Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff - Cameraman

I went to see the prosaically titled The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff – Cameraman at the cinema the other night, a film which now sadly stands as a tribute to the great cinematographer, who died last year. Cardiff is a great subject for such documentary treatment, being a congenial and modest man, with an amused anecdotalist’s ear and an apparent ability to get on with pretty much anybody, even stereotypically irate Hollywood tyrants such as Henry Hathaway. And of course, there is the unmissable opportunity to see examples of his work on the big screen. The Powell and Pressburger films were the undoubted highlights of his career, and it’s all the more remarkable that these were the first films that he shot as principal photographer. The scenes from A Matter of Life and Death, with June tearfully listening to David Niven’s Peter as he pours forth a final rush of romantic eloquence from his crashing plane, and Black Narcissus, with Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth gliding through the corridors of the Himalayan nunnery like a demented spectre before appearing at the outer door with a stare of focussed hatred and red-eyed wildness which could melt the surrounding snow in a wide radius, never fail to send a shiver down my spine. The emotional impact of both is hugely amplified by Cardiff’s expressionistic use of colour; the red glow in both the airplane cockpit and the radio communication room; and the red of Sister Ruth’s dress and eyes set against the whites and muted pastels of the nunnery and distant mountains. Although a dvd is set to be released on 19th July, these really do benefit from being seen on the big screen. As do the original films, of course. A revival of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is doing the rounds as an accompaniement to the documentary, which looks like it will show off Cardiff’s Technicolor to dazzling effect. A Matter of Life and Death is also being screened at our local Picture House. In most moods, I would cite this as being my favourite film of all time (for reasons outlined in previous posts). It does seem to be the default choice of Powell and Pressburger for screening outside London, however (last year’s re-issue of The Red Shoes aside). It would be great to have been given the opportunity to see Cardiff’s work on Black Narcissus this time (it is being shown over the Summer at Somerset House, for all you big city folk). Indeed, I’d love to be able to see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp on the big screen again, or lesser known Powell and Pressburger gems such as the lush rural melodrama Gone To Earth, the brooding and intense The Small Back Room, or the dreamy evocation of the Kentish countryside A Canterbury Tale.

The film could almost be seen as a literary adaptation, since a lot of the material is familiar from Cardiff’s autobiographical volume of reminiscences of his life in film, Magic Hour. This has an introduction by Martin Scorsese, and it is only a few minutes before his inevitable appearance on the screen. He talks in his usual rapid, intense sentences, which tend to come to a sudden halt during which he inserts a nervous smile, as if self-consciously trying to bring a touch of levity to his almost violent expression of his passion for cinema. Despite his ubiquity, Scorsese’s presence is always welcome, as his knowledge is genuinely comprehensive, and his enthusiasm infectious (it seems rather churlish to suggest that he could do with being a bit more critical on occasion). The anecdotes which Cardiff both tells and sets down in writing have become fixed in form through the telling, and have reached a state of performative polish which makes them work perfectly against the backdrop of a photograph slowly panned across or zoomed in on, or as the prelude to a suitably chosen film extract. His position slightly outside the magic circle of stars and directors, whilst still being in close contact with them, gives him a degree of perspective which allows for fresh insight, free of the distortions of self-mythologising ego. Any slight embellishments, natural in the telling of a tale, can be forgiven in the light of the sheer range of his experiences in the film world, which date from the silent era right up until the time at which the documentary was filmed. There are scenes in which he is working on a recent movie, expressing his reluctance to retire and his hope that he’ll have a heart attack and die on the job (he has an unsentimental sense of humour, with a healthy instinct for the absurd).

Cardiff was born into an itinerant theatrical family, who toured theatres and halls as a variety act with him in tow, and soon taking to the stage himself. His reminiscences of his early life give a fascinating insight into the continuity between and intersection of the worlds of stage and screen. In Magic Hour, Cardiff tells us that his father, a comedian, performed on the stage with Charlie Chaplin in a Fred Karno show. When he met him much later in life in Switzerland and asked him about this, he was delighted to discover that Chaplin still remembered this show, and had clear recollections of working with his father. Cardiff’s parents took roles as extras in films whilst ‘resting’, and he relates the thespian scam of creating a circulating queue when collecting the day’s wage of a guinea, with a variety of disguises adopted to accumulate extra coinage. The camera picks out wee Jackie sheltering between the arms of his father, a dapper bow-tied and boatered figure, in a group photograph taken in front of the Hippodrome, and again, sitting at his side, in line with a black-face troupe at the seaside (a real sign of changing times).

Cardiff gravitated towards screen rather than stage, working his way up through the industry after early opportunistic experiences as a child actor gained through accompanying his parents in the search for roles as extras. He went from clapperboy to focus puller, to working on camera teams at Elstree and with Alexander Korda at Denham Studios (where he also worked on the special effects unit for Things To Come). He was a self-educated man, his early peripatetic lifestyle offering little opportunity for more settled schooling, and was an avaricious reader with a real thirst for learning. This autodidactic drive gave him an unorthodox range of reference points, which were well employed when he was examined by a board of big studio cheeses looking to select someone to send over to the USA to learn how to operate the new Technicolor equipment. Cardiff cheerfully admitted to his complete lack of technical knowledge, but impressed them with his appreciation of the representation of the effects of light in paintings by the Old Masters. He got the job.

Cardiff gives us a guide to this hulking piece of equipment, which is shot as if it is a monumental sculpture in enamelled chrome, which in a way it is now - a monument to a bygone age. This very unportable technology was hauled around the world at the behest of the eccentrically wealthy travellers the Count and Countess von Keller, and there are some marvellous pieces of footage shot at a variety of exotic locations. There’s the Taj Mahal, an Indian temple covered with sensuous wall sculptures, and Vesuvius, which was undergoing a minor eruption at the time, which resulted in burnt shoe soles and a significant shortening of the tripod of the very expensive camera equipment. Cardiff also lugged it onto the seas for the semi-fictional wartime drama Western Approaches, made for the Crown Film Unit in the style of the documentary movement. The footage from this was stunning, with the waves of the Irish sea swelling above the tiny lifeboat in which Cardiff, his equipment, director Pat Jackson and several merchant seamen were crouched. These scenes resembled a World War Two restaging of Hokkusai’s famous print The Wave. There’s a glorious shot of the sun on the sea’s horizon, whose colours were achieved using a combination of filters and film development techniques, and which strays slightly from the documentary ethos to express a more poetic realism. It’s a foretaste of the imaginative and unabashedly romantic uses to which Cardiff would put the Technicolor process.

Jack and Michael Powell on the Burrows
He was given the perfect opportunity to apply his painterly eye by Michael Powell, who noticed his camera work on the scene in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in which he conjures the heads of the Colonel’s hunting trophies onto the walls of his house with the crack of a gunshot until every space is filled. Powell was sufficiently impressed to offer an impulsive invitation to shoot his next film. This was to become A Matter of Life and Death. Although not strictly his debut (he’d shot The Great Mr Handel in 1942) this was an impressive film to be involved with so early in his career, and he brought all the knowledge he had accumulated to bear, both in terms of his technical expertise and of his appreciation of the use of the representation of light in painting. Set designer Alfred Junge tried to impose his own ideas of how to light his backdrops, but Cardiff stood his ground and did things his way. The contrast between the black and white, bureaucratic heaven and the vibrant colour of the Earth and the Universe allowed him to demonstrate that he could master the chiaroscuro gradations of monochrome and the enhanced realism of the Technicolor palette. Marius Goring’s famous line ‘one is starved for Technicolor up there’ could almost be seen as a small tribute to the sensuous quality of Cardiff’s colour photography. Photos of Powell and Cardiff on the dunes of Braunton Burrows above the wide expanse of Saunton Sands are testament to the closeness with which the two worked. One anecdote which underlines the pragmatism with which Cardiff approached technical challenges concerns the creation of a mist which gradually clears to reveal the landscape of sea and sand. He achieved this through the simple expedient of breathing on the lens. The fact that I now know that what I see on the screen is the dissipating condensation from Jack Cardiff’s breath, the transient imprint of a moment of his life, makes the scene even more magical. It provides an appropriately evanescent borderland between Heaven and Earth, life and the afterlife, black and white and Technicolor. Through the incidental improvisation of an effect, it creates a small poetic enhancement of the film’s meditation on the precious and fragile beauty of human life.

Cardiff went on to shoot Powell and Pressburger’s next film, Black Narcissus, which furthered his burgeoning reputation as a supreme cinematic colourist. In the documentary, he emphasises the degree to which various painters have influenced his cinematography and approach to lighting. The interiors of Vermeer, with figures engaged in the unremarkable minutiae of daily domesticity or simply lost in thought obliquely highlighted and etched by shadow via light slanting through windows, were a particular model. The muted tones of the nunnery are reminiscent of Gwen John, who herself painted several portraits from 1913 onward of nuns from the Order of the Sisters of Charity in Meudon, near Paris, where she had settled (whether Cardiff was aware of these I don’t know). This restrained palette is predominant throughout most of the film, before it is violently disrupted by the vivid primary colours which burst forth when Sister Ruth’s suppressed desire explodes into madness. Cardiff points to the expressionist reds and greens of Van Gogh as being an influence here.

Gwen John's nun
His love and knowledge of art was another facet of his self-education, and played a major part in forming his ideas of colour and lighting (and its corollary, shadow). He sits in front of paintings in the National Gallery and extols the virtues of the Dutch masters, the Impressionists and above all Turner. As he contemplates Rain, Steam and Speed (the richly atmospheric painting of an approaching train crossing a viaduct), he observes that he would have been a great cinematographer were he alive today. Cardiff ushers us into his own studio and shows us a selection of his own paintings, in which he copies the styles of his favourite artists. He is typically disparaging about his efforts, claiming that this is merely his way of analysing the work of his heroes and discovering how they achieved their characteristic effects. The results are, nevertheless, nothing to be ashamed of. He is completely in thrall to the great artists, and it is they, rather than other cameramen, who seem to have been his greatest inspiration. In Magic Hour, ostensibly a memoir about his life in the film world, he devotes considerable space to his encounters with various artists, such Utrillo, de Chirico (certainly an influence on parts of the Red Shoes ballet) and Braque. He also runs into Jean Cocteau, an artist who leapt with a light and airy step between the varied worlds of theatre, poetry, art, music, ballet and, of course, film. He seems overawed at the prospect of meeting the elderly Jane Avril, the model for some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s most famous depictions of Montmartre night life. Alas, she died shortly after he learnt of her whereabouts, and the meeting never took place.

Expressionist reds
Cardiff went on to shoot one more film, The Red Shoes, with Powell and Pressburger. His Technicolor cinematography reached new heights of gaudy expressionism here, especially in the celebrated dance sequence in which Moira Shearer puts on the red shoes. The air of heightened expressionism is enhanced by his close-ups of the faces of the dancers, in particular Moira Shearer as the rising ballerina Vicky Page. Their exaggerated stage make-up, designed to make an impression at a distance, distorts their features and makes them look as if they have just stepped out of a painting by Munch or Ensor. The Red Shoes isn’t one of my favourite Powell and Pressburger films, perhaps because I have little interest in the high culture world of the ballet in which it is set. Powell himself would display an increasing tendency to breath the elevated airs of the classical art world, with adaptations of Die Fledermaus (transformed into Oh! Rosalinda and updated to post-war Vienna) and Tales of Hoffmann (much admired by George Romero and Martin Scorsese, but not so much by me). Apart from anything else, these marginalized Emeric Pressburger’s gift for characterisation and storytelling, which were of paramount importance to the partnership. Perhaps he was admitting to the failure of his high art pretensions when he had Moira Shearer murdered by the scopophiliac cameraman protagonist of Peeping Tom. He did go on to make an hour long film of Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle in 1964 for German TV, however. Powell always claimed that The Red Shoes was about being prepared to die for one’s art, a view repeated as orthodoxy here. But Vicky doesn’t die for her art, but rather through the mental torment caused by the competing attempts to control her exerted by Anton Walbrook’s dictatorial svengali Lermontov and Marius Goring’s Julian, her jealous young composer husband. The love story between Vicky and Julian doesn’t seem remotely passionate enough to inspire the wildly operatic act of self-immolation which forms the film’s abrupt conclusion. Marius Goring is frankly more convincing (and certainly more charming) as the foppish Conductor 71 wielding his barley sugar walking cane in A Matter of Life and Death than as an artist and lover who would drive a woman to despair and death.

Kathleen Byron
Moira Shearer is one of a triumvirate of Powell and Pressburger leading ladies in the film, and it’s great to see both her, Kim Hunter and especially Kathleen Byron, all of whom, sadly, have now passed away. During his years working in Hollywood, Cardiff enjoyed warm friendships with many of the most glamorous actresses of the era. He seems to have been the sort of person in whose company they naturally felt comfortable, and in whom they felt they could confide. Marlene Dietrich took a shine to the young Jack when they were both working on Knight Without Armour at the Denham Studios for Alexander Korda. He was fascinated by the way in which she directed her own lighting, applying her make-up to best advantage of its shadows and reflections, ending with a light sprinkling of gold dust in the hair. Cardiff evidently learnt from Marlene, and he discusses the great beauties with whom he worked with a coolly analytical eye. He falls under their spell yet also manages to maintain the degree of distance necessary for his work. His own photographic portraits are wonderful, although he dismisses them in a typically offhand manner as being the products of an amateur. The full face picture of Audrey Hepburn, whose dark eyebrows he finds a particularly distinctive feature, adorns the film’s poster. Marilyn Monroe specifically asked for him to take her picture, and the resultant portrait is gorgeously sensuous even by her standards, with windblown hair straying across her face. It was apparently Arthur Miller’s favourite photograph of her.

Personal portrait gallery
Cardiff also took super 8 films on set, and these give a fascinating insight into the informal behaviour of actors and actresses whose images have been fixed by their screen roles, or presented in carefully pre-determined contexts such as magazine shoots or Parky-style interview schmoozes. Some seem little different from their screen personae. John Wayne still wears his cowboy gear and practices his gunslinging, even when he’s in the Sahara to play the role of foreign legionnaire. Ava Gardner seems broody and a little sad. But Sophia Loren comes to vivid, gleeful life. Seeing her act up to Cardiff’s camera with such playful ebullience, it comes as little surprise to read in Magic Hour that they had a very close relationship, a chaste semi-affair conducted in secret on the set of the otherwise forgettable 1957 film Legend of the Lost. Cardiff also filmed Kirk Douglas doing his own stunts on The Vikings, tiptoeing lightly across the oars of a longship (and falling in the water) and climbing up the gate of the castle perched vertiginously above the Croatian cliffs and sea (which stood in with surprising conviction for the Norwegian fjords). Douglas broke with his general reluctance to be interviewed since his stroke in 1996 to take part in this film, and this, together with the participation of many others, is a testament to the respect and affection in which Cardiff was held. The contrast between Douglas’ frailty and age in his contemporary interview and the youth and physical daring evident in the old super 8 films (those stunts look genuinely dangerous) has an inevitably poignant effect (something which seems to be ingrained in the super 8 medium). Cardiff gives short shrift to the idea that cinema is inherently tragic, however, having fairly brusquely gone along his row of photographic portraits and pointed out how many of them are dead.

Ava Gardner in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman
Cardiff established himself as a major colour cameraman in Hollywood, and even if the films weren’t always of the finest quality (the 50s weren’t really a vintage era for American cinema) his visual contributions were always striking. We get to see glimpses of War and Peace (with its cavalry charge and dream-like duel in the dawn-lit snow), the fantasia of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (with Ava Gardner’s otherworldly siren), a sped up run through a highly complex ten minute take in Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn, and of course, The African Queen, which offers its own rich fund of anecdotes based around the trying conditions of its shoot, with crocodiles and rapids and other hazards. Lauren Bacall, who accompanied Bogie for the filming, is on hand to provide wry recollections. Everyone got dysentery at some point, since the water filter from which they were drinking was singularly failing to effect any filtration whatsoever, leaving them to drink pure African river water. Bogart and John Huston remained unaffected, however, since they only drank whisky.

It’s fair to say that Cardiff’s work as a director, which occupied him through the 60s and into the 70s, never rose above an efficient journeyman quality, and often the material on offer was simply bad. Sons and Lovers, the DH Lawrence adaptation to which most attention is paid here, was well received by the critics in its day, but has not gone on to be thought of as an enduring classic. Scorsese’s reply to a question about Young Cassidy, the Irish-set film which Cardiff took over from John Ford, is ‘I’ve got a print’, a reflexive response which falls short of his usual instantaneous effusion. Cardiff puts up a half-hearted defence of Girl On A Motorcycle, his attempt at an erotic reverie with Marianne Faithfull and Alain Delon, claiming that some of its notoriously awful dialogue made more sense in French, but the US title, Naked Under Leather, gives a more honest account of its appeal. Unsurprisingly, no mention is made of his final directorial effort, The Mutations (1973), a woeful horror movie in which meddlesome youths poke about in a suspiciously ill-attended fairground, a-la Scooby Doo, and fall foul of Donald Pleasance’s experiment-happy mad scientist, who turns his failed hybrids into sideshow freaks. Tom Baker leadenly plays his hideously scarred assistant, walking with patent henchman lurch, fresh from working with Pasolini on Canterbury Tales and biding his time before the call up for Doctor Who a year or so later. It’s worth seeing only for period 70s London detail and atmosphere (and attitudes).

Perhaps realising that he had reached rock bottom with a film which took a prurient interest in showing real sideshow freaks, Cardiff returned to working as a cameraman in Hollywood. The films he made in this final period are hardly the stuff of legend, and are interesting chiefly in the complete contrast they offer with the cinematic climate of the decades in which he had previously worked in this capacity. There’s a certain perverse fascination in discovering that the man who shot Black Narcissus, Under Capricorn and The African Queen was also behind the camera for Rambo 2: First Blood, Conan the Destroyer and The Awakening. At least the latter, a turgid adaptation of Bram Stoker’s dull novel The Legend of the Seven Stars (Hammer did it slightly better – and with a much catchier title – as Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb in 1973), allows for the participation of Charlton Heston. Cardiff’s work was never less than efficient and professional, however, and he maintained a high reputation which kept him in constant demand. There’s something lacking in their flat photographic realism, however (other shortcomings of the films themselves notwithstanding). Perhaps his greatest work was done in the artificial environs of the studios. It was here that he could create his own romanticised and highly coloured visions of reality, cinematic dreams which endure to this day.


Michael Brooke said...

Indeed, I’d love to be able to see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp on the big screen again

Your wish will probably be granted - it's the next big Scorsese-backed Powell & Pressburger restoration.

Jez Winship said...

Hooray! That's great news. Thanks for letting me know.