In film commentary circles, creative people are expected to stay in the lane. Actors who choose to direct are often painted as dilettantes, writers who head for the director’s chair are instantly questioned over their visual abilities, produces who move to the helm are seen as gauche pretenders, and cinematographers who look to do more than just light and shoot are instantly put on the wrack over their facility for telling a story. Creatives who move outside their comfort zone are treated with suspicion, and even if people in one field move successfully into another, their new endeavours are rarely celebrated as wholeheartedly.
All of this brings us to the late Jack Cardiff, one of the most acclaimed and inventive cinematographers of all time. “In my mind, this light is the light in which cinema was invented,” Martin Scorsese once said of Cardiff’s cinematography. Cardiff’s resume reads like a run-through of Hollywood’s Golden Age classics – Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), The African Queen (1951), War And Peace (1956), Death On The Nile (1978) – followed by a detour into wonderful 1980s madness with the likes of The Wicked Lady (1983), Conan The Destroyer (1984), and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). And while he’s the winner of one Oscar (for his incredibly evocative work on Black Narcissus) and the recipient of an honorary one too (he was hailed a “master of light and colour” in 2001 with a special statuette), as well as critical acclaim, Jack Cardiff remains an utterly Unsung Auteur when it comes to his far less lauded career as a director.
Jack Cardiff was born in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, in 1914, and was the son of music hall entertainers. Following in his parents’ footsteps, Cardiff worked as an actor from an early age, both in the music hall and in a number of silent films, before commencing work at the age of just fifteen as a camera assistant, clapper boy and production runner for British International Pictures, where he worked on a host of films including Alfred Hitchcock’s The Skin Game (1931). Cardiff’s career really rose when revered co-directors Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell noticed Cardiff’s impressive work as second unit camera operator on their classic 1943 film The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, and promoted him to cinematographer on their 1946 effort A Matter Of Life And Death.
Soon rising to the top of the cinematography field, Cardiff made his directorial debut in 1958 with the now largely forgotten medical thriller Intent To Kill, in which Richard Todd’s surgeon must perform a sensitive brain operation on a South American leader on the run from assassins. Cardiff maintained the pulpy propulsive tone for 1959’s Van Johnson-starring thriller Web Of Evidence and 1960’s Holiday In Spain, which starred Denholm Elliott as an everyman caught up in a murder plot while on vacation.
Jack Cardiff’s first truly rich and more densely layered film came with his inspired 1960 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons And Lovers. Starring an excellent and wholly charismatic Dean Stockwell as a young man coming of age in a small coal mining town, the film also boasts fine performances from Trevor Howard and Wendy Hiller, and marked Cardiff as a director utterly in charge of both image and story. “The films that I am most proud of – the film, for instance, that I made under great difficulty, Sons And Lovers, I wanted to make it into a good film because the book is marvellous, and I didn’t want to let the author down,” Cardiff said of his impressive work on the film.
A light comedy (1962’s Shirley MacLaine-starring The Geisha) and a Kenya-set family drama (1962’s The Lion with William Holden, Trevor Howard and Capucine) followed, and then Cardiff took an extraordinary detour into the epic with 1964’s sprawling, slightly surreal adventure The Long Ships, in which Richard Widmark’s Viking and Sidney Poitier’s Moor warriors heroically battle each other to find “The Mother Of All Voices”, a legendary golden bell located near the mythic Pillars Of Hercules. A canny mix of Boys’ Own-style adventure and fevered mythology, The Long Ships is a rollicking delight.
Cardiff made a vital creative connection when he took over from a departing John Ford on 1965’s Young Cassidy, which starred Aussie-born great Rod Taylor as the titular hard-punching Dublin idealist. Cardiff reteamed with Taylor for 1965’s highly entertaining, James Bond-style caper The Liquidator, which follows a man who tumbles into the spy game, and once again for 1968’s Dark Of The Sun (aka The Mercenaries), which still stands as Cardiff’s key film. A renowned favourite of noted Rod Taylor fan Quentin Tarantino, this absolutely ball-tearing adaptation of Wilbur Smith’s novel is wonderfully awash with blood, action, adventure and wholly inspired madness. Taylor stars as a mercenary leader on the trail of $50 million worth of diamonds in the war-torn Congo, and the film reverberates with energy, marking Cardiff as a master of uncompromising action not afraid to lean into a film’s more outré elements.
If Dark Of The Sun was at times surprisingly out there, Jack Cardiff went all the way with his next film. A bizarre, very late-1960s cult film, 1968’s The Girl On A Motorcycle stars singer and occasional actress Marianne Faithfull as a sexy, leather-clad young woman who gets on her motorbike and tears through Europe for a reunion with her lover (Alain Delon), finding herself in a series of strange, psychedelic, envelope-pushing situations along the way. Trippy, edgy, hip and very much of its time, The Girl On A Motorcycle would be Cardiff’s final truly fascinating film as a director, followed as it was by the standard 1973 thriller Penny Gold and the horrid bottom-feeding 1974 horror flick The Freakmaker (aka The Mutations), in which Donald Pleasance’s sicko scientist goes all Dr. Moreau and melds his unsuspecting students with plants to create new life-forms.
An acclaimed master of the cinematic image, Jack Cardiff deserves far more credit for his ingenious, often truly inspired facility for telling an unusual, richly layered, and frenetically constructed narrative.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.