Art Director. Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 27 December 1893; billed as Al D'Agostino in early years in Hollywood. Career: Stage designer for four years; then worked in art departments of several Hollywood companies: for MGM, for four years, Selznick, and Universal; 1939–58—supervising art director, RKO: collaborated on entire output of the company; 1943—directed the film Zombies on Broadway . Died: 14 March 1970.
Salvation Nell (Webb) (co)
She Goes to War (H. King) (co)
Headline Shooter (Brower) (co); Midshipman Jack (Cabanne) (co); One Man's Journey (Robertson) (co); Blood Money (R. Brown) (co); I Cover the Waterfront (Cruze)
Palooka (Stoloff); The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (Ludwig); Finishing School (Tuchock and Nicholls)
Werewolf of London (Walker); The Raven (Landers); She Gets Her Man (Kenton); The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Walker); King Solomon of Broadway (Crosland); Manhattan Moon (Walker); Three Kids and a Queen (Ludwig)
The Invisible Ray (Hillyer); Love before Breakfast (W. Lang); Dracula's Daughter (Hillyer)
A Doctor's Diary (C. Vidor); John Meade's Woman (Wallace); Her Husband Lies (Ludwig); The Great Gambini (C. Vidor)
The Gladiator (Sedgwick)
The Stranger on the Third Floor (Ingster)
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Hitchcock)
Cat People (Tourneur); The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles)
I Walked with a Zombie (Tourneur); This Land Is Mine (Renoir); The Leopard Man (Tourneur); The Ghost Ship (Robson); The Seventh Victim (Robson); Zombies on Broadway (+ d)
Tender Comrade (Dmytryk); Murder My Sweet (Dmytryk); The Curse of the Cat People (Fritsch and Wise); Mademoiselle Fifi (Wise); None but the Lonely Heart (Odets)
The Body Snatcher (Wise); The Spiral Staircase (Siodmak); The Enchanted Forest (Landers); The Bells of St. Mary's (McCarey); Cornered (Dmytryk); Isle of the Dead (Robson); The Brighton Strangler (Nosseck)
Till the End of Time (Dmytryk); Bedlam (Robson); From This Day Forward (Berry); Notorious (Hitchcock); The Locket (Brahm); The Falcon's Adventure (Berke) (co); The Stranger (Welles); Back to Bataan (Dmytryk); Lady Luck (Marin); Badman's Territory (Whelan)
Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (Rawlins); Crossfire (Dmytryk); The Woman on the Beach (Renoir); The Long Night (Litvak); Mourning Becomes Electra (Nichols); Night Song (Cromwell); Tycoon (Wallace); Rachel and the Stranger (Foster); Out of the Past ( Build My Gallows High ) (Tourneur)
Berlin Express (Tourneur); Blood on the Moon (Wise); The Boy with Green Hair (Losey); I Remember Mama (Stevens); They Live by Night ( The Twisted Road ) (Ray)
The Set-Up (Wise); Adventure in Baltimore (Wallace); The Window (Tetzlaff)
The Thing (Nyby)
Beware My Lovely (Horner); The Lusty Men (Ray); Clash by Night (F. Lang); Macão (von Sternberg); The Big Sky (Hawks); Angel Face (Preminger)
Androcles and the Lion (Erskine); The Hitch-Hiker (Lupino); Devil's Canyon (Werker); Second Chance (Maté)
The French Line (Bacon); Susan Slept Here (Tashlin)
Underwater (J. Sturges)
Back from Eternity (Farrow); The Conqueror (Powell); Great Day in the Morning (Tourneur); I Married a Woman (Kanter)
Jet Pilot (von Sternberg—produced 1950); The Unholy Wife (Farrow); Run of the Arrow (Farrow)
Dorst, Gary, in Cinefantastique (New York), Summer 1971.
* * *
Albert S. D'Agostino's career as supervising art director at RKO in the 1940s has always been overshadowed by the more conspicuous career of Van Nest Polglase whose regime in the same position at the studio extended over the flamboyant 1930s. Polglase's designs were large and opulent, D'Agostino's smaller and more conservative, though no less impressive in their ability to stretch a budget while using the sets to underpin character psychology.
Though he created sets for dramas of some of the industry's top directors, D'Agostino's work is most closely associated with the horror and mystery genres, particularly with the low-budget efforts of producer Val Lewton. Much of his early work for Universal on films such as The Raven , Dracula's Daughter , and Werewolf of London continued that studio's gothic tradition of dank dungeons and fantastic laboratories. The move from Universal to RKO was a move from the shuffling monster school of horror to a brand of narrative grounded in psychological causality. Consciously creepy sets gave way to spaces that were often more normal at first glance but were in fact braced by considerable psychic influence. A dream sequence in The Stranger on the Third Floor , a D'Agostino collaboration with Polglase, found direct projection of a character's psychological state in a series of minimal, expressionistic sets. The protagonist's sense of guilt is conveyed in sets that grow increasingly abstract to the point where a jail cell is suggested by merely a bed and the shadows of bars. Not all of D'Agostino's work is as overt in its linkage of characters' subconscious states with physical surroundings due to simple narrative strictures, hence often a single, realistic setting would serve as a psychological metaphor for an entire film.
D'Agostino was able deftly to balance a sense of reality with metaphoric undercurrents reflecting the interior state of characters. Most of the films designed by D'Agostino and Walter Keller for the Lewton thrillers feature at least one set that serves the metaphoric function. I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man both contain fountains which act as central staging points for action and as the psychic centers of the films. In the former film, a fountain in the form of St. Sebastian materializes the characters' personal sense of martyrdom and pain. Like the seemingly random narrative of The Leopard Man , and the fate which afflicts its characters, the ball suspended by the waters of a fountain at the center of that film appears to be controlled by larger, intangible forces. Isle of the Dead recreates the Arnold Bocklin painting that inspired the movie and centers much of the film's polemic about faith and death on a parapet on which a votive fire burns. The key set for The Seventh Victim is a room, decorated with only a chair and a noose, which becomes a manifestation of the heroine's philosophy of life and death. Also crucial to the film, as with many designed by D'Agostino, is the staircase, often functioning as a path to sexual invitation or initiation. The double staircase in The Seventh Victim is a conspicuous symbol of the choices in life available to the characters in the film.
While D'Agostino's sets were often motivated by psychology, designs were also prompted by budgetary concerns. The massive, ornate staircase from The Magnificent Ambersons was reused numerous times in slightly altered forms, and the 18th-century English insane asylum in Bedlam was a frugal refitting of sets left from The Bells of St. Mary's . James Agee and others lauded the Lewton unit for its ability to create convincing period sets on almost nonexistent budgets, with 19th-century Edinburgh ( The Body Snatcher ) and the small French village caught up in the Franco-Prussian War ( Mademoiselle Fifi ) often singled out as examples of D'Agostino and Keller's most evocative work.
Much of the Polglase influence continued in D'Agostino's work, notably in the expressionist motives favored by Polglase for thrillers. These characteristics became exploited fully in the studio's extensive production of the film noir in the post-war years. D'Agostino continued and refined some of the Polglase tenets while leaving his own unique mark on the studio. By linking characters to their surroundings on a psychological level rather than simply placing them in handsomely designed spaces, Albert D'Agostino added a degree of depth to art direction that had been largely lacking since the Expressionist period in Germany.