Best Director Final 50: Jack Cardiff for Sons and Lovers

JACK CARDIFF FOR SONS AND LOVERS (1960)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Billy Wilder for The Apartment

Jules Dassin for Never on Sunday

Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho

Fred Zinnemann for The Sundowners

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Digging through Oscar history, I’m fascinated by the tidal waves of past controversies that reach the present day as mere ripples. The 33rd Academy Awards bore no shortage of polarizing films—Psycho, Hiroshima mon amour, films from Blacklist survivors Dalton Trumbo (Exodus, Spartacus) and Jules Dassin (Never on Sunday). None, though, had a more scandalous heritage than Jack Cardiff’s quiet adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s seminal novel. Lawrence first published his tale of working class family drama and sexual exploration in 1913, but it remained unfilmable (along with the rest of his fiction) for a half-century to come. It took the French adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1955 to make Lawrence’s writings viable material for English language cinema, and it wasn’t until the same year of Sons and Lovers’ release that British courts finally allowed the uncensored publication of the author’s writings. Needless to say, the shockingly frank sexuality that ostracized Lawrence is tame by today’s standards, and through Cardiff’s discreet lens it registers not as prurient, but as part of the sensitive character study at the story’s center. The scandal of Sons and Lovers haslong since blown over; what remains is a handsome, plaintive study in emotional withdrawal that Lawrence’s advocates, undistracted by his explicitness, always saw at the heart of his work.

Though written a few generations earlier, Lawrence’s novel resonates wit the “angry young man” movement that had recently electrified the British stage and screen, with its focus on an aspiring painter tied to his coal miner origins. Despite their establishment pedigree, Cardiff and his British colleagues gestured toward the movement’s bare realism, making me wonder if producer Jerry Wald (coordinating the production by correspondence from Hollywood) really had any idea what movie he was getting. Gavin Lambert and T.E.B. Clarke’s screenplay, as well as Thomas N. Morahan and Lionel Couch’s art direction, bring Lawrence’s novel in line with the kitchen sink realism of the time. Cardiff opted for a grittier black & white film stock to avoid prettifying the down-to-earth subject matter, a noteworthy choice for an Olympian god among cinematographers who set an unsurpassed bar for Technicolor brilliance in his Powell & Pressburger collaborations (including his Oscar win for Black Narcissus). This concerted effort toward realism succeeds in stripping much of the seductive period gloss from the characters’ meager existence, though like Paul’s irrepressible artistic vision, Freddie Francis’ understated photography still finds the lyrical beauty in the ponds and rail yards of Nottingham. Having two DPs on the set could be an asset or a liability, but Cardiff and Francis work well together, with the latter’s camerawork adding thoughtful depth to the film’s many long outdoor conversations. In particular, two dialogue scenes that bookend the film, set in the same locale but pointed in opposite directions (first toward the serenity of the pond, later against the sparse woods), epitomize the film’s harmony between image and character.

As for the film’s strong ensemble, either Cardiff knew well enough to cast good actors and get out of the way, or he exhibited a genuine ability to extract complex, sensitive performances from Dean Stockwell and the surrounding players. Stockwell, cast at Wald’s insistent, may not have had the technical chops to coax the Actors Branch into granting him a Lead Actor nomination to match Trevor Howard’s for his coarse coal miner. Still, the American former child actor previews the emotional depth of Long Day’s Journey into Night with his soulful, empathetic portrayal of Paul. His love interests, including the enchanting Mary Ure as Clara, also do very nice jobs, but the truly great performance in the film belongs to Wendy Hiller as Paul’s smothering mother. Admittedly, Gertrude pales next to the same year’s Mrs. Bates, but then again Hiller crafts a more subtly domineering character, lending her a humility and warmth that conceal her possessiveness to both Paul and the audience for as long as she remains in his life. Despite the film’s toned-down spectacle, the combination of Cardiff’s excellent eye and the strength of the ensemble made this film the envy of every British period drama until Merchant and Ivory raised the bar again a quarter-century later. Even if the film doesn’t have quite the literary scope and depth of its source material (named one of the top 10 books of the 20th Century by the Modern Library), Sons and Lovers is a beautiful encapsulation of Lawrence’s rich emotional world, a fittingly mature look at the serious heart of his literary work.

 

THE VOTE

The 1960 Best Director slate belonged to five individuals with a combined century and a half of filmmaking under their belts. Jules Dassin, the sole native-born American of the bunch, joined Cardiff in a sole career Director nod for his buoyant Zorba the Greek forerunner Never on Sunday, while at the other end of the spectrum Fred Zinnemann grabbed a sixth and penultimate nomination for the lumbering Australian family saga The Sundowners. However, all three estimable veterans had the misfortune of being up against the crowning achievements in the careers of two Hollywood deities. Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder earned their respective fifth and eighth (and final) nominations for two closing triumphs of the studio system. Between Psycho and The Apartment, how do you choose? Well, if ever there were a fitting scenario for a split decision, this would be it. I’ll give Wilder’s marvelously unsentimental romance The Apartment the Best Picture vote, while reserving Best Director for the consummate directorial version of Hitch’s epochal thriller.

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