A Colorful Era in Filmmaking History
This year marks the 40th anniversary of “Dr. No,” the film that introduced James Bond to the movies, made Sean Connery a star and ushered in the ‘60s spy craze.
“Dr. No” also brought Pop art to the cinema with its super-slick design, thanks to cinematographer Ted Moore, production designer Ken Adam and Technicolor, whose celebrated dye-transfer printing process made those primary colors scream almost as loudly as the famous James Bond theme.
So with Bond mania amazingly still going strong after all these years (“Bond 20" is due in November, and the films have grossed more than $1.04 billion worldwide), it is fitting that the American Cinematheque lead off its second “Technicolor Dreams” series with “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love” on Friday night at the Egyptian Theatre.
Talk about enhanced reality. Bond and dye-transfer were a perfect visual match through the early ‘70s, even in these first two films, which relied more on glossy surfaces and exotic locations than fancy gadgets and fantastic settings.
In “Dr. No,” dye-transfer contributes an overripe look to the Caribbean locale. The same goes for Ursula Andress’ sensual presence. In “From Russia With Love” (1963), the race for the elusive Lektor in Istanbul and aboard the Orient Express offers a darker and richer palette.
To this day, the dye-transfer process arguably achieves greater clarity and vibrancy than conventional film printing by separating the primary colors and then individually applying complementary dyes directly to the film. A modern version of the process, which reigned from 1935 to 1974, was reintroduced a few years ago, but has been used only sporadically, mainly because it’s more expensive.
The best recent examples are “Apocalypse Now Redux,” “The Thin Red Line” and reissues of “Funny Girl” and “Rear Window.”
“Technicolor Dreams” runs on two consecutive weekends through Feb. 10. The series offers 16 classics, including nearly half a dozen rare nitrate prints, and covers a more diverse range of styles and genres than the previous series in 2000.
The best of the nitrate-era films is “Black Narcissus” (1947), the eerie and erotic British drama from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger that also screens Friday. Deborah Kerr plays a troubled nun overwhelmed by both the physical beauty and harsh climate of her new home in the Himalayas. This hothouse of repression and sexual longing was exquisitely photographed by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the master of Technicolor and the Vermeer of his craft when it came to manipulating light to convey sheer beauty and spiritual transcendence.
Cardiff won an Oscar for his work on “Black Narcissus,” and it’s hard at first to believe it wasn’t shot on location. Using oatmeal-colored tones and chaste-looking light in the early scenes and crimson tones and a fog filter for the sexually charged climax, Cardiff certainly pushed the aesthetic envelope, because during this time Technicolor was also a photographic process.
From 1935 to 1955, Technicolor (founded by Dr. Herbert Kalmus) utilized its own special three-strip camera that simultaneously exposed individual black and white film strips with a series of mirrors and prisms, because color negative film didn’t exist. Each strip was light sensitive to red, blue or green, and the colors were achieved during dye-transfer printing. The three-strip era ended with the advent of the color negative, yet dye-transfer endured, with some clever modifications.
But what an era it was. Not for nothing did they call it “glorious Technicolor.” Audiences experienced films as much as watched them, with Technicolor providing a surreal, 3-D-like experience. As director Martin Scorsese and others have pointed out, it was the equivalent of discovering masterworks in a museum. You were intoxicated by the colors and swept away by the emotions. Above all, these were films about color--both electric and refined--and were the result of brilliant collaborations between engineers, filmmakers and technicians.
On the oversaturated side, the series offers two more nitrate delights on Saturday: “Forever Amber” (1947), the 17th century costume drama directed by Otto Preminger that stars a blond Linda Darnell as a chamber-hopping maiden who sleeps her way to the court of Charles II (George Sanders), and “Blood and Sand” (1941), the smoldering melodrama from director Rouben Mamoulian in which dashing bullfighter Tyrone Power throws over Darnell for an even hotter Rita Hayworth (in her Technicolor debut).
Both are examples of Fox’s use of Technicolor at its most theatrical. “Forever Amber” may be a terrible movie, but it’s sumptuous to look at, with garish costumes and decor. “Blood and Sand,” which earned Oscars for cinematographers Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan, is imbued with the seductive style inspired by some of the great Spanish painters.
Delirious is probably the best way to describe the look of Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical film “Samson and Delilah” (1949), which screens Feb. 10 in a nitrate print.
It’s yet another feast for the eyes with little else to offer. An Academy Award winner for best art direction and costumes, you can decide who was more gorgeous: Victor Mature or Hedy Lamarr.
On the tamer side are two early examples of Technicolor from 1939 (screening on Feb. 9): “The Little Princess,” a Victorian rags-to-riches story starring Shirley Temple in a mint nitrate print; and “Gulliver’s Travels,” the animated classic from Max and Dave Fleischer that bravely followed in the footsteps of Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Both feature a sepia tone that is typical for the period, when Technicolor had to compensate for various printing deficiencies.
For sci-fi fans, two cult favorites, “Destination Moon” (1950) and “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” (1964), screen on Feb. 9.
The former is a colorful three-strip gem from producer George Pal that catapulted the genre in the ‘50s, earning an Oscar for special effects. The latter is a rarely revived film full of ‘60s angst and featuring a more muted look.
Speaking of which, the series offers several later examples of dye-transfer from the mid-'60s to the early ‘70s when it had to cope with a darker, grainier and more naturalistic trend in cinematography. This includes “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971), screening on Saturday; “Cabaret” (1972), “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) and “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) screening on Feb. 8; and “A Man for All Seasons” (1966), the best picture Oscar winner about the clash of principles and wills between Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) and his former friend King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw), screening on Feb. 10.
Fittingly, cinematographers Oswald Morris (“Fiddler on the Roof”), Geoffrey Unsworth (“Cabaret”) and Ted Moore (“A Man for All Seasons”) all won Oscars for their work.
Meanwhile, Bond’s screen debut isn’t the only anniversary being celebrated during “Technicolor Dreams.” There are also 50th-anniversary salutes on Sunday to John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” and John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge.” Like “Black Narcissus,” they each boast subtle palettes.
Filmed on location in Ireland, “The Quiet Man” stars an unusually sexy and sensitive John Wayne as a former boxer who returns to his birthplace and falls in love with the fiery Maureen O’Hara. The film offers a soft, misty look while emphasizing the gorgeous green countryside. Ford won an Oscar as did cinematographers Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout.
Unlike Baz Luhrmann’s sultry “Moulin Rouge,” Huston achieves a flatter, monochromatic look to simulate the style of painter Toulouse-Lautrec in his portrait of the notorious Parisian dance hall.
“Technicolor Dreams” is not to be missed. Although dye-transfer is fade-proof, there aren’t many prints available anymore, especially those films shot in three-strip. And the highly flammable nitrate, replaced by safety film in the early ‘50s, is even scarcer.
So the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.