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Original at The Daily Telegraph
The man who shot the stars
One British Oscar is guaranteed - a lifetime achievement award to the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff. He talks to David Gritten
The Daily Telegraph
Friday 2 March 2001
I have travelled to Kent to meet Jack Cardiff, the great British cinematographer, labouring under the delusion that at 86 years of age he must surely have retired. Not a bit of it. Cardiff spends part of each day painting Impressionist-influenced canvases in a studio at his home, and is currently planning a second exhibition of his work. Even more impressively, he is about to begin a tight, tiring, eight-week shoot on a low-budget British film.
A busy life, then. But Cardiff is also making an appearance at the Academy Awards ceremony later this month, when he will accept an honorary Oscar for his life's work. It says much for the respect that he commands within the film industry that in 74 years of Academy Awards, only one other Englishman has received an honorary Oscar with such a citation attached. And that was Laurence Olivier.
Cardiff is hardly a household name, but to film people this veteran of more than 100 films is revered as the first lighting cameraman to exploit movie colour to its fullest potential. Martin Scorsese, who wrote the foreword to Cardiff's autobiography, Magic Hour, called him "a pioneer of colour", adding, "He worked on many of the greatest pictures ever made, films that have captivated me from childhood to middle age."
Scorsese cites The Four Feathers (1939), and four films that Cardiff made in the Forties with director Michael Powell and producer-screenwriter Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life And Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Anyone who has seen these films will instantly recall their visual sumptuousness.
Yet Cardiff reacted to news of his Oscar with typical modesty. "It's unbelievable," he says. "I think what happened is that the [Academy] committee met, and they thought: why not give an Oscar to a technician this year, rather than to a star, a director or producer?" His admirers might wince at his use of the word "technician", but Cardiff, who has also directed 15 films, knows the boundaries of a cinematographer's duties.
"I've believed for a long time that photography shouldn't stick out too much, but enhance all the subtlety a director puts into it," he says. "It's the director's film. The director has the responsibility for everything on the picture, and the cameraman's job is to serve him."
He muses on this at his Sevenoaks home, where he lives with his third wife, Nicki (they have been together 30 years). Genial and welcoming, Cardiff happily launches into anecdotes about his career, which astonishingly began in 1918, when he was a four-year-old actor. His parents were a travelling music-hall turn, and he grew up without a sense of a permanent home. He first stepped behind a camera professionally at the age of 14.
He went on to work with screen legends. As cinematographer on The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), he looked on helplessly as actor-director Olivier and Marilyn Monroe waged war on set. He travelled up the Congo with John Huston, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn for The African Queen, defying appalling conditions and various nautical disasters. He enjoyed a chaste romance with Sophia Loren on the set of Legend of the Lost (1957), and tried vainly to rein in the wayward Errol Flynn, who was producing his first film, the never-completed William Tell in 1953.
Cardiff clearly had the charm, charisma and talent to be liked and trusted by leading actors and world-class directors (he also worked with Alfred Hitchcock and King Vidor). But his reputation rests on his technical advances as a cinematographer, coinciding with the advent of Technicolor.
He operated a camera on the first Technicolor film made in Britain: Wings of the Morning (1936), starring Henry Fonda. But Cardiff worked for Technicolor for 10 years before he got his big break - when Michael Powell asked him to be cinematographer on A Matter of Life and Death .
Cardiff recalls that film's "huge, wonderful sets", and its "stairway to heaven", a huge, engine-driven escalator with 100 steps that took three months to build. He assumed that the scenes in heaven would be in colour, but Powell, consciously defying expectations, ordered them in black-and-white.
Powell and Pressburger, he says, were a great combination: "Pressburger was the steadying influence. Micky was the crazy one. He always used to say: 'Let's do it a different way!' "
Cardiff joined in this spirit of experimentation: "Once, Michael had a script with the opening phrase 'fade in', and was frustrated. He couldn't think of an original way to do it. I made him stand behind the camera as I breathed on the lens, fogging it up. When it cleared away, he had his 'fade in'. He loved that."
With Technicolor, Cardiff was working in what was essentially a new medium: "You had to put light everywhere on set. Technicolor didn't want deep shadows in case they turned out rainbow-coloured, so for safety they wanted everything lit. The cameramen were always scared of areas where a person would be walking through shadow. They felt obligated to light those areas, or the director would say: 'It's gone dark. I must see him.' "
When he joined Technicolor, Cardiff was only 22, but he already had strong ideas about lighting, formulated by studying works by Old Masters in London museums and galleries. His love of painting has informed his work; in Magic Hour, he observes: "You have to look hard at the things you love. I looked hard at paintings, and I learned about light."
As a teenager, he collected photographs of portrait paintings, "including a lot of Rembrandts", and pasted them into a notebook opposite portraits of Hollywood stars. He was struck by the fact that the lighting on the faces was exactly the same.
He came to see the parallels between early films and pre-Renaissance frescos: "The light was flat, with hardly any three-dimensional effects of light and shade. In the same way, in early films, the film emulsion was so insensitive that you needed a lot of bright, overhead light, and it tended to be frontal and flat. Just as Renaissance painters managed to put light and shade in their paintings, so a range of faster film stock meant that you could introduce more shade."
These days, Cardiff sees few films on the big screen, but several on video. He admired the cinematography of Elizabeth and Billy Elliot, and thinks the craft has improved immeasurably. But he worries that his profession is being downgraded.
"Years ago, with Powell and Pressburger, or Huston, Hitchcock or Vidor, we'd prepare a scene. They'd say: 'Jack, get an effect of joy here, or poverty or happiness. I don't know how you'll do it, but that's what I want.' Directors today have been to film schools. They've taken on a whole lot of knowledge about labs, lighting, and film stock. It has never happened to me, but they'll say: 'I want the new Fuji, or the new Kodak, try to get three-quarters back light on this scene.' They'll tell a cameraman the sort of lighting they want, which is pretty horrifying, in a way."
Cardiff's directing never brought him the same accolades as his cinematography, though he was Oscar-nominated for Sons and Lovers (1960). "It was the result," he says, "of victory over incredible opposition".
He shot it in Nottinghamshire mining country with a largely British cast. But Twentieth Century Fox, the film's financiers, wanted an American star in the lead. Cardiff yielded, hiring Dean Stockwell as the story's young hero. "And Dean did very well," he says. Fox also asked him to tone down the sexually candid dialogue. But he dug his heels in, and finally prevailed.
Cardiff's main disappointment as a director ("the great tragedy of my life", he says sadly) was his plan to film James Joyce's Ulysses, with Peter Sellers as Leopold Bloom. Fox was ready to make it, but Sellers asked for a month's delay: "He was having wife trouble," Cardiff says. In that time, a new regime took over at Fox, and the new brooms did not care for Ulysses.
Yet Cardiff hardly has time to dwell on the past. He will return from the Oscars and go straight to work on Sabina Anima, a film based on a true story. It's about a disturbed Jewish Russian woman in the Twenties who goes to Vienna to consult Freud. He in turn refers her to Jung, who embarks on a doomed affair with her. Romanian-born actress Elina Lowensohn will take the lead role; Mason, the youngest of Cardiff's four sons, is a co-producer.
"I'm so happy that I'm going to photograph it," says Cardiff, beaming. "We've just signed contracts after a very long time. It's so difficult to get films off the ground. But it will be interesting. This woman has mental disorders, which will allow me to use some strange lighting."
Given the presence of Jack Cardiff on the set, it's a sure bet that Sabina Anima will at least look arresting.