Tuesday, July 21

The Directors: Jack Cardiff

For my last posting on a director associated mostly with the 1960s, I give you Jack Cardiff.  Who, you say?  This probably will be one of my least-read articles and that's fine.  I want to honor him because, although he was a director of some note in the 60s, he was considered to be one of the greatest cinematographers in movie history.  What, you say?  I don't write long pieces on cinematographers!  Well, no I don't.  But although I will spend more time on his directing career, it would be impossible, if not plain wrong, to ignore his exquisite camerawork.  Shall we focus?

Let's start with some of his films for cinematography.  The very best, I think, came at the beginning of his career if we discount the dozen or so years he worked on documentaries.  If you haven't seen Black Narcissus (1947) or The Red Shoes (1948), you simply don't know what you're missing.  It's funny that these films have colors in the titles because color photography was a large part of Cardiff's genius.  His work behind the cameras altered the look of films forever.

Both films were directed by British mavericks Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger who determined to make films that were not only different but memorable.  On both counts, they knew that Cardiff would help them achieve their goals.  He said that his use of reds and greens in Black Narcissus was inspired by Van Gogh.  It was some movie magic that earned Cardiff an Oscar.

The Red Shoes was perhaps even more daring.  There was a 15-minute ballet sequence where he changed the camera speed to make it appear that its ballet star, Moira Shearer, was hovering in midair before she landed.  In another sequence a newspaper morphed into a dancing man.  Neither film stands as a great favorite of mine but for Cardiff's breathtaking photography alone, they are well worth seeing.

Some of his other brilliant cinematography work came in The Black Rose (1950), The African Queen (1951), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), War and Peace (1956), The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), The Vikings (1958) and Fanny (1961).  If you watched any of these movies with your attention focused on the cinematography, you'd be quite impressed.  As the producer of Showgirl, Marilyn Monroe asked for Cardiff because he was known for bringing out special facets of beauty in fabulous-looking women.  After seeing the completed film, MM said to Cardiff:  If only I could be the way you have created me.

He was born to music hall performers in England in 1914 and they put him to work in their act while he was a toddler.  He also worked with them in silent films.  Around the age of nine, he began an absorbing fascination with museums and would visit for hours any time he could manage it.  He developed a love for color sitting on those benches and taking in the magnificence of the great masters.  In an interview later in life he said that he drew inspiration from Rembrandt in his use of light and shadow.  He could have taken this early learning in any number of directions but having worked on those early films and having an insatiable love of travel, he decided it would be movie photography for him.

Once his career got going, he confessed he rather fancied photographing actresses.  (Like Monroe, most of them likely adored working with him, as well.)  Imagine fixing a lens on Vivien Leigh, Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons, Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron, Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardner, Anita Ekberg, Sophia Loren and Janet Leigh. 

He began as a camera operator in 1936 at a British studio and kept at it until Michael Powell hired him as a full-fledged cinematographer 10 years later.  And of course, one year after he won the Oscar for Black Narcissus he was world-famous and in much demand.  And of course if an exotic location could be worked in, so much the better.

Movie directors certainly know making films is a collaborative effort but they are probably closer to the cinematographer than any other person on the film.  At the same time, cinematographers think they are directors and often think they could have done a better job handling things.  So it is not without precedent or understanding that Cardiff would want to move into directing.  It would not be forever but he wanted to give it a shot.

He began directing in 1953 with an Errol Flynn project, The Story of William Tell, but it ran out of money and was aborted.  It would be five more years before he directed a film that was released, a British thriller starring Richard Todd and Betsy Drake, Intent to Kill.  Quite similar to Drake's husband Cary Grant's Crisis of a few years earlier, it concerned a surgeon who is operating on a South American leader that militants are attempting to kill. 

Sitting to left of camera on "Sons and Lovers" set

Sons and Lovers (1960) is arguably the best story he was ever involved with as a director and most would say his best work in that field.   Based on a D. H. Lawrence work it concerned a family living a drab, difficult existence in a dirty northern England coal mining town.  It focused on a sensitive, would-be artist son (based on Lawrence) who didn't want to follow the life of his hardened father and sought to branch out from his emotionally manipulative mother whom he very much loves.  A powerfully written piece, it starred Trevor Howard, Wendy Hiller and Dean Stockwell, gifted actors all.

Cardiff was nominated for a directing Oscar, which must have floored him, while the man for whom he gave up the cinematography reins, Freddie Francis, won the Oscar. 

All photographers with a yen for travel would likely want to land somewhere in Africa sooner or later.  The Lion (1962), starring William Holden, Howard, Capucine and child actress Pamela Franklin, was gorgeously filmed and Cardiff appeared to have handled the overall project with care.  We won't dive more into it here because I have done so in an earlier post.

Shirley MacLaine was in one of her Japanese periods when Cardiff directed her in My Geisha (1962). He got a trip to Japan and we got a little bored in our local theaters.  He then ventured off to Yugoslavia for The Long Ships (1964) while Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark, old pals, got to have some fun.  It had a handful of interesting moments but was fairly routine stuff. 

A particular favorite of mine is Young Cassidy (1965), Cardiff's first of three movies in a row with Rod Taylor.  The actor could be a pest on film sets but actor and director got on well and Cardiff got the best performance out of Taylor for this film that the actor ever gave.  The Irish locations gave authenticity to the story of famed playwright Sean O'Casey (here called John Cassidy).  Cardiff lead Maggie Smith and Julie Christie to bravura performances, as well, and filmed an exciting riot sequence.  I was quite taken with this one.

The Liquidator (1965), the director's third and last film with Trevor Howard and his second with Taylor was a run-of-the-mill spy spoof weakened all the more with Jill St. John in the female lead.  Dark of the Sun (1968) was a huge commercial hit and an exciting tale of Congo mercenaries with Taylor, Yvette Mimieux (reunited from The Time Machine) and footballer-turned-movie star Jim Brown.  Cardiff was not credited as cinematographer but apparently did some of it.  Undeniably, the visuals in this film are splendid.  Jamaica stood in for Africa.

I suspect The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) was a work of love for Cardiff.  It's the only film he received credit as both director and cinematographer and he also adapted the screenplay... the triple threat.  The story of a young woman who leaves behind her husband, jumps on a motorcycle and travels throughout France to her lover, was a perfect vehicle for singer Marianne Faithfull and European heartthrob Alain Delon and an exciting photographic journey for Cardiff.  

It would be six years before he directed another film.  In 1974 he did two films, Penny Gold and The Mutations, neither of which were favorably received, and he returned to cinematography and stayed there.

In 2001 he received a special Oscar for lifetime achievement, which, of course, came to him mainly because of his transformational camerawork.  The following year he was made an OBE.  He was married three times and had four sons.  The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff is an excellent documentary shown occasionally on television.

He died of old age at 94 in England in 2009.  The movies were damned lucky to have had him.

Next posting:
Bill & Virginia... (who?)


  1. My goodness but you're well informed! What a rich pleasure to read. Thank You.

  2. How sweet you are. Thanks, Ginny.