Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jack Cardiff: 1914 - 2009

When I heard about the death of Jack Cardiff yesterday, I went to my bookshelf and retrieved my copy of
Magic Hour, his 1996 autobiography, which instantly raised my sombre spirits. Within these brilliantly entertaining pages, you'll find a series of anecdotes that the author shares with great relish – struggling to maintain his dignity while photographing Marlene Dietrich in the nude, laughing at Henry Fonda's practical jokes, or accidently punching King Edward VIII on the nose – and the book as a whole is a testament to a life lived to its fullest. Cardiff tried his hand as a film director in the 60's and 70's, making the fine DH Lawrence adaptation Sons and Lovers (for which his great contemporary Freddie Francis won an Oscar), but it is for his peerless contribution to the art of cinematography that he will long be revered. He began his career in the silent era and earned his last credit – unbelievably – in 2007, and in the intervening decades, he established his name as a byword for visual excellence.

Cardiff's list of credits as a cinematographer is hugely impressive by any measure. He photographed Joseph L. Mankiewicz's
The Barefoot Contessa, King Vidor's lavish adaptation of War and Peace, and John Huston's The African Queen, but nothing in his body of work compared to the magical sights Cardiff conjured when he worked with that other great English artist Michael Powell. After serving as a camera operator on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Cardiff was the sole director of photography on Powell and Pressburger's next three 1940's masterpieces, and he took the art of Technicolor cinematography to extraordinary new levels. By his own admission, Cardiff knew little about technical photography at the time, but he was hired as one of the first British Technicolor camera operators after impressing his interviewers with his wide knowledge of art. He was inspired the likes of Vermeer and Rembrandt, particularly in their use of light, and he brought those skills to bear on his film work. The earliest Technicolor cameras were huge beasts employing the three-strip process, and Cardiff knew how to manipulate them with a deft touch that few – if any – could ever match.

When Cardiff and Technicolor met Powell and Pressburger, they embarked upon a cinematic adventure unprecedented in its vivid imagery and boundless imagination. Powell was a fantasist, a dreamer, and in Jack Cardiff he had found the man who could bring those dreams to glorious life. On their first full collaboration, Cardiff suggested the monochrome shade for
A Matter of Life and Death's afterlife scenes, in stark contrast to the lush, romantic colour of the "real" world. In 1947, Powell and Pressburger made Black Narcissus, and Cardiff faced an extraordinary challenge – to convincingly recreate a Himalayan mountaintop setting entirely inside Pinewood studios. His achievement remains one of cinema's great artistic feats, and every frame of Black Narcissus is elevated by Cardiff's rich, imaginative, sensual camerawork; not least the gripping climax, when Kathleen Byron's appearance still sends a shiver down my spine. That was a hard act to follow, and yet many would argue this amazing team outdid themselves just a year later on The Red Shoes, the centrepiece of which is a stunning 18-minute ballet sequence that Martin Scorsese described as "a moving painting."

Jack Cardiff had a long and eventful career, making a number of good films and a number that weren't so good (he lent his talents to
Rambo II in 1985), but it is his work with Powell and Pressburger that meant the most to me. When working with these like-minded artists, he was allowed to express the full range of his talent, and these pictures will surely act as his most lasting legacy. I remember seeing Jack Cardiff a few years ago at the NFT, when he and I were both attending a Thelma Schoonmaker-hosted tribute to Michael Powell, and even in his early 90's he appeared to have lost none of the wit, charm and zest for life that characterised his career. In his foreword to Magic Hour, Martin Scorsese wrote, "I've never met Cardiff, but I feel a deeply personal connection with him through all that he's given me in the films that he's photographed and directed." That sentiment is one cinema lovers around the world will be sharing today.