Cinematographer. Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 12 February 1903. Education: Attended Emerson High School, Union City, New Jersey. Military Service: U.S. Signal Corps during World War II: filmed the liberation of Paris. Career: Camera operator during the 1930s; 1947—first feature film as cinematographer, It's a Wonderful Life ; 1952—shot the first 3-D feature film, Bwana Devil ; much work for TV, including episodes for Superman , Richard Diamond , and Four Star Theatre , and the mini-series The Money-changers , 1976, Washington: Behind Closed Doors , 1977, Little Women , 1978, and Scruples , 1980. Awards: Academy Award, for The Towering Inferno , 1974; Life Achievement Award, American Society of Cinematographers, 1989. Died: 7 September 1996, in Woodland Hills, California.
Films as Cinematographer:
It's a Wonderful Life (Capra) (co); Magic Town (Wellman); A Miracle Can Happen ( On Our Merry Way ) (K. Vidor and Fenton) (co)
My Dear Secretary (Martin)
Roughshod (Robson); Mrs. Mike (L. King); Johnny Allegro ( Hounded ) (Tetzlaff)
The Killer that Stalked New York ( The Frightened City ) (McEnvoy)
Cry Danger (Parrish); All that I Have (Claxton)
Without Warning (Laven); The Bushwackers ( The Rebel ) (Amateau); Red Planet Mars (Horner); Bwana Devil (Oboler); Loan Shark (Friedman)
The Twonky (Oboler); Vice Squad ( The Girl in Room 17 ) (Laven); Donovan's Brain (Feist); The Glass Wall (Shane); The Tall Texan (Williams); Appointment in Honduras (J. Tourneur); Charade (Kellino) (co)
Bengazi (Brahm); Ghost Town (Miner)
Quincannon, Frontier Scout ( Frontier Scout ) (Selander); Nightmare (Shane); Attack! (Aldrich); The Black Whip (Warren); Tension at Table Rock (Warren)
The Ride Back (Miner); The Garment Jungle (V. Sherman); China Gate (Fuller); Run of the Arrow (Fuller); The Unknown Terror (Warren); Forty Guns (Fuller); The Amazing Colossal Man (Gordon)
Underwater Warrior (Marton); Home before Dark (LeRoy)
Born Reckless (Koch); The FBI Story (LeRoy); Verboten! (Fuller); The Bat (Wilbur)
Ice Palace (V. Sherman); Thirteen Ghosts (Castle)
Gold of the Seven Saints (Douglas); Operation Eichmann (Springsteen); The Devil at Four O'Clock (Brecher); Sail a Crooked Ship (Brecher)
Convicts Four ( Reprieve ) (Kaufman); Hitler (Heisler); Confessions of an Opium Eater ( Evils of Chinatown ) (Zugsmith)
Bye Bye Birdie (Sidney); Toys in the Attic (Hill); Under the Yum Yum Tree (Swift); Gunfight at Comanche Creek (MacDonald)
Viva Las Vegas ( Love in Las Vegas ) (Sidney); Bullet for a Badman (Springsteen); Ride the Wild Surf (Taylor); Promises, Promises (Donovan); Kitten with a Whip (Heyes); Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Aldrich); The Young Lovers (Goldwyn) (co)
I Saw What You Did (Castle); The Flight of the Phoenix (Aldrich)
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (Jewison); The Swinger (Sidney); Warning Shot (Kulik); Who's Minding the Mint? (Morris)
Enter Laughing (C. Reiner); Tony Rome (Douglas); Fitzwilly ( Fitzwilly Strikes Back ) (Delbert Mann)
The Detective (Douglas); The Legend of Lylah Clare (Aldrich); Lady in Cement (Douglas); The Killing of Sister George (Aldrich)
Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (Katzin); Too Late the Hero (Aldrich)
Mrs. Pollifax—Spy (Martinson)
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (Taylor); The Grissom Gang (Aldrich); The Organization (Medford); Brian's Song (Kulik)
Ulzana's Raid (Aldrich); Gidget Gets Married (Swackhamer); Playmates (Flicker); The Crooked Hearts (Sandrich)
Cahill, United States Marshal ( Cahill ) (McLaglen); Emperor of the North (Aldrich)
Blazing Saddles (M. Brooks); The Longest Yard ( The Mean Machine ) (Aldrich); Shanks (Castle); The Towering Inferno (Guillermin) (co); Wonder Woman (McEveety); Honky Tonk (Taylor); Thursday's Game (Moore) (produced 1971)
The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (Frank)
The Choirboys (Aldrich); SST—Death Flight ( SST: Disaster in the Sky ) (Rich)
A Family Upside Down (Rich); The Clone Master (Medford)
Kenny Rogers as the Gambler (Lowry)
. . . All the Marbles ( The California Dolls ) (Aldrich)
Hammett (Wenders) (co); Airplane II: The Sequel (Finkleman); Desperate Lives (Lewis)
The Jerk, Too (Schultz—for TV)
Father of Hell Town (Medford—for TV); A Death in California (Mann—for TV)
A Winner Never Quits (Damski—for TV); Outrage! (Grauman—for TV)
Where Sinners Meet ( The Dover Road ) (Ruben) (asst cameraman); The Gay Divorcee ( The Gay Divorce ) (Sandrich) (asst cameraman)
Laddie (Stevens) (cameraman); Break of Hearts (Moeller) (cameraman)
Tom Brown's Schooldays (Stevenson) (cameraman)
Four for Texas (Aldrich) (2nd unit ph)
By BIROC: articles—
"Hollywood Launches 3-D Production," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), August 1952.
"Photographing Washington: Behind Closed Doors ," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1977.
Photoplay (London), August 1979.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1981.
On BIROC: articles—
Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.
Patterson, R., on Hammett in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1982.
Basinger, Jeanine, in The It's a Wonderful Life Book , 1987.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1989.
Obituary, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1996.
Obituary, in Cinefantastique (Forest Park), vol. 28, no. 6, 1996.
* * *
Joseph Biroc's cinematography has a no-nonsense competence that does not draw attention to itself. His images are always at the service of the story, never showy in or of themselves. It is easy to dismiss Biroc as a modest talent or (worse yet) to ignore him altogether; but a look at his filmography reveals a body of work of impressive skill, variety, vitality, and innovation.
Biroc learned the ropes as a cinematographer in the Army Signal Corps during World War II and did not begin working in Hollywood until his mid-forties. He received his first screen credit as co-photographer with Joseph Walker on Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life , and he applied Walker's teachings to the Capra-esque (though directed by William Wellman) Magic Town . Biroc wasted no time in proving his uncommon versatility; he provided some admirably hard-boiled images for films noir Johnny Allegro and Cry Danger and proved equal to the challenges of 3-D in Bwana Devil (the first film made in the process), special effects on a dimestore budget in The Amazing Colossal Man , and CinemaScope in The Devil at Four O'Clock and Bye Bye Birdie .
Biroc's long association with Robert Aldrich—beginning with Attack! and continuing until the director's untimely death in 1982—gave the cinematographer some of his most challenging assignments. Aldrich's work is strongly individualistic (eccentric, even) and Biroc was a trusted ally for translating that maverick vision into powerful and telling images. If the Aldrich films were all that survived of Biroc's work his career would still strike one as unusually provocative. From the punchy, gritty images of Attack! to the lush color stylings in The Legend of Lylah Clare , the austere landscapes of the survival in the desert drama The Flight of the Phoenix , the berserk pyrotechnics of The Grissom Gang to the sad dignity of Ulzana's Raid and the neon raunch of the world of female wrestling in . . . All the Marbles , Biroc and Aldrich worked together with a sympathy of purpose as productive as Griffith and Bitzer, Capra and Walker, and Bergman and Nykvist.
Other directors have not been as demanding of Biroc, and The Swinger ; The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming ; Who's Minding the Mint? ; and The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox can count his professional sheen as one of their few attributes. Biroc's name continues to appear on such box-office hits as Airplane! Though he has become one of cinematography's Grand Old Men, his work retains the muscle and clarity that has always distinguished it from that of his more prosaic peers. For that work, the American Society of Cinematographers bestowed on him its prestigious life achievement award in 1989.
—Frank Thompson, updated by John McCarty