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Magic Eye

Jack Cardiff

By Lee Gardner | Posted 12/30/2009

Jack Cardiff would be on no one's list of great film directors of the 20th century--the movie for which he is perhaps best known as an auteur is usually considered a laughable disaster. As a cinematographer, however, Cardiff was one of the foremost technician/poets of the big screen, responsible for many of its most indelible images.

Born in 1914, Cardiff was a show biz baby who followed his British vaudeville-performer parents on stage and made his first film appearance by age 4. His itinerant upbringing made for an erratic education, but the young Cardiff soaked up the vivid colors and light effects of Baroque and Impressionist paintings in art museums wherever he traveled. He went to work on British film sets as a teen, earning his way up to camera operator; eventually, he was sent to America to learn about a new film process: Technicolor. Despite his lack of formal training, his art-enhanced eye helped make him a prodigy at the process, which required cumbersome cameras but captured super-saturated hues.

After Cardiff returned to Britain, he made the most of his training working as director of photography for a string of films with director Michael Powell. For 1946's A Matter of Life and Death, Cardiff shot heaven in sere black and white and war-time England in absurdly vivid greens and violets as David Niven's love-struck downed pilot pleads with the celestial powers for a second chance. In 1947's Black Narcissus, Cardiff and company recreated a nunnery high in the Himalayas on U.K. soundstages, with Cardiff's deeply dramatic lighting and camera angles telegraphing the turmoil beneath the habits. In 1948's The Red Shoes, he and Powell created the Technicolor masterpiece; the central 18-minute ballet sequence remains a jaw-dropper for its imaginative lyricism and daring.

Cardiff won an Oscar for Black Narcissus and worked steadily as a director of photography throughout the '50s on big Hollywood pictures, including The African Queen, The Prince and the Showgirl, and War and Peace. He tried his own hand at directing, winning a Best Director Oscar nomination for his 1960 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, but the studio pictures his stately style best suited were going out of fashion. Cardiff took on the '60s youthquake by directing 1968's Girl on a Motorcycle, a cult favorite notable for slipping a nubile Marianne Faithfull naked into a fur-lined leather jumpsuit and for its ill-advised use of cheesy "psychedelic" effects. By the late '70s, he had returned to DP work full-time, shooting everything from 1978 period whodunit Death on the Nile to Sylvester Stallone's 1985 blood 'n' guts blockbuster Rambo.

Cardiff's reputation was secure, regardless, thanks to the generation of post-studio directors who devoured his classic Technicolor imagery. (Click over to the extras menu of many Cardiff-shot DVDs and you'll find Martin Scorsese enthusing about him.) He won an honorary Oscar in 2001 but continued to work behind the camera until just a few years before his death on April 22.

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