at color cinematography, as in Douglas Sirk’s tearjerker, Imitation of Life (1959), starring Lana Turner. Consequently, KIRK DOUGLAS, who was both the star and the executive producer of Spartacus (1960), a Roman spectacle about a slave revolt, hired Metty, who was under contract at Universal where Spartacus was filmed, as cinematographer. STANLEY KUBRICK, brought in to replace Anthony Mann as director of Spartacus, did not get on with Metty, who scoffed at the young director as a kid.
   Douglas did not help matters by likewise viewing Kubrick as a youngster—despite the fact that Kubrick had directed him in the critically lauded PATHS OF GLORY (1957). Douglas recalls Kubrick’s first day on the set in Gene Phillips’s book:“Here was Kubrick with his wide eyes and pants hiked up looking like a kid of seventeen. ” (Kubrick was actually 30. ) Similarly, Metty saw Kubrick as “just a kid,” as TONY CURTIS, who plays a slave in the picture, recounts in his autobiography. Thus, when Kubrick would climb up on the camera crane to compose a shot, Metty, with his gray crew cut and coffee cup filled with Jack Daniel’s whiskey, would smirk, “Get that little Jew-boy from the Bronx off my crane. ” Kubrick simply declined to acknowledge such remarks. Metty was astounded to see Kubrick looking through the camera and setting up shots. “This kid is going to tell me where to put the camera?” he exclaimed. “You’ve got to be kidding!” Metty advised Kubrick in no uncertain terms that directors usually just issued instructions before disappearing into their trailers: “Russell, I want a wide shot here, a close-up there, come in tight on that. ” Kubrick, directing his fifth feature, was accustomed to participating actively in photographing a film. He was, after all, one of the few movie directors to belong to the cinematographer’s union.
   Friction inevitably developed between director and cameraman when they disagreed on how a shot should be lit. Tony Curtis remembers Kubrick filming the scene in which Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) makes a deal with a Cilician pirate (HERBERT LOM) to get the ships for Spartacus’s people to escape from Italy. “We rehearsed it three or four times, and then the standins went in so Metty could do his lighting. When that was finished, . . . in came Kirk, me, and Herbert. Kubrick was sitting on the side, and Metty was in his big chair with his coffee cup, watching. ” Finally Kubrick got up, looked over the shot, and went over to Metty and said,“I can’t see the actors’ faces. ” “Russ Metty, who was red-faced to begin with, got purple. He never said a word, but he was fuming in that high chair with his name on the back. By chance, next to his high chair, there was a little light no larger than the circumference of, say, a beer bottle-a little thin-necked spotlight with shutters on it, about five feet tall, on a tripod. Russ Metty just lifted up his foot and gave it a big kick, and it skidded its way onto the set. ”The light went rolling onto the set and finally came to a halt. When it stopped, Metty looked at Kubrick and asked,“Now is there enough light?” Kubrick looked at it, looked back at Metty, and replied,“Now there’s too much light. ” The rancor that characterized the relationship between Kubrick and Metty did not otherwise interfere with their collaboration in shooting the picture. This is evident in the scene in which Spartacus and his intrepid band of slaves escape from the gladiator school where they are being trained for the Roman arena. They slash their way into the courtyard and scale the wall that stands between them and freedom. The blue sky suddenly appears overhead as they reach the top of the wall and then drop to the other side. This sequence is as good as any in the film to demonstrate Kubrick’s assured handling not only of the wide-screen frame, but also of color. Regarding the wide-screen ratio, Kubrick told Gene Phillips that he had never been unduly concerned about composing shots in this format. “The first thing you do is make sure you have the action in the front of the frame blocked out properly,” he said; “and then what is taking place on either side and in the background of the shot will take care of itself. ”
   So in this scene, as Spartacus and his men latch onto the spear-pointed gate which they are climbing like a ladder to reach the top of the wall, Metty’s camera looks down on them in their grubby slave vesture, which is the same muddy color as the earth below. When they go over the top the camera turns upward to give them the brilliant blue sky, symbol of the freedom they have just won, as a background. This camera work was obviously calculated to take advantage of the vast expanse of space provided by the wide screen and employ it as a background against which the action is being played. Metty, accustomed to working quickly, was frustrated when Kubrick lavished great care on each scene and slowed down the rate of shooting. The cinematographer particularly fumed at the amount of time and effort Kubrick expended on the sequence following the climactic battle, in which the Roman army squelches Spartacus’s slave revolt once and for all. The aftermath of the battle shows the sun setting on a hillside strewn with hundreds of dead slaves. The sunset, of course, symbolizes the eclipse of Spartacus’s hopes for freedom for himself and his fellow slaves. Initially this sequence was to be filmed on the Universal back lot, but Kubrick insisted on shooting it on a soundstage, where he could control the light. So production designer ALEXANDER GOLITZEN had to build an elaborate exterior set inside, where it covered three soundstages. Metty had used an enormous number of crimson and scarlet gels on the lights, in order to create a sunset glow against the cyclorama that served for the sky.
   When Kubrick arrived to shoot the scene on the completed set, he had the stills photographer,William Woodfield, take a Polaroid shot of the set. Woodfield says in JOHN BAXTER’s book that Kubrick studied the Polaroid and commented wryly that the sunset looked phony—it was a typical “Russ Metty sunset. ” He then ordered that the sequence would be shot out-of-doors after all, on the studio back lot; so the studio had to absorb the expense of the indoor set. With that, Metty had a meeting with Edward Muhl, the studio chief, and Kubrick. According to Woodfield, Metty snapped,“I quit. ” Muhl responded, “You can’t quit. You’re under contract. ” Metty answered, “Then let me do my job. ” Kubrick then intervened:“You can do your job by sitting in your high chair and shutting up. ” Kubrick had obviously not forgotten the incident when Metty cavalierly kicked a light onto the set without leaving his chair. Thereafter, Kubrick and Metty developed an uneasy truce: when Kubrick would take exception to the way that Metty was lighting a shot and suggest an alternative, the camera crew would look to Metty, who would nod in silence. Kubrick had won the day, to the extent that the Universal hierarchy supported him in his skirmishes with Metty; Metty could console himself with the Academy Award which he won for his color photography on Spartacus. Metty afterward worked on some major motion pictures in the 1960s, among them John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. But in the 1970s he kept busy with TV series like Columbo, starring Peter Falk as the rumpled, shrewd detective. William Link, coproducer of the series, told biographer Joseph McBride that-much to Metty’s chagrin—he and his partner, Richard Levinson, had hired STEVEN SPIELBERG to direct an episode because they wanted to encourage young blood.
   History repeated itself, and Metty treated Spielberg with the same condescension that he had visited upon Kubrick—only more. “He’s a kid!” Metty griped,“Does he get a milk and cookie break? Is the diaper truck going to interfere with my generator?” For the 24-year-old Spielberg to be working with the crusty, aging Metty was “not a generation gap,” concluded Link; “it was a generation chasm. ” The producers stood behind Spielberg, as Edward Muhl had supported Kubrick; they said to Metty,“He’s the director. Do what he says. ”
   Metty retired in 1974, leaving behind an impressive track record. In a career that spanned nearly four decades, he served as director of photography for some of the best directors in American cinema, from Orson Welles to Stanley Kubrick.
   ■ Chatten, Richard, “Russell Metty,” in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers:Writers and Production Artists, vol. 4, rev. ed. , ed. Grace Jeromski (Detroit: St. James Press, 1997), p. 570+;
   ■ Curtis,Tony, with Barry Paris, Tony Curtis: The Autobiography (New York: William Morrow, 1993);
   ■ McBride, Joseph, Steven Spielberg: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997);
   ■ Phillips, Gene, Stanley Kubrick:A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library, 1997).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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