These days, major cinematographers like Emmanuel Lubezki and Ed Lachman are as much of a draw to serious moviegoers as the directors they work with. Currently, Roger Deakins’ masterful work in the visually stunning “Blade Runner 2049” has led to one recurring question above all: Will Roger finally win the Oscar? Among the more striking aspects of Deakins’ accomplishment is the use of color: Virtually every shot has a different palette.
It feels like something we’ve never seen before, but have we? How does today’s best cinematography stack up against the great color films of the past?
Since the early 20th century, there have always been experimentations with color cinematography, but it wasn’t until the late ’30s, with the massive success of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind,” that color films became a staple of international cinema. With films stretching from 1947 to 2011, from masters like Jack Cardiff to Lubezki, here are our picks for the 12 movies with the best color cinematography of all-time.
“Black Narcissus” (1947)
Of the great studio era cinematographers, British DP Jack Cardiff was rare in the sense that his work improved in the transition to color after years of working in black and white. “Painterly” is an over-used word in describing the work of cinematographers, but with Cardiff it is 100% apt. The self-taught artist used the great masters, like Vermeer, as his model in creating his light on the sound stage.
Cardiff’s color palette was far more grounded compared to his Hollywood contemporaries, who were also using Technicolor, but his films still had an otherworldly quality in their muted beauty. Never was this been more true than on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “Black Narcissus,” where he created an almost mystical mountain world on a studio back lot. The story of a group of nuns who lose their self-control – mesmerized by the beauty of the Himalayas – is a difficult movie to pull off, as the characters’ hysteria is almost purely motivated by atmosphere, but in the hands of Cardiff their spiritual crisis becomes tangible — with images that transport the audience to a cinematic world that feels like it’s set somewhere between heaven and the edge of Earth.
“All That Heaven Allows” (1955) and “Far From Heaven” (2002)
Seeing three-strip Technicolor in the hands of Hollywood technicians remains one of the great pleasures of cinema. In the studio setting, Hollywood created colors schemes that popped with so much electric saturation (and color separation) that to this day it’s something no advance in digital technology has been able to replicate.
In “All That Heaven Allows,” Douglas Sirk and his great DP Russell Metty – working within the genre conventions of 1950s melodramas – used those Technicolor candy-colored surfaces as a prison for a suburban widow protagonist (Jane Wyman), whose central conflict was the pressure to maintain the facade of upper-middle class perfection juxtaposed to her love of a soulful, young tree farmer (Rock Hudson). Metty – who also shot Orson Welles’ masterpiece “Touch of Evil” – would, at key moments, slip into low-key noir lighting and use color to reveal the emotional truth that laid below the film’s colorful surfaces.
Nearly 50 years later, when director Todd Haynes wanted to see if he could use the language of 1950s melodrama – the same way Sirk had – in “Far From Heaven,” he tasked his DP Ed Lachman with trying to recreate the color palette and manufacturer studio look of “All That Heaven Allows” while shooting on location in New Jersey. Lachman, a technical wizard who does his homework, somehow nailed the look of an overhead grid light scheme (despite working with 10-foot domestic ceilings), a dazzling saturated color palette (despite the limitation of 2002 film stock) and even found a way to control the sun to give the exteriors a backlot feel. As with Sirk, the surface beauty serves as a form of repression with frames that literally imprison the characters battling racism, sexism and homophobia, while painting their emotional states with jaw-dropping color schemes.
“The Leopard” (1963)
“The Leopard” is a film that captures a moment of great transition, as an aging Italian prince (Burt Lancaster) watches the old world traditions he cherishes get washed away by social upheaval and a younger generation (represented by his nephew, played by Alain Delon) that have little use for the ways of the past. Luchino Visconti’s sweeping camera and Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography both capture this transition while at the same time eulogizing the past. In the famous ballroom scenes they bring to life the operatic grandness and golden colors of aristocratic life, while during the day the light streaming in the castle windows reveals the physical cracks of the frayed castle. The long film, which was butchered for its release, has been restored by a team of diehard fans that includes Martin Scorsese, allowing modern audiences to discover the glory of this 1963 Cannes Film Festival Palm d’Or winner.