Jack Cardiff on giving autographs at the 1998 Cannes film festival: "They must be wondering who is this guy? I told them I used to be a stand-in for Humphrey Bogart."
In the documentary film Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, made when he was 91, Cardiff is proud of his many accomplishments, but somehow manages to stay modest. And he has so much to be proud of. He was one of the first camera operators in Europe to be trained in the Technicolor process, after he impressed Technicolor with his knowledge and his love of chiaroscuro, color, and light in painting. He worked on the first color film shot in Europe, as he was the only one trained in Technicolor photography at the time. Martin Scorsese, Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, Michael Powell, Lauren Bacall, and Kirk Douglas are among the many actors and filmmakers who talk to director Craig McCall about working with Cardiff.
The child of actors, he had started as a child actor in 1918 at the age of four. As a young man he moved behind the camera, as first a "runner boy" (gofer), then a clapper boy, and eventually a camera operator, in 1936, on As You Like It, starring Laurence Olivier. He worked with all of the greats and wasn't afraid to learn from them:
"[Marlene] Dietrich put gold dust in her hair ... she would have made a great cameraman ... she was in charge of the lighting."
He didn't restrict his work to studio films, however, but also made color travel films, traveling all over the world, to India, Egypt, and even filmed an erupting Mount Vesuvius. His first feature film and big break as a director of photography came from director/producer Michael Powell, with his fantasy film A Matter of Life and Death (also known as Stairway to Heaven), starring David Niven, Raymond Massey, and Kim Hunter.
This led to his work on films like Powell's Black Narcissus, which, incredibly, was all shot at Pinewood Studios, despite its open vistas — all special effects done by Cardiff and his crew. He tells McCall that he was thinking of the painter Johannes Vermeer when he was lighting and shooting the film. He worked again with Powell on The Red Shoes. Scorsese sheds some insight into the film and how he was inspired to use some of Cardiff's techniques in his own films, including Raging Bull. Cardiff's love of painting comes through loud and clear throughout the 90-minute documentary, "If Turner was alive today he'd be the best cameraman that ever lived ... I learned a lot from Turner."
In many of his 1950s films he worked out innovative techniques to achieve what a director wanted. On Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn they worked out the first camera running on tracks, running through different rooms, without stopping, for ten minute (or even longer) takes.
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff also includes clips from his 16mm home movies — Sophia Loren and John Wayne during the filming of Legend of the Lost, Bogie and Hepburn on the set of The African Queen. Cardiff would also, during the lunch break on a film, take wonderful still photographs of actresses — Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Janet Leigh, Anita Ekberg, and Marilyn Monroe. There is a extra on the DVD with a more detailed feature on his actress still photographs which includes an entertaining anecdote from when he was working with Marilyn Monroe during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl in London. They made a date to get together on one of their days off, and he went to see her at the house where she was staying with newlywed husband Arthur Miller. He arrived at 9:30 a.m., the time of their appointment, but husband Miller informed him she was still sleeping. They had tea, played tennis, and she finally showed up at 6:30 in the evening. He had a half hour to photograph her in "Renoir hats" — he always thought she had a Renoir face.
The documentary includes some great clips from his most well-known movies as well as behind-the-scenes images, including The Vikings, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The African Queen, and The Barefoot Contessa. He tried his hand at directing in the 1970s and his film Sons and Lovers won an Oscar for cinematography — Freddie Francis was his cinematographer on the film. He went back to cinematography in the late 70s, early 80s, working n a wide range of projects, including Death on the Nile, Rambo First Blood Part II, The Far Pavilions, and Conan the Destroyer.
The movies had changed, and he would no longer create effects as he did on The Red Shoes. Modern films would add all the special effects later. But he doesn't live in the past or feel that things are worse, "The standard of [film] photography has improved enormously." Cardiff had an amazing career. He was the first cinematographer to receive an honorary Oscar in 2001. After viewing Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff it is impossible not to want to check out his wonderful work. I've never seen Black Narcissus, and I think it's about time that I did.