The British cinematographer who lit up the big screen

Jack Cardiff was such a skilled cinematographer that Marilyn Monroe once wrote to him, “Dear Jack, If only I could be the way you have created me!” Cardiff, who subtly conveyed human emotion through his deft use of light and color, worked on such landmark films as The African Queen, War and Peace, and The Barefoot Contessa. He won an Oscar for Black Narcissus (1947), illuminating the sexually charged story of a group of nuns in the Himalayas with stunning contrasts of red and green that he said were inspired by van Gogh.

Cardiff’s parents were English music-hall performers, said The New York Times, and he made his acting debut at 4, appearing in a series of silent films. “His education was spotty, as his family moved every week or so. But he began visiting art museums when he was around 9 and was first captivated by Rembrandt, then Caravaggio, then the impressionists, whose love affair with light entranced him.” Cardiff became a film “gofer” and graduated to camera duties under such directors as Alfred Hitchcock and Zoltan Korda. In the mid-1930s, when Technicolor was recruiting cameramen, Cardiff overcame his meager technical knowledge during his interview by discussing Rembrandt’s techniques. “He was chosen by Technicolor as the first technician to shoot a British film in the new medium, Wings of the Morning (1937), starring Henry Fonda.”

Cardiff was a daring innovator, said the London Independent. For A Matter of Life and Death (1946), he shot scenes set in heaven “on Technicolor stock which, when processed as though it were black-and-white, gave them an eerie, shimmering quality.” In the dance drama The Red Shoes (1948), he delighted in “speeding up the camera to slow the action and make a ballerina seem to hover in midair, or doing the opposite to turn her into a blur of whirling pirouettes.” He also worked closely with his stars. Ava Gardner told him, “Jack, you must light me carefully when I’m having my period.” By contrast, Humphrey Bogart “sternly instructed him not to try to conceal the maze of wrinkles on his face.” 

Cardiff, who won an honorary Oscar in 2001, directed 15 films himself, including the critically acclaimed 1960 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. He also directed a novelty called Scent of a Mystery (1960). It was the only movie ever to employ “Smell-o-Vision,” which pumped 30 different scents into the theater in sync with cues in the soundtrack. When Cardiff died last week at 94, the hearse bearing his body pulled away from his house at 4:30 a.m., just as dawn was breaking. It was, his widow Niki said, “the perfect Hollywood ending.”