Einstein By Matchlight

You can’t light a scene with a matchstick. The match will convincingly light itself — that is, the flame will photograph as a bright flare. But the light won’t carry any real distance, won’t give much appreciable light on anything else, except for the brief moment when it is struck: numerous films noir have made dramatic moments out of a cigar being lit.

We’re talking 35mm here, but I think even on digital you’d be struggling to get an image like this. Peter Lorre, as “Dr. Einstein,” descending staircase in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. Frank Capra is minus his usual camera genius, since he’s now at Warners, where a hard-edged but glossy style prevails. Sol Polito lensed this shot.

In some movies, fake candles have been fitted with fluorescent tubes, shining from one side to give off a glow from roughly the right direction. A cable typically runs down the actor’s sleeve to a power source somewhere. There’s no room for such a contraption inside a matchstick, but Lorre MIGHT have a light in his palm. He might even have a glove to protect him from the heat.

This frame gives away part of the trick. Look at Dr. Einstein’s shadow on the wall on the right. Obviously the match could not cast the shadow of his arm in that direction. So a much more powerful lamp is being trained on Lorre’s face from the lower left, a tight spotlight following him down, trying its best not to hit the back of his hand. They might even have painted the back of his hand black to help the illusion.

Since Lorre turns two corners, it’s possible that more than one lamp was used, in relays, fading up and down to give the impression of a single, continuous roving light, but no trace of this trick is apparent. In some of Freddie Francis’s horror films you’ll see similar tricks, and he didn’t always have time to make it perfect. You FEEL the action of the dimmer-switches.

NO WAY could a match be lighting Raymond Massey, lurking behind Lorre (he does a lot of lurking in the picture).

And it certainly seems like Lorre has something in his hand that’s lighting his jacket and face — but one could still believe it was the match if one didn’t know better.

That’s good stuff. The public doesn’t really think about the cinematographer’s job being, besides making attractive and dramatic shots, the simulating of light sources.

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