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A Colorful Era in Filmmaking History

The 'Technicolor Dreams' series, which includes visually slick Bond films, salutes the celebrated process that created vibrant hues and clarity.

January 31, 2002|BILL DESOWITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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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.

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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.

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