His career spanned the development of cinema, from silent film, through early experiments in Technicolor to filmmaking more than half-a-century later. He was best known for his influential colour cinematography for directors such as Powell and Pressburger, Huston and Hitchcock.
Jack Cardiff's work is reviewed in the documentary film: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010).
He worked as an actor from an early age, both in the music hall and in a number of silent films: My Son, My Son (1918), Billy's Rose (1922), The Loves of Mary, Queen of Scots (1923) and Tiptoes (1927). At 15, he began working as a camera assistant, clapper boy and production runner for British International Pictures, including Hitchcock's The Skin Game (1931).
In 1935, Cardiff graduated to camera operator and occasional cinematographer, working mostly for London Films. He was the first to shoot a film in Britain in Technicolor: Wings of the Morning (1937). When the war began he worked as a cinematographer on public information films. He did a number of films on India where the British wanted to showcase the new capital city of Delhi.
The turning point in his career was as a 2nd unit cameraman on Powell & Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); they were sufficiently impressed to hire Cardiff as cinematographer on their post-war Technicolor A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Their collaboration continued with Black Narcissus (1947), which won Cardiff an Oscar and a Golden Globe, and The Red Shoes (1948). These films put Cardiff's talents in high demand, and a string of big-budget films followed.
In the late 1950s Cardiff began to direct, with two modest successes in Intent to Kill (1958) and Web of Evidence (1959). His version of D. H. Lawrence's novel Sons and Lovers (1960), starring Trevor Howard, Wendy Hiller and Dean Stockwell, was a hit, critically and at the box-office. It received seven Oscar nominations (including a Best Director nomination for Cardiff) and Freddie Francis won for Best Black-and-White Cinematography. Cardiff received a Golden Globe Award for Best Director.
After concentrating on direction in the 1960s, he returned to cinematography in the 1970s and 1980s, working on mainstream commercial films in the United States. One of the last films Cardiff photographed was at Pinewood Studios in 2004 when he lit veteran actor Sir John Mills in a short entitled Lights 2 (dir. Marcus Dillistone). The combined age of leading actor and cinematographer was a record 186 years. A feature-length documentary was made about Cardiff's life and career, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010) by Craig McCall.
It took 17 years to make but wasn't completed or released until after Cardiff had died. As well as many interviews with Cardiff, it included tributes from Mills, Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Kathleen Byron, Kim Hunter, Moira Shearer, Lauren Bacall, Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas. It was selected for the official selection of Cannes Classics at the Festival de Cannes in 2010, as well as four other important film festivals that year.
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff was shown as part of the Great Yarmouth Arts Festival 2014 along with some of his photographs, often taken as preliminaries to lighting the films. Further celebrations to mark his birth date took place in September – particularly at the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth.
Jack Cardiff was the camera operator and then cinematographer for 73 films, documentaries and TV series between 1935 and 2007. These are some of the main films: