Jack Cardiff

In the course of his hour-long public lecture at the Cork Film Festival early last October, Jack Cardiff described the enlarged and then subtly painted black and white photographs that were used as the backgrounds in Black Narcissus (1947). One of the people Michael Powell brought in to work on the design was a Victorian painter, a very old man… At which point Cardiff stopped himself to remark: “A very old man? What am I saying? I’m now the age he was then!”

Although there can be very few people who have been involved in filmmaking for as long as the 88 year old cinematographer of, among many others, A Matter of Life and Death (Powell / Pressburger, 1946), Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes (Powell / Pressburger1948), The African Queen (John Huston, 1951) and The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1954), perhaps the most striking thing about listening to Jack Cardiff speak is his passionate engagement with the current state of filmmaking. Far from being a relic brought out for reasons of nostalgia or historical curiosity, Cardiff is still an active filmmaker whose passion for the cinema burns with an undimmed and inspiring enthusiasm. From his most recent work creating a montage scene for a forthcoming film by Christopher Coppola, his positive attitude towards digital filmmaking and his disgust at today’s advertising industry, all the way back to 1918 when he first went on set as a child actor, listening to the history of Cardiff’s life is also listening to a history of the cinema. Or, indeed, histories of the cinema, most of which he has outlasted, a fact brought home in recent days by the sad irony of the fact that when asked to name a director of photography that he particularly admired from a younger generation, Cardiff chose the late Conrad Hall, who would pass away just three months later. As either director or cinematographer Cardiff has filmed Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Fred Astaire, Katherine Hepburn, Julie Christie, Kirk Douglas, Christopher Walken and Sylvester Stallone. He has worked under Joseph Mankiewicz, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Laurence Olivier, King Vidor, René Clair and Jacques Feyder. As a director, his credits include Sons and Lovers (1960), Young Cassidy (1965), The Mercenaries (a.k.a. Dark of the Sun, 1967) and Girl on a Motorcycle (1968).

But a ghost seemed to be hovering over the proceedings in Cork that day and perhaps over Cardiff’s entire career. When I met him for a half-hour interview immediately after his public talk, there was one question above all that I wanted to put to him: after so many years working as a director in his own right, did he find still being chiefly known as Michael Powell’s director of photography at all troubling? “No, not at all. After all, he gave me my break.” I believed him and believe there is more to his satisfaction with this association than simple professional gratitude. The warmth and admiration with which he speaks of Powell brought to mind Boris Kaufman’s description of his time working with Jean Vigo: a ‘lost cinematic Paradise’.

Even the lecture’s setting testified to Powell’s importance. Its location had been changed at the last minute from its original, drably prosaic venue to a nearby nightclub for reasons immediately evident to anyone familiar with the look of The Red Shoes. Behind the low stage a large dark blue gauze drape with subtle, pastel coloured swirls was suspended from the high ceiling. Behind this thin curtain, coloured lights added their discreet glow to the atmosphere. The effect was pleasantly evocative of a Powell set. It was Cardiff himself who modestly invoked Powell at the very outset. The public interview was conducted by long time Festival director Mick Hannigan. He opened by reading from Martin Scorsese’s introduction to Cardiff’s autobiography, Magic Hour. In answer to this, Cardiff pointed out that Scorsese revered Powell’s films, Red Shoes in particular, and it was his connection with these works that had put him “in Scorsese’s good books”.

The ‘break’ that Powell had given him was promotion from camera operator on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) to fully-fledged cinematographer on A Matter of Life and Death (1946). After observing the cameraman’s work on the second unit of Colonel Blimp, he asked Cardiff to shoot his next film, promising it would happen the next year. Three years later, while on location for Caesar and Cleopatra (Gabriel Pascal, 1945) Cardiff received a telegram from Powell: “Where the hell are you? We start in three weeks”. Cardiff dropped everything and returned to England.

Cardiff’s anecdotes about his time with the Archers vividly convey the excitement of working with the greatest British filmmaker of that or any other era at the height of his powers. Powell’s seemingly boundless energy, enthusiasm, experimentalism and outspoken dedication to film as art and to aesthetic and technical risk taking led Cardiff to call him the most ‘stimulating’ director he has ever worked with. Powell’s war cry of “Love it! Let’s do it!” became almost a running gag in Cardiff’s verbal portrait of his mentor. By contrast, he characterises Emeric Pressburger as the “sensible” Archer, forever trying to temper the irrepressible Powell’s impetuousness with caution and consideration.

Each of the Powell films presented their own special challenges. The action of A Matter of Life and Death is divided between Heaven and Earth and required both black and white and colour scenes. Cardiff assumed Heaven would be in colour, but to confound audience assumptions Powell opted for a black and white Heaven and a colour Earth. Powell again went against his cinematographer’s expectations on their subsequent film. Rather than going to India, he built a Himalayan convent in the studio for Black Narcissus. Instead of using painted backdrops, Cardiff suggested that the backgrounds be created from enlarged black and white photographs painted in delicate pastel colours. Against opposition from Technicolor labs, Cardiff also successfully pioneered the use of fog filters on Black Narcissus.

Cardiff also became much more cautious about suggesting ideas to Powell after Black Narcissus. In the script, the final scene consisted of Deborah Kerr’s nun confessing the failure of her mission to her forgiving mother superior. Outside, rain is pouring down, throwing dramatic shadows on the actors’ faces. Cardiff was delighted with the scene as shot, considering it the best work he had ever done. All that remained was to venture out of the studio to film the penultimate scene, the beginning of the monsoon. Cardiff suggested they open it with a close up of a few drops of rain hitting a leaf, at first slowly but then with increasing speed. Powell agreed (“Love it! Let’s do it!”) and was so taken with the result that he decided to end the film with it, completely cutting the final scene with its atmospheric rain shadows. But even without his favourite images, Cardiff received an Oscar for Black Narcissus.

The Red Shoes

Next, Powell ordered a reluctant Cardiff to start attending the ballet at Covent Garden almost every night. These excursions had a purpose beyond turning an initially dismissive Cardiff into a convinced ballet devotee. They were preparing the film that both of them would become most celebrated for – The Red Shoes. Cardiff’s technical innovations continued on this film: he created a device for changing camera speeds mid-shot, initially to allow a leaping Leonide Massine to linger slightly longer in midair. The device proved so effective that it was subsequently used elsewhere in the film, to speed up as well as slow down the action. To create the effect of a spotlight on the slow Technicolor stock, Cardiff also had a massively powerful 300 amp, water-cooled arc lamp specially constructed.

The failure of The Red Shoes to gain a best cinematography Oscar nomination can be attributed to politics, specifically concern on the part of the nominating body, the Society of American Cameramen, that it would reflect badly on them if a non-American cinematographer won twice in a row. Although The Red Shoes was Cardiff’s last collaboration with Powell, they always intended to reunite. An adaptation of The Tempest is just one of the unrealised projects Powell wanted Cardiff to shoot. With the exception of Tales of Hoffman (1951), the Powell/Cardiff trilogy is the visual highpoint of the Archers’ oeuvre. The aggressively theatrical colours literalise the films’ emotional content in terms of light, creating an indelible dreamscape in which the fevered intensity of Powell’s dramas can dazzle with a rare and enduring eloquence.

Cardiff’s parents were both stage actors, which gave him an awareness of performance that would resurface in his directing. It also meant that his early life involved much travelling around, resulting in a patchy formal education. Yet from a young age he was passionate about painting, making a point of visiting galleries in every town his parent’s work brought him to and building up a considerable knowledge of art history. He retains his love of art, speaking of his great admiration for Turner and his ability to remain true to the atmosphere of a landscape while altering its details to better fit his composition. Cardiff also developed a keen interest in literature.

Again thanks to his parent’s work, Cardiff drifted into employment in the film industry, working his way up through the traditional route of studio apprenticeship. As a camera operator, he worked for Hitchcock on The Skin Game (1931). He was interviewed at Denham for the opportunity to go to the United States to learn about the new Technicolor process and was accepted thanks to his impressive knowledge of art. Subsequently, Cardiff travelled widely making colour travelogues.

After his years with the Archers, he branched out into an international career. His one film as cinematographer for Hitchcock, Under Capricorn (1949), is not a good memory. Hitchcock wanted to experiment further with the very long take style he had adopted for Rope (1948). But whereas Rope was set in one flat, Under Capricorn took place all over a mansion, necessitating an incredibly elaborate and unwieldy set with sliding walls and furniture in sections that could be moved to make way for the ungainly, decidedly pre-steadicam four-foot-six by three foot Technicolor camera. Cardiff had to light up to eight rooms at a time, with electricians following a tortuously complex series of lighting cues. Although he stresses that he liked and admired his friend Hitchcock, Cardiff describes this “soul destroying” experience as the worst shoot he ever worked on and the film as one of its director’s few mistakes.

The African Queen

The most famous film Cardiff was involved in during the ’50s was John Huston’s The African Queen (1950). On their first meeting, Cardiff remembers star Humphrey Bogart brusquely ordering him to avoid using softening lights as it took him years to cultivate the lines on his face and he didn’t want to come out looking like “a fag”. But the tough guy mannerisms were simply an act and Cardiff has warm memories of the actor. His best known anecdote about the shoot occurred when the entire cast and crew fell sick on location. Cardiff and his operator, Ted Moore, were both running high temperatures. They took turns behind the camera; while one was operating, the other would lie down. This went on until co-star Katherine Hepburn grew so ill that she requested a few days off – a period of time extended by producer Sam Spiegel (“He was a sharp one!”) in order to claim insurance! Only two people involved with the shoot avoided getting sick, Huston and Bogart. It transpired that the cause of the problem was a malfunction in water filtration. Bogart and Huston were spared as they only ever drank whisky!

Cardiff had ambitions to direct. After an attempt to bring William Tell to the screen with Errol Flynn in 1953 was abandoned due to lack of money, Cardiff began his directing career with two B movies, Intent to Kill (1958) and Beyond This Place (1959). His first major film was an adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, a production fraught with censorship problems. Although the American censors demanded numerous script changes, Cardiff shot the script exactly as written. When the censors saw the result, they passed it as it had been executed with such “good taste”. The film remains a favourite of Cardiff’s. He also replaced John Ford on Young Cassidy, the beginning of a three picture collaboration with the underrated Australian actor Rod Taylor, which continued with the 007 spoof The Liquidator (1965, released 1967) and the Congo set action adventure The Mercenaries. Although content to allow his cinematographers to get on with their job while he directs, Cardiff continued to experiment visually on The Girl on a Motorcycle by pioneering a solarisation technique that allowed him to insert colour or negative at any point in the frame. Although ignored at the time, it foreshadowed today’s digital image tools.

The film I was most eager to discuss with Cardiff was Joseph Mankiewicz’s masterpiece The Barefoot Contessa. Not least among its numerous merits is what may well be the most ravishingly beautiful colour photography in all ’50s cinema. But Cardiff hardly seemed to remember it. “Bogie was in that one, wasn’t he?” “Yes. And Ava Gardner.” “When was that made?” “1954” “Ah, yes…” He remembered that Mankiewicz was pleasant to work for, but otherwise his finest post-Powell work seemed to have faded into the long procession of films he has been worked on over the past 85 years. Sensing my disappointment, he added “1954 was a long time ago, you know!”

When I asked him about King Vidor and War and Peace (1956), he remembered it as a frustrating experience. “Vidor was the complete opposite of Powell” he declared. Where Powell was enthusiastic, spontaneous and bold, Cardiff found Vidor conservative and overcautious. To illustrate his point he described a scene where Audrey Hepburn had to look out of a carriage window at a row of prisoners and then sink back into the vehicle with eyes full of tears. Cardiff wanted to do the shot with the interior of the carriage in complete darkness, so that when Hepburn leant back into her seat a single beam of light could illuminate a tear on her cheek. Vidor rejected this potentially lovely effect, opting instead for conventional lighting. Cardiff imitates his voice as a whiny, indecisive drawl: “Well… Hmmm… I don’t know… I sort of want to see her face…” (“If it had been Powell” Cardiff hastens to add “it would have been ‘Love it! Let’s do it!”) He was also irritated by Vidor’s habit of starting each day with a production meeting, a practice Cardiff found boring, pointless and wasteful of time. I wondered to myself how much this stolid Vidor coming to the end of his career resembled the younger director who fearlessly pioneered American independent filmmaking with impassioned, socially engaged works culminating in the breathtakingly lyrical utopian vision of Our Daily Bread (1932).

I remembered being much struck by the wide shot of a duel in a frozen landscape taking place at dawn in War and Peace, an image of chillingly austere grandeur. To my astonishment, Cardiff explained that this was shot on a soundstage. None of the stages were large enough for the sense of distance required; beyond a certain point, the lights became visible at the edge of the frame. To surmount this problem, Cardiff placed a sheet of glass in front of the camera, the edges of which he hand painted white. He was then able to use a wider lens and create the necessary distance. Then, a single light was bounced off this glass to give the impression of the early morning sun. This process was time consuming and the paint on the glass frequently ran, provoking numerous complaints from producer Dino De Laurentiis. But the result was so impressive that De Laurentiis decided to use the clip to promote the film.

Today more than ever the man whose name Scorsese describes as being “synonymous with Technicolor” can’t feel at peace anywhere until he has worked out the source or sources of light that surround him, where the light originates, where it is reflected, what determines its intensity. More than half a century may have passed since The Red Shoes, but Jack Cardiff remains a consummate filmmaker.

Acknowledgement: The author thanks the Cork Film Festival for assisting with this interview.

About The Author

Maximilian Le Cain is a filmmaker and cinéphile living in Cork City, Ireland.