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Black-and-white and wide all over

LACMA toasts the 50th anniversary of CinemaScope with films made memorable by the dramatic format.

January 24, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

A celebration of movies filmed in wide-screen and glorious ... black and white? Incongruous as it may seem, a group of scrappy directors and producers in the 1950s and '60s realized the artistic potential of using the wide-screen format, initially reserved for color historical epics or other glossy spectaculars, for black-and-white features.

According to noted cinematographer John Bailey ("The Accidental Tourist," "As Good As It Gets"), many members of his profession would prefer to shoot features in black and white in the wide-screen or anamorphic format "since one of the major things we do is lighting. In terms of different degrees of light, brightness and shadows and darkness, you don't have the psychological or emotional distraction that color can bring."

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's film department is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the wide-screen format with a 23-movie festival, "In Glorious Black-and-White Scope." The eclectic retrospective highlights the artistry of such cinematographers as Joseph LaShelle, Gordon Willis, Conrad Hall, Raoul Coutard, Jack Cardiff and Otello Martelli.

Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," Woody Allen's "Manhattan," Francois Truffaut's "Jules and Jim," Martin Ritt's "Hud," Robert Wise's "The Haunting," Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," Jack Clayton's "The Innocents" and Cardiff's "Sons and Lovers," along with "The Longest Day," are among the films featured in the festival that kicks off tonight.

The feature film industry was in a depression after World War II. The rising phenomenon of television was siphoning off moviegoers. With audiences dwindling, something drastic had to be done to get the people back in the theaters. So 20th Century Fox bought the rights to a 25-year-old anamorphic lens system that had been developed in France during the silent picture era and released the lavish religious epic "The Robe" and the Marilyn Monroe romantic comedy "How to Marry a Millionaire" in its new trademark CinemaScope format, complete with stereophonic sound.

The wide-screen camera process squeezes half again as much width onto film as in a regular movie. When the finished movie is projected, a corresponding projector lens reverses the effect and the image expands back to the full width on screen.

Moviegoers eagerly embraced CinemaScope, shortened to " 'scope" for all anamorphic processes, and other studios were soon climbing aboard the bandwagon, creating such other wide-screen formats as 70 millimeter and Panavision, as well as flirting with 3-D, which is a different process. Panavision is the only one of the three wide-screen formats still used today.

"The original intention for Fox for CinemaScope was really to set itself apart from television," says Fritz Herzog, collections curator at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "It would be all color and stereophonic sound. But a lot of independent producers and A-list directors and producers that were used to shooting black-and-white movies thought that black and white was very well suited for stories."

At first, says Herzog, the black-and-white CinemaScope features embarrassed Fox "because they had made such a big to-do about color." The studio went so far as to change the name of the low-budget wide-screen films from CinemaScope to Regalscope. "When Fox decided to allow films to be done in black and white, the Regalscope name stuck with low-budget films, but if it was an A picture they called it CinemaScope".

One of the earliest Fox A movies produced in CinemaScope and black and white was the intimate 1959 drama "The Diary of Anne Frank," directed by George Stevens, which screens Feb. 20 at LACMA.

"Fox was wanting that to be in color and the director decided he didn't want to shoot it in color. I remember seeing 'Diary of Anne Frank' at LACMA here. It's based on a stage play and you wouldn't think it would be filmed in wide-screen, but the combination of the kind of starkness of black-and-white photography and wide-screen format just added a lot to the drama."

Because the image is wider, Bailey says, cinematographers can explore "more dynamic and eccentric and challenging compositions. You can have actors move more within the frame without necessarily having to move the camera a lot. Also, the wider screen itself creates the sense of not wanting the camera to cut as much because there is much more information for your eye to scan and explore in the frame.

"It's very distracting when you are doing an anamorphic film to have an enormous amount of fast cuts in it. It starts to blitz your eyeball. So for cinematographers who are interested in the integrity of the shot, everything about anamorphic and black and white plays to our hands the way we want to use our tools to create character and narrative."

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