He is known as Britain's top cameraman, as a Technicolor pioneer, as the cinematographer who shot The Red Shoes and The African Queen, and who won an Oscar for Black Narcissus, and as the Oscar-nominated director of Sons and Lovers. Now, at age 83, Jack Cardiff has added author to his list of accomplishments. Magic Hour, his book of memoirs, was published in the US this spring by Faber and Faber, with a foreword by no less an eminence than Martin Scorsese. Just another famous name in a career that has brought Cardiff in contact with so many: Bogart, Hepburn (both Kate and Audrey), Monroe, Olivier, Flynn, Bergman, Loren, Hitchcock, Alexander Korda, Michael Powell, John Huston.
"As I tell people, I dashed off this book in 45 years," says Cardiff, who visited New York in April to promote his autobiography, and to take part in an honorary event sponsored by the School of Visual Arts. "Of course, the reason that it took so long was that I was working on films. In between films, I made notes, lots of notes--I ended up with about 3' high of material. So I had a lot to go on; I wrote a little bit, and then I'd work on a film. Until the last two or three years, when I virtually retired, and completed the book at last."
Other than the desire to tell people about his amazing experiences working with glamorous movie stars in various corners of the globe, Cardiff says his motive in writing was, "I wanted to put over a message, if you can call it that, to young people in the film business: Go for it. I did. It's the old cliche--I started from nothing."
Born in a trunk in 1914 to touring music-hall performers, Cardiff enjoyed an unconventional if blissful childhood. His mother and father doted on him and on each other, and nurtured his love of the limelight. "We used to travel to a different town every week, but I thought, 'Doesn't everybody?' " says the DP. "I went to a different school every week, which of course was disastrous for my education. I was always the new kid, and consequently I never got into trouble and I never failed an exam." This could account for Cardiff's persistently amiable nature, which may strike the reader of Magic Hour as nearly superhuman, faced as it was over the years with German U-boats, tropical diseases, volatile stars, and tyrannical directors.
When not performing live, the elder Cardiffs often paid the bills with extra-type work in Britain's burgeoning film industry, and from the age of 4, so did their son. As a child actor, he even played the odd lead role, in movies that have long since vanished. But at 14, "I was too big for kid parts, and too small for grown-up parts." It was time for a new job.
"I started out at Elstree studio as a kind of teaboy, gofer, whatever you want to call it," says Cardiff. "I would fetch Vichy water for the director, who was flatulent, and carry his chair around." The film was the silent version of The Informer, starring Lars Hansen and Lia de Putti; the year was 1928. "One day," he recalls, "I was just standing by on the set, and they must have been short of somebody, because the assistant cameraman called me over and said, 'Hey sonny, you see this lens? I've got some pencil marks on it. When I tell you, I want you to rotate the lens from this pencil mark to this pencil mark.' I did what he told me, and at the end of the scene, I said, 'What did I do?' He said, 'Sonny, you followed focus.' "
Cardiff entered the camera department as a number boy, or clapper boy, as it came to be known once sound arrived. Though he had already embarked on a course of self-education in art history, the future cinematographer says his choice of specialty did not come from any innate passion for the image. He confesses, "The honest truth is, I went into the camera department because all these guys were frequently going abroad to foreign parts. I thought, 'What a job this is, going to France, Italy, Spain, Egypt.' Then I got to like it very much, and I became immersed in photography. And as I worked on more and more films, I started to realize the affinity between photography and painting. As a kid, I saw paintings as a magic world. I studied them, got to know the artists, made a point of seeing things like lighting."
He moved up to first camera assistant in a department headed by Freddie Young, who years later shot David Lean epics such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago; Cardiff's own assistant was Ted Moore, who went on to win an Oscar for photographing A Man for All Seasons. The next step was camera operator, and the next place of employment was the new Denham Studios, which producer Alexander Korda opened in 1936. It was here that the young man got a call to be interviewed by a new company called Technicolor, which planned to bring an operator to Hollywood and teach him about the three-strip color process that would soon be introduced to the British film industry.
As Cardiff relates in Magic Hour, "Those first interviewed came out of the office looking considerably shaken. Apparently, the questions had been highly technical. One operator came out with the fixed stare of a sleepwalker, muttering the law of inverse squares; another staggered out in dazed bewilderment: 'Lux, flux, lumens, lamberts?' " When his turn came, he recalls, "They started asking these terrifying technical questions, and I said, 'I'm sorry, I don't have a mathematical background.' There was a shocked silence, and then they said, 'How do you think you're going to get on in the business?' I said, 'I study painters and lighting.' One of them said, 'What side of the face did Rembrandt light?' I took a chance and said the left side, and I must have gotten it right."
Other questions, regarding such matters as Vermeer's interiors and de la Tour's use of candlelight, followed, and Cardiff found himself on firm ground. "I was then watching light automatically," says the DP. "If a light came into a room, I'd watch the angle and compare it with painting. Sometimes I'd see a weird light coming from the wrong direction, and I couldn't rest until I'd found out which piece of glass or mirror it was reflecting from. I used to watch light in subways, buses, everywhere. Because that was the key to everything--light." The upshot was that Cardiff was chosen by Technicolor to go to America. Then, however, the company changed plans, deciding to build a laboratory in England. "But I was automatically engaged as a star junior cameraman," he says. "Here I had never photographed a film, but I was the only one in England who would be studying Technicolor lighting."
He was assigned to operate on Wings of the Morning, the first British Technicolor film, under American specialist Ray Rennahan. Cardiff found himself in awe of the sleek new camera, which ran three strips of film registering different colors behind the lens, with a mirrored prism to reflect light onto the separate pieces in mind-bogglingly complex fashion. Though his job was taking care of the camera, the operator soaked up information about lighting for the process. "It required much more light than black and white--a footcandle reading of 800 or something," he says. "There was the question of contrast. Whereas in black and white you could let the shadows take care of themselves to a certain extent, you couldn't do that in Technicolor because the colors would be wrong."
Out came the hard, bright, daylight-adjusted arc lamps, 150A instruments that could cook a set in blue light and seemed to rule out any sense of softness to the image. "We had High Intensity (H.I.) arcs, which were as soft as we could get," says Cardiff. "But even that was a hard arc effect. Ray Rennahan used to put soft light into the shadows, then he'd crosslight. But it was still arc light. Later, doing candle effects on Black Narcissus, I had to use arc light, which doesn't look like a candle glow, so I used a lot of diffusion papers and dimmer shutters to get the effect." Then there was the noise of the lamps. When the cinematographer worked on Hitchcock's 1949 Under Capricorn, during which the master shot entire reels in one take, "Ingrid Bergman said, 'I don't want to perform in this scene and find that it's got to be dubbed. Can't you do this with incandescent light?' So on the spot rails instead of having arcs, I had 5ks with blue filters, and it was completely quiet. The joke was, for the first time in Technicolor history you could hear the camera, and it had to be dubbed because of the noise of the Technicolor camera."
Before graduating to full-fledged feature DP, Cardiff spent years shooting commercials for the cinema and travelogues, which finally afforded him an opportunity to visit exotic locales. He shot wartime documentaries like Western Approaches, a tribute to the Merchant Navy which brought him to his close encounter with a German U-boat. And he did second-unit work on picture after picture, watching cinematographers he had trained in the rudiments of Technicolor photography be put in charge of important projects. As he writes in Magic Hour, "I had a lot of photographic experience behind me, but mostly exteriors, and there's a wide gulf between exteriors--where Nature has already set the lights--and interiors, which call for sound knowledge of light and the creative use of it." Beyond this, Cardiff says, "It's the old story: You can't photograph a film unless they've seen what you can do, and they can't see what you can do when you haven't done anything."
His break finally came while handling second-unit duties on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a 1943 drama from the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. "I was doing a rather difficult insert for a change," he recalls. "It was a wall with a lot of animal heads with horns. Every light I would put on would make multiple shadows. Luckily, second unit can take more time, and I did a pretty good job on this. I heard a voice say, 'Interesting.' I turned around and there was Michael Powell. He looked at what I'd done and said, 'Would you like to photograph my next picture? We start in six months.' Then he was gone. I thought, 'Well, he's going to forget all about that.' Then I was in Egypt doing second unit on Caesar and Cleopatra, and I got a telegram from him saying, 'Where are you? We start in three weeks.' "
The picture was A Matter of Life and Death (known stateside as Stairway to Heaven), a wartime fantasy that ironically included black-and-white sequences. He brushed up on his monochrome, did a thoroughly spectacular job on the color portions of the film, and was rewarded with the job of director of photography on Powell and Pressburger's next two projects: the chiaroscuro Black Narcissus, about a group of nuns' foiled attempt to start a convent high in the Himalayas; and The Red Shoes, a grandly romantic story of the ballet world. These movies are widely regarded as two of the most beautiful examples of color photography on film--Cardiff's approach could be theatrical and extravagant, but never garish as in many Hollywood films. His inspiration was clearly drawn from the Dutch masters and Impressionists he had so assiduously studied. For his work on Black Narcissus, he won an Oscar.
Magic Hour is full of instances of Cardiff's inventive powers, on these movies and those that followed. For realism's sake, he suggested to art director Alfred Junge that he use photographic rather than painted backings of the Himalayas in the studio-shot Black Narcissus, further persuading him to apply subtle pastels rather than paint to the giant black-and-white enlargements. The result: It is astounding to think that the production never ventured to India. He devised special camera rigs and experimented with frame rates to enhance the ballet scenes in The Red Shoes. Meeting with Peter Mole of Mole-Richardson just prior to production on that film, the DP had the foresight to realize that the new wide-beamed, 225A instruments Mole was describing would be perfect for it. Hence, the Brute made its movie debut on The Red Shoes.
As proficient as Cardiff became working in the studio, he still longed to get outdoors, to shoot movies on location. He got his chance in a big way on The African Queen, John Huston's romantic adventure featuring Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, a primitive World War I-era steamboat, and a forbidding little Congo tributary. The director's concept was put this way to the cinematographer: " 'We'll make the whole film on a raft. We'll put a replica of the boat on it, using the raft as a stage, and we can be towed along the rivers of Africa while we shoot away to our hearts' content.' " And that's what they did, followed by various craft holding generators, cables, and dressing rooms. There were several near-disasters, including Hepburn's nearly being squished by the Queen's copper boiler. But nothing compared to the widespread agony once the production moved to Lake Victoria, where everyone immediately fell ill from drinking unfiltered lake water. Everyone, that is, but Bogart and Huston, who never touched the stuff--only whiskey.
Cardiff prefers shooting on location because he prizes realism. Furthermore, "when I had to do studio work that was supposed to be outside," he says, "I tried to be as real as possible. I always tried to make the sky uncontrolled-looking, a bit too hot. Often, if you would do an interior that was supposed to be an exterior, on a lake or something, they would light it with spotlights all around the spot rail. You would see all the lights in the water, and it's wrong." On The African Queen, as it happened, scenes in which Hepburn and Bogart had to enter the water were shot in the studio, to avoid contact with a deadly African flatworm. To match the single solar source on location, "I had huge pieces of canvas, about 15' [4.5m] square, up top, and I lit those rather than the water, so the water had a reflection. It made it look real."
Through the 1950s, Cardiff shot on many locations--Spain for Al Lewin's Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, with James Mason and Ava Gardner; Cornwall for The Master of Ballantrae, with Errol Flynn; Rome for Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa, with Bogart and Gardner; Mexico for The Brave One; the Sahara desert for legendary totalitarian Henry Hathaway's Legend of the Lost, with John Wayne and Sophia Loren; the Norwegian fjords for The Vikings, with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. And he did his share of studio work, shooting much of King Vidor's massive War and Peace, starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda, and Cardiff's first widescreen film, at Cinecittˆ in Rome. Back in England, he shot Laurence Olivier's The Prince and the Showgirl, starring Marilyn Monroe and the great knight himself, at Pinewood Studios. As should be clear, he grew accustomed to photographing some of the world's most famous beauties, and to witnessing some of the world's most famous neuroses.
Particularly after being privy to the kind of fire Olivier went through dealing with Monroe at her most intractably insecure, why did Cardiff want to direct? "I guess one could trace it back to my parents and stage life," he replies. "I got to love photography, but I was always watching performances. There was one case on Black Narcissus--after a four-minute scene, Michael Powell said cut, and he turned to me and said, 'I suppose you want to do that again? A light went out in back.' I said, 'No, no one's going to see.' That's unusual for a cameraman. I was more interested in the drama."
After an aborted stab at a William Tell project with Errol Flynn, Cardiff finally got his chance on a couple of B-pictures. The reaction was muted at best. "The press always puts a label on things, and I was labeled Britain's best cameraman," says the DP, who quickly eschews the title. "When I did my first directorial effort, the Daily Express said, in effect, 'I cannot understand why this man, who is the top cameraman in this country, would want to become a mediocre director.' " Then came Sons and Lovers, a 1960 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's novel that won him applause at the Cannes Film Festival, the New York Film Critics Award for best director, and an Oscar nomination. It also caused the gentleman at the Daily Express to eat his words: "He said, 'I humbly take it back,' " recalls Cardiff.
Sons and Lovers, which starred Dean Stockwell, Trevor Howard, and Wendy Hiller, was unlike many of the films Cardiff had worked on as a cinematographer. Most notably, it was in gritty black and white, the better to convey the early 20th-century coal-mining town atmosphere of the subject, as well as to save money. Freddie Francis, a master (and future director) in his own right, was engaged as cinematographer. "People have always said to me, 'Don't you feel that you want to tell the cameraman what to do?' " says Cardiff, correctly anticipating the question. "The answer is never. I made it a point never to say to a cameraman when I was directing, 'How about doing this or that?' Because God knows I had enough trouble. When I was a cameraman, if the sound department broke down, or the actor was late and we had to wait, it didn't bother me at all. It wasn't my money. But as a director, it was a different story."
Immediately following Sons and Lovers, the director went back to his old job, shooting Joshua Logan's Fanny in Paris and the south of France. "Josh was such a con man--he said, 'Do it, people will admire you,' " laughs Cardiff. "So I did it, and it was a holiday for me, I had no worries." The same was not always true of his future directorial outings, which included My Geisha, The Lion, The Long Ships, Young Cassidy (taking over for an ailing John Ford), Dark of the Sun, and Girl on a Motorcycle. Battles with producers, studios, stars, budgets, the elements, and critics made for a tough road. The director's aforementioned affability was perhaps not ideally suited to these circumstances. "You shout and rave and scream, and they all hate your guts, but the film is successful," he says. "It's sad, but it's true. I wasn't a shouter or raver, it wasn't in my nature.
"Then there came a point when the film industry in England practically died, and I wasn't working," Cardiff continues. "Someone said, 'Would you like to photograph a film in Australia?' " It was a Disney picture called Ride a Wild Pony. "Once I'd done that, it seemed to be more difficult to get back to directing. So I stuck with photography."
It was back to traveling for the cameraman: Egypt for Death on the Nile; New York and Belize for The Dogs of War; Mexico for Conan the Destroyer and Rambo: First Blood Part II; six months in China for the ill-fated Tai-Pan. There were even new technological areas to explore: Cardiff's last two credits were on the Showscan productions Call From Space and The Magic Balloon. Technically, the DP found that things had changed in his years away from shooting, "but not so much. It was just a question of exposure, basically." Contemporary lighting capabilities and techniques suit him: "I always wanted small lights, because they give you more control, and the lighting system I had was really a type of bounce, very soft light coming from reflection."
Not that he thinks any advance is all to the good. "With the digital thing that's happening, I don't know what can happen. I'm very sorry in one sense. In the old days, you had to physically do any effect yourself, painting glass, doing things with Vaseline, whatever. It was great fun doing that, and very creative. Now, anything that comes up on a film that's difficult, it's 'Don't worry about that, Jack, we'll do it in postproduction.'
"But the look of films has improved enormously," he concludes. "You get more value from the film. There's a combination of realism with a certain polish. It's not done so deliberately. It used to be, in a studio, there was always a spot rail, and everyone had backlighting wherever they were. Now, if it's an ordinary room, they look ordinary. It's still the job of the cameraman to keep the star looking good, but now they're less glamorous, more real." Something, he might add, like a Rembrandt.
Magic Hour: The Life of a Cameraman. By Jack Cardiff. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1996. 253 pp. Illustrated. Hardcover: $26.95. ISBN# 0-571-17640-2. Photos from Magic Hour reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber; all rights reserved.
1946 A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, directors
1947 Black Narcissus (Academy Award) Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, directors
1948 The Red Shoes Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, directors
Scott of the Antarctic Charles Frend, director
1949 Under Capricorn Alfred Hitchcock, director
1950 The Black Rose Henry Hathaway, director
1951 Pandora and the Flying Dutchman Al Lewin, director
The Magic Box John Boulting, director
The African Queen John Huston, director
1953 The Master of Ballantrae William Keighley, director
1954 The Barefoot Contessa Joseph L. Mankiewicz, director
1956 War and Peace (AA nomination) King Vidor, director
The Brave One Irving Rapper, director
1957 The Prince and the Showgirl Laurence Olivier, director
Legend of the Lost Henry Hathaway, director
1958 The Vikings Richard Fleischer, director
1961 Fanny (AA nomination) Joshua Logan, director
1975 Ride a Wild Pony Don Chaffey, director
1978 Death on the Nile John Guillermin, director
1980 The Dogs of War John Irvin, director
1984 Conan the Destroyer Richard Fleischer, director
1985 Rambo: First Blood Part II George P. Cosmatos, director
1986 Tai-Pan Daryl Duke, director
Films as director include Intent to Kill, 1958; Beyond This Place, aka Web of Evidence, 1959; Sons and Lovers, AA nomination, 1960; My Geisha, The Lion, 1962; The Long Ships, 1964; Young Cassidy, The Liquidator, 1965; The Mercenaries, aka Dark of the Sun, 1967; Girl on a Motorcycle, 1968