Sunday, October 28, 2018

Piecing together the technical story of Jigsaw

In late 1948, the publication American Cinematographer revealed the unique method in which Jigsaw was recorded. Jigsaw differed from the majority of American films being made at the time and was able to use a small budget to its advantage.

A film noir about a district attorney whose investigation into a suicide leads to a much more sinister plot involving political extremists,  Jigsaw starred Franchot, Jean Wallace, Myron McCormick, and Marc Lawrence. The film was made on a small budget, but what it lacked in budget it made up for in a Who's Who of cameo appearances. It featured cameos by Henry Fonda, John Garfield, Marlene Dietrich, Marsha Hunt, and others.

American Cinematographer praised Don Malkames, director of photography, for his skill at creating a lighting quality expected in studio films without fancy equipment and special-made sets. Journalist Norman Keane wrote:
This production demonstrates that feature films can be photographed in natural settings and locations...The natural locations were used because they afforded economy in production. Not a single set was built for the entire picture. Even the props were those found on the locations. The sites and locales used included interior of the Brooklyn Museum, a Fifth Avenue pet shop, a prominent night club, its dressing rooms, a large restaurant of unique design, an apartment house interior, elevators, and a warehouse...Every set was a challenge...none of the luxury lighting equipment of Hollywood studios. He [Don Malkames] had to get around the limitations of low ceilings of the apartment in which a great deal of the action took place, of the fixed walls of narrow halls and of elevators, and of the immovable fixtures, furniture, etc., which he invariably found in such locations as the pet shop. Before starting to shoot the picture, he had considered using mostly photo spot lamps and R-2 photofloods, but he found that even after building a number of barn doors and hangers for use with these lights, they would not give the precise lighting control necessary. 
Malkames used Mole-Richardson light spots, "inky dinks" for key lighting, and "150 watt broads for fill in light." Malkames secured lighting to ceiling beams to give scenes a more natural look and photographed the entire film with a fast lens in "exceptionally low key." He also used shafts of light to enhance the more suspenseful scenes.

Franchot said:
It is doubtful that there are many cameramen who could achieve the excellent quality of lighting that Malkames did, considering the lighting equipment he had to work with and the limitations of his sets.
Keane's article also uncovered another interesting element to Jigsaw's photography. The film was recorded entirely without sound!
Another thing which greatly simplified the photography was the absence of sound equipment—especially the mike boom which, under the lighting conditions used...most certainly would have involved unwanted shadows...It was the belief of the producers Lee and Danziger, based on long experience of dubbing foreign versions, that it is possible to get greater dramatic feeling into the dialogue when it is post-recorded and dubbed in after the picture is cut.
After the film was recorded, the cast reassembled at the recording studio. As scenes were projected on a screen, Franchot, Jean, and the rest of the cast spoke their lines. Other sounds such as the ringing of telephones, footsteps and so on were also recorded at that time. 

The cast and crew were excited to think of how this method would be studied by future producers and students of low-budget movies. They also thought it would prove a successful method for television movies in the future.

I knew the film was low-budget and that the producers, director, and Franchot himself took pride in its originality, but I had no idea of the lengths they went with natural lighting and post-filming dubbing. After learning how much the film was praised for its lighting and how the crew felt it would be studied by film students and television producers, I am even more frustrated that it fell into public domain. As a public domain title, the film has been neglected and is in bad shape. All of the copies you watch online and even the DVD I own are such poor quality in sight and sound. Can you imagine if we could see it in its original theatrical glory?

I rewatched the film after reading the American Cinematographer article and took notice of all the lighting tricks and was impressed by the effortlessly seamed dubbed video. I've always felt this was a very good performance of Franchot's (I wish he'd made more film noirs like this and I Love Trouble) and I like Jean's femme fatale character as well.

Here's the full movie on the Internet Archive. (If the embedded video doesn't play, click here.)


Keane, Norman. "'Jigsaw' Filmed Without Sound or Sets." American Cinematographer. December 1948.