“Would you like to photograph my next picture?” This seemingly casual question was how director Michael Powell offered the film A Matter of Life and Death to thirty-year-old Jack Cardiff. Well known as an expert operator with the still new three-strip Technicolor camera, Cardiff was shooting some insert material for the recent Archers, Powell/Pressburger production of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The production was not to begin filming for six months. In the meantime, Cardiff went off to Egypt where he was hired for second unit work on Caesar and Cleopatra, a three-strip Technicolor feature photographed by Freddie Young, Robert Krasker and Jack Hildyard. Cardiff writes in his memoir Magic Hour, “I was not brimming over with happiness.” The wait for Powell seemed endless as it only can be for an artist on the threshold of a career, for this was to be the very first dramatic feature that Cardiff photographed as principal cinematographer.
Powell had wanted Erwin Hillier to share photography on the film with Cardiff (he was the cinematographer on A Canterbury Tale the year before) but Hillier declined. Powell writes, “I gave the whole job to Jack.” Thus began one of the most artistic collaborations between cinematographer and director in film history. Though it lasted for only three films, the two remained friends until Powell’s death in 1990. Cardiff describes his situation on the brink of filming. “So this was my big break at last, and a paradox: I had worked for Technicolor for ten years and had more experience of the problems posed with Technicolor than anyone else in Europe, yet this was my first major feature film.”
The mammoth one hundred yard long key set in the film is a “Stairway to Heaven,” (as it was titled in the United States), and Cardiff had imagined that “heaven” would be photographed in color.
Powell replied, “Because everyone will expect heaven to be in color, I’m doing it in black and white.” The scenes on earth were to be in color. Cardiff had worked earlier as a camera operator on black and white films, but never as a cinematographer. For his debut, he engaged Geoffrey Unsworth as his camera operator; Chris Challis (who previously had been his operator) became the focus puller. Challis was disappointed at this proposal but Cardiff assured him, “Chris, you know Micky, and he knows you. I bet you anything you’ll be promoted in no time at all.” Challis, in fact, became Powell’s cinematographer shortly after the trilogy of films that Cardiff made with the director. Challis photographed, among other films for The Archers, The Elusive Pimpernel and The Tales of Hoffman with Powell and Emeric Pressburger; he was also the cinematographer director Cardiff engaged on his own film, The Long Ships.
The relationship among these three camera artists resulted in a spectacular debut for Cardiff. The film’s reputation continues to grow, and it has emerged from under the shadows of the next two Cardiff features with the team of Powell/Pressburger, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. The opening sequence, a desperate radio transmission between British pilot David Niven and Kim Hunter on the ground, is a prologue that ends in death. The play of shadows and the tracking camera on Hunter in the tower, and the mix of color on Niven in the fiery plane, propel you into the tense drama from the first frame.
In later scenes, the black and white formality and compositional rigidity of heaven offer a marked contrast.
A Matter of Life and Death was a success in America and had a command performance at home in England; long hard to find with a region one code, it is now available on home video in a 2 disc set combined with Powell's 1969 film, Age of Consent.
Rumer Godden’s novel, Black Narcissus, seemed an unlikely next film for the team of The Archers, especially given its setting of a Catholic convent in India. Godden was well acquainted with the country, having spent twenty years there running a dance school since 1925. The difficult political/colonial climate of the post-war was still unresolved and India received independence only in the summer of 1947 with the partition of the subcontinent by the British into India and Pakistan. The challenge of filming what was to be a stylized film in the cinematic wilds of the former colony may have been part of the reason why Powell decided to film the entire film at Pinewood studios, with only one day of exteriors in a tropical garden at Horsham in Sussex.
Cardiff gives great credit to production designer Alfred Junge’s sets and backings as well as to Percy “Poppa” Day’s mattes and effects work.
Here is a trailer for Black Narcissus. The color is far from accurate but it gives you a sense of the dramatic sweep of the film.
Cardiff explains that in 1946 most of the lamps used for the film were large arcs, not incandescent. The emitted smoke was a constant challenge, and the noise of the arcs and the rotating feed mechanism to burn the carbon rods evenly, forced nearly all the sound interiors to be dubbed. Another worry for Cardiff was the ever-present painted backdrops, some of which were quite close to the set walls. Cardiff suggested to Junge that they employ photographic rather than the standard painted backings. An 8x10 still camera would provide prints of high enough resolution needed for the large backings—but only in black and white. Junge wanted to paint over them lightly with color paints but Cardiff had another idea. “Here I disagreed,” he writes,
. . . and managed to convince him that that pastel chalk rubbed in small quantities over the black and white print would hint at color, rather than intrude. It worked; we rubbed blue pastel in the sky and various ochres in the mountain shadows, letting the body of the print make the illusion. It really did look like a real exterior.
This was a technique that was to also prevail in their next film, The Red Shoes. Cardiff’s love of painting dating back to his youth came to the fore as he explains in his choice of unnatural colors and skin tones to create the heightened drama of the cloistered convent.
In order to enhance the dreamlike strangeness and sensuous beauty of the nuns’ environment I exaggerated my effects, sometimes using more blue than usual in the shadows; in the dawn sequence where Sister Ruth [Kathleen Bryon] goes mad, I used soft green in the shadows, not only because this coolness is always evident at dawn, but because the juxtaposition of green and red is uncomfortable and suggestive of tragedy—like Van Gogh’s billiard room at Arles.
The dawn sequence of the struggle between Byron and Deborah Kerr (Sister Clodagh) that ends with Sister Ruth’s fall to her death, is an exterior that Powell and Cardiff insisted be shot at dawn, counter to the Pinewood Works Committee policy. There was no latitude for weather contingencies as this was Kerr’s last contractual day of filming. She was unlikely to be in a cooperative mood as she was now Powell’s ex-lover, even as Byron was the current one. Such off-screen history could only add fuel to the scene’s emotional pyrotechnics.
Cardiff describes the shooting that morning.
The day dawned beautifully. The sun came up with an indulgent flush and we bless our luck. Just before we shot the first sequence I suggested using a fog filter to help the dawn effect, and Michael and I agreed at once. Fog filters were never used in Technicolor in those days. I was still an enfant terrible who used all the effects, filters and lights, which were taboo—but I saw no reason why I shouldn’t make a misty dawn . . .. Next day, there was a phone call from Technicolor. They said everything we had shot at dawn was no good and should be retaken without the fog filter. They were coming over with the rushes right away. I felt very sick as we sat in the theater and the rushes started. Apart from letting Micky down, this could be the end of my career. Micky was quiet and polite with the Technicolor chiefs who had come over especially for this disaster; I knew he had so much to lose if the scenes had to be retaken. The moment the first scenes came on the screen, I felt a rush of relief. They were good. They were bloody good. Micky’s voice came clearly over the rushes: “Marvelous, Jack, well done.” There were tears in my eyes in the dark.
In today’s digital age, where so much shooting no longer has the uncertainty and the drama of going into a theater to view the previous day’s work—digital image acquisition and playback, or at the very least, live video monitors being the rule—it is difficult to comprehend the white-knuckle feeling of a young cinematographer sitting in the dark, not at all certain what he was going to see. Personally, I am not certain that our current technology in this case represents an unequivocal step forward. There was something very human about that communal uncertainty, mixed with the delight of unexpected discovery, in that what you are seeing there for the first time in 35mm film projection, is perhaps not just what you had aspired to see—but even better.
Cardiff’s rich color palette of expressionistic color can only be hinted at in a video clip, but (subject to the vicissitudes of “disabled” videos) here is the climactic night and dawn scenes from the climax of Black Narcissus. Sister Ruth has gone mad from sexual frenzy and attempts to kill Sister Clodagh, the interesting real-life echo of the on-screen drama. The misty dawn effects that got Cardiff into trouble with Technicolor are clearly visible, even here. A stunning silhouette scene begins the clip. The embed is disabled but you can access the clip here:
The film ends with the nun’s departing their mountaintop aerie to return home, their mission an apparent failure. It has been suggested that this is a veiled reference to the end of the British venture in colonial India. However, it is also how Godden’s novel from 1939 concludes.
Cardiff ends his tale of the making of Black Narcissus by discussing this final scene.
One of the very last scenes we shot was the rains starting, as the nuns slowly go away on mules. There were huge rhubarb leaves around us and I had the brilliant idea to have a close-up of a leaf on which just one drop of rain fell, then more and more until the rains pelted down as we tilted up to see the stream of nuns going sadly away.
Powell loved the scene and decided this was how to end the film. He cut out a scene back in Calcutta where Kerr explains to the aged Mother Superior the failure of the mission:
The Mother Superior embraces the sobbing Sister Clodagh like a child. She had feared for her cold-hearted control… Now she knows [she] is a vulnerable human being. Fade out; end of picture.
Except that it wasn’t. Cardiff says that he had outsmarted himself of what he felt was his best photography in the film.
The Indian rains had come, and ran in rivulets down the panes of glass. My lighting was close to black and white and the shadows of the rain on the windows ran all over the walls and on the taut faces of the women; the shadows were hard and black. Micky was delighted, so was I, yet this entire scene was cut out of the film.
Apparently, the scene is lost to time and exists in Cardiff’s memoir only. One can only imagine what it must have looked like given the intense color and chiaroscuro drama that preceded it. In any case, his photography garnered Cardiff both the Golden Globe and Academy Award that year.
Black Narcissus has recently been restored and released by The Criterion Collection in a new edition, also available on Blu-ray DVD. It features a video introduction by director Bertrand Tavernier, an essay by critic Kent Jones, a documentary on the production team of The Archers and a documentary “Painting with Light” about Cardiff.
(As groundbreaking as the color and drama of Black Narcissus is, it is only the middle act of the Powell/ Pressburger/ Cardiff trilogy. Next up is The Red Shoes.)