Colour and the Critics

By Sarah Street, PI on The Eastmancolor Revolution project

As we’ve seen, advertising Eastmancolor wasn’t always consistent, with less emphasis on a recognizable brand or trademark than Technicolor (‘What’s in a Name?’ Blog, 5 May 2017). This raises further issues around the varied responses of critics to colour once it became more widely available. Technicolor inspired insightful, informed critical commentary, most notably by E.S. Tompkins of the British Journal of Photography who ran a special column, ‘The Colour Enthusiast at the Cinema’ in 1942-47. An expert on colour, his articles were intended to inform amateur filmmakers about the use and impact of colour. As referenced in my book Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation, 1900-55 (2012), Tompkins described in detail colour films screened in British cinemas, often highlighting key films and identifying chromatically distinctive, symbolic shots such as this one from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as the driver Angela (Deborah Kerr) describes her warm relationship with General Candy as the traffic lights change to red.

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But in the period covered by our project, did the increasing ubiquity of colour paradoxically detract from critics singling it out as a distinctive aspect of a film? Was it harder to write about colour when most films contained it? Technicolor’s ‘bespoke’ identity, quality-controlled production and expense meant that when the relatively few British Technicolor films were released they attracted attention. On occasion they inspired extensive, detailed appraisals of particular strategies, spectacular effects, technical details and the collaborative expertise involved in making colour films. Yet even with Technicolor, the descriptive term ‘Glorious’ could be applied negatively – and still is today – to refer to colour that’s excessive, too much, gaudy, tasteless and even un-British. Of course for some of us it means the opposite – a really beautiful process that has often been distorted by incorrect projection, poor transfers and ‘restorations’ that equate more with today’s tastes than with what Technicolor films were originally capable of rendering on first release.

With Eastmancolor there was less of a sense that it occupied a specific or clearly identifiable place in the cinematic chromatic landscape. As more became known about the stock some commentators were curious about its likely impact. And from a technical perspective, British films attracted the attention of critics such as Herb Lightman writing in the American Cinematographer, as well as British writers in the Cine-Technician, the Kinematograph Weekly and other publications. In an article in Films and Filming published in Feb 1956, cinematographer Erwin Hillier urged technicians to be ‘colour conscious’, paying attention to Eastmancolor’s tendency to emphasize blue. Since relatively few directors were experienced in working with colour some were concerned that: ‘Film producers have hardly matched up to the challenge created by this wider availability of stock. Too few completed films show any sort of understanding of the demands of colour, and picture composition in terms of colour is sadly lacking‘ (Brian Taylor, Films and Filming, 1955).

As well as learning to fully exploit the technical benefits of Eastmancolor, filmmakers were aware of the opinions of critics who often had firm ideas about colour. Long-standing assumptions persist in reviews, such as ‘appropriate genres’. The case of social realism demonstrates the persistence of established aesthetic critical standards. Ken Loach’s use of Eastmancolor in Poor Cow (1967) was criticised – realism should be dark, drab and gritty, not suffused with the vibrancy more readily associated with genres such as fantasy and adventure, even if the specific function of colour in Poor Cow was to communicate facets of the main character Joy’s subjectivity. The Monthly Film Bulletin missed the point, declaring: ‘Loach’s direction – like Brian Probyn’s Eastman Colour photography – suffuses the material in a cheery glow of lyricism that often verges on sentimentality’.

On the other hand and perhaps not surprisingly, colour effects in Hammer’s Eastmancolor horror films did attract attention at a basic level of critical discourse and sensational hyperbole. Yet the general status of the films as thrilling horrors tended to foreclose deeper chromatic probing, with critics generally using shorthand descriptors such as ‘vivid’ or ‘lurid’. Some critics, such as Nina Hibbin writing in May 1958 in the Daily Worker, had their expectations of horror overturned by the addition of colour: ‘I went to see Dracula, a Hammer film, prepared to enjoy a nervous giggle. I was even ready to poke gentle fun at it. I came away revolted and outraged…Laughable nonsense? Not when it is filmed like this, with realism and with the modern conveniences of colour and the wide screen’. So, colour’s not right for realism or horror? For another critic and film, the red blood was not real enough. There was hyper-concentration on red blood, so much so that other colour effects in films such as Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) tended to be ignored. The film’s controversial opening sequence – when a woman has her eyes pierced when looking through deliberately spiked binoculars – attracted commentary (and concern by the Censors) such as the Kinematograph Weekly’s comment that ‘the highlights, served with lashings of tomato ketchup, stretch credulity to near breaking point’. But the chromatically interesting effects in a later sequence at Battersea fairground featuring red, green and blue coloured lights emanating from within the film’s setting, did not attract such attention. The colour changes, experienced by the characters as part of a thrilling ride at the funfair, lead up to the subsequent shock of witnessing the man’s physical transformation into a stabbing monster. It is as if the colours have contributed to this dramatic effect, exemplifying a mutability that shifts in an instant from eliciting pleasure to horror.

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Other reviews repeated long-standing assumptions of film colour as being primarily about spectacle and therefore being less appropriate for some genres. David Rider made this point in his Films and Filming review of Help! (1965): ‘There is an old maxim that colour slows up comedy and it certainly applies to parts of Dick Lester’s film though he does succeed in overcoming the decelerating effect of Eastmancolor at times. But there’s no doubt that the rapid inter-cutting which Lester likes to use is very hard on the eyes in a colour movie. David Watkins achieves some splendid colour effects but too often at the expense of the action although I must say his deployment of the snowy alpine scenery perfectly complements the surrealist treatment of the song Ticket to Ride’. On the other hand, an alternative view that the colour was distinctive was picked-up in the Monthly Film Bulletin, particularly Lester’s use of colour filters and ‘splendid use of colour’. How the increasing ubiquity of colour actually changed generic application is suggested here, as the Beatles’ subsequent interest in colour, psychedelic surrealism, pastiche and suffusion attests. The interrelationship between colour and editing is also a fruitful area we’ll be exploring further in this project. As the 1960s progressed the advertising world provided a wealth of experience for generating a chromatically rich visual environment. This could be used to create arresting parodies of the decade’s consumerism, as in Smashing Time (1967), or to perpetuate stereotypical ideas about colour, taste and ‘exoticism’. Film colour was never created in a vacuum, and often reflected prevailing attitudes about race, class, gender and politics.

Eastmancolor films imported from other countries attracted critical commentary, and one early, Academy Award-winning Japanese example stands out: Jogokumon/Gate of Hell (Jigokumon, Kinugasa Teinosuke, 1953). The film is a historical drama set in 12th century Japan, based on the documented struggles between two rival clans during the Heiji Rebellion. The critics praised it to the hilt. For appreciations of this film’s use of colour, we approach something of its chromatic sensibility inspiring lyrical commentary. The Observer’s C. A. Lejeune noted its ‘sense of texture, the changes brought about by the use of gauze materials and translucent screens, the sudden glow or dimming of a lamp’ (1954). Dilys Powell also noted the quality of texture, particularly for clothes, while another reviewer observed that: ‘Almost any shot could be taken out of the film and allowed to stand by itself, a perfectly satisfying composition containing all the delicate colour harmonies of a Japanese print’ (The Scotsman, 1954). Writing in Sight and Sound in 1956, director Carl Dreyer urged others to follow its chromatic example: ‘The colours in Gate of Hell have undoubtedly been chosen to a well-prepared plan. The film tells us a great deal about warm and cold colours, about the use of profound simplification. It should encourage Western directors to use colour more deliberately and with greater boldness and imagination’.

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Films exhibited on the Film Festival circuit and in metropolitan cinemas perhaps inspired a more rarefied, informed critical context of film appreciation than pertained to most British films. Gate of Hell is undoubtedly a beautiful colour film and it’s important to remember that British cinemas screened colour films produced in several other countries, not least Hollywood. In our project’s aim to chart the extent to which British filmmakers responded to the challenge of more easily available colour, we’re fascinated with how these films were received by critics and audiences, and what films they were compared with as the repertoire expanded. Many questions remain. Who were Eastmancolor’s ‘Colour Enthusiasts’ and critics, and what ideas were circulating about what was considered to constitute ‘good’ or ‘bad’ colour? Why did films as chromatically distinctive as Don’t Look Now (1973) tend not to move critics to write prose that did full justice to the film’s undoubted chromatic density, punctuation and symbolism? The film attracted many reviews, but colour was not their major area of concentration, if mentioned at all. Yet the signature image we’ve taken from Don’t Look Now to epitomise our project – the bleeding of red across the slide being examined by John Baxter that prefigures the film’s subsequent mystery over red as a shiny child’s raincoat and a portent of horror and tragedy – conveys the unruly nature of colour. It may be red, it may be blood, but it may be a host of other things, and that’s the challenge of describing what colour is and how it works.

 

 

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