I was in the basement of a Manhattan bookshop when I was forced to purchase Jack Cardiff’s memoir, Magic Hour: The Life of a Cameraman. A cinematographer friend of mine refused me a ride back to Philadelphia unless I purchased it. “But don’t you own it? Can’t I borrow it?” I pleaded. “Trust me, you’ll need a copy for yourself”. He was right.
Mr. Cardiff, who passed away earlier this week at the ripe age of 94, was a cinematographer and filmmaker whose most well known claim to fame was being the first British cameraman to shoot with Technicolor. His autobiography, published under the prolific Faber & Faber film moniker is an incredible read for film geeks and cinema civilians alike. While so many other memoirs are drizzled in name-droppery, fluffy anecdotes and grandiose “I-pioneered-that” ego-centricisms without any semblance of an actual story, Mr. Cardiff’s tale is one of adventure, invention, and discovery.
For us film folk living in a competitive and advanced 21st century, it is often hard to remember the early wonder that was the cinema. In Mr. Cardiff’s heyday, the motion picture was still a young art trying to find equal footing with its established brethren: painting, photography, theater and the like. Of course, without the introspection we have now looking back on olden times, Mr. Cardiff approached these advancements in stride.
In 1936, Count von Keller and his wife hired Jack Cardiff to film their world travels in glorious Technicolor. As a young man relatively new to the business, he was given an opportunity like no other, to not only see the world but to record it as had never been done before. Romantically, the artist describes his world travels in great detail in his book. These are the parts that will astound any reader, film buff or not.
Embarrassingly, the only film of his that I have seen in its entirety is Black Narcissus. Watching it, you can see Mr. Cardiff’s worldly influence. Even today, there is a certain amount of magic in the sheer expanse of the colorful film. Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger put together a film that we well ahead of its time in both form and content. How fitting it was to have a look that would influence generations to come.
I have had very little exposure to Jack Cardiff, yet what little I know of him has greatly influenced the way I approach film. You can look up a list of his films on IMDb and, like I will be doing, pop them on your queue. But for a real treat, you should check out Magic Hour. Either way, bringing more Cardiff into one’s life is a very good thing.