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Jack Cardiff: Painter’s eye view

Doc spotlights pioneering master of color cinematography

Even though color photography has been the dominant expression in cinema for close to a half century, any modern viewer initially exposed to “Black Narcissus” or “The Red Shoes” must have felt like they were seeing a color movie for the first time.

These two signature works from the director-writer tandem of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are linked by the almost deliriously vibrant palette of Jack Cardiff, the first cinematographer earmarked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to receive an Honorary Oscar (in 2001).

“When I saw their work onscreen it was like being bathed in color,” recalls Martin Scorsese in the recent documentary “Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff.” “It was palpable. Color itself became the emotion of the picture.”

Cardiff was handpicked by Technicolor in the late ’30s to be the first operater of their new three-strip camera — based not on his technical expertise, but on his fluency about the work of such painters as Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Turner, whose use of light prompts Cardiff in the documentary to venture that the early 19th century modernist could have been “the greatest cameraman that ever lived.”

As the d.p. on Powell and Pressburger’s crowning achievements — “Stairway to Heaven” (aka “A Matter of Life and Death”), “Red Shoes” and “Black Narcissus,” for which he won an Oscar — Cardiff drew parallels to Dali (“Heaven”) Vermeer (“Narcissus”) and Van Gogh (“Shoes”). All three films were released, amazingly enough, during a three-year period beginning in 1946 that represented the height of what editor Thelma Schoonmaker calls in the documentary “the longest period of subversive filmmaking ever” in Britain.

“(Cardiff) had an incredibly tightly focused study of the history of art,” says cinematographer John Bailey, who spoke to the Academy’s Board of Governors on Cardiff’s behalf leading up to his honorary Oscar. “He found the chromatic theories that were coming out of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism energizing and provocative enough to want to explore some of that using colored light in his films.”

Bailey, whose credits include “Ordinary People” and “The Accidental Tourist,” cites “Black Narcissus” as a formative influence on his work.

“I was raised Catholic,” he tells Variety, “and I almost went into the seminary when I first saw ‘Black Narcissus.’ It was like being hit over the head with a bat — both aesthetically and from the sort of a religious fervor and intensity of it. Before that film and ‘The Red Shoes,’ I didn’t know anything about cinematography. When I found out both had been photographed and directed by the same people, that’s one of the few entry points I really had to go on.”

Cardiff, who died in 2009 after more than 90 years in the industry (he started out as a child actor in 1918), met “Cameraman” director Craig McCall by chance at London’s EMI offices in the early ’90s when McCall was a freelance maker of musicvideos and Cardiff was brought in to work on a film tied to a recording of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

McCall was struck by Cardiff’s energy and passion even though he was pushing 80, recalling that Cardiff suddenly rushed off to Venice to capture a rare instance of snowfall in that picturesque city of canals and bridges.

“He was like a talking encyclopedia of motion picture history,” says McCall. “He was also a celebrated director (including 1960’s “Sons and Lovers”); he painted; he took actors’ portraits.”

From there McCall was hooked, and thus began his 13-year effort to make a film that stands alongside 1992’s “Visions of Light” as a key document of the cinematographic art. Since its May 2010 unveiling in London as part of a Cardiff tribute organized by the British Film Institute, the film — which cost almost $1 million, much of it from McCall’s own pockets — has played in more than 20 festivals, including Cannes, Telluride, Ghent and Mill Valley. Strand Releasing has picked up the rights for a U.S. theatrical rollout.

Alongside Cardiff, Scorsese and Schoonmaker, who was married to Michael Powell before his death in 1990, others interviewed in the film include Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Kim Hunter and Kathleen Byron, who played the deranged Sister Ruth in “Black Narcissus” and who, in the doc, credits Cardiff with giving her “half of my performance with the lighting.”

Although’s Cardiff’s post Powell/Pressburger work includes acclaimed work with John Huston (“The African Queen”), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (“The Barefoot Contessa”) and King Vidor (“War and Peace”), he never again achieved the envelope-pushing artistry of his Powell/Pressburger collaborations.

“I think the Powell/Pressburger canon was such an anomaly in the entire history of English-speaking cinema that it really does just stand alone,” opines Bailey, “especially those three films (‘Heaven,’ ‘Narcissus’ and ‘Shoes’). Powell did other films that were photographed afterwards by Chris Challis who had been Cardiff’s camera operator — films that never did quite seem to capture the same degree of dramatic and aesthetic density. I mean that opening scene in ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ between Kim Hunter and David Niven, which is so simply done, was one of the great dramatic moments in all of film history.”

More from Eye on the Oscar: The Director
Jack Cardiff: Painter’s eye view
The honorees:
Danny Cohen | Jeff Cronenweth | Roger Deakins | Matthew Libatique | Wally Pfister

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