When I first started working in New York, I found that the various talents there far exceeded those in Hollywood, especially in commercials, and even film. One of the leading commercial companies was MPO. They had a stable of top directors, and their lead was Michael Cimino. Howard Zeiff had his own company and I couldn’t wait to see his work on a motion picture. Of course, both went on to great acclaim.
MPO had a roster of a few great cinematographers, including Gordon Willis and Owen Roizman. I admired their work (and this was before their successes in films) because they filmed with a naturalism that I identified with, probably because I was self taught and didn’t know any other way. I also loved the LIFE magazine photographers, especially W. Eugene Smith. Of course, this was before the Brits, Ridley and Tony, Adrian, and others took over.
There’s an underrated talent that hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves and that is the cinematographer (and director) Gerald Hirschfeld.
Hirschfeld was a principal in MPO, and in addition to his own filming, he supervised the various camera departments and that included the greats Willis and Roizman. I first became aware of his work in the film FAIL SAFE and I was astonished at the beautiful black and white contrasts, much as I had been when I first saw Conrad Hall’s work in the television series, STONEY BURKE.
I wasn’t too aware of the other specifics of his work, commercials, etc. but FAIL SAFE stayed with me for quite a while and then I saw a very obscure film of his (as cinematographer) THE INCIDENT. It’s a story of two men terrorizing a bunch of people on a subway and is a precursor to THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3, and even the recent JOKER. Hirschfeld’s cinematography is insanely good, black and white, and I wondered what film stocks he used to get the terrific contrasts that are as good as any in any film (actually better). Remember, these were the days when you had to do everything, instruct the lab to the developing and printing gammas (contrasts), pre digital. Now, everything is easy. Then, you had to have relationships with the labs, developers, timers…
Hirschfeld went on to do more conventional work (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN) but this early work is underappreciated, but his influences lived on through Willis, and Roizman, and others.
By the way, the ending of the film, FAIL SAFE, is a brilliant sketch of New York City, truthful and evocative. The editing as well, is extraordinary, as good as anything, ever. It’s far more powerful and filmic than anything in the farce, DR. STRANGELOVE. No wonder why Kubrick tried to suppress the film. Also, the techniques represent what New York was doing that Hollywood wouldn’t or couldn’t.
When I first worked in New York, I tried to connect with THE FILMMAKER’S COOPERATIVE. I never could for whatever reason, but in the few times I filmed in California, I felt that everyone was corporate, averse to change. ‘This is the way we’ve always done it, and this is the way we do it.’ The New York people were more welcome to change and maybe it was because it was the commercials’ center and the commercials people were always trying to find new ways to sell things.
New York had the filmic edge. MEAN STREETS could not have been done in Hollywood. ON THE WATERFRONT was one of the first films to capture a ‘reality’ like the photographs in LIFE magazine. Kazan had come from THE GROUP THEATER of the thirties but compromised his talents by doing a bunch of ‘Hollywood’ movies before WATERFRONT.
Anyway, I loved to see the success of people I had run into peripherally, Gordon Willis, Owen, Cimino, Zieff, as they set the tone for the Brits to come in and make their contribution.