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Jack Cardiff

Interviewed by Steve Hall

Jack Cardiff

In 1947, Jack Cardiff won the Oscar for best colour cinematography for Black Narcissus. He said at the time, "When ever I gaze at it, I always seem to grow a few inches" I asked him if at the age of 83, does he still gets that feeling?

Oh yes, I still have a great affection for it, some people think the Oscars are a lot of nonsense, but it isn't a lot of nonsense, it's an accolade, which if you've done something well is a very honourable thing, I like the idea. A while ago, I was in Hollywood and went out three weekends running with a Hollywood cameraman to lunch or to the beach, and each time he brought along one of his three ex-wives. On the last occasion, we were all about to get into his car which was in the garage, when a cupboard opened and an Oscar rolled out, and he shoved it back in with his foot. I thought "Oh my goodness, to do that sort of thing to an Oscar."

The Oscar sits on a shelf with several other glittering prizes on a large shelf in a kitchen come sitting room at Jack and Nicki Cardiff's house in rural Essex. I struggled hard to resist the urge to ask if I could pick it up, and hope maybe some its glory would rub off, but I resisted the temptation to ask, and now regret my self control.

So many autobiographies are available where there is little or no real substance to write about; Jack really has been there, read the book and met the cast and then made the movie. Martin Scorsese, has written the foreward to "Magic Hour." This is Jack's autobiography and is shortly to be published in paperback. Scorseese sums up the spirit of the book - "It is a wonderful opportunity to survey the career and artistic evolution of this man whose name had become synonymous with Technicolor, from his itinerant beginnings on the vaudeville circuit with his parents to his apprenticeship in the silent cinema, from his work as an operator on films like Hitchcock's "The Skin Game" and "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" to his acing of a Technicolor exam with his knowledge of painting, from his adventurous days shooting travelogues and war footage with the mighty Technicolor camera, in battle ships in wartime seas, on top of erupting volcanoes, in burning deserts and steaming jungles - to his magnificent work as a cinematographer and his experiences as a director."

It is probably for this magnificent work as a cinematographer that Jack is best known, He won the Academy award for "Black Narcissus", and was nominated for "War and Peace", "Fanny" and "Sons and Lovers" (the latter as director) and should have been at least nominated for the "African Queen", "The Red Shoes" and "A Matter of Life and Death."

As the son of a theatrical mother and father, Jack's first experience with the Movies was in front of the camera as a child in 1918. With the decline in music hall style entertainment, it was quite fortuitous that the family were around the burgeoning film industry. Jack received a rudimentary education, because of his parents travels, and at an early age on leaving school, found himself in a film studio as his first job as a junior whose job it was to fetch Vichy water for a flatulent director - It's an ill wind....

The film was the 1928 version of the 'Silent Informer.' During the making the assistant cameraman called the young Jack over, "When I tell you, during the shot, I want you to rotate the lens from this pencil mark to the other one." The scene was shot and Jack asked what he had done, "Well sonny, you followed focus." And that was the start of it all.

Jack followed the traditional route through the craft, and he admitted to me recently, that the only reason he wanted to join the camera department was that they got to travel to some exotic locations. "The only problem was it was several years before I got the chance, although I did get to the Isle of Wight for half a day." One night the B&D Studios caught fire. Jack and his colleagues Ted Moore and Skeets Kelly managed to get to the camera room and rescue some of the cameras.

The next morning we felt we would be called heroes for rescuing these cameras, the management didn't like us at all, the cameras were all insured and they said that they wished that we hadn't done what we did, because they would have got a lot of money from the insurance. One camera wasn't insured; it was a Debrie, a brand new French camera, and the Debrie company were so delighted that they gave Ted Moore 15, and they gave me a three day holiday in Paris.

For some one who's early education could best be described as itinerant, it is not so strange that his thirst for knowledge and culture was stirred by reading a pornographic book. He then galloped through every great book he could lay his hands on, and an appreciation of art followed. He was interviewed at Denham for the chance to go to America and learn about the new Technicolor process. After the usual grilling, Jack informed the panel that he was a mathematical dunce, and that he was the wrong candidate. One of the panel then asked what he thought made him a good cameraman, he replied that it was from observing light; the light in houses, trains and buses at various times of day and the light that the Old Masters used in their paintings. He then went on to back it up extolling the techniques of Rembrant, Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch and Georges de la Tour. Jack went on the course.

In 1936 Jack was to meet Count von Keller who wanted to hire a Technicolor camera and cameraman so that they could travel the world and make professional travelogues. This gave Jack the chance to do all the travelling he wanted, travelling light or more exactly travelling without lights (only two reflectors), across the civilised world and considerably beyond.

I asked Jack if it were possible to spot a cameraman by his lighting style in the same way that it is possible to identify a painter. I don't know, I have been told by some people that they can. I really can't see it myself, I get pre-occupied with watching the performances. I remember filming a long scene in 'Black Narcissus' with Deborah Carr, I was so absorbed with the marvellous performance, that after the take Micky (Michael Powell) came over and said "I suppose you'll want to do another take." I looked at Micky and said "Why?" "Didn't you see the lamp go out at the back?" he said. "No, Michael, I didn't see it, no-one is going to notice that, the performance is wonderful" and Michael said "Great, print it."

The working relationship with the director Michael Powell developed through "A Matter of Life and Death" and "Black Narcissus." Powell had encouraged Jack to experiment and make suggestions. Jack being the enfant terrible of Technicolor suggested on a dawn sequence, the use a slight fog filter - unheard of in those days. The only problem was this was the last day's shooting with Deborah Carr. The laboratory called the next morning, and said the rushes were no good.

I felt sick, Technicolor said everything was ruined, Deborah would have to be paid a fortune to work another day on overtime. Then we had a viewing, and as the stuff came on the screen I knew it was good, Michael said, "I love it, its just what I wanted." The Technicolor boys were there saying, "Don't you think in a drive in people will think it's out of focus?" Michael gave them a strict lecture on what was art and what was not art.

It was during the last days of filming "Black Narcissus," Michael Powell said to me "What do you think of ballet?" I was stupid enough to say "Not much, it's so precious - all those sissies prancing about." Micky showed more amusement than outrage, "Have you ever been to a ballet?" I admitted that I hadn't been since I was a child, "Well you've a lot of catching up to do, our next production is all about ballet. It's called "The Red Shoes" and I want you to soak up ballet as if your life depended on it. You'll be given tickets to go to Covent Garden - practically every night." I didn't realise how lucky I was at the time. I thought it was going to be a boring chore. In a very short time I was well and truly hooked.

I asked Jack if he considered "The Red Shoes" to be one his best films, I think so, first of all there was a great atmosphere on the film, Michael Powell had this power of installing enthusiasm in people. At the beginning of the picture he made a long speech saying "this is going to be the best film you've ever worked on and we're going to have a lot of fun with it." and we did, we had a wonderful time in the South of France.

Nothing was too risky for Michael, He was the most stimulating director I ever worked with. I always knew if I tried something daring, he'd back me up as he had done over the fog filter on "Black Narcissus." I had a gadget made to change the camera speed during a scene. This was used to great effect when a dancer leapt into the air, and just before the apex of flight, by speeding up the camera, I was able to slow the action so they would appear to hover in the air. I changed the speed with pirouettes so that a dancer would start off at normal speed and then as I changed the camera speed to only four frames a second, she would whirl faster and faster until she was a spinning blur.

We had to have a spotlight for the ballet sequence. as the speed of Technicolor was slow in those days, this spotlight had to be really powerful. We ended up with a specially constructed water-cooled arc lamp of 300 amps. It was a wonderful piercing ray of glory like a shaft from heaven. Also after a conversation with Peter Mole from Mole Richardson, I was able to use two prototype 225 amp lamps which he called "Brutes". The first ever made.

"I'm probably best known for "The Red Shoes", I'm often introduced as the man who shot "The Red Shoes", but I was never nominated for an Academy Award for it. After I won the award for Black Narcissus, the Society of American cameramen (who put forward the nominations) were concerned that it would put them in a bad light if a non-American were to win the award two years running, and so they prevented this happening by not nominating me in the first place."

From the work with the Archer Company, Jack moved on to "Scott of the Antarctic" "The laboratory deserved an Oscar for matching the colour of the studio footage with those of the exteriors." - to "Under Capricorn" with a now established Hitchcock who pursued the method of choreographing continuous takes, and moving the camera almost all the time within a 'trick' set, which was a progression from 'The Rope'. "This involved meticulous pre-production planning, and by the time it came to shooting it, Hitchcock seemed rather bored with the whole project.

In 1950, a joint British-American production was started. "It will be so simple," said the director. "We'll make the whole film on a raft. We'll put a replica of the boat on it using the boat as a stage, and we can be towed along the rivers of Africa while we shoot to our hearts content." Jack Cardiff had been taken on board "The African Queen" by its director John Huston. Almost all of the was film shot in Africa with almost all of the problems. The first location was in the heart of Tsetse fly country, the second was in what they had all imagined to be the quiet tranquillity of Lake Albert, where we boarded the houseboat the Lugard II, which was to be our accommodation. We were all so ill, my operator Ted Moore and I worked a bizarre version of musical chairs, when my temperature reached 104, I would lie down and Ted would take over; in turn, I would do his job until he recuperated. There were only two people who didn't go down with the sickness and that should have provided the clue, because they were Huston and Bogey. They never drank water, Only neat, germ proof whisky. It was later discovered that the special filters through which the drinking water was pumped, were missing and we had all been drinking unfiltered water with every microbe in the book of tropical disease.

As a cinematographer, Jack has earned a reputation as a wizard of Technicolor, he also has one for his ability to capture on film some of the world's most beautiful women. Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Ingrid Bergman and Marilyn Monroe. It is not just a matter of capturing their beauty with flattering angles and careful lighting, but giving them the confidence to believe they look good on camera, enabling them to give their best performance. Jack was hired to photograph "The Prince and the Showgirl" and had to go and meet Marilyn Monroe and her husband Arthur Miller, who were staying at Parkside House at Englefield Green. He met Arthur first, who said that Marilyn had just woken up, and she would be out in a minute. Then she appeared, sped swiftly to Miller's arms, then she slanted a shy sleepy smile at me. She didn't say anything at all - not even 'hello'. Then gazing at me with cosy triumph, she murmured softly to Miller, "Isn't he wonderful, darling? He's the greatest, and I've got him." I gave them a silly smile, feeling uncomfortably gift wrapped. I later left the house quite convinced I had met an angel.

The film that followed was not to be an easy passage, the mixture of Marilyn Monroe and Lawrence Olivier who wore the hats of both star and director. Olivier was exasperated by the behaviour and performance of his female lead, who was arriving later and later, and needing more and more takes, and which he felt was worsened by the presence of Paula Strasberg, Marilyn's Drama coach. Jack was caught in the cross-fire and whilst he could see Olivier's point, he could also see the torment that was going on behind Monroe's eyes." She just froze when she had to go out and face being stared at by hundreds of pairs of eyes." Jack remained friends with Marilyn up until her premature death, a subject on which Jack has strong opinions.

Errol Flynn was in the later part of his career in 1953 and was working with Jack Cardiff on the "Master of Ballantrae". Some time later, Flynn encouraged Jack to go to Rome to photograph 'Crossed Swords' - "Bring the family, you'll love Rome." What followed was an fraught co-production which was not helped by Flynn's drinking and drug habits. At the end of this Flynn approached Jack with an offer to direct "William Tell" with Flynn and his manager, Barry Mahon, as producers. It was the offer Jack had been waiting for.

Not content with the role of one of the worlds finest cinematographers, Jack wanted to direct. His first project was "William Tell." The whole project was built on a fabrication. The film was backed by an Italian, Count Fossataro, a man of good standing, or so his bank had told Flynn and Mahon. The problem lay in that in Italian banks 'to be of good standing' means that he had more than a couple of Lire in his account. Sadly this was to all he had in his account. The film soon hit the rocks, a large number of which had been used to erect a stone village at the foot of Mont Blanc. The project was killed completely when the two Cinemascope cameras were confiscated (William Tell was to have been the second film shot on Cinemascope - 'The Robe' being first). 25 screen-time minutes of the film were shot, now only 5 remain.

Jack went back to photographing films but waited for his chance to chance to direct again. It came with a 'B' picture 'Intent to Kill' a suspense film based in a Montreal Hospital. Then in 1960, he was offered 'Sons and Lovers' by Robert Goldstein. He had to lie to get it saying that he had adored the book, which he had never read. Jack assembled a superb cast, and crew and film a large part of the movie in the places and amongst the communities where Lawrence had actually lived.

I asked Jack if he found it difficult to let go the reins and allow Freddie Francis light and photograph it in his way. I made it clear from the outset that I did not want to interfere. I had enough to do with the actors and all the problems with Goldstein the executive who never came to the studio. We were two days behind schedule because it had been drawn up for the summer and we actually shot it in the winter. Goldstein started cutting scenes, so I called the cast together and told them what was happening, I said that if I walked off the picture, I would be replaced tomorrow, but if they were to threaten to leave something would happen. It did, all the scenes were put back.

The censors had been making strange suggestions from the start. they wanted to replace Miriam's line "You shall have me." with "I do love you." After the shooting was finished, there was a battle with the censors, over Clara's line "Is it me you want or just it." Jack carried on regardless, ignoring all the spurious requests and finished the film remaining true to the Lawrence's book. This was only his third film as director and he was nominated for an Academy Award for it.

Jack often found himself directing difficult films with demanding stars, he walked out on "The Long Ships" three times. Not because of the explosive nature of so many in this profession, on the contrary because of others ranting and being difficult. I asked Jack after having worked with some monsters in his time what he was liked to work with. He describes himself as, "One of the quiet ones as opposed to the the shouting and screaming type, I was more in Carol Reed's league," with a twinkle in his eye, and with typical modesty Jack adds, "Only he was a better director."

The British film industry went into something of a decline, and it became difficult to get directing assignments so for the next decade Jack moved among films as either a director or a cinematographer or as in the case of 'Girl on a Motorcycle' he did both. He got nominated as best cinematographer for "Fanny"(1960). It is at this point in the book one can sense Jack's frustration, and possibly the only real criticism is that this period from the mid sixties to mid eighties are largely glossed over largely because Jack was working as a cinematographer when he really wanted to be directing. it would be interesting to compare the on screen fire-power of 'First Blood II' with the off screen battles of 'The Prince and the Showgirl'. A very minor criticism of what is one of the best written accounts of a life in the film industry.

Sly Stallone and Jack Cardiff

Learning the cameraman's craft today, we usually find we are walking a well trodden path, with so many of the 'rules' or guide-lines are laid down by those, like Jack, who have passed this way before, occasionally when we try something a little different, we usually find someone else beat us to it. Sometimes it is almost impossible to imagine what the industry was like, when the medium was being discovered, through experimentation and more importantly through original ideas. Jack was really one of the pioneers of the craft not as a technician but as an artist using the tools at the cutting edge of technology. That is not to say that Jack is not unimpressed with the work that is produced today, and he told me. "The Bill has some of the best camera operation I have ever seen."

At 83 most people would consider themselves well and truly retired, not Jack, 'Magic Hour' is due to be published in paperback, he is thinking about publishing a book of photographs, working on some paintings to have an exhibition and he is currently trying to put a small project together, "to make a film about England." I for one, am looking forward to seeing it.

Magic Hour is published by Faber and Faber the paperback release is due in August 1997

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