I caught most of Flashdance on TV the other night, and was struck by how dark the lighting is. Not just a scene here or there, but the whole movie. See the gallery at the end of this post, and many more pictures in a post about Pittsburgh in film from What Price Glory.
The plot, dialog, and character development are nothing to write home about, but it is worth checking out for its look and sound.
Some scenes are evenly dim to convey the cloudy and dingy atmosphere that the characters are struggling to emerge from. On the other hand, many scenes have high-contrast lighting to make their lives look more stylized. This chiaroscuro can heighten the tone of romance or intimacy, as well as suggest the almost other-worldly nature of the nightlife environment.
Filmed in 1983, it represents a bridge between the gritty naturalism of the '70s and the stylized music-video look of the '80s. Just six years earlier, the similar movie Saturday Night Fever doesn't feature many scenes with high-contrast lighting, strongly back-lit shots that make people look like shadows, smoke giving the light a hazy quality, and so on.
I don't recall any shots from Flashdance that are destined for the cinematography hall of fame, but I appreciated the effort to sustain a dark look from one scene to the next for the entire duration. It does give the movie a distinct sense of place and time, aside from being shot on location in Steel City during the recession of the early '80s.
The iconic shot of an exotic dancer in a prop chair being doused with water shows how much the movie's look and feel depends on dark and high-contrast lighting. You can find many re-creations of this shot on Google Images, but they all tend to have brighter and more even lighting, so that the girl doesn't look like a shadow in profile. It just looks like a cheesecake photo from any random lad mag. The shadowy look of the original shot obscures the details of her body, so it doesn't come across quite as pornographic as it would have with standard lighting.
It's rare to find such an unusual visual approach in such a popular movie (it ranked 3rd at the box office for 1983). Can anyone think of another hit movie that is so distinctly dark, for both interior and exterior shots, and for daytime as well as nighttime shots?
Here are 20 images that show how broadly the dim and chiaroscuro look is throughout Flashdance.