Cinematography of the World – Part 2: Jack Cardiff in 1940s Britain

There are so many incredible examples of cinematography from around the world. So much so that it can be very difficult to settle on a particular moment or place in cinema history for an appropriate inclusion to this great series that Robin has devised. But I thought it relevant to go back to when cinematography was in its infancy as a cinematic art form. No better era to look at than the burgeoning period of Technicolor, The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939) being two prime examples from Hollywood. However, the years proceeding World War II seen advancements in visual embellishment across the pond too. Even though the quality of studio-based British films diminished greatly in the 1950s (it was up to independent filmmakers such as Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson to advance that quality in the decades beyond that), there was a flourish of brilliant films made in England in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Pre-Hollywood Hitchcock and the films of David Lean easily stand out, but the rise of The Archers, otherwise known as the prodigious partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, also rose to prominence. With them came one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, Jack Cardiff. The three Powell/Pressburger collaborations that seen Cardiff in charge of the camera were A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). It is this short but utterly ground-breaking three-year body of work that established so much in terms of influence and inspiration for cinematographers going forward, and it is these three films that I will focus on for this post.



Cardiff was semi-established prior to getting his shot at the big time with Pressburger and Powell. He had actually shot some public information films during the war, and before that he had worked on the first British Technicolor film, Wings of the Morning (1937) that had Henry Fonda playing an Irish dandy-man (if such a thing could exist). He then served as a second unit camera operator on The Archers satirical film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). This brilliant Technicolor production offered audiences a series of special effects that had never before been seen on-screen. The effects were magnified in the physically evolving performance of Roger Livesey as the British Major General, Clive Wynne-Candy. Whereas Cardiff was credited as a camera operator on the film, he actually had much independence in setting up scenes. The fabulous ‘passage of time’ sequence near the beginning of the film was in part masterminded by Cardiff: Set in the present day, an elderly and bald Candy is arrested at a steaming Turkish bath and a fight ensues between him and a cocky, young Lieutenant, where they both tussle into the water. The camera pans beyond the scuffle to the other end of the pool, where a younger and fully-haired Candy emerges from the bath, and we are now transported to 40 years earlier. And so, Powell and Pressburger were so impressed by Cardiff’s creativity behind the camera that he was eventually offered the main job of cinematographer on A Matter of Life and Death.


A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

1946 must have been an incredible year in the world’s collective existence. For many people who survived World War II, it would have felt like a re-birth when emerging from the bunkers upon the defeat of the Third Reich. A new year after that moment would have presented an opportunity to reflect on what had happened and to plan for an exciting and hopeful future. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger done just that with A Matter of Life and Death. The film tapped into the gut-wrenching feelings of loss and despair and offered consolation and hope through a delightful story about life beyond death. Released as Stairway to Heaven in the U.S., the film featured David Niven as a Royal Air Force pilot who should have died jumping out of a burning bomber without a parachute, but instead gets romantically involved with an American radio operator (Kim Hunter) whilst an angel tries to take him into the afterlife. An unforgettable comic fantasy that is remarkable not just for its wild story, but also for its photographic interchange – earth is shown in Technicolor and the afterlife is shown in monochrome.


The visuals in A Matter of Life and Death sort of defy belief. The question that will remain on your lips throughout is: ‘was this really made in 1946?’ It is of inexorable quality, and is even better when seen in the remastered version. You just sense that the eyes that are in charge of these visuals may well be the most masterful talent in cinematography that ever existed. And when you realise that the person in question, Jack Cardiff, was in charge of his first film as cinematographer, you may just fall off your chair. It is nothing short of astounding. And the film itself is not that bad either!


Powell greatly admired Cardiff for his dexterous ability to handle the enormous three-strip Technicolor camera while on-set. Not only that, he could make the camera move exactly where he wanted to and instil a critical essence to every scene. He also shared and respected the vision of his superiors, commenting in later life that Powell never disapproved of Cardiff’s methods and let him get on with his work because he knew that they were on the same wavelength. Alfred Junge was the production designer on A Matter of Life of Death and it was he who designed the famous ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Heavenly Court’. Like Cardiff with cinematography, Junge is described as the greatest art director of all time. While the relationship between Junge and Cardiff has been described as ‘spiky’, their collaboration on A Matter of Life and Death, and later Black Narcissus, is arguably unbettered. Cardiff’s camera captures Junge’s most extraordinary sets with a reverence that a lesser cameraman wouldn’t. Beyond those magnificent sets, the coloured scenes where we see a confused Niven wandering around a mostly deserted beach is also eerily beautiful. Both indoors and outdoors, Cardiff could dazzle the viewer.


Black Narcissus (1947)

The playful ‘English’ wit of Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death was subverted into deep psychological drama in Powell and Pressburger’s next feature Black Narcissus. Described as ‘the most iconoclastic film in the entire oeuvre of British film-making at the time it was made’, Black Narcissus is still regarded as one of the most daring and creative films ever made. It is a masterpiece, and represents the highest reach in film-making for Powell and Pressburger as a collaborative force. It also marks the greatest cinematography shot for possibly any film ever made.


Based on a novel by Rumer Godden, the story follows a mission of British Anglican nuns who sets up a convent on a dramatic cliff face in the Himalayas at the request of a kindly prince who rules over the region. The atmosphere in the mountains is charged with exoticism and surrealism, and the young nuns struggle not only with local inhabitants of a different faith, but with an environment that is incompatible with their own. The scenery is both sumptuous and breathtaking, and such is the masterful artistry of the film crew, at no point are we made aware that the film was actually shot entirely at Pinewood Studios outside of London.


Along with Cardiff’s astonishing and transcendent photography, the film is complimented by Alfred Junge’s pitch perfect set design and by Walter Percy Day’s incredible matte landscape paintings that transports us directly to the rugged hills and lush valleys of Nepal. This combined technical wizardry accentuates the performances of the actors. Deborah Kerr institutes a masterclass as the strictly religious Sister Clodagh, while Kathleen Byron gives a literally hypnotic performance as the lusting and mentally unstable Sister Ruth. There is an electric charge between Clodagh and Ruth whenever they cross paths. In the final quarter of the film, the charge is switched up to eleven, as Ruth metamorphizes into a sexual demon (metaphorically of course) stalking after the handsome Mr. Dean and Sister Clodagh. The shot of her peering through the doors of the convent, fully transformed, is beautifully framed by Cardiff. Often in the film the characters are shown in close-up like this, unable to utter a word. And yet their inner emotions are revealed by the score and by the way in which they are framed in the scene. It is absolutely extraordinary to watch. For a film that carries a General/Universal rating these days, the underlying eroticism in the film is intoxicating. Jean Simmons, who would go on to be a sought-after Hollywood actress in the 1950s, epitomises this in her role as a young local maid, dressed in the colourful regional garb and showcasing a magnificently decadent nose ring.


Despite (and unsurprisingly) being denounced by the Catholic Church, the 1947 British Film Institute Monthly Film Bulletin described the film as follows: ‘The natural colour is beautiful; but, more, the rhythm of camera movement is recurrently used in combination with an overtinting of the whole scene, at significant dramatic moments, to produce an emphasis we have not seen before.’ It is no wonder that it was this film that established Cardiff as a legend – the vibrant colours and the freeform camera movement are his trademarks. He picked up the Oscar for cinematography that year, and he would go on to influence many other cinematographers in the years and decades to follow. Even now, it still has power – the look and feel of Disney’s Frozen was directly inspired by Black Narcissus.


The Red Shoes (1948)

After Black Narcissus, Powell and Pressburger followed up immediately with yet another astounding Technicolor film. The Red Shoes is an highly stylised, operatic drama that features Moira Shearer as a young ballerina called Vicky who rises the ranks to successfully play the lead in a ballet called The Ballet of the Red Shoes. The central theme concerns a woman’s conflict between a public life dedicated to performing arts and a private life dedicated to devotion of another. The story is based on an 1845 fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen, which for all intents and purposes is a brutal and misogynistic fable about a girl’s sin for wearing over-sexualised red shoes.


Powell and Pressburger’s film updates the story with a less forceful metaphor for the shoes. In fact, it is a far more ambiguous and complex piece of work (but not too complex to make it inaccessible), that is indeed heightened by the artistry of the direction, score and cinematography. It may also be described as avant-garde, with the centrepiece 17 minute ballet sequence bursting into weird and impressionistic animations to underscore Vicky’s disintegrating mental state. It really is a fantastically fresh, beautiful and dazzling film. Like Black Narcissus before it, it demonstrates the daring heights that Powell and Pressburger were willing to take cinema. Despite some unfavourable reviews from the die-hard ballet fans, it was hugely successful and remains a lasting and influential moment in cinematic history.


The magnificence of Cardiff’s photography is potently obvious in The Red Shoes, and even more so because of how it fits in with other technical elements of its production. Moira Shearer was herself a champion ballet dancer (and making her film debut), and the ballet sequences were choreographed by another ballet star, Robert Helpmann. Brian Easdale, with help from Sir Thomas Beechman, provided the Oscar-winning score, which was conducted in sequence with animated storyboards that were approved by Helpmann. Cardiff balanced all of this together with a masterful visual capture of the terrifying drama that is both external and internal. The tone is tinged with a darkness (extracted from Anderson’s story) but the often upbeat nature of the dancing and music strikes a delicate balance for Cardiff to work with. He carefully carries the camera around the stage during the ballet sequences, but every now and again there are unexpected interruptions, e.g. a minor character stares through the lens, or an eerie vision appears. Consistently though, Cardiff splatters the screen with vibrant colours of places and individuals (not least the flame-haired Shearer in the lead role). The photography certainly offered an image of post-war London that delighted and excited audiences in 1948.



Cardiff’s body of work would continue for decades, well into his later life. His enormously successful and impressively diverse body of work as a cinematographer includes The African Queen (1951), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), The Vikings (1958), Conan the Destroyer (1984) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). He even directed films of his own, including Web of Evidence (1959), Sons and Lovers (1960) and Young Cassidy (with John Ford, 1965). There are many great documentaries about his life, none better than Craig McCall’s Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010). Having passed away only in 2009, Cardiff was one of a kind. He was a cinematographer who started from scratch learning the ‘cameraman’ trade like everyone else, and then blazing a trail that nobody else seemed capable of. He took control of a big, cumbersome technical camera and painted the movie for his directors – lush greens, blood oranges, flashing crimsons and iridescent purples. He was Powell and Pressburger’s eyes for three of their great films in the 1940s, and we all better off for that.

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