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The Accidental Art Of The Contact Sheet

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As a new book shines light on the hidden history of iconic Hollywood films, Andrew Lowry looks at the accidental art of the contact sheet

Think of a famous image from a film you love. Whether it features Bogart, Brando or Brad Pitt, the chances are it’s not actually from that film. Since it’s unrealistic to extract still images from a 35mm film reel (or today’s equivalent), Hollywood has long hired photographers to capture still images of its scenes and stars, either just before or just after cameras roll, mostly for promotion and publicity.

Now, since the industry has been known to share the Khmer Rouge’s dismissive view of history, most of these shots have ended up in the bin, usually in the form of their contacts – collections of pictures printed on to sheets for quick review. Offering tantalising glimpses of what happened just before and after famous pictures were taken, these documents (often featuring scribbles, crosses and notes) were regarded as mere by-products, but they’re treasured now by film buffs and fans.

Thankfully, a new book, Hollywood Frame By Frame: Cinema’s Unseen Contact Sheets, includes exhumed images from some of history’s most iconic film shoots. Be it Audrey Hepburn blinking in smoke after her famous shot from Breakfast At Tiffany’s, or Harvey Keitel on the set of Apocalypse Now before he was recast, it’s a rare glimpse into the craft of cinematic imagery.

As Hollywood’s various golden ages recede into the distant past, these candid shots are a remarkable last look at the people who made the films what they were.

Sergio Takes His Shot

A Fistful Of Dollars director Sergio Leone is known for his westerns, most of which were shot in Spain. This resulted in a melange of languages on the set of the international productions, with Leone – in the process of making his classic 1968 revenge flick Once Upon A Time In The West – often having to simply mime what he wanted to happen or, as shown here, demonstrate his preferred way to fire a gun.

Brooding Brando

After a sensational run of films displaying the then-new technique of method acting, Marlon Brando built his credibility with a more classically-inflected turn as Mark Antony in Joseph L Mankiewicz’s 1953 adaptation of Julius Caesar. Brando wasn’t too taken with his own performance, unlike co-star John Gielgud, who offered the US star a season on the London stage.

Monroe’s Return

Disillusioned with the industry, Marilyn Monroe took a break from performance for a year in the mid-Fifties. Bus Stop (1956) marked her return, bolstered by acting classes in New York and the founding of her own production company, which ensured she was paid fairly for the first time.

Bobby’s Baby

Raging Bull (1980) was Robert De Niro’s pet project: seeing an opportunity in boxer Jake LaMotta’s autobiography (Raging Bull was his nickname), he badgered Martin Scorsese to make a film version with him. Scorsese repeatedly refused until, brought low by cocaine addiction, he could finally understand the character’s drive toward self-destruction. However, capturing these pictures of the production came with its own challenges, as Raging Bull’s set photographer Christine Loss recalls. “De Niro never wanted a still camera pointed at him. It distracted him. My strategy was to stay out of his eye-line and still manage to get great shots.”

Stewart’s Smooch

Rear Window, Hitchcock’s 1954 classic one-location suspense flick, saw Grace Kelly give one of the most radiant performances in film history. These carefully-staged publicity pics show her and co-star Jimmy Stewart trying to nail the ‘just about to kiss’ pose favoured by film posters of the day.

Hollywood Frame By Frame by Karina Longworth is published in September, priced £20 (Ilex)

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