Obituary: Stanley Cortez
Thursday 22 January 1998
Like Orson Welles, for whom he photographed The Magnificent Ambersons, Stanley Cortez was for most of his career at odds with the Hollywood system. His perfectionism, his insistence not only in making dramatic use of light, shade and colour but taking his time about it, may have turned off the major studios but he has long been held in the highest esteem by other cinematographers and film historians.
The Magnificent Ambersons came in 1942, a year after Citizen Kane. Filmed in a softer style than the bombastic Kane to suit its nostalgic portrait of a vanished era, Ambersons is still as visually daring and just as intoxicating to watch. Cortez was a master at recreating outdoor lighting on the sound stage, as in the strong shadows of the snow scenes, actually filmed inside an ice plant to create the right atmosphere.
His most stunning sequence in the film is that of the "last great ball" in which the camera follows actors into the mansion (a series of ceilinged sets) and is continually on the move, elaborately reframing the action, often in deep focus. The scene ends in an achingly beautiful shot of Dolores Costello in silhouette staring lovingly after the departing Joseph Cotten.
Before Ambersons, Cortez had been shooting B pictures at Universal, including thrillers where he had experimented in photographic effects. He had begun working in New York as an assistant to eminent portrait photographers of the day. He gained work at the Paramount studios in New York and went to Hollywood with his brother, the film star Ricardo Cortez. There he learnt much as a camera operator, working with some of the masters of light and helping design and execute some of the amazing shots in Busby Berkeley musical numbers.
After Ambersons, which gained him an Academy Award nomination, Cortez worked for the leading independent producers David O. Selznick and Walter Wanger. He shot most of Selznick's 1944 home-front epic Since You Went Away (and was Oscar-nominated again) before becoming a war cinematographer, working with the directors Frank Capra and John Huston.
In the 1950s he toiled on many minor pictures, often required to handle inferior colour systems. Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952) in Supercinecolor at least renewed his acquaintance with Charles Laughton, reduced to playing Kidd. Cortez had first worked with Laughton in Paris on the thriller The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949), battling with the new Ansco Colour process.
When Laughton made his directorial debut on The Night of the Hunter (1955), he insisted on having Cortez and together they devised the film's antiquated, dreamlike, expressionistic look so appropriate to its bizarre Depression- era story of a religious fanatic (Robert Mitchum) terrorising two small children. Quite remarkable but hopelessly uncommercial, The Night of the Hunter has subsequently won recognition as a masterpiece. With Ambersons, it stands as the greatest testament to Cortez's skill.
Gaining occasional plum assignments, Cortez was apt to exhaust the patience of producers. "He was a very nice man, but he had a problem; he thought he had all the time in the world on a big picture," said the director Robert Aldrich, explaining why Cortez was removed from the 1954 Burt Lancaster western Apache after a week. (Cortez lit colour films as dramatically as he lit black-and-white and his arriving scenes are easily spotted.)
The cinematographer had one strong ally in Susan Hayward who admired the way he had photographed her as the alcoholic night-club singer of Smash-up, the Story of a Woman (1947), and successfully requested him for Top Secret Affair (1957), Thunder in the Sun (1959) and Back Street (1961).
Like John Alton, another often aggravating perfectionist, Cortez wrote about his craft, providing a definitive essay on motion picture photography for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was also highly active in the affairs of the powerful American Society of Cinematographers.
Foreign directors often wanted to work with him. For the British-based Canadian Silvio Narizzano, he shot the ponderous, visually overblown western Blue (1968). For Britain's John Guillermin, he came to Europe and shot the war drama The Bridge at Remagen (1969) in appropriately muted colours.
But when Roman Polanski chose him for Chinatown (1974), it was a familiar story: he was fired after 10 days for being out of touch with modern methods of lighting and too slow. He came out of semi-retirement for the American scenes of the French director Claude Lelouch's Another Man, Another Chance (1977), though it seems unlikely he was terribly enthusiastic about the film's relentlessly golden-drenched look.
Cortez will be remembered as one of the masters of monochrome. He liked to made bold use of light and shadow with little gradation between and, besides his liking for silhouettes, had a distinctive touch of placing thick bars of shadows across actors to help give depth to his images. This heightened style was particularly appropriate to melodrama and to the hysterical plots of his two low-budget films for the writer-director Samuel Fuller, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).
"You've got to be brave. Get out there and do it. Gamble!" Cortez urged film students at a seminar in 1976. He certainly set a good example. But no screen actor these days wants his face half-hidden by shadow, and razor- sharp deep-focus photography is almost a lost art.
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