Through the Lens of James Wong Howe

Saturday, Dec 4, 2021 - 7:30pm to 11:00pm
Black and white image of James Wong Howe speaking to Rock Hudson on set

UCLA Film & Television Archive presents free screenings at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum.


Please review our required COVID-19 precautions and updated admission policies.


UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Hugh M. Hefner Classic American Film Program present

Through the Lens of James Wong Howe

One of the most widely sought-after Hollywood Golden Age cinematographers was James Wong Howe (1899-1976), who, having shot over 130 features between 1923 and 1975, is today considered one of the most innovative directors of photography to ever work behind a camera. Born Wong Tung Jim in Canton Province, China, in 1899, Howe moved to America at the age of five and settled in southeastern Washington state, where an encounter with a Brownie camera at a local drugstore sparked his curiosity for photography. Arguably the first to make use of deep focus photography, namely in the pre-Code comedy Transatlantic (1931), Howe was consistently on the vanguard of technological ideation: he liberated stationary cameras with his version of a dolly for The Rough Riders (1927), choreographed early helicopter shots for Picnic (1955), and expanded fields of vision with extreme wide-angle lenses. Though his professional accolades continued to accumulate, with 10 Academy Award nominations and two wins for The Rose Tattoo (1955) and Hud (1963), the cinematographer contended with extreme anti-Asian racism throughout his life. Howe was denied United States citizenship until the 1943 repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, when the 44-year-old was already 20 years into a groundbreaking career in an industry that has historically made little room for non-white creatives. From Borzage to Hawks to Frankenheimer and dozens of others, Howe’s unique eye gave each of their films a distinct visual richness. The Archive is proud to present two films from our collection that highlight his masterful work with shadow and light.

Sweet Smell of Success

U.S., 1957

To execute the film's distinct nocturnal look, Howe modeled Success after photojournalist Weegee's uncompromising images of street-level life in New York City. On location for just a few short weeks in Manhattan, the crew shot between midnight and 6 a.m. to make use of the harsh lights of Times Square and Broadway. Howe’s prowess in etching with shadow adds a “crisp, threatening, noir-like” hardness that director Alexander MacKendrick was seeking for this biting satire.

35mm, b&w, 96 min. Director: Alexander MacKendrick. Based on the novelette by Ernest Lehman. Screenwriters: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman. With: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison.


U.S., 1966

Character actor John Randolph plays Arthur Hamilton, a frustrated banker who undergoes a procedure that transforms him into the younger, fitter painter Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). Every production detail gives Seconds its lingering, eerie sensibility. Often using multiple handheld Arriflex cameras and various fish-eye lenses to drastically distort the image, Howe realized the film’s unique aesthetic in collaboration with art director Ted Haworth, whose labyrinthic, warped sets aid in attaining the film’s unsettling, abstract mise-en-scene.

35mm, b&w, 106 min. Director: John Frankenheimer. Based on the novel by David Ely. Screenwriter: Lewis John Carlino. With: Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, John Randolph.