Ian Christie: For the first time in living memory, British film-makers had a British audience. People enjoyed seeing British films. They actually preferred them in some cases to American films. They felt they came closer to the scene of the action. How could Americans understand what people in Britain were going through during the war? So towards the end of the war, I think British film-making was really on a high.
Jack Cardiff: At that time, I had not yet photographed a feature film in its entirety. I’d done lots of little pieces and I’d worked mostly on the second unit, and I was desperate to get the big break.
Thelma Schoonmaker: The main character, played by Roger Livesey, is trying to deal with his loneliness by going on safaris and shooting animals all over the world. Jack Cardiff was doing the shooting of that as the second unit cameraman and my husband came in and watched him doing it.
Cardiff: I heard a voice say, “Very interesting,” and there was the great Michael Powell, and he said, “Would you like to photograph my next film?” and I said, “Oh, yes, Mr Powell,” and he went, and I thought, “He’s just said that and he’ll forget all about it,” but he didn’t.
Schoonmaker: Michael Powell just felt that Jack was the man at that time who knew the most about how to get colour on to film in a new way. The Archers had what was described as the longest period of subversive film-making within a major studio ever, and because their films were very popular, commercially successful, they got away with murder.
Michael Powell: We were our own bosses. We produced it, we wrote it, we directed it, and if anybody said to us, “May I suggest you do this? ” we just said, “Eff off!”
Cardiff: It was a wonderful combination, because you had Michael, who was daring and running around and doing outlandish things, and Emeric, who was a brilliant writer anyway. He would be the one who occasionally would say to Michael, “This is going too far, because of this or that,” and he’d usually be right.
Schoonmaker: They were fantastic. Fertile, imaginative mind. A very unique person in his own way. And then you add Jack to the mix, you have a pretty powerful cocktail.
Cardiff: It was daunting for me, as my first film, and even for Michael Powell it was an ambitious project. We were doing an exterior and Michael said, “Wait, I’d love to have a fade-in, “but instead of just a fade-in “I’d like to have something different like a mist thing or something.” And I said, “Look through the camera,” so he looked through the camera and I went to the lens and went…
Scorsese: When I saw the Archers logo, I knew I was in for something special. Then I saw the name Cardiff attached with that, and I knew this was a unique… I was about to undergo a unique experience.
Kim Hunter: I’ve made a bunch of films in Hollywood but nothing to compare with this. It was an enormous production.
Christopher Challis: It was, I’ve always thought, as pure cinema as Disney, really. I mean, you couldn’t do it on the stage or in any other way.
Cardiff: I remember, in the first preparation days of the film, I said to him, quite casually, I said, “Michael, I suppose heaven will be in colour and the earth will be in black and white.” He said, “No, the contrary.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Everyone expects that.” That was typical in his nature. He was perverse to the extent that he would like to do anything that was different. I mean, the ordinary was anathema to him. A little trick of mine, you remember? In order to get the transition from black and white to colour, we would shoot the main sequence in black and white but the penultimate shot was using the Technicolor camera so that they would be able to start in black and white and then bring in the colour.
Hunter: Marius Goring ad-libbed a line during one of the scenes and Mickey Powell immediately said, “Keep it in, good line.” One is starved for Technicolor up there. Really throughout all of my life, I do not go to dailies, except that when we were doing “A Matter Of Life And Death”, I was so curious that I did go, early on, I think for the first time that they had colour in the dailies, they clearly were not happy with the colour. They said, “Send it back,” and, “Do better than that, “we must have it better than that!” So I have a feeling that Jack was very much behind all that.
Cardiff: At the end of the picture, either the cameramen would collect these, put on one sheet, or Technicolor would do it for him. I have several, and they’re great fun to look at them.
Cardiff: On “Black Narcissus”, we all expected to go on location to lndia, and we were greatly surprised when Michael Powell the director told us the entire film was going to be made at Pinewood Studios in England.
Powell: I saw it as a wonderful exercise for all…for all of us, to produce a real perfect colour work of art.
Cardiff: Michael collected around him the best technicians that were available and he had a brilliant art director, Alfred Junge.
Challis: He was very German and highly organised, and if he designed a set, when you walked on for the first time, there would be a cross on the floor, and he said, “That is the camera position with a 35 millimetre lens.”
Powell: Alfred Junge the designer and Jack Cardiff the cameraman would have endless arguments and conversations about settings, first of all on paper and then when they were painted, then in detail, and then when the set was there.
Challis: The exteriors out on the lot at Pinewood, with the Himalayas, were absolutely marvellous, because they were plaster mountains in perspective, but the result was just unbelievable. You looked out of the window and it looked real.
Powell: Sometimes Alfred would have to tear half of it down and Jack pointed out that the kind of lighting that he wanted for this particular sequence couldn’t be done because there was a wall in the way. Alfred would be furious. But together they just worked miracles. I mean, you never get the slightest feeling of studio, do you?
Cardiff: After the film was released, I believe Micky got a letter from someone in lndia who said that they knew the locations, they’d seen them.
Cardiff: Vermeer was the sort of painter that I had in mind on “Black Narcissus” because the light had to be clear and as simple as possible. When I did this green, having green filters in the filler light and sort of pinkish colours in the sun effects, it was a thing of anger, I tried to use the same kind of mood in that… I mean, any cameraman would get ideas from Van Gogh and moods of light and things. Light is the principal agent, and that should be the same with photography, that the use of light is like a painter, that you use it in a simple form.
Scorsese: The emotional and psychological connection that was made through certain lighting in paintings, I felt, watching those pictures that he photographed. He made them special. Because of that, you wanted to be in that world with them.
Schoonmaker: Michael Powell felt colour was part of the narrative.
Scorsese: When I saw their work on screen, this was like being bathed in colour. It was palpable. It was…it… I don’t know what… The colour itself became the emotion of the picture.
Kathleen Byron: The atmosphere that was created around me was fantastic. I was most inspired by it. I mean, I thought I was just going out looking a bit malevolent. But when I saw it on the screen, I was amazed at this great blare of music and this incredible face with the wet hair. He gave me half of my performance with the lighting.
Powell: When Arthur Rank… he took it to California, showed it in Hollywood, it got the most wonderful technical praise. The art direction got two Oscars. Jack Cardiff’s photography got another Oscar.
Scorsese: The whole communication of the film, what it tries to communicate, is combined through costume, the positioning of people in the frame, the movement of people within the frame, sometimes the movement of the frame itself, light, shadow, colour, and cutting, all to music. All designed specifically to music. Then they took it and went further with it with “The Red Shoes” ballet.
Cardiff: The last day but one of “Black Narcissus”, Michael Powell said to me, “What do you think about ballet? ” I said, “Not much, all these sissies prancing about, I don’t think much of it.” And he was amused rather than horrified. He said, “Jack, you’d better get to like ballet, because this is your next film. “I’ve got tickets for you to go practically every night.” I thought, “Oh, my God!” Very shortly, of course, I became absolutely wrapped up in ballet and I loved it.
Schoonmaker: The theme of “The Red Shoes”, of course, is that… Michael was saying that if you want to be on the cutting edge of your art form, you have to be prepared to pay the consequences, because you’re challenging everybody when you start breaking conventions, and you have to be aware that some people may be able to attack you and bring you down when you do this.
Scorsese: Some ballet enthusiasts feel that it’s not the best shooting of ballet. The best shooting of ballet, to be literal about it, would be from head to toe, Fred Astaire had in his contract that you had to keep photographing him from head to toe. But they changed that completely. They paid no attention to that. They made a film about what goes on inside the dancer’s head. It’s how the dancer, he or she, sees themselves, while they’re dancing. So you get the spirit of the dance, you get the spirit of it, and I applied that later to the boxing scenes in “Raging Bull”. What they hear, what they see. What they hear and what they see, very important.
Cardiff: Michael Powell had courage. He would risk, he would take a risk, a big chance to do something, which might seem crazy but it usually came off.
Schoonmaker: The camera devices are welded to the material. They’re welded to the emotion of the film. They are for the purpose of impacting the audience.
Moira Shearer: I think because Jack had vision, you know, about what he was going to do, he didn’t feel curbed by the restrictions of that time.
Cardiff: I had the idea of increasing the speed of the camera very rapidly, that as he jumped, I went from 24 frames to 48 frames for about less than a second. So it went up, and as it got up it was going much faster, which slowed him down imperceptibly, and he seemed to linger in the air on the top of the jump.
Schoonmaker: They were coming up with great ways to use the camera, and when you see how big that thing was, how they did it, I don’t know. I mean, they did call it the “enchanted cottage”, cos it was so huge. How they moved that thing around, I don’t know. It was amazing.
Challis: That’s the famous Technicolor camera. Jack, me. The camera flying in and out as though from the point of view of a dancer. Would be a hand-held shot these days, but the camera is on a sort of bungee slung from a chain in the roof.
Scorsese: You begin to see, I must say, flourishes, where the camera cut, or a piece of composition for the length of the shot, that you begin to realise that he’s using the lens like brush strokes. It becomes like moving paintings. You know, it’s a painting he’s made. Along with Hein Heckroth, Michael and Emeric Pressburger, there’s no doubt. But it’s a painting, paintings that moved, extraordinarily moved, not only moved visually but emotionally and psychologically also. There was something so audacious about “Red Shoes”, and something that was so utterly, um… unique, different from any film being made at the time. The lessons of those films have never left me. I still keep drawing upon them.
Schoonmaker: It’s had a huge influence. Particularly on Scorsese and Brian de Palma. And Lucas and Coppola.
Scorese: De Palma. De Palma, easily. The expressionism. It’s about expressing colour, it’s expressing, you know, the glint of a knife and the colour of the blood. It’s all there with Brian. Look at “Scarface”. And then of course you have Francis all the time. “Godfather”. Clearly in “One From The Heart”. It’s about passion, I think. You could feel these people were really, really dedicated and involved.
Cardiff: When it was cut, it was shown to Mr Rank. Usually if a film isn’t very good, you know, they might sort of put on a little bit of an act, and say, “Most interesting,” and, you know, and say, “Well done,” or something and walk out. But on this occasion they walked out, they got up, and they walked out without saying a word to Michael Powell. They just ignored him, just walked straight out, because they were convinced that it was a disastrous film.
Schoonmaker: J Arthur Rank thought they’d gone mad and said, “This is terrible, we have to stop this kind of film-making. “From now on, we will tell them what to make”, and Michael said, “You won’t.” It was a very sad end to a great, great period of film-making.
Alan Parker: I mean, they’re seminal films, you know, but they’re a particular aesthetic. It’s the kind of aesthetic that actually will be great art. And then it will be kitsch… and then it’ll be art again.