If you had the privilege to have met Stanley Cortez, ASC (1908-1997), you’d know that he was an unforgettable figure. Tall, elegantly turned out and 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.” 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 variety of films, both high- and low-brow.
Cortez was no effete pretender. As a combat cameraman with the Army Signal Corps in World War Two, he traveled with General Patton; he also photographed the arrival of the Allies in 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 bestowed an even greater authority – especially if you annoyed him and he gave you a swat on the leg with it (which I can proudly attest to having experienced). But despite this, he was an essentially sweet man with a well-developed sense of himself. When I asked him how he came to shoot The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), 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.”
Cortez’s work in this film provides a master class in the use of hard light. While the style can appear somewhat dated to our modern eyes, I suspect it fell out of favor only because it’s so hard to do, let alone do well. Here, he places himself in the company of geniuses by imbuing a look that’s perfectly fitted to the story. Production Designer Albert S. D’Agostino’s ornate, cavernous sets surely presented Cortez with immense challenges, yet he met them with a practicality rooted in exquisite taste.
The camera is always on the prowl within the Ambersons’ Victorian mansion – booming, swooping and dollying with the characters as they move from one huge space to the next. The hard-light method demands precise flagging and cutting of every lamp in use; the size of the sets would indicate that Cortez’s overhead grid was the busiest in Hollywood. And when the camera starts roaming, you 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 magic.
The Magnificent Ambersons is also a superlative achievement in high contrast photography. Working with an extremely slow negative (ASA 25), Cortez frequently allowed his key light to fall off in dramatic fashion. The resulting pools of black then became strong graphic elements within the rigidly composed 1.33:1 frame. And with Welles once again indulging his penchant for deep focus, low angles and long takes, Cortez 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 be studied closely by every serious student of cinematography. And given today’s soft light approach to most every situation, professionals should have a look, too. It just might spark a revival.