John Alton was one of Hollywood's finest cinematographers, the author of an acclaimed textbook, 'Painting with Light', and a pre-eminent figure in the emergence of the film-noir movement in the Forties, when the films of Alton and the director Anthony Mann formed the apotheosis of noir style - low-key lighting with bold use of shadow, darkness and shafts of light, tight close-ups and extreme angles, much of it reminiscent of German Expressionism in the Thirties. Working on B movies with very restricted budgets at Republic, Monogram, RKO and Eagle-Lion, Alton became popular with directors for his imaginative use of limited resources. His first film with Anthony Mann, 'T-Men', was an instant hit, even gaining a spread in Life magazine, which was almost unheard of for the product of a low-budget studio [Eagle-Lion]. The team's next film, 'Raw Deal', was set partly on San Francisco's docks - an excuse for Alton to make expressionistic use of fog, netting and dark shadows. 'He Walked By Night' was credited to Alfred Werker, but Anthony Mann directed all the exteriors, which were filmed on real locations and given Alton's individual brand of lighting, notably his use of just one small light source starkly illuminating the Los Angeles drainage pipe through which the killer makes his final flight. The work of Mann and Alton had been noted by MGM, who offered them contracts and teamed them for 'Border Incident', a film modeled closely on 'T-Men'. Alton's use of chiaroscuro lighting gave majestic beauty to the landscapes, but the film's dark tone and modest pretensions were far from the gloss associated with the studio. "When it came out, MGM were flabbergasted," said Mann. "It wasn't anything they thought a motion picture should be!"
Alton's tenure at MGM was stormy. Popular with producers who admired his cost-cutting methods and speed at setting up, he was less popular with the studio's established cameramen who used masses of lights, far more assistants, and were accustomed to be given time to assess possible compositions and lighting schemes. Alton's final two noirs are excellent examples of the genre: Joseph H. Lewis's 'The Big Combo' and Allan Dwan's 'Slightly Scarlet'. In 1962 Alton started work on 'Birdman of Alcatraz', but when he and director Charles Crichton were fired he suddenly dropped completely out of the Hollywood scene for 30 years, to travel and to paint ["I wanted to live," he later said]. He re-emerged into public life in 1993 when the Telluride Film Festival paid him tribute. His critical reputation having grown, he was given a Life Achievement Award by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and started to attend festivals and to give lectures and interviews until a hip injury precipitated a decline in health. In the preface to 'Painting with Light' John Alton states that his goal was "capturing bits of light at rest on things of beauty". [Tom Vallance in The Independent, 25 June 1996]