It’s the job of a cinematographer (also known as director of photography) to work with the director to realize a scene. The cinematographer selects the film stock, lens, filter and lighting and oversees the camera and lighting crew. Challenged to keep pace with rapidly evolving camera, lighting and color technology, Cardiff became known as a master of his craft, and particularly groundbreaking for his vivid use of Technicolor.
Cardiff, who died two years ago at the age of 94, is the subject of a new documentary, “Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff.” Filmed primarily between 1997 and 2000, the movie features the lively, funny Cardiff as he discusses his work on “Black Narcissus” (for which he won his only Oscar), as well as “Red Shoes,” “War and Peace,” “The African Queen,” “Barefoot Contessa” and even “Rambo: First Blood Part II.”
Jack Cardiff was one of the most honored and admired cameramen of the 20th century — the first cinematographer to be awarded an honorary Oscar (in 2000) for his life’s work. Cardiff invented new ways to use the camera to create Technicolor masterpieces such as The Red Shoes. And his painterly use of light and color continues to influence many filmmakers.
Cardiff spent 90 years in the movie business. As a cinematographer he worked with such directors as Michael Powell, Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston. Martin Scorsese, who is a huge fan, says that all those films with illustrious directors have a look that belongs uniquely to Cardiff.
In 2001, Cardiff, shown here with actor Dustin Hoffman, won an honorary Oscar. He was the first cinematographer ever to be given the award for lifetime achievement.
“I think it goes back to Cardiff’s love of painting, of course,” says Scorsese. “He had a special — I guess you would use the word ‘expressionist’ — sense of a storm of color like Turner. And I think he certainly excelled in color photography, there is no doubt. And he redefined it.”
Cardiff won an Oscar for the lush, atmospheric color and light he created for the 1947 film Black Narcissus. It’s about a group of Anglican nuns trying to cope with the unruly beauty of the Himalayas. In the new documentary, Cardiff describes how he created mountain atmosphere on a studio back lot, guided by his favorite painters.
“Vermeer was the sort of painter that I had in mind on Black Narcissus, because the light had to be clear and as simple as possible,” Cardiff says, his comments illustrated in the documentary by a scene from Black Narcissus that shows the white-walled chapel of the nuns. The incessant wind blows, and a bell at the edge of a dizzying cliff tolls the dawn hour of prayer. The pink of the coming sun begins to push back a greenish cast that lies over the chapel walls, as though the mad night and the sane day still struggle. The story is coming to a crisis, the movement and mood expressed by Cardiff’s use of color.
Cardiff says the green hue in contrast with the pink was inspired by Van Gogh. “Any cameraman would get ideas from Van Gogh and moods of light. Light is the principal agent. That should be the same in photography, that the use of light is like a painter — that you use it in a simple form.”
Cardiff was entirely self-taught in art and everything else. His parents were vaudevillians who moved all the time, so young Jack never attended by his count more than 300 schools and “never learned a thing.” His parents also worked as film extras, and Jack’s first movie job came as a 4-year-old actor in a silent film in 1918. In his teens, he became an errand boy, working his way up to camera operator and eventually cinematographer, in charge of the lighting and technical aspects of the film in collaboration with the director. He was the only cameraman that the Technicolor Corp. chose to train in Britain; people there were were impressed that he knew which side of the face Rembrandt liked to light. Cardiff learned Technicolor’s many rules, then promptly ignored them when he went to work with the directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in the 1940s.
Thelma Schoonmaker is Martin Scorsese’s film editor and the widow of Michael Powell; she got to know Jack Cardiff when he was in his 80s. “He was just fun and what a delightful sense of humor, but appreciating life and just eating it up and always open to it.”
She says her husband knew that Cardiff wasn’t afraid to jump off the diving board with him into unknown territory. In The Red Shoes (1948) for instance, Powell and Cardiff depicted ballet in a radical new way, Schoonmaker says, “designing a ballet in which the dancers are not on a stage or a proscenium framing but they’re flying through the air, and all kind of wild and crazy things are going on. Because they’re capturing in the film the feelings of a dancer and what it feels like, and particularly a dancer in love.”
To give the audience this new experience of what dance feels like to the dancer, Cardiff invented a way to change the speed of the camera, to make a dancer pause almost imperceptibly at the top of a leap, to float free for a moment, as it were. And he made the massive Technicolor camera, almost as big as a refrigerator, do hand-held shots, by mounting it on a bungee cord platform attached to the ceiling and then swinging it around to capture the whirling excitement of bodies in motion.
In the late 1950s Cardiff began to direct films. He’d made one abortive attempt to direct with the help of Errol Flynn, who wanted to make a movie about the legend of William Tell. That had failed in midshoot when the principal financier turned out to have no money after all. Cardiff persevered in his ambition to direct. Always game for innovation, he directed Scent of Mystery (1959), an early “smellie” that featured real odors in the theater.
Then Cardiff had a great critical success in 1960 with an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. It earned seven Oscar nominations, including one for Cardiff’s direction. It won the Oscar for Freddie Francis’s black-and-white cinematography. Cardiff had a box-office hit and cult item in Girl on a Motorcycle, starring pop icon Marianne Faithfull, in 1968. But after directing a dozen or so films in the increasingly sickly British film industry, Cardiff went back on the payroll for other directors as cinematographer. The new documentary’s director, Craig McCall, says Cardiff didn’t seem to mind.
“I don’t think he completely thought he would never go back to directing, you know. But the thing was, he genuinely loved shooting,” says McCall. And Cardiff proceeded to shoot 21 more movies, everything from Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile to the second Rambo (during which Sylvester Stallone dared to instruct him where to put the camera and then had to apologize). Cardiff also shot the Arnold Schwarzenegger sequel Conan the Destroyer. He worked long enough to see new technology usurp part of his job.
“When I was working on pictures like The Red Shoes with all these effects, I wanted very much to do it myself,” recalls Cardiff in an interview in Cameraman, “even if it meant breathing on the lens to have a fade-in through mist, or whatever. But nowadays, anything that comes up, like a shot is going to be made which is really fantastic, they said, Jack don’t worry about that; special effects will do that. So I always felt a bit left in the lurch.”
It was toward the end of Cardiff’s working life that he met Craig McCall, an independent filmmaker who happened to be at the same studio while Cardiff was directing a 1991 television documentary about Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. As a child McCall had loved one of the films Cardiff shot for Powell, called A Matter of Life and Death, a 1946 fantasy about a British wartime pilot about to crash and caught up in a heavenly tribunal. McCall spent more than a decade interviewing Cardiff and the directors, actors, and crews with whom he worked and with those who admired him, like Scorsese. The film includes Cardiff’s home movies on the sets of films he shot, and a segment on the photographic portraits that Cardiff took of his most famous actresses: Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, and Marilyn Monroe, who declared Cardiff the best cameraman in the world. “Some people collect stamps,” Cardiff says with an impish smile in the film. “I collect women.”
McCall also patiently waited to get clips from the restored versions of Cardiff’s films, until he was finally able to release this documentary. Schoonmaker says, “Craig has been amazingly dedicated to this project, and was always with Jack. This film is a remarkable act of devotion, and it was very hard for him to get it finished, but he did.”
Cardiff got to see a version of the documentary before he died in 2009, and his work continues to influence such directors as Scorsese, who took inspiration from The Red Shoes for the boxing scenes in Raging Bull. Scorsese says Cardiff’s work is a benchmark.
“It seemed to be something that I always, how should I put it, measured against,” says Scorsese. “In other words, what am I going for here? Or creating a sense of very lush color in a scene that otherwise would be rather drab. First of all, does it call for that, and if it doesn’t, maybe it should. And maybe we should be provocative with the color here, and whenever the provocative is mentioned, I automatically think first of those impressions made by the films that Jack Cardiff photographed.”
Films in which Jack Cardiff, as Scorsese once wrote, taught the camera to be as supple as a painter’s brush.
The film includes clips from the 2001 Oscar telecast, when Cardiff became the first director of photography to be given an honorary Oscar. (Cardiff also took on directing, and earned a best director nomination for his 1960 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s classic novel “Sons and Lovers.” Perhaps not coincidentally, but a bit ironically, the black-and-white film won the Academy Award for cinematography by Freddie Francis.)
Cardiff embraced chiaroscuro lighting in his films, offering strong contrasts between light and dark. In “Black Narcissus,” for example, there is an overhead shot of the dining area he lit so the shadow of the cross would appear over the nuns. And then when one of the nuns becomes sexually crazed, she appears out of the shadows in the convent bell tower wearing a vivid red dress and blood-red lipstick. For the finale, in which a woman charges a chaste nun (Deborah Kerr), Cardiff used a fog filter, giving the shadows a green tinge that clashed with the heightened reds and made the scene more dramatic and unsettling.
“I think Jack was an artist,” said Craig McCall, director of “Cameraman.” “I wanted to inspire people with the documentary. Jack had no formal education. He never got a piece of paper in his life to say what he was, yet he was one of the greatest communicators behind the scenes. I am not actually saying that Jack is the greatest cinematographer in the world — that’s a silly statement — but he had a very distinct place in film history and inspired a lot of people.”
Remembering the Man Who Mastered Technicolor by David Thomson
He was born in Norfolk as the Great War began, and he died in Cambridgeshire at 94. He looked like someone content with English country life, a slender, bright-eyed man, handsome when young, and modest, decent, and amiable as he grew older. He had an honest humility not common in the movie business. Even in the technical pursuits or the laboring jobs, movie people like to think they own their worlds. The limo drivers have a catalogue of famous people they have driven, and the scandalous stories they have heard confessed. Jack Cardiff was a master at what he did—he is the only cinematographer to have been given an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. Yet he told me once that Michael Powell, the director for whom he did his most famous work, was such an imperious tyrant that he could reduce grown men to tears. Cardiff included! Yet Jack had had the genius to respond to Michael’s urging that A Matter of Life and Death (1946) needed a shot of the English sea shore as if emerging from a dream, by simply breathing on his own lens and then filming as the mist evaporated.
Such visions emerge in the documentary film, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, directed and lovingly assembled by Craig McCall, and now playing at enterprising theatres. These days, there are plenty of movies about movie-making (and not enough good movies, maybe). Some of them are routine publicity tools aimed at augmenting the DVD package. But Cameramanis much more rewarding. I think that comes from the warmth between McCall and Cardiff, and from the director’s realization that his subject is a rare human being, not just a kind man always intent on enlarging a picture or the shy fellow on the set beloved by the beautiful stars (because he touched their faces with a tenderness no lover could match), but because Jack Cardiff is crucially associated with a form that assisted in many of the great works of film art—Technicolor, a process that is barely understood today.
Now, Cardiff had a long career. The son of traveling showmen, he became a child actor and then a camera operator. Around the late 1950s, his reputation was so great and his dramatic intelligence so clear that he was promoted to be a director. He did not photograph his own films (he was too unassuming), but one of them, Sons and Lovers, in black and white, got a nomination for Best Picture. I think that attention was generous, and I have to say that the films Cardiff directed are not remarkable. Equally, by the mid-1970s, he returned to cinematography—he shot Conan the Barbarian and Rambo: First Blood Part II, among others—without regaining his magical touch.
His great era is the war years and the 1950s. Beyond the Powell-Pressburger films (A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes), he did Under Capricorn, for Hitchcock, the second and the more interesting of the director’s long-take experiments, begun on Rope; Pandora and the Flying Dutchman—the lushest romancing of Ava Gardner’s life (all right, I’m guessing); The African Queen, really shot on location, with a tiny generator and only two lamps; The Barefoot Contessa; War and Peace (with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn, and a neglected film); and The Vikings, a bold evocation of rain-washed Nordic light.
Technicolor had begun in America in 1935, but it’s fair to say that the deeply romantic, theatrical, and painterly nature of the process was never more fully embraced than in Britain in those post-war years when austerity ruled in most things. It was a process that involved three separate film strips, a camera the size of a wardrobe, and elaborate printing schemes that required exceptional craftsmanship at the printing baths from men whose arms were tattooed in fantastic colors. McCall’s film is wonderfully generous with its extracts, never more so than with Black Narcissus. This is a tricky film to judge now, in part because I don’t think Powell or his regular writer-producer, Emeric Pressburger, were very much interested in religion. And this is a story about a community of nuns in Tibet!
The crew was excited by the idea, especially if it meant getting away from England and going to the Himalayas. Oh, no, said Powell, we’ll do it all in the studio. What obsessed him far more than religion was the challenge to build sets, to paint on glass for perspectives, and to use color in a way that made the viewer believe the production had gone to Tibet. It was artifice that moved him; plus the notion of wondering about the sexual dreams of nuns, shrouded in ivory—yet eager to use crimson lipstick. With Alfred Junge as its production designer and Jack as cinematographer, Black Narcissus is one of the most ravishing films ever made (Cardiff won the Oscar for color photography). There are moments when the viewer is bound to ask, well, isn’t this just beauty or cinema for its own sake? But there must be young generations who have never experienced this use of color, movement, and melodrama. For a simple reason—a little more than ten years after Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, the world abandoned Technicolor for cooler processes, cheaper and supposedly truer to life. As if Powell and company hadn’t always preferred the imagination.
That’s the real question behind Cameraman. Among its illustrious cast of witnesses to Cardiff’s’s career is Martin Scorsese (shot as if Jack and Michael had directed the interview). That’s entirely proper, in that Scorsese was a magnificent friend to Powell in his last years and an unmatched believer in the Powell/Cardiff approach. So don’t miss the wistful moment when Scorsese acknowledges how Technicolor, black and white, and photography itself have been brushed aside by digitalization. He can hardly rebuke the system he works in now, but he knows—and this documentary makes clear—that a glory was folded up and put away. And it’s not coming back.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.