Cinematographer and director Jack Cardiff, one of the early masters of color cinematography, has died. He was 94. (Image: Peter Ustinov in Death on the Nile, shot by Jack Cardiff.)
Cardiff’s work as a cinematographer was quite eclectic, ranging from his partnership with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in the British-made Black Narcissus (1945) and The Red Shoes (1948) to prestigious international productions such as John Huston’s The African Queen (1951) and King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956), and to low-brow commercial fare such as Conan the Destroyer (1984) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).
I’ve never watched Conan or Rambo, but I have watched more than 20 of Cardiff’s 60 or so features, and I can testify that whether working in art-house or commercial fare, Cardiff’s cinematography was invariably one of his films’ chief assets. At times, his work was those films’ only asset.
Born on Sept. 18, 1914, in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, to music hall entertainers, Cardiff began his film career as a cinematographer in the mid-1930s, shooting – with Henry Imus and Hollywood color expert Ray Rennahan – Wings of the Morning (1937), the first British Technicolor film, a romantic drama directed by Harold D. Schuster, and starring Hollywood import Henry Fonda and French import Annabella.
That was followed by numerous short films – some in color, some in black in white – until 1942, when Cardiff, paired with Claude Friese-Greene, shot The Great Mr. Handel, starring Wilfrid Lawson as George Frideric Handel.
Pat Jackson’s 1944 war docudrama Western Approaches marked Cardiff’s first solo effort as a feature-film cinematographer. From then on, he would work in many of the British film industry’s top – and greatest-looking – color films, among them Gabriel Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), starring Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh; Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1945), and the aforementioned Black Narcissus (right), for which Cardiff won a well-deserved Academy Award, and The Red Shoes. (He would earn two more Academy Award nominations as a cinematographer, for War and Peace in 1956 and for Fanny in 1961.)
Also, Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949), starring Ingrid Bergman; the Tyrone Power costumer The Black Rose (1950); Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), in which Cardiff’s cinematography helped to enhance the film’s dreamily romantic atmosphere; the all-star The Magic Box (1952), with Robert Donat as British film pioneer William Friese-Greene; and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sumptuous The Barefoot Contessa, starring Ava Gardner.
Marilyn Monroe, who worked with Cardiff in Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl (1957, right), called Cardiff’s skills “the best in the world.”
Cardiff’s work as a cinematographer became more infrequent in the 1960s and early 1970s, a period when his directorial career took off after the critical success of his 1960 adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, a black-and-white (!) family drama that received 7 Academy Award nominations, including best film, best director, and best actor (Trevor Howard).
Sons and Lovers competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and earned Cardiff a best director Golden Globe and a best director award from the National Board of Review.
“I wanted to make it into a good film,” Cardiff once said, “because the book is marvelous and I didn’t want to let the author down.” He considered Sons and Lovers his best effort and the most difficult to shoot. (The equally capable Freddie Francis was the cinematographer. Somewhat ironically, Francis was the film’s sole Oscar winner.)
Among Cardiff’s other films as a director are The Story of William Tell (1953), his directorial debut, starring a latter-day Errol Flynn; the thriller Intent to Kill (1958), with Richard Todd and Betsy Drake; the well-made (and great-looking, courtesy of Ted Scaife’s lenses) Sean O’Casey biopic Young Cassidy (1965), with Rod Taylor; and the poorly received The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), starring Alain Delon and Marianne Faithful.
Cardiff also directed the 1964 vikings tale The Long Ships, starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, but, though great-looking, it was much inferior to Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958), in which Cardiff had worked as director of photography.
As a cinematographer, Cardiff’s work in the last few decades include Death on the Nile (1978, right), a so-so thriller-comedy that was immensely helped by his use of color; The Wicked Lady (1983), with Faye Dunaway; the war drama The Dance of Shiva (1998); and the documentary miniseries The Other Side of the Screen (2007).
Cardiff won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the London Film Critics’ Circle in 1997 and was given an honorary Oscar in 2001.
Had he not worked in films, he once said, he would have been a painter.