I hate bright movies.
I’m not talking about movies that are hopeful or optimistic. I’m talking about lighting choices. I hate movies that are unnaturally well-lit.
There are several consequences of this preference. As a general rule, I’m bothered by the look of classical Hollywood pictures from the 1930s and 40s. (This in spite of the fact that I love the era as a whole; the fact that the films are largely shot in black-and-white does help somewhat.) And the 1950s and 60s – don’t even get me started. Faced with the pressure of competing with free television, 1950s Hollywood collectively decided to make movies as bright and colorful as they possibly could. Technicolor was the order of the day. This look worked out OK in musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, but in serious dramas like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and thrillers like Vertigo? Not so much. When the colors in a film look radioactive and the actors are so well-lit that they appear to be bioluminescent, it’s a lot harder to buy into a film as gritty or a character as dark and brooding. (I firmly believe that my ongoing love/hate relationship with Hitchcock stems at least in part from the ridiculous lighting and color schemes he employed in many of his later films. Seriously, Hitch, would it have killed you to make Rear Window in black-and-white? And yes, I realize that this point-of-view puts me in the minority.)
Given my established hatred for bright films, it’s no surprise that my personal preferences veer towards film noir of the 1940s and the New Hollywood era of the late 60s and 70s, the latter of which helped to usher in an era of more stylized lighting in American cinema. Instead of a shadowless image, New Hollywood directors slowly began to embrace the darkness, both literally and figuratively – witness Polanski’s Chinatown, Pakula’s Klute (one of the best films ever made that no one but film students seems to have heard of), Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the opening scene of Coppola’s The Godfather, and the last scene of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Trained in film schools and armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and production techniques, it’s no surprise that directors of the 1970s frequently looked to the noir era for inspiration. And if the films of the New Hollywood directors can be said to represent the best of 70s film art, then slasher movies represent their twisted pop culture cousins: edgy, violent, and very, very dark, with Alien the darkest of them all.
The lighting design of Alien, put together by director Ridley Scott and cinematographer Derek Valint, is quite remarkable. In some respects, Alien is like and episode of Upstairs/Downstairs: there are the officers who stick to the plush upper decks of the Nostromo, and there are the laborers like Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) who work in the industrial lower decks of the ship. (I’ll be exploring this dynamic in much greater detail in a later article.) The upper decks are largely bright and comfortable, characterized by white furniture, white instruments, and most importantly white light. The lower decks, however, are very much reminiscent of the noir world: cold, dark, cramped, and dangerous. And not surprisingly, Ridley Scott, who later used noir-style lighting to great effect in Blade Runner, employs a noir-inspired lighting scheme to create Alien’s suitably horrifying atmosphere.
The defining attribute of noir cinematography is chiaroscuro, which is an Italian term borrowed from visual art that literally means “light-dark.” Chiaroscuro in film is, as one would expect, based on the idea of contrast between light and dark parts of the frame. Noir films utilize a wide variety of techniques to heighten the contrast within an image, and Alien borrows several of these methods – but instead of just writing about them, I’ll let the images speak for themselves.
The intergalactic version of the classic noir ‘light through Venetian blinds’ shot. Like many films of the noir era, the air is unnaturally thick with smoke; Ridley Scott burned incense on set until he achieved the desired effect. This sort of lighting can also be used to great effect when the shadows are cast across the face of an actor.
In noir scholarship, this type of lighting is usually thought to indicate a situation in which a character is figuratively trapped, with the bars of light evoking the bars of prison cell. This feeling of being trapped takes on more literal connotations in a film like Alien, in which the characters are physically trapped on the ship with the murderous monster.
In this frame, the shadow being cast across the actor’s face is of the alien itself. (It’s hard to make it out in a still image, but trust me, it’s there.) This use of shadow serves dual purposes: it ramps up the tension in anticipation of the death of Brett while simultaneously preserving a sense of mystery about what the alien really looks like. (At this point in the film, the alien is only glimpsed in shadow or extremely quick glances.)
And who says that this type of imagery has to be limited to human actors? Here’s the shadow of the alien across the face of Jones the cat, from the same scene as the previous image.
Noir films also loved lighting actors from behind, and Alien is no different. Having the actors backlit creates an unusual effect, in that it bathes their entire body in shadow, making them appear isolated and vulnerable. The two shots above can be seen as presaging Brett’s imminent demise.
Speaking of isolation, Alien also makes use of darkness at the edges of the screen to frame the characters, making them appear cut off from their surroundings and susceptible to sudden attack. In these images from Dallas’s (Tom Skerritt) death scene, the character is engulfed in darkness, with the light in the image appearing to be practical rather than external. (Practical light means that the light is coming from an actual object on set rather than an external lighting set-up.)
And finally, another noir hallmark: harsh and extreme lighting. These images of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), taken from near the end of the film, highlight severe lighting choices that represent an external manifestation of Ripley’s internal angst, in the mold of German Expressionism (which was an enormous influence on film noir).
Wait … comparing a slasher movie to expressionist art? You betcha. But that’s the brilliance of Ridley Scott: he brings an art house sensibility to a genre film. And that’s a major part of what makes Alien an all-time classic.
To see the other articles I’ve written so far in the 30 Days of Alien series, visit the link below: