James Wong Howe: 7 Highest-Rated Movies That Are Essential Viewing

You won't want to miss these.


Google commemorated the life of James Wong Howe on Friday, the legendary Chinese-American movie pioneer that helped popularize a number of key cinematography techniques. Through a special doodle, the search engine paid tribute to the Hollywood icon that started his career in an era dominated by silent movies, and ended in a new world with groundbreaking technologies.

Howe used a number of key techniques to make his films shine, and actresses adored working with him because of his ability to bring out their best features. One such technique was deep-focus cinematography, which involved keeping the background and foreground in focus at the same time. Another was using dark backgrounds to create dramatic effects in the days of black-and-white films. Howe received 16 Oscar nominations during his career, receiving one for Hud and one for The Rose Tattoo.

Howe has an extensive back catalog and helped create over 130 films. Here are seven of his greatest films, ranked by their rating on the Internet Movie Database:

7. Fantasia

Disney’s 1940 animated extravaganza needs no introduction — but Howe’s role may well do. Howe shot the live-action footage in his role as cinematographer on the film, but his work went uncredited. From a career that started in black-and-white, the technicolor wonder serves as a testament to how far the industry progressed around Howe during his time. To a younger generation, it’s perhaps his most well-known contribution to the world of filmmaking: the collection of animated segments, including an iconic tale of Mickey Mouse as a sorcerer’s apprentice, regularly ranks as one of the greatest films ever made.

Running time: Two hours and five minutes.

6. Male and Female

This 1919 film stars Gloria Swanson as Lady Mary Lasenby, whose shipwreck leaves her stranded with her butler played by Thomas Meighan. The film marks an early success in Howe’s career. He’d started working as a janitor in Laskey Studios’ camera room two years prior. The cinematographer on the Cecil B. DeMille project needed a fourth assistant cameraman for shooting, so Howe was promoted. The film was a smash hit.

Running time: One hour and 56 minutes.

5. Hud

This 1963 classic won 15 awards including three Oscars. One of those Academy Awards, for best black-and-white cinematography, gave James Wong Howe his second and last Oscar.

The movie focuses on Texas rancher Homer Bannon, who becomes embrioled in a feud with his alcoholic son Hud played by Paul Newman. Ruthless and arrogant, Hud clashes with everyone and everything including his stern father.

Running time: One hour 52 minutes.

4. Something to Think About

Fresh from the success of Male and Female, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1920 drama saw Howe return as assistant cameraman in another production that brought success. The story focuses on the rich Markley and his relationship with Ruth, the daughter of a blacksmith whose education Markley is funding.

Running time: One hour 18 minutes.

3. Desert Nights

Desert Nights movie poster.


This 1929 silent adventure film sees Howe take up the role of cinematographer, with a story of a diamond-robbing con man that ends up lost in the desert without water after a sandstorm. To make it more realistic, Howe let John Gilbert and other stars grow out their beards and look disheveled.

Running time: One hour and two minutes.

2. The Thin Man

This 1934 classic sees a detective, Nick Charles, and his wife Nora investigate a murder mystery. The characters grew into an iconic duo that appeared in numerous other movies, TV shows, radio appearances and more.

Running time: One hour and 31 minutes.

1. Sweet Smell of Success

Howe’s 1957 drama not only ranks highest out of all his films based on IMDb user score, but its 2002 re-release also scored a perfect 100 on Metacritic. The tale of corruption in New York City focuses on columnist J.J. Hunsecker getting a press agent to break up his sister’s relationship with a jazz musician. Tony Curtis won best actor for this film at the 1958 Bambi Awards.

Running time: One hour and 36 minutes.

Related Tags