Jack Cardiff


RIP Jack Cardiff.

The above is the scene in BLACK  NARCISSUS where Cardiff, perhaps Britain’s greatest cinematographer, who has died aged 94, fought with Technicolor to use diffusion for a misty, early-morning feel. Director Michael Powell backed him up and he carried the day, thank God.

My friend Lawrie told me that everybody got up extra early to film a sunrise. The result was gorgeous, but as everyone was congratulating each other, Powell’s voice piped up, “It’s no good. Much too beautiful — no one will ever believe it. We’ll have to do it in the studio.” And so they did.

Cardiff’s imagination and sensitivity, as well as his deliberate decision to emulate the great artists, made him a brilliant, if prickly collaborator with the notoriously difficult Powell. Of course, his work with Huston, Lewin, Fleischer and Hitchcock is also extremely worthy of note. The vibrancy and passion of his work is something cinema needs.

33 Responses to “Jack Cardiff”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    I don’t think any DP went as far with Technicolor as Cardiff did. The soft palette, the delicate lighting is something that is wholly cinematic but it’s also very painterly, in three dimensions with kinetic images and sounds.

    I’ll never forget the opening of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH where after that huge matte shot of the universe and then the hazy grays emulating the fog we cut to this close-up of Kim Hunter with reds pulsating all around her and then in David Niven’s cockpit the yellow flames burn orange. The violent colour has a really delirious effect. Even disturbing, because in the same film later, with Marius Goring’s second appearance by the Table Tennis game when David wakes up we cut to this sinister medium shot of Conductor 71 framed by this pillar and the lighting has this unforgettable impact.

  2. Yes, Cardiff talked about using an unnatural lemon-yellow sunlight for the table tennis scene, to give it a surreal quality.

    Christopher Challis’s work with Powell later is possibly of an equal standard, but the films themselves are generally not as strong.

  3. Cardiff seemed an extremely likable man, if his appearance in the film Painting With Light is any indication. His death comes so soon after that of Kathleen Byron, seeing the two of them together in the aforementioned documentary is a lovely thing. At this point it goes without saying that I consider Black Narcissus one of the most visually exquisite films ever made, but I must admit that I find it astonishing to learn that he worked on the first film to feature Smell-o-Vision, in 1960. All levity aside, he was truly one of the greats.

  4. The Mutations is not a likable film, and Cardiff’s directorial career was non as rich as his photographic one, but he had his moments there too. Girl on a Motorcycle is pretty entertaining, after all. I regret that Cardiff spent a chapter of his autobiography quibbling with a few things Christopher Challis said in his, because he didn’t really have to fear for his reputation, which even survived working for Michael Winner. Cardiff’s achievements can never be beaten.

  5. Arthur S. Says:

    Christopher Challis’ finest work for the Archers for me is THE SMALL BACK ROOM, very soft and lyrical use of black-and-white. Like they were colours. THE TALES OF HOFFMANN is of course in a class of it’s own. The colours are very stylized and even a little kitschy but especially in the final section they have a power of their own.

    What is less respected in my view is Georges Perinal’s work on THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, the first Technicolor film the Archers did on which Cardiff worked as a cameraman.

  6. One of my all-time favourites is A Matter of Life and Death. It’s quite magical.

    The Small Back Room is one I would like to see. David Thomson has written a nice piece in praise of it.

  7. I love The Small Back Room, it manages to concentrate and intensify the romantic passions of the technicolor films into a seemingly smaller and more modest frame.

    Perinal, through having worked in different countries, is underrated generally. If you consider his whole body of work, it’s astonishing. I think Powell found him too slow: the line “Perry fiddles while I burn,” is credited to an unnamed director, but it was probably Powell.

    Cardiff impressed Powell on that film by his lighting of the animal heads on the walls, a 2nd-unit job. And then on AMOLAD, Challis shot the bike crash scene and also caught Powell’s eye. “THAT’S your end frame?” he asked, and Challis said “Yes it is,” and Powell liked the fact that he defended himself.

    The Elusive Pimpernel is distinctly minor, with a lack of dramatic tension that’s simply life-sapping — but Challis’s location work is awe-inspiringly radiant, up there with anything else in Powell’s oeuvre.

    AMOLAD is probably my favourite of the lot, the fusion of fantasy and story is at its best there.

  8. From the Guardian obit:

    “In the same year, Cardiff was in charge of a real stinker. Scent of Mystery used the Smell-O-Vision system by which more than 30 different smells, including garlic, oranges, perfume and coffee, were stored in vials which, on an audio cue on the soundtrack, would disperse throughout the theatre. It contained the first and only olfactory joke in all cinema: when Peter Lorre was drinking coffee, audiences got a whiff of brandy.”

  9. Arthur S. Says:

    AMOLAD was Powell’s own favourite of his films. While Pressburger selected Colonel Blimp. Both are for me their best films but paradoxically they haven’t been the most influential, even THE TALES OF HOFFMANN has perhaps had more influence than those two films. While the most direct and immediate influence Powell had overall was with THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and PEEPING TOM(in the 60s and 70s as a cult film). While the most famous film by the Archers is of course THE RED SHOES.

    If I had to choose a favourite, like Thelma Schoonmaker, I’d choose THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP it was unlike any film I ever saw. So funny and so sad at the same time. The colours are beautiful and the sense of adventure and history, going from the romantic Austria of intrigues and duels to the totally unromantic world of World War II.

    But THE RED SHOES and BLACK NARCISSUS are also supreme. AMOLAD is gloriously uplifting.

  10. Nobody’s mentioned The Mutations yet! It may not be luminously beautiful but it has an effect quite unlike most other cinema, even that small corner of cinema devoted to man-made freaks.

  11. david wingrove Says:

    I’m utterly devastated to learn Jack Cardiff has died. A large chunk of film history has passed away with him. Every film he lit looks sensational, form the masterworks (BLACK NARCISSUS, PANDORA) to the complete and utter stinkers (PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, LEGEND OF THE LOST).

    If there is a classic ‘Cardiff shot’ it would have to be a beautiful woman against a background of rippling blue water. He repeated that one over and over in his career, from Deborah Kerr in BLACK NARCISSUS to Syliva Kristel in THE FIFTH MUSKETEER. It was, in a way, his signature.

  12. I have very fond memories of A Canterbuy Tale. Lovely evocation of a time and place.

  13. I had forgotten about Jack Cardiff’s fine adaptation of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.

  14. Sons and Lovers is certainly the high point of Cardiff’s directorial career, with The Mutations as perhaps the low (but check comment 4, Paul, because I beat you to it!), but a low point that’s certainly compelling. There are even one or two beautiful shots in it. But the treatment of “freaks” is poor, Tom Baker is wasted, and Donald Pleasence appears to be suffering from deep depression.

    A Canterbury Tale was shot by Erwin Hillier, another of Powell’s German collaborators, who also lensed I Know where I’m Going and the Archers production The Silver Fleet. He died in 2005 — these guys seem to have considerable longevity: he was 94.

  15. Tony Williams Says:

    Perhaps GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE is the lowest point of his career?

  16. It’s ludicrous, of course (which Cardiff would never accept), but very watchable and often pretty, and bad in entertaining ways. The Mutations is really unpleasant, dull in places, nasty in others, weird enough to be watchable but not as appealing as GOAM.

  17. Very sad news: a delightful, witty man and a wonderful cinematographer, if not the world’s greatest director. I only discovered yesterday that the US title for Girl on a Motorcycle was the considerably more appealing Naked Under Leather (you can see the poster at http://www.mastersvo.com) — I wonder which other British films might have benefited from a more commercial US title … ? On The Buses? The Blue Lamp … ?

  18. Naked Under Leather is a very weird title when you think about it. Naked Under Linen, Naked Under Burlap, Naked Under Dungarees? Let’s face it, under their clothes, everybody is naked.

    I should take some frame grabs of the solarized images in that film, they’re nice. Really, the movie is exactly as good as it ought to be. The only pity is that Marianne Faithfull didn’t go on to better things as a movie actress.

  19. Well, she does have a very small part in the recent Paris je t’aime. Very small, blink and you miss her.

  20. DavidC> Argh, that’s what I get for skimming….

    We watched the blu-ray of Black Narcissus tonight in tribute. My God, what a film. Every time I see it it has the same, almost narcotic effect. In high-def, though, the shattering impact of the colours and the music brings to life P&P’s ‘composed cinema’ in a way that the video and TV screenings I’ve seen of the film miss out on. The flower montage halfway through feels like something out of Kenneth Anger, the camp, but deeply felt sexuality of it all. And the shot of pale, red-eyed Kathleen Byron poised in that doorway, about to kill Sister Clodagh… if there’s a prize for the most horripilating sequence in a non-horror movie, that should get it every time.

  21. Absolutely! That sequence has pre-echoes of Argento all through it.

    Must invest in a Blu-Ray one of these days.

    The time for Faithfull to have made it as a movie star was when she was young, fascinating and incredibly gorgeous. She’s still fascinating, of course.

  22. I love what Byron had to say about the scene of her stalking Clodagh, how when performing it before the camera she was pretty much doing what was required of her, totally without any notion of how it might look on the screen. But when she finally saw the filmed result she was stunned by the cinematic transformation, and one shares in the thrill of her recollection.

  23. That’s wonderful. An interesting contrast with Sylvia Sidney, who was reduced to tears by Hitchcock on Sabotage because she didn’t understand what was required of her in his montage murder scene. When in reality, very little was required.

  24. david wingrove Says:

    GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE is one of the all-time Great Bad Movies. It is mind-blowingly awful, but you simply can’t take your eyes off it. What more can one ask?

    The original novel, by the French author Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, is everything the movie is not – subtly erotic, provocative, intelligent. But it’s basically an extended interior monologue and possubly un-filmable. A bit like trying to film the final Molly Bloom chapter from James Joyce’s ULYSSES. Still, you have to give JC points for trying!

    Marianne Faithfull gives a wretchedly inept performance. (In fact, she makes you appreciate the acting talents of David Bowie, Prince and Madonna.) Yet she is heartbreakingly beautiful to behold and has a genuinely compelling screen presence. What she needed was a latter-day Von Sternberg to turn her into a movie icon – possibly the way drugged-out French auteur Philippe Garrel did with Nico.

    Finally, the dialogue in the film is to die for. Especially as Alain Delon appears to be reading phonetically off a cue card. “YOURRE BOD-DY EEZ LIKE A VI-O-LEEN EEN A VEL-VET CASE.” I ask you, who could resist?

  25. The last chapter of Cardiff’s book, where he settles old scores and tries to set the record straight, is I think where he defends this film, still taking it quite seriously. In particular he defends that line, “Alain Delon did not say this line,” since the scene is an imaginary one. You see? He’s just too subtle and intellectual for you, David.

    Cardiff also wants to clear up the “facts” regarding The Long Ships, which DP Chris Challis had written about in his own entertaining bio, Are They Really So Awful? It’s a shame Cardiff felt the need to be defensive, but I think he wanted to have the kind of reputation as director he unquestionably enjoyed as cinematographer.

  26. Another quote: “Originally, I cast a German girl to play the lead. She was perfect for the role. A few days after engaging her she was rushed to hospital with a drug overdose and I never saw her again.”

    This couldn’t have been Nico, could it?

  27. Arthur S. Says:

    Where’s David Ehrenstein when you need him? He can confirm whether it’s Nico or not.

    DPs getting fame and recognition in their own right has been really tough for much of Mr. Cardiff’s early career so I can understand he’d feel defensive about his directorial career. Now of course Mr. Cardiff is associated with THE RED SHOES as much as Powell and Pressburger are, same with BLACK NARCISSUS or AMOLAD.

    There are very few cases of great DPs being great directors. Someone like Nicholas Roeg likely counts though I think he’s a better DP than a director, hence proving my point. In fact I can’t really think of a great DP in his own right being a great director.

  28. david wingrove Says:

    That German girl who was rushed to hospital with a drug overdose could very well have been Nico…who was also an old flame of Alain Delon’s, having just given birth to his illegitimate son Ari.

    So could GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE have started off as a vehicle to cash in on their off-screen affair? A sort of Eurotrash equivalent to Brangelina and Bennifer? The mind boggles.

    Anyway, darling Nico was (if possible) an even worse actress than Marianne. She also had a thick German accent, which would have meant two non-English speaking voices mangling all that ghastly dialogue.

    This is sounding better and better!

    BTW, I don’t buy JC’s argument about the “violin” line being imaginary. Who apart from an excruciatingly bad screen-writer would ever imagine such a line – even in their most twisted and perverse fantasies?

  29. Well, if anyone could, I’d probably opt for Nico rather than Marianne.

    I’ve been wondering about David Ehrenstein, I hope whatever’s keeping him busy is fun.

    I wonder if I can think of any great directors who were cinematographers… I would include Roeg, and I love both of Karl Freund’s horror films…

  30. Tony Williams Says:

    I once passed Nico at nightin 1981 walking back from Withington to Rusholme in Manchester one windy night. She resembled a Valkrie, her dark hair blowing in the wind, Germanic features so resonant.

    This will remain in my memory.

    I also saw her perform live with a local group at the same time.

  31. Reminds me of my late friend Lawrie’s story of seeing Orson Welles emerge from the mist, clad in his cape, in Soho. Later that day he learned Welles was on his way to record a fish fingers ad.

  32. Tony Williams Says:

    Where is David E? This would be a great time for his feedback especially as he is a great fan of Alain Delon.

  33. He’s back, but I guess he hasn’t noticed this thread.

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