RIP Jack Cardiff

It's a shame when a truly gifted artist dies. It's even worse when that artist is somebody whose work you actually enjoy.

Jack Cardiff was involved in numerous brilliant films, awful films, brilliantly awful films, and infamous failed projects in a career that started in 1928 -- the silent era. Scent of Mystery for instance, was the first movie to be shown in "smell-o-vision," a system in which odors were pumped into the theater to simulate what the characters on screen would be smelling. Obviously a flawed concept, it's still an amusing idea, although it might have been less so for those who actually had to sit through a film while artificial scents mingled with the natural theater B.O.

There's also the infamous failure of what was to be his directorial debut, the self-funded Errol Flynn vehicle, The Story of William Tell. Sadly, what makes the film so infamous is the stories of the financial ruin it caused not only to investors, but to the aging Errol Flynn, as his co-star Bruce Cabot seized Flynn's property in lieu of his salary.

But there's two things that stand out in my mind about Jack Cardiff. One of them is the brilliant work he consistently put into his films as a cinematographer, and the other is The Long Ships, an impressively over the top and totally ridiculous rip-off of The Vikings (Cardiff was a cinematographer on that film, ironically) that he directed in 1964. It had a cast filled with B-actors among Richard Widmark, clearly enjoying himself as an unconvincing viking captain, and Sidney Poitier, rather obviously lost playing a Moorish prince, and Rosanna Schiaffino, an Italian actress from many a peplum (Italian muscle-man flicks -- usually low budget and awful) and also one of my favorites. It would be a pretty boring movie with an almost inappropriately bombastic and intrusive musical score (the fanfare is played at even the slightest diegetic provocation) were it not for a virtuoso opening sequence shot in silhouette against all sorts of powerful images culled from Eastern Orthodoxy and Coptic church tradition. Granted, the reverent tone is dropped pretty quickly once the vikings get a chance to raid a Persian harem, but it's a brilliant sequence. The other amazing sequence is the "Mare of Steel" which is easily the best (read: most hilarious) torture scene in any film ever.

I don't mean to sound like a jerk -- boiling down an amazing man's vaunted career to one of the silliest movies he directed -- but I just plain love The Long Ships. And it's certain that others love movies like Girl on a Motorcycle, just as surely as they love The Mercenaries. And assuming that somebody has somehow gone their entire lives without watching The Long Ships, perhaps The Barefoot Contessa, The African Queen, War and Peace, The Vikings, Fanny, Rambo, or Conan the Destroyer have provided some degree of amusement.

It's a rare gift to have been so good, that your efforts can so often be called the best thing about a movie. Even if it was because he worked so often with Richard Fleischer, the world will look a little less better without Jack Cardiff to lens it. RIP.

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