Legendary Cinematographer Jack Cardiff Dies at 94

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009

Martin Scorsese once described Jack Cardiff, 94, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer who died April 22 in his native England, as being able to "paint with the camera."

His proof was the extended ballet sequence in Mr. Cardiff's 1948 film "The Red Shoes," considered one of the greatest dance movies of all time. The film helped make Mr. Cardiff, who went on to work with director John Huston on "The African Queen" (1951), one of the most acclaimed cinematographers of his generation. Marilyn Monroe called him "the best in the world."

A cinematographer, also called a director of photography, works to create the visual appearance of a film, particularly how light and shadow convey a mood and sense of place. In "The Red Shoes," Mr. Cardiff accentuated the elegance of the dancers by speeding up the camera frame rate, which made them appear almost weightless. He said he used a variety of camera filters to make fantasy scenes appear gauzy and dreamlike, in contrast to the deeply saturated Technicolor hues elsewhere in the film.

Mr. Cardiff's striking use of crimson -- to connote drama, danger, sexual desire -- was a hallmark of all his films from the 1940s with the visionary British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. "The Red Shoes," starring flame-haired Moira Shearer, was the most critically and popularly enduring of their collaborations.

A former child actor, he advanced rapidly through his skillful work as a camera operator in the early sound period and his mastery by the late 1930s of the new three-strip color process known as Technicolor. Mr. Cardiff, nicknamed "Jack O'Lantern," was compared favorably with 17th-century Dutch masters in his deft use of light in the Powell and Pressburger films.

The team challenged audience expectations on "A Matter of Life and Death" (1946), the story of a downed wartime aviator (played by David Niven) who tries to win his life back in a celestial court. At the urging of Powell, Mr. Cardiff made Niven's earthy world one of vibrant color and represented the afterlife in black and white.

Mr. Cardiff also teamed with Powell and Pressburger on "Black Narcissus" (1947), a story of sexual repression set amid a community of nuns in the Himalayas. He won the Oscar for "Black Narcissus," which was shot on an English soundstage.

He described their collaboration as one of wild experimentation. "Once, Michael had a script with the opening phrase 'fade in,' and was frustrated," he told the London Daily Telegraph. "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."

Mr. Cardiff preferred to see his medium as a way to capture the subtleties of human emotion, but he spent much of his career in the 1950s and 1960s glamorizing the faces and figures of leading actresses such as Monroe ("The Prince and the Showgirl"), Ava Gardner ("Pandora and the Flying Dutchman," "The Barefoot Contessa"), Audrey Hepburn ("War and Peace"), Sophia Loren ("Legend of the Lost"), Janet Leigh ("The Vikings") and Leslie Caron ("Fanny").

The son of traveling vaudeville performers, Mr. Cardiff was born in a trunk on Sept. 18, 1914, in Yarmouth, England. He was drawn to museums and galleries from a young age, and pasted in a notepad reproductions of Rembrandt's art next to portraits of Hollywood stars. This, he said, was his most valuable education in how to light objects.

After a period as an apprentice cameraman, he was selected at age 22 as the first British camera operator to earn training in Technicolor. His credits included prestige productions such as "Wings of the Morning" (1937), Britain's first full-color film, and "The Four Feathers" (1939).

Mr. Cardiff's prolific cinematography career spanned more than six decades, including such productions as "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959) and "Conan the Destroyer" (1984).

He also directed about 15 films, including his Oscar-nominated version of D.H. Lawrence's "Sons and Lovers" (1960), with Trevor Howard and Wendy Hiller, and the Rod Taylor-Jim Brown actioner "The Mercenaries" (1968), released in the United States as "Dark of the Sun." His other efforts were mediocre or eccentric, including "The Girl on a Motorcycle" (1968), a leather-fetish road trip movie starring Marianne Faithfull.

Mr. Cardiff, who died at his home in Cambridgeshire, won a 2001 honorary Oscar. At the time, Robert Rehme, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, called Mr. Cardiff "one of the greatest visual artists ever to work in film."

Which is not to say that Mr. Cardiff was entirely pleased with the direction of his craft.

"Years ago," he told a reporter, "when I was working with Powell and Pressburger, or Hitchcock, Huston, King Vidor, we'd prepare a scene and they'd say: 'Jack, get an effect of poverty here, or joy or happiness here. I don't know how you'll do it, but that's what I want.'

"Directors today have been to film schools," he added. "They've taken on a whole lot of knowledge about labs, lighting and film stock. It's 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."

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