The Red Shoes
  • The Red Shoes

Later this week, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films screens the documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, a look at the legendary UK cinematographer. The film chronicles Cardiff’s long and varied career in the movies, including his directorial efforts and stint as a child actor, so it’s a decent introduction if you’re unfamiliar with his influence, but why bother with a biographical doc when you can dive right into the work itself? Cardiff’s innovative use of Technicolor is evident throughout his career, starting with Wings of the Morning—Britain’s first Technicolor film—and coming to fruition with the films he shot for directing team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (aka the Archers): A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes. Cardiff was a versatile photographer, equally comfortable on location or on a soundstage; in some cases, it’s impossible to tell whether he was shooting outside or on some sort of man-made set. For instance, a particularly harrowing scene in King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956) looked to me as if it had been shot on a frozen tundra, but Cardiff later revealed it was shot onstage. In retrospect, the fact that you can’t see the actors’ breaths should have been a dead giveaway, but I was so entranced by the images that I wasn’t focused on petty details. But that’s what made Cardiff great. He transformed mere movie scenes into vivid, metaphysical spaces. You can find my five favorite films shot by Jack Cardiff after the jump.

5. Ghost Story (dir. John Irvin, 1981) A weird but utterly fascinating film. Ostensibly a gothic chiller, this Peter Straub adaptation feels like a Technicolor spin on a German expressionist film, suggesting Cardiff was poking fun at horror-cinema conventions. Director John Irvin is a strange case; he’s directed some stylistically transgressive genre movies (City of Industry, Raw Deal) as well as some outright duds, but he’s rarely uninteresting.

4. Conan the Destroyer (dir. Richard Fleischer, 1984) Cardiff once again leans on film genre to achieve something unique, only this time he’s a bit more traditional, emulating old sword-and-sorcery films to give what’s ostensibly a Reagan-era actioner a metatextual appeal. His vibrant color palette gives real life to the some boring studio sets, particularly one that’s covered wall-to-wall in drab faux stone. He also pays unique attention to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chiseled physique.

3. Black Narcissus (dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947) This film, the second in his three collaborations with the Archers, features some of Cardiff’s most innovative work. Once again getting tremendous mileage out of static studio soundstages, he uses brazen color to signify emotional interiors, including the powerful transformation of Kathleen Byron’s sex-crazed Sister Ruth. Reportedly, Cardiff was also the one to suggest using blown-up black-and-white photographs as backdrops, proof that his sense of cinematic space knew no boundaries.

2. The Barefoot Contessa (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1954) The first film one should watch if interested in American 50s Technicolor. If the story can be described as contrived and often painfully obvious, Cardiff’s nuanced and elegant cinematography balances everything out. The film was largely shot in Italy, and the location photography is some of Cardiff’s most striking, though the best scene takes places at a Hollywood party where Warren Stevens gets his just comeuppance.

1. The Red Shoes (dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948) Cardiff won an Academy Award for his work on Black Narcissus, but he probably should have won another for The Red Shoes. If he and the Archers dialed back Narcissus‘s camp qualities a bit, they go full-bore here. The cinematography is suitably garish, a barrage of colors that imbues the already unhinged psychodrama with an even greater sense of delirium and passion. If ever a film could be properly described as a “fever dream,” this is the one.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.