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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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Submitted by Nicky Smith

Off to see the wonderful wizard of light
By Neil Norman
London Evening Standard 21st March 2000

Jack Cardiff with his Oscar Jack Cardiff sits at his kitchen table surrounded by mementos of an illustrious past. Huge, exquisite photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren and Marlene Dietrich in their youthful prime gaze down on the diminutive cinematographer, each one autographed with messages of delirious, mischievous and occasionally heartbreaking intimacy. Marilyn Monroe, for example, has written: "Dear Jack, If only I could be the way you have created me! I love you, Marilyn." Beneath this wall of luminous screen legends, on the shelves of the large wooden dresser, rows of awards including a Golden Globe and an Oscar sit like so many Staffordshire dogs. Let there be no doubt: Cardiff, 85 going on fiftysomething, is a film industry great. "The greatest dolour cameraman in the world," according to Michael Powell, for whom he Tensed three films, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death. He got the latter job by a fluke. He was working as a second unit operator when Powell spotted him setting up an insert for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. "I hadn't actually photographed anything significant when Mickey saw me and asked me to photograph the film. 1 thought he was joking."

Six months later, having assumed that Powell had forgotten his offer, Cardiff received a cable: "Where the hell are you? We start in four weeks. Regards Michael Powell."

Amazed and flattered, Cardiff accepted the offer., with some misgivings. Although he was one of the exclusive band who had been invited to learn the Technicolor process, he had yet to engage in a major feature film. And there was the additional challenge that AMOLAD was to be shot in Technicolor and black and white. "I didn't tell anyone I had never shot a film in black and white. When I met Michael and he told me the concept of the movie, I said: 'Oh, so Heaven will be in colour and Earth in black and white?' He said, 'No, the reverse'."

Powell's creative innovation chimed with Cardiff's own urge to experiment with the rigid Technicolor rules. From the start, they broke the rules.

As they were setting up, Powell mentioned that he would like to try something other than the traditional fade-in. Cardiff told him to look through the camera, walked around the other side and breathed on the lens. "After a few moments it cleared. He loved it."

Cardiff discovered the art of lighting from Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner and the French Iimpressionists. Few have been able to address it with such artistry in the cinema. The screen goddesses, particularly, were appreciative.

"The average star realises that she is going to look good or not due to the cameraman so there is always an intimacy. I went to see Ava Gardner to discuss Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and she said: 'You must watch me, Jack, especially when I'm having my period. 'There is an acidity which occurs in the skin during a woman's period which needs to be lit differently."

Cardiff is obsessed by the logic of light. He will sit in a pub and look at the shadow cast on a picture on the wall, fretting and worrying until he understands the light source that is creating that kind of shadow.

He is also a fund of anecdotes. He recalls a story about Charlie Chaplin, who anonymously attended a party where the organisers held an impromptu Chaplin lookalike competition.

"Just for a laugh" recalls Cardiff, "Chaplin decided to enter the competition himself."

What happened?

"He came third."

See also the accompanying article about Emeric's grandsons.

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