Jack Cardiff: Life behind the lens

Cinematographer Jack Cardiff tells Chris Sullivan his tales of the biggest names in cinema.
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"I think starting with Michael Powell would be a nice idea, wouldn't you?" suggests the wonderfully loquacious 91-year-old director/cinematographer Jack Cardiff. "One day as I worked on second unit for Michael Powell shooting all the dull stuff on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I was asked to photograph this large wall full of animal heads. I heard a voice saying, 'Very interesting.' It was Michael Powell. He then asked if I'd like to photograph his next film. That was in 1943 and I was 29; but I had to wait another three years to do the job on A Matter of Life and Death - but I suppose I had been waiting all my life."

"My first job as crew was on the last big British silent movie, The Informer, in 1928," recalls Cardiff chuckling. "It was my job to be on hand all day to supply the director Dr Arthur Robison with a glass of Vichy water to help with his flatulence problem."

From such beginnings Cardiff moved through the ranks - special effects for Alexander Korda in 1930, clapper boy for Hitchcock in 1931; then in 1937 he was made camera operator for Jacques Feyder on Knight Without Armour starring Marlene Dietrich. "I looked at each frame as a painting and then the camera became my paintbrush."

Cardiff's artistry was never more evident than on his work with Powell. "Michael really encouraged suggestions," says Cardiff. "In the beginning of A Matter of Life and Death when David Niven sees this long shot of a beach and thinks he's in heaven, in the script it says 'Fade in' and Michael said, 'This sounds so corny. I wish I could do something different.' So I said, 'Michael, look through the camera.' He did, and I went to the front and breathed on the lens so that it went foggy. After a few seconds it cleared. Michael was absolutely delighted."

Their next collaboration, Black Narcissus, won Cardiff the Best Color Cinematography Oscar for 1948. In the next few years he would shoot Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten in Under Capricorn for Hitchcock ("a really ordinary Cockney type"); Tyrone Power and Orson Welles in The Black Rose for Henry Hathaway ("pedantic"), Audrey Hepburn in War and Peace for King Vidor ("a plodder")and Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen for John Huston ("a wonderful man").

"I did a few films with Bogie and we became very good friends," remembers Cardiff. "He was a great guy but could be very explosive. When I first met him he said, 'Cardiff! See my face? See all these lines? It has taken years for me to get these lines and I don't want you to soft light me so I look like a goddamn fag.' And I said, 'Well, Mr Bogart, I am sorry to inform you that I can't do anything about your face - there is too much debauchery in it.' So he laughed and said, 'Put down that sissy drink' (I had a beer) and he got me a whisky."

Cardiff was also great friends with Marilyn Monroe during The Prince and the Showgirl, photographed by Cardiff. "I think she hated being looked at. One day she told me she had this disguise that would enable her to blend in. But when she showed it to me I couldn't believe it: it was the most screaming bright red wig you've ever seen. And I said, 'Marilyn, it will just attract attention' and she said: 'D'you think so? OK.' And that was her mentality. On one side she was the great the sex goddess, and the other she was like a little child."

'Magic Hour: a Life in Movies' is published by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99