Monday, July 20, 2009

Jack Cardiff

Jack Cardiff, who died last week at the age of 94, was a legend among cinematographers, and a man who spent virtually his whole life working in movies. Born to a show business family, Cardiff acted in silent films as a child, making his movie debut when he was four in a 1918 picture called My Son, My Son. Self-educated, he also haunted art museums, feasting his eyes on the work of Rembrandt and Caravaggio. As he grew into his teens, he branched out into such odd jobs as clapper boy, production runner, and, most fatefully, camera assistant. His first job as full-fledged cinematographer was on Wings of the Morning (1937), starring Henry Fonda, the first British film shot in Technicolor. When the Technicolor representative interviewed him to test his worthiness of the assignment, he asked him, “Which side of the face did Rembrandt light?” Cardiff's reply, which satisfied his interlocutor, was to point to one cheek and then add, "Except when he does etchings; then it’s the other side.” When telling this story in later life, Cardiff admitted that he was only guessing.

In 1946, Cardiff worked for the first time with directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, on A Matter of Life and Death. It was his flamboyantly colorful work on their Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) that really elevated him to the international A-list. His other credits included Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn (1949) with Ingrid Bergman, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) and The Barefoot Contessa (1954) with Ava Gardner, John Huston's The African Queen (1951) with Katharine Hepburn, and King Vidor's War and Peace with Audrey Hepburn, which solidified his reputation as a master photographer of beautiful women. He also shot Laurence Olivier's The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), whose leading lady, Marilyn Monroe, once sent him a note reading, “Dear Jack, If only I could be the way you have created me!"

Cardiff, who continued to work as a cameraman up until the last couple of years, also had a side career as a director. His first film as a director was the 1953 The Story of William Tell, starring Errol Flynn. His most distinguished films were the 1960 D. H. Lawrence adaptation Sons and Lovers and 1966's Young Cassidy, starring Rod Taylor as a fictionalized version of the young Sean O'Casey; he also directed Taylor in the 1968 action flick Dark of the Sun, and also made the trippy-ass 1968 Girl on a Motorcycle starring Marianne Faithfull and his last film as director, a Donald Pleasance-Tom Baker horror job called The Mutations (1974). He won the Academy Award for his work on Black Narcissus as well as an honorary Oscar for his life's work in 2001, a year after he was awarded an OBE. The British Society of Cinematographers gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994.

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