Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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The Technicolor Dreams of Jack Cardiff
by Graham Oliver
Cable Guide: July 2001
Black Narcissus and Conan the Destroyer. You wouldn't think these two movies had a great deal in common: the former - a brilliantly affecting 1940s drama detailing the emotional turmoil of a group of nuns in the Himalayas - is rightly regarded as a masterpiece of British cinema; the latter is a Hollywood sword-and-sorcery adventure starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the films share an undeniable visual artistry, and that's because both were shot by Jack Cardiff, one of the most respected and imaginative cameramen in the history of the industry. The Yarmouth-born Cardiff, now a sprightly 86 years old, has notched up cinematographer credits on over 60 films and has directed 14 features, including the DH Lawrence adaptation Sons and Lovers, Young Cassidy (with John Ford), and the 1960s cult curio Girl on a Motorcycle.
His most celebrated work, however, was for the visionary film-making team of British director Michael Powell and his Hungarian-born writing and producing partner Emeric Pressburger, for whom he manned the camera on three enduring classics: A Matter of Life and Death (1946), the aforementioned Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).
Cardiff has always been restlessly creative by nature, always challenging accepted ideas about cinematography and movie-making. And in Powell he found a kindred spirit. Cardiff says: 'He was constantly attacking everything that was normal. I did a lot of things that cameramen weren't supposed to do.
I was always doing rather outrageous things. And that was Michael's entire way of working, so we got on famously.'
A great example of Cardiff's resourceful inventiveness resulted in a simple but effective moment early on in the classic fantasy A Matter of Life and Death. An RAF pilot, played by David Niven, has abandoned his crippled aircraft as it hurtled to the ground. He is about to find himself on a beautiful beach and believes he has died and gone to heaven. Cardiff explains how he approached the opening shot of the sandy idyll: 'Just as we were about to shoot it Michael said, 'It says in the script fade-in, which is a bit corny. I wish we could think of something different.' I said, 'Michael, look through the camera,' and as he did so I went round the front and breathed on the lens. It took about four seconds for this misty condensation to disappear and reveal the scene and Michael loved it.'
Black Narcissus, starring Deborah Kerr, and ballet tale The Red Shoes, starring Moira Shearer, are among the most poetic adventures in colour ever committed to celluloid. Cardiff's vibrant, dreamlike experiments on the haunting dance drama were truly astonishing, and his elegant and expressive photography on Black Narcissus helped convince audiences they were watching a story unfold against the epic backdrop of the Himalayas, rather than a cleverly dressed set at Pinewood Studios. Cardiff won a richly deserved Oscar for his astonishing efforts on that film. But he had to wait 53 years to double his Oscar haul, despite being nominated a further three times. At this year's ceremony he became the first cameraman in Academy history to win an Honorary Oscar, and as he accepted the statuette amid rapturous applause, there wasn't a happier, prouder man in the world. But surely there was a sense of sweet revenge, too. For, back in 1949, Academy politics had denied Cardiff a nomination for his sterling cinematography on The Red Shoes. 'That whole affair was very sad,' he sighs. 'At that time, everyone said, 'You're definitely going to get the Oscar for this.'
I wasn't even nominated. The reason was the American Camera Society decided that as I'd won it the year before, it would be putting American cameramen in a bad light if an Englishman won the Oscar two years running. So this year you could say I made a bit of an entrance through the back door!'