Very little about the life and career of Stanley Cortez was plausible. He carried himself like a retired espionage agent in a Graham Greene novel, equal parts languid, sinister and bored. He was a great cinematographer, and yet he spent extensive periods of his life working on minor pictures with little ambition. Indeed, before advising you to take note of Stanley Cortez, and of the tribute to him that begins this weekend at LACMA, I have to admit that he has credits on The Lady in the Morgue (1938); Hawaiian Nights (1939), a picture famous for being the B movie that David Selznick halted one night in Riverside so that he could preview Gone With the Wind; Love, Honor and Oh Baby! (1940); and San Antonio Rose (1941).

Apparently, it was the last of those that caught Orson Welles’ eye and persuaded him to hire Cortez to photograph The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), after Welles realized that he was not going to be able to resume his happy partnership with Gregg Toland, begun on Citizen Kane. Welles was rather grudging about Cortez: He found him slow, far less agreeable than Toland, and altogether something of a comedown. So look at Ambersons for yourself, and realize that it is one of the most beautifully shot movies ever made. It is “plainer” than Kane —it does not have the same distorting wide-angle lenses; it does not employ deep focus in the same way; it is more naturalistic. But Ambersons is a plainer subject — the decline of a settled world and the ruin of a powerful family. It is meant to be more naturalistic, or novelistic. That said, its longer takes, its tracking camera and its superb sense of the Ambersons’ house are beyond mastery. It is the natural grasp of a kind of sophisticated atmosphere that had hardly figured in American films until that time.

Two years later, this strange man who was the younger brother of romantic actor Ricardo Cortez, and whose real name was Stanislaus Kranz (from Vienna), casually made a film noir out of Selznick’s deeply romantic vision of women left behind in the war — Since You Went Away. I spell that out because for some reason it is not in the LACMA tribute, and so you’ll have to search for the stunning night sequence in which Jennifer Jones sees Robert Walker off from the depot. Allegedly, Cortez used one lamp for that shot!

On the other hand, the LACMA series does include two seldom-seen gems: Let There Be Light (1946), a documentary on damaged soldiers after the war, made by John Huston; and Smash Up (1947), a fine melodrama about an alcoholic, starring Susan Hayward. And the year after that, Cortez did Secret Beyond the Door, one of the most moody and mannered films ever made by Fritz Lang. It was a flop and, I think, along with Ambersons, added to Cortez’s reputation of being an arty cinematographer who ?took such pains that the films got expensive.

How else do you account for the way he was neglected? Unless his manner made him a pain in the neck. In 1950, a strange Simenon adaptation called The Man on the Eiffel Tower was having trouble in France. Its director was replaced by one of the actors, Burgess Meredith, and Cortez was sent for to take over the camera. It was his first meeting with Charles Laughton and the prelude to the moment, six years later, when Laughton was directing The Night of the Hunter and hired Cortez.

So, if you’re keeping up, we have The Magnificent Ambersons, Since You Went Away, Smash Up, Secret Beyond the Door and The Night of the Hunter. How difficult does a man have to be for that record not to keep him in major demand on big pictures? Still, Stanley was aloof, bad-tempered and slow, and he photographed some of the biggest flops in Hollywood history so well that nowadays they look like masterworks. There are others — for example, two Samuel Fuller films, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. Those were in the mid ’60s, when Cortez was also laboring on things like The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. I took him to dinner once, in the late 1980s, at Scandia (which he seemed to own). I told him he was a genius, and he gave me an amiable sneer as if to say I didn’t know the half of it. See for yourself.

LET THERE BE LIGHT: THE BLACK AND WHITE CINEMATOGRAPHY OF STANLEY CORTEZ | At Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Leo S. Bing Theater | Thru February 25 | See Film and Video Events for more information

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.