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RIP Jack Cardiff (updated)

April 22, 2009

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Via David Hudson/IFC comes the news of the passing of British-born 94 year-old cinematography icon Jack Cardiff. With his career as a director of photography going back to uncredited work on King Kong creators Ernest B. Shoedsack and Merian C. Cooper’s now obscure 1935 epic, The Last Days of Pompeii, and going up through 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II and beyond, Cardiff was more than the hardy journeyman you might expect. Certainly, his work on such ambitious classic-era productions as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa, Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl, and John Huston’s The African Queen would be enough to cement his reputation as one of the best of his own greatest generation. As per Xan Brooks of The Guardian, Cardiff was called “the best in the world” by Marilyn Monroe,

However, it’s three films from a bit earlier in his career that I think most cinephiles won’t forget, each of them from the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Powell, with and without Pressburger, was a director who was never afraid to take chances, and Cardiff, who worked as a Technicolor consultant early in his career, matched the grand stylization of Powell’s approach with an unmatched mastery of the palette of British Technicolor (a warmer variation of the candy colored MGM variety) and an artistic flair that Campaspe describes far more precisely than I ever could.

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Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and A Matter of Life and Death range from astonishing and flawed experiments in entertainment to omgomggreatestmovieevermadereallyreallyreally . Discriminating cinephiles may disagree which is which, however. Though my appreciation of The Red Shoes (which struck me as a bit overblown the first time I saw it, callow and pretentious youth that I was) went up vastly after a second viewing a year or two back, for me the greatest of the three is absolutely A Matter of Life and Death.

When I saw this romantic fantasy comedy-drama via a theatrical re-release sometime that was decades ago but seems like only yesterday, I was floored — even though it turned to be a very long time before I’d see any more films from the Powell-Pressburger heyday. Watching it again several weeks back when reviewing Sony’s outstanding The Films of Michael Powell DVD package, floored would not even be the word. (If anything, I tried to contain my rapture in my brief review.) Leaving aside the political and spiritual overtones, it is without a doubt one of the most beautiful, and beautifully made, films ever.

Cardiff’s contribution to the film is immense and, as painterly as it is, a part of the narrative. Michael Powell would have accepted no less. And, really, the images speak for themselves. Here (after the credits, at about 1:28), he takes on some at the time nearly unprecedented special effects work and eventually gets on to the cinematographer’s greatest and most important challenge: a human face.

Marilyn Monroe wasn’t wrong.

For more, Brian Doan has a key clip from The Red Shoes‘ main dance sequence up. Check it out.

UPDATE:  Pillaging David Hudson’s as always invaluable updates (linked to in my first graph  above), I find….My birthday-mate Edward Copeland has some worthwhile thoughts on Jack Cardiff’s work with the Archers. And in a post that I deem mandatory reading for all film geeks with any interest at all in the swingin’ sixties, Kimberly Lindbergs reminds us about Cardiff’s lesser known directorial career and The Girl on a Motorcycle starring none other than Marianne Faithfull and Alain Delon. (I also now realize that Ms. Faithfull is standing to Cardiff’s left in the picture up top.)

Also, Glenn Kenny points out that Cardiff did amazing work not only working with one of cinema’s greatest directors like Michael Powell, but also with some its least interesting, like Joshua Logan. And, semi-finally, some breathtaking stills from both Mr. Kenny and Ty Burr. It also turns out that we all should go out immediately and read Cardiff’s book. (Yes, but I still haven’t read Michael Powell’s two books!)

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