Jack Cardiff

by Marc Salomon, AFC’s consultant member

[ English ] [ français ]

The British cinematographer and director Jack Cardiff died at his home in Cambridgeshire, Kent, on April 22, at the age of ninety-four. Passing away in his 95th year, Jack Cardiff, became during his lifetime, a legendary cinematographer the mere mention of whose name immediately evokes in the cinephile several major works shot in Technicolor.
Among the legendary films photographed by Cardiff, excluding three shot in with Michael Powell, we can list Under Capricorn for Hitchcock (with Ingrid Bergman), Pandora and the Flying Dutchman for Lewin (with Ava Gardner and James Mason), The African Queen for Huston (with Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart), The Barefoot Contessa by Mankiewicz (with Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart), The Prince and the Showgirl by Laurence Olivier (with Marilyn Monroe), not to mention War and Peace by King Vidor (in VistaVision) and The Vikings by Richard Fleischer (in Technirama).

Born September 18, 1914 in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk of parents who were comedians in vaudeville, the young Cardiff was tossed from school to school following his parents touring schedule, he also surveyed the sets of backstage drama and cinema, and went so far as to appear in roles as a young child in 1918.

He started behind the camera in 1929 as an intern on the set of The Informer by Arthur Robison where his work mostly consisted of bringing Vichy water to the director all day long ! He was not particularly interested in photography but had noticed that camera assistants traveled abroad a lot, which motivated him for this métier.

He then continues his apprenticeship alongside the Frenchman René Guissart (The American Prisoner and The Hate Ship) ; then we find him as operator in the Korda productions at Denham starting in the mid-1930s. At this job he worked with great directors of photography such as Harold Rosson (Phantom for Sale by René Clair), George Perinal (The Future Life by WC Menzies), Harry Stradling (Knight Without Armor by Jacques Feyder) and Ray Rennahan who came from the United States to photograph the first English Technicolor film : Wings of the Morning by Harold Schuster.

Cardiff retold the casting call organized by the representatives of the Technicolor company : "When I arrived, a few operators had already been interviewed, they were asked these incredibly hard questions on optics, laboratory techniques and other terrifying equations. When my turn came, I told them : ’You’re wasting your time with me because I am a dunce in math and no good at anything." There was a silence and one of them asked me : ’How do you hope you make a career as an operator ?’ I replied that I liked painting, that I was studying it, and loved lighting. They asked me which side of the face did Rembrandt prefer to light and I replied : "This one, the right one, and the other side on the etchings.’ I also told them about Pieter de Hooch and the camera obscura... The next morning I learned that I had been chosen."

After filming the first English Technicolor film, Cardiff pursues his career as an operator by rejoining Perinal (The Four Feathers by Z. Korda and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by Michael Powell), but he also shoots, with the assistance of Christopher Challis, numerous short documentary films in color around the world (the Window World Travelogues produced by Count von Keller) as well as a documentary propaganda film about the merchant marine produced by the Ministry of Information : Western Approaches.

But it is while photographing some inserts for Colonel Blimp in 1943 that his work is noticed by Michael Powell who three years later hires him to do the cinematography of A Matter of Life and Death, with the idea of shooting paradise in black and white and terrestrial scenes in color. In passing, Powell put Natalie Kalmus (Technicolor’s color supervisor) in her place, along with her mania for adding flowers to any set, by having a character standing in front of an improbable flower arrangement and saying "We really need Technicolor down here !"

The collaboration between Powell and Cardiff will continue with Black Narcissus in 1947 and The Red Shoes in 1948.

In Black Narcissus, almost entirely filmed at Pinewood, the beautiful sets by Alfred Junge of a palace perched on the Himalayan heights are further enhanced by the matte-painting work of W. Percy Day. Cardiff’s photography evolves from clear brightness towards ambiances that are increasingly chiaroscuro, The lighting sculpts the space from which flow gradually ever more vivid colors and disquieting sunsets. He won the Oscar in 1947, the same year as fellow countryman Guy Green does for the black and white photography of Great Expectations.

As for The Red Shoes (for many his best film), the photography is warmer and more lush, with one of the most beautiful ballets ever filmed (along with that of An American in Paris by Minnelli, photographed John Alton three years later). If The Red Shoes didn’t get an Oscar, it is because the Academy decided not to nominate Cardiff two years in a row, in order not to overshadow American cinematographers !

Cardiff has always advocated a very painterly approach to the image, using his knowledge of the great painters (Rembrandt, Vermeer, Caravaggio, de Hooch...) a lighting structure serving a simple and rigorous aesthetic, composing shots like paintings. Cardiff’s style appears as a happy synthesis between Stradling (for the architecture of light) and Perinal (for the modeling and softness of the colors).

With Powell, he also brought a dimension to the treatment of color that was both dreamlike and psychological, whilst American Technicolor strayed too often into exacerbated chroma. But it’s true that at the time, English Technicolor seemed more pastel (see for example the remarkable work of Perinal on Thief of Baghdad and that of Krasker on Henry V by Laurence Olivier) than many Hollywood productions.

That many of his films have become legendary adds to the reputation of the cinematographer, but with hindsight and beyond the period of 1940-50, his work could sometimes appear a tad "overestimated", as it was often very uneven within the same film. Cardiff’s talent often expressed itself more in a few memorable sequences when working with directors with less pronounced aesthetic tendencies. What Freddie Francis said about Christopher Challis also applies to Cardiff : "Having worked with Powell many filmmakers seemed boring." Cardiff knew to remain lucid and modest despite his fame, stating, for example about The African Queen : "It was a beautiful story with a great director and perfect casting. But I have never been particularly proud of the photography. Everyone was sick and we shot a lot from a small boat. But that’s how it is. When the film is successful, everyone loves the photography."

Cardiff took to directing at the end of the 1950s, he helmed a dozen films including Sons and Lovers (beautifully photographed in black and white by Freddie Francis, who won an Oscar), The Girl on a Motorcycle (with Alain Delon and Marianne Faithfull), Scent of Mystery (the first film in Smell-O-Vision)...

Note that in 1953 Cardiff the director began shooting a version of William Tell (with Erroll Flynn), an unfinished film, which was the second movie ever shot in CinemaScope. But he returns regularly to cinematography on productions that are well below his artistic possibilities (The Dogs of War : Conan The Destroyer ; Rambo II !) and he will remain active until the age of 90 !

Cardiff is also the author of an autobiography (Magic Hour, The Life of a Cameraman) in which one can regret that he too often plays the part of a raconteur of production anecdotes and "people" gossip, whereas one would have hoped for a deeper reflection about his métier. This may be due in part to the marketing of publishers... We prefer the book of more in-depth interviews with Justin Bowyer.

Let us leave the conclusion to Michael Powell : "For his inventions, imagination and sheer audacity, there has never been another color cameraman like Jack Cardiff. Georges Périnal was the best cameraman I have ever worked with, both in black and white and in color, but Jack was something apart. The skin textures in the close-ups of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp would have delighted Fragonard, but Jack’s lighting and composition in Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes would have infuriated Delacroix, because he couldn’t have done any better himself, in imagination or in chiaroscuro."

Translated from French by Benjamin B