Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Jack Cardiff, Master of Technicolor (1914-2009)


Jack Cardiff, one of the greatest directors of photography Britain ever produced, as well as the director of some of its most peculiar exploitation films, died this month.
His reputation as master of colour cinematography is unchallenged. He had trained in the Technicolor laboratories in America in the thirties, and brought to British cinema in the forties an innovative confidence in the process's potential.
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He photographed Vivien Leigh in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945),
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and Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock's Under Capricorn (1949),
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but by far his most important and acclaimed work was done under the aegis of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, for whom he created the stunning visuals of A Matter of Life and Death (1946),
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Black Narcissus (1947), for which he won an Oscar,
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and The Red Shoes (1948), which Natalie Kalmus called the best Technicolor film ever made.
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Without a presiding imagination equal to Powell's to inspire him, his work in later decades never quite scaled these heights, though it was never less than beautiful in a number of large-scale and demanding projects such as The African Queen (1951),
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and Vidor's absurdly under-rated War and Peace (1956).
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As a director, he had either limited opportunities, bad luck, or an unerring eye for the eccentric and outré. I think the jury is still out as to which. Sons and Lovers (1960), photographed in black and white by Freddie Francis, another master DP turned oddball director, found acclaim, but the rest ranges from hack work to downright bizarre.
His first assignment had been the legendary Errol Flynn disaster William Tell, begun in 1953, the collapse of which is documented mesmerisingly in the opening chapters of Flynn's book My Wicked, Wicked Ways.
Scent of Mystery (1960) is a routine thriller with an unforgettable gimmick hinted in the title: it was produced in Smell-o-Vision: a variety of different aromas were pumped from a central generating unit to small outlets concealed in each cinema seat.
Girl On a Motorcycle (1968) is naff swinging sixties stuff, with Marianne Faithfull in and out of a zip-up leather catsuit, Alain Delon as a master seducer in bobble hat and sandals, a bunch of ludicrous soliloquies, dopey back projection and a tragic ending that will keep you laughing for hours.
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But my favourite of all is The Mutations (1974), one of the weirdest and scuzziest of all weird, scuzzy 1970's British horror films.
Donald Pleasence plays a scientist and university lecturer trying to cross-breed animals and plants. At one point he is asked if he has had any success. He replies that he most certainly has, and proudly produces a dead mouse with a sprig of watercress sticking out of it.
He pays a deformed freak show proprietor called Lynch (Tom Baker drooling and covered in plastic lumps) to abduct girls, and post-experimental rejects are passed on to the freak show. Some of Donald's students (including Jill Haworth and Julie Ege in Man About the House fashions) get a bit too close to the truth; one of them, a wisecracking buffoon crass beyond endurance, is satisfyingly turned into a human venus fly trap. Yes, it's tasteless, but at the same time, it's a film in which a man feeds a rabbit to a growling shrub.
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It was also Cardiff's last film as director. I've a feeling it would have been anybody's last film as director. He returned to photography, but there wasn't much left to photograph. He made Egypt look sensational in Death On The Nile (1978) and The Awakening (1981), and did some lovely work on Michael Winner's remake of The Wicked Lady (1983).
Still at work in his nineties, Jack Cardiff died on April 22nd at the age of 94.
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