Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Master of color and light (1914-2009)

Did you miss me? I was on me holidays, as they say here and, as usual, the experience prompted some philosophical reflections that I will happily inflict on you. But not this week.

I got some sad news when I booted up my computer this morning. It wasn’t exactly unexpected, but it was sad nonetheless. Variety reported the death of the legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff, at the age of 94.

It is always sad when a major contributor to the world of film passes away but, being human, I feel a bit sadder when I have actually crossed paths with such a titan and had the opportunity to hear him speak and share wonderful stories. And I was fortunate enough to spend an hour or so in the absolutely charming company of Jack Cardiff just seven and a half years ago. It was at the Cork Film Festival, and Cardiff was the subject of a tribute and a public interview.

Born in Norfolk, England, Cardiff got his start as a child actor. His acting credits included My Son, My Son (1918), Billy’s Rose (1922), Tiptoes (1927) and he is reported to have had an un-credited appearance in the 1923 movie The Loves of Mary, Queen of Scots. But acting was not to be Cardiff’s destiny. Instead he went on to become one of Britain’s first and best color cinematographers. Director Michael Powell noticed his work as a crew member and asked him to be his cinematographer on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Cardiff went on to work with Powell on such classics as Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death (a.k.a. Stairway to Heaven) and a favorite of ballet lovers, The Red Shoes.

His technical career ran from being a production runner on Arthur Robison’s The Informer and a clapper boy on Thomas Bentley’s The American Prisoner, both in 1929, to doing the cinematography and editing for the 2004 short The Tell-Tale Heart, an adaptation of the classic Edgar Allan Poe story. In addition to the classic Powell films listed above, Cardiff turned his cinematographic hand to everything from the 1945 version of Caesar and Cleopatra (with Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh), Scott of the Antarctic (with John Mills), Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (with Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton), Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (with James Mason and Ava Gardner), The Master of Ballantrae and The Story of William Tell (both with Errol Flynn), The African Queen and The Barefoot Contessa (both directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart), King Vidor’s star-studded War and Peace, The Prince and the Showgirl (with Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe), Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings, Joshua Logan’s Fanny (with Leslie Caron) and the all-star Agatha Christie adaptation Death on the Nile. Cardiff’s c.v. also included such mainstream fare as the supernatural thriller The Awakening (with Charlton Heston and Susannah York), The Dogs of War (with Christopher Walken), Ghost Story (with the venerable Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Houseman), The Wicked Lady (with Faye Dunaway) and even the action sequels Conan the Destroyer and Rambo: First Blood Part II.

Cardiff was also a film director. He made 14 movies from, 1953 to 1974. The first was The Story of William Tell. The last was the horror flick The Mutations, starring Donald Pleasance. In between were Beyond This Place (with Van Johnson and Vera Miles), Scent of Mystery (in Smell-o-vision! With Denholm Elliott and Peter Lorre), Sons and Lovers (which Cardiff cited as his favorite film, starring Trevor Howard and Dean Stockwell), My Geisha (with Shirley MacLaine and Yves Montand), the Viking adventure The Long Ships (with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier), the Sean O’Casey quasi-biopic Young Cassidy (with Rod Taylor), the early James Bond knockoff The Liquidator and The Girl on a Motorcycle (with Alain Delon and Marianne Faithfull).

Those of you who followed the above link to my account of Cardiff’s 2002 public interview, please indulge me by allowing me to repeat some of his great stories. Like how Black Narcissus, despite its breathtaking Himalayan setting, was filmed in studio and that the sheer drop-off that figures in the movie’s climax was a painting. Or how the harrowing insect attack scene in The African Queen was achieved by floating feathers, shot out of focus, in a compartment in front of the camera lens.

Perhaps my favorite story of Cardiff’s also involves The African Queen. I have repeated it often, usually in justification of drinking as much whiskey as possible. Cardiff told how everyone in the cast and crew of the classic John Huston film, except for director Huston and star Bogart, fell severely ill during the shooting on Lake Victoria. It took weeks for one of several doctors to finally pinpoint the cause: the contaminated lake water that everyone was drinking. Everyone except Bogie and Huston, who had consistently eschewed water in favor of whiskey.

In speaking of his experience working with Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe on The Prince and the Showgirl, he described Monroe as loony, but magical on camera. She was constantly forgetting her lines, and one scene had to be spliced together from a dozen different takes. Still, said Cardiff, it turned out fine anyway because of the star’s charisma.

Speaking of the films he directed, Cardiff recounted wryly his battles with censors in Hollywood and Britain and how he simply ignored them—and got away with it. He also spoke with a bit of frustration about Young Cassidy, which he took over from an ill John Ford. Reviewers consistently cited the best scenes in the film as “obviously” the work of the great Ford, including the tour de force riot scene, which was Cardiff’s work. In sum, said Cardiff, only about four minutes of Ford’s footage had actually made it into the movie.

As I wrote back in 2007, what can you say about someone whose cinematography oeuvre ranges from the 1939 version of The Four Feathers to movies like Conan the Destroyer and Rambo: First Blood Part II? When he is as informative and charming as Jack Cardiff, you just say, thank you.

Thank you.

-S.L., 23 April 2009

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