The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Every so often it’s worth looking back to one of the old ASC masters for an invigorating jolt of craftsmanship, the likes of which so far exceeds what we see today that it should make all of us consider a different career. There are plenty of examples to call upon, but one in particular inspired this column: Stanley Cortez’s Oscar-nominated cinematography for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).

If you had the privilege to have met Stanley during his lifetime (1908-1997), you’d already know he was an unforgettable figure. Tall, elegantly turned out and, even when  silent, possessed of an imposing demeanor, there was nothing about him that betrayed his New York City roots or his birth name of Stanislaus Krantz. Instead, he projected an air of European royalty, which, I’ve been told, led some of his fellow ASC members to sarcastically refer to him as “The Baron” (behind his back, of course). It was an apt appraisal, though, and his imperious presence at the Clubhouse during his astonishing 63 years as a member was backed up by superb work on a raft of varied films, both highbrow and lowbrow.

Stanley was no effete pretender. As a combat cameraman with the Army Signal Corps in World War II, he traveled with Gen. Patton; he also photographed the liberation of Paris, the Yalta Conference, and the liberation of several concentration camps. In his later years, he carried a cane with an ornate headpiece; it fit him somehow and seemed to bestow an even greater authority — especially if you annoyed him and received a swat on the leg with it (which I can proudly attest to having experienced). But despite the outward appearance, he was an essentially sweet man with a well-developed sense of himself. When I asked him how he came to shoot Ambersons, which was Orson Welles’ follow-up to Citizen Kane, he replied, “Toland was on another assignment, so Welles was free to use the best cameraman in Hollywood.”

Stanley’s work leaves little room for dispute. The Magnificent Ambersons is nothing short of a master class in the use of hard light. It’s understandable that this style might appear dated to modern eyes; I suspect it fell out of favor only because it’s so hard to do, let alone do well. Here, Stanley places himself in the company of geniuses by imbuing a look so fitted to the story that he makes it seem easy to create. I assure you, it wasn’t. Recognition must also be given to the extraordinary production design of Albert S. D’Agostino; his ornate, cavernous sets surely presented Stanley with immense challenges, yet Stanley met them with a practicality rooted in good taste.

Few of the scenes situated in the Ambersons’ Victorian mansion are shot from static positions. The camera always seems to be on the prowl — booming, swooping and dollying with the characters as they navigate one huge space after another. The hard-light method demands precise flagging and cutting of every lamp in use; the size of the sets would indicate that Stanley’s overhead grid was the busiest in Hollywood. And when the camera starts moving, I can only imagine the intricate ballet engineered by an army of grips and electricians as they flagged, netted and dimmed the lights while the actors and camera traveled — all in real time, and without benefit of postproduction corpse revival.

If asked to sum up the photography of The Magnificent Ambersons, I’d call it a superlative achievement in high contrast. Working with an extremely slow negative (ASA 25), Stanley frequently allowed his key light to fall off in dramatic fashion. The resulting pools of black are so devoid of detail that they often become prime graphic elements within the exquisitely composed 1.33:1 frame. Even more amazingly — with Welles once again indulging his penchant for deep focus, low angles and long takes — Stanley controlled his lighting to such a degree that it’s almost impossible to spot the double shadows so common in the cinematography of that era.

The Magnificent Ambersons is a triumph of vision and execution that makes you beg for more. Shamefully butchered by the studio before its release, the surviving version should still be studied closely by every serious student of cinematography. And given today’s propensity for using soft light in most every situation, it might not be a bad idea for serious professionals to have another look, too.

 

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