On April 22, 2009, Englishman Jack Cardiff, one of the 20th-century’s great cinematographers, died at the age of 94. He did extraordinarily beautiful work on such disparate films as The African Queen (1951), The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), and Fanny (1961), but he will be chiefly remembered for his work on two unforgettable color movies from the filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). (Cardiff also directed films, notably the much-praised but deficient 1960 adaptation of Sons and Lovers.)
The spellbinding Black Narcissus is, for me, the greatest of the Powell-Pressburger films, a hyper-real fever dream set in the Himalayas. Astoundingly, India was recreated on a soundstage. The film explores how “India” gets under the skin of five nuns, becoming the rare film of its time about female sexuality (with nuns no less!). The effect is that of a psychological pressure cooker, heightened by Cardiff’s breathtaking use of color. (The nuns are housed in a palace that was formerly a harem facility.) In one of her first important roles, the wondrous Deborah Kerr, as an Irish nun, gives a superbly controlled performance, severe and contained, though contrasted by her open vulnerability exposed in the Irish flashbacks. David Farrar is the sexy, rakish, half-dressed British male who, along with the heat and exotica, gets the nuns’ blood racing. Kathleen Byron is electrifying as the nun who descends into lustful madness. Red lipstick has never been used more potently. Cardiff’s work deservedly won the Oscar that year. (He also received an honorary Oscar in 2001.)
The Red Shoes is the most famous Powell-Pressburger film, specifically for its rapturously transporting 15-minute ballet sequence, a surreal explosion of color that is both outrageous and exquisite. The overall film can be melodramatic and kitschy, lacking the depths and fascinations of Black Narcissus, but it has the power to dazzle the imagination. Moira Shearer is radiant as the ballerina at the center of it all, with suave and imperious Anton Walbrook as the demanding impresario. The picture becomes a soapy love triangle, but it’s one of the more inspiring films about the arts. The view may be deeply romanticized, but the impact is hypnotizing.
Both these films are ingenious in the way they use color to intensify the characters’ emotions, while also overwhelming the audience in an abundance of sheer beauty. Thank you, Mr. Cardiff. They couldn’t have done it without you.