Technicolor was a movie lover's aphrodisiac during Hollywood's Golden Age. It produced colors of astonishing depth, boldness and subtlety via a complex beam-splitting camera that generated three separate negatives. Lab technicians built them into a photographic sandwich that was developed with a unique dye-transfer system called imbibition. When you see a revival theater advertise a "Technicolor I.B. print," that's what the promoters are so excited about.
Technicolor's master was British cameraman Jack Cardiff (left), who in 2001 became the first cinematographer to receive an honorary Academy Award -- a prize usually bestowed on stars like Kirk Douglas and directors like Alfred Hitchcock. Cardiff, who died in 2009, pioneered the use of Technicolor as a vast expressive palette when others looked on it as eye candy. Cardiff worked with poetic intuition. He proved that Technicolor could achieve the limpidity of Old Masters, or the undulating shades of the Impressionists.
The two British movies that made Cardiff's international reputation came out on Criterion Collection DVDs and Blu-rays last week: "The Red Shoes" (see Monday's post) and "Black Narcissus."
When I interviewed him before he accepted the honorary Oscar, Cardiff modestly referred to "Black Narcissus," for which he won the 1947 cinematography Oscar, as "a piece of cake. Because the whole story was these nuns trying to found a convent and school in the high Himalayas and failing because of the sheer beauty of the place. This film had to be beautiful -- and for me, that was wonderful. The fact that the nuns wore this oatmeal kind of white, as a base - that was wonderful."
Furthermore, when director Michael Powell (who also made "The Red Shoes") decided to film "Black Narcissus" in a studio instead of on location, Cardiff found he was able to shoot a movie like an Old Master. "I was a big fan of Vermeer, and Caravaggio, too. I saw the advantage of keeping, as they did, to a simplicity of lighting." Of course, perfecting that simplicity called for innovations that antagonized the Technicolor company, which worried that any special filter or light effects would throw the movie out of focus. But Powell stood by him.
Cardiff went on to team up with several great directors, shooting impossibly elaborate ten-minute takes for Hitchcock's bomb, "Under Capricorn," and finding John Huston on "The African Queen" to be "pleasant, laidback -- the opposite of the screaming, raging dictator." But Powell remained his favorite, because he inspired a wonderful enthusiasm. "If anyone suggested 'Let's do this upside down, let's paint this black instead of red,' he'd say, 'I'd love it, let's do it.' He was never scared of anything."
Do you feel there's something unique about the look of old Technicolor movies? What recent films have taken your breath away because of their physical beauty? And have you checked out these deluxe new editions of "Red Shoes" and "Black Narcissus?"