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5. Ghost Story (dir. John Irvin, 1981) A weird but utterly fascinating film. Ostensibly a gothic chiller, this Peter Straub adaptation feels like a Technicolor spin on a German expressionist film, suggesting Cardiff was poking fun at horror-cinema conventions. Director John Irvin is a strange case; he's directed some stylistically transgressive genre movies (City of Industry, Raw Deal) as well as some outright duds, but he's rarely uninteresting.
4. Conan the Destroyer (dir. Richard Fleischer, 1984) Cardiff once again leans on film genre to achieve something unique, only this time he's a bit more traditional, emulating old sword-and-sorcery films to give what's ostensibly a Reagan-era actioner a metatextual appeal. His vibrant color palette gives real life to the some boring studio sets, particularly one that's covered wall-to-wall in drab faux stone. He also pays unique attention to Arnold Schwarzenegger's chiseled physique.
3. Black Narcissus (dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947) This film, the second in his three collaborations with the Archers, features some of Cardiff's most innovative work. Once again getting tremendous mileage out of static studio soundstages, he uses brazen color to signify emotional interiors, including the powerful transformation of Kathleen Byron’s sex-crazed Sister Ruth. Reportedly, Cardiff was also the one to suggest using blown-up black-and-white photographs as backdrops, proof that his sense of cinematic space knew no boundaries.
2. The Barefoot Contessa (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1954) The first film one should watch if interested in American 50s Technicolor. If the story can be described as contrived and often painfully obvious, Cardiff's nuanced and elegant cinematography balances everything out. The film was largely shot in Italy, and the location photography is some of Cardiff's most striking, though the best scene takes places at a Hollywood party where Warren Stevens gets his just comeuppance.
1. The Red Shoes (dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948) Cardiff won an Academy Award for his work on Black Narcissus, but he probably should have won another for The Red Shoes. If he and the Archers dialed back Narcissus's camp qualities a bit, they go full-bore here. The cinematography is suitably garish, a barrage of colors that imbues the already unhinged psychodrama with an even greater sense of delirium and passion. If ever a film could be properly described as a "fever dream," this is the one.